Those who know can talk, those with an agenda will not listen. Another conversation from the imagination….
Backbencher Thank you for agreeing to see me Lord Chancellor
Lord Chancellor Well we all have to humour the swivel-eyed loons.
BB Are you talking about me?
LC Of course not, I was simply saying I understand that you are here representing the view of your constituents and I am here to listen.
BB Right, well, I have had letters from some of my constituents about Legal Aid.
LC Brilliant. My officials told me that they existed but I thought they were kidding. At last I can shut some of those lawyers up and point to the letters you have showing the public’s concerns about the credibility of the Legal Aid scheme. I was beginning worry these letters might be my “weapons of mass destruction” so thank goodness you have some. This is turning out to be a jolly good meeting.
BB Sorry Lord Chancellor, these letters support Legal Aid and are rather critical of your reforms.
LC Oh. Did you mention that to Maureen when you made this appointment?
BB I certainly did.
LC I see. [reaches for pen and paper] That’s one more wage saving I can make straight away….
BB The letters I have received raise a lot of concerns about the cuts.
LC I have to make cuts. I have already agreed to make cuts. I promised Gideon.
BB I don’t wish to be pedantic but didn’t you take an oath that included the promise to discharge your duty to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts for which you are responsible?
LC I remember something along those lines.
BB And doesn’t that set you apart from most of your ministerial colleagues?
LC Well I suppose if you are someone who applies the technicalities of oath taking and don’t just see it as a quaint tradition there for the tourists then yes, technically speaking it does make me a bit different from the other ministers but I don’t like to make it too obvious.
BB If we do think it means something then shouldn’t it mean your job is not to agree to any cuts? Isn’t that your duty?
LC Look, you’re not Michael Turner are you?
LC Right. Are you sure?
BB Of course I am sure.
LC Its just that I have never met him so I thought I should check. I imagine these are the kind of pesky questions he asks.
BB It is one of the things my constituents raised, as Lord Chancellor you should protect the front line services of representation and find savings from elsewhere only if necessary. But you should be fighting to protect the budget, not agreeing to reducing it.
LC The Legal Aid budget is over £1 billion. I need to reduce it.
BB No it isn’t. The spend was over £1 billion. The future projected spend is well under that figure. You have already reduced the payments we make to practitioners so you don’t have to make further savings.
LC Yes I do. I promised.
BB You also promised resources in your oath….
LC Here we go again…. Look I need to make savings and the Legal Aid spend is huge and so that has to give. Every penny I spend is critical to complying with that oath thingy you keep banging on about.
BB Really? £2 million on leadership training for the civil servants?
LC Its vital that someone shows some leadership.
BB £3.6 million on car hire?
LC People in the department have to get from A to B doing all these blinking’ roadshows.
BB What about the £720,000 your department spent on actors?
LC They play an essential role in selecting a suitably qualified and diverse judiciary.
BB More important than funding the lawyers appropriately who go on to be the Judges in the future?
LC Paying them less won’t diminish quality.
BB How about PCT? Won’t that diminish quality?
BB Won’t removing client choice and market competition reduce quality?
LC Nope. There may be a different quality but it will still be there.
BB Is there a risk that the different quality will be lower than before?
LC I am committed to defendants having a fair trial. The CPS have been under resourced for years. I am just levelling the playing field.
BB Speaking of paying lawyers I note that the MOJ paid over £6million for “estate legal services”, £200 grand for legal support to MOJ procurement and I dread to think what you have paid the lawyers assisting with plans to privatise the courts.
LC Of course we did. These chaps don’t come cheap. You’re a Tory. Market forces and all that. You have to pay the going rate. If you want quality advice you have to be prepared to pay.
BB But that doesn’t apply to the provision of criminal representation?
LC I am a connoisseur of legal services you see. I know what I am looking at. The plebs, I mean, the public are generally speaking just run of the mill amateur palates when it comes to legal services. I like caviar, they like fish and chips. So it’s best if I choose who represents them and how good they are at it. And if they are acceptably adequate then that’ll do me. For them of course. For me and the Home Secretary it is wall to wall QCs all the way.
BB Isn’t it quite important that the individual gets to choose though?
LC I have a strong record on individual choice. The B&B owners of this land know how much I believe in individual choice. But I just prefer it when their choice matches my choice. And at the moment these people keep choosing specialist lawyers and I would prefer them to choose one of my contracted lawyers. But people cannot have free choice when the state picks up the tab.
BB What about the NHS. Haven’t we introduced personal choice there to improve standards.
LC Okay. People cannot have free choice when the public pays, unless they are ill.
BB What about mentally disordered offenders?
LC Right, people cannot have free choice when the public pays, unless they are ill, EXCEPT where them being ill coincides with them being a criminal.
BB What if them being ill means they should not be labelled a criminal? What if being ill means they are innocent? Should they not be able to choose a specialist solicitor with experience of them personally or mentally disordered offenders generally?
LC Look at that giant hummingbird over your shoulder. Look! Look now!
BB There is nothing there is there Lord chancellor? Okay. Let’s for a moment say we are not going to allow the market to dictate quality, how else do propose to maintain quality?
LC Well clearly there will have to be rigorously assessed standards and processes of quality assurance to make sure the lawyers are all acceptable to me.
BB And how long has that quality assessment scheme been up and running?
LC It isn’t.
BB Because one of my constituents directed me to Lord Carter’s review of legal services procurement from 2007 and in his report he considered it vital that if client choice was removed there had to be a rigorous quality assurance scheme in place that would take at least two and a half years to establish and develop before choice was removed from the market. So how long until you put your plans in place?
LC Four months. But this focus on quality is just a smokescreen by the fat cat lawyers and their monstrous earnings.
BB My constituents were quite, well I think I can safely say, were quite irate about this.
LC I am not surprised they are irate! I have proof as well. Statistics. Evidence of payments. It is fair to say that no professional should be paid more than the Prime Minister out of public funds.
BB They are not irate about what barristers earn, they are irate about what you say they earn. The last figures I have available to me showed that seven civil servants in your department had a salary bigger than the Prime Minister.
LC Well you have to reward some people commensurate to their skills and the responsibility of their work.
BB Isn’t that what is going on when a handful of lawyers get large single payments that will relate to the most serious and complicated cases?
LC But it is why the public lack confidence in the credibility of the Legal Aid regime because they see these figures.
BB Because you tell them these figures….
LC It is simply freedom of information and statistics don’t lie.
BB But ministers some times do in their use of them.
LC I have no idea what you mean.
BB Well it could be said that some minsters have form for it. A propensity to use statistics in a misleading way.
LC Propensity…..that sounds like a lawyer’s word. You’re not Ian West are you? He’s another one of the awkward squad. Are you?
BB No! If the information you release is undermining the credibility of the system why don’t we tell them the reality rather than base a reform on this misconception. Lawyers often say difficult cases make bad law.
LC The public will never think that lawyers are anything but fat cats [whispers] … thankfully …
BB We could tell them. You could tell the press how impressed you are by this account of the junior bar in the blog 50 Shades of Affray [hands minister the document]. Read that and you’ll see she only earns £20,000 per year before expenses after three years in the job.
LC £20 grand before expenses? I bet she gets her decorators paid for on top of that. And claims loads against her expenses for her daily travel, accommodation and meals. We all know how much you can top up your income with some imaginative claims, not that I am condoning that sort of thing you understand. But £20,000 before taking into account her expense claims would be most misleading.
BB You’re right. It would. But it is £20,000 before she takes her expenses OFF that figure. An economic adviser with postgraduate qualification in your department starts on £31,000 per annum. I would imagine their economic advice to that barrister would be “get another job”.
LC Well it is exactly that member of the junior bar that I have made it clear I want to help.
BB By cutting their fees and squeezing them out of the Crown Court by cutting solicitors thereby forcing them to do their own advocacy?
LC Yes. And if they don’t like that help I have made it quite clear I will introduce PCT in to the Crown Court. That’ll learn ’em.
BB So PCT is a weapon rather than a reform?
LC PCT is my grand plan. My flagship policy. The Grayling’s not for turning.
BB But what’s your Plan B?
LC I quite liked the Defamation of Strickland Banks but the rest of his stuff leaves me a bit cold……
BB No Lord Chancellor. Not a question about music What is your alternative to PCT?
LC I don’t need one.
BB But what if there are no bids?
LC There will be.
BB Indulge me for a moment. Let’s say that too few solicitors bid to cover the work. What will you do then?
LC They will bid. And if they don’t we’ll call the Army in. That’s what we always do. Firemen on strike? Call in the Green Goddesses. Security a bit lapse at the Olympics? Call in the Army.
BB That doesn’t really work does it. And what happens if you put 1200 firms out of business and then PCT turns out to be the disaster many predict. What then?
LC What do you suggest? Pilot schemes?
BB Well it would seem sensible. At least have some idea you are right before you get it very, very wrong.
LC I promised to make the savings now, or rather I need to make immediate savings.
BB But you already have. That’s what my concerned constituents are saying.
LC No. I need to save something from the £1.2billion budget.
BB As I said before, it is less than that now.
LC No. The budget is £1.3 billion.
BB You keep changing that figure.
LC No I don’t. The £1.4 billion budget is spiralling out of control as we speak.
BB You are just deliberately inflating the figures.
LC I have to rein in the projected £1.5 billion we are going to spend on criminal Legal Aid.
BB Stop this. It’s ridiculous.
LC Yes it is ridiculous that we spend £1.6 billion on mostly foreign criminals who don’t have a defence. I agree it needs stopping.
BB I am beginning to think you might say anything to justify these reforms.
LC Not at all. The public need to know that I intend to curb this system which swallows £1.7 billion of public funds….
BB Right, I’m leaving this is pointless.
LC Jolly nice to see you. Thanks and all that. Tell your constituents that at £1.8 billion we spend more on criminal legal aid than any other country….
BB I’m off. You are not listening.
LC Oh I am old boy. I listen. Send Maureen in on your way out. I have a saving to make. And give my best to the SELs…..
Make the Lord Chancellor listen to the facts and evidence being debated in Parliament. Signing the petition here is our only chance for that to happen.