[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Justice Committee, Government’s proposed reform of legal aid, HC 681, and the Government response, Cm 8111.]
Before I call the Lord Chancellor, I should say that this Second Reading debate is well subscribed. There is an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. I ask Front Benchers from both sides to use their restraint, so that more Back Benchers can speak. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I have never said anything so popular in my life.
Given the number who have subscribed, I ask Members not to approach the Chair to ask where they are on the list; those who have approached or written to Mr Speaker will be on the list.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I shall try to observe your strictures, Mr Deputy Speaker, but this is a very large piece of legislation; I shall probably have to restrict the number of times I give way to interventions.
I am determined to reform the justice system in this country. Keeping the public safe, ensuring that those who break the law face the consequences and providing swift, cost-effective access to justice are fundamental responsibilities of the state towards its citizens. Yet the last 13 years of government have left us a system whose cost and scale have exploded and whose failings can no longer be tolerated.
In the area of criminal justice, more than 20 new Acts of Parliament, thousands of new criminal offences and a huge increase in the prison population cannot mask very deep flaws in the system. Briefly, our sentencing framework is a mess of byzantine complexity that even trained lawyers and judges—never mind the general public—find confusing.
Our punishments do not work. Community sentences are weak, asking little of offenders, and prisons have become so crowded that there is no space for governors to enforce regimes of meaningful work or reparation. Far too many prisoners are left idle in their cells, often on drugs. For that model, the taxpayer has the privilege of paying out an extraordinary sum—£44,000 per prison place per year. I have just been assured that the Ritz is even more expensive, so I slightly exaggerated, but £44,000 per prison place per year is enough to pay the salaries of two newly qualified nurses or teachers.
I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor. We have heard about this alleged litany of failures. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman was Home Secretary, crime was at a post-war peak on both the measures that the Prime Minister used to discuss crime at questions earlier today. Since then, burglaries have dropped by 70%, thefts by 50%, and crime overall by 50%. Is the fact that the Lord Chancellor never, ever refers to the outcomes of our record due to the fact that that happened mainly under us or the fact that the process started under his successor, Michael Howard?
The idea that I set off a crime wave when I was Home Secretary is a charge that I will answer on some other occasion, frankly. As far as the decline in crime is concerned, the biggest decline has been in theft because car manufacturers made cars more secure. The courts used to be full of taking and driving away offences, but are no longer because it is more difficult to take the cars.
The fall in burglary coincided with an economic boom—one of the consequences that came from it. The 20-plus Bills that the right hon. Gentleman and his predecessors brought before the House—more than one criminal justice Bill a year—and the countless changes in sentences filled up the prisons, but in my opinion had no provable, demonstrable effect at all on the levels of crime in this country.
The right hon. Gentleman is an ex-Front Bencher. I will give way to him later, but I should observe the strictures of Mr Deputy Speaker, although I enjoy debating with the right hon. Gentleman. I should move on a little further into my speech.
As the right hon. Gentleman has heard me say before, reoffending rates are a national scandal; that is why the system is failing. Half of offenders—49%—have been reconvicted, in part because the system is not tackling the underlying causes of their criminality such as drug abuse, poor mental health and inadequate skills. The consequence of that failure is new victims of crime every day. Despite improvement, victims and witnesses too often still get treated as an afterthought, not a central concern of justice. That is why we need intelligent, radical reform of the criminal justice system to protect and serve the needs of law-abiding members of society.
I will later, but let me deal with what we are having to tackle in civil justice. The sad truth is that it, too, has serious weaknesses. Courts should be accessible and efficient, but generally turned to as a place of last resort, not a first choice. But we have a litigious society and far too many cases go down the court route unnecessarily. Last year, more than three quarters of claims in the civil system set down to proceed to trial were settled before the trial took place. Many of those cases might have been resolved earlier, with different approaches aimed at simpler dispute resolution. Ordinary citizens find the law an expensive, daunting nightmare, not a public service.
I will in a second. Courts are slow and burdened by high costs and bureaucratic processes and procedures. For example, the average length of a public family law case in 1989 was 12 weeks; by 2010, it stood at 53 weeks, with similar cases taking four times as long as they used to.
I was going to argue this later; I will try to avoid repeating myself. I cannot understand why people are so incensed that people who are not going to be sent to prison might not be kept in prison awaiting trial. Every year, 16,000 people are refused bail, kept in prison, convicted and immediately given bail. A quarter of all the people kept in custody are released when they come up for trial. I shall come back to the matter, although I shall try to avoid repeating the same arguments. It seems to me that unless one is trying to fill up the prisons with people, that is one of the more obvious steps we can take. If they are not going to justify imprisonment when they get to trial, it seems to me pointless to refuse them bail, except in the case of domestic violence cases, where we have agreed to make an exception because we cannot grant bail to someone who is going back to live with the alleged victim of the domestic violence.
The Secretary of State will be aware that many people are remanded on bail because they refuse to turn up to court, causing the taxpayer all sorts of expense. Can he assure us that even if the crime committed is not one that would normally result in a jail sentence, people who consistently refuse to turn up to court will be remanded in custody?
Without fettering judicial discretion, I think I can give that assurance. There are all sorts of grounds on which bail can be refused. We are saying that where it is likely that a person will not be imprisoned when they come up for trial, they should not be refused bail.
No, I am sorry. I respect the right hon. Gentleman, but I must move on.
I have said that ordinary citizens find the civil law a rather nightmarish experience when they resort to it. Thanks to the present scope of legal aid and the way in which the no-win, no-fee system operates, many people and, in particular, many small businesses live in fear of legal action. I accept that access to justice for the protection of fundamental rights is vital for a democratic society—something on which I will not compromise. However, our current legal aid system can encourage people to bring their problems before the courts when the basic problem is not a legal one and would be better dealt with in other ways. The scope of legal aid has expanded too far. It cannot be right, for example, that the taxpayer is forced to pay for legal advice to foreign students whose visa applications are turned down. There are many other examples.
Our legal aid system also faces a completely unignorable problem of affordability. I have listened to arguments in the media today challenging that, but we have by far the most expensive system in the world, after Northern Ireland, where I am sure the same problem will be tackled. It costs £39 per head of population in this country, each year, compared with £8 in, for example, New Zealand, which has a similar system of law. In any circumstances our system would need reform; in the country’s current financial crisis reform is imperative.
I have some advice for Labour Members. I do not usually give gratuitous advice, but I think the Labour party is facing one of the problems that we faced in 1997. It should find the courage to admit that it made some mistakes and left some things in a mess. It has been acknowledged by my opposite number, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), that, on Labour’s watch:
“Playing tough in order not to look soft made it harder to focus on what is effective”—
wise words. I thought, when we set off on this process of consultation, I had the widespread support of many Opposition Members. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reflect on the way in which he started his consideration before he gets on with the rest of the debate.
In fact, when Labour was in office, its strategy for our prisons and our courts was legislative incontinence combined with kneejerk populism. On prisons, the Labour Government made the mistake of being unable to make proper provision for the demand for places that they stimulated. Overcrowding devoured the very budgets that should have been used productively to cut reoffending and improve public safety in a lasting way. What was the final result that we all remember? They had to reduce the release point from two thirds to halfway through the sentence. They then had to resort to the financial chicanery of keeping the cost of building prisons off the balance sheet—the so-called Carter prisons. Finally—the ultimate absurdity—they had to let out 80,000 prisoners early, before the end of their sentence, to offset the cost of the allegedly tougher sentences that they had imposed. That is why we need reform now—to reverse that nonsense.
On wider justice matters, the Labour Government proved little better at getting a grip. They had 30 consultations on legal aid from 2006; they did not act decisively, put the system on a sustainable footing or address the litigiousness to which its excessively widely available funding contributed.
My right hon. and learned Friend has had a consultation, to which I hope he has listened, particularly in respect of criminal negligence affecting children with multiple injuries that may have resulted from birth. It is not clear to me yet that the Government have found a way of ensuring that that very deserving and small group of people will have access to justice and to the settlements that they need.
We have addressed clinical negligence, a large part of which is now conducted on a no-win, no-fee basis. That is the way we should proceed. Clinical negligence cases of the kind to which the right hon. Gentleman refers are especially expensive and it is quite difficult to decide whether to proceed with them, so we are making special arrangements, particularly for the expensive medical reports that have to be obtained before a case can properly be decided on. We are making arrangements to make the insurance reimbursable in those cases. I would also like to see a system developed by the NHS litigation authority and the best of the practitioners to exchange expert medical reports at a very early stage, so that we can avoid unnecessary litigation about whether a tragic disaster to a newborn baby was actually a natural tragedy or the result of negligence, and so that such cases need not drag on for the many years that they can take to go through the courts. I accept that that is a special case, and we considered it carefully during the consultation. We made quite a lot of changes during the consultation, some of which were referred to dramatically in outside comment.
I hear what the Secretary of State says about the failure of the last Government to tackle the burgeoning legal aid system. Did they not also fail to tackle the complexity of other departmental work that our citizens advice bureaux, which do such valuable work, help with—for example, Department for Work and Pensions forms? The Government’s response hints at a review of some of the other parts of legal aid which will inevitably have to be cut. Will the Secretary of State give more detail about that review and about whether the burden will be shared across Departments?
Yes, I will. I try to avoid jumping from subject to subject, because it is such an enormous Bill, but I promise my hon. Friend that I shall return to the whole question of alternative forms of advice and the CABs, and make an announcement at a later stage in the proceedings on the Bill.
Another aspect of the changes to legal aid is the removal of legal aid from women applying for indefinite leave to remain under the domestic violence rule. In an answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister for Immigration reported that only 710 women were granted that, so we are not talking about a considerable number, but they are very vulnerable individuals. Will the Secretary of State think again on that aspect of his proposals?
Indeed. Ministers have talked about the matter and considered it carefully, and I leave it to my hon. Friend to give an authoritative reply in his winding-up speech.
I hope that I have already indicated that the mess that we have inherited requires a bold, sustained and principled effort, not salami slicing and half-measures. The Bill is one part of the balanced package of reforms that is needed. Unusually, I made a full statement to the House last week on the subject, and it was debated for one and a half hours, so I do not propose to repeat in depth what I said then. Let me turn to the inevitable controversy that any measures on criminal sentencing are bound to provoke. It is a natural part of contemporary political debate to simplify the subject and to make extremes out of it all. I am resigned to the fact that on law and order issues above all there is a tendency to polarise, and to frame reforms as either dry and tough, or wet, soft and liberal. The truth is somewhere in between. The aim of the measures I proposed was to consult on a balanced package, and it remains so.
The measures address the weaknesses that we inherited. For serious crime, the public must have confidence in the system of effective punishment and just retribution, so my reforms include, for example, introducing a 40-hour working week across the prison estate to introduce productive hard work into prisons in place of enforced idleness.
The Bill toughens community sentences by allowing courts to curfew offenders for longer—16 hours a day for up to 12 months—and to ban them from going abroad. As I signalled last week, we intend to introduce measures to clarify householders’ rights of defence and to consult on criminalising squatting.
The Bill creates a new offence of possessing a knife to threaten or endanger a person, with a prison sentence of at least six months for over-18s to send a clear message to those who possess a knife to threaten others.
We are conducting a review with the intention of replacing the discredited sentence whereby people are locked up for an undetermined and indefinite time—the so-called imprisonment for public protection—with a tough determinate sentencing regime. I propose to deliver a system that offers better reparation to victims. The Bill will replace and augment the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996, which the previous Government never implemented—it was a Conservative measure. This will allow us to deduct wages from prisoners so that instead of their just being a drain on the system we can deduct money to help to pay for services for the victims of crime. The Bill places a positive obligation on courts to make offenders pay compensation directly to victims.
The Lord Chancellor mentions the review of indeterminate sentences. My concern is that he will reach the wrong conclusion. When he conducts his review will he look at experience in Northern Ireland, where extended and indeterminate sentences have been available since 2008 but where, crucially, the assessment of danger is left in the hands of judges? It is a smaller system, but in the three years since its introduction there have been only 63 extended sentences and seven indeterminate sentences. Public safety has been combined with manageable numbers: will he look at that experience?
We are having a review, so I will look at that. Legislation was enacted in 2003, in the belief that a few hundred people might be affected. It commenced in 2005. The previous Government, of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member, tried to reform it in 2008, because it was already out of control. I proposed further reforms in the Green Paper, and a very large number of people in the criminal justice system said that the legislation should be repealed. Last week, I quoted David Thomas, the author of “Thomas on Sentencing”, who described the whole thing as an unmitigated disaster. I will look into the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion to see whether some aspects of the Northern Irish system might be appropriate.
After punishment and reparation comes rehabilitation to reduce reoffending, which is at the core of our process of reform. Sentences must be punitive and reformative. The Bill will help to ensure that more offenders with drugs, alcohol or mental health problems are addressed and receive treatment at the earliest opportunity.This complicates our efforts—
Complements—it might do both, but I hope it will complement our efforts to tackle drugs in prison.
Drugs are widely available in prisons, but we shall start by introducing drug-free wings. My single most radical proposal on rehabilitation is a non-legislative change to introduce a fundamental shift in how we approach the issue by paying by results to unlock private capital, benefit from the innovation of the voluntary sector and get the whole system pulling in the same direction. We will pay providers a return on their ethical investment for what works in the public interest: turning criminals into ex-criminals should be an object of the system.
I am interested in the Secretary of State’s comments on the number of people in our prisons who, unfortunately, suffer from mental illness and need support and treatment, which is often inadequate. Will he recognise the greater problem: that many people who need support with mental illness or who are experiencing mental health crises do not get it, and there are insufficient resources and insufficient understanding among the police and others that the real cause of minor offences often is mental illness and nothing else. We need a more sympathetic, supportive and therapeutic approach to dealing with these poor, unfortunate people.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health agrees with the hon. Gentleman and me. My ministerial team and my right hon. Friend’s ministerial team have been holding discussions. My right hon. Friend has a strategy for trying to improve mental health services to the population as a whole. As part of that we are addressing what can be done to help the mentally ill who find themselves in prison. Some of them should be diverted from the criminal justice system altogether; some can be better treated in secure accommodation in the national health service; and many can be treated better than they are at present when being incarcerated in prison is not suitable. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend and I share his concern.
Underpinning punishment, reparation and rehabilitation is what might be called system reform—simplification, restoration of discretion to judges and the relief of unnecessary pressures on the system. At the same time we must take a more robust approach to costs in the system, including that of prison. We have already shown that through competition it is possible to get prison costs down while improving service quality. Key measures in the Bill include reforming the use of remand. I dealt with this a moment ago. I have told the House that preventing reoffending is the central idea of my reforms. One of the main barriers to doing things in the past few years has been the fact that the prisons have been clogged up, sometimes with people who do not need to be there at all. I will not repeat the arguments that I made a moment ago that give rise to the part of the Bill that restricts the power of courts to remand those who have no reasonable prospect of receiving a custodial sentence, with the exception that I have already described of cases of domestic violence.
In answer to the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) the Secretary of State said that where a defendant failed to return to court on time, the court would still be able to remand him in custody so that he could get to court. The Secretary of State clearly spoke in error, because if he looks at page 166 of his own Bill he will see that paragraph (5) to schedule 10 makes it absolutely clear that even where a defendant has failed to surrender to bail and has been arrested he cannot be detained in custody to appear in court unless there is a real prospect of his subsequently being sentenced to imprisonment. How will the public be made safer or witnesses protected by that?
I will address the extent to which we retain discretion, as determined under the bail Acts, according to which bail is granted or refused. In 2010, more than 16,000 people were in custody but were released when they appeared for trial and either pleaded guilty or were convicted. Continuing a system whereby people are refused bail when everyone knows that they will not be imprisoned if convicted is a very wasteful use of a very expensive place in our prison system.
I am grateful. My hon. Friend has been in practice much more recently than the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) or I have. We will doubtless continue to study this after the debate.
The sentencing reforms are balanced. Again, I shall quote the words of my shadow, the right hon. Member for Tooting, who when I first published them in the Green Paper described them as
“a perfectly sensible vision for a sentencing policy”,
and they will in my view achieve a very significant transformation.
That brings me to the rest of the Bill covering legal aid and provision on litigation and funding. No Government look to tackle legal aid lightly, but the system as it stands is obviously unaffordable. Labour had 30 goes at fixing it between 2006 and the end of their period in office and we have sought to go back and think about what the taxpayer should pay for by way of litigation from first principles. Our priority is cases where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where they are at risk of serious physical harm or immediate loss of their home or where their children may be taken into care. After our reforms, legal aid will routinely be available in 25 areas, including for criminal cases, for most judicial review proceedings, for private family law cases involving domestic violence, child abuse and child abduction, for community care, for debt where the home is at immediate risk, for mental health cases and for cases concerning special educational needs. We modified our original proposals in response to consultation, listening carefully to the thousands of responses that we received.
Legal aid will no longer be routinely available in 13 areas, including most private family law cases, clinical negligence cases, non-discrimination employment cases, immigration cases, some debt and housing issues, some education cases and welfare benefits cases.
How does the Lord Chancellor square what he is saying with what Baroness Hale of the Supreme Court has said about this being a ludicrous Bill and how these provisions will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in society, particularly people from ethnic minorities?
I have always had a high regard for Baroness Hale, who is a very distinguished lawyer, and I have heard of her opinions. I shall have to study them and perhaps even meet her to discuss them, because I am surprised by her response. Where we started from was ensuring that we did not damage access to justice for vulnerable people in matters of such importance that society as a whole would want to be sure that they were protected. Either she has misunderstood the effect of our proposals or why we are doing it. We have to get back to spending an affordable amount of money on paying for things that the taxpayer should actually pay for to defend the vulnerable. We all start as lawyers, let alone as citizens, with a slight bias in favour of legal aid because everyone is used to it, but the scale of legal aid has expanded, its scope is too wide and it needs to be reformed.
I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for saying that legal aid will be available to defend the vulnerable. I declare an interest as one who has been a duty solicitor in the police station. I would like him to consult carefully about the practical implementation of proposals to limit legal aid for advice and assistance in police stations, given that his officials no doubt bear the scars of previous implementations that became bureaucratic nightmares. Losing the benefit of the informed legal advice that one needs in the police station can lead to inefficient justice.
We will look at that and consider it carefully as we proceed. At the moment, the Bill replicates a provision taken from an earlier Bill by the Labour party. It appears to give a power to take away the right to legal aid. It appears to give a power to take away access to legal advice in the police station. The last Government legislated to do that but never did it. We have no current intentions of doing it. We will consider the issue and no doubt my hon. Friend or others will return to it in Committee. I realise that there has been some concern.
At the annual general meeting of Liberty earlier this month, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said that the Government should reconsider their plans to remove certain categories of social welfare law, at least for a period while Government reforms elsewhere in the system—such as welfare reforms—create increased demand for advice. Will the Lord Chancellor accept that excellent advice from his right hon. Friend and protect those categories of legal aid, at least during a transition period?
We have consulted very carefully on legal aid, on both parts. We have made quite significant changes to what we originally proposed. On welfare benefits, we are still of the opinion that the welfare system was not intended to provide a source of litigation where legal advice was required to take an appeal in the last resort to a tribunal. That was not intended to be a legalistic activity but to try to apply what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security is trying to make more comprehensible by dealing with the rules of entitlement to social security in a sensible fashion. I do not think it is a promising area for legal advice.
I was present at Lady Hale’s lecture and wrote down what she said:
“Courts should be and are a last resort but they should be a last resort which is accessible to all––rich and poor alike.”
Let me tell the Lord Chancellor this now: my constituents are people who need advice on immigration, on welfare and on housing and whose very lives can be wrecked by the fact that they cannot get legal assistance. Where am I to send them? How are they to get justice with the provisions in his Bill on legal aid and on no win, no fee?
I have already said that access to justice is fundamental, but the fact is that the taxpayer’s money cannot be used to give access to justice to large numbers of people in large areas of law where the ordinary citizen would not contemplate litigating because the ordinary citizen on an ordinary income would not think that they could afford to embark on it. That is why we consulted very carefully. We concentrated on vulnerable people and on those areas that were of such importance that society as a whole would plainly feel that there was a need to finance people of limited means so that they could have access to justice. I ask the right hon. Lady to judge all our proposals on that basis. Lady Hale seemed to think that we were abolishing other access on the basis that people were using it too much. That is not the reason. But we do have a system that is four times as expensive as that of New Zealand. We have to concentrate the mind and decide what it is justified to expect the taxpayer to pay for.
I shall follow your helpful steer, Mr Deputy Speaker, and make progress. I realise that these are important matters, but I could find myself giving way to everyone in the Chamber.
Few of these are easy choices, but they often involve disputes about financial issues rather than life and liberty. It is sensible to give such things as financial disputes a lower relative priority. It is sensible, too, to address areas that the public consider unreasonable. For example, we are cutting out legal aid for squatting. Following representations from the Judges Council, we are ending legal aid for some repeat judicial reviews on immigration and asylum cases that have already had a hearing and where repeated review is being used only to obstruct and delay proceedings.
Across some of these areas, reformed no win, no fee arrangements will be available, but our broader ambition is that people will be encouraged to use alternative, less adversarial means of resolving many of these important problems. For private family law cases, the Government are increasing spending on mediation and legal advice in support of mediation by two thirds, or £10 million, to a total of £25 million a year. Mediation has a high success rate––about 75%––in resolving most of the family disputes that go before it.
We have made no blanket funding exclusions. The Bill establishes an exceptional funding scheme for exceptional cases, administered by a statutory office holder free of ministerial control. That will provide funding for an excluded case where in the particular circumstances the failure to provide support would be likely to result in breach of the individual’s right to legal aid under the Human Rights Act 1998 or European law.
Let me deal with this important point, because I have heard widespread concern, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), about the future of not-for-profit advice centres. I agree that they do important work in providing quality, worthwhile advice of the kind required by very many people who should not need adversarial lawyers. Legal aid represents only one of several income streams for many organisations, with 85% of citizens advice bureaux funding coming from other sources. Half of all bureaux get no legal aid funds at all. This issue needs to be, and has been, considered on a cross-Government, interdepartmental basis. We are working with the sector and across Government to ensure that the Government reforms help to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the advice services available to the public, and we will provide up to £20 million of additional funding in this financial year to help achieve that. We are also, of course, mindful of the impact of reforms beyond this financial year and will continue to consider the issues arising from that.
Not at the moment; I shall carry on a little further.
In addition to the changes to the scope of legal aid, the Bill includes wider reform provisions, as some reform of the situation that we inherited is urgently and obviously needed. I do not believe the public understand a system that can pay out millions of pounds from taxpayer-provided central funds to compensate acquitted companies and wealthy people for their legal costs, whether that involves the £21 million paid to the firms in the Hatfield rail crash case, the £18 million paid to a number of pharmaceutical firms accused of price fixing, or the hundreds of thousands of pounds that have on occasion gone to celebrities accused of affray, assault and other crimes.
Part 2 of the Bill therefore establishes that defendants who decline legal aid and pay privately in the higher criminal courts will no longer be able to recover the costs of an expensive private lawyer if acquitted. In the magistrates’ courts, the sums recoverable will be limited to legal aid rates. Firms will be expected to insure against criminal prosecutions, and will no longer be able to recover costs from the taxpayer.
The Bill is therefore about delivering reform across the justice system, and we have tried to think about that in a joined-up way. Let us consider problems often affecting women—about which Lady Hale was concerned when she spoke the other day. For victims of crime, I have recently announced funding for 15 rape crisis centres on a more secure long-term basis than in the past and funding for four new centres. For women using the justice system, in our legal aid reforms we are prioritising those cases where there is greatest risk of harm, retaining legal aid for cases involving domestic violence, child abuse and child abduction, and we have broadened the range of evidence accepted.
In private family law, the taxpayer is increasing funding for mediation and legal advice in support of mediation. More broadly on family cases, part 2 of the Bill extends the powers for courts to require one party to pay towards the other’s legal bills in some cases where resources are not equal. For example, when a couple have parted and the man remains very prosperous whereas the woman is almost penniless and is seeking some remedy, the court will have the power to require one party to pay towards the other’s costs. In public family law, the taxpayer will still be providing more than £400 million for family legal aid.
For female offenders in the criminal justice system, we have not replaced—and I have never proposed replacing—short-term prison sentences with community sentences, but if we can increase confidence that community sentences will be meaningfully punitive, they could make the justice system more sensible in some situations, such as in ensuring that there are decent non-penal options for offenders with caring responsibilities where their being sent to prison would cause chaos for innocent children in their families. In dealing with women prisoners and offenders, we are, in fact, proceeding on a very similar basis to the previous Government.
My vision is a legal system that is substantially reformed. In addition to implementing changes to legal aid and the Jackson proposals on no win, no fee, my Department is developing and supporting work to improve civil legal processes, criminal justice efficiency and family justice. It is a measure of the challenge before us that the Bill, which on any measure is a huge Leviathan of a piece of proposed legislation, is only part of the overall reforms we need to deliver. The changes we are making are, of course, financially necessary, but they will also make the system more sensible and civilised.
I never shrink from robust debate about improvement to important and sensitive public services, and changes in the criminal law have always excited an extraordinary level of controversy, and they always will. If we get this right, however, the prize is a justice system that properly contributes to a safer, fairer society, and a justice system that is user-friendly, that works, that does not deny access to justice and that has less daunting waste, with costs under control. I would, in fact, have liked to introduce such a major reforming Bill 20 years ago, if I had stayed long enough at the Home Office. I now have the opportunity to do so, and I commend the Bill to the House.
I usually take all interventions, but today I shall try to observe your recent stricture on that, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I know that many colleagues wish to discuss the Bill.
The Government’s approach to criminal justice is in tatters. We have a hotch-potch that does nothing to win the confidence of victims, of people in the justice system or of the public at large. This Bill is controversial as much for what is absent as for what has found its way in. Key policy areas that were consulted on are absent and others are to be the subject of further review, while there are some clauses on issues that were not consulted on at all. The Lord Chancellor knows as well as I do that within weeks, if not days, of this Bill moving to Committee, there will be a flood of new amendments and new clauses. After 13 months, three Green Papers and three consultations, there is no excuse.
Last week, the Prime Minister unveiled the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s legislation in his absence. A number of eye-catching proposals were announced on squatting, self-defence and knife crime. The favourable coverage they received was precisely the Prime Minister’s aim. Suddenly, because of the Prime Minister’s last-minute intervention, the Bill was spun as being tough on crime. Even the words “punishment of offenders” found their way into the name of the Bill, but we must be clear from the start: the clause on knife crime is still a Conservative broken promise. It is not what the party promised in its manifesto. The new offence of aggravated knife possession carries a mandatory six-month sentence, but applies to a much narrower category of cases of those caught carrying a knife. The offence of aggravated knife possession is using a knife to threaten someone, and that is already a crime; the sentencing guidelines already recommend a minimum sentence of six months. It is not even properly mandatory. A court will not have to hand down the sentence; it will be up to the judge to decide, given the circumstances of the case or the offender. Knife crime is a persistent and worrying concern, and it impacts in particular on young people and the disadvantaged. It is unclear how this hollow proposal will help communities blighted by knife crime.
Two other headline grabbers—squatting and self-defence against burglars—are not even in the Bill, but as the Justice Secretary has admitted today, the provisions on self-defence will not be a new law; they are just a reiteration of the existing law. This is yet another chapter in a rather depressing story that has been repeated since May 2010: a string of broken promises on criminal justice. Before the election, there was a commitment to match Labour’s prison building programme. Instead, spend has been slashed to almost zero. The Tories promised minimum and maximum sentencing, but that has now also been ditched, and the electorate were promised that those caught carrying a knife would face the presumption of jail, yet what we have been presented with is entirely different.
Let me also give an accurate account of our record. The Justice Secretary inherited levels of crime that were 43% lower than in 1997; crime went down under Labour. He inherited a system with a greater focus on diversion for those with mental health problems and drug dependencies. He inherited a capital programme upgrading and expanding our prison estate. He inherited innovative payment-by-results schemes, including the one he now boasts about in Peterborough. Reoffending, particularly among young people, fell under Labour, thanks to investment in effective intervention programmes now threatened by his Government. This Bill risks all that progress.
That has generated an impressive coalition opposed to the plans, from the judiciary, victims groups, legal organisations, charities that act on behalf of some of the most vulnerable in society, and some of the Justice Secretary’s own party’s Back Benchers—but not, I note, from the Liberal Democrat Benches. Briefing note after briefing note from organisations as diverse as Scope and Justice demonstrate that the Prime Minister’s perceived rescue of the justice Bill is fooling no one.
I support penal reforms, but these are the wrong reforms: carelessly thought out, badly framed, confusingly argued, weakly handled and grossly under-resourced from the start. It will be communities around the country that suffer.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware of our progress in relation to mental health, following the Bradley report, which he has now agreed to follow with a reduced budget. He will also be aware of the work done by Corston on diverting women away from prison, and of payment by results. He knows that he has under-resourced the work that we began, and he is putting our strategy at risk.
Shambolic, last-minute changes to the Bill have left a £140 million black hole in the Justice Secretary’s plans. The Prime Minister has said that that money will need to be found within the Ministry of Justice budget, and the Justice Secretary admitted this morning that he is not sure where he will find it. The House needs to know the exact details. The progress of the Bill depends on knowing where that money will come from, and what implications that might have on other spend.
Why do we have this problem? We have it because the Justice Secretary simply failed to argue his corner with the Treasury. He boasted that he did not wish to be involved in a “macho contest” with Cabinet colleagues over who could have the smallest budget cut. The figures are testimony to that: his budget cut of 23% is one of the biggest in Whitehall. As a result, that is how he justifies his ill-thought-out policies. Cuts to prison, probation and the legal aid budget all stem from his lackadaisical attitude towards the Treasury. He needs to realise that he is no longer the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but the Lord Chancellor. His justice policy is retrofitted around his prison population reduction target, which is in turn driven by the 23% budget cuts. Our justice system deserves a better advocate.
May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that in November, he said:
“Let me be clear: had we been in government today, we, too, would have been announcing savings to the legal aid budget”?—[Official Report, 15 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 663.]
Will he set out precisely from where those savings in the legal aid budget would come?
I have done that before and I shall do so again in a while—[Interruption.] I am happy to answer that question.
The Justice Secretary’s remand policies demonstrate how budget cutting is taking priority over the best interests of our justice system. Defendants will not be remanded in custody when there is “no real prospect” of a custodial sentence being handed down. The Government’s victims commissioner, Louise Casey, says:
“Victims’ groups during consultation have expressed alarm”
at those proposals. The Magistrates Association and the Sentencing Council have also expressed opposition. The Sentencing Council states that
“in some cases it will not be clear until the conclusion of the trial/the preparation of the pre-sentence report whether the offence in fact merits a custodial sentence.”
The council reminds us that
“The primary reason for remanding a defendant in custody is that he or she will fail to attend court”;
or that there is a “risk of further offending”; and/or that
“there may be a good reason to believe that the defendant will interfere with witnesses”.
Does the Justice Secretary not realise that that change is likely to deter witnesses and victims from coming forward?
Lords Justices Thomas and Goldring both raised the genuine concern that
“the decision whether or not to grant bail is quite separate from the decision as to the eventual sentence”,
yet they have been ignored. In this Chamber last week, when ditching his 50% sentence reduction proposal, the Justice Secretary said that he had
“paid particular regard to the legal opinions that”
“was getting from serious members of the judiciary and others”.—[Official Report, 21 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 169.]
It is disappointing that he has ignored not only Lady Justice Hale, but the concerns of the senior judiciary and others on the remand policy, and that he has not removed it from the Bill.
Indeterminate sentences for public protection are notable by their absence from the Bill—that is another example of the shambles that the Justice Secretary is in. He has talked of the need to reform the system of IPPs, the use of which had mushroomed well beyond the original purpose. IPPs have a role as they were originally envisaged, and I acknowledge the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) to reform them.
This Government proposed a new approach to IPPs in their Green Paper, which were subsequently consulted on, as has been said. They favoured raising the minimum tariff to a 10-year determinate sentence before an IPP can be enforced—a length of sentence beyond that handed down for violent and sexual offences including rape and assault. We were opposed to that. However, there is nothing whatever in the Bill about that. The Justice Secretary today confirmed that he will be getting rid of IPPs, but he has also announced an urgent review of them. Has he not pre-empted the outcome of his review? My right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) raised the interesting point about learning lessons from Northern Ireland, but the Justice Secretary will not do so, because he has already made his mind up, putting cost over the protection of the public.
Labour’s position on IPPs is clear: offenders must be punished and reformed. They must not pose a risk to the public and proper due process must be followed before their release, supported by courses and programmes and an effectively resourced Parole Board, to allow rehabilitation to take place. We will not accept plans that water down the protection given to the public by IPPs. We believe that there is a continuing role for IPPs. They should be reserved for very serious and violent offenders—those who are the biggest risk to the public—as was their original purpose.
The Justice Secretary’s solution appears to be mandatory life sentences for all those deemed to be a serious danger to the public if released. He has no idea if that will lead to the prison population going up or down, and no idea what he will do about those who have served their minimum tariff who are on an IPP. Why is he so unwilling to invest in programmes, courses and the Parole Board to address offender behaviour?
The absence of IPPs from the Bill has created further questions about the Secretary of State’s budget. As a result, the impact assessment is incomplete. Moreover, the Prime Minister last week appeared to announce more mandatory life sentences and longer determinate sentences, and that serious offenders would serve at least two thirds of their sentence. However, those proposals—those new policies—are absent from the Bill. Given that one of the causes of the backlog in IPPs is a shortage of suitable courses and resources for the Parole Board, how does he expect the two-third sentence proposals to avoid running into exactly the same resource issues as IPPs? Utter shambles!
Legal aid is another important issue. Our legal aid system was established as a fundamental pillar of the post-war welfare state. Clement Attlee’s Government rightly recognised that equality in the face of the law should not be undermined by a lack of finance. Therefore, it is bitterly disappointing that the Bill has made only minimal changes to the cuts proposed in the Green Paper. On the day when the Green Paper was published, I accepted that the Opposition, too, would have made cuts to the legal aid budget. However, I asked the Justice Secretary to look again at the areas he was targeting. He has not done so.
As a result, the weight of opposition to the proposals remains huge. He is damned by the numerous campaigning groups representing some of the most vulnerable people in society, the 31 charities that wrote last week to The Times in protest, the Law Society, the Bar Council and other members of the judiciary, and yet he has ignored their concerns—[Interruption.] I will let hon. Members know right now the Opposition’s view of legal aid. We oppose the cuts to social welfare legal aid—the kind of early-stage advice provided by law centres and citizens advice bureaux on debt, housing, welfare benefits and education issues—because of the disproportionate way that they will affect the most needy in our society. The result, as campaigning group Justice has said, will be the “economic cleansing” of our civil courts. Some estimates suggest that more than 700,000 people will have their access to justice taken away.
That is compounded by the disproportionate impact that the proposals will have on women, in particular because of the definition of domestic violence. Once again, this Government are hitting women the hardest.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one problem the Government have so far failed to address is ensuring the sustainability of the law firms, centres and practices across the country? It is not just a question of individuals losing their service; those centres and that provision will be undermined, and in many cases, face collapse.
My hon. Friend is right to remind the House that if we are not careful, the country will become an advice desert for the poor and the vulnerable as a result of that policy.
The previous Labour Government always strove to protect social welfare legal aid. Our March 2010 proposals, which have been strangely ignored by this Government, would have generated savings sufficient to protect social welfare legal aid. The Justice Secretary’s changes will have a huge impact on the viability of many law centres, CABs and high street practices up and down the country that do an enormous amount to provide access to justice for some of our most deprived citizens. Do hon. Members know what the irony of that is? It is that this is the time when they need that advice most. A whole swathe of society is losing the ability to exercise its legal rights, with women particularly affected. The Lord Chief Justice has warned that the proposals will damage access to justice, and Citizens Advice has warned that the cuts will leave hundreds of thousands with nowhere to turn for help and has demonstrated the savings to the taxpayer down the line from early intervention: £1 of legal expenditure on housing advice will save the state £2.34, and on benefits advice the saving is £8.80. So there is a moral as well as an economic case for not cutting in this way. As the Justice Secretary knows, the Lord Chief Justice warned that legal aid cuts risked a surge in litigants in person, with all the associated increase in stress and costs.
The Minister will have a chance to wind up the debate later, but we now have less than four hours remaining, so I will not give way.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) mentioned clause 12, which is of real concern and seeks to loosen the systems that guarantee free access to a solicitor upon arrest, which were established in the 1980s, when the Justice Secretary was in government—although it was a Labour idea—on the back of a number of high-profile miscarriages of justice. However, he has failed to justify to the House why he is seeking the change in clause 12, which we think should be deleted from the Bill. When the Minister winds up, I hope he will say that it will be deleted before we reach our deliberations in Committee.
The Government’s proposals on civil litigation are driven primarily by their zeal to fix the so-called compensation culture. However, by cherry-picking the Jackson report recommendations, the Bill runs the risk of undermining access to justice, which is something that the introduction of no win, no fee sought to guarantee. We will scrutinise those clauses closely.
I will not.
The Justice Secretary never had a credible strategy for achieving his rehabilitation revolution. His plans are fatally flawed and always were, and he has demonstrated that he is not on the side of victims. His use of language on rape sentencing, his original 50% sentence reduction proposals and the reduction in the use of remand in custody show that in no sense does he understand that victims and witnesses need to have confidence in the justice system and feel that it is safe in his hands. By taking from judges the ability to remand people in custody in cases they think appropriate, and by abolishing IPPs, he has not explained how he will give judges the tools they need to keep communities safe and to cut crime.
In the short time left to me, I am happy to welcome that proposal. As the hon. Gentleman will know, however, we need investment in training mediators. It is all well and good trying to divert people away from the courts, but we hope that the Government will train more mediators.
The Government’s figures do not add up. Overall, 10,000 members of prison and probation staff will lose their jobs, yet the Justice Secretary expects much more for less: more rehabilitation and more treatment for those with mental health problems and drug dependency. But how will that be funded? A chunk of his savings was due to stem from a lower prison population, but given how the Bill has been filleted of its ill-thought-out sentencing proposals, where does he think the prison population will be in two years? Will it be higher or lower? I look forward to hearing the Government’s ideas.
The debacle that is this Bill has shown up the Government’s justice policy for what it is—incoherent, inconsistent and obsessed with cutting costs. It is a shoddy Bill that does not focus on what cuts crime, protects the public, reforms offenders and puts victims first, nor will it continue to ensure access to justice for many of the most vulnerable in society, particularly women. The Justice Secretary has failed to accept the alternatives offered to make savings to the legal aid bill and has stuck to his original plans, which will have a devastating impact on the most vulnerable in society. No doubt many Government Members will speak in favour of the Bill. I gently remind them, however, that last month, when we debated the 50% sentencing discount, many of them were marched up to the top of the hill by the Grand Old Duke of Rushcliffe, only for a humiliating march back down again a couple of weeks later. No doubt Government Members now regret making all those loyal contributions. I hope they will think carefully about how they vote tonight. One thing is for sure, however: we intend to vote against a Second Reading for this shoddy Bill.
The Bill deals with two important issues on which the Justice Committee has reported. Sentencing was at the core of our report on justice reinvestment towards the end of the previous Parliament, and it has been the subject of several reports on Sentencing Council guidelines. The Government’s legal aid proposals were also examined in detail in our March report.
The content of the Bill was originally the product of two major and conflicting factors: the need to respond to the financial crisis and the Lord Chancellor’s determination to make the criminal justice system more effective in preventing crime and more cost-effective in the use of resources. We recognise the financial circumstances and we welcome the willingness to think radically. Recently, however, the Bill got ambushed, and some of its content and a lot of its presentation—not to mention its title—were the subject of No. 10’s preoccupation with getting favourable tabloid headlines. Evidence-based policy does not tend to prevail in those circumstances. It is not clear, for example, that the knife crime provisions will add anything to the existing practice of the courts, which take threats involving knives very seriously, and rightly so. Personally I am not so concerned about the dropping of the 50% discounts, which had nothing to do with encouraging appropriate sentencing. The problem is, however, that, although it was unlikely ever to achieve the £100 million of savings that were canvassed for it, the Department is now expected to find alternative savings to replace them.
Thankfully, the baby has not been thrown out with the bathwater. The Lord Chancellor is still pursuing his objective of making community sentences strong and effective enough to win more confidence from both the judiciary and the public. Furthermore, payment by results will, as part of the reform of the probation service’s vital work, continue—we will be reporting on that subject shortly. We are also getting rid of the disastrous indeterminate sentences and replacing them with life sentences in the most serious cases.
The Bill could, however, have begun a process leading to the commissioning of prison and probation services more locally and by the same body. Until we do that, we will not encourage rational sentencing. Resources will not be available for things such as drug treatment and intensive supervision if they are automatically taken up by the constant expansion of the prison system. Members have a responsibility to use money effectively to prevent crime—that is what we are engaged in—and not to give people the answer that seems the most obvious one. We have a responsibility to prevent them from suffering from crime in the future by spending money as effectively as we can.
The Committee recognises the need to contain and reduce spending on the world’s most expensive legal aid system, but it has serious concerns about some of the groups affected. We suggested alternative ways of making savings, including better court and case management and restrictions on legal aid for judicial review—we welcome the Government’s moves on aspects of that latter point. We were particularly concerned that citizens advice bureaux and neighbourhood law centres would be flooded by demands for legal advice without the resources to help, so we welcome the Government’s initial response to the transition fund and debt advice. However, more will be needed. We welcome the agreement to secure savings in the wastefully inefficient administration of the Legal Services Commission, and we agree with the wider objective of discouraging unnecessary litigation. We are also glad that the Government have responded to our concerns about the definition of domestic violence.
The Government have missed an opportunity in not taking up our recommendation on the “polluter pays” principle. If Departments faced a financial penalty for having too many decisions overturned on appeal, they would change their behaviour and public money would be saved. The Government’s response concentrates on individual cases. This is an overall proposal under which, if Departments rose above a certain threshold, they would have to pay money out of their budgets. That is the only way we will effect the behavioural change and get the right decisions first time.
As I have indicated, I have particular concerns about clinical negligence cases in which determining liability is a complex problem, particularly those concerning children with serious handicaps arising from birth injury. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) wrote to me about this and said that the Department was discussing with the national health service litigation authority and other stakeholders how the commissioning of reports could be improved with joint reports, and the Secretary of State has also referred to that. However, I understand from my discussions with the NHSLA that that is not proceeding or is not proving to be practical. I hope that the Minister, when he winds up, will explain what is happening on that front. The other element in the Government’s attempt to deal with this problem was retaining after-the-event insurance for cases of this kind, but it is not clear to those who understand the system that there would be a viable market in after-the-event insurance in such a narrow field, when it has been abolished in other areas.
The Bill introduces some of Lord Justice Jackson’s proposals but not others. The proposals are a package, so if bits of them are missed out there is a real danger that they will not achieve the intended effect.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern, which has also been expressed by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), about the absence of proposals on referral fees, which have been properly described as a “scandal”? They were a scandal at the time of the miners’ compensation scandal, which resulted in 27 law firms being disciplined. Does he think that that is a missing part of the Bill?
Yes I do, and I was just coming to that as my final point. First, just let me complete my earlier point by saying that the absence of qualified one-way cost shifting leaves an imbalance in the implementation of the Jackson proposals. It is not even clear from the Bill precisely what the Government are doing.
Finally, let me address what I, too, have described as the scandal of referral fees under which insurance companies and some other bodies, such as trade unions, make money from selling the details and claims of the victims of accidents. It will not be enough merely to ban referral fees, because the Government and the industry must deal with a system of fees that has a fundamental fault. If there is a system of fees in which a lawyer can still make a profit from a relatively small claim having paid hundreds of pounds for the privilege of pursuing that claim, then we have to address the fixed costs as well as the referral fees.
The reason why we did not deal with that part of Jackson was because the Legal Services Board had taken it on itself to review the future of referral fees. We now have its report and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), and I are considering referral fees. I take on board what my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) have been saying.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State. I know no one who agrees with the Legal Services Board’s conclusions, but I hope that the matter will be considered urgently to see whether the Bill can be used to complete the process of dealing with what is undoubtedly a scandal, which puts up costs for our constituents.
The Bill is part of a necessary process of reform in both sentencing and legal aid, but it needs a great deal of work before it leaves this House and a great deal of monitoring when it comes into force.
Order. Before I call the next speaker let me say that a number of Members have complained about the near-sub-zero temperatures in the Chamber—I understand that it is a lovely day outside. I have informed the doorkeepers and this will be rectified.
In his closing peroration, the Lord Chancellor said that he wished he had been able to stay on as Home Secretary for longer than he did in the Administration in the early 1990s, so as to introduce a measure of this kind. I have to say to Conservative Members that they are very lucky he did not stay on for longer than the year he was there.
I am glad to have the approbation of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on that.
When he was the Home Secretary, the Lord Chancellor was the last in line of a number of very complacent Home Secretaries who had allowed crime simply to rise and rise. It doubled under the Conservatives, as Michael Howard pointed out, and reached its peak under the current Lord Chancellor. Nothing that he did then, and nothing that he is proposing today, will do anything to make people safer or to cut crime. Indeed, I warn Conservative Members, for whom I have great affection, that in the coming months, if the Bill goes through, they will face—day after day, week after week—stories in the newspapers in which judges and magistrates complain publicly that defendant X or defendant Y should have been remanded in custody awaiting trial but that the courts no longer have any power on that.
I say to the Lord Chancellor, who has some experience of the criminal trial process, that the provisions in clause 73 and schedule 10 regarding restrictions on bail are wholly irrational and take no account whatever of the way in which courts and defendants operate. The court is not going to know whether it needs to send someone to prison until it has heard the full case and the mitigation. If Parliament lays down rules regarding the prospect of a sentence, how is the court to translate that into a real prospect of a prison sentence? What will happen in a case in which there is a low likelihood of a sentence on conviction and the defendant simply refuses to turn up in court? The Secretary of State was obviously completely unaware of the contents of paragraph 5 of schedule 10—I am glad that he is looking at it now—which makes it absolutely clear that even if the defendant fails to appear in court and is arrested, they cannot be remanded in custody unless the court has come to a prior decision that there is a real prospect of their getting a period of imprisonment at the end of the case. That is mad, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman must look at it again.
I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman has considered sub-paragraph (b), which makes it perfectly clear that if someone has been convicted of an offence in the proceedings, which would include a bail offence, the provision barring the grant of bail does not apply, so if somebody failed to surrender, they would be dealt with as they are now in their absence, and they could be remanded in custody when arrested by the police. The same qualifying sub-paragraph is present on page 168, which deals with bail in other circumstances.
I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman has failed to read the “not” in the first line of proposed new subsection (5A):
“A justice of the peace may not remand a person in…custody under subsection (5) if…the person was released on bail in non-extradition proceedings”.
No, of course I will not. The explanatory memorandum makes exactly the same point.
Let me address the issue of indeterminate sentences for public protection. I entirely endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) has said from the Front Bench. The Secretary of State made one of his sweeping statements, saying that those sentences have been discredited. No, they have not. Who has discredited them? He has, because he has been forced to save money on indeterminate public protection sentences having had to surrender the 50% cut in the bail discount, as he well knows. IPPs have worked.
The Secretary of State comprehensively failed to answer the hon. Member for Shipley yesterday, when the hon. Gentleman said that the reoffending rate for IPPs has been spectacularly successful—of the 1,449 people released, only 11 have reoffended. The Secretary of State laughs, but what we are dealing with here is the most serious offenders who, under the law, are expected to show that they would go straight, if they were released. He is laughing, but the laugh will be on the other side of the Conservatives’ faces when and if his measures go forward and people are released before it is safe for them to be released and they commit further offences. He will be the person to blame for that.
The right hon. Gentleman is referring to the 200 people who have been released, but more than 6,000 of them are still in prison with no idea when or if they are going to be released. Their reoffending rate is, I agree, very low, but that is not a justification for the system. The vast majority of respondents to our consultation regard it as something of a disgrace that the measure has been put on to the statute book and is working in this way.
I am afraid that I have had my ration of interventions.
Let me move on to the proposals for civil litigation reform. I established the Jackson review and fully endorsed its conclusions in January 2010. I welcome the fact that this Government are implementing it, but they are doing so only in part.
I want to pick up on the points made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) about referral fees and associated matters. As colleagues will know, on Monday I published the results of an investigation into what I can only describe as a racket in the motor insurance industry in which almost everyone in the chain, from recovery firms, claims companies, medical experts to insurers themselves, is paying between £200 and £1,000 in referral fees. Everybody in this chain is on the take, and the total is running into billions.
Since Monday, I have been overwhelmed by e-mails, which I am very happy to supply to the Lord Chancellor if he wishes, from members of the public and professionals with even more horrifying detail about the dodgy practices, frauds and near-frauds that are now endemic in this industry, including one from a lady who explained that she “had had an argument with her bicycle”. She was the only person present at the time, she went to hospital and ever since she has been pestered to make a claim.
No, I am sorry.
One solicitor wrote to me saying that referral fees are no more than a “form of legalised bribery”. He is right. They are the parasites eating away at the integrity of the whole of the motor insurance industry and associated professions, including lawyers. Their effect is to drive up costs, and therefore premiums, and actively to encourage individuals—
I am sorry—I am running out of time.
Referrals actively encourage individuals to try their luck in making claims for fictitious or wholly exaggerated injuries. I accept, and do so publicly, that that comes as a result of the Access to Justice Act 1999, which was based on recommendations from Lord Woolf. It gave rise to expectations that have not been met. I was clear when I established Jackson, endorsed it and set up an immediate consultation process that the system needed root-and-branch reform. I am perfectly happy to accept that.
I was glad to hear the Secretary of State’s words about that. With respect to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), however, referral fees are not, as he said yesterday, a small part of the problem; they are a central part of the problem. Removing them is not a magic bullet, and other actions will also need to be taken. Unless he deals with referral fees, among other things, as well as changing the whole system, he will not deal with the extraordinary abuse that is taking place.
There are other changes that I ask the Secretary of State to consider. First, there could be legislation, possibly in this Bill, to prohibit the payment of damages for so-called whiplash injuries, save where there is other objective evidence of serious injury, as other jurisdictions have already done. The regulators, the Information Commissioner and Ofcom should crack down hard on the patent abuse of individuals’ personal data. I have taken up the issue, and I hope that, as the Secretary of State responsible, he will do so, too.
There should be an urgent review of the effectiveness, or rather the lack of it, of the regulation of claims management companies, as established under the Compensation Act 2006. That, too, is not working as effectively as it should. In Blackburn and in many other urban areas, honest drivers with impeccable driving records are facing huge increases in premiums, not because of any risk that they have any control over but because of the level of claims by other people. It is a form of collective punishment, and it needs to be outlawed.
Over the past 20 years, as a result of taxpayer investment in safer roads and driver investment in safer and more secure cars, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of accidents and the number of thefts from vehicles. There should not be a steep increase in the insurance premium—instead, there should be a fall. It is time for major reforms so that, at long last, motorists can benefit from this investment.
As a duty solicitor, I declare an interest in—as in the title of the Bill—legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). He reminds me of many a client I have represented in Edmonton police station who fails to accept any responsibility despite the compelling case against them. He fails to accept responsibility despite the fact that two thirds of people reoffend when they come out of prison and most of our prisoners are lying idle in prison. Despite the plethora—the incontinence—of criminal justice legislation, all of which he probably had a part in as Home Secretary and Justice Secretary, victims still feel a lack of proper confidence in the justice system, but he does not accept any responsibility for that.
During the 13 years of the Labour Government, there were more than 20 criminal justice Bills, some of which I had the opportunity to scrutinise. I gave my maiden speech on one of those occasions—the debate on the Violent Crime Reduction Bill. That was in many ways one of the messaging Bills that were very much part of the new Labour project; they simply sent out a message without having any real effect. We also had many a Christmas tree Bill. For example, one of their last Bills, the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, had many pieces of additional legislation tacked on to it as it went through its stages. That is another danger of over-legislation.
The shadow Justice Secretary criticised the Green Paper, consultation and further consultation on the IPP issue. What is he complaining about? Does he want us to move quickly to legislate and run the risks that we have seen before? We have a litany of unimplemented 2003 legislation that we are now having to deal with. That is part of the legacy. That legacy is not only a failure in our prison system and criminal justice system, but a failure of legislation. The right hon. Member for Blackburn and other Opposition Members have to accept responsibility for that.
One issue that will be raised in the consultation is self-defence and defending one’s property. The right hon. Gentleman and others have been involved in discussions about sending out a message on that issue. I encourage him to read the case of R v. Keane or the recent case of R v. McGrath. Those show that his efforts at messaging and putting more baubles on Christmas tree Bills have not made a jot of difference in terms of changing the existing legislation that applies in that area. We need to learn those lessons well, and this Government are doing that, because it has taken 13 months for us to introduce this criminal justice Bill. I hope that we will not come back next year with another criminal justice Bill, and that we will scrutinise this properly, making any necessary changes and then moving forward.
What we need in our justice system is to get back to the three R’s—retribution, restoration and rehabilitation, which need to be properly balanced. The Bill is not the whole story in relation to what the Government are saying about criminal justice. We would not want that. We do not show our card on the basis of how many laws we pass and the extent of this legislation, for example. Our approach is to do with our intervening early to stop many of these people getting involved in the criminal justice system. It is to do with the way we are dealing with drugs and ensuring that many people more recover instead of getting parked up on methadone. That all matters greatly, as does more structural reform.
In some areas, such as youth justice, the Bill does not have a great number of clauses. There is a recognition of the progress that has been made, including the youth rehabilitation order. That needs to be properly implemented.
One area where there needs to be retribution is knife crime, as I am sure we all agree. In our manifesto, there was a clear commitment to it, so I welcome the intention of clause 113 to make it crystal clear that anyone who threatens with a knife will receive a custodial sentence. I welcome that intention, but I know—sadly all too well in Enfield, where we have had seven fatalities in the past three years and one in the past month, all at the hands of someone with a knife—that any possession of a weapon is in effect threatening. Even if the person possessing the knife does not intend to threaten, he or someone else could well become a victim of its use if he gets involved in any disturbance later.
My hon. Friend knows that my constituents in Enfield North will very much welcome the mandatory proposals on using a knife in a threatening way, but is he aware that, of those cases followed up involving individuals carrying a knife or using a knife offensively, more than 30% involved people under 18, and that the legislation before us will not apply to such people? Perhaps that is something we should press for.
My hon. Friend may be making an early bid to be on the Public Bill Committee, but we certainly need to recognise, particularly in areas such as Enfield, that such behaviour is prevalent, that sadly all too often those under 18 are involved in gangs and possess knives, and that clause 113 does not apply to them.
Does my hon. Friend also accept that the current guidelines for addressing threatening behaviour with a knife state that a magistrates court should refer the case to a Crown court because the magistrates court is not considered to have sufficient powers to punish such people? A six-month penalty could easily become a maximum, rather than a minimum, sentence for the offence.
My hon. Friend makes the point that the current guidance states that such people should receive a serious custodial penalty, and the clause tries to reaffirm that in statute, but we need to ensure that, notwithstanding the worthy intentions of the clause, we do not downgrade the simple possession offence; otherwise a clever lawyer might use it to put in an alternative plea of simple possession, which lends itself to a lesser, non-custodial penalty when compared with the aggravated offence. Ministers may want to pass a note to the Sentencing Council to make it clear that the current guidance on simple possession should remain intact.
I also recognise that there are retributive elements in the Bill. There is the important extension of curfews, which my hon. Friends will very much welcome, and we need to recognise that there are more tools in the box for dealing with matters on a community basis and retributively in order to ensure that liberty is restricted and for a longer period.
The second element of the justice system should be a proper restorative element—the basic requirement of justice to make amends as far as possible. Victims should be central to our justice system, and I hate it when people refer to a victimless crime. It greatly concerns me, because when I see what is happening in Enfield, in particular, and elsewhere, I do not see a victimless crime. That is why I welcome the clause that will ensure a positive and much stronger duty to order compensation for any loss or damage, for personal injury and, indeed, for bereavement or funeral payments.
We all know of cases in which people have waited months and months to hear about a claim to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board for funeral payments, and the Bill will give much greater access to, and opportunity for, compensation involving people who are victims of the most serious crimes. Similarly, there needs to be proper reparation and compensation for minor crimes.
Currently, the compensation order system is seriously underused. Only 18.1% of offenders in 2010 were ordered to pay compensation. That must change and, as a result of this Bill, it will, but I encourage Ministers to ensure that the duty on all courts extends to reparation, so that not just financial but other means of restorative justice are recognised.
Often, when the door is shut on the prisoner, the victim is shut out as well, so we need to ensure that when prisoners are inside they feel a proper sense of responsibility and do not forget that there is a victim. That is why we are implementing the Prisoner Earnings Act. It was enacted in 1996, and ironically we have had a plethora of legislation since, but that good piece of legislation, which Hartley Booth introduced, is now and quite properly going to be implemented.
The Act recognises that we are not going to accept the answer that I received from the Home Office, when I asked it why it was not going to introduce the legislation in 2007. The Home Office said, “We don’t think that prisoners will be able to find the work or work enough to make this viable.” We are not accepting that, because this Government have a much greater ambition.
We are not going to let prisoners sit idle in their cells; they will do proper work purposefully, and their earnings will go into a victims’ fund. The expectation is for £1 million: £1 million of ambition that the previous Government did not have; £1 million that will and should go into the hands of victims. We need to ensure proper enforcement, too, so that the current outstanding compensation payments of some £152 million reach the right people.
We need to ensure that there is retribution, restoration and rehabilitation. The rehabilitation revolution will go much further and deeper than simply this Bill, because it will ensure that we have payment by results. The right hon. Member for Blackburn talked about outcomes—from a previous Government who were all about process, targets and messaging. Well, we are into outcomes, but we are into proper outcomes, so we will have not just the Peterborough example, although that is welcome. Our ambitions are much greater than simply to introduce a social impact bond in Peterborough.
There is not time, unfortunately.
We will ensure that that is done across the country—paying people to get into work, to stop reoffending and to ensure that they get off drugs. We are driving through a much more ambitious agenda of recovery to stop this everlasting cycle of criminality—being on drugs, committing crime to feed a drugs habit, going to prison and so on. We will break that cycle of crime.
There are concerns, whether it is magistrates wanting to extend the period of imprisonment to the maximum of 12 months or on legal aid, but this is a good Bill that—
This Bill is a shambles and so is the Lord Chancellor’s approach to crime. Far from being a significant reforming measure, it is an incoherent fragment. The Opposition admire the panache of the Lord Chancellor, who is a much-loved and robust performer and who has sought to rise above the U-turns forced on him by a Prime Minister who is more interested in headlines than in reform, but it does not wash.
The Justice Secretary should take particular note of the criticism from his Back Benchers and the significant criticism from the Chair of the Justice Committee. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) kindly said that he thought that the baby was not totally being thrown out with the bathwater, but I am not sure about that and I am certainly worried about the health of the baby.
When the Secretary of State was Home Secretary, he presided over a crime wave. He also offended virtually every profession in sight, especially the police, by the cavalier way in which he fulfilled his duties. This Bill is a shambles, his strategy is in tatters and everyone is in confusion. The main problem is that he has such a piecemeal approach to the issue. The Justice Committee’s report, “Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment”, states:
“A piecemeal approach to justice reinvestment is unlikely to work and a holistic approach to reform is necessary, with a very clear and explicit statement of the purpose of the whole system against which organisational aims can be tested to assess their contribution to cutting the extent and seriousness of offending and re-offending.”
This Bill fails that test.
In that report, we also called for better use of resources and a focus by every part of the criminal justice system on cutting offending, because that is what victims want. We keep being told that the views of victims are important, but more than not to have become a victim in the first place, they want to know that they will not become a victim again in the future. Therefore, the purpose of the criminal justice system—and of sentencing—is to ensure that victims are protected from further offending.
Let us cut to the chase—cutting the number of people in prison may save money, but cutting prison numbers to save money is to approach the problem from the wrong end. There is only one acceptable reason for cutting prison numbers, and that is that offending and reoffending have fallen; fewer people are becoming victims; there are fewer offenders who need to be incarcerated; and our streets and homes are safer.
It is a matter of some pride to me that the number of places in young offender institutions has been cut for precisely those reasons. As a result of the work of the Youth Justice Board and the youth offending teams, fewer individuals are reoffending and so fewer places are needed. That reduction in numbers leads to immediate savings, but it is even more significant given that time in custody often acts as a training course in criminal activity for young people. So the long-term benefit of keeping people out of youth offending and preventing reoffending patterns is enormous. That makes it very odd that the Secretary of State will do away with the Youth Justice Board and I urge him to reconsider. I know that he is taking many activities inside the Ministry of Justice—and I am glad that he is encouraging the continuation of those activities and the youth offending teams—but he is taking in people who, as part of an independent body, have acted as the touchstone for success in that aspect of reducing reoffending.
The right hon. Gentleman obviously has great experience and was no doubt the architect of the first such legislation in 1997. He will be interested to know that reoffending rates were very high over the 13 years to 2010, and that is something for which the previous Government should be held accountable. Does he not welcome the fact that in this Bill there is now provision for supervision of prisoners who have a sentence of less than 12 months? That has never happened in the past. Giving supervision to offenders after they are released will no doubt help to reduce reoffending levels.
I have said for a long time that we should do more to ensure that short sentences work and that they do not accelerate offending. In this legislation, there are things to be welcomed, but the big picture is not bright enough for us to welcome the Bill as a whole.
Yesterday, in answer to my question, the Justice Secretary said:
“The Sentencing Council is already under a duty to provide information about the effectiveness of sentencing practice”.—[Official Report, 28 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 738.]
Unless there is a clear focus on reducing reoffending and ensuring that that is understood by sentencers, the Bill will not be effective. That is why I call on the Justice Secretary to change his approach and put a real focus on the work of the Sentencing Council not just to provide information about the effectiveness of sentencing practice but to ensure that sentencing practice is driven in ways in which it can increase the success of the system.
The work of the Youth Justice Board and the youth offending teams shows what can be done if there is a clear and unremitting focus on cutting offending and reoffending. Why not use a new mechanism to focus on the 18 to 25 age group? We are seeing a reduction in the numbers of 18 to 25-year-olds who are reoffending because of the success of intervention with young offenders. Why not learn that lesson and apply it properly to that reduced cohort so that we can further drive down the numbers who reoffend?
The Justice Secretary has admitted that the criminal justice system is fragmented; it does not work as a single system. A series of agencies operate to their own objectives and are held to account for different purposes. Bring it all together. Make it coherent. Let us have some coherent legislation from the Justice Secretary. The criminal justice system should pay attention to the Select Committee’s recommendations on justice reinvestment. The whole of the system should focus on reducing reoffending.
Victims want to feel that they are less likely to be offended against in the future. The Home Affairs Committee heard evidence from people who had been involved in restorative justice and it found that it actually works. When offenders are faced with their offending, they are less likely to reoffend. They are made to engage in relationships, which they have often failed to do in the past and which may have led them into offending in the first place. They do not see the victim as another person.
Although it is essential that we do something about what has been described as relational justice, there is nothing about it in the legislation. Too often, it is low down the agenda. The possibility is there but we are not driving it through the system and getting the benefits. I appeal to the Secretary of State to push relational justice up his agenda.
I also appeal to the Secretary of State to work with the Home Secretary to derive greater success from crime reduction partnerships, which again have been important, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) said in his contribution a few moments ago. We have been successful in reducing crime, but we can go further and go faster if the right mechanisms are used. In this regard, I commend the violence reduction project in Cardiff, which, since I last referred to it in this Chamber, has been endorsed by the World Health Organisation and is the subject of an article in The British Medical Journal. Such acclaim shows that the approach in Cardiff has worked. It has driven down violent crime by 25% more than the cohort of cities with which it can properly be compared. The project works; it reduces offences and protects people from becoming victims. That is what needs to be put at the centre of our criminal justice system.
I regret that we have a Home Secretary who has failed to defend her budget and is imposing cuts on the police that are too deep, too soon and disgracefully front-loaded, and a Secretary of State for Justice who, by his failure to apply clarity and logic to the challenge of justice reinvestment and effectiveness in cutting crime, is doomed to fail. Sadly, it is the victims and not he who will pay the penalty for that.
I was a legal aid family lawyer for 23 years before becoming an MP, and my husband continues to run our firm in Croydon. I declare an interest in the debate.
The Government’s plans to reform legal aid are brave and bold. The consultation has been taken seriously and important concessions have been made, but I continue to have some serious concerns. The plans rely on people being able to represent themselves, but what about people with learning difficulties, limited English or mental health problems? Those people cannot help themselves; they cannot do it. The plans rely on our hard-pressed voluntary sector dealing with the fallout from the legal sector, but our not-for-profit organisations are already overstretched and under-resourced.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and change must be paced. Not for profit does not mean “No funds, please.” Those organisations still need cash just to stand still, let alone to deal with the massive glut of cases that will fall into their laps, but I am reassured and encouraged by what my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice said about directing an additional sum of some £20 million towards them. That is very positive indeed.
The plans rely on judges, magistrates and tribunal chairmen having the time to assist numerous litigants in person, but I can honestly tell hon. Members that that time does not exist, because judges already have back-to-back lists. Delays in court will become even worse. The plans rely on less dependency on legal proceedings, but as I have said before in the House, mediation is no panacea. It frequently fails, especially in family cases, where there is often an imbalance of power between the parties. Where will all the mediators come from? Who will pay for them?
I am closely following my hon. Friend’s sincere and important remarks, but does she not agree that the advantage of mediation is that people are brought together and that disputes are reduced in circumstances of family life, thus achieving something worth while in itself? Mediation is the right way to go, even though I accept that some cases will also need to be litigated.
The problem is that not all cases can be mediated, and the difficult ones—the ones that we are dealing with—usually end up in court anyway.
The plans have telephone advice as an alternative to a trusted and recommended solicitor, but the law is complicated. The law can be an ass, and it is not easy to understand. Having tried to explain maintenance pending suit or some other aspect of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 to a frightened and vulnerable litigant, I can tell hon. Members that it makes clients feel frustrated and confused and leaves solicitors feeling quite inadequate.
The plans badly impact on women, especially in the categories of family, education and housing law. Some 75% of domestic violence victims are women, 90% of single parents are women, and 97% of those who are eligible for child maintenance are women. Women are more likely to be in non-unionised jobs, and men are more likely to be financially better off and able to pay privately.
Over the years, my firm has looked after about 14,000 clients in south London, Surrey and west Kent. The family profile that I describe is, sadly, not unusual. One mother presented with some learning difficulties and a history of self-harm and drug abuse, but says that she is now clean. She has three children, all girls, with three different fathers. The father of the eldest daughter sought a residence order and a contact order. Mother and daughter were resistant in view of the father’s history of bullying and drunkenness. There were no previous injunction orders, but many police call-outs. All the girls were having problems at school, and the middle daughter had been diagnosed with ADHD—attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The school had threatened suspension due to disruptive behaviour. The mother was on income support and was being chased by loan sharks due to debt. She was feeling suicidal and was on antidepressants. All the children were on the child protection register.
When I took instructions from that lady, judging by her physical appearance and demeanour, I thought that she was about 50. It was only when I asked her for her date of birth that I realised that she was just 25 years old. Under the current plans, that highly vulnerable woman would not be entitled to help with residence and contact applications, debt problems or her children’s educational difficulties. That is what family life is like for many in our country. Those are the people who rely on the family courts and legal aid to resolve their problems. Tragically, the children growing up in such families are watching and learning bad behaviour, have absent boundaries, and are breeding future generations of victims and perpetrators. It is a vicious circle.
Legal aid cost £500 million in 1982. The cost is £2 billion today. I make no case for ring-fencing from the cuts, and I see a genuine need for reform.
I have a high regard for my hon. Friend’s expertise on the issue, which greatly exceeds mine as a result of her practice. The case that she makes is moving, but surely such things do not lend themselves to litigation. Our argument is not that we will leave such people with no support at all, but that legal advice and litigation are not the best way of proceeding to resolve important social and family problems of the kind that she describes.
If matters such as residence and contact can be resolved without litigation, as they sometimes are, that is a good thing. Unfortunately, a woman in the situation that I have described and a man who has historically been difficult, drunken and abusive might not, regrettably, be able to sort things out.
We must accept that the past 50 years have created a social mess, caused largely by the demise of the family unit and stalling social mobility. We cannot pull the rug from under the feet of 500,000 people who have no genuine alternative. Civil liberty is about the freedom of our nation; civil legal aid is about protecting citizens. For some, civil legal aid is the only sword and shield in their armoury. We must therefore wear kid gloves when handling that delicate aspect of the public purse. For all the above reasons, I hope that further significant changes will be made to this important Bill in Committee and on Report.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to take part in this important debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I agree with many of the comments made by the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). The Government should listen to her experience and knowledge.
For 60 years, legal aid has provided secure and guaranteed access to justice for those who cannot otherwise afford legal representation, often protecting the most vulnerable in our society. With their reforms, the Government are undermining the principles of justice. The right to access it will become the privilege of the few who can afford it. The more I understand about the Government’s approach to justice policy, the more I realise that there is nothing just about it. Despite receiving thousands of representations from a wide range of organisations expert in delivering legal aid effectively and productively that say this is not the right approach, the Government are not willing to listen.
We know that seeking legal representation is an expensive undertaking. I understand that, but the Government are trying, inexcusably, to put a price on justice, which is embedded in the British democratic system. That undermines us as a free and fair society where all have an equal right to justice. Everyone has the right to be treated fairly under the British legal system. Who someone is, how much they earn and where they live should not be taken into account. The expense of access to our legal system makes legal aid so important. Justice is a right, not a privilege. Everyone deserves their day in court.
The Government have said that they want to ensure through the reforms that legal aid is targeted at those who most need it. They must have made a mistake. Surely that cannot be correct when they are cutting legal aid for the aspects of law that are often the last protection for the most vulnerable in our society: housing, debt, welfare and employment advice. Legal aid has stood up for people and given them the voice that they deserve. I am not sure where the Government expect an alternative to step in to deal with representation and advice in the aspects of law that will be removed from the scope of legal aid provision. Perhaps it is another job for the big society.
When people have to represent themselves in court because they cannot afford the legal fees, something is not right. As with so much of their legislation, the Government have left the most vulnerable wanting. It is a travesty that 500,000 people will be denied their right to legal representation and a chance for justice. The Secretary of State has said:
“It cannot be right that the taxpayer is footing the bill for unnecessary court cases that would never have even reached the courtroom door, were it not for the fact that somebody else was paying.”—[Official Report, 15 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 659.]
I seriously object to that trivialisation of our justice system. The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s reference to “unnecessary court cases” shows where the Government have gone wrong. Debt, social welfare, housing and education law are not unnecessary. They are serious and complex areas of law that deserve their chance in court.
Legal aid provision has improved and strengthened our laws on protections and compensation and given justice to victims of negligence. Legal aid has been critical in many precedent-setting cases, such as the Hillsborough disaster, the thalidomide cases and the Clapham rail crash. Advances in case law as a direct result of legal aid provision have improved protections for everyone. British law is in a better place because of the chance to access legal aid. Although I can sympathise to some extent with the Government’s desire to promote other forms of legal settlement outside a courtroom, such as through mediation, that should be an alternative, not the only option. In my experience, it does not always work.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government do not seem to have taken on board the fact that sometimes solving disputes out of court is possible only when the credible sanction of going to court at some stage is available? By taking that away, they undermine the system of mediation in which they put so much faith, and that will lead to miscarriages of justice.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The stick-and-carrot approach, whereby there is something to make people see sense, agree and discuss things sensibly, often makes the difference between mediation working and not working.
Despite the Government’s laissez-faire approach to access to our legal system and their willingness again to leave the most vulnerable members of our society out in the cold, one of my biggest problems with the reforms to legal aid provision is their economic short-sightedness. The cuts will ultimately lead to higher costs for society. The cost-benefit analysis of the reforms has shown that they are not cost-effective, but short-sighted and counter-productive. The costs to society will have to met elsewhere, by other Departments, including the Department of Health, the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government. It is disappointing that, despite calls for it, no cross-Government departmental review is taking place to assess the inevitable extra costs.
Yesterday, I asked about the matter at Justice questions, and was told that other Departments’ impact analysis of the proposals was “ongoing”. Surely that should have been sorted out before Second Reading. Citizens Advice estimates that £24 million spent annually on debt advice saves the Government some £188 million elsewhere, and that for every £1 spent on legal aid, the state saves £2.34 on housing advice, £7.13 on employment advice and £8.80 on benefits advice.
I may not be an economist, but I am a British taxpayer and I can tell the House that the figures simply do not add up.
Even the Justice Committee, in its third report on legal aid, said:
“We are surprised that the Government is proposing to make such changes without assessing their likely impact on spending from the public purse”.
This is another case of the Government not listening to the experts on legal aid. I think we are detecting a theme here.
Let us maybe have one more for luck. I commend the good work of organisations such as the Law Society on looking at alternative cost-saving measures. The Law Society proposed alternative savings worth £384 million—£34 million more than the Government are looking to cut—which would still protect all civil and family legal representation. The Law Society made its representations but was ignored. Then the Justice Committee recommended that the Government assess the merits of their proposals. Again, that recommendation was not listened to.
With these reforms the Conservatives are demonstrating their reckless handling of the British justice system. We already knew that we could not trust the Conservatives to protect the most vulnerable members of our society; we now know that we cannot trust them to uphold the founding principles of British justice either. The Government’s own impact assessment says that these reforms will increase costs, increase criminality and reduce social cohesion. With that testament, I am left wondering: what are the real costs of these reforms to legal aid?
Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker. During the early part of the speech preceding that by the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), I absented myself to go and have a sandwich, not having had any lunch, so I was not expecting you to call me quite as early in the debate.
This is obviously an important debate. I shall not necessarily speak for the full time that is available to me, but I want to focus on the sentencing aspects, specifically of the Green Paper. I do so from my perspective as one of the two sitting recorders in the House; I am not sure whether the other intends to speak. It seems to me important that I do so in circumstances where sentencing has got itself into a bit of a mess in this country. At least in England and Wales, it has become exceptionally complicated for the judiciary, and for that reason the proposals that the Government are putting forward in the Bill are important, not only from the perspective of “breaking the cycle,” which was the concern of the consultation document, but from the perspective of the judiciary and the operation of the criminal courts in effectively sentencing criminals and meting out due punishment for the offences of which they have been convicted by a jury.
The starting point with sentencing, of course, is the fact that in 2003 a Criminal Justice Bill was placed before the House and passed by the previous Government. It was amended on a number of occasions thereafter but was in fact a complete minefield. It was so complicated that in one case, the Court of Appeal commented that the relevant provisions were “labyrinthine”; in another they were described as a “legislative morass”. In a case called CPS v. South East Surrey Youth Court, the Court of Appeal said:
“So, yet again, the courts are faced with a sample of the deeply confusing provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the satellite statutory instruments to which it is giving stuttering birth. The most inviting course for this Court to follow, would be for its members, having shaken their heads in despair, to hold up their hands and say: ‘the Holy Grail of rational interpretation is impossible to find’.”
I have to tell the House that the position in which the courts have found themselves in relation to sentencing during the last decade has been utterly intolerable. Judges have had to spend considerably more time than they ought to when they should be trying cases on preparing sentences, giving reasons above and beyond those which they were previously obliged to give, and in fact giving reasons that are probably immaterial for either the victims of crime or, indeed, those who are on the receiving end of the sentence to hear.
The simplification of that aspect of sentencing by the Bill, assuming that it becomes law, is therefore much to be welcomed. But I want it to go further, because the issue is important. I hope that the Lord Chancellor will listen to what I say in this regard and to what others, including the Sentencing Council—and, I think, the Bar Council and the Law Society—have said.
What we need, and what I hope we will see during this Parliament, is a consolidating statute that brings together sentencing for the entirety of the criminal law. Only then will the process become simpler and judges be able to give sentences that they are satisfied will not be taken to the Court of Appeal unless they have got things very wrong. Only then will people know precisely what sorts of sentences the courts are likely to hand down for the same sorts of offence. In due course, I imagine that that will ensure that considerable public support is given to the criminal justice system.
I want to say a few words about legal aid. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) spoke for many of us in expressing concerns about the removal of legal aid in relation to some of the areas proposed by the Ministry. I hope that those will be explored in great detail in Committee, particularly given the Lord Chancellor’s comments in his intervention on her. I want the Bill to come back with a report from the Committee that it is satisfied that the most vulnerable in our society will continue to have access to justice in precisely the same way as those who are able to buy justice. I say that from the perspective of one who, as a lawyer, considers access to justice extraordinarily important.
Like my hon. Friend, I am concerned about those particular provisions and how they might discriminate against some of the most vulnerable. That said, I have no doubt that the Bill will be amended in Committee and that the Government will listen; I hope that they will. I am not sure that the Bill has absolutely everything right, but it is a step in the right direction, particularly in respect of the burgeoning legal aid budget under which we in this country pay eight times as much as the French taxpayer to give access to justice to those entitled to legal aid. It is not suggested that there is some desert in France where nobody has access to justice, so it must be possible to reduce the costs of legal aid.
Indeed, the shadow Lord Chancellor said that last year, when he accepted that if Labour was in power, it too would have to make cuts to the legal aid budget. It is a matter of regret and shame that rather than coming to the House to say where he would be making those cuts, he made a series of—[Hon. Members: “No, he didn’t; he spelled it out.”] It is extraordinary to hear at least one Opposition Member saying that the shadow Lord Chancellor spelled it out. I listened to the entirety of his speech, and I did not hear anything spelled out at all. [Interruption.] The shadow Minister is on the Opposition Front Bench. Perhaps he will tell us now where Labour would make the cuts in the legal aid budget.
There is a publication called Hansard, which the hon. and learned Gentleman might wish to read tomorrow. He will see what I will repeat now, although I feel that I am taking Back-Benchers’ time. The proposals in the March 2010 consultation, which were put forward by the then Labour Government and have not been taken forward by this Government, would more than compensate for the cuts being made in social welfare legal aid. If the hon. and learned Gentleman has a look at that consultation, he will see.
I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker. I did not really want to get into the legal aid aspects of the Bill. I have expressed my concerns and I am sure that Front Benchers are listening to them. I am concerned that the Opposition have at least not spelled out any detail as to where they would make the cuts that they accept have to be made to the legal aid budget.
As Lady Hale warned earlier this week, the £350 million legal aid cuts made by the Bill will hit the poorest and most vulnerable in society. She said that there is a well-known, ironic saying that
“in England, justice is open to all—like the Ritz”.
She went on to say:
“Courts are and should be a last resort but they should be a last resort that is accessible to all, rich and poor alike. The big society will be the big loser if everyone does not believe that the law is there for them.”
That sums up the current position very clearly.
The Bill represents a further attack on hard-working people and on the most vulnerable in society. It is a cobbled-together, dangerous, coalition concoction of the most risky kind. I think that it was the Justice Secretary who said today that it was a mixture of the Conservative dry and tough, and the soft, wet and liberal. I am honestly baffled by that. I do not know what it means; it does not make much sense. Should not our justice policy be wholly focused on the protection of the general public, on punishing offenders properly and on being on the side of the victim?
The Bill presents more questions than it answers. The measures go too far, too fast; they are incoherent. The cuts are aimed at saving money, not at reducing crime. The Bill puts cutting costs ahead of what is in the best interests of the victims and of reducing crime and punishing offenders. We are seeing massive cuts in front-line police, prison officers and probation trusts. Cuts to social welfare legal aid will leave the most vulnerable without any legal support. It is a one-size-fits-all approach to remodelling the civil justice system that threatens to render many areas of law unenforceable.
The Bill is unworkable, with a departmental cut of 23%. It is hardly the rehabilitation revolution promised by the Justice Secretary. The 23% cut to the Ministry of Justice budget means 10,000 fewer front-line staff in prisons and in probation, and a 50% reduction in capital spending on the prison estate. The cuts are intended to save £130 million, with a 3,500 reduction in the prison population. Undoubtedly the planned cuts will create massive problems with regard to the future security of prisons, the condition of the prison estate, and the safety of prison officers and their capacity to maintain order. It is an absolute nonsense for the Government to speak of the plans to improve rehabilitation and cut reoffending while cutting the number of prison and probation officers, and allowing the prison estate to be degraded.
There are three parts to the Bill: legal aid, litigation and funding costs, and sentencing and punishment of offenders. Like other hon. Members, I want to focus on the proposals for personal injury cases in the Jackson report, the precursor to the Bill. Jackson proposed that the after-the-event insurance premium become the responsibility of the claimant; that there be qualified one-way cost shifting to the defendant except in specific circumstances; that success fees be paid by the claimant; that referral fees be banned; and that there be a new test for proportionality. Those strong recommendations for reform are a package that needs to be implemented in full. The Bill does not deal with one of the most serious issues, the proposal to ban referral fees.
There are no proposals to ban referral fees. No one can have failed to become aware of the furore in the past two or three days created by the “revelation” of the market in road traffic accident claims. It now seems difficult to see which intermediary is not in receipt of a fee for selling on a claim. This cannot continue and should result in the banning of the payment of referral fees.
Many people were caught by surprise by this week’s revelations by insurance companies. They were shocked to hear that profits were being made from the sale of personal information, but some of us have been complaining vigorously about this practice for many years. The failure to ban referral fees is yet another example of the double standards that operate.
No legitimate claimant should be deterred from bringing a claim, and with no win, no fee no sensible lawyer would pursue a claim they did not have a reasonable prospect of winning. Make no mistake: this presents a huge struggle between the access rights of the injured person and the interests of those who have a financial interest in the outcome for the employer or third party who injured them. It also affects all Members’ constituents who find their ability to protect themselves and their families diminished by the savage cuts to legal aid.
What does the Bill do to address the delay caused by the unnecessary cost of defending the undefendable? It removes the claimant’s eligibility to legal aid to pursue a legitimate claim, leaving the weakest and most vulnerable in a much weaker position in investigating their claim or commencing proceedings.
Along with other organisations, the trade union movement sees that these changes will have a severe impact on health and safety. The employer who injures the employee will have no sanction imposed on him if the employee is discouraged or prevented from pursuing a legitimate claim for injury caused by the employer’s negligence. It is ironic that we are debating this on the day the Health and Safety Executive announced a huge increase—more than 170 in the past year—in workplace deaths. The trade union movement has a long and proven history of protecting its members, but that will be adversely affected by the Bill’s proposed changes.
Members have spoken about mediation, in respect of which there is cross-party support. The Government’s preferred option is not suitable for all, but it is an important tool in dealing with family breakdown. The Justice Committee and the family justice review have warned of the impact on vulnerable people, specifically those affected by domestic violence.
Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear that mediation is not suitable in all cases, especially those involving domestic violence, for which legal aid will remain available?
If the hon. Lady had been present earlier in the debate she would have heard hon. Members on both sides of the House discuss that point.
The cuts to legal aid are likely to provide no real saving to the public purse but will lead to courts struggling to cope as the weak and vulnerable struggle to represent themselves. Should not the weakest and most vulnerable have the same access to justice as those with plenty of finance behind them? The Bill fails to ensure fairness across the board and is, as many Members have said, an utter shambles.
The Lord Chancellor’s statement last week bore the worst hallmarks of a Budget speech delivered by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown): all the good stuff was announced but all the catastrophes were laid out in the small print.
In his statement last week the Justice Secretary proclaimed that the best way to reduce crime is to reduce reoffending—a point to which many can, I am sure, subscribe—but his stance on indeterminate sentences shows beyond all doubt that, despite what he says, reoffending is not his main priority for the Bill or the criminal justice system. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) kindly mentioned the question I put to the Secretary of State yesterday. The reoffending rates among those released from prison on indeterminate sentences are among the lowest in the criminal justice system. If the Lord Chancellor’s priority is reoffending, why on earth does he want to get rid of one of the parts of the criminal justice system with the lowest rate of reoffending?
Will my hon. Friend please understand this? When someone is subject to an IPP, they have no knowledge about when they will be released. Does he know that they can be released only when they are deemed no longer to be a risk to society? A relatively small number of people have been released and we can assume that they were released only because they were no longer deemed a risk to society. The reason for that is that they have been on the sort of courses that other people on IPPs have not had the benefit of. The lack of courses is the real problem.
My hon. Friend is right that people are released only when it is safe to release them. My constituents think that it is rather a good thing that people are released from prison only when it is safe to let the out. I am all for that, unlike the Lord Chancellor.
The reason why the Lord Chancellor is not bothered about reoffending and indeterminate sentences is that he is not interested in reoffending at all. What then is his priority? It is the same as it has always been: simply reducing the number of criminals in prison. That is highlighted in the Bill’s explanatory notes, which state:
“The overall impact of the sentencing proposals will result in annual savings of approximately £80m in 2014/15, due to a reduction in the demand for prison places of 2,650”.
I invite all my hon. Friends to look back at what they promised their constituents at the general election in their personal manifestos and at what they said against their opponents at the hustings. Which of those who will vote for the Bill tonight said at the hustings that they were standing on a platform of reducing the number of criminals sent to prison by 2,650? I suspect that none of us said that, and I invite my hon. Friends to consider that when they decide how to vote tonight.
I am also concerned about the widely reported mandatory six-month sentence for thugs who use knives to threaten people. As I have already shown, this is a solution looking for a problem, because the sentencing guidelines already insist that such cases are sent to Crown court for a first offence because it is deemed that magistrates do not have sufficient sentencing powers.
It gets worse. On threatening with knives, clause 113 states:
“It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove good reason or lawful authority for having the article with him or her in the place…concerned.”
That is a reasonable defence for possession of a knife, but how is it a reasonable defence for using a knife threateningly just to be able to explain why one has the knife in the first place? Either that is a drafting error or it is complete nonsense. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us in his reply.
The provision is not mandatory anyway, because it is later stated that people do not have to be sent to prison if there are particular circumstances that relate to the offence or the offender that would make it unjust to send them there. So much for it being mandatory. It is a joke.
Clauses 56 and 57 are further examples of the Lord Chancellor’s aim of sending fewer people to prison. Clause 56(2)(a) removes the duty of the court to impose more onerous conditions once someone breaches a community order, or to resentence them to custody. It says that the court “may” do so instead of saying that it “must”, as currently applies.
Clause 56(2)(b) allows the court to impose a fine as a punishment for breaching a community order. That provision did not exist before. Clause 57 increases the length of sentence that can be suspended from a maximum of 51 weeks to two years and removes the need to attach any community requirements at all. If a criminal has committed an offence that deserves a custodial sentence of up to two years in prison, that is what they should get: a two-year sentence in prison. Furthermore, if someone is given a suspended sentence with no requirements, they will effectively not be punished at all.
As I said a couple of weeks ago, breaches of suspended sentences can now result in a fine, thanks to clause 58. Anybody who breaches their existing get-out-of-jail-free suspended sentence should go to one place only: immediate custody. Is it any wonder that the British public have no faith in sentencing? The criminal justice system can be effective only if the public have confidence in it.
The Bill also fails to extend a magistrate’s power of sentencing to up to 12 months, yet that was a firm manifesto commitment. Not only are we not implementing what was already in the law, we are repealing that part of the law in this Bill. We have already heard at length how schedule 10 removes the ability of the courts to remand somebody in custody, to try to make it harder for people to be remanded in custody so that they are instead granted bail. In the previous Parliament, the last Labour Government introduced the mechanism that time spent on bail on a tag could be knocked off a prison sentence in the same way as time spent on remand is knocked off a prison sentence. We were apoplectic with rage about that, and my hon. and learned Friend the current Solicitor-General said when we were in opposition that this proposal
“will cause a great deal of scepticism, undermine public confidence in the justice system and make the Government look increasingly ridiculous if the court is then required to say, ‘By the way, all the time that you have spent at home in bed is time that can be taken away from your custodial sentence.’”—[Official Report, 9 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 369.]
I could not agree more. The only difference is that I still believe that this is wrong, whereas my Front-Bench colleagues have gone from thinking it was utterly ridiculous to formalising the policy as part of the Bill. Of course, the other measure to which we were wholly opposed in the previous Parliament was the automatic release of people halfway through their prison sentence, and that, too, is formalised in this Bill.
The British public are losing faith in the criminal justice system. One only has to look at the Populus polling carried out by Lord Ashcroft that showed that 80% of the public—80% of victims of crime, 80% of police officers—think that sentences for convicted offenders are already too lenient. When asked how they expected the new coalition Government would compare on crime with the last Labour Government, more than 50% of those polled said they expected them to be tougher. When asked their views a year after the coalition Government came to office, only 13% thought the Government had been tougher, whereas 23% thought they were less tough. That perception is a disaster for the Conservative brand, and this Bill will only further weaken our position.
All the above shows that this Bill is not the rehabilitation revolution or the reduced reoffending revolution we were promised; rather, it is a release revolution that will simply catapult more criminals out on to the streets to commit more crimes. I do not know if the Lord Chancellor is trying to break the world record for the number of manifesto pledges broken in one Bill, but if he is, he has made a good fist of it.
I am going to speak against much of this Bill, but probably not as vehemently as the previous speaker.
The Bill serves two purposes: it attempts to advance and also to set back our legal system. I am reminded of the section in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” in which the heroine, Alice, takes one step forward only to find herself taking two paces back. Some of the proposed sentencing reforms in part 3 of the Bill will tidy up the current sentencing framework by correcting some anomalies to do with release on licence, yet the concurrent cuts to legal aid we are being asked to push forward would hijack any claim our legal system has to being just. In my contribution, I will briefly set out my thoughts on both aspects of the Bill.
Although I have mentioned Lewis Carroll, I hope it will not seem too topsy-turvy for me to start by considering the end of the Bill. As I have mentioned, part 3 introduces some positive reforms, and I am particularly interested in clauses 93 to 96. In February, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill with the aim of correcting various anomalies in sentencing, and I am pleased that some of them have been included in the Bill. My Bill’s aim was to ensure that prisoners serving determinate sentences of four years or more, as well as those on indeterminate sentences for public protection, are released back into the community only when a parole board has determined that they are a low risk to the public. Harry Fletcher of the National Association of Probation Officers assisted me in making those arguments. Incidentally, my Bill also argued for the ability to have regard to mental health problems when sentencing convicted persons. I am pleased that clause 62 goes some way towards realising that.
Under section 244 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, when a fixed-term prisoner has served the requisite custodial period, the Secretary of State should release them on licence. Since 2005, however, those serving four years or more have come out after serving only 50% of their sentences, regardless of what progress they make in prison. My Bill proposed to add a subsection that would have ensured that before the release of a person sentenced to four years or more in prison, the Parole Board must be satisfied that the individual is at low risk of causing harm to the public and of reoffending. Clause 94 goes one step forward in that regard, in that those released will not automatically be eligible for home detention curfew.
My Bill also suggested a reform of the indeterminate public protection sentence. I understand from the Lord Chancellor that there is to be a review of that. That is welcome, but the devil will be in the detail. The review is long overdue, and something must be done. As the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) has said, one of the main problems is that there are no courses for those people. That is the backlog—where the wall is. I am glad that those sentences will be looked at. I continue to press the argument that participation in offender management programmes should be taken into account when deciding whether to release a prisoner early. All things considered, I am glad about that provision.
I come now to the disappointing aspects of the Bill. As I have indicated, any attempt by the Ministry of Justice to suggest that the reforms in the Bill aim to make the criminal justice system fairer are undermined at the outset by the provisions in part 1, which will result in cuts of roughly £450 million a year to the legal aid budget. The consultation document boasts that legal aid will be retained in cases in which people’s life or liberty is at stake, in which they face the threat of serious harm or immediate loss of their home, or in which their children will be taken into care. It is almost as if we are meant to applaud that magnanimous decision, but the self-same document proposes to slash legal aid for almost all private family law, clinical negligence, employment and immigration cases, and all but the most severe debt, housing and welfare benefits cases.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the timing of the proposals is particularly difficult? They are being made at a time when the Government are proposing major changes to the welfare system. Many who will wish to challenge unfair decisions will be left without access to legal aid at the time of most need.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right and has hit on an important point. In any event, this is the wrong time for this Bill. I hope that the Government pause in Committee to think again.
As I set out in my contribution to the legal aid debate in February, if the legal aid reforms are implemented, they will create a market for legal aid, which will be driven by cost rather than by the needs of clients. The most vulnerable people, including those with mental health problems and other disabilities, will find it almost impossible to gain access to free legal advice, because their cases will be too complex for firms to take on. The MOJ’s equality impact assessment acknowledges that the losers will predominantly be women, ethnic minorities and disabled or ill people, at 57%, 26% and 20% respectively.
The proposals about which I was most concerned—removing ancillary relief and private family proceedings from the scope of legal aid—remain largely unchanged, despite respondents, including me, arguing that not all cases can be successfully diverted to mediation; that without early legal advice fewer cases would settle, increasing the burden both on courts and those involved in disputes; and that decisions should be delayed until the outcome of the family justice review. Those pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Ancillary matters, such as child custody and maintenance, will not be dealt with sensibly, I am afraid, and it is difficult to overestimate the devastating effect that that will wreak on children caught up in these kinds of disputes. I speak as someone with 30 years’ experience in family cases, both as a solicitor and a barrister—I should declare that many of those cases were publicly funded.
In their response to the consultation, the Government conceded that legal aid should be available for victims of domestic violence. That is an important step, since in a 2005 study by Tridner et al 53% of women reported physical or emotional abuse as a cause of separation. Sir Nicholas Wall, president of the family division, has pointed out how “ill advised” the Government are to concentrate on domestic violence alone. Abuse, as Sir Nicholas said, is much broader and can be psychological, financial and/or emotional. One-size-fits-all solutions simply do not work with the complexities of our justice system.
The cuts to legal aid will increase rates of injustice, which is difficult to square with what the Prime Minister said about the reforms. He said last week at a press conference on the wider proposed reforms that his mission was to make sure that families felt safe in their homes—a worthy aim, of course, but there are many, many problems with the detail of the Bill. Vulnerable people will be left to go it alone. As Justice has said:
“The duty of a democratic state should be to ensure that members of society abide by, and benefit from, the provisions of the law.”
Both considerations appear missing from the cuts.
Hon. Members do not need to take it from me how dangerous these moves are. The European Court of Human Rights has criticised them, as has the United Nations Committee on Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council. Our justice system should serve everybody, not the few, but these cuts to legal aid are crude, cumbersome and callous. The cuts in the scope of legal aid will undermine not only the reforms that the Government are promoting, but, if the cuts are implemented, the very principles on which our justice system rests.
I declare an interest in accordance with the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I have practised as a barrister since 1990.
There is not much in the Bill that is not about saving money, which, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. I am afraid, however, that some of the proposals could undermine confidence in the system. On the criminal law side, one example is how the Bill makes provision for the greater use of cautioning. West Yorkshire police, who operate in my constituency, are an innovative force pioneering a scheme called “In the Dock”, which displays photographs and details of convicted criminals on the internet. They hope that it will act as a deterrent and provide reassurance. It might work, but at the same time victims and the wider public might be more reassured, and potential criminals might be better deterred, if the same force did not caution thousands and thousands of criminals each year, including for sex and violent offences. The Bill encourages cautioning for adults, however, together with the greater use of fixed-penalty notices. That is cheaper, sure, but the message goes out, “Don’t worry, you’ll only get a caution.” Is there really a clamour from victims of crime for the increased use of cautioning by the police?
Other powers sought in the Bill are simply unworkable. Clause 12 allows the provision of legal advice at police stations to be means-tested. Before Labour Members get too excited, I should say that the only reason why that was not introduced through the back door by the previous Labour Government was that the High Court stopped them. The provision simply will not work. Legal advice at police stations is guaranteed by Act of Parliament. If the police were anxious to interview someone who was self-employed and did not have three years of accounts on him when arrested, what would happen? Someone would have to sit down and work out whether he qualified for assistance. There is no basis for bringing that sort of provision into the criminal justice system.
The Bill also introduces a knife crime offence that already exists in at least two other statutes. It does not mean that jail for carrying a knife is automatic— nor should it. The young ex-soldier I represented who had been blown up in Kosovo and who had a knife in his coat as he walked through Middlesbrough for reasons he did not really feel able to explain should not be sent to prison automatically because he falls foul of legislation. There has to be room for discretion. Sentences of up to four years are already available to the courts, and if the new offence in clause 113 is to be introduced, I invite the Minister to review its wording. The current wording certainly creates an offence, but it will also create practical difficulties for prosecutors seeking to secure convictions.
There are positive measures in the Bill. The Legal Services Commission is dysfunctional, and it is a courageous but necessary decision to bring it in-house. Already the inability to process legal aid forms is causing delays of months, which are unfair to victims and a waste of resources. The LSC’s inability to process payments threatens jobs in small businesses and is a disgrace. If a template for how to do that job well is required, the Minister should visit the Armed Forces Criminal Legal Aid Authority, at which a small group of people working in a portakabin demonstrate what can be achieved.
Other aspects of the Bill appear to cause concern but in reality do not. Schedule 10 might not be a good advert for drafting, but it does nothing to change the status quo as far as the granting of bail is concerned. The double negative involved means that the absconder or the reoffender will not benefit from those provisions. Elsewhere in the Bill, unfortunately, positive features—of which there are some—are overshadowed by the steps being introduced to achieve savings. An example of that is clause 57, which takes away the mandatory requirement to impose a community sentence alongside a suspended sentence. There are occasions on which that is simply unnecessary and is a waste of resources as far as the probation is concerned, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has indicated, the clause also moves back up to two years the length of sentence that can be suspended. Suspended sentences have been fashionable, then unfashionable, and have become fashionable again over the past 20 years, but the effect of the measure is that a sentence of 18 months, which currently has to be served, could in future be suspended. I agree with my hon. Friend that sentences of more than 12 months really ought to be served.
Let me address the measures on civil courts, in which decent people who have suffered dreadful loss through personal injury or clinical negligence receive financial compensation to offset their suffering—and no more than that. There is no profit element to a victim’s damages, and a victim of surgical error can be as much a victim as a victim of crime. Some of those victims are children whose births were so badly mismanaged that they will never become adults. I remember acting for one such child: not only was he going to require 24-hour care for the rest of his life, but his parents had not even been told by the hospital how long that life would be. When I told them that number at a meeting—it was not a large one—two of the most dignified people I have ever met looked at each other and said, “Well, at least we’ll always be young enough to look after him properly.” The compensation they received was carefully costed to provide only what was necessary and no more.
The Bill introduces the concept that the successful claimant should pay part of their costs from the damages. The idea that this might make people more involved in the claim may have a certain appeal, but in reality it means that that element will have to be funded from damages that are awarded for pain and suffering. In practical terms it means that although someone wins their case, not all the steps around their house can have a ramp and not all the doors in the property can be widened.
In clinical negligence claims, a claimant inevitably requires expert medical evidence. As that is expensive the claimant can take out a policy to insure against the cost, if the claim fails. At present, that is recoverable from the other side and will remain so, but only in clinical negligence cases. If the same injuries with the same consequences occurred as a result of a surgeon driving into the victim, rather than performing a negligent operation, the premium will have to be paid by the successful claimant from the damages they receive. That seems strange, because the people who will be affected by it are not ambulance chasers or part of a compensation culture, but innocent victims. The offer of a safety net that requires claimants to demonstrate human rights violations in order to get justice is a poor solution.
We should prosecute those who should be prosecuted and jail those who should be jailed. We should make provision that allows those whose lives are ruined not by crime but by the negligence of others to achieve proper redress. We should, because we must, look to make savings, but savings in the justice budget must not become synonymous with providing less justice.
This Bill has not had a good reception on either side of the House of Commons. Several hon. Members have referred to the impact of these changes on women who suffer domestic violence and who will be ineligible for legal aid under the Bill because the evidence that they will be required to present is far too restrictive. Because of these proposals, there is likely to be an increase in the number of women being cross-examined by a perpetrator in detail about the physical or sexual violence that they have experienced. That will mean that a woman who is already a victim will be re-victimised.
My constituency is one of the most deprived in the country. The latest figures show that we have 9.7% unemployment. What the Government have done across the spectrum in ending the health in maternity grant, ending the education maintenance allowance, cutting Sure Start and increasing tuition fees will mean that life is harder for the people who sent me to Parliament. This Bill is yet another instalment in what they are doing to the people of Gorton and the people of Manchester. In the past two years, two independent advice centres in my city have closed down. Manchester Advice, which had about 100 staff providing advice on welfare rights, housing and consumer affairs and debt, closed in April. All that is left is the community legal advice service and a couple of solicitors who have a contract for rather less than £3 million over three years but are facing a 10% cut in October. In any case, none of the specialists’ work will be funded when the contract expires in two years’ time.
South Manchester Law Centre in my constituency struggles on with a small immigration contract. The situation is such that the law centre may well be destroyed, and that is the body to which my constituents with immigration problems have to turn. That means that they will increasingly have to turn to their Member of Parliament or pay exorbitant sums to grasping, greedy solicitors. There are now only two legal aid immigration advice providers in Manchester, but within three miles of South Manchester Law Centre there are 50 solicitors firms, and at least the same number of non-solicitors, all anxious to part vulnerable people from their money. On Friday evening, I shall have my constituency surgery, and people will come to me and tell me of the hundreds of pounds they are being forced to pay because of the lack of adequate free advice that is so essential to them.
Again and again, this Bill damages the people who can least survive the damage. In Manchester, there will be some £2 million-worth of cuts in the civil legal aid budget, approximately two thirds of which are directed at people who are currently eligible for legal aid, while one third will come from remuneration cuts to providers who will be expected to do the same work for less money. All that affects the same people who have been hit by the cuts in public service delivery. The majority of the 6,500 people in our area who have used the civil legal aid service come from low-income households, and they are predominantly women, black and minority ethnic people and sick and disabled people. People with mental health problems and other disabilities experience much higher rates of unemployment, homelessness and discrimination, and they will be disproportionately affected.
Again and again, we hear examples of how people in my constituency and more widely will be damaged. The areas of welfare benefit, employment and debt, except for cases in which the client’s home is at immediate risk, will be removed completely from the legal aid remit, and such access as there will be to legal aid will become more difficult. For example, the community legal advice helpline has an 0845 prefix, which is expensive for people to dial and, in addition, people want and need face-to-face advice. They do not want to talk to somebody who will not be able to see or assess them; they want advice from other human beings who care about them.
People with learning disabilities and mental health issues prefer to receive advice in person in order to pick up on non-verbal signals and to build the trust necessary to talk about their problems, because people are shy, reluctant and, sometimes, ashamed to talk about their problems. Women who suffer domestic violence put up with it because they are ashamed to talk about it and ashamed about getting into the predicament.
We are faced with a Government who are taking away from people who need the services that members of the Government do not need and have never needed, so they do not understand the damage that they are causing. I say to the Government and to the many Government Members who have had the decency to talk about their misgivings, let us try to improve the Bill, because people’s lives, well-being, peace of mind and domestic situations all depend upon it. We cannot go on like this—victimising those who are already victims.
Order. Just before I bring the next speaker in, I am going to reduce the time limit to six minutes. We still have 20 speakers to come, and I do want to get everybody in, so anybody who can shave a little time off that will be gratefully welcomed.
I thank the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor for bringing forward a balanced and pragmatic Bill that identifies problems that have built up over a longer period, but I, like many colleagues, have several concerns about the sentencing and legal aid proposals. Speeches have been cut to six minutes, but my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Simon Reevell) highlighted subtly and beautifully all the points that I wanted to make about clinical negligence, so there is no point in me making any of them again.
I should like to discuss the sentencing proposals, however. Before I became a Member in 2005, I spent three years working for the current Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), who during that time was shadow Home Secretary. For a year, I went in and out of prisons and, for most of that time, in and out of young offenders institutions throughout the country.
One observation that I made during that year was that the young offenders all came from chaotic backgrounds. They had learning disabilities, many had mental health issues, very few had had a father at home and many had drug problems. They could not read or write, they lacked confidence and they had had very little education, mainly because no one had been there to take them to school from an early age. They had never got into the routine of attending school, and their lives before they entered the young offenders institution were abysmal.
The YOIs gave them three meals a day, however; they got into a routine whereby they went to bed at night and got up in the mornings; they were introduced to drug rehabilitation programmes; they had a chance to learn such skills as bricklaying; some of them painted for the first time in their lives and learned how to be decorators; and at Thorneywood YOI in Warrington they worked in the kitchens for a while with the caterers. It was good to see the work that was being done with some of the people in those institutions.
I believe that prison works. It works because it takes the young offenders away from their chaotic lifestyles and puts them where work can be done. The Lord Chancellor mentioned “radical reform”, but I would like to see radical reform that introduces really serious drug rehabilitation programmes. I would like sentences to be served in full so that work can be done with these people when they come into the prison or YOI.
One of the main problems with reoffending was that once people left the YOI, there was no housing for them. The probation officers used to tell me, “We have nowhere for them to live.” So they would go back to the squats and the friends they had been with before, and therefore straight back into the lifestyle that put them into the YOI. They became recidivists and ended up back in prison. That is where the social impact bond scheme in Peterborough is doing so well and where its real strength could lie. Let prison work and ensure that people serve their sentences in full. Do not put 2,650 people back into the chaotic environments they came from. Ensure that we have true prison reform so that they go somewhere they can receive true education and be taught skills, come off drugs and build up their confidence. Put them into the institutions because prison can work.
Will the Minister confirm when he winds up whether it is the case that private prisons in the UK operate at a cost that is 40% less than state prisons? If so, why are we looking at putting 2,650 prisoners back on the streets to save costs? Why do we not take on the Prison Officers Association and address the reason why it costs 40% more to run state prisons than it does private prisons? Why not look at marketeering in prison reform as well as in education and health?
My main point is that people should not be put back out on the streets: we should make prison work. We have institutions that can offer everything that people need—education, skills training—to ensure that they do not offend when they get out.
As I am the chair of the all-party group on legal aid, it will come as no surprise that I wish to speak today mostly about the proposals to reform legal aid. However, I first wish to take issue with the attempt by the Government to legitimise the cuts in legal aid by insisting that England and Wales have by far the most expensive legal aid system in the world. The one piece of research that has been done on this is on the Ministry of Justice website and it says that it does not compare like with like. It is an interesting piece of research and I commend it to hon. Members.
Legal aid is the smallest proportion of the justice budget and it is the hardest hit. More than 5,000 individuals and groups responded to the consultation and 90% said, “Do not take social welfare law out of scope.” I stress that these were not fat cat lawyers, worried about their income, but individuals and organisations who see the effect that the proposals will have on their most needy and vulnerable clients—those who are least able to defend themselves.
I accept that point and I will address the effect on citizens advice bureaux and other advice agencies later in my speech.
The Government’s impact assessment acknowledges that the losers will be predominantly women, people from ethnic minority backgrounds and the ill and disabled—yet another example of the most vulnerable bearing the brunt of the cuts.
It is worth reminding the House why the scope of legal aid was extended to include social welfare law, and why advice agencies and not-for-profit advisers were able to enter the field. The Labour Government recognised that it was cost-effective to provide early intervention and advice and help with dealing with a cluster of problems. Dealing with problems at an early stage stopped people reaching crisis point and turning to other more expensive Government-funded services.
The Government recognised that advice agencies, such as the CAB, had expertise in this area and could provide an effective and a trusted delivery mechanism. Not all bureaux have contracts, but more than 200 do, and they have more than 1,500 outlets that provide advice. Throughout the country, they provide specialist services that are funded by the Legal Services Commission. Without this funding, the viability of all those outlets and their main bureaux is under threat coupled as these cuts are with cuts to local authority funding, loss of primary care trust funding and no certainty about the financial inclusion fund.
In 2010, 3,080 cases in my own borough were procured by the LSC. If these plans go through, there will be a 76% cut in those cases. Some 2,342 people will be denied access to justice. The total loss of funding in Wigan will be £428,000. Behind those figures are people, including the woman who attended my local CAB because she was being prosecuted for fraud by the Department for Work and Pensions. She was told that she owed £26,000, but after three appeals, it was found that she owed less than £300, due to departmental errors.
There was also the couple who had borrowed money to adapt their property for their disabled child. After her unexpected death, they could no longer maintain all the repayments due to the drop in their income, and they had the bailiffs at their door. Then there was the woman in the secure mental health unit who needed help after she had been refused disability living allowance and had had her jobseeker’s allowance suspended for not attending an interview. I could go on but each example demonstrates that it is the vulnerable who are losing out, and they are now losing those who are there to speak out for them.
The timing of such cuts, with the Welfare Reform Bill coming in in 2013, is absolutely appalling. People’s fundamental right to have a decent income and to live without fear of debt is being removed. The loss of legal aid in welfare law means that people are also losing the ability to hold Government Departments to account. The DWP already loses more than 60% of its cases, and those cases will now no longer be challenged by advice agencies.
Demand for debt advice is also going up, as rising prices, static wages and job losses mean that people can no longer afford to maintain payments. Tackling the issue when it reaches crisis point and people are in imminent danger of losing their home is not a sensible, fair or economic way in which to deal with the problem. Dealing with debt at an early stage ensures that priority debts are not ignored to pay the clamorous non-priority creditors and, most important of all, it takes away the extreme levels of stress and depression that any threat of losing a home or possession, imminent or not, causes to individuals. In 2009, the Legal Services Research Centre found that unresolved debt matters cost the public purse more than £1,000 on average. Legal aid for each debt cases costs £196. The figures speak for themselves.
I could go further but I would like the Minister to answer some questions. What is his Department doing to address the impact of the Government proposals on the advice sector? What assessment has he made of the availability of advice in 2013? What assessment has been made of the effect on the tribunals service of increasing numbers of people representing themselves? Finally, has any assessment been made of the cost to the public purse of not providing access to social welfare law under the legal aid scheme?
I would like to speak about the criminal justice system and our sentencing policy as reflected in the Bill. I declare my interest: I practised as a criminal barrister for some 16 years before being elected to the House.
If there was ever a man without a plan, it was the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). He and the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and, indeed, many other Opposition Members really should hang their heads in shame. After 13 years of a Labour Government, we are faced with a legacy of complete failure in the criminal justice system. Yet again, rather like the deficit, it falls on this Government to clear up the mess left by Labour.
I am afraid that I do not accept that figure. I do not think that things are as simple as that. For example, as the Lord Chancellor explained, the theft statistics have fallen because of the protection that is now afforded to motor vehicles. Antisocial behaviour is not a recordable offence. I know from my own experiences in Nottinghamshire that the police are almost bending over backwards not to record criminal activities as recordable offences. So I cast real doubt on those statistics.
The hon. Gentleman talks about statistics, so let us listen to those on the legacy that we have inherited. Our prisons are full to bursting. Reoffending grew under Labour to 61.1% for offenders who serve short sentences. Half of adults leaving jail are reconvicted within a year, and 74% of young people sentenced to youth custody and 68% of young people on community sentences reoffend within a year. Those are the damning statistics. That is the legacy, and that is the reality.
We face other realities as we approach those difficulties. Prisons are awash with drugs. How many people are astounded to hear that there are things called drug-free wings? Hon. Members might suppose that all our jails should be free of drugs, but unfortunately they are not. Some people actually turn for the first time to class A drugs because they are in custody. I know from my experience of the people whom I represented that not only are drugs freely available in prisons, but they are often cheaper on the inside than out on the street. That is the legacy that we inherit.
Too many of our prisoners languish in 23-hour bang-up, because they cannot get on to courses and no work for them is available. The Bill specifically addresses such difficulties and issues, and I want to herald the proposals and want them to triumph. That will mean that people in prison will actually work. They will earn money that will go back to the people who are the victims of the crime. We are introducing good and right measures that will go a long way to ensure that prison works. At the moment, prison does not work. That is why we have those reoffending rates, why prisons are awash with drugs and why so many prisoners are on 23-hour bang-up.
We must not take a simplistic and broad-brush approach to sentencing. With great respect to many hon. Members, that is, unfortunately, what they do. The Bill achieves a difficult and delicate balance: it recognises the need to reform, but it does so within the financial restrictions and realities that this nation faces. Those who say simply, “Bang ’em all up and throw away the key,” fail then to say how much that would cost and how on earth we would pay for it.
The Bill recognises the failures of too many short-term sentences, as well as the fact that some people need to spend longer in prison. We are now considering the reform of indeterminate sentences for public protection. The last Government changed the distinction between short and long-term imprisonment, which fell at four years. Under their legislation, there was no such distinction. Those who got four years served three quarters of their sentence; those who got less than four years served half. Labour abolished that, so that all prisoners on determinate sentences were automatically released halfway through. We are now considering reforming imprisonment for public protection so that the most serious offenders return to serving three quarters of their sentence. We should welcome the measures, as I certainly do.
I am grateful that the Government have listened and consulted, especially among those of us who have only recently returned from the front line of the criminal justice system. I welcome the fact that we will not increase the amount of discount for a guilty plea to 50%. I spoke out against that without any difficulty. I urge the Government to go further and consider freeing our judges so that there is no mandatory figure. In some cases, a discount of more than 50% is needed and would be welcomed, while in other cases, there should be no discount however early a plea is entered. My message to the Government is to free our judges.
I know that many Government and Opposition Members have concerns about legal aid. I urge the Government to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable in our society continue to have access to legal aid, especially women, who might be abandoned by feckless and adulterous husbands or partners who leave them penniless while themselves remaining in funds. Such women will not have access to legal aid to ensure that they are properly sorted out in the proceedings on divorce and ancillary relief for them and their children. We must protect them.
I am afraid that the clock is against me; I wanted to talk about IPPs. I welcome the Government’s proposals and I look forward to the consultation. I also put in a quick plug for the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), who is determined to increase sentences for dangerous driving, which is a thoroughly good idea. The Bill is a mixture of soft and hard. It is realistic, given the circumstances, and I commend it thoroughly to the House.
It is always an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). I agree with some of what she says, and certainly with her remarks on my Bill about dangerous driving.
I do not disagree with everything that the Government propose in the Bill, but I have concerns about parts of it. On civil liberties, for example, clause 12, which seeks to limit advice and assistance in a police station, is a mistake. It is no good for the Government to say that the previous Government proposed to do similar things; I am concerned about what this Government are doing. Section 58(1) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 provides that people in a police station are entitled to legal advice from a solicitor in private consultation. That absolutely must remain. Clause 52 proposes to prevent people from recovering defence costs in Crown courts. If they pay their own fees, they will be prevented from recovering their costs if they are successful at trial. That is a mistake.
I am concerned that the Government seem to be ignoring advice. Some of it is very good—the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) made some superb remarks about what effects she thinks the Government’s plans will have—but the Government seem to be passing it off as irrelevant and unimportant. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Broxtowe says that that is not right, but I have seen it. The Bar Council has provided detailed proposals for alternative savings. I have seen no evidence of the Government’s acknowledging those proposals. That also applies to Law Society proposals. I agree with the remarks of the Bar Council, my professional body, that the Bill represents do-it-yourself justice, not access to justice.
Of course, solicitors, whether family or criminal—whatever the nature of the practice—are bound to want to protect themselves from cuts to their businesses. However, in my experience, publicly funded lawyers do not act just for money but because they want to help people, give them advice and protect them from often complex law. Lawyers always say that law is complex—we are bound to do that. I say it constantly, even to myself. However, it is genuinely difficult, and the procedure is often complicated. Lay people struggle with the most basic proceedings, and I have real concerns about the Government’s agenda. It is truly the most vulnerable who will suffer the consequences of the Government’s proposals.
Let us consider only a few of the matters that will be outside the scope of legal aid provision: clinical negligence, criminal injuries compensation, debt, education and employment. It is madness. Providing employment advice and assistance saves money in the long run. If a client goes to an experienced employment solicitor with instructions about a case, the solicitor is often the filter that prevents them from completing what is nowadays called an ET1 and getting it to a tribunal. That prevents costs in the long run. The Government have failed to recognise that.
Employment tribunals do not currently have the power to order costs. What about a position whereby a malicious claim is made, someone defends their character and fights all the way but cannot be awarded costs at the end? Does the hon. Gentleman think that that needs to change?
I am not sure. I do not think that I have time to consider the hon. Gentleman’s point properly and give him a fair answer. It worries me that, although the Government are trying to save money, not providing advice and assistance at this early stage will cost them much more in the long run.
Excluding housing law and welfare benefits will mean the most vulnerable in society suffering the most. The Chairman of the Bar said:
“The Government has failed to listen to the views expressed by many in the judiciary, the legal profession and voluntary organisations in formulating its proposals on legal aid.
Legal aid will be withdrawn from whole swathes of areas of law and access to justice will be systematically deprived.”
I agree entirely. He does not have an axe to grind. He has been in the profession for a terribly long time and should be respected for his professional opinion.
I could mention many solicitors in my area who have contacted me in recent days to warn me of the dangers of lack of access to justice. They make those points not because they are worried about not buying the next flash car, but because they represent people and they care about those clients. I mean that sincerely.
The Bill falls into two distinct parts, despite its tripartite title: first the reforms to sentencing and the punishment of offenders, and secondly the changes to legal aid.
On the first part, I welcome the key changes. The public need reassurance that this Government can protect them from crime and tackle the issue of reoffending, about which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) spoke so well. I particularly welcome the work for prisoners’ reform. Locking up offenders is fine, but how much better to have them repaying their debt by working, and increasing their own motivation and appetite for work on exit. Part of that must be the crackdown on drug abuse inside prisons. I completely agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) when she pointed out how many people recently have expressed their concern and outrage at the concept of drug-free wings in prison. Our ultimate aspiration must be drug-free prison. That, above all, will help people avoid offending. I welcome this tough but fair Bill, which addresses the problems of drugs and worklessness in that respect.
Turning to the legal aid side and the cuts in the civil sector, the Government have provided much evidence of the disproportionate costs of legal aid in this country, and I do not doubt it. I agree heartily with the strategy of discouraging too much litigation, particularly at a cost to the public purse. But surely the challenge that we are setting ourselves is to fillet out areas of waste while leaving intact the essential service of legal aid for the most vulnerable.
I wonder whether the cuts as currently set out fall too harshly in an area that has as its sole objective the support for people who are least able to speak up for themselves. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) said, that area is not replete with fat cat lawyers; it is mostly populated by men and women who are committed to helping the most needy in their communities. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] As we know, not everyone is able to speak up for themselves. We talk of telephone lines and of self-representations at tribunals, which are things that MPs could do, although naturally we hope not to be in that situation, but which many people who are less educated simply cannot.
I therefore ask the Government to consider carefully the issue of taking welfare benefits out of scope. That phrase needs some explanation; when talking to colleagues I have found that not everyone understands it. What it means is professional advice going to people who need it, regarding their welfare claims on the ground. It sounds trivial but it is absolutely not. This is about critical sums of money for families who need every penny—and, by the way, most of these situations do not involve a lawyer.
In Hastings, three agencies have come together. They have a contract for £270,000, and last year they gave face-to-face service to 1,500 people—detailed advice and support, often including accompanying them to tribunals. Make no mistake: we need those services. I am told that 56% of those who attended that service had long-term illness or disability, and of those 69% had mental health issues. Where will they go? I hope we shall have an answer, because although we have had some encouraging comments from Ministers we need reassurance that there is somewhere for those people to go if that service is taken away.
Last year, the Hastings advice and representation centre supported 250 benefits appeals, of which it lost only two, which clearly demonstrates the value of that work and the fact that it takes things on only where there is a real case to answer. If we knew that the Department for Work and Pensions made only good decisions and that the reforms to universal credit which we are so looking forward to had come through and the system worked 100%, I would have no doubts about supporting the cuts to that aspect of legal aid, but at the moment we know that is not the case, and while that problem exists we must have a system to support these people.
I am not saying that there are no cuts to be made—oh no. We have a major deficit to sort out and we must make these cuts. The Law Society has made some suggestions; I have another. I would like to look very carefully at the funding of trivial human rights cases, in which lawyers have spent huge sums on establishing largely technical violations of the European convention. For instance, how much money was spent last year by the last Government on legal aid for prisoners? Can we have less legal aid for prisoners and more for the most vulnerable in our society?
Thirty years ago, as secretary of the Brent Trades Council and the Brent Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations, I brought together, with progressive lawyers, the group that formed the second community law centre in Britain. It is still going strong to this day. For three decades, the centre has been a lifeline for those in need of legal advice and representation, challenging public authorities as we did when we won the battle to change housing regulations following the tragic death of a young husband on a high-rise block on the Stonebridge estate; he had been trapped because there was no way out of his burning flat.
Three decades on, as the Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Erdington, I was alongside four brave families who, funded by legal aid, won a landmark case against Birmingham city council, which had cut care to 4,100 elderly and disabled residents in Birmingham. Without legal aid, justice for the vulnerable would have been denied and a heartless council would have ploughed on regardless.
The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) spoke on behalf of many on both sides of the House when she summed up the nature of the dilemma. Hundreds come to my surgery, as they do to hers, every month. Many face urgent and serious problems relating to everyday issues such as debt, employment, benefits, care services and family matters. I often refer them to specialists such as those at the Birmingham Law Centre, Citizens Advice or other legal aid solicitors.
Without that help, the people I see would not be able to stay in their homes, in work or in education. The vital advice provided by the specialists in social welfare law has helped many families and individuals whom I see to avoid costly litigation and prevent or mitigate the effects of marital and family breakdown.
Now, under these proposals, 650,000 at recent estimates—and half a million, according to the Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment—will lose out on that vital help through changes to legal aid alone, when other funding streams for free advice have already been cut or are under threat. In Birmingham, about 6,500 cases will no longer be funded as a consequence. Each represents a loss of specialist help when it is most needed.
Legal aid funding is being withdrawn from all employment advice, welfare benefits advice, virtually all debt advice, nearly half of housing advice and nearly all education advice. There can be only one outcome: avoidable poverty and distress for many thousands of people. Not only will people be less likely to receive advice, but advice will be harder to find as agencies currently funded through legal aid find it more difficult to carry on. For example, the average impact of the cuts on individual not-for-profit providers will be a 92% drop in legal aid. That makes no sense, given that we know that the right advice early on can save the public purse up to £10 for every £1 invested.
It is absolutely wrong that in a civilised society, when things go wrong, we deny the people affected access to the specialist help that they need to put things right. As the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) said, we need to tackle the root of the problem—poor decision making by the various state bodies involved—as well as continuing to invest in the existing value-for-money front-line advice services such as the five tremendous citizens advice bureaux and the 13 advice centres in Birmingham.
In conclusion, the Government said that they made their legal aid proposals following consultation. It is clear that these are friendless proposals. It is clear that there has been a dialogue with with the deaf because the Government simply have not listened. They have not listened to people such as Gillian Gray from Citizens Advice, who says that civil legal aid keeps people in their houses, in jobs and out of debt. Hundreds of thousands of people will now have nowhere to turn. Serious cases of family breakdown, unfair dismissal and refusal of benefits will simply get nowhere.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), I was present to hear Supreme Court Justice Baroness Hale earlier this week as she forensically dissected the Government’s proposals, arguing that access to the courts without representation is a denial of justice. In her words:
“There is a well-known ironic saying, usually attributed to Lord Justice Mathew, that in England justice is open to all—like the Ritz.”
Justice for the well-off only is no justice at all.
I speak as a lawyer who practised as a criminal barrister and, for a period of time, appeared in the county court representing victims of domestic violence in seeking non-molestation and harassment injunctions and looking at contact and family law cases. With all that in mind, I consider the Bill in two parts. First, I look at it in terms of improving our criminal justice system and our justice system overall. What do I mean by that? I mean making our justice system more friendly and less acrimonious, and resolving matters at an earlier stage rather than allowing them to go to court. People have talked about mediation and said that it may not be possible in every case. Of course, that is right. However, it is right and proper to consider how to resolve matters before they get to the courts.
Let us consider the consultation proposals put forward for the small claims courts. It is absolutely right that matters are resolved before they get to court because it is often the case that people lose more in legal fees than they gain in compensation or fees awarded back to them by the court.
Mediation cannot, however, be used in cases of domestic violence. That is why the 5,000 responses to the Government’s 12-week consultation made it clear that the Government had broadened the criteria for objective evidence to be used in domestic violence cases.
I turn briefly to a matter that is often raised with me by my constituents, who say that it is morally wrong that legal aid is being given to squatters to fight eviction. I asked the Department for Communities and Local Government how many squatters there are in the United Kingdom, and was told that there are 20,000. How can it be right that people can occupy the homes of others and cause damage, and then be given legal aid by the taxpayer—your money, my money—to fight eviction? That is absolutely wrong, and it is right and proper that the Government are carrying out consultation to improve the situation. That would also put us on a par with Scotland, where squatting is a criminal offence.
I want briefly to touch on the subject of legal aid being given to foreign students who want to appeal decisions on visa applications. It is fantastic that people from different parts of the world want to study in our country, but when they apply for a visa at the high commission or embassy in their country and are turned down, they appeal to immigration judges in our country. Who pays for that legal aid? Those students do not pay taxes. British citizens pay for that legal aid. That is wrong and it must stop.
Another important point about immigration cases, which the Bill deals with, is the instances of repeated appeals on judicial review on the same point, one after the other. I spoke to an immigration tribunal judge who raised that very point. He said that people make numerous appeals, one after the other, on the same point, and get legal aid. Clearly that is wrong, and it has to change.
The Law Society proposes that legal aid be capped at £250,000 per lawyer, but that is unworkable as it means that legal aid would have to be transferred to another lawyer. Its proposal does not tackle the root cause.
The shadow Justice Secretary said that under the previous Government reoffending and offending behaviour had been looked at. That is complete nonsense. I tabled a written question to the Ministry of Justice asking how many prisoners had lost remission for disciplinary offences in the previous 12 months. The answer revealed that
“in 2009 the disciplinary punishment of additional days was imposed on 11,550 occasions”.—[Official Report, 27 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 517W.]
That quite clearly shows that the system is shambolic. In the past, prisoners did whatever they wanted and misbehaved, yet they were let out early. That is the record of the previous Government.
The Secretary of State spoke of rehabilitation and of prisoners doing 40 hours of work. A judge imposing a custodial sentence will be able to instruct the defendant to work for 40 hours and pay compensation to his victim. That is restorative justice and it stops the victim being hung out to dry.
I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s proposals. We must listen and engage, but the 12-week consultation showed that we have listened about broadening the definition of domestic violence and are working with other parties to ensure that hard-working taxpayers’ money is not given to people who enter properties, cause damage and yet are given money to avoid eviction.
Applying the principle that brevity is a virtue and not a vice, I end my remarks.
I want to discuss a problem that the Bill creates for the victims of human rights abuses committed by UK-based multinationals operating overseas.
In the wake of the financial crisis there is near-universal recognition that the moral code that binds individuals and states also binds business, that nobody is above the law and that multinational corporations cannot be allowed to put profit before people by committing crimes against them and the environment. That is why I am deeply concerned about the proposals on civil litigation costs, which will make it virtually impossible to bring cases against multinationals.
Members will know that such cases are lengthy, taking several years, if not decades, to bring to court. Teams of lawyers are required to work overseas, often in group actions, and, as in the South African miners’ case against Cape plc, companies seek to cover the impact of their actions, creating significant difficulties for lawyers gathering evidence to put before courts.
Such cases are not eligible for legal aid. They are brought under a conditional fee agreement or a no win, no fee basis. Given the costs and risk incurred, law firms rely on the success fee to cushion them and to future-fund other cases. As the success fee will no longer be recoverable, the ability to take a case will be severely restricted. The success fee costs us nothing: it is paid by the defendant, but it is vital.
Taken with the proposal to prevent claimants from recovering after-the-event insurance, that will be absolutely devastating. The Government accept that, because of the high costs, this approach is not appropriate for clinical negligence cases. I urge them to think again about these cases, which are similar in terms of the high costs incurred in taking cases to court.
Proposals outside the Bill make the situation worse. The Government intend to introduce a proportionality rule so that costs awarded do not exceed compensation in successful cases. In the cases I have mentioned there is a particular problem with that. Since 2009, the Rome II regulation has meant that compensation awarded to victims is based on the country where the harm was done, but the costs in the UK are considerably higher and will outstrip the compensation. That is why there is a particular issue in this case. Taken together, the three measures will mean that it will be impossible for victims of human rights abuses to get redress.
There are countless examples of where harm has been done. Many Members on both sides of the House fought hard on the Trafigura case in Ivory Coast. There is also Cape plc in South Africa and Rio Blanco in Peru. Victims cannot usually get redress at home, which is why it falls to the UK to act. That is no surprise when we consider that the power of such companies often outstrips the power of the states in which they operate. Wal-Mart has a turnover of $414 billion, which would make it the 26th biggest economy in the world, ranking just behind Norway. It is no wonder that people cannot get redress in their home states.
Last week, the Lord Chancellor told me in answer to a question that he would stand up for the small man. One cannot get much smaller or more voiceless than the people I am describing but his proposals will make the situation much worse, not better. That is not just my view but that of Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth. It is also the view of Professor John Ruggie, the UN special representative on business and human rights, and of Michael Mansfield QC. On this specific issue, he said that the proposals were a
“flagrant violation of the coalition’s own commitment to human rights.”
That is why I am asking for exemption in these particular cases.
Speaking at a packed meeting for MPs that I hosted last week, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Mike Posner, said that the impact of business will be the defining human rights issue of the 21st century. He said that in the wake of a landmark resolution passed unanimously by the UN this month. It was a landmark in that it was the first time in the 65-year history of the UN that a resolution that was not negotiated by the UN has been passed unanimously.
The UK should be leading the way on this issue. It will cost absolutely nothing, but the cost will be devastating for some of the most vulnerable people in the world if we fail to act.
I welcome the continuing focus of Ministers on tackling the country’s appalling levels of reoffending, which we have heard a lot about. I want to focus my comments on the need to tackle drugs dependency among prisoners, not least because to reduce reoffending is to reduce the number of victims, a point to which many hon. Members have returned.
For many low-level offenders, turning them away from crime back to the law-abiding majority depends on a system of rehabilitation that works. The one that we inherited is clearly flawed. Reoffending rates for short prison sentences of less than 12 months had increased to 61% in 2008.
The statistics linking drug addiction among prisoners and reoffending rates are stark. Evidence submitted to the “Breaking the Cycle” Green Paper stated that, from a sample of offenders, 62% of those who had taken drugs in the four weeks prior to custody were reconvicted within a year of leaving prison. That compared to 30% reconviction rates among prisoners who had never used drugs. If we want to address recidivism, tackling drug taking in prison must come incredibly high on the agenda, not least stopping prisoners getting a habit inside, on which we have heard some horrendous statistics.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), I welcome the pilot programme of drug-free wings in our prisons. We have all said that we would prefer that the need for them were the exception rather than the rule, but the reality of our prison system is that people go to extraordinary lengths to smuggle illegal drugs in. The Ministry of Justice’s own survey last November found that 19% of offenders questioned had tried heroin for the first time in prison, so it is a vital subject to tackle and an abject record that we have inherited.
I very much welcome the fact that the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are showing joined-up thinking on this. The Home Office’s drug strategy 2010 document sets out clearly the need to tackle the counter-productive influence of drugs in prison, boosting intelligence capabilities and security technology in prisons. Those are both key factors in dealing with the problem. Both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice have highlighted the need for integrated support to help drug-reliant offenders.
This Government are taking a proactive approach to rehabilitating and supporting prisoners addicted to drugs, both illegal and prescription. Some who are released do not want to go on to commit other offences but their reliance on substances is the route to reoffending. Many of them want to free themselves from drugs but instead slip through the net. One is a constituent who wrote to me earlier this year who was coming to the end of an 18-month sentence. After a course of painkillers in prison, he became addicted to significant doses of diazepam. He was desperate to get off drugs before he was released. He knew that if he was released addicted, he would be drawn back towards the same circle of people and propelled back into crime. I was able to help him, but he told me he had exhausted all other avenues of getting help, and that cannot be right. He subsequently found help in the community with an ex-offenders charity. He is now training in a useful skill, and even hopes to start a small business. That is a positive story, but I fear it does not apply for far too many people. Many people are simply released still addicted to drugs and in a vulnerable state, and are then sucked back into the same criminal circles, making it almost inevitable that they will relapse.
There is clearly great benefit in taking a proactive and multidisciplinary approach to tackling this problem. If drug recovery wings are successful, I hope that the pilot will be rapidly expanded, particularly as they have proved to be especially successful for women. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye that we should aspire to have drug-free prisons, and there are some good examples from around the world. The Sheridan correctional facility in Illinois was reopened as a purpose-built drug rehab prison in 2004 and has had some very encouraging results over the last eight years. The reoffending rates of the prisoners released from there are between 20% and 50% lower than for those released from traditional facilities in Illinois.
Reducing reoffending rates and tackling drug addiction have both a clear economic benefit, as has been discussed, and a clear social benefit. We want fewer victims of crime, and we want to help offenders get clean and go straight, and get a job, pay their taxes and keep their families together. I welcome the Secretary of State’s approach on this matter.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate, but I shall follow the Whip’s advice and be as brief as possible as I know that many other Members wish to contribute.
My interest in the penal system began when I was 19, when I did work experience—or what might now be called an internship—at HMP Frankland, a category A prison with every one of its inmates serving a sentence of more than four years. I worked there for six months, and later in my career I worked at YOI Deerbolt, followed by a stretch at Dartmoor before returning to Frankland. I have therefore seen a bit of life inside.
I commend the Secretary of State on his ambition and on the headline of “rehabilitation revolution”, because that is undoubtedly what is needed. The problem, however, is that despite the headline, the story he is attempting to tell is full of unfinished or unwritten chapters. When the Bill reaches Committee, I hope that Committee members will seek to find the answers to the outstanding questions, because there are a lot of holes in the information that we have been given so far.
I am at odds with some of my party colleagues in that I am a fan of imprisonment for public protection. When I was working at Frankland—a dispersal prison—in the early ’90s, which was a pre-indeterminate sentences era, some category A inmates who had served life sentences and had not been recommended for de-categorisation through the prison system were set free, even though their probation report, psychology report, education report and personal officer report said, “This inmate will reoffend. He is a danger.” That did not happen very often, but it did happen. Some such inmates were released, and there was nothing we could do about it. The courts could do nothing about it; that was the system at the time. It is good that we no longer have that, but I hope that when the IPP system is reviewed the Secretary of State will take great care to ensure that public protection is at the forefront of his mind, rather than reducing the number of IPP inmates.
I know there are strong calls from inmates and their families for the system to be reformed, but the essence of these sentences must remain in place. There is a place for indeterminate sentencing in our system. When an inmate says to me, “Miss, I’m on an IPP, what can I do about it?” I say, “Sort yourself out. First, admit your guilt.” It is amazing how many people fail to do that, and until someone has confronted their own internal offending behaviour, there is absolutely no point whatever in sending them on any course—any anger management, drugs rehabilitation or social skills course—because it will not succeed until they have confronted their offending behaviour.
The thing that upsets me most about the Bill is the lack of concern for victims. The fandango that we went through on 50% reductions and discounts in sentences was an insult to victims. The recent treatment in court of Milly Dowler’s parents lacked any trace of humanity whatever. It is appropriate for the Secretary of State to say, “This is not acceptable. I will look at this and do something about it.” In any case, we need more than words. We need clear actions to put a stop to that kind of behaviour in court. It damages not only individuals but future witnesses, and victims will be less likely or willing to put themselves in that position—I do not blame them.
Opposition Members are frequently asked, “What should happen?” As someone who has worked in prisons, I have some very strong views on that. I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with the Prison Officers Association. I disagree with the POA on private prisons—I believe that there is a role for them—but we need more openness. The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) has said that she would welcome the increased use of private prisons. She might have a point, but I would not welcome that until we can find out, using the freedom of information method, what they do on rehabilitation, what their outcomes are, how they treat their staff and what medical provision they offer. At the moment, we cannot do that.
Prison officers have no idea when an inmate has gone on to reoffend, unless the inmate goes back on to their wing. Closing that feedback loop of information to include sentencers, prison officers and probation officers is essential if the Secretary of State is to get anywhere near to a rehabilitation revolution. I can tell him that with his current proposals, he will get nowhere near that. He should cut the rhetoric and the hubris, and he should get down to some real policies that will make a difference.
I welcome the Bill’s focus on making the criminal justice system more victim oriented. In the few minutes allowed, I shall focus my contribution on what more can be done in the Bill to help to prosecute and punish offenders for the crime of child sexual exploitation.
Despite being a mother of three children, I was unaware that horrendous crimes were being perpetrated in my community—crimes of online grooming, and the sexual abuse and rape of children. Like most of my constituents, as the news broke of the prosecution of Michael Williams last year, I found it difficult to believe that such crimes were possible in this century and this country, and especially in the community where I grew up.
A few months later, the further revelation of six men operating a paedophile ring in my part of Cornwall—it was uncovered and prosecuted by Devon and Cornwall police’s Operation Lakeland—forced me to find out more about the horrendous crimes that those men perpetrated against children as young as five years old. I am impressed by the determination to tackle and prevent that and to raise awareness shown by the Home Secretary, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who has responsibility for children, and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who has responsibility for crime prevention. However, they need some help from their colleagues in the Ministry of Justice in two respects. First, the Ministry of Justice could improve support for young witnesses who give evidence in criminal proceedings, and secondly, it could improve sentencing policy.
As with all crimes, to secure successful prosecutions witnesses must be prepared to come forward, give evidence and be cross-examined in court. Unless witnesses, their families and carers believe that they will be supported and fairly treated when they go to court, they will not come forward. I am grateful to Sheila Taylor of Safe and Sound Derby who has given me information on cases that vividly illustrate why the current system must change.
The first case concerns a 15-year-old girl who was repeatedly sexually abused. She was forced to give evidence in court for eight days, and she was cross-examined by a team of nine defence lawyers, including, on one occasion, by five in a row, working as a team to try to undermine her evidence. Although the court showed respect for the defendant’s human rights, there was no understanding of how the crimes perpetrated against the victim had left her a vulnerable and terrified witness. She was physically sick every day before she came to court and became so traumatised by the experience that she ran away from home during the case. Sadly, the case was dropped. The second case concerns a girl who, when shown into the witness box, found that the screens promised to her to prevent her from having to see the people who had abused her had been forgotten. Seeing the men who had sexually abused her, she understandably became hysterical. As such, she was deemed unfit to give evidence, and again the case was dropped.
I want to improve the experience and cross-examination of children in our courts. I am fully aware that the Ministry of Justice has prioritised this concern with the recent publication of “Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings: Guidance on Interviewing Victims and Witnesses, and Using Special Measures”. However, there is still an issue about how to get legal practitioners to use it. The majority of cases that go to trial at the Crown court have first to go through a plea and case management hearing. According to Crown Prosecution Service guidance, a PCMH is compulsory only where the child is a defendant but not a victim. That should be changed.
Such a hearing should be compulsory for both a child defendant and complainant, because the PCMH, which is purely an administrative hearing at which outstanding issues of law or procedure are dealt with by the judge before trial or evidence commencement, provides the judge with an opportunity to give a direction to all counsel that they should abide by the Ministry’s own “Best Evidence” publication when dealing with young witnesses, be they defendants or complainants. If such judicial direction was made compulsory at the PCMH, lawyers could not say that they had no knowledge of such information or that their approach was the norm in practice.
Furthermore, some judges need to be made aware of this issue and be encouraged to intervene when questioning methods are inappropriate. Publishing guidance for judges in the criminal procedures rules would greatly improve good practice. I believe that the Government really want to make our criminal justice system more victim-orientated. What better place to start than with the children and young people who are the victims of the most horrendous of crimes? What better way to convince them and society as a whole that we consider these crimes to be totally unacceptable than by ensuring that perpetrators serve long sentences, including life sentences—sentences designed to ensure that they will not be released until they have demonstrated that they have effectively controlled their sexual urges and can resist reoffending.
For the victims, the combination of the crimes perpetrated against them, even when the disclosure and subsequent support is excellent, and the experience of giving evidence in court can give them a lifelong sentence of suffering. Is this fair? Surely, the life sentence should go to the perpetrator not the victim. I urge the Government, therefore, while the Bill passes through the House—
I want to speak today about legal aid and social welfare law, not because I am an expert in either, but by drawing on my many years’ experience in education and my year as a new MP. Before that, however, I want to comment on today’s debate. As with many debates, some hon. Members have popped in, ranted a bit and left, but overall this afternoon I have sat through some of the most informed and thoughtful contributions that I have ever heard in the House. They have come from Members on both sides of the House and indicate the level of concern on both sides. It was a shame that the Lord Chancellor was not here for the contributions from his colleagues the hon. Members for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and for Dewsbury (Simon Reevell).
I am pleased that the Lord Chancellor listened to those contributions, because they were worth hearing.
If legal aid for social welfare law, which currently funds advice centres and, in some instances, representation for people with such problems, stops being available, it will affect large numbers of people. I particularly want to discuss parents who have issues with education, disabled people who incorrectly or inappropriately have their access to benefits withdrawn and those who, because of medical negligence, need access to additional resources and support.
I have worked in education for many years, and I have seen many parents who were very angry that their children had been refused admission to their preferred school. Most of the parents I have come across were quite capable of standing up for themselves and their children in admissions appeals, but some needed additional help. I welcome the Government’s recent moves to take out of these proposals access to legal aid to support parents who need advice on preparing special educational needs tribunals. Nevertheless, if the proposals go through, vulnerable parents, or parents who have SEN themselves, will no longer be able to get the advice they need on admissions or exclusions. We all accept that middle-class, educated and socially mobile parents are best placed to get their children into the schools of their choice and that it is the more vulnerable, poorly educated and socially immobile parents who are least successful in the admissions process. Some 70% of pupils who are excluded from school have SEN in some form or other, and many of their parents also have SEN. Those people need advice and representation, but that will no longer be available to them.
Last Friday, I met representatives of my local citizens advice bureau in Consett who told me that they are bracing themselves for the increased numbers of people who will come to them as a result of changes in welfare reform. My constituency office staff and I are making arrangements and preparing ourselves for the increased work load as people are reassessed for disability living allowance and employment support and are put through new assessments.
At my surgery on Saturday, I met an elderly couple who told me that their middle-aged daughter had received notification of a forthcoming review. She has severe learning difficulties and mental health problems but no physical or visible disability. The mother broke down in tears as she told me that her daughter was eagerly looking forward to telling the people at the interview how well she could look after herself, cook for herself and dress herself appropriately, none of which is true. However, although none of it is true, it will have an immediate effect on her access to benefits. I have no doubt whatever that the decision will be overturned on appeal, but the parents told me that they have had years of being burdened down by caring, anxiety and worry about the future, and that they simply cannot face another battle with the benefits agency and the appeals people. In the past, I would have been able to signpost those people to the right kind of legal advice, but I will not be able to do that in future.
If the proposals go through, there will no longer be access to legal aid for housing matters. As a new MP, I have been stunned by the amount of casework I have had on housing, none of which is trivial. Those cases are not about people who fancy a council house, but about people have real priority needs, such as elderly couples who are now disabled, a lady who has gone blind, disabled young people who need access to appropriate housing and people who are at risk of losing their homes. Legal aid will no longer be available to those people when their landlord, housing company or local authority fails to meet their statutory duties.
Legal aid will no longer be available to fund help and representation in cases of medical negligence. In my job before I came to Parliament I worked with a number of parents whose children suffered profound and multiple learning, physical and sometimes medical needs as a result of medical negligence. Using legal aid, those parents were able to secure a financial future for their child, to adapt their homes and to access therapy that would improve their children’s lives. That will no longer be available to them. I think that the most vulnerable in society will be affected by the measures and I ask the Lord Chancellor to reconsider these matters, but I do not have the slightest hope that he will.
There can be no doubt that change is needed in this area. We spend record amounts on the criminal justice system and incarcerate record numbers of people, and yet the conveyor belt to crime and the cycle of reoffending remain intact. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) listed some of the disturbing reoffending statistics. The cost of offending by ex-prisoners now stands at £11 billion per annum. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) reminded us of the purposes of imprisonment—retribution, restoration and rehabilitation. We should of course add to those prevention and deterrence. We need to be bold and adventurous in the way that we go about those things because, in the words of the old saying, “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”
This is a Second Reading debate, so we are voting on the principles of the Bill, and I shall certainly vote in favour. On legal aid, there are clearly considerable concerns about several aspects that will have to be carefully considered. It is also undeniable, however, that we need to deal with the much-increased bill for legal aid. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) thought that the shadow Secretary of State had listed how he and his party would go about doing that, because the right hon. Gentleman said on several occasions that he was about to do so, but I am afraid that we never quite got that list.
Prison, at its heart, is about punishment, but it is also, vitally, about rehabilitation. Several hon. Members have talked about the importance of getting prisoners off drugs, and of course alcohol as well, but there are other important aspects of helping offenders to prepare for life on the outside and improving their ability to live a full, positive and constructive life. I want to touch on one of those, work, and the related matter of financial capability. A lot of good work is done on work in prisons by the likes of DHL, Travis Perkins, Cisco Systems and Timpson; I am delighted that the eponymous Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), is with us for this debate. In spite of that good work, less than a third of the prison population is in work in prison at any one time and, on average, prisoners do only 12 hours of work a week. That tends to suggest that we are still not nearly sufficiently far enough advanced from the situation in 2005, when the Home Affairs Committee described prison industries as being largely “peripheral” to the way in which the Prison Service went about its business.
I strongly welcome, in the Bill and in the Government’s approach, the commitment that prisons should be places of hard work and industry. Two aspects are particularly welcome: first, the ability to make deductions from work wages to go to support victims; and secondly, the ability to make deductions to create a savings account for the prisoner for when they eventually leave prison. If we are to realise those two ambitions to a significant degree, we will have to find ways to ensure that work in prison is of higher value so those deductions that can be afforded.
Debt and lack of financial capability is an acknowledged central factor in ex-offenders being unable to adjust properly to life outside prison and eventually in reoffending. Work by Paul Jones at Liverpool John Moore’s university identifies a clear statistical link in that prisoners who leave and are then able to open a bank account, with all the things that that leads to, including work, are much less likely to reoffend. In some prisons, there are already very encouraging pilots involving financial capability. The probation service, including in my own county of Hampshire, helps prisoners to deal with things such as budgeting and the advantages of opening a bank account.
Classes, and so on, are one thing, but there is no substitute for the practice of actually using financial services. That is why the ability to build up a small savings account is important, not so much for the amount of money involved, which would always be small, but in trying to encourage the development of a savings habit. I acknowledge the role already played by credit unions such as Leeds City Credit Union in working with prisons in this respect. More broadly, I hope that the Bill can facilitate an expansion and extension of payment by results, which I fully accept has a cross-party provenance, and rightly so. I hope that that will help to integrate work within prison and on release as a specialist and intensive branch of the Work programme.
I welcome the Bill because it has at its heart proper sentences that the public can have confidence in, but combines that very plainly with the rehabilitation of offenders by improving their ability to deal with life on the outside, while being innovative and bold in its approach to encouraging incentives and giving rewards for success.
I feel somewhat unqualified to take part in this debate, because we have heard from a lot of lawyers, and I confess to not being a lawyer. I must admit that I am marrying one at the beginning of August, but he is not affected by these changes.
I will speak about the changes to legal aid and the new provisions on knife crime. I do not stand here today to claim that the current system of legal aid is perfect, because it is not. The Opposition recognise that, and we made a commitment in our manifesto to reforming it, but reforming the system is different from decimating it, and that is what the Government propose to do. This Bill will restrict access to justice to those who can afford to pay, and it will leave some of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens completely defenceless. It is a shameful Bill, and I hope that it will change hugely as it progresses through Parliament.
One of the first occasions on which I had reason to think about the availability of legal aid was when I was a local councillor in Lewisham. I was the cabinet member for regeneration, and I led the council’s work to try to find a new Travellers site. Towards the end of the process, the authority’s decision to build a new site was subject to a judicial review challenge that was funded by legal aid.
I remember hearing how an elderly woman of limited means had been persuaded by her neighbours to front the challenge, and I remember being annoyed by that, questioning in my own mind whether it was right, but as time passed I concluded that it was right: right, because there is a fundamental principle at stake, and right that, irrespective of somebody’s means, they can challenge with the appropriate legal advice and assistance a decision that the state has taken.
Although I appreciate the Government’s plan to retain legal aid for such situations, I think that the principle has to apply across the board. Taking whole areas of social welfare law out of the scope of civil legal aid means that hundreds of thousands of people will not be able to secure the legal advice that they need on housing, education and benefits.
Many decisions challenged using legal aid are taken by the state. They include decisions not to award benefits or to provide housing, and some of that work requires a detailed understanding of the law, yet the Government seem to suggest that people will be able to go it alone. I honestly cannot see how that will work.
Every fortnight I hold my advice surgery, to which many people come with plastic bags full of paperwork, and I spend hours sifting through it with them to find the key document, and to understand what stage of the process they are at and whether they have a right to appeal against a decision. Those people are not the people for whom DIY justice, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) described it, is an option.
A few months ago I visited Morrison Spowart, a small firm of legal aid solicitors in my constituency. Solicitors at the firm are paid generally between £25,000 and £30,000. They are not City lawyers earning £100,000, but they do change people’s lives, and they talked me through a case in which a legal aid fee of £174 enabled them to overturn a council decision not to house a family, thereby avoiding a whole number of knock-on costs to the public purse, not to mention the misery that the decision would have caused the parents and children.
Members will know that organisation after organisation has sent out briefings for this Second Reading debate, talking about the false economy of these cuts to legal aid. The list of organisations that make the argument is a long one: the Law Society, Liberty, Shelter, Citizens Advice, the Law Centres Federation and the Child Poverty Action Group. I ask the Minister: are they all wrong? The Government have not listened to the consultation’s respondents, and, as I have already said, the Bill is shameful given what it proposes to do to access to justice.
In the final minute and a half of my speech, I turn to the new provisions on knife crime and the new offence of possessing a knife in aggravated circumstances. I represent a constituency where lives have been devastated by knife crime, and the Government will have to do much better than this Bill.
Last year I researched on YouTube the videos that gangs put up. Young men—probably boys, to be honest—brandish knives on the internet and wave them around in front of the camera as if they are just cigarettes. Tens of thousands of people have viewed these videos and I wonder whether that would qualify as aggravating circumstances. The videos glorify knife crime and the intimidating and aggressive violence that accompanies it, so I ask the Minister to think about such incidents and whether any change can be made to the law to try to tackle the culture that exists around the use of knives—
Some of the things that we see on the internet are of huge concern. I tried to get YouTube to take those videos down, but I did not really have a hope in hell of it doing so. I tried to interest Home Office Ministers in the issue and failed. We have to look at what is out there in cyberspace in order to tackle these issues. If anything will entice someone to get involved in knife crime, it might be the idea that they will get their 30 seconds of glory on the internet with 16,000 people looking at their video. Can we think about other ways to tackle this issue?
I do not think that the provisions in the Bill on knife crime will get to the nub of the problem. I cannot see what will really change as a result of these proposals. While I am inclined to support a mandatory sentence for possession of a knife in aggravated circumstances, I question what will really change.
I will keep my comments brief, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I think that it was the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) who said that she detected a theme in the contributions from coalition Members: I detect a theme in the contributions of Opposition Members. They criticise the Government for the action that we are taking, acknowledge that they would have done something about legal aid funding themselves, but completely fail to articulate what that alternative would be—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) says that we should look at Hansard. We will do so, but I can assure hon. Members that it will say absolutely nothing about what Labour would have done as an alternative.
What Labour’s proposals amount to is a £65 million cut from legal aid and a significant reduction in the number of firms that could practise legal aid. That would have a very heavy impact on the accessibility and availability of legal aid around the country. When the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) replies to the debate, I hope that he will confirm that that would have been the impact of Labour’s proposals.
It is clear that the legal aid reforms will have a significant impact, and there is no doubt that the changes will have an impact on existing legal aid users. That is why I am pleased that in Justice questions the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), confirmed that the Government have commissioned research on the ability of people on low incomes to access the courts, the availability of appropriately qualified lawyers prepared to undertake publicly funded work and the sustainability of legal services provided by bodies such as Citizens Advice. I hope that that research will become available very soon, so that we can assess the impact.
We need to keep these matters under review, especially in relation to litigants in person—an issue that the NSPCC raised with me, as I am sure it and other organisations have raised it with many other hon. Members. In a debate in the Justice Committee, the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) raised the issue of litigants in person—[Interruption.] He has woken up and is back with us. Given that exchange, I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary also said that a report is being commissioned at the moment on litigants in person, and he may be able to use this opportunity to confirm when that report will be published and whether it will include significant proposals on how we can ensure that the court process is simplified.
It would be more appropriate for the Minister to respond at the end.
Clearly, we are pleased that the concerns over the definition of domestic violence have been taken on board. I would have liked to have covered many other areas, including drug recovery wings, prisoner working and, as a starting point, prisoner volunteering—the listener schemes are very effective in that respect. I would also have liked to discuss the support that is provided to prisoners on release. Certainly there are some good organisations involved in that work, including Vision Housing, which is based in my constituency. It provides not only housing for ex-offenders but the support to ensure that they do not reoffend.
Finally, it is entirely appropriate for the Government to undertake a review of indeterminate sentences. The issue was identified many years ago by, among others, Lord Carlile, whom Opposition Members like to quote. In relation to IPPs, he said:
“The consequence of the IPP provision has been unpredicted, remains unpredictable and is shocking to many.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 December 2007; Vol. 697, c. 189.]
The views of Lord Carlile in 2007 are likely to be repeated by many Members today.
I would have also liked to touch on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, restorative justice schemes and the age of criminal responsibility, which I suspect might have been somewhat controversial.
In conclusion, this Bill contains many sound proposals. It is in good shape, but it is not perfectly formed yet. There are issues that we will need to address in Committee, but the Bill is making headway on our priorities, including tackling the scandal of reoffending and ensuring that providers are paid for by results, which will have a huge impact on the success of rehabilitation and on our ability to deliver a justice system that works.
In the short time that is available, let me highlight two or three points. First, in looking at meaningful and appropriate sentences, it is very important to ensure that community penalties are well designed and right. I welcome the recognition that Ministers are giving to the significance of such an aim. I am concerned that as further cuts have to be found in the justice budget, it will be probation that will bear the brunt.
The probation service in my constituency is already facing a 24% funding cut over three years. It has told me absolutely clearly that it cannot take any further cut without it compromising both the protection of the public and its ability to run programmes that will contribute to the reduction in reoffending that we all seek. It is particularly concerned that its ability to manage prolific offenders will be compromised if it has to undergo further cuts. The cuts will have an impact not just on the probation service, but—because of the multi-agency approach that it adopts for the management of prolific offenders—on those outside the ambit of the Lord Chancellor’s control, such as the police. The service is very anxious indeed that the cuts will have a damaging affect on its work.
Secondly, payment by results is a model that has been accepted across the House. None the less, it is important that we ensure that we design the models to secure the results that we want. In particular, we must not create short-term contracts. We cannot be rewarding organisations for keeping people out of the criminal justice system only for a very short period after they emerge from whatever sentence they have undergone. Let us ensure that these contracts are of a sufficient length to challenge providers to achieve long-term reductions in reoffending and that we make use of the best and most expert support from the private and voluntary sectors. There is much to be learned. I hope that the Lord Chancellor will use the experience that was gained from the provision and design of the Work programme. The role of voluntary and specialist providers was very much to pick up some crumbs from the private sector table rather than to have a proactive approach in helping to design the best- quality programmes.
Thirdly, let me briefly cover prisoner working. I welcome the intention to extend prisoner working and the comments that the Lord Chancellor made in response to a question from me recently in relation to ensuring that prisoner working would be not just any old work but meaningful work that would improve long-term employability, with an important link to prisoner education too. I hope that, as we consider the Bill, the Lord Chancellor can give us more information on prisoner working and tell us how exactly how the employability programmes run by the probation service will correlate with the DWP’s Work programme, which was alluded to by the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds).
I must tell the Lord Chancellor that there are some fears. For example, my probation service runs effective employability programmes for the offenders under its management that may not be what the DWP is looking for in the Work programme. It would seem extremely foolish to unwind effective programmes run in the criminal justice system, when a good bit of coherent planning across Departments could ensure that we have the best Work programme for those who are in the criminal justice system.
Finally, may I tell the Lord Chancellor that the prisoner working that has been available so far has not been brilliantly well-designed for women in custody? We need to consider how it can meet women’s needs while in custody and when they leave it, so that they can access the labour market. I am pleased that the Government are continuing with many of the reforms to the women’s custodial system that we began to put in place when in government, following Baroness Corston’s excellent recommendations, but I regret that we have now apparently lost a ministerial champion for women in the penal system. I strongly urge the Lord Chancellor to think about reinstating that important post to ensure that a focus on women in the custodial system remains centre stage.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I declare an interest as a legal aid practitioner for nearly 20 years and a recorder of a Crown court. I am one of those damned lawyers, I am afraid to say, and I apologise for that at the beginning of my speech.
I was particularly struck by the measured and reasonable contribution of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). I have great respect for the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), whose parents live in my constituency, and her contribution was excellent. If only the debate about legal aid and sentencing was heard in those tones throughout the House and in the media.
Twenty years ago, criminal justice and sentencing was not a matter for great and low party politics; it was a matter for measured discussion. There were occasional criminal justice Acts, to tidy up a system that was perhaps at times not keeping pace with the changes in our society, but then something got into the DNA of the body politic and things took a turn for the worse. Egged on by the populist press, politicians from both sides of the House got into an arms race about being tough on crime, as opposed to being soft.
Where are we now, 20 years later? We have ended up being just plain stupid on the subject—stupid in the amount of legislation that we have passed; stupid in the language that we have used about crime and criminality; and stupid and vain to claim that politicians’ actions in the House can have a significant effect on crime rates in this country. We know the real reasons why crime rises and falls; they are economic, familial and social. They relate to a range of issues that are best dealt with by means of crime prevention and social policy.
Opposition Members should take my speech in its intended spirit—that of cross-party co-operation. I invite them to make constructive proposals about what to do with our broken system. If they had got into power, they would have had to deal with the system.
No; I am afraid that I will not take interventions, as there is no time. I say that with great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, who has much experience in these matters. I am sure that he will forgive me, but there is a lot that I need to say. This is my first opportunity in 20 years to speak about criminal justice legislation from this side of the fence. I have been one of the people dealing with the reality of the impact of year after year of incontinence in legislation.
Court staff, practitioners and judges have all had to deal with the baleful consequences of the avalanche of work that ill-judged reform, sponsored by, among others, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who had the brass neck to come to the House today and tell us that, under his guidance, all was well with the world. He would not allow me to intervene on him. Had I done so—I am grateful that he is here—I would have reminded him about sentences of indeterminate length for public protection and the chaos that that system caused the Government. They were warned by the Court of Appeal that the system that they had introduced was in danger of being untenable.
As a result, the Government passed an Act in 2008 to amend the system, but it was still a bad system, because it was not transparent to the victims. When victims of crime went to court and heard about sentences of indeterminate length for public protection, they did not know what that meant; they did not know when the perpetrator of the crime against them was to be released. They did not understand the system. That was a failure of transparency. It was the single most important failure of the regime, which is why I will be glad after the review to see the back of the system and to see clear, long, determinate sentences with automatic release after two thirds of time is served. We have been here before; that was the system that existed before the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Sentences of longer than four years attracted automatic release after two thirds of the time was served. The merry-go-round has come around again.
Opposition Members say that the Bill is imperfect. That is inevitable, because it must undo years of damage inflicted by their party. The Bill is not finished business; I accept that. It would be good to have a consolidation Act to bring sentencing provisions under one umbrella. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Blackburn for doing so in 2000 with an excellent measure, but within two years it was all upended again by some brave new policy initiative designed to assuage the populist press. It is time to end the charade in the debate on criminal justice. It is time to start talking clever rather than tough. It is time to change the ambit of the debate. The Bill gives us an opportunity to do so, which is why I will support it on Second Reading.
This has been a mature and authoritative debate, and a better debate than this Bill deserves. Some 29 right hon. and hon. Members have spoken from the Back Benches, and by my reckoning, only four gave the Government unqualified or nearly unqualified support: the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry)—no surprise there—and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake)—and increasingly no surprise there either.
Many Members spoke about cuts to legal aid and advice: my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson); the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd); my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner); my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman); the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd); and my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for North West Durham (Pat Glass) and for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander).
Many Members discussed their concerns about the Bill’s sentencing provisions, including the hon. Members for Shipley (Philip Davies), for Dewsbury (Simon Reevell) and for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) and my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman). My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) made a forensic examination of the appalling provisions on remand. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) discussed the cuts in youth offending that occurred under the Labour Government. We heard from the Chairman of the Select Committee on Justice that the inefficiency of Departments is partly responsible for legal aid costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) told us about cuts to the probation service. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) gave a fine speech about conditional fee agreements and their importance in multi-party actions, particularly against large corporations. The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) spoke movingly about victims, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) spoke about drug dependency and the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) spoke about reoffending.
They were all excellent speeches, but I will mention three or four in particular. The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) spoke about the need for litigation in some cases, despite what the Lord Chancellor says. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) spoke from experience about the effects that the cuts will have on citizens advice bureaux and advice services. The hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) spoke about the need for sentencing reform and—I hope that I am not putting words in his mouth—the reasons why this Bill will not deliver it. Notwithstanding his tone, the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) made a fine speech. Those and many other speeches came from knowledge and experience of the criminal and civil justice system over many years. Therefore, whatever side of the House they came from, I hope that the Government will heed them.
The Bill was supposed to launch a rehabilitation revolution. Then the spin doctors decided that it would be the Bill to punish offenders, but it is neither. It is a damaging and unfunded mess. It will not protect the public, reduce crime, support victims or reform offenders, but do the opposite. It will place victims at risk, cut access to justice for all but the wealthiest and take away even basic legal advice and representation from the most vulnerable in society.
Legal aid, no win, no fee litigation, remand pending trial, access to legal advice on arrest, and a system that diverts young people from offending are coherent parts of a coherent justice system that is envied around the world. The Government put that at risk through the Bill. A dizzying series of U-turns on sentencing and swingeing cuts to police, probation and youth offending teams have created a shambles that will not keep us safe in the short term or lower prison numbers in the long term. We have already had the first warning. Yesterday’s figures show that, under this Government, crime in London is increasing, not decreasing, for the first time in years.
Access to legal aid for the poorest and most vulnerable people will now be the exception, not the rule. Cutting legal aid for housing, education, welfare benefits, debt and family cases will be an economic as well as a social disaster. That is the view of 5,000 individuals and organisations, many with decades of experience, expressed in their responses to the Government’s consultation. Citizens Advice, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Shelter, the Law Centres Federation, the Children’s Society and End Violence Against Women, to name but a few, explained why legal help and representation is good value for money. It is provided by lawyers who earn, on average, less than £25,000, citizens advice bureaux staff and volunteers, supplemented with pro bono advice. They explained why helping people at an early stage prevents homelessness, debt, family breakdown and crime, which end up costing society and the Treasury far more in the long run. They also explained—it should not be necessary to do so, but it is for this Government—the moral duty of a civilised society to support those most in need in the times of greatest stress.
The Government’s impact assessments confirm that women, children, disabled people and minority groups will suffer disproportionately from the cuts, to which the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), who is responsible for legal aid, responds, “What do you expect? They’re the ones getting legal aid now.” The Under-Secretary sounds increasingly like Marie Antoinette. I will do what the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked and cite Lord Ca