I spent half an hour on a train with Nick Clegg yesterday, chatting to him about a range of subjects for an interview that will run on the site later this week. After the interview I tweeted about Clegg’s interesting answer to my question to him on legal aid, and a journalist I know from the Mail on Sunday got in touch to say the paper was running a story on the subject and would be interested in seeing his answer. Here’s the Mail’s take:
A cabinet split over plans to cut legal aid deepened last night as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg signalled his concerns for the first time.
The Liberal Democrat leader said it was ‘perverse’ to stop people choosing their own solicitor and claimed small high street law firms would suffer – rather than the ‘fat cat QCs’ targeted by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.
Asked about the reforms by lawyer and Lib Dem activist Nick Thornsby in Manchester yesterday, Mr Clegg said: ‘You could say it’s perverse that a Government with Conservatives in it is reducing public choice rather than increasing it.
‘The only straitjacket on all of this is the need to yield about £220 million of savings in legal aid in criminal cases.
‘But on the back of the consultation we should see if there are alternative, less disruptive, less unpopular ways of delivering that.’
The comments come after the Conservative Attorney-General came out on the side of lawyers who are angry at the changes.
Dominic Grieve said he could do little about the plan – because ‘policy in this area is owned by the Lord Chancellor, and not me’.
But he promised he would ‘endeavour to ensure, as far as I can, that the decision he reaches in due course is a fully informed one’.
The piece captures fairly the thrust of Clegg’s response. He clearly has reservations about the proposals and is obviously open to savings being made in other ways which don’t damage access to justice.
My full interview will run later this week, but for now the full transcript of our exchange on legal aid is reproduced below:
NT: Do you agree that the backlash against Price Competitive Tendering and the further [proposed] cuts from the legal aid budget have been of a different magnitude [to the usual protestations]? It’s not just barristers [speaking out], it’s judges, it’s legal aid firms, even the Attorney General’s own panel of lawyers.
NC: I accept that on two particular areas there has been a very strong reaction from a very wide range of people and actually in many ways the thing I have been most struck by is decent, hard-working high street lawyers in my own neck of the woods in Sheffield who are not fat cat QCs — far from it: these are really decent people whose heart and soul is in the work they do — who tell me two things that they are particularly distressed by. First that the plan as it’s presently crafted would remove the choice of their clients to move from one lawyer to another.
NT: It seems perverse at a time when we’re giving people more choice in their public services [that we would reduce it in another area].
NC: Well you could say it is perverse that a government with Conservatives in it is reducing public choice rather than increasing it. That’s the first point they [high street firms] make. The second point is [about] replacing what is a highly fragmented market of providers with one which is basically organised around fixed contracts administered by bureaucracy in London. Obviously they have a self-interest in saying they think might lose out in that but more generally they imply that would damage quality.
So I think on choice and quality I’ve listened very carefully to what’s been said. Chris Grayling and Tom McNally to be fair to them have been very open about the fact that they have to make the savings – around £220 million – [but] they’re not dogmatic about how that saving can be made, if the industry can show them how the saving can be made in ways which are considered to be less offensive or disruptive.
The consultation as you know has just closed. I will shortly be asking Chris Grayling and Tom McNally for an update on what the response to the consultation has been, which I suspect will reflect the a lot of the criticisms I’ve just talked to and then we’ll look at it.
The only straitjacket on all of this unfortunately is the need to yield about £220 million or thereabouts worth of savings in legal aid in criminal cases, but I can’t stress enough if on the back of the consultation we can see that there are alternative ways, less disruptive ways, less unpopular ways if you like of delivering that, there’s no ideological attachment in the coalition government per se to those particular measures.
There is unfortunately a financial attachment, if I can put it that way, to delivering savings.
So, you know, I have engaged with this a lot as a constituency MP and I have been struck with the strength of feeling.
* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.