The Ministry of Justice does not regulate family mediation services, but it does award contracts for the provision of family mediation funded through legal aid to standards set by the Legal Aid Agency. We are aware that there has been a drop in referrals to mediation following changes to legal aid in April 2013, although there has been no drop in the number of mediations taking place. My Department is undertaking a range of activities to address this important issue.
We are working extremely hard to address the issue. One change that will come through when the Children and Families Bill becomes law relates to making it a requirement in a family process that the mediation referral takes place. However, as I say, the actual issue is about referrals, rather than about the number of mediations, which has not changed. We are working very hard with those in the mediation world to address that and ensure that the right referrals are made.
I would say the opposite to what the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) said: I am surprised that the number has fallen, because when the change to the regulations was made the Department gave full funding for all mediation to those in receipt of legal aid. Has the Minister thought, therefore, of encouraging more mediation by approaching lawyers and other venues to increase it?
We are following a number of different paths, including an increased promotion of mediation services and making some mediation compulsory as a result of the provisions in the Children and Families Bill. We are also looking for other measures to help ensure that mediation takes place. It is much better if these issues can be dealt with through a mediation service, rather than through the cost and difficulty of a full legal process.
But is the Secretary of State not aware that in the delicate environment of the beginning of a divorce case, specialist advice from legal practitioners leading to mediation is essential? That is why this Government’s policy has such a negative impact. Will he please look at it again?
I am not sure whether that is an attempted spending commitment from the hon. Gentleman. The reality is that we have had to take difficult decisions about the availability of legal aid in order to deal with the financial challenge we inherited. The issue is about trying to ensure that we make the best use of the network of mediators we have in this country. As I say, the number of actual mediations has not fallen, but we are not getting enough people into mediation in the first place. That is why we are changing the law, we are introducing better targeting of the routes into mediation and we are working with mediation organisations to help them get more people referred to them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there seems to be a lack of clarity in this area? For example, it would not be appropriate to refer to family mediation a case in which a woman on low income, who could not pay for legal advice, wants to protect her child from going into custody. Such a case should still be legally aided, rather than being addressed through mediation.