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I am grateful, Mr Sheridan, for this opportunity to talk about a dispute that has been going on for three years, and which highlights serious concerns about the work and responsibilities of the Legal Services Commission. At its heart is an issue about the role of the commission in relation to duty solicitor slots and the application of the 2010 standard crime contract and section 6 of the contract specification.
My constituent, Mr Majid, suffered when the Legal Services Commission—the LSC—launched an investigation into fraudulent activities at Knights Solicitors, which resulted in its terminating Knights’ unified contract for crime. My constituent is the son of immigrants and he has represented this country as an Olympic sportsman, winning world and European championships in weightlifting. Through his own honest endeavour and hard work, he has achieved the position of solicitor and advocate of our Supreme Court—something of which one might think we would be proud. Instead, today I am telling the story of how the LSC set out to wreck Mr Majid’s career and reputation.
I want to highlight two main points: first, the injustice suffered by my constituent and the reluctance of the LSC to deal with the matter, admit its errors and seek to put them right and, secondly, the appalling performance of the LSC, and of other agencies one might reasonably expect to call upon in such circumstances, such as the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman—the PHSO—the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The last two bodies have distinguished themselves by washing their hands of concerns about the treatment Mr Majid received. The intervention of the PHSO leaves a great deal to be desired, and the behaviour of the LSC in dealing with the fraudulent activity of Sajjad Ahmed Khan of Knights Solicitors needs a great deal of scrutiny. It is not Mr Majid who should be suffering as a result of this affair. He is an innocent victim.
Mr Majid’s experience involves a catalogue of unsatisfactory behaviour by the LSC and an insipid response from the PHSO, which calls into question why we pay public money to support the two agencies. Mr Kamran Majid has done nothing wrong, but he has been dismissed as a nuisance and a pest by the agencies, because he is unwilling to accept their flawed reasoning, inadequate investigations and failure to address the core of his complaint. The matter has still not been resolved, despite three years of battling on Mr Majid’s part. During that time, my constituent has suffered unemployment, loss of income and damage to his reputation, and has been forced to accumulate considerable debts—he estimates that he is approximately £45,000 out of pocket.
Let me clarify a point that seems to have escaped the LSC, despite so many of its communications being mired in legal gobbledegook. Mr Majid was never an employee of Knights Solicitors. He was a freelance duty solicitor, an arrangement that the LSC approved and encouraged. The commission approved Mr Majid’s application to work as a freelance duty solicitor through
Knights Solicitors, and on
When Mr Majid complained to the LSC about how he had been disadvantaged as a result, Mr Ross Lane of the commission attempted to muddy the waters by claiming that Mr Majid knew that Knights Solicitors had been under investigation since 2009. Mr Majid discovered details of the investigation only through a subsequent county court order, but the LSC attempted to use that as a reason for dismissing his claim. Mr Lane, of course, knew that the LSC was doing everything it could to resist Mr Majid’s freedom of information requests, which would have shed light on the fact that it negligently registered him with a firm that was under investigation for fraud and that it withheld that information.
Mr Majid has a further complaint about the LSC. When he discovered that Knights Solicitors had lost its contract, he asked if he might be able to transfer his slots to another law firm. The LSC was quick to deny him the opportunity, and drew his attention to section 6 of the standard crime contract specification. It is unable, however, to offer any explanation as to why 14 other solicitors, identified by Mr Majid, have been given that same opportunity. I could name those people—people to whom the LSC afforded an opportunity it denied my constituent, people who have suffered no financial loss and no damage to their reputation or career—but I will not, because Mr Majid has no desire to cause them distress. I am happy, however, to share their names with the Minister, because the time for trying to brush what has happened under the carpet is at an end.
Let me further point out that some of those people benefited from the opportunity to transfer their slots before Knights Solicitors lost its contract, and some afterwards, so the LSC’s attempts to argue that it was an error that it has now put right do not stand up to scrutiny. It allowed flexibility in contract arrangements to safeguard the finances and reputation of 14 other people, but denied the opportunity to my constituent and attempted to cover that up.
We also need to ask some wider questions about the LSC. For how much public money is it responsible? I believe it is about £2 billion. To whom is it accountable? Can the Minister say in all candour that it is an agency in which he has confidence, or that its transition in April of this year to the Legal Aid Agency will have a significant impact on its behaviour? Mr Sajjad Ahmed Khan of Knights Solicitors—the real villain—is involved in a fraud that might run into millions of pounds, as a result of claiming legal aid fees for services that were never provided. It would appear that, after four years, Sajjad Ahmed Khan is finally likely to be brought before the solicitors disciplinary tribunal, but as yet there has been no effort to recover the millions he fraudulently obtained, and he still practises as a solicitor.
No wonder that the Government are being forced to make swingeing cuts in legal aid, which risks bankrupting thousands of small, decent law firms and calling the whole of our legal system into question. If the Legal Services Commission and its successor are allowed to cover up a multi-million pound fraud and penalise the innocent, because they dare to bring that fraud to the attention of the authorities and get too close to the truth, something rotten is going on.
I have attempted to assist my constituent since the summer of 2011. I have had numerous exchanges of correspondence with the LSC and the PHSO. Gina Brady of the LSC’s complaints handling team replied to my inquiries with a rather curt note confirming that the LSC was of the opinion that Mr Majid had received a full response to all his complaints and that it would not respond to any further inquiries. I am here today because the LSC is judge and jury—not willing to engage with a Member of Parliament, and not accountable to anyone. When it comes to malpractice, misuse of public funds, incompetence and cover-up, that agency might be top of the list.
I also find it shocking—I hope the Minister does as well—that the PHSO comes out of this case as toothless and hopeless, and all too ready to drop Mr Majid’s case on the say so of the LSC, whose arguments simply do not stack up. On
I hope that the Minister can see how unsatisfactory that is, and what a waste of public funds. The whole thing is all process and expensive form-filling. Like too many investigations we have come across recently, this is yet another example of investigators being more interested in process than in getting at the truth and delivering justice—wasting public money in endless hours of process, rather than finding out who did what wrong and what is required to put it right. I cannot believe that these people accept their bloated salaries and can sleep at night. No wonder there is a crisis of confidence in our public services.
Who is the responsible person? Is it the current chief executive or the former chief executive, Carolyn Regan, who, I understand, departed with the usual large pay-off after questions were asked about financial controls at the LSC? I do not know how many people work for the agency and its successor, but so far I have come across Stephen O’Connor—he seems to have played a major role in not enforcing section 6, other than against my constituent—Mr Rimmer, Mr Williams, Mr Forrester, Ross Lane, Sarah Aylwin, Natasha Hurley and Gina Brady. With so many fingers in the pie, it might be better if one person had set out to get to the bottom of the affair.
The Legal Services Commission has sought to deny that Mr Majid has a valid complaint. It must know perfectly well that it should not have accepted his registration, given that it knew that it was investigating the firm and that action was imminent. The LSC was wrong to allow 14 other solicitors to transfer business between law firms before and after the action against Knights Solicitors, to attempt to disguise what had actually happened and to quote a contract specification that it had failed to follow in other cases, but insisted on using against my constituent. Mr Majid suffered compared with his contemporaries. The LSC told the PHSO that Mr Majid knew about the investigation into Knights, which was not true, and it deliberately sought to avoid explaining that it was responsible for sitting on FOI requests that would have confirmed the basis of his complaints. It also behaved appallingly in the way that it handled the Sajjad Ahmed Khan fraud, and it gives no confidence that it is fit to discharge its public duties.
I would appreciate anything that the Minister could do to recognise how much my constituent has suffered and that he deserves to be compensated. I would welcome a thorough investigation into the agency. I believe that there is a precedent for a judicial review in a similar case, because too many people are gaining from the public purse who are not doing the job for which we are paying them. Someone is getting away with a cover-up, and it is plain wrong.
I am grateful to Steve McCabe for calling this debate, and I appreciate the passion with which he presented his case. I should also put on the record my appreciation for the information that he sent me before the debate, so that I could consider the points he proposed to make.
I will make some general remarks, and then move on to the hon. Gentleman’s specific points, but I note at the outset that an entirely independent body, the PHSO, has rejected Mr Majid’s case. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says in criticism of that body, but it is worth noting that it is entirely independent of the LSC and of the Government more widely.
I have obviously listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. I hope that he agrees that we should be very proud of our legal system: it is a valuable contributor to our society, and the Government recognise that legal aid is a vital component of the system. I am well aware of the important role that duty solicitors, such as his constituent, play in the criminal justice system.
I have always made it clear that defence lawyers are central to the criminal justice system. Throughout this year, I have taken their views on how to make the system more efficient and on what we can do to help them work more efficiently. Today, there are about 6,500 duty solicitors—qualified professionals who can offer advice and assistance to those who, without their own lawyer, are being questioned by the police or facing charges before the courts. The system ensures that all eligible people have access to legal advice from suitably qualified legal representatives, whose role is crucial to ensuring that the criminal justice system can operate efficiently.
Last year alone, there were 734,000 acts of assistance to people being questioned by the police, at a cost of £160 million to the taxpayer. A similar scheme for solicitors in the magistrates court operated at a cost of almost £22 million, providing help to individuals in courts across England and Wales. The Legal Aid Agency—as the hon. Gentleman correctly said, that is what the Legal Services Commission has become—has a statutory responsibility to run and maintain both the police station and the magistrates court duty solicitor schemes in England and Wales, which it does by entering into contracts with firms of solicitors. The last tender process was for the 2010 standard crime contract, with contracts starting on
The case made by the hon. Gentleman is that his constituent raised a concern with him about how the then LSC dealt with his complaint regarding the allocation of duty solicitor slots in the summer of 2010. From his contribution, I can appreciate that the period in question and since has been extremely distressing for his constituent. What I can usefully do now is explain a little more about how the process works so that we can understand more about how the issue arose in the first place.
The first point on which to be clear, and this directly addresses one of the hon. Gentleman’s points, is that contracts are not awarded to individual duty solicitors, but to legal aid firms. The proportion of slots that each organisation receives is determined by the number of duty solicitors that it has registered with the LAA, formerly the LSC. The allocation of slots is typically refreshed every six months, and organisations are required to submit the necessary forms to demonstrate how many duty solicitors they employ. A deadline is set to ensure fair and equal treatment for all the firms involved.
Does the Minister think that it was just bad luck that, with those 14 people I mentioned, there was no effort to implement that part of the contract—for those who were granted the exemption before the termination of Knights Solicitors’ contract and those granted it afterwards—or that my constituent has clearly been dealt with differently from the other 14 people?
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He kindly gave me advance notice of some of his points, so I can happily guarantee that I will go away and look at some of the details. However, there are some details that are worth setting on the record now.
I have talked about the deadline for slot allocation, and there are two advantages to that approach. First, it ensures that firms have six months of stability of duty solicitor slots, enabling them to plan their workloads. Secondly, it provides administrative benefits to the LSC as rotas are issued at fixed points without the need for many amendments. That is essential given the scale of the task in assembling the rotas. There are more than 250 individual schemes with almost 800 rotas generated at each point.
In the case of hon. Gentleman’s constituent, there was a deadline for all firms to submit their list of duty solicitors by
Those proposals have focused on criminal legal aid, which accounts for around £1 billion of the overall legal aid budget of just under £2 billion. Obviously, no sensible Government can overlook such a sizeable portion of Government spending, which is why we have embarked on the proposals to transform legal aid to deliver a more credible and efficient system.
The Law Society, as part of its response to the consultation, has highlighted some inefficiencies within the current system. In particular, it has focused on the precise issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised today—that of the duty work allocation methods. The Law Society has described the current approach to slot allocation as inefficient. In its response to the consultation, it described the incentive that firms have to employ more and more duty solicitors to gain more slots, even though the total size of the market is declining. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that that is not a sustainable approach. The Law Society has also highlighted a practice that it calls “ghost solicitors”, which refers to solicitors who have minimal links to a firm receiving a payment that is neither a salary nor linked to work done for the firm.
The Law Society has called for a new method that no longer allocates work to firms on the basis of the number of duty solicitors employed. The Government have been working with the Law Society to explore those proposals and are considering all the other responses to the consultation. There is a real general issue here. I appreciate that most of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was about the specific things that his constituent suffered, but it is worth putting that in context. I will deal briefly with some of his individual points now, but I will also take them away and look at them further.
The hon. Gentleman said that the LSC approved Mr Majid’s application to work as a freelance duty solicitor through Knights Solicitors, and on
The hon. Gentleman also said that the LSC negligently registered Mr Majid with a firm that was under investigation for fraud and withheld that information. Again, I have to be clear that the firms themselves submit their own lists of duty solicitors. The LSC simply received the application in May 2010. On the allegation of withholding information, I should be clear that this was a police investigation, so the LSC was not acting inappropriately at the time.
The hon. Gentleman also said that the LSC has behaved appallingly in the way in which it has handled the fraud and therefore gives no confidence that it is fit to discharge its public duties. It is fair to say that the LSC acted promptly on concerns that Knights breached its contractual duties, and that led to the termination of the contract. The LSC, or the LAA as it now is, is always there to act to protect taxpayers’ money.
The hon. Gentleman also made some remarks about the PHSO. Experience tells us that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman always acts robustly with organisations such as the LSC and on this occasion, it mounted a full investigation. It was completed without any further action being required. We have all been in this situation, whereby our constituents have gone to the parliamentary ombudsman and not had the result that they required. I have heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say about the PHSO, but I can only repeat that sometimes it comes up with a result that we regard as satisfactory and sometimes it does not, but it is an entirely independent organisation. It is designed to be a court of appeal outside governmental structures, so that people can have some confidence that they are getting an independent response, and that is what it did in this particular case.
I suspect, and I will happily discuss this with the hon. Gentleman afterwards, that the most useful meeting he can have is with Matthew Coats, who is the chief executive of the new organisation. That might be a better way to take his case forward. If he is happy with that suggestion, I will just say that I am grateful to him for giving us the opportunity to discuss what is clearly a vital issue to his constituent and an important issue to him.