UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE to be published as HC 919-i

House of COMMONS

MINUTES OF EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE

CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS COMMITTEE

THE LEGAL SERVICES COMMISSION  

Tuesday 14 February 2006

BRIAN HARVEY, CRISPIN PASSMORE and AMANDA FINLAY

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 82

 

 

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Constitutional Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 14 February 2006

Members present

Mr Alan Beith, in the Chair

James Brokenshire

David Howarth

Barbara Keeley

Julie Morgan

Keith Vaz

Dr Alan Whitehead

Jeremy Wright

________________

Witnesses: Brian Harvey, Acting Chief Executive, Crispin Passmore, Director, Community Legal Services, Legal Services Commission, and Amanda Finlay, Director, Legal Aid Strategy Directorate, Department for Constitutional Affairs, gave evidence.

 

Chairman: Mr Harvey, Mr Passmore, Ms Finlay, we appreciate the fact that you have come at relatively short notice for a short session which will concentrate primarily on the specialist support issues - that will be of no surprise to you - although there are two or three other points that we will probably also briefly raise in the latter part of the session. Are there any interests to declare?

Keith Vaz: I am a non-practising barrister. My wife holds a part-time judicial appointment.

James Brokenshire: I am a non-practising solicitor?

Julie Morgan: My daughter works for Shelter Cumrie and one of my employees also works for a specialist support service?

Jeremy Wright: I am a non-practising barrister in the field of criminal law.

Q1 Julie Morgan: Mr Harvey, I am sure you are aware of the widespread concern and dismay about the proposal to end the Specialist Support Service. Could you explain why you have made this decision?

Brian Harvey: Yes, of course. By way of brief introduction, perhaps I can set out our position in relation to the CLS. I think, as Michael Bichard said in our consultation document on the Community Legal Service Making Legal Rights a Reality, we are passionate advocates of the CLS and we seek to develop and expand it so that people can defend and advance their rights. We have covered all the issues, in general terms, in the consultation document, to which I would like to say at this stage we had very set of positive responses to the general thrust of the way that we intend to develop the CLS. We are currently in the process of finalising those final proposals, following the consultation with ministers, and, hopefully, we will be publishing The Way Forward with the CLS in the next few weeks. Just to remind those who may be not familiar with the document, there are three key strategies that we set out in relation to CLS. The first one is increasing individual acts of assistance, the second is taking strategic action where there are underlying issues of concern identified by the frequency with which particular cases are being brought and, finally, providing information to the public at large about legal rights. It is in the context of that first one - increasing individual acts of assistance - that I would like to respond to your question about specific specialist support grants or contracts. I have to say at this stage, and I think we have set this out in our submission, it was a difficult decision for us to make because those who had the specialist support contracts had certainly made a significant contribution to the development of the Community Legal Service. They were the right contracts to have at a particular time in its development. It was a difficult decision in the context in which we had to consider it, which is the extreme budget pressures with which we were faced. As I said, we recognise the value of the specialist support contracts, but in terms of meeting our main purpose and commitment to help as many people as possible to receive acts of assistance, we came to the conclusion that, in view of the limited budget that we have available, the money that we were currently spending on specialist support contracts would be better spent on funding direct services either face-to-face or through CLS Direct. I should say at this stage, I think we would accept that the consultation process of arriving at that decision could have been handled better, but we were under a great deal of pressure at the time. Circumstances had changed significantly from the time that we had started to review the specialist support contracts and we were then forced into making decisions about priorities and budgets. There would seem to be a degree of inconsistency from outside, but that was the change in circumstances - increased budget pressures - that we were trying take account of. We felt able to make the decision because of two major themes: our increasing focus on quality assurance to assure ourselves that the specialist contracts delivering face-to-face service were up to the mark in terms of quality and expertise, and this is underpinned by our preferred supplier strategy, which I can go into in more detail later if the Committee would wish me to. It is a process we are still agreeing finally with the ministers, but there may be some general points I may be able to make to meet any enquiries you have on that issue. We have a every confidence that the specialist support contracts will deliver the quality and the expertise that we set out to deliver to our clients, but perhaps the most important significant change has been the great success and rapid expansion of CLS Direct which is enabling us to deliver, via that mechanism, specialist advice to a very high standard both in terms of the quality of advice being given and the quality of service being provided. Again, if the Committee wishes, I have various statistics that I can share with you which illustrate that. I think those two major considerations enabled us to make the decision, though it was a reluctant one, to withdraw funding from specialist support contracts with a view that it would have no significant detrimental effect because of these underlying changes that we have made in the delivery of CLS. Again, I have more information. There has been criticism in the past about our ability to meet demand, and certainly since the introduction of the contracting there has been a slight decline in the number of acts of assistance, but I am pleased to be able to report to you today that that decline has been reversed. We had been delivering something in the region of 650,000 acts of assistance at the beginning of contracting. We are now hopeful that the figure for 2005/06 will be in the region of 686/690 and we expect that to continue to grow in 2006/07. Again, this is a reflection of our investment in front-line services, both face-to-face and in terms of CLS Direct. That is a brief explanation of why we came to the decision we did and why we believe it is the right decision, although it was a difficult decision. I suggest I stop there and maybe take questions.

Q2 Julie Morgan: I think that raises a lot of questions. First of all, you mentioned value for money - that you were taking this decision partly because of money. Do you not think it is a huge waste of public money to pilot the scheme for three years, carry out a thorough evaluation and then award three-year contracts based on that evaluation and then just cut the service after six months? I do not know if you could say what your evaluation was of the services as well.

Brian Harvey: I do not think it was a waste of public money. It is like a great deal of things that we do. We are, I think, at the leading edge---

Q3 Chairman: That is not very reassuring.

Brian Harvey: I am sorry; I will rephrase that. What I meant to say is that it is not a waste of public money. It is part of a development programme. We have made a number of investments in the development of CLS through the partnership initiation budgets, CLS development fund, which tried to move forward the delivery of CLS to improve access, to improve quality and at the time that we were considering this, right at the beginning of CLS, we felt that specialist support grants were a sensible step to take. We did not necessarily see them at that point in time as an on-going level of investment or type of investment. As I have said earlier, the progress we have made in those other two areas of quality assurance and CLS Direct give us the confidence that we can move forward and get a much larger number of acts of assistance for the same amount of money. In terms of value for money, that is a difficult equation, in the sense that we know from the information that we have that something like about 20,000 phone calls are dealt with by the specialist support contract holders. We think, though we have not got any firm evidence for this - we do it by deduction from our own statistics on CLS Direct - that probably equates to something like 10-15,000 individuals, or cases, being helped, but, of course, that is an additional cost on acts of assistance that are already being carried out so it increases our average cost of dealing with those cases. Were we to invest that money directly in direct services, which is what we are proposing to do, either through face-to-face services or CLS Direct or a combination of the two, in our view, we would add another 10-15,000 additional acts of assistance to delivery.

Q4 Julie Morgan: How can you depend on the quality of those acts of assistance? Surely the quality of advice given depends on the degree of expertise. How can you possibly expect front-line advisers to be expert in the whole range of subjects on which people come for help?

Brian Harvey: Increasingly, if they are not able to provide immediate advice, they have recourse to CLS Direct themselves or they can refer their clients to CLS Direct. As I said earlier, our ambition, our mission, is to make sure that our front-line providers can provide that level of expertise. The quality assurance arrangements we are putting place reinforce that. These organisations that have the front-line contracts should have supervisors in place that are able to deal with the range of cases. In the most extreme cases, they can always - and it will continue to be case - refer matters to barristers who are the knowledge experts in the particular field.

Q5 Chairman: Are they are not going to do that a lot more?

Brian Harvey: There is a risk that that is the case. That would impact upon the average price, but the introduction of standard fees in this area would act as a control on that.

Q6 Julie Morgan: It seems to me that that is pie in the sky. You have got a specialist service that is working very well - your own evaluation acknowledged how good it was - the people who use it pay almost universal praise for the way they are able to deal with very complex cases very quickly, very swiftly at a great saving to the public purse. You have got something that is working really well. CLS Direct themselves refer to the Specialist Support Service lines and advisers, so it seems to me that there is no convincing case at all for saying that you are going to be able to provide all that expertise at the front-line.

Brian Harvey: That is our position. That is the conclusion we have come to. The hard facts are that by transferring that money to direct services we will be able to help a lot more people, and that is what is motivating us to make that decision.

Q7 Julie Morgan: The increasing number of acts of advice that you are able to give perhaps is partly due to the fact that you have the specialist service lines backing up the advice that is being given, because of the shorter amount of time that can be spent and the expertise that is available. Certainly in Wales we have encouraged an holistic approach to all the different problems that there are. This has meant that you cannot expect somebody to have expert knowledge on every subject, and that is where the specialist support is so essential. It seems a very risky move.

Brian Harvey: I recognise the point that you make, but I think there is no evidence to support the argument that you put. We can only look at the bottom line, which is how many people are we helping. We have a quality assurance process in place which gives us confidence that people are getting the appropriate advice. Increasingly we have more stringent quality measures, such as peer review, measuring or monitoring outcome measures to make sure that people are getting the right sorts of outcomes from the advice that they are being given. Taking that medium to long-term view, we are confident it is the right decision.

Q8 Julie Morgan: Those are the very measures you have used to evaluate this service, which ended up saying that it is needed and is an important part of future planning, a short period ago. You have just given six months notice for three-year contracts. It seems to me that those arguments do not bear much weight?

Brian Harvey: No. We are clear that the quality of advice being provided on the specialist support contracts was good, and that is what the peer review assessment told us. It comes down to a financial equation at the end of the day in ensuring we help the maximum number of people for the amount of money that we have available to do that.

Q9 Barbara Keeley: I am surprised. I am finding some of your responses a little complacent, and I think other members might be feeling the same thing. This is not in the private sector. This is public funding. You said you did not see this move as a waste of public resources. There are 19 organisations who have worked with the Legal Services Commission to build this up. There have been successful pilots, there has been a successful evaluation and it seems to us that there are no representations allowed and a very unusual, to say the very least, process of just cutting these contracts. Do you think that the organisations involved in this will want to work with you on future projects having behaved towards them in this type of way? Do you think that is an ethical and proper way to use public sector resources, public cash, to allow organisations to take on staff, to build up expertise, to get to the position where they have this number of contracts working well and well evaluated and then just to cut it in the way that you have done? I have to say, I think your earlier answer was exceedingly complacent and it does not seem to me as if that is an appropriate way for public funds to be used?

Brian Harvey: I apologise if it appears complacent. That certainly is not our position. It was a very difficult decision that we had to make. You raise a number of questions there. In terms of whether it is ethical, I think what we have done is entirely ethical. We have evaluated the work that has been done, we have compared it in terms of our overall objectives. In terms of whether people would wish to work with us, hopefully they will. A meeting was held with all those that had these specialist support contracts and explorations will now go forward to see how many of those can assist us in providing face-to-face direct services rather than support services. I do not know whether, Crispin, you want to add anything to that?

Q10 Barbara Keeley: Do you expect to retain the goodwill of organisations when you have let things develop to this point where successful contracts to the value of 2.9 million are running, were then evaluated and then just cut? We have had submissions from a number of organisations complaining about the way it was done, seemingly, in a very underhand way. I have to say, I think you will be destroying confidence in those organisations. I would be very surprised if many of them wanted to trust you again.

Brian Harvey: It certainly was not done in an underhand way. As I said - I did apologise at the outset - the consultation process could have been handled better, and I apologise for that, but we acted with the best information at the time.

Q11 Jeremy Wright: I just want to press you on the questions that Mrs Morgan asked you. What confuses me in this situation is that you have already accepted that in 2003 your assessment of this scheme was that it was a very effective scheme. It was very worthwhile. I understand also your argument that if you get rid of it you can help more people at a preliminary stage than you can at the moment. You have given us the figures for that. In what way, though, has the situation changed in terms of your assessment of this scheme since 2003? Was that not an equally good argument then?

Crispin Passmore: I think there are some quite significant things that have changed. If we go back to why specialist support was created, it was created in an environment where there were some difficulties with access, there were challenges to make sure that the front-line advice was always up to the quality that all of us expect for clients who are often very vulnerable. Specialist support was able to provide three key support services to front-line advisers: one is to general advisers who were not working under legal aid but were working very much as general advisers with a client in front of them who they would not have the expertise to be able to advise; the other two are experienced advisers or lawyers who were working almost definitely under legal aid contracts, where legal aid is paying those solicitors or advisers to deliver the service, and either they have got a client in front of them with a problem which is outside of the areas of law they are contracted for or it is particularly complex case to deal with in terms of their experience. Specialist support was a very effective way at the time of providing access and maintaining quality through those three routes. What has changed is one key thing, which is CLS Direct. When this was created, when this was evaluated, CLS Direct was very new - it was still going through an evaluation process - and it certainly did not have the capacity to be available to people to phone up and get access direct to specialist advisers. We are now in a position in 2005/2006 and going forward where we are devoting increasing resources to CLS Direct, so that instead of being advised by somebody outside their area of competence with support remotely by the telephone, now somebody can pick up the phone and phone CLS Direct and get straight through to somebody - an adviser, a solicitor - who is competent and specialist in those areas of law and able to provide a better value, more direct service which goes even beyond that which specialist support was able to provide, because you still needed to access a face-to-face service, which can often be difficult in rural areas or where there are inconsistent panels of supply. CLS Direct is able to provide, in people's homes, direct access to specialist advice. That was not available when specialist support started. It is not that specialist support was wrong. It was the right decision at that time, but we have moved on. One of the other things that was piloted alongside specialist support was CLS Direct. That has been a success. Increasing resources are going into that. This year that will handle somewhere between 60 and 70 thousand people. Three years ago it was handling a few thousand people.

Q12 Jeremy Wright: If CLS Direct is better, and not just cheaper, why do you think it is that all of those who are using that service, or at least the vast majority, based on the submission that we have had, would rather keep specialist support?

Crispin Passmore: I do not think there is any evidence that I have seen that says that clients do not want to access telephone advice. The Legal Services Research Centre, which is an independent academic research unit, has conducted a lot of research, not just on the problems that people face but the strategies they are deployed to deal with there. Some of the results of that research will be published in the next few weeks and will say, quite clearly, that around about half the people who have experienced a problem and who seek advice make the initial contact by telephone, and a significant proportion of them choose to go on to resolve their problem to their satisfaction without face-to-face advice. We are not saying to people you cannot access face-to-face advice. What we are saying to clients is, "Here is the choice for you." CLS Direct is driven by clients. If they do not want to use the service, they will not use the service, and we are seeing very clearly that as fast as we expand capacity there is demand out there to use CLS Direct because people are very happy with the service. All of our users have shared this. Surveys of CLS Direct show a happiness rate of well over 90% where they are content.

Q13 Chairman: Is it the case that CLS Direct itself uses specialist support?

Crispin Passmore: I am not aware of that. Perhaps I can check on that and come back to you.

Q14 Chairman: You may find that it is the case.

Crispin Passmore: The specialist support providers, the CLS Direct providers, are contracted as specialists in those areas of law. They do not need to work outside other areas of competence because on the same telephone line you can be put through to somebody who is an expert in housing or an expert in education. You do not have to work outside your area of competence in the way that specialist support helps people to do.

Q15 Keith Vaz: Mr Harvey, do you agree with your Director of Children's Services that the LSC has more pilots than British Airways?

Brian Harvey: I think that may have been the case in the past.

Q16 Keith Vaz: This is January 2006 - that is last month?

Brian Harvey: We are piloting a great number of changes to improve services to clients. In that general context, that could be an observation made.

Q17 Keith Vaz: Do you accept that this, if you describe it as a pilot, has been successful because both you and the Minister, in response to the debate that was initiated by Julie Morgan, have said that this has been a successful service. You are quite pleased with this pilot, are you not?

Brian Harvey: Yes. I think the Minister has said that it provided value in terms of what it was intended to do.

Q18 Keith Vaz: But the real underlying factor is the money, is it not? You want to save this 2.3 million?

Brian Harvey: In the long-term nearly three million, yes.

Q19 Keith Vaz: You want to save it?

Brian Harvey: We want to reinvest it in direct services, yes.

Q20 Keith Vaz: We will come to this point, Mr Passmore, that all over the country there are happy people who are using CLS Direct and being able to get specialist advice in a second, but looking at the overall amount of money the LSC spends on administration, do you know what that figure is - how much you spent on administration last year?

Brian Harvey: Ninety-two million, I would think.

Q21 Keith Vaz: So this is a very small proportion of the amount that you currently spend on administration?

Brian Harvey: Yes.

Q22 Keith Vaz: You believe that by taking this money away from the system that you yourself describe as a success and spreading it amongst all the consumers of CLS Direct you will be providing a better service?

Brian Harvey: By helping more people, yes.

Q23 Keith Vaz: Have you conducted a pilot into this? How do you know this is going to happen?

Brian Harvey: We have conducted a pilot, which is CLS Direct, and we know from the information that we have, which Crispin has already referred to, that it has been very successful in meeting clients' needs, delivering high quality advice and resolving individuals' problems.

Q24 Keith Vaz: You think that will provide a better service to the service that is currently being provided?

Brian Harvey: If the service is delivered to the quality standards that we have set, yes.

Q25 Keith Vaz: Have you consulted ministers before making this decision?

Brian Harvey: No, we advised them of the decision that we were intending to make.

Q26 Keith Vaz: The decision is yours and yours alone?

Brian Harvey: It is.

Q27 Keith Vaz: Because in her response in the debate, again to Julie Morgan, Mrs Prentice said she had concerns about what you were proposing to do. What were those concerns?

Brian Harvey: That it was a difficult decision for us.

Q28 Keith Vaz: You always make difficult decisions, you are in government, you are the LSC, and so we know it is a difficult decision. Accept that we accept that you have to make difficult decisions. What were the concerns that Mrs Prentice expressed to you about what you were proposing to do?

Crispin Passmore: I think you will need to speak to the Minister to get her view on what her concerns are, but my understanding of what was said was that there were concerns about the fact that specialist support had been successful and, therefore, it was a big decision to backtrack from something that had been successful and move that money to something else. It is right that we were questioned on that.

Q29 Keith Vaz: Did the Minister ask you to think again about your decision. Did she say this was ?2.3 million? You currently spend ?1.1 million on the cost of your commission and the Executive Board, including benefits or extra benefits in kind, and so it is almost the same kind of level of cuts that you are envisaging. Did she ask you to look again?

Brian Harvey: No.

Q30 Keith Vaz: She did not?

Brian Harvey: Not to my knowledge.

Q31 Keith Vaz: When she expressed her concern, when ministers expressed their concern, did you go back and have a look again at your evaluation, your consultation process?

Brian Harvey: We discussed the various issues. I was not present at the time.

Q32 Keith Vaz: Did you discuss it with the people who were providing the service? You actually had a meeting with those groups and individuals who provide this service, at your offices or elsewhere, where you discussed what you were proposing to do. You have had that discussion, have you, with the people who have been providing this service?

Crispin Passmore: No.

Q33 Keith Vaz: Mr Harvey, you keep looking to Mr Passmore. You are the Acting Chief Executive, are you not?

Brian Harvey: Yes. I can deal with the question. The consultation process, which asked people to comment on various key questions, was the information that was used by the executive to make their decision. The decision was then communicated to the Minister. The Minister then asked various questions, but supported the decision, and then we communicated the decision to the contract holders that we were going to terminate the contracts. Subsequently, a meeting was held with the contract holders to discuss how we might move forward from that position.

Q34 Keith Vaz: You have never had a discussion, I have understood that process. A lot of communications, a lot of information has been communicated, but you have never had a discussion with the people who have been providing this service over the last three years before you came to your decision?

Brian Harvey: Only via the consultation process that I referred to. Not a direct discussion, no.

Q35 Keith Vaz: You have never had a direct discussion?

Brian Harvey: No.

Q36 Keith Vaz: You have sent them surveys and pieces of paper and they have responded?

Brian Harvey: Yes.

Q37 Keith Vaz: Do you have the results of that consultation with you here today?

Crispin Passmore: I have got summary of it, yes.

Q38 Keith Vaz: Are you going to be able to let the Committee have a copy of the consultation?

Crispin Passmore: Yes, absolutely.

Q39 Barbara Keeley: I wanted to ask a point on this specifically. In our submission from Shelter they say that at no point was it made clear to them that terminating the contract was an option. They have received letters from you but say that they did not at any point understand that terminating the contract was an option. Do you agree with that comment? You did not at any point make clear that you would be terminating contracts and that is what you were consulting on.

Brian Harvey: At the time that the request for information was given, no, it was not made clear that that was an option.

Q40 Barbara Keeley: It was a consultation where you did not make clear what the end option was?

Brian Harvey: In that sense, yes.

Q41 Chairman: Was that deliberate?

Brian Harvey: No.

Q42 Chairman: You forgot to mention that you might drop the service, or is it that in the course of this process it occurred to you that it might be an idea to drop the service?

Brian Harvey: In the course of the process we were dealing with questions of the budget and how we could make sure that we invested the money which we had to best effect.

Q43 Chairman: When you started the consultation it was a genuinely open consultation, but halfway through your budgetary issues came to the fore and so, in effect, the nature of the process changed from that moment, did it?

Brian Harvey: Yes.

Q44 Jeremy Wright: Can I ask, following on from that, what brought about the consultation? What was the cause for the consultation in the first place?

Brian Harvey: We were carrying out a consultation on what we call the total of our top-slice budget, so it was a whole range of different investments, development projects totalling some 24 million.

Q45 Chairman: Did you get a less favourable report on any of the other top-slice elements than you got on the support service?

Crispin Passmore: I am not quite sure I understand the question.

Q46 Chairman: You are looking at all the things that are top-slice from your budget.

Crispin Passmore: Yes.

Q47 Chairman: You were talking about one which had gone very well, and nobody questioned that it was working extremely well. Were there any of the top-slice elements which had a less favourable report than that?

Crispin Passmore: No. There were decisions taken that some things would be left to their natural conclusion, which was very close, and would not be renewed. There were certain things that we decided to continue with as part of the top-slice, but it was a wide-ranging review across a significant amount of expenditure in the light of other priorities - the financial situation and the CLS Strategy, which had only come out in July of that year - that allowed us to refocus the CLS, five years in, having learned lots over the first five years, to say, "This is the way forward, having learnt what we have learnt over the first five years" having responded to quite a wide range of views and reviews of the CLS, which, I think, often expected us to go back and work harder to increase the number of people helped within the CLS, and I think we responded very positively to that.

Q48 Julie Morgan: You did not consult with the specialist service providers on the proposal to end the service?

Crispin Passmore: Indeed.

Q49 Julie Morgan: That is the position?

Crispin Passmore: We wrote to them to say we were undertaking the review and told them the terms of reference. We did not say explicitly, "And one of the options is that we end this". I think that is something we regret.

Q50 Julie Morgan: You did not consult with them about the possible ending of the service in the consultation phase?

Crispin Passmore: No, we asked for their views again to say how the project, amongst other top-slice projects, contributed to our CLS strategy, to our corporate priorities and value for money.

Julie Morgan: You did not consult about the possibility of ending the service?

Q51 Chairman: I think we have got that clear.

Crispin Passmore: Some did.

Q52 Julie Morgan: You seem reluctant to say that.

Crispin Passmore: Some people responded to the letter and explicitly gave their views on whether it should be ended or not.

Q53 Julie Morgan: Yes, but you did not put that in your bit?

Crispin Passmore: We did not say explicitly because we did not want people to think we had already made a decision.

Q54 Chairman: Hang on a minute. I thought I had got this right. Now you are telling me it was because you did not want them to think you had made a decision, even if you had. My understanding was that the process changed halfway through.

Crispin Passmore: The process certainly changed as the process evolved and the financial situation changed, but you have got to be very careful when you start a review that you do not say, "And one of the options we are looking at is this", because that leaves you open to a challenge that you have already made your mind up. This was a genuine look at what is the right way to spend money to deliver our objectives to the CLS Strategy and to deliver value for money.

Chairman: I think we can form our own conclusions.

Q55 Keith Vaz: It sounds like a very flawed process. You are going to have to look at this again, are you not? You seem very worried about Mr Passmore, that your Director of Communications says that he regrets the way in which this was done. You are going to have to look at this again, are you not?

Brian Harvey: In what sense?

Q56 Keith Vaz: In the sense that the system and the consultation process appears to be flawed, that you did not tell the groups concerned that it was an option that this service would stop. You have not received any complaints, have you, from them? Nobody has written and said, "This is an awful service. Close it down tomorrow." In all the responses you have received - and I know you are going to give us a summary - nobody said, "Stop this service. It is a complete waste of money"?

Brian Harvey: No.

Q57 Keith Vaz: Therefore, do you not see why there is a need to look again at the process that you have adopted and to perhaps review your decision?

Brian Harvey: I think there are two issues. One is was the consultation process adequate? As I said at the outset, it could have been better. If we were to go through a process, "Is there any likelihood that the decision would change?," I would have to say the answer is, "No". Therefore there is the question about the efficacy, the value of going through a process which is not going to change the decision.

Q58 Keith Vaz: It is just the fundamental principle that you are not telling people who are in receipt of public money that they are about to lose that money and that that is one of the options that you are considering. On the CLS Direct, this has all been done for the CLS to create this wonderful organisation that we have not heard a lot of in the last five years, so that people can go to CLS Direct, pick up a telephone and get expert advice. You wander into a CAB in Bangor in North Wales - you are a genuine asylum seeker - you go in there seeking advice, you pick up a phone and at the end of the phone you get this wonderful advice under your system. Is that right? Somebody can give you expert advice on immigration if you live in Bangor?

Brian Harvey: Yes.

Q59 Keith Vaz: What is the telephone number of the CLS Direct?

Crispin Passmore: 0845---

Q60 Keith Vaz: Mr Harvey, you are the Acting Chief Executive.

Brian Harvey: I cannot remember.

Q61 Keith Vaz: If you cannot remember, how do you expect the public to know how to get access to these services?

Brian Harvey: Because in the places that you describe all the information is available as to where, what to phone. It is advertised in the Yellow Pages. All the agencies have the number and will advise their clients that is the number to phone.

Keith Vaz: It is just that you do not know what it is.

Q62 Jeremy Wright: When that phone number is called, the service which it is replacing is the Specialist Support Service which, and you will correct me if I am wrong about this, is there in order to help lawyers who do not have the particular expertise in a particular area of law. In other words, it is advanced further understanding of a particular area of law they are not expert in. Is that right? That is what the Specialist Support Service does?

Crispin Passmore: It is part of it, yes.

Q63 Jeremy Wright: CLS Direct is designed to replace the Specialist Support Service?

Crispin Passmore: It is an alternative way of accessing the advice generally. It is not face-to-face in some cases.

Q64 Jeremy Wright: Following on from Mr Vaz's question, assuming that someone can remember the number, are you confident that what comes at them from the other end of the phone line is going to be comprehensible and useful to them?

Crispin Passmore: All the evidence we have supports that proposition where we analyse, on an on-going basis, the perception of the service by clients, and ratings in excess of 95% in terms of quality advice, resolving problems are what we are seeing reported. We are contracting with organisations that are meeting the specialist standard. The way the system works is that calls come into a call centre and then, on a rota basis, they are passed to senior case-workers who meet the standards and can deliver the specialist quality standard.

Q65 Chairman: You are measuring the current success of CLS Direct in the situation where the support services exist and are therefore used on behalf of a significant number of those who go to the other providers, whether it is the CAB or whether it is another solicitor, and even CLS Direct itself can make use of that service if it wants to do so. So you are taking measurements from a period where the service exists and assuming that they will be as good when the service is not there. Is that not a bit risky?

Crispin Passmore: As I said a moment ago, we have no evidence of CLS Direct advisers seeking specialist support advice services. Obviously, it if there is any information, that will be of interest, because the contract with those providers is that they should be providing that service. They should not need to go to a specialist support contract holder to provide the service that they are contracted to provide. On the basis that we believe that is the situation, we are confident that the quality of the service will continue and, hopefully, will continue to improve.

Q66 Barbara Keeley: I think we have ascertained that CLS Direct actually use specialist support themselves. With these contracts being cancelled, presumably the staff in the 19 organisations will move away to do other things. How will CLS Direct manage without the support once the support collapses through the contracts not being there? You have admitted that this process was flawed, you did not consult well. Organisations do seem to us to be outraged at the way you have behaved over this. You use part of this service yourselves. You are saying the solution is switching funding to CLS Direct. How is CLS Direct going to manage without the specialist support if the specialist support just vanishes?

Crispin Passmore: CLS Direct contracts with broadly the same providers as are delivering fact-to-face services. It is not provided in-house. It is us contracting with CABs, law centres, and private solicitors, who are broadly the same people as those delivering face-to-face services. They have to meet the same quality standards. They have to have a supervisor who has to rate their competence.

Q67 Barbara Keeley: That is not the question I am asking. You are admitting to a flawed process in which you are cancelling contracts to 19 organisations and yet you rely in part for CLS Direct on that same support?

Crispin Passmore: What I am saying to you is that our service provider facility should not be relying upon the Specialist Support Service. They are contracted to deliver that specialist service in that particular area of law, and I would quite like to see the information on that - I was not aware of it - and we will go away and look at that and discuss it with CLS Direct. We want to make sure that CLS Direct is able to look at the specialist advice it is contracted to deliver.

Q68 Julie Morgan: If people get advice from CLS Direct on very complex situations - asylum applications have been mentioned, complex housing situations - how do you have confidence that they would then be able to go away and implement the advice given by CLS Direct, whereas we know the specialist support services have played a very valuable role in supporting on-going casework and taking things forward?

Brian Harvey: They will be subject to exactly the same quality assessment process the specialist support contracts were assessed under, which is peer review, which is the principal process, but supported by other on-going quality assessment processes that we have. That is the mechanism.

Q69 Julie Morgan: I wanted to ask another question about consultation. Why did you not consult the Welsh Assembly Governments about the proposals to end the Specialist Support Service in Wales? I think you know there is a particular service that is provided in Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government has specific advice strategies?

Crispin Passmore: We engaged in quite a long dialogue with the Welsh Assembly Government as we looked to develop an appropriate way to take forward the CLS strategy for England and Wales within Wales which recognises the unique environment of Wales - that is an on-going discussion. We look at how we pilot new ways forward, how we make sure that services are appropriate to the particular context of Wales, for example, ensuring that CLS Direct services are provided in the Welsh language in a way that is comprehensive and in a way that we have not been able to deliver face-to-face in specialist support services. From April we will be tendering to expand Welsh language CLS Direct and we will be continuing to work with the Welsh Assembly Government in taking that forward. We consult with them on a broad strategic level rather than at an individual level on issues that are not devolved.

Q70 Julie Morgan: You do not think you should have consulted with the Welsh Assembly Government, who you are working in partnership with, about ending these specific services?

Crispin Passmore: I think it is important that we work with the Welsh Assembly Government and with local government in Wales, the same as we work with local government in England, to make sure that services that we commission are relevant to local communities. I think we do that on a strategic level and, in terms of particular services where we can work most appropriately, jointly with the funding that they put in, I think we have been very good at that with the Welsh Assembly Government best of all. I do not think it is necessary for us to consult on each contract decision with every single stakeholder.

Q71 Julie Morgan: This on specific strategic decision you did not think it was necessary to consult the Welsh Assembly Government?

Crispin Passmore: No.

Q72 James Brokenshire: How much have you allocated in your budget for promoting awareness of CLS Direct in the current financial year and the next financial year?

Crispin Passmore: I do not have the numbers

Q73 James Brokenshire: Obviously, I think, from discussions today, promoting awareness of CLS Direct is quite a good factor in terms of knowing that the availability of the service is there and I would hope to see a reasonable figure allocated to it.

Brian Harvey: I have not got the figures in my head, but it is a relatively small amount because it is largely done through Yellow Pages, the reason being that the rate of demand is accelerating for longer and we do not want to be in a position where we cannot meet demand.

Q74 James Brokenshire: Therefore, it is your intention not to promote awareness of it too much in case the department thinks it is too great?

Brian Harvey: No, we have promoted it, but if you had an expectation for spending vast sums of money on promoting it, I am saying that is not what we need to do because the demand is there and the usage is increasing. The big problem, which we are managing at the present time, is to make sure the capacity that we are putting in place on a progressive basis is meeting the demand as it emerges.

Q75 James Brokenshire: You made one central issue in terms of advocating the use of CLS Direct: that you measured on the basis that you would help more people and yet, from what you have said, you do not want to help too many people?

Brian Harvey: We can only help as many people as our budget allows?

Chairman: We have some other business to do this afternoon, and I therefore do not propose to go into things that we can discuss with you later, like Carter, but there are a couple of specific questions that relate to two bits of work we are doing currently which I think we could very quickly deal with.

Q76 James Brokenshire: One other issue that we have been looking at is the NHS redress scheme, and, in particular, if it is established, how that fits into the legal aid framework. Do you envisage that claimants would have to pass through the scheme first before they would be entitled to legal aid?

Crispin Passmore: I think what we have said is we will wait to see the full details of the NHS redress scheme and then consider them before we decide how that best plays into civil legal help and civil representation.

Q77 James Brokenshire: To be very clear on this, obviously there are some indications as to what the format of the approach would be. You are unclear and uncertain, as yet, as to whether you would require people to go through that first before being able to obtain legal aid?

Crispin Passmore: It is very difficult for us to make a final decision until we have seen the final proposals.

Q78 James Brokenshire: You have not ruled that option out?

Crispin Passmore: No, but we have not made the decision until we have seen the final scheme.

Q79 Dr Whitehead: I would like to ask a question about legal aid for asylum appeals. That arises from the inquiry that this Committee did a little while ago when we expressed concerns about the Government's funding mechanism for legal aid. Subsequently it transpired that the LSC had also, in its meeting minutes of 26 January 2005, expressed concern particularly at the conditional nature of subsequent legal aid after initial hearing. You stated that you had highlighted the serious risk associated with the policy but the proposal had met with the agreement of ministers. What were your reservations and do you think they have come to be justified in the light of experience?

Brian Harvey: As a general comment, the difficulty we have in responding to the question about where we are at is not sufficient cases pass through the system to be able to evaluate what is going on. Most of the cases going through at the moment are under the transitional previous arrangements. In terms of concern, the major concern was cost, whether or not costs would be higher under such an arrangement. I do not know whether Crispin has anything to add to that.

Crispin Passmore: We are working with the Department to undertake a review of the commitment that was made. I think the position of the review, which is yet to report, is that there are simply not enough cases, given the nature and the length of this process, for us to come to any findings. I think most of the cases that have come through since April 2005 are cases that were transitional, in that they started through the process under the old scheme, and so it is very difficult to make conclusions about incentives and disincentives and overall costs until we have seen a significant cohort of cases come through that started and went to conclusion under the new scheme. We are very keen to continue that evaluation when we get that cohort of cases.

Q80 Dr Whitehead: At what stage do you think that evaluation would be significant? At what stage do you think you could make a conclusion about that in terms of cases coming through?

Brian Harvey: It is very difficult to predict in terms of actual numbers, because it depends on the length and speed of the process and volumes of asylum appeals. My best estimate at this stage is that it will be six to 12 months before we have enough to be able to draw firm conclusions.

Q81 Dr Whitehead: What would you do with those conclusions as a commission?

Brian Harvey: We would be involved in those discussions and be reporting to ministers.

Q82 Dr Whitehead: Do you have any views on the impact on legal aid providers at this stage or would you say there is a similar issue there?

Brian Harvey: I think it is difficult to draw conclusions. What we know is that the number of people providing advice has declined slightly over the last 12 months, but not as much as you would expect given the fall in asylum volumes overall. We know that there is still significant over capacity compared to the number of asylum seekers coming in, which is an overhang to why asylum intake is much higher, but as to any course of relationship between the two, I think we have no evidence either way.

Chairman: Thank you. You will know that the issue which has taken most of the time this afternoon is clearly a matter of very great concern to members of the Committee. We are grateful to you for giving evidence this afternoon.

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