Consideration of Lords message
Secure colleges and other places of detention for young offenders etc
I beg to move,
That this House insists on its disagreement with Lords amendment 74 and proposes amendment (a) in lieu.
With this it will be convenient to consider: Government motion to disagree with Lords amendment 102B, and amendments (a) to (k) in lieu.
Government motion to insist on its disagreement with Lords amendments 103 to 106, and amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.
We need to focus on two areas of the Government’s programme of reform: secure colleges and judicial review. This House has divided on both matters on several occasions, and backed the Government each time. I have listened carefully to all the arguments made in this and the other place, and I have introduced amendments, which I am confident will provide a practical approach in each area sufficient to reassure hon. Members.
On secure colleges, the provisions reflect our ambition to improve the education and reoffending outcomes for young people in custody. Secure colleges represent a step change in youth custodial provision, putting education and training at the forefront, and moving away from the traditional environment of iron bars on windows. Almost all of the provisions that related to the introduction of secure colleges have now been approved by both Houses of Parliament. There is one matter that remains for this House today, which is whether girls and under-15s should be detained in secure colleges.
Members will recall that, at the beginning of December, this House overturned an amendment made by the House of Lords to prevent the accommodation of boys aged under 15 and girls in secure colleges. I am disappointed that we are discussing that same amendment, but I have considered carefully the concerns raised. Since the last time the matter was debated in the House, my noble colleague Lord Foulkes has committed to publish and lay before Parliament a report before any of those two groups are introduced to the first secure college. The report will explain the arrangements to be made for girls and under-15s, including how those groups will be safeguarded. Despite that commitment, the House of Lords nevertheless insisted on its earlier amendment to exclude them from secure colleges.
I have been clear throughout the passage of the Bill that we do not want to prevent in law girls and under-15s from in future being able to benefit from this pioneering approach and enhanced provision. We do not intend to put them in a secure college from day one and we do not intend to include them unless it is a project that is clearly demonstrating benefits. Therefore, I am entirely relaxed about the idea of Parliament considering this issue fully, because if it works, we will all support the idea of allowing those two groups to benefit from the change.
However, there is still some concern about the accommodation of those two groups, particularly alongside older boys. It is worth saying that girls and boys are accommodated alongside each other in secure training centres at the moment. I propose that we amend the Bill to make the commencement of the power to provide secure colleges for the detention of girls and under-15s subject to a resolution of both Houses of Parliament. That seems a simple solution. None of us will want to put them in the accommodation if the system is not working. If it is working, I cannot believe that any Government of whatever persuasion will want to deny those two groups access to what I believe will be a positive environment that will help them both to develop their skills and to fulfil the terms of a sentence of the court.
I hope that hon. Members welcome the significant steps that we are taking to address concerns while protecting the opportunity for girls and under-15s to benefit from the transformed provision secure colleges will deliver. Our measure will require the approval of this House but not the lengthy time frame that new primary legislation entails. I therefore ask the House to accept this amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 74.
Most of the Government’s proposals for judicial review reform have now been approved by both Houses of Parliament and two issues remain. Let me start with financial information. Our intent on this is entirely sensible. It is to ensure that there is less chance for those who fund and control a judicial review to escape their proper measure of costs liability, but the amendment is not about costs; it is purely about information. Let me stress to the House that this particular amendment, and the debate between us and the House of Lords, is about information and not costs. Concerns have been raised that requiring applicants to give the court information on how a judicial review is funded might discourage people from making a small contribution to help fund the litigation. That was never my intention. My intention is to avoid a situation in which people can shelter in anonymity, behind someone else, while funding all or most of a judicial review process.
We have explained before that we would take a “light touch” approach when specifying what information would be required. We now intend to address the concerns by ensuring that there will be a limit on the level of contributions that trigger the requirement to identify those who have provided funding. This amendment was introduced in the other place the last time it considered the Bill and was narrowly rejected, but I am confident that our approach is sound and will provide the protection we desire for smaller contributors, without allowing those with a larger interest who control litigation to avoid their due level of risk.
The debate in the other place was about how we could give comfort regarding the level at which the threshold will be set and how we will arrive at that number. I propose to set out the answer to that question today. I am content to say that the Government will commit to a consultation on where and how the threshold will be set. I am also content to inform the House that we will approach the consultation with a suggested figure of £1,500 in mind, and we are minded additionally to test a figure of 5% of the available funds.
Let me reiterate that the clause does not alter the courts’ existing powers to consider these types of situations and to make or to not make costs orders against third parties, if they consider it appropriate. Also, there is nothing in the clause that would cause an otherwise meritorious claim to be refused permission simply because the claimant was of modest financial means. The provision is about ensuring that a judge, in exercising their discretion on making a costs order, has all the information they could reasonably expect to have in front of them. I trust I have further reassured hon. Members that we will work to ensure that those who provide small amounts of funding do not need to be identified as providing financial support and are not likely to face costs liabilities.
The second judicial review topic—procedural defects—has prompted greater debate. I should start by apologising to the House for my confusion the last time we debated this issue in mixing up my highly likelies and my exceptional circumstances. Although I note that Opposition Members did not notice at the time, let us be clear this evening that I made that mistake and apologise to the House for it.
I think that our proposal on procedural defects is an equally common-sense reform as the one on financial information. We are trying to ensure that where a judicial review concerns a slight error—so slight that it is highly unlikely to have made a difference to the applicant and where the decision would have been the same regardless of that procedural defect—it will be deemed not to be a good use of court time for that judicial review to continue. It is not sensible to use tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money fighting judicial reviews when that money could be used to better effect in supporting our public services.
The Secretary of State talks about the outcome for the applicant, but it has been put to me by a number of organisations, particularly environmental organisations, that when they bring a judicial review, they do not do so on their own behalf. Is there a standing test, or does he not expect this to be a problem—that they will be able to go ahead if there is likely to be a substantial difference to the outcome overall?
I hope I can reassure the hon. Gentleman by saying that the legal advice I have received is that if an applicant passes the standing test, they would not be adversely affected by the provision.
We have tabled an amendment providing for an exception such that the challenge can continue or a remedy can be awarded where the court considers it appropriate because the matters at hand are of exceptional public interest. I have listened carefully to the debates and want to be clear that it needs to be an exceptional public interest and it must be quite clear to the court that the issues in question are exceptional. We think it right that a high public interest test should be passed before the exception is activated and taxpayer-funded resources are used on a judicial review that might be academic in relation to the applicant.
Equally, we think it is right for the judges to define how that exception will operate in practice and to decide in which cases it is right to certify, but if they are to do that, they should certify formally and explain their reasons. It should not simply be a matter of a judge deciding to do it; there should be a requirement to certify that the test has been met and to state why it has been met. I think that offering a judge the flexibility to certify that a matter is of exceptional public interest and to allow, therefore, the case to proceed, while leaving the remaining safeguards in the Bill, finds an appropriate balance. It is a way of addressing some of the concerns raised in the other place but leaves intact the core purpose of the provision, which is to stop unnecessary, spurious, delaying-tactic, campaigning judicial reviews being brought on technicalities—cases the taxpayer ends up defending at tens of thousands of pounds of expense each time—to no good purpose, often with a view of delaying necessary reforms at a time when necessary reforms and difficult decisions are a regular part of Government life.
I have set out a number of examples. On Second Reading I referred to cases where essential infrastructure projects have been delayed by judicial reviews that have been brought for reasons that we do not regard as acceptable. I have experienced in the Department attempts by third parties to delay necessary reforms through judicial reviews brought on technicalities. This is a reform that is needed. Comments made over the years by Ministers in the last Government also underlined that they themselves believed that reform was necessary.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for listening most carefully to some of the matters that were raised in this House and the other place in relation to the clause. I can see the way in which he is considering alleviating some of those problems, but is there any particular precedent for the phrase “exceptional public interest”? I cannot find it in any previous statute, nor am I familiar with it as an example in any other legislation. I am not quite certain what it means. I can understand that there might be exceptional circumstances, which might lead a judge to find that those in the public interest meant that the matter should be allowed leave to proceed, but the phrase “exceptional public interest” has caused me some difficulty. What is the model on which he has founded this approach?
My judgment was that a conventional level of judgment against public interest was not sufficient in this circumstance. We have discussed it extensively in the Department among my ministerial team and with our advisers. I have no qualms about setting a higher test. It will be a matter for the judges to decide how and when that test should apply. As my hon. and learned Friend would expect, rightly, the judges should have the discretion to do that. But I do not think it is unreasonable for this place to say that it wants a test that is a bar higher than the conventional public interest test and that this should be used only in exceptional circumstances.
I speak from memory, so forgive me if I do not have this exactly right. My understanding was that my right hon. Friend wanted effectively to strike out judicial reviews that were almost procedural, in which the outcome would have been the same whether the organisation had obeyed the rules or not. Could he see procedural issues being an exceptional public interest? I think that they are an important public interest: that we make our agencies and our Governments obey the law. It is after all the point of judicial review.
That is absolutely the case, but on more than one occasion in my ministerial time, and the same applies to Ministers in other Departments, I have faced cases that were brought on matters of public policy but were based on relatively minor procedural defects in a process of consultation, for example. Minor breaches should not automatically lead to a case being brought, with the taxpayer facing a bill of tens of thousands of pounds, when it was highly likely that the decision taken would have been completely unaffected by that procedural defect. That is what these proposals are all about.
I have experienced at least two examples of third-party groups seeking to argue that a form of consultation was not absolutely accurate and that it should have been done slightly differently, when it made no difference to the eventual decision. In one case, it was clearly a delaying tactic to avoid a necessary change. A judicial review should be brought when it is a matter of genuine material error or failure by the Department concerned, not a minor technicality. That is what this measure is all about. I believe that it is necessary. Ministers in the last Government regularly argued for change because judicial review was being used inappropriately. This reform will bring a degree of common sense to the system without undermining the core purpose of allowing people who are wronged by public bodies to challenge the decisions taken about them in the courts. That is why I commend our amendments to the House.
On 1 December last, in our previous session of ping-pong on this troubled Bill, I started my comments by referring to the latter stages of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in April 2012, and the parallels continue. After the Lords defeats on Report on that Bill were overturned in this Chamber by the enthusiasm of the Lib Dems to support their coalition partners in hobbling access to justice, their lordships inflicted three further substantial defeats on the Government and, just like today, this Chamber had the opportunity to consider again the wisdom of the Government’s insistence on getting their legislation through unrevised.
I say “unrevised”, but we do have amendments to consider, as the Lord Chancellor set out in his speech—amendments not freely given, but wrung out in the forensic unravelling of the Bill in the other place, and by the requirement, following their lordships’ double insistence, to make some concession if the Bill is to make progress. On the basis of our LASPO experience, I urge caution in accepting any assurance from this Government that they have made genuine concessions. In 2012 they promised a review of the no win, no fee cost regime as it applied to mesothelioma claims, but three months ago and at a cost to the taxpayer of £50,000 the High Court found that that purported review had not been carried out.
In 2012 the Government claimed to have broadened the evidential criteria for accessing legal aid in domestic violence cases, but the hurdles have proved too high for many victims, and that concession, too, is now subject to litigation. So the Lord Chancellor will forgive my scepticism when I say that the proposals today look like the bare minimum that he thinks he can get away with and, if they are approved by both Houses, they are likely to provoke not a working compromise, but more bad-tempered litigation.
Let me begin with Lords reason 74B and the amendment in lieu that the Government have proposed. First, I shall set out the context. The Prime Minister said yesterday that his priority was “a Britain living within its means”. If Ministers were serious about living up to that, they would not be wasting £85 million on a flawed plan for a secure college which does not have the support of a single independent expert. I remind the House, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) has done before, that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and nearly 30 other leading children’s charities have publicly condemned these plans as “expensive and dangerous”.
Even the Government’s own impact assessment accepts that the idea is untried and untested. Throwing girls and the youngest children into this mix, when they would be in the overwhelming minority, would make for an incredibly intimidating atmosphere and be an accident waiting to happen. We agree that improvements need to be made in youth custody. Reoffending is still too high, and education can and should play an important role in the rehabilitation of young offenders. The chief inspector of prisons has today published another concerning report highlighting conditions at Feltham young offenders institution, where 48 separate gangs are said to operate. Not enough good training is being delivered, and too many offenders there are spending all day locked up with nothing to do, a quarter of them in conditions that amount to solitary confinement.
The Government should be focusing on that problem, on improving standards in existing institutions, rather than on this vanity project dreamed up by the Secretary of State, so it is disappointing that the Government have insisted on ploughing on regardless. Ministers are still unable to offer any concrete plans or assurances about how their very lofty ambitions for the secure college will be achieved in reality. It has not gone unnoticed that whenever anyone has raised a reasonable and substantial objection to these plans, the Minister’s only answer has been to retreat to repeating the fact that 68% of offenders released from youth custody reoffend within 12 months, and that something must be done—the secure college is something, therefore it must be done. The whole House will see that for what it is: a very weak argument with very little evidence behind it.
We on the Opposition Benches are clear. We remain opposed to the secure college in principle. If we are elected, we will not wish to go ahead with it if at all possible, and we agree with the common-sense conclusion that the other place has reached twice now, that the secure college would be unsuitable for girls and children under the age of 15.
The Minister made a rather confused argument when the House last debated this point. On the one hand, he argued that the plans will deliver “substantial benefits” to these groups and that they should not be denied access to the secure college, but on the other he said it was not his intention to introduce girls and children under 15 into the college from the start. Why not? Which is it? He cannot have it both ways. If the Government still feel that there are problems with incorporating these groups, that would first need to be worked out in a pilot. This rather confirms the fears that many independent experts have expressed.
Even the noble Lord McNally, until recently a Minister and now chair of the Youth Justice Board, has warned against the approach that the Government are pursuing. He told the Justice Committee:
“I would want to advise the Secretary of State to think very hard about whether young females should be there”—
that is, in the secure college. He went on:
“Of course, co-education has its attractions, but I would not want the scheme to fail because of difficulties in trying to accommodate mixed groups.”
We hope that the Government will see the sense of their own former Justice Minister’s comments and not pursue this poorly thought-out idea any further.
Having said that, we note that the amendment provides that girls and 12 to 14-year-olds could not be placed in secure colleges without further parliamentary approval by way of affirmative statutory instrument. Although I suspect that this solution has an eye to the convention that the other place does not pass fatal motions on secondary legislation, I will give the Lord Chancellor the benefit of the doubt and postpone this discussion until another day. We will not vote against the amendment to reason 74B.
Turning to judicial review, the proposed amendments are even less satisfactory. I think that the Lord Chancellor will concede that he has not acquitted himself well in explaining the purpose and effect of this part of the Bill to the House. Lords amendment 102B provides that the court “may”, instead of the Bill’s original “must”, refuse judicial review if it concludes that it is “highly likely” that the outcome for the applicant would not have been substantially different if the conduct complained of had not occurred. The court will retain its discretion to decide whether to refuse the judicial review on the basis of the “highly likely” test. The amendment was carried with a majority of 69 votes in the Lords—an increase in the majority for the original vote.
The Government’s proposed compromise is to give the courts discretion to hear the judicial review, but limited to circumstances where this is
“for reasons of exceptional public interest.”
There is an echo here of what the Lord Chancellor wrongly told this House last time the Bill was debated, when he said:
“The ‘exceptional circumstances’ provisions would allow a judge to say, ‘This is a flagrant case and must be heard.’”—[Official Report, 1 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 82.]
Much has been made of the Lord Chancellor’s inadvertent misleading of both this House and the other place on this important issue. I say magnanimously that we all make mistakes and I do not make a point on the fact of the error. However, I did raise a point of order on 10 December because I thought that the Lord Chancellor should have done more than reply to the Member on whom he was intervening when he made the comments I have quoted: first, because he repeated the error elsewhere in his speech; and secondly, because had he simply corrected the record, as I believe he should have done, Members of both Houses would not have remained under a misapprehension.
There is a wider point that goes to the heart of both sets of Lords amendments. Their lordships set out to restore discretion to the courts. The Bill as originally drafted is the enemy of judicial discretion; it relies on “must”, not “may”. So what are we to make of the Lord Chancellor apparently thinking that there was, albeit limited, discretion in clause 64, when there was not? In trying to answer that question and square this circle, the Government have come up with their amendment to the Lords position, but it refers not to “exceptional circumstances” but to “exceptional public interest”. Exceptional circumstances are one thing and public interest is another, but what is exceptional public interest?
I fear that this does nothing to address the criticisms of the original wording of the Bill. It will still encourage the rehearsal of substantive issues at permission hearings. It will still lure judges into second-guessing how decision makers might have approached the substantive decision if taken lawfully. It will increase costs and delay at permission stage. It will lead to more satellite litigation on what constitutes “exceptional public interest”. It is a concession on the point of principle, albeit one the Lord Chancellor thought he had already made, but in practice it will make little difference to the restriction on the fundamental operation of judicial review as an administrative remedy. For that reason, we will vote against the Government’s proposal.
Turning to Lords reason 106D, we accept that there is an attempt by the Government to compromise, albeit only because of the double defeat at the hands of the other place—but again, it is more plastic than real. The Government’s proposed concession is that the means of third party funders would have to be disclosed only if the financial support to be provided exceeds or is likely to exceed a sum set out in the rules of court or the tribunal procedure rules. The tribunal procedure rules are made by independent committees, but the rules they propose can be allowed or disallowed by the Lord Chancellor. That gives us little comfort.
Public authorities can fall into error in ways that have a huge impact on the lives of whole communities. That can mean hospital closures, unsuitable developments or poor decisions on school places. Community groups acting legitimately and in good faith that challenge unlawful decision making often need to pool their resources to foot their legal bills, but the Bill says that anyone who contributes to such a fund might find themselves or believe themselves to be liable for costs.
Introducing a minimum sum that would not be covered by the rules on disclosure and would put the funder at risk is tinkering with a bad law, not reforming it. While some funders in some cases may find that they escape the chilling effects of clause 65, many will not or will not feel confident in supporting an application. Contrary to the Lord Chancellor’s purported view that judicial reviews are started at the drop of a hat for political or public relations reasons, they are often complex and fragile claims carefully constructed by inexperienced litigants who have to navigate the intricacies of permission, legal aid applications, protective costs orders and fundraising from family, community or charitable sources. The object of clause 65 is to discourage applications, irrespective of merit. The concession does little to mitigate that undemocratic aim, and we will vote against that, too.
I am genuinely sorry that for ideological reasons rather than logical or financial ones the Lord Chancellor has marshalled his forces against the right of the citizen to challenge the state. It is a worrying trend that becomes more explicit the longer the Government remain in power. The Liberal Democrats do nothing to alleviate it. A Labour Government after May will restore judicial review to its rightful place in the constitution and as an effective weapon against bad governance. In the meantime, we will vote to retain their lordships’ position and we will vote against the Government’s nugatory amendments. I hope that their lordships will feel emboldened to renew their opposition when the Bill returns to their House.
I will, I hope, be very brief. As the Secretary of State knows, it was in response to me that he made the mistake for which he has graciously and fully apologised to the House. I, for one, accept that it was entirely inadvertent.
However, I have two real points on the original clause 64 and amendment 102B in lieu. First, when my right hon. Friend wrote to me on 4 December 2014, he said in his concluding paragraph:
“I would like to make it clear that the clause as introduced strikes an appropriate balance, and where there is any real doubt that there could have been a substantial difference for the applicant, the court will be able to find that the threshold had not been met and can grant permission to proceed with judicial review.”
What that arouses in me is this reflection: the current rule developed by the courts is that where the outcome was “inevitable”, the court is enabled under the current authorities to decline a remedy. I ask my right hon. Friend, when he concludes this debate, to point out where there is a difference. If he is correct in saying that where there is any real doubt, the court will still be able to grant leave, how does that differ from the current situation? If the position is inevitable, the court will not grant a remedy now. Where there is any real doubt, it will grant a remedy. It is therefore difficult to see whether the common law test on whether the outcome is “inevitable”, despite the procedural defect, is affected very much by being changed from “inevitable” to “highly likely”. I am therefore puzzled about why we need this particular change.
I am relieved to have heard the tone of the speech of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) from the Opposition Front Bench, because I am able much more easily to agree with him that there are substantial problems with the clause as drafted, specifically the one I have pointed out previously: it places judges in the invidious position of effectively having to take the decision themselves. They go from being reviewers of a decision to being decision makers. If we are asking somebody to say what would have happened had the facts not been as they are and how a decision is likely to have been taken, the judge is inevitably going to have to ask, “What would I have done, based on the evidence that is being put before me? What would a reasonable person have done?” That places the judge in the invidious position of being much closer to a decision maker.
The courts studiously avoid doing that. They adopt the position of being reviewers of a decision and they are enabled at the moment to decline a remedy when a matter is utterly obvious and inevitable because that does not put them in the position of having to second-guess the decision of the proper constitutional authority that has made the decision they are reviewing. When it is obvious and inevitable and when no reasonable person could come to any other conclusion but that the decision would have been the same, the courts are not in the position of having to speculate about how a reasonable person—how they, the judge—would have approached the problem in the same circumstances based on the evidence.
That is why I think the provisions represent a fundamental change constitutionally. It is one that Conservatives should lament, because instead of the courts allowing the proper body—the Executive—to take the decision, the Executive are inviting the court to place itself in the position of taking that decision. As a result of frustration with procedural defects that seem to the Executive not to be particularly meritorious and to hold up Executive decisions, they are saying to the judge, “Well, you take the decision. You can take the decision and you can say that it would have been the same anyway.” That is constitutionally wrong and it is something that the courts have avoided—in my submission, rightly. That is why I voted against the Government on the last occasion and why I am afraid that unless my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor can persuade me today I shall vote against the Government again. This is a point of principle and an important one and it is not affected by the Government’s amendment in lieu, which I otherwise welcome.
As for amendment (a) in lieu, I have never come across the expression “exceptional public interest” and I do not understand what it means. Every public interest is exceptional and the only public interest that is likely to be at stake is the public interest in fair and decent governance. Fair, consistent, rational administration is the public interest at stake in allowing somebody or an Executive authority simply to avoid the consequences of an unfair procedure. What other public interest would there be but that? It would simply be a case of someone saying, “I think this is so unfair that even though I think I probably would have decided it in the same way had the procedural defect not taken place, I still think leave should be granted.” That seems nonsense with which to confront a court, and my regretful submission —regretful, because I find it extremely difficult to diverge from the Government, particularly as I believe that my right hon. Friend ought to be commended for rethinking this and considering his new amendment—is that I would like him to consider whether it might not be better drafted. For example, I really do not understand why it could not have said something like, “There are exceptional circumstances that make it in the public interest for the application for permission to be granted.” I do not understand what is meant by “exceptional public interest”. Although I applaud the sentiment behind the amendment, I am not able to support it as drafted.
In the previous debate I adumbrated my concern about the proposal to put judges in the position of decision maker and to make applications for permission cumbersome and evidence-heavy. Public authorities will be induced to bombard the judge with all the reasons, even if they are wrong about the defect in procedure, that the decision would inevitably have been taken or, in this case, highly likely to have been taken. The judge will then have to embark on an inquiry at permission stage into whether or not it is highly likely that the decision would have been taken. That will induce evidence to be submitted by the other side, and so permission hearings will be unwieldy.
For all those reasons, I shall listen attentively to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says in concluding the debate, but I regret to say that it will take considerable persuading to induce me to vote with the Government on this occasion.
With the leave of the House, I shall say some brief words in response to the two contributions.
First, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), argued that the reforms are wrong. I simply remind him that, time after time when Labour was in government, we heard Ministers arguing about the impact of judicial review on Government and the need for change. It is interesting that Labour takes a very different view now that it is in opposition.
What Labour is actually arguing for is anonymity for people who provide financial backing to a judicial review. That anonymity would apply not just to a small backer, but, for instance, to a tobacco company using a third party to judicially review the Government’s public health policy. I simply do not understand why Labour would oppose the idea of a court knowing who is funding a judicial review to a major degree. We will simply have to disagree on that.
It was interesting to hear the shadow Minister say that if, heaven help this country, Labour finds itself in government in May, it would restore judicial review to its current position. I did not hear him commit to introducing primary legislation to reverse our measure. I would wage the usual fiver that, in the unhappy event of the Labour party being in government again, it will not seek to reverse our reforms.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) and I are clearly not going to agree. The point about the amendment on procedural defects is that it ensures that a public authority cannot commit a major breach of procedure. It also ensures that a public body that commits a minor and unimportant breach of procedure cannot then face a substantial bill as a result of someone using that breach to bring a case when there is little likelihood of a different decision being taken. That simply ties up the costs and staff time of public bodies for weeks on end on a matter that is only really ever brought for campaigning or delaying purposes. I assure my hon. and learned Friend that the Government see regular examples of cases being threatened or brought on precisely that premise.
My hon. and learned Friend mentioned the stipulation of exceptional public interest. Put simply, there are many matters that are of general public interest and we are seeking to set the bar higher. It seems to me to be a simple proposition to say that a court must certify that a matter is of exceptional public interest—which might relate to a major, fundamental and worrying breach of procedure by a public body—rather than of general public interest. As a Government and, I hope, a Parliament, we are consciously setting the bar one notch higher. That is what the measure is designed to do.
I am afraid that I do not agree with my hon. and learned Friend’s point about judges being forced to make or evaluate a decision themselves. If a judge is able to decide whether a ministerial decision is irrational, quash a Government decision and send a major policy matter back to the drawing board, surely they can also decide that a matter is so minor that it would not have led to a different decision being taken. That is the purpose of the measure.
The judge can assess rationality and reasonableness, but my particular concern is about legality. Will what the Minister is doing allow public bodies to delegate things that Parliament determines they should do themselves, and will a decision made by such a body be allowed to stand under the reforms even though Parliament has not said that that body should make that decision? Can he give me any reassurance?
The whole purpose of the reforms is to protect public bodies against cases brought on a technicality. One of my concerns that has not been addressed is about secondary legislation. I have severe doubts about whether secondary legislation should be subject to judicial review, but it is; Parliament itself can be judicially reviewed.
The reforms are not designed to undermine the core purpose of judicial review. They will ensure that we apply common sense to the process, and that decisions are taken by the courts only when appropriate. They will ensure that public bodies cannot be in effect blackmailed by a judicial review, and that campaign groups cannot use judicial review to string out a process or to delay change to make a political point.
I would be most grateful if my right hon. Friend addressed the point I raised. What is the difference between the current common law test, which enables courts to allow leave or a remedy in a case of inevitability —in other words, if it is obvious and inevitable that the decision will be the same, the courts already have the power to say, “No, you can’t have leave or a remedy”—and his proposed test, in clause 64, about whether it is “highly likely” that the decision will be the same?
My hon. and learned Friend mentions the common law approach. When it was introduced in 1974, judicial review was a limited remedy for individuals who felt they had been badly wronged by a decision made by a public body, central Government or local government. Over the years since, it has become very different, and it is now overtly used by campaign groups and third parties to seek to disrupt the process of government. He is absolutely right to say that the common law approach exists, but our judgment as a Government—I hope and believe that, at the end of the debate tonight and of the one to follow in the House of Lords, it will also be the judgment of Parliament—is that Parliament needs to set in place some tramlines within which the courts can operate. We do not want to undermine, remove or destroy judicial review; we want it to be used in the right and proper way for which it was originally intended, and that is what the reforms are designed to achieve.
I have some sympathy with what my right hon. Friend is trying to do, because I witnessed at first hand the judicial review of the reburial of Richard III in Leicester cathedral. If I may say so, however, it would be very well worth while paying attention to what our hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) has said. I urge the Secretary of State and his fellow Ministers to try to work out a form of words that will avoid the trap he pointed out, but that deals with the practical problem of our courts being overburdened with footling judicial review cases. That can be done in a sensible way that does not attract the derision of the courts, and I urge my right hon. Friend to have another think.
We thought carefully about how best to address that issue, and the original clause was straightforwardly designed to set out the position when a case is brought on a technicality—a procedural defect. For example, in a number of cases people have argued that the format of the consultation was not handled appropriately, or perhaps a Minister or official indicated that the consultation would take place in a particular form, and that was used as the basis for a judicial review. If the official promise was to hold a four-week consultation but the Government chose to hold a three-week consultation, and a judicial review was brought on the basis that we did not fulfil our promise about the format of the consultation, the frustration is that that would have made no difference to the final decision, yet the case was brought none the less. Often, the case will be struck out, but not before taxpayers’ money and huge amounts of the time of Government officials and lawyers have been spent on bringing, defending and dealing with it.
I agree with what my right hon. Friend is attempting to do, but I suspect he is trying to pot the wrong ball. Suppose he allowed himself to step back a bit from “exceptional public interest”—a moderately nonsensical expression, if I may say so—and consider the issue from a different angle. He will come at the right answer, which is the political answer that he and I want to achieve, and the Treasury answer that he has been invited to achieve, and we can then adjust the system of judicial review so that footling, silly cases that for some reason may have slipped through the net—
What a most unusual admonition. I think the Lord Chancellor understands my point, and I hope I am not ruining the point that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) has already made. However, I encourage the Lord Chancellor to have one more think about this issue, because at the moment I am not prepared to vote for the Government on it. I will abstain rather than vote against the Government, but I urge him to think about some way of bringing me into the Lobby.
Let me give an example of one consultation response that we received when we put forward our thoughts about the changes that are needed. A group of local residents who were challenging a planning decision formed a limited company, with a small number of directors each paying £1 to the company funds. The respondent considered that by doing that the directors aimed to avoid any adverse cost consequences if the challenge was unsuccessful, and that could have meant significant costs to the taxpayer in terms of defendant legal costs that might otherwise have been recovered from a losing claimant. The respondent also said that other local residents were horrified that that small group could hold up democratically agreed development at such small financial risk to themselves.
There are two parts to that example. First, there is the financial element, and one thing I would expect us to do in the consultation is consider the use of shell companies—a shell company was used in the much discussed Richard III case. There is also the point about exceptional public circumstances. I listened carefully to and talked after the last debate to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), who suggested possible forms of words to use. We looked at that option and discussed others, and decided that the exceptional public interest threshold best achieved the goal. It may not have existed in legislation until now, but that is no reason for it not to exist henceforth. These are straightforward terms in the English language, and we are simply setting the bar one step higher than public interest. A routine matter can generally be deemed to be of public interest, and we are discussing introducing an exceptional level to that.
Does the Secretary of State mean what he said a few minutes ago, which is that cases of really egregious unfairness might afford a basis for declining to dismiss the case, even when the outcome is likely to have been the same? Is that what he is thinking of, because a few moments ago he mentioned something that is a serious or grave departure from fair process. If that is what he means, there is a better way of encapsulating it than the current drafting.
We will probably beg to differ on that, but my hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. One of the circumstances in which I could envisage the amended clause being used is if a public body has blatantly flouted the way in which consultations should be managed and procedure handled, but it is likely that the ultimate decision would have been the same. It is reasonable for a court to then say that that is simply unacceptable—that it is a matter of exceptional public interest that a public body of this kind should be able to behave in such a completely cavalier way—and it will therefore allow the case to go forward. The amendment gives the judge the freedom to take that decision. It was our judgment that it accorded that freedom, but it also achieves our goal of ensuring that permission is not given for technicalities, which is particularly important.
That may indeed be an option in the courts. I go back to the Richard III case which, the hon. Gentleman may remember, was brought by Plantagenet Alliance Ltd. It is still to this day not clear to me who the Plantagenet Alliance were and who was behind it. It was launched on the basis of it being the family of King Richard III—his descendants—demanding a right to a say in where he was buried. I suspect that most of us in this Chamber are, in some way, shape or form, descendants of King Richard III given the way the generations have spread out. The Department was subject to a case and won that case. The court ruled that I had fulfilled my statutory duties appropriately. None the less, as a result of that case the taxpayer faced a bill, if I recall correctly, in excess of £100,000. To my mind, that is not good use of public money.
My view, therefore, is that at the very least we should know—as I say, I do not know to this day—who the backers of the Plantagenet Alliance are. It is my full intention to put forward a proposal to set a £1,500 threshold, but I will also be considering how to prevent the use of shell companies to provide a shelter for those bringing judicial reviews. I hope that will command the support of the House. I still do not understand why the Labour party is so opposed to it, because I cannot see how it is in anybody’s interest for public bodies to be subject to court cases by bodies that are unknown. We do not know who is behind them, who has set them up, and whether they are a front for an interest group that we would find utterly distasteful.
The process of ping-pong has narrowed the issues. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend that on the other two amendments he has made an effort to restrict matters, but I have to say that I remain unpersuaded that this amendment will not excessively fetter judicial discretion. I also have to say that the concession made in the Lords, when they tabled a fresh amendment, is difficult to criticise. Obviously, it leaves a measure of discretion to the judiciary, but one that is in my view nevertheless correct. I will need a lot of persuading that the route he is currently taking is not excessively restrictive. For that reason, I cannot support it at the moment.
The key issue is that it is very easy to define a public interest around public authorities fulfilling absolutely the legal terms of their requirements, but if we accept that that is the case there is often very little justification for a case not being brought. Simply having a public interest test without the exceptional qualification would leave open the opportunity for all of these cases continuing. Where a case is brought for reasons of intentional delay, the case will be argued that this is a matter of public interest. The exceptional level, which deliberately raises the bar, ensures that this part of the Bill achieves its objectives.
One of my problems is that the Secretary of State is trying to prove the general from the particular. We both lived through the Richard III case, and we can all learn from that, but it is not the case to build his case upon. I happen to think that the Richard III case permission hearing—it was all on paper—was wrongly decided, but that is by the way, because the eventual divisional court decision was in favour of the Government. However, I urge him not to be persuaded by the facts of that case, which could persuade someone to reach a conclusion similar to his, but to look at the wider picture and to think about what our hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon said about exceptional circumstances. He should try to get at the problem that way, rather than banging his head against the wall, as he currently seems to be doing.
I do not accept that I am banging my head against the wall. I think we have struck a sensible balance. We have seen important development projects delayed by judicial reviews brought on technicalities. It is important that judicial review not be used as a tool for delay, rather than a genuine way of holding public bodies to account.
I want to tackle head-on what the hon. Member for Hammersmith said about the secure college. The youth detention system is not delivering the results the country needs. In the small units in secure children’s homes, in the larger units in secure training centres—where teenage boys and girls sit side by side in the same classroom, let alone the same institution—and in youth offender institutions, the performance in terms of reoffending is unacceptable: about 70% in each of those three institutions. That is not the way forward.
We are seeking, simply and straightforwardly, to create an environment that strikes a balance: a critical mass of curriculum and skills development—we cannot, in a small unit, deliver a building skills workshop alongside a literacy, numeracy and computers skills centre—and an environment that recognises that the people who end up in detention are often troubled, challenged and from the most difficult circumstances. I am seeking, simply and straightforwardly, to take away the iron bars from the windows and create an environment that is more supportive, more educational and more likely to turn their lives around. I want to create a system that is run by educationists, not simply prison officers, and that has every chance of delivering a better outcome.
I have been deeply disappointed by the lack of imagination from the Opposition, who have opposed these proposals but said nothing about what they would do—not an unusual feature of their behaviour. We have heard no fresh ideas on how to deal with this very real challenge. All they do is oppose, oppose, oppose. Given the exorbitant cost of these small units, our proposals would save several million pounds a year, although they would require a big capital investment. The Opposition have not said how they would cover the savings we will generate by harmonising the estate to deliver that critical mass of education at an affordable price, and in a way that will be more nurturing and supportive of young people.
From the Labour party, we have heard no answers, only opposition, opposition, opposition. It is not fit to govern. It is a party without ideas and without direction. It wrecked the country before, and it would wreck it again. That is why our reforms are so important and why we need to progress the Bill and our other measures.
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Lords message, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, 1 December 2014).
The Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83G),
That this House insists on its disagreement with Lords amendment 74 and agrees with amendment (a) in lieu.
Question agreed to.
Amendment (a) accordingly agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put,
That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 102B and agrees with amendments (a) to (k) in lieu.—(Chris Grayling.)
Amendments (a) to (k) agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put,
That this House insists on its disagreement to Lords amendments 103, 104, 105 and 106, and proposes its amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.—(Chris Grayling.)
Amendments (a) and (b) agreed to.