Last Wednesday Secretary of State for Justice, Ken Clarke, made a written statement to the Commons on Competitive Tendering. The proposed timetable has yet again slipped back.
He told the Commons: “The Government believe that tendering criminal defence work for competition, alongside regulatory changes, has the potential to significantly modernise legal aid provision, improve the service provided to legal aid clients, streamline the procurement process and deliver value for money for the taxpayer.” In a thinly veiled threat he said: “Pressure on legal aid expenditure is likely to continue, increasing the need for further reform of the current arrangements for administratively set remuneration rates in the absence of competition.”
He added: “Clearly the development of a competition strategy will be likely to have a substantial impact on the market for legally aided services, as will a number of other current developments. These changes will require significant levels of engagement between the Government and the profession. We plan to begin these discussions in early 2013 once the key components of our legal aid reform package, the regulatory changes allowing alternative business structures, and the introduction of the quality assurance scheme for advocates have had time to bed down. We will publish a full formal consultation document on the competition strategy towards the end of that year.”
The revised timetable will be:
Consultation paper published: Autumn 2013
Response to consultation paper: Spring 2014
Tender opens in first competition areas: Autumn 2014
First contracts go live: Summer 2015
In an almost throw-away last paragraph of this statement he went on to say: “I would also like to inform the House that we intend, subject to parliamentary approval of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, to implement all of the legal aid reforms in April 2013. This will include the abolition of the Legal Services Commission under the Bill and the creation of the new agency in its place.” This amounts to a six-month delay to the programme.
The ‘Guardian’ reports that Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, said: “This six-month stay of execution due to government incompetence will do little to reassure the millions of people who rely of social welfare legal aid to gain access to justice. Rather than delaying the implementation of their disastrous reforms to social welfare legal aid, which supports some of the most vulnerable people in our society, this government should abandon them completely.”
The bill goes to the committee stage in the House of Lords on 20 December. At its second reading in the chamber last month, the proposed legal aid cuts were savaged by the overwhelming majority of speakers in the debate. Since then Lord Wilson, the newest appointment to the supreme court, and Sir Nicholas Wall, president of the family division, have added their voices to the opposition. Three other supreme justices – Lord Hope, Lady Hale and Lord Dyson – have also expressed concern about the effect of government proposals to save £350m a year by reducing the availability of legal aid.
The Government showed with the Public Bodies bill last month that they are prepared to jettison proposals to ensure the passage of a bill. It will be interesting to see how they react to the Lords’ amendments and what, if anything, is thrown off the sledge to escape the chasing pack.