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Westminster Hall

Volume 600: debated on Thursday 15 October 2015

Westminster Hall

Thursday 15 October 2015

[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

Prisons: Planning and Policies

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Ninth Report from the Justice Committee of Session 2014-15, on Prisons: planning and policies, HC 309, and the Government response, Cm 9129.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. This debate is a voyage of discovery for many of us, because very few of us were members of the Select Committee at the time the report was drawn up—[Interruption]—apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who will therefore carry the bulk of the burden on the report’s technical detail.

As well as welcoming you to the Chair, Mr Walker, this debate gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor as Chairman of the Committee, Sir Alan Beith. He was not only a very distinguished Committee Chairman, but a good friend to many of us, and I want to put on record how grateful I am for the support and wise advice that he has given me since I took over the chairmanship. I am sure that that will be recognised across the House.

This will not be a long debate. The report itself is not long, but it is important because it touches on key issues relating to prison policy. Interestingly, that has become topical once more with the very welcome comments from the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. I am very grateful to see the Minister for prisons in his place today, and I thank him for the courtesy that he has already shown to our Committee in responding to a number of inquiries that we have made of him.

In essence, I want to concentrate on two issues that the report highlights: first, the size of the prison population, and secondly, the sort of regime and purposeful behaviour that we ought to see in our prisons. It is worth bearing in mind that against the background to this report, the most up-to-date figures, as of 2 October this year—after the report was published—show that the prison population is now 85,973. That is one of the highest rates of incarceration in western Europe, and we ought to pause to think about why that is the case. We know, too, that the National Offender Management Service is operating at about 98% of its usable operational capacity, so things are pretty tight in our prison regime. NOMS is—properly, I think—going through a period of substantial change, with significant modernisation work, and the Department will have to take its share of the necessary savings that we have to make as part of the deficit reduction strategy.

A number of members of the current Committee and I had the chance to visit Holloway prison recently, and I want to pay tribute to the governor and her staff there. Despite the pressures on them, they are clearly doing a great deal to modernise, improve and upgrade their work, and they are getting very good results indeed. There are some very dedicated people in our Prison Service, and it is worth putting that on record.

That need for change, which is recognised at Holloway and right across the prison estate, has two aspects: first, the new-for-old policy, and secondly, the benchmarking scheme. The new-for-old scheme seeks to replace old and inefficient prisons with newer and more efficient establishments. Holloway is a good example of that. I remember, many years ago, as a young barrister, having to go to see clients in the old Holloway prison, which was a pretty dreadful establishment. The work that has been done with the modern building has made things much better. I think the last prison I had to visit was Chelmsford, and we are still dealing there with old establishments and old buildings. We only have to look at Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs and Pentonville to see that the nature of the estate constrains our professionals’ ability to do rehabilitative work. I think that we all very much welcome the Lord Chancellor’s comments and his commitment to look at finding the means to replace old estates with something new and fit for purpose. The report flags up that very important aspect of the work.

The benchmarking was described by Phil Wheatley, who was the former director of NOMS, as, in effect, finding what

“the most efficient way of doing everything”

is and then making sure that everybody does it. That is why a series of benchmarks were established—those of us who have been involved in local government will be familiar with the concept and approach.

The Committee agreed with both those matters in principle but raised a number of substantive concerns: first, the rising level of overcrowding; secondly, the fall in prison performance and the extent to which understaffing may be an issue; and thirdly, prisoner and staff safety in prisons. A linkage between all those matters is clear from the report.

Overcrowding is important. It is not adequate simply to say, “Overcrowding is merely about people sharing a cell.” It goes beyond that, as the Lord Chancellor rightly recognised in his recent comments. The current chief inspector of prisons has said that two problems stem from overcrowding. The first is the whole question of physical conditions. Prison is punishment in itself—the deprivation of liberty—and we have a duty to make sure that those who are deprived of their liberty, as a legitimate punishment, none the less have decent conditions in which to live. I know that the Minister is very committed to that, but we need to make sure that that is actually delivered in practice.

The second point is the impact that overcrowding has on access to purposeful activity, and my 25 years or so in practice at the Bar made me very conscious of that. All too often, I saw clients of mine on a merry-go-round, almost. They would go into prison and experience a lack of any purposeful activity while they were there, a lack of rehabilitation, and a lack of follow-up, and lo and behold, they were putting me in fees again perhaps two or three years later. That should not be the case. Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) nor I, as lawyers, want to have repeat clients frankly. It is a failure of the system, but we see too much of that in the current circumstances. Overcrowding makes it harder to do the rehabilitative work that is so critical, as the Government recognise. Many prisons have to operate split regimes at the moment, where half the prisoners are locked up in the mornings while the other half engage in activity, then they swap. That constraint is needless and makes it harder to deliver what we want to do.

The figures on the current state of overcrowding have been rising steadily, as has always been conceded. There were some errors in the recording of that in 2013-14, but 24.1% overcrowding seems to be the accepted figure now for that year.

Is it not right to point out that certain exceptional areas of overcrowding can be concealed beneath that average figure? I think—I may be wrong—that, in particular, York and Swansea prisons have a dramatically higher level of overcrowding. To the greatest extent possible, we need to ensure that that is not concentrated too much in individual prisons.

That is absolutely right. I remember going to Swansea some years ago, where there was overcrowding even then, and that continues to be the case. That variation is really not desirable. There is a raft of constraints, and that is why, again, the new-for-old policy is hugely important. HMP Thameside, for example, was almost specifically built with the intention that it should be crowded. It was almost designed on the basis of a lack of capacity—before this Government’s watch, I hasten to add. However, we do need to address some real issues in that regard.

The Government are right to say that there are constraints on reducing overcrowding, because this is a demand-driven activity. We rightly cannot seek to influence directly how the courts sentence individual offenders. There will come a time, inevitably, when it is necessary for judges to pass custodial sentences. I know, as does any practitioner, that they do not do that lightly but, at the end of the day, the Government have to provide the necessary capacity to deal with that sentencing regime. At the moment—the Minister may have more up-to-date figures than me—the National Audit Office puts the cost of eliminating overcrowding at about £900 million. I accept that it is not possible to afford that in the immediate term, but it is important to have a programme that, over time, through capital investment, will bring on the new estate that will make dealing with the issue much easier.

Overcrowding is going to be an issue, but we need to manage and deal with that. That is why the Committee was anxious to see more attention given to overcrowding than has perhaps been the case. I think that the current Secretary of State recognised that in several comments; he certainly did so in the evidence that he gave in the first session of the new Committee in this Parliament.

The recommendation was to develop a broad range of measures to reflect the realities of prison conditions. Frankly, the Government were not willing to take that recommendation on board. I hope that they will think about that. The measurement at the moment may not be realistic in terms of capturing the actuality on the ground. We need not be wedded to any particular formula. There is no magic about the way the measurement is done. It is a question of what the most efficient measure is. I hope simply that the Minister and his colleagues will reflect again on our recommendation, particularly in the light of the Government’s new commitment to rehabilitation. Perhaps that is something we can do, because it is important that we have a measure that is measurable. One piece of evidence that we were given in the previous Committee was that the current system of measurement makes it very hard to measure the improvements and the outputs and inputs.

The other matters on which we concentrated were benchmarking and staffing levels. The inspectorate of prisons uses a four-stage healthy prison test in relation to its benchmarking. The four key figures are safety, respect, purposeful activity and resettlement. I do not think that anyone would disagree with those. Sadly, there has been, according to the evidence that the Select Committee received, a fall in those standards in the past couple of years. Each year, the inspector of prisons makes their report and provides a percentage figure for the inspected adult prisons and young offenders institutes that have been rated as good or reasonably good. Regrettably, the percentage of prisons so rated has fallen on each of those criteria, particularly in the past year.

Our report, comparing the figures for 2013-14 with those for 2014-15, showed that there had been a number of falls, which it is worth putting on the record. In relation to prisons inspected, the safety rating had fallen from 69% to 42%. The respect rating had fallen from 67% to 58%. For purposeful activity, it had fallen from 61% to 42%, and for resettlement it had fallen from 75% to 53%. It is fair to say that there has been an updating in the latest annual report, which I think was not available to the Select Committee at the time. It now shows safety at 52%, respect at 64%, but very worryingly from my point of view, purposeful activity at 39% and then resettlement at 57%. The linkage between purposeful activity and resettlement is, many of us would suggest, very significant. Although there are improvements on some scores, there is clearly more work to do. The Minister may have to hand yet more up-to-date figures, which I am sure he will share with us.

There is some improvement, therefore, but it does leave, overall—on the information that we have—the proportion achieving good or reasonably good ratings at about 40%. That means that 60% of prisons are not getting into that proper category. That is obviously a matter of concern. I know that the Government share that concern; I am very conscious that the Government are not complacent about the issue, but it is important that we put it on the record and see what is proposed to deal with it to take it forward.

Let me deal in particular with rehabilitative outcomes. I referred to the visit to Holloway by the current Committee. A number of my hon. Friends were on that visit. We were particularly interested to see how the restrictions on release on temporary licence sometimes denied mothers the chance to engage with childcare on ROTL and opportunities to work in the community before release. That is not, I think, for want of will among the staff involved, but it seems that we are not yet there in getting that delivered on the ground. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what more can be done on that.

The previous Committee called witnesses to find out as best they could what might have caused the fall in standards. The suggestion was that there was an issue about the incentives and earned privileges scheme—that, of course, allows prisoners to access benefits in exchange for responsible behaviour—and about staffing levels. That was the view put by the witnesses. It has to be said in fairness that the Government took a converse view, saying that essentially this is a demand-led matter involving unexpected and more challenging prison population levels and a cultural increase in suicide rates, which I think is accepted and is a matter that we have to deal with. There is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to all this, but it does warrant our continuing attention and concern.

The report alludes to some evidence of increased suicide rates in the prison population and other aspects in relation to mental health in prisons. Does my hon. Friend agree that one way of addressing demand and some of the issues that he has raised about rehabilitation is to look wholesale at how mental health is tackled in prisons? As he will know, there is a very high prevalence of mental health problems in the prison population.

My hon. Friend’s intervention is very important. That issue concerned me when I was a practitioner. All too often I saw people with mental health issues, and frankly the estate and the arrangements were not geared up to deal with that adequately. On several occasions, one would find that the case had to be adjourned because the prison psychiatric service was not able to produce some of the necessary reports, never mind the ongoing care that was required. Often, particularly with short sentences, people are released, there are mental health issues, and there is not the follow-up. Everyone accepts that there is a need to do more about this. As I said, I am conscious that the will is not lacking; the issue is finding the best means of achieving our aim. I think that that is a most important point. Again, the age of the estate and the lack of activity contribute to the pressures on what are often quite fragile people. My experience always was that some people end up in prison because they are very bad people, but a lot of people end up in prison because they are vulnerable and fragile and their circumstances have worked out badly. They need some help to be rehabilitated. They are the people whom we can best rehabilitate, but often the facilities are not there to help them in the way that all of us would wish, so it is a very powerful point.

Understaffing of course contributes to those problems. We have seen that it affects the regime. The Government are of course doing their best in relation to restricted regimes and deploying staff on detached duty, but that is obviously not a long-term solution. We need to find a better way around the problem. It cannot be sensible in the long term that, for example, a laundry at Wormwood Scrubs, representing about £1.3 million of investment, was in effect inoperable for a period because there were not the staff there to deal with it. We have seen, for example, the inspection report on Her Majesty’s young offenders institution at Cookham Wood: 36% of boys are locked up during the core day. As the report by Lord Harris of Haringey legitimately and properly highlights, these are young and often vulnerable people. They have to be punished; they have to be detained. That is right to reflect what they have done, but it is very hard to do the rehabilitative work with lock-up for that amount of time. We ought to address that as a matter of urgency.

Detached duty of course involves a degree of movement of staff. That places pressures on the staff themselves. It is necessary sometimes—I do not think that anyone would have an issue with the principle of it—but it is not desirable in the long term, because of the element of disruption for the staff themselves, but also for the prisoners. It is very difficult to build up the relationships that one would wish if one is having to detach staff and send them away from their normal arrangements. Also, of course, other staff have to work harder to compensate. It is actually a rather costly way to deal with the issue in the long term.

We have, however, seen improvements in staff turnover. We were concerned about staff morale and turnover. It is a credit to NOMS that staff turnover appears to have decreased from 15% in 2014 to 8% in 2015—credit where it is due for the work that has been done on that. There is also a recruitment drive to remedy the shortfalls. I understand that the number of officer vacancies has fallen to about 3% below the benchmarking levels. Again, that is welcome, but it is important that we sustain it, and I am sure that the Minister will update us on the work that is being done in that area.

The Committee’s conclusion in its report was that the key explanation for many of the deteriorating performance levels was, in addition to the age of the estate, understaffing. That seems to be being taken on board, but I would like to know what is proposed to ensure that that is further borne down on and that we sustain the reduction in understaffing.

The Committee recommended that the Government should alter staffing benchmarks upwards to ensure that prisons returned to former levels of operational performance. The Government rejected that recommendation, and I would like to know more from the Minister about why they felt that it was not appropriate. I am sure we all agree that we ought to update and improve our statistics and benchmarking, and I would be interested to know the Government’s current view and their proposals for the future. Do they anticipate further upward calibrations in the staffing benchmark, and how do they propose to deal with the problem of restricted regimes?

I will leave my hon. Friends to deal with the question of self-harm. I am conscious that I have already taken 20 minutes to open the debate, and others wish to speak. I hope that the Minister will help us on current self-harm figures. According to the figures that we have at the moment, some 2% of prisoners are on the basic regime, 52% are on the standard regime and 45% are on the enhanced regime, which indicates levels of vulnerability that need to be addressed as a matter of some urgency.

Evidence from the Prison Reform Trust highlighted the risks surrounding the first period of custody. I would be interested to hear the Government’s response to that evidence and their view on how we should deal with it as well as with the number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, which remain a concern. Those have risen, as have the number of assaults on staff.

The previous Select Committee quite properly flagged up a number of issues in this report. There is a broader resources problem, in both capital and revenue terms, which needs to be addressed. The Committee concluded that we need to re-evaluate how we use custody, and alternatives to custody, in a cost-effective way that best promotes the safety of the public and reduces crime. That is entirely in line with what the Lord Chancellor said in his evidence to the Select Committee in this Session. I look forward to hearing from the Government precisely how we should take that entirely legitimate and deserving objective forward.

It is, as always, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). I was going to say that I am the last surviving member of the previous Justice Committee, but that would appear to suggest that all the others were dead. Given that the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) were two prominent members of that Committee, that is probably not the case. It was interesting to serve with them.

I am one of the few Members left on the Justice Committee, if not the only one, who had a role in preparing the report that we are debating. It was the Committee’s first major report on prison policy. There were good reasons for undertaking it at the time, because prison policy was the subject of much reform. We wanted to look particularly at benchmarking and the new-for-old programme, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has referred to. I want to comment on a couple of the points that he raised about resettlement and rehabilitation, and the engagement of prisoners in purposeful activity. Those are crucial, and they are very much interlinked in the whole programme.

As part of the preparation of the report, the Committee had a trip to Denmark and to Germany. Members might imagine, from anecdotal evidence, that the two places were very similar; in fact, we found them to be radically different. That was particularly true of Denmark. Although the feeling on the street may be that its regime is easy for prisoners, we found it to be quite stiff, and some good lessons arose from the experience. For example, we visited an open prison in Denmark that was surrounded by an enormous steel fence. That came as a bit of a shock to us, because one does not expect to see such a thing around an open prison, especially in Denmark. We asked why it was there, and the answer that we were given was that it was not so much to keep prisoners in as to keep the drug pushers out. That brought home to us the first point of similarity between the Danish system and our own: the acknowledgement that the use of drugs in prison is a major problem that has to be overcome. When we went to Germany, we found that there was the same level of drug use but, interestingly, it was not recognised to be a problem.

On our visit to Denmark we gained a particularly interesting insight into rehabilitation, which we bring out in a recommendation in the report, when we went to see how the prisoners cooked their food. I suppose that phrase gives the game away—the prisoners did not eat at enormous benches where food was slopped out to them in the style of the television series “Porridge”; the system allowed them to earn money in the prison and go to buy food, which they could cook communally for themselves and other prisoners. It is true that the knives used in the process were chained to the wall, but such a precaution is only to be expected in a prison.

That single activity was very important, because it created a sense of prisoner responsibility, which was absolutely conducive to the idea of rehabilitation. We pointed out that the Government should consider that for prisons in the UK, and I was pleased to see in their response that they would look to increase the opportunities for self-catering where appropriate. Perhaps I can push the Minister to confirm that that is happening—particularly in new-build prisons, where I think it is perfectly feasible and appropriate to work in such an arrangement.

Something else that we noted on our trip—this was most obviously the case in Germany—was the amount of industrial or commercial activity that the prisoners undertook. We visited a furniture operation in part of the prison, which involved prisoners in a tremendous amount of work producing excellent furniture for sale at a later stage. Such work is absolutely crucial: not only does it give prisoners dignity in work, which we have claimed to be important throughout the process, but it helps with their rehabilitation by giving them the ability to manage their own time and responsibilities. I am conscious that the ability to provide such a facility in prisons in this country is lacking. I ask the Minister what has been done, and what continues to be done, to take that forward.

Our impression from both trips was positive about prisoner rehabilitation. When I looked again at the situation in the UK, I saw that, as we demonstrate in the report, a lot of emphasis is placed on health and safety, on the safety of prisoners in prisons and on the sorts of figures that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned concerning the performance of the prison estate. I cannot help but feel that those things are linked—that the decrease in safety and the increase of attacks in prisons are due to the difficulty of trying to make purposeful work happen.

Another issue that we point out in the report is the role of prison governors, who are seen by the general public as being almost like latter-day Roman governors in their own prison. In fact, they are not. We visited one prison governor who had virtually no control over the educational activities taking place in his prison. There needs to be some move back to giving prison governors control of the places they run and what they do in them, which will improve the workings of the prisons and the outcomes for prisoners. Implementing the key recommendations of the report will help.

It is an immense pleasure, Mr Walker, to serve under your chairmanship once again this week, as I do every Wednesday afternoon on the Select Committee on Procedure. I do not think that I have ever taken part in a debate that you have chaired in Westminster Hall.

It is a pleasure to respond to this report by the Select Committee on Justice. The previous speakers have been incredibly kind to the Government. When I read the report, I thought what uncomfortable reading it would be for Ministers and officials, as it does not pull its punches at all. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has been incredibly generous in his presentation of the report; his manners are a credit to his parents. I do not think that I will be quite as polite. I am under no illusions about the nature and scale of the task faced by the Ministry of Justice in tackling the crisis that is beginning to take hold in prisons. It is a crisis, and I do not use that word lightly. I have avoided using it for my first four years in this role, but I am beginning to think that a crisis is exactly what we are seeing.

The report explains very well the overcrowding and violence, and that there is zero improvement in reoffending figures. [Interruption.] The Minister is asking his officials. They will find a not statistically significant reduction in reoffending figures—a wasted five years in the previous Parliament. Opportunities have been missed to improve outcomes. It seems that almost every opportunity has been taken to make matters much worse.

The most urgent issue that the report, quite rightly, addresses is that of violence in prisons. The Minister and I have had debates in here on that very issue. I know that he is acutely aware of the level of the problem and he knows of my long-standing concern, which dates back to early in the previous Parliament, when I met one of his predecessors, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), along with prison officers from the north-east.

One of the officers, Craig Wylde, had been assaulted by an inmate with a history of violence who had barricaded himself into his cell at Frankland prison near Durham. The inmate attacked several officers with a broken bottle, causing life-changing injuries. As far as I am aware, they have not all been able to return to work. That case brought home to me that violence in prisons is not just a case of throwing punches or the inappropriate use of restraint techniques. It can be extremely serious.

For the first time that I can remember, this year we lost a serving custody officer while she was at work. That happened since the publication of the report; I am sure it would have been included. Although she was not in a prison at the time, the tragic event reveals something about the level of risk that prison staff take on a daily basis. At Prime Minister’s questions in the week following that dreadful murder, members of neither Front Bench—I do not reserve criticism just for those on the Government Front Bench—used the opportunity to pay tribute to Lorraine Barwell in the way that they, quite correctly, do when a member of the armed forces or a police officer is killed in the line of duty. It saddens me to acknowledge that this reveals something of a disparity of esteem in the eyes of the media and the public. That is not right and we must all work to put it right. Prison officers are brave public servants working to keep us safe. They deserve equal respect and acknowledgement for the job they do.

I have spoken for the Labour party on prisons since 2011. Throughout that time, the deterioration of standards in jails has been shocking, and they were not in a great state to begin with. I worked in prisons in the early ’90s; I know exactly the state that they were in then and I see the state that they are in now. I have seen nothing but decline. The situation is not, in any way, the responsibility of those working in our prisons. They are not to blame. Overcrowding, understaffing and a lack of political interest or leadership is responsible. The statistics are really quite grim. As the report states,

“since 2012 there has been a 38% rise in self-inflicted deaths, a 9% rise in self-harm, a 7% rise in assaults, and 100% rise in incidents of concerted indiscipline…There are fewer opportunities for rehabilitation, including diminished access to education,”—

we all remember the book ban—

“training, libraries, religious leaders, and offending behaviour courses.”

There have been 43 suicides and five homicides in prisons in the past six months. Serious assaults on staff are at an all-time high, with overcrowding, drugs and radicalisation getting worse or, as the chief inspector feels, becoming accepted as part of prison life. The most telling paragraph in the report is paragraph 17 on page 70. I want to read a few sentences from it. It is quite disturbing and I would like to hear the Minister’s response. It says:

“It is possible that the Ministry might be taking the matter of the sudden rise in self-inflicted deaths seriously internally, but downplaying publicly its significance, and the potential role that changes in prisons policy might be playing in it, is ill-advised as it could be construed as complacency and a lack of urgency.”

That is how it is construed. I do not suggest for a second that that is how the Minister intends it to be construed or that he personally feels that way about it, but that is the perception in jails. That is why he urgently needs to set his mind about the issue.

I have spoken in similar terms on so many occasions, as have organisations representing staff and others with an interest in prisons, but the Government continue to speak in the same terms. We hear about the rehabilitation revolution, working prisons, and through-the-gate support, but it is all starting to wear very thin. The Government’s disdain—shown through their inaction, if not their words—is unforgivable. As well as a new Justice Committee Chair and, mostly, a new Committee, we have a new Secretary of State. It is great to hear him. Some of the things that he is saying are very welcome but we have to see more than just words.

However, even in the grimmest of times—and I think these are the grimmest of times in prisons—there are always shining examples of success. We have all visited prisons and seen workshops preparing offenders for employment, amazing charities working to maintain vital family links, prison officers helping inmates to read and businesses, such as Timpson, going to great lengths to provide jobs on release. I admire those working in our prisons to contribute to the gargantuan task of reducing reoffending.

The Government have made a start, and I want to encourage more of the same, but we must assess the effectiveness of such interventions and focus funding on those proven to be most effective. It is incredibly frustrating to find that the work that does happen is so patchy and is not enough to have a significant impact on reoffending figures, which is probably because the methods are very inconsistent and delivery sometimes lacks quality. Access to courses, as we know, is extremely limited, and understaffing leads to offenders spending time idle and to missed opportunities to put right bad attitudes.

I welcome the new Secretary of State’s declarations. I completely support him when he says that he wants better education in our prisons, and more of it. I support him when he says that he wants to work to create a system in which every offender gets a chance to change—absolutely. But, so far, his words are lacking in substance, and he has not yet come up with a single policy that tells us how he will achieve his aims. We look forward to hearing about those policies, but so far we have not.

The Secretary of State does not need me or anyone else to worry about him all that much, but in his rush to reform our penal system he must not forget the needs of victims or neglect the vital task of maintaining public confidence in criminal justice. I share many of the concerns that he expresses, but he must remember that, if public confidence is lost, his opportunity to reform will vanish, too. The Minister will probably ask, “What would you do?” That is a fair question. We would fundamentally change how prisons are managed. It is pleasing to hear the Secretary of State utter similar words.

The report also observes that prison governors are “effectively becoming contract managers”, which the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst articulated well. Prison governors are constrained in their operational decisions, and the Committee rightly concludes that

“relegating governors to an oversight and partnership management role with much reduced discretion undermines their control over the performance and safety of the establishment and their ability to govern their prisons using their professional judgment, as they are trained at public expense to do.”

I would like to see the creation of prisons that are not centrally run from Whitehall. Instead, we should have locally run establishments. If hospitals, colleges and fire services are best run by local stakeholders, why not our prisons? It has never made sense to me that, at a strategic level, prisons should be entirely detached from the services needed to house, heal, educate and employ their inmates on release. It is no wonder that prisons do not succeed more often and that homelessness, unemployment, mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse are all commonplace among those recently released from prison. We know that those factors all contribute to reoffending and that roughly half those released from custody reoffend within a year.

I am glad that the Secretary of State seems to be coming round to that point of view. When we hear his concrete proposals, I have no doubt that we will do our best to support him, but it is widely accepted that work to prevent prisoners from returning to crime has to begin before release. That is better achieved if agencies with expertise in preventing homelessness or combating drug addiction have a stake in devising and delivering prison regimes, not just in providing programmes within a prison or providing support after release. That would be a major reform, and it would need to be piloted. Some service providers need to confront the consequences of getting things wrong the first time by taking a lead in putting things right. High reoffending rates are not the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice alone.

Conservative estimates say that about 23% of the prison population have been through the looked-after system. If that group were better provided for and prevented from committing crimes, we would save the Treasury an absolute fortune. Even if only half that group were kept away from crime, we would prevent some 10,000 people from becoming victims, saving about £270 million each year in incarceration costs.

Alongside a change in management, we need a change in inspections. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons produces excellent, insightful reports that act as catalysts for change in the institutions concerned, and more widely—ending the handcuffing of women in labour is a good example. If, as the report suggests, Parliament is to be asked to devolve many of the decisions on running prisons to establishment level, we must have confidence that high standards of security and safety will never be compromised. I suggest that we need a new kind of inspectorate with more frequent unannounced inspections that produces reports with real clout. Too often, we see the response to a poor inspection report centre on the appointment of a new governor. I have read so many times that things have improved dramatically since an inspection took place, but inspectors need the ability to insist on meaningful and immediate change.

I encourage the Government to put more effort into preventing people from getting involved in crime in the first place. As the Committee rightly observes, prisons have no control over which, or how many, inmates they hold. As has been observed, effective policing, work with troubled families, Sure Start and good mental health services for young people are all ways in which the Government can improve outcomes in prisons. The Minister should share the love for prisons by trying to get some of his colleagues in other Departments as interested and as keen to improve things as I know he is.

The Committee rightly observes that, with the need to make financial savings in the medium term, there is no scope to spend more on prisons. I therefore encourage Ministers to look closely at the Youth Justice Board. We have committed to extending the YJB’s responsibilities to include 21-year-olds and to developing a women’s justice board because we want to reduce demand on prison places by intervening early to divert those at risk of committing crime away from harming themselves and others. We need to see the proper use of restorative techniques and beefed-up community orders, but never at the expense of public confidence. We must always be mindful of the needs of victims.

I never felt unsafe when I worked in prisons. I benefited from quality supervision and good support from all grades of staff. Uniformed officers took leading roles in preventing bullying. They demonstrated daily how to keep calm in tricky situations and how to de-escalate violent disagreements without anyone getting hurt; they knew how to listen. They were trained to support rehabilitation day in, day out without any fuss or particular expense. The report captures that very well, as did the Committee’s earlier report “Role of the Prison Officer”, which I commend to the Minister.

Twenty years on, prison officers are undervalued and underused. We need to support them so that they are not, and never will be, just turnkeys. As the Committee put it in 2009—it is just as true now as it was then—prison officers’ sense of vocation

“needs to be encouraged, nurtured and developed as far as possible rather than, at best, being taken for granted and, at worst, ignored.”

I am grateful for this debate. It is not often that we get the opportunity in this place to have a good romp around the issue of prisons, but this debate has afforded that, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. There is one more thing that I committed to ask the Minister. I now have a regular slot on BBC Radio Berkshire to talk about Reading jail. The Chairman of the Committee and the report discussed the new-for- old programme. It is a sound strategy in principle, but in some places such as Reading, there are empty, mothballed prisons at strategic sites in towns with potential global heritage value. Local people in Reading are getting frustrated at the Ministry of Justice’s lack of ability to decide what to do with the site. If the Minister or his officials can put the minds of the people of Reading at rest about the future of that site, that would be welcome, and would save me my early morning slot on Radio Berkshire.

Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that we will hear from the Chair of the Committee for a few minutes after the Minister has finished his speech.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank the colleagues who have spoken so knowledgeably in this debate; I know that they all care deeply about the issues, and I am grateful for their remarks and the expertise that they bring to our proceedings.

Let me start with the issue of prison reform, about which much has been spoken. It is true that our thinking on the issue is emerging and developing; I am grateful to the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) for her support for what she has heard so far. As she and others have said, it is clear that our current system fails to rehabilitate offenders and ensure that criminals are prevented from reoffending. Our prisons must offer offenders the opportunity to get the skills and qualifications that they need to turn their lives around, particularly qualifications that have value in the labour market and are respected by employers.

Key to the reforms that we are putting in place is the role that prison governors play in helping drive through change. We have many dedicated and hard-working governors—I had the pleasure of going to a Prison Governors Association meeting on Tuesday—and the Justice Secretary and I want to ensure that those who run establishments are more autonomous and accountable but also demand more of our prisons and of offenders. Currently, governors do not have control over what happens in their prisons. We want to give governors that control, and we want to incentivise and reward them for delivering the right outcomes.

The Secretary of State has also acknowledged that working conditions in much of the current prison estate—particularly older Victorian prisons, which have high levels of crowding, as the Chair of the Committee and others have mentioned—are not conducive to developing a positive rehabilitative environment. He has made clear his ambition to replace ageing and ineffective Victorian prisons with new prisons that embody higher standards in every way they operate. On the final comments made by the hon. Member for Darlington, we are actively considering all those issues and have set out the direction of travel. Over the past five years, we have sold 16 prisons, considerably more than in the previous 20 years or so. Our record has been one of taking action where we need to, and we are actively considering all those issues.

The money we make from selling off old prisons should be reinvested in commissioning a modern, well-designed prison estate that designs out the faults in existing structures that make violent behaviour and drug taking harder to detect. The Government recognise fully that the private sector has innovated well, particularly in its use of technology in prisons, and that there are opportunities to innovate further across public sector prisons.

We must also tackle overcrowding, which the Chair of the Committee also quite properly mentioned, with sufficient places to meet demand that all provide a safe and decent living environment. We have recently delivered 1,250 new places in the four new house blocks at Peterborough, Parc at Bridgend in south Wales, Thameside and the Mount outside Hemel Hempstead, and we are currently building a 2,106-person modern fit-for-purpose prison in north Wales. We recognise the Committee’s concern about the impacts of a rise in the prison population. The need to be prepared for unexpected rises in demand will always be necessary. As the Committee recognised, we keep the capacity for each population cohort under review and rebalance the estate as required.

I move now to the issue of education and employment, which has quite properly featured highly in this debate. Prison should offer offenders the chance to get the skills and qualifications that they need to make a success of life on the outside—a second chance to make the best of the education that, in many cases, they did not get when they were younger. That is a crucial area of our reform agenda, and the Secretary of State and I are putting in place steps to help make prisons places of purpose by increasing education and employment opportunities for offenders. That includes working with other Departments, such as the Ministry of Defence, to expand work opportunities.

I also pay tribute to companies such as Halfords. I have mentioned the academy that Halfords runs in Onley prison, where instructors and prisoners work together in a well-equipped workshop. They all wear Halfords sweatshirts, and prisoners go out on day release to work in Halfords stores. After they complete the course, on release, there are jobs available for them as bicycle mechanics in Halfords stores. That is an excellent model providing employment on release, and it is exactly what I want to see a great deal more of.

The examples that the Minister cites are entirely appropriate and excellent, but they are just examples. The situation is patchy. What plans does he have to make that kind of experience the norm? My observation is that it is incredibly difficult to create such models of good practice throughout the country. It is something that Ministers have struggled with ever since I can remember.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We need to do better, and I am extremely ambitious and impatient to do more. I assure her that I regularly raise the issue with my officials, and I will continue to do so, because I share her impatience at the scale of the challenge. We need to act at pace to do something about the issue.

That said, work in prisons continues to grow steadily, with 14.9 million hours worked across the estate in 2014-15. However, as I said, I am determined to do much more. Increasing numbers of prisoners are also engaged in learning, but Ofsted inspections confirm that one in five prisons has an inadequate standard of education provision and another two fifths require improvement. That is why the Secretary of State has asked Dame Sally Coates, a distinguished former headteacher, to chair a review of the quality of education in prisons, which will report in March 2016.

The review will examine the scope and quality of current provision in adult prisons and young offender institutions for 18 to 20-year-olds. It will consider domestic and international evidence of what works well in prison education and identify options for future models of education services in prisons. In the meantime, work is already in progress to improve the quality of learning and skills in prisons, including: finding ways to improve class attendance and punctuality; collecting better management information, which is key; improving support for those with learning difficulties and disabilities, including mental health issues, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) raises rightly and regularly; and developing more creative and innovative teaching.

On that point—I have mentioned it before—Swaleside has a good maths and English programme in the physical education department, of all places, that has been particularly successful at helping harder-to-engage prisoners improve their English and maths skills. That is exactly the sort of thing that I am talking about, and we need more of it.

In August last year, we introduced mandatory assessment of maths and English for all newly received prisoners, so we now have a proper baseline measure of prisons’ standards of literacy and numeracy. We have also invested in a virtual campus, a secure web-based learning and job search tool, currently available in 105 prisons to support prisoners’ education.

In addition to education inside prison, the Government also fully support prisoners using temporary release to take up work, training and educational opportunities in the community as well as to maintain ties with families. Although that should never come at the expense of public protection, it is a powerful tool for reintegrating offenders back into the community and preparing them for release. All the measures taken since the ROTL review in 2013 focus on minimising the risks taken in allowing temporary release and ensuring that releases are purposeful. The latest data show a 39% reduction in recorded instances of ROTL failure. We agree that ROTL can be a useful resettlement tool; it is important not to let abuse by a small number of people undermine it. We will review the impact of the new measures in 2016, so we can be sure that the public is protected while avoiding unnecessary restrictions on purposeful rehabilitative ROTL.

I turn to young people and young adults in custody. Although fewer young people are committing crimes for the first time, those who enter the youth justice system are some of the most troubled in our society, and too many go on to commit further offences. The significant reductions in volumes mean that the youth justice system now faces very different challenges. We need to consider whether the structures and delivery models created in 2000 are appropriate to meet the challenges of 2015 and the changes to the public service landscape. We also need to ensure that the youth justice system provides maximum value for the taxpayer. In recognition of the continued significant reductions in the number of young people in custody, as well as the scale of the financial challenge, we will not pursue plans to build a secure college, although we remain committed to improving education for all young offenders.

May I raise one point on young offenders in particular? The Minister is right to highlight the changes that have been made and the reduction. The report from Lord Harris of Haringey highlighted the particular need for work to be done with those vulnerable people at risk of harm in custody. When will the Government make their response to the report?

We have promised a response in the autumn. We are actively considering that extremely important report, about which I will say a little in a moment if my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Justice Committee, will allow me.

In September, we announced a departmental review of the youth justice system, led by Charlie Taylor, the former chief executive of the National College of Teaching and Leadership. I recognise the importance of clear responsibility for the young adult offender group. We have therefore appointed a deputy director of custody for young people, within NOMS, as senior lead on operational policy on young adults. We are also working to improve the evidence base around what works best with young adult offenders. That includes developing and testing a tool to screen for emotional and social maturity, which should help us to understand need better and better tailor services and interventions for young adult offenders in prison or in the community.

The shadow Minister quite properly raised prison safety. The safety of our staff as they deliver a secure prison regime is an absolute priority. We are tackling dangerous new psychoactive substances, to help drive down the number of assaults and violent incidents. Measures have been taken to help deter prisoners from violence. For example, we brought in, for the first time ever, a joint national protocol between NOMS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, to ensure that there is a nationally consistent approach to referral and prosecution of crimes in prison. That is a really important mechanism. It is a significant change and will play its part in reducing violence in prisons.

The Serious Crime Act 2015 has brought in two new offences. Unbelievably, it was not an offence to possess a knife in a prison—if you can believe that—without authorisation. That has now changed. We are bringing in a new offence of throwing or projecting any item over a prison wall. The link to violence is very clear; it is mainly drugs that are thrown over the walls, and we know that new psychoactive substances are involved in provoking many violent incidents. That is why such measures are important.

We are bringing in other measures to record and understand the incidents of violence in prisons and the response to those incidents. We are developing a violence diagnostic tool, to enable better analysis at national, regional and local levels, and operational guidance for governors, to advise staff in prison on how they might better manage both potential and actual violent incidents. We are also piloting body-worn cameras in 22 public sector and two private sector prisons. I visited Glen Parva recently and was impressed by what I saw. The staff told me that they felt a lot safer; the prisoners also told me that they felt a lot safer, which is important. We will evaluate that early next year. We do not underestimate the hard work and challenges faced by our prison staff in dealing with serious violent incidents. We will continue to support our staff and help them to maintain safe and secure prisons.

The issue of self-inflicted deaths was rightly raised earlier. Whenever a prisoner takes their own life, it is a shocking and tragic event that is felt round the whole prison. We take our duty to keep prisoners safe extremely seriously. On any given day, prison staff provide crucial care to more than 2,000 prisoners at risk of self-harming. At times, that means someone literally sitting 24/7 outside a cell door, if necessary. We continue to make every effort to improve the care that we provide to vulnerable prisoners and learn from every individual incident.

It is too simplistic to attribute self-inflicted death or self-harm to staffing reductions or benchmarking. Deaths have occurred in contractor prisons, which have not been subject to reductions, as well as public sector prisons. All prisons are required to have procedures in place to identify, manage and support people who are at risk of harm to themselves. NOMS has put in place additional resources to undertake this safer custody work. NOMS is also reviewing the operation of the case management process for prisoners assessed as being at risk—procedures for assessment, care in custody and teamwork, known as ACCT. It is considering the recommendations of the Harris review into deaths of young adults in custody, about which the Chair of the Justice Committee rightly asked.

The Committee expressed concerns about staffing. The prison system has been under some pressure as a result of a rise in the prison population, combined with staffing shortages. That is most notable in London and the south-east, where the economic recovery may have contributed to a higher than anticipated staff turnover. Immediate action was taken early in 2014 to manage those recruitment shortages, including an accelerated recruitment campaign, the introduction of the Her Majesty’s Prison Service reserves, and staff sent on detached duty to the prisons with the greatest shortages. In the 12 months to June 2015, 2,230 new prison officers began training. Of those, 1,820 were new recruits and 410 were existing NOMS staff who have regraded to become prison officers. In the past 12 months to June 2015, there has been a net increase of 420 prison officers. Those officers will go at least some of the way to dealing with the issues of violence and safety that have been raised throughout the debate. We are also looking to recruit a similar number this year with our ongoing recruitment campaign.

There are, however, establishments where it remains hard to recruit. To address that issue, NOMS has looked at a number of options based on evidence, such as turnover, volume of vacancies and reward in other industries. A decision has been made against organisational objectives, Government policy on public sector pay and financial affordability, to improve our reward offer for prison officers at those sites. NOMS has worked, and will continue to work, to support its staff and provide them with the skills and development opportunities that they need to perform their duties with confidence and the necessary skills.

I shall quickly touch on the role of the external monitoring bodies. I wrote to the Chair of the Justice Committee in July, clarifying that the reference in the NOMS original response to the Justice Committee to a review of the independence of all criminal justice inspectorates was made in error, for which I apologise. A corrected version of the NOMS response has now been relayed in Parliament. I assure the House that in the absence of such a review, both the Secretary of State and I remain absolutely committed to safeguarding the imperative of an inspectorate that operates, and is perceived to operate, fully independently of both the sponsoring Department and the organisations in its remit.

The last major point I want to cover concerns our transforming rehabilitation reforms. As the Committee will know, reoffending has been too high for too long, which is why we have reformed the way that offenders are managed in the community. The transforming rehabilitation reforms seek to get the best out of the voluntary, public and private sectors to help offenders turn away from crime. These reforms mean that for the first time in recent history, virtually every offender released from custody will receive statutory supervision and rehabilitation in the community, including those offenders sentenced to less than 12 months in custody. We expect the new providers to make real contributions towards reducing reoffending, and we are closely monitoring their progress. The reforms have made substantial changes to how we manage offenders in England and Wales, and I am proud to be part of the team that has made those changes happen.

Of course, there remains much work to be done as we embed these reforms, and I take this opportunity to thank probation and prison staff for their continued hard work. They are doing a magnificent job, and they deserve our congratulation and recognition.

Regarding work, I agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). I was interested to hear about the experience in German prisons; the Singaporean prison system also places a very high emphasis on both getting prisoners into work in prison and getting them into employment afterwards. I am grateful to him for making that point.

The hon. Member for Darlington was absolutely right to refer to the tragic death of Lorraine Barwell. It was an horrendous incident and I can assure the hon. Lady that it was taken extremely seriously within the Ministry of Justice; reviews are ongoing and a charge of murder has been brought. The flag on the Ministry of Justice flew at half-mast on the day of the funeral. The hon. Lady’s comments were absolutely right. I myself have said it many times before and I say it again now: prison officers are on the front line, keeping us all safe. We owe every one of them a debt of duty. They may not be in the public eye in the way other front-line professionals are, but what they do is every bit as important. We need to recognise that on every occasion.

Thank you very much, Mr Walker; I am very grateful for having had the chance to respond to the debate. I hope that I have managed to respond to all the points raised this afternoon. If I have not done so, I will gladly write to hon. Members.

Thank you very much, Mr Walker.

I am very grateful to all the hon. Members who have participated in this debate, and I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who is also our Committee’s rapporteur on European issues. He is sort of a de facto vice chairman of our Committee, and I am particularly grateful for the long and continuing interest that he takes in these matters. I have found his expertise immensely helpful.

I am grateful to both the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), and the Minister for their comments. All I gently say to the shadow Minister is that my old pupil master always said that the most effective form of cross-examination was the politest and sometimes that is not a bad policy to adhere to, either as a politician or an advocate. That does not mean that the cross-examination is not pressed home, when necessary. The hon. Lady raised important issues, but I start from the premise that I am a fan of the Minister, and of the Lord Chancellor and new Secretary of State for Justice. I believe that they both want to do the right thing, and I know that the Minister’s personal commitment to prison reform and rehabilitation is very strong indeed.

I am also conscious that when the Government came into office they had to deal with some very significant financial challenges, which any of us who held office at that time had to confront. So I accept that there were pressures, and I also accept the point that we are dealing with very complex issues; very few people indeed end up in prison because of a simple set of motives or factors. Generally, a raft of issues come together and we need to recognise that.

I welcome the reforms that the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice is proposing. That is why I, and I think all of the Committee, want to give them a fair wind. Reducing capacity is important, and I think we will press the Government over the coming year or so for more detail on precisely what the plans are to reduce capacity. Will there be an increase both in the build and in finding genuine, constructive and publicly credible alternatives to custody, wherever possible?

Also, I welcome the Minister’s commitment to doing more work on the follow-up of offenders once they are released. There is an awful lot of professional opinion now that questions the value of short sentences in particular, where very often there is no chance to do any real rehabilitative work. In the past, we have seen people released with virtually no supervision at all. Increased follow-up of offenders is certainly a move in the right direction, but the Select Committee will want to keep a very careful eye on this issue. In that context, as I have already done on the Floor of the House, I welcome the appointment of Dame Sally Coates, whose reputation in relation to this matter is a very high one.

This issue is about making things purposeful and the Minister is right to observe that the best rehabilitation of all is work and a sense of self-worth, and if we can try to promote those things in our prison regime that will be hugely effective.

I, too, pay tribute to the work of prison officers, and to Lorraine Barwell and others. Those of us who have practised in the criminal courts know the pressures on custody officers and prison officers, right the way through the system; it is not only in the prison environment that there are pressures but in the court environment and the transfer environment. Those officers all deserve our full support in relation to those matters.

I hope that this has been a useful report and a useful debate, and we look forward to continuing discussion of this matter. As the Minister will know, there will be a further significant inquiry by the Select Committee, on the basis of Lord Harris’s report and related matters. I look forward to the Minister and others doubtless giving evidence to us then.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Ninth Report from the Justice Committee of Session 2014-15, on Prisons: planning and policies, HC 309, and the Government response, Cm 9129.

Civil Legal Aid

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Eighth Report from the Justice Committee, Session 2014-15, on impact of changes to civil legal aid under part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, HC 311, and the Government Response, Cm 9096.

I am delighted to have secured this debate on the operation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, or LASPO as it is often called. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice to his place. We now commence our discussion of the second of the Justice Committee’s important reports that we are considering today.

I was prepared to give these reforms of legal aid a fair wind when they were introduced, but I also have concerns about them, as I think the Committee does. I do not say that because the objective of saving money is not important and, indeed, a significant imperative. I sympathise with the predicament of the Minister and of his predecessors; having been a Minister in an unprotected Department myself, I am very conscious that the financial circumstances that the previous Government inherited were dire, and changes had to be made and economies found. I accept that entirely.

Nevertheless, I and the rest of the Committee are concerned that the reforms may have had some unintended consequences, which perhaps we can now sensibly revisit. I was not a member of the Committee at the time the report was produced, but reading through it, a number of the concerns expressed chimed with my own experience as a constituency MP and, for what it is worth, my experience at the Bar. Although I no longer practise at the Bar, I still keep in touch with those who do.

Perhaps we can deal with some of the main issues that were highlighted in the report, and I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Minister’s response. I say that because, once again, I detect in both his comments and those of the Secretary of State a willingness to be open-minded about revisiting situations where it can be shown that there are perhaps better, more nuanced and more effective ways of obtaining the objective that we all want to achieve—having a legal aid system that concentrates resource where it is needed and that helps those who are in genuine need, but that does not encourage unmeritorious litigation. I think that we all share that view.

The Committee raised several issues on which I am interested in hearing my hon. Friend the Minister’s comments. First, there was a concern that the reforms, in a sense, were undoubtedly financially driven. There is nothing wrong with that in itself; it was a necessity at the time. Both the then permanent secretary and my hon. Friend’s predecessor as Minister were frank and fair about that to the Committee; savings needed to be made, and made quickly. However, that meant that no research could be undertaken about the impact of the reforms. Now, we are about a year on and although, frankly, it is unusual to conduct a Select Committee inquiry on reforms after only about a year, we are now able to see some of the impacts and I hope that gives us a chance to revisit some of the issues.

The position, of course, is that the MOJ is unprotected. The Committee was concerned that, although it may not have been intended, in practice the reforms introduced in April 2013 may well have begun to impede access to justice. If that is the case, we need to be prepared to accept it, and we should revisit the issues.

There were four objectives that the Government perfectly reasonably set themselves: to discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense; to target legal aid at those who need it most; to make significant savings in the cost of the scheme; and to deliver overall better value for money for the taxpayer. There is nothing wrong with any of those objectives, but the evidence that the Committee received suggested that at least three of them have not been successfully achieved. That is why we need to be prepared to look at them again.

Access to justice is fundamental to a system based on the rule of law, and it is therefore important that any changes we make to the ability of the citizen to access proper legal advice are based upon objective evidence. That is the first and primary concern.

In terms of a saving, the National Audit Office concluded that the Government had exceeded their savings target by £32 million, because they were not funding as many cases as was predicted. Many Members will have people come to their constituency surgeries with debt issues, and in debt cases the shortfall was in the region of 85%. That indicates to me that the projections were pretty much based on back-of-an-envelope calculations and may not have had a great deal of research behind them. I am happy to be corrected if that is not the case. Given the speed at which it was acknowledged that that was happening, I can understand why that might be the case, but perhaps that is all the more reason to look again at the matter, if that is what is happening.

I am happy to see an underspend when it is genuine, but if it is an underspend because people who ought to be entitled to legal advice and support are not getting it, that is a failure in the system, and we need to find out precisely why that is so. One of the Committee’s concerns was that there was a significant lack of public information on accessing legal aid, and I have found that in my surgeries. In a comparatively prosperous part of suburban London, I have a lot of constituents coming to me who are unaware of how best to access legal aid and what their rights are. I suspect that the situation may be very much worse in other, more socially challenged parts of the country. We urgently need to revisit that issue.

The suggestion that people are simply moving to pro bono is not good enough. The pro bono work done by members from both sides of the profession is very important, but at the end of the day that is not a substitute for proper advice. That needs to be addressed, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister says on that.

Secondly, we have the operation of the exceptional cases funding scheme, which is an important part of the legal aid system. It was specifically and properly designed to ensure that any changes did not put us in breach of our obligations under the European convention or the European Union, and that is right and proper. The then Lord Chancellor described the scheme as a “safety net” on Second Reading of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. I have no problem with a safety net, but we need to see how effective its operation has been. The evidence to the Committee on that raised concerns for us.

I appreciate things may have moved on—I am sure the Minister can update us if they have—but at the time of the Committee’s report, 7.2% of applications for ECF were granted. When the usual risk assessments and impact assessments were carried out for the legislation, the estimate was for that figure to be between 53% and 74%. I know from when I was a Minister that impact assessments are sometimes not entirely borne out in practice, but we are talking about a massive difference. When the figure is about one tenth of the top end of the impact assessment estimate, that indicates to me that something is going seriously awry. Either the impact assessment was very badly off indeed or the operation of the scheme has borne down much more heavily on deserving cases than Ministers ever intended. Some 60% of the grants that were made were for family representation at inquests, and that is good. I had a meeting recently with Inquest, which is an important and valuable body that does hard work in that field. Representation in that area is critical, but what about the rest of the significant shortfall? We need to examine that a little more.

We found—this is worth reciting—some exceptional cases where applications under the ECF were refused. They are exceptional cases; that is the whole point. An illiterate woman with learning, hearing and speech difficulties was facing an application that would affect her contact with her children. That was not regarded as suitable for exceptional cases funding, and that is difficult for many of us to appreciate. The judge in one case told us of a woman with modest learning difficulties who was unable to deal with representations from the lawyer on the other side. She is now facing possibly not seeing her child again. That troubled me in particular, because that coincides with my conversations with district and circuit judges and practitioners who operate in this field.

Anyone who goes to their county court will be aware of such issues, which raise a fundamental equality of arms argument. The other side is very often the local authority, which is represented by solicitor or counsel. Against that is someone who may not be able on their own to deal adequately with the process. To say that that is not an exceptional circumstance would be an unfair consequence of the scheme, and that sort of thing should not happen again in future.

I will give one further example. A destitute blind man with profound learning difficulties lacked the litigation capacity, so the official solicitor made an application on his behalf. Initially, that was rejected, and it had to go to judicial review. We should not be having to do that. That is clearly where the operation of the system, rather than the intention of Ministers, was at fault, but it means that we need to bear down carefully on how these cases are processed in the first place. I do not want a legitimate objective of efficiency and saving to get a bad name because of how it is carried out in practice.

Against that background, the Committee concluded that the low number of grants and some of those details meant that the scheme was not acting as the robust safety net that was intended. The risk of miscarriage of justice is real in some of those cases, and we should not allow such things to happen as a consequence of the reforms. We are concerned that so far we have heard no evidence of the Ministry investigating the significant disparity between the predicted number of grants—the 53% to 74% estimate—and the actuality of less than 8%. Will the Minister say what steps have been taken to investigate that enormous disparity? What steps are being taken to ensure that the scheme operates in a more equitable and just fashion? That is hugely important for the scheme’s credibility.

There has, in fairness, been an improvement in recent months, and I am sure the Minister will update me further. The statistics for April to June 2015 show an increase, with grants made to just over one third of all applicants. That is partly because Ministers reviewed the guidelines, and that was right and proper, but it required a review and decision by the Court of Appeal to make that happen. Ministers acted promptly on the basis of that decision, and I give them credit for that, but one third is still way short of the bottom end of the benchmark of 50%. We need more detail on what is being done to ensure that the percentage becomes more realistically near the estimate.

The number of applications remains low, and I would like to know what more can be done on that. The Committee’s inquiry involved some 35 oral witnesses over a period of months and some 70 pieces of written evidence. It is a not insubstantial piece of work that was undertaken by my colleagues who were on the Committee at the time. One reason that the Committee found for the low number of applications was the length of time that it takes to complete the form. That is not insignificant. I can remember sitting in the cells as a practitioner, completing the legal aid form before we went up on the first remand hearing. The form has gone well beyond that now, and the truth is that lawyers cannot claim the time for completing the form.

[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Brady, as always. I am not here to make the case on behalf of lawyers, but completing the form is generally beyond the capacity of many lay people, particularly those with any difficulties. They need help to do it and the solicitor will not be remunerated for doing it. Many do it out of their professional sense of duty and obligation, and they are right to do so, but the form is an impediment. In many areas of Government, we are successfully making forms simpler and putting things into plain English. If we are able to make forms simpler in a raft of areas, including planning applications, local government matters and court forms, we ought to be able to do it for the application forms for these matters. What are the Government going to do on that?

A separate issue that causes concern relates to legal aid in family law cases, particularly in what is sometimes termed the domestic violence gateway. Happily, I never practised in that field, but I know that it is one of the most stressful that a lawyer, judge or litigant can encounter. The intention was—I do not doubt its goodness—that legal aid would be available where a litigant can show evidence of abuse within the past two years, with an exception where there is clear evidence of a conviction arising from domestic violence. That is the easy bit. We were concerned by the evidence to our inquiry on the operation of that need, in the absence of a conviction, to show evidence of domestic abuse from within the past two years. We found that some 39% of women who contacted a domestic violence charity about abuse did not have one of the prescribed forms of evidence. That leads us to conclude that the prescribed forms of evidence are too rigid and that there ought to be greater nuance and discretion around that.

Also, as anyone who has dealt with such matters would know, many people struggle with the two-year time limit, because family law cases have often dragged on for years. Relationships that can be abusive, often with as much emotional and psychological pressure as physical pressure, are all part of a picture that builds up over time. In such a relationship, where there may be children and it is difficult for the person to walk away, the strict adherence to a two-year limit can be artificial, and perhaps the guidelines do not coincide with the reality of life as many of us know it from our surgeries, and certainly as many experienced practitioners know it. I hope we can look at that issue again.

The Committee recommended that the Legal Aid Agency be allowed discretion to grant funding where, although the facts might not immediately fit the criteria, the victim of abuse would be materially disadvantaged by having to face the alleged perpetrator of the violence in court. We would not allow that in criminal proceedings, and we should not get into such situations in family proceedings, either. I hope the Minister will give us more details on that. I doubt it would increase the spend. The numbers are not great, but the potential injustice is very great, so I hope we can revisit that issue.

I am sorry that the Government rejected our recommendation. I ask the Minister, on behalf of the Committee, to think again. It is not good enough to say it is a catch-all clause and will lead to large amounts of litigation. I am sure it is possible to draft a sensible form of discretion that is not a blank cheque, but goes further to reflect reality than the current arrangements. We are a year on now. On the basis of the open-minded approach that the Secretary of State and his team are taking, now is a good time to revisit it in the light of experience and perhaps seek evidence from the practitioners and judges who hear such cases as to what might sensibly be put into the form. I hope the Government will think again about that.

The third issue that we raised, which again coincides with my own experience independently of the report, is sometimes called “sustainability and advice deserts”. There are parts of this country where it is very difficult now to find a lawyer to take on a civil legal aid case. Again, if in comparatively prosperous Bromley it is hard to find a solicitor to take on legally aided family work, it is a lot worse in many other parts of the country, never mind in rural areas where the question of simple physical access to a suitable solicitor can be significant. This is classically the area where pieces of research were to be published in 2015, but we have not yet seen the fruits of that research. Perhaps the Minister can tell us when it will be made public, because I have no doubt that the Committee will wish to revisit some of the considerations in the light of that.

The fourth area of concern stems from the increase in litigants in person. The contention at the time—I was prepared to give it a fair wind—was that there would be behavioural change through the removal of legal aid so that fewer people would choose to go to court to resolve their problems. I am not sure the evidence bears that out. I do not want to be an amateur psychologist, but perhaps the motives that lead people to go to court are not of a purely transactional nature. Sometimes, particularly in the most difficult cases, there are pressures that go beyond the ordinary straightforward business decision that we might make as to whether we litigated over a contractual matter, for example. This is not that sort of case. Very often there are other deep pressures that play upon people, which we may not have taken fully on board.

Also, I do not think we have done enough to promote the alternative of mediation, which I shall come to in a moment. On re-reading, I felt there was a finger in the wind approach to the assessment about behavioural change. The wind does not seem to be demonstrating that that is happening in the way that we would wish. Certainly the anecdotal evidence that we heard from people before the Committee, and others, was that there had been a significant increase in litigants in person. There is not a systematic means of collating that information; perhaps there should be. Even in the family courts where some figures are available, the accuracy and their significance was debatable. If we are to have such policy change we ought to know, and it should not be too difficult to work out. If litigants in person and those who are represented are logged, it should not be too difficult to pull the figures together so that we know better where we stand.

The National Audit Office was concerned that the increase in litigants in person in the family courts had cost the family court system an additional £3.4 million. I was disturbed at our evidence hearing on Tuesday to hear a senior official of the Department suggesting that there was no impact. Anyone who talks to anyone who sits in the county courts would say otherwise. There is an impact. We all know that litigants in person often take longer to present their case, which consumes court time and also affects soliciting as the costs run up on the other side, so it is in nobody’s interest in the long term to save money under one head of the justice system, but increase it on the courts budget, which is itself hard-pressed, on the other. Perhaps we need more evidence and a willingness to revisit that, too.

Moreover, often the increase in litigants in person is of people with real difficulties in coping with the system. We have moved on from a situation where the litigant in person was a fairly articulate person who chose not to employ a solicitor or a barrister—not something I would ever encourage, of course—because that was a sensible decision and they were able to deal with a straightforward case on its own merits. We now often deal with people coming before the courts with significant educational and communication difficulties and dealing with complex cases.

I want to make a serious point about what the hon. Gentleman has just said. The advice to litigants who propose to represent themselves is based on the fact that it is difficult for them to be objective. They are not in a position to sit back and look at the entire thing, and that often causes great delays going down the wrong road.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That coincides with my own experience. Early and prompt access to legal advice can give an overall saving in costs to the system as well as producing a better outcome in terms of justice. I could not agree with him more. It is potentially a false saving and we should be wary of going down that route. I hope that we can have an update on the Government’s research and findings.

It is perfectly fair to say that the Government relied on the additional grant to fund personal support units in the courts. That is useful, but patchy. In some of the county courts that I have visited, there was limited personal support available. I had an instance of someone who was simply trying to fill out the form being told that they could not be helped at the local county court, but had to go to the royal courts of justice. They went to the royal courts of justice and got an out-of-date form, so they had to make two trips. That is not achieving the objective that the Government want, so we need to have an update on how the work is coming on.

Some reliance was also placed on the use of McKenzie friends and the unbundling of legal services. Unbundling can have its role, but my limited experience as a civil practitioner caused me deep concern about the use of McKenzie friends. The lack of objectivity that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) referred to applies to McKenzie friends, too. I can certainly think of one case that was needlessly dragged out and the client sent in an entirely wrong direction, ultimately to their own considerable cost, as a result of an unregulated and ill-informed McKenzie friend, so I do not think they are a proper substitute. Such cases ought to be the exception rather than the rule. It is unfortunate that the Government rejected without any explanation the Committee’s recommendation on consulting on regulating McKenzie friends, or at least reviewing the whole operation of that type of quasi-advocate.

One of my two final points link to the question of a lack of alternative. The Government rightly have a commitment to mediation. We have the mediation pledge that successive Governments have signed up to. Increasing the use of mediation was an objective of the Government’s reforms. The estimate was that the number of mediation assessments in family law alone would increase by 9,000, and that was budgeted for. That was all well and good, but the evidence that the Committee received showed that the number of mediations fell by 17,000, or about 56%—it more than halved. The National Audit Office concluded that the Ministry of Justice had a “limited understanding” of why people go to court. The assumption that people would take up mediation was not adequately evidenced. In somewhat the same way as with legal aid, there is a lack of understanding of what mediation is available, how it is best accessed and how it is resourced.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who was present for the earlier debate, is a member of the Justice Committee, and he has recently set up an all-party group on alternative dispute resolution. That is a worthy cause, and I hope that several hon. Members will take an interest in it, because there is a lot more we can do to resolve a raft of issues in a non-adversarial fashion. Not enough is being done on that, and the Government need to be much more proactive. I would be interested to know what they intend to do to work out why there was such a disparity between the assessments and the actual uptake. I would also be interested to know what work is being done as part of the initiative they rightly introduced with Sir David Norgrove’s work on the family mediation taskforce. The taskforce is a step in the right direction, and we welcome it, but there are other areas where much more work can be done to increase the take-up of mediation. Although there has been an improvement, take-up is still about half the 2012-13 figure, and it is important to have some explanation of that.

The Government’s fourth objective was value for money in the system. The difficulty is that we cannot really quantify that at the moment, because there is no evidence regarding knock-on costs elsewhere in the system. The Committee thought—again, this coincides with my experience—that early intervention is often a cost saver. One witness described it as a fence at the top of the cliff, rather than an ambulance at the bottom, and there is a lot of common sense in that. Sensible early intervention saves time, saves money and saves injustice being done to parties. I hope the Ministry will look again at that.

The Committee recommended establishing a review of the reforms’ knock-on costs, but the Ministry rejected that on the basis that the Act would be reviewed between three and five years after implementation and that there had been no complaints. That rather misses the point, because there is already evidence of knock-on costs and of the reforms not working as planned. If we want them to bite and to be genuinely sustainable, waiting three years is quite a long time. That is why the Committee revisited them after one year. I hope the Minister will be able to say that the Government will move more swiftly to review the knock-on costs.

The Committee raised a number of issues. I wish the reforms a fair wind. However, I, as a loyal supporter of the Government, have concerns, as does the Committee, on a cross-party basis. It is right to take those concerns on board, because we need to look at them seriously. Having dealt with some of the immediate economic pressures that existed previously, it may be possible for us to revisit this issue and to adopt a more nuanced approach to making savings. Indeed, we may recognise other areas in the legal aid and criminal justice system where savings can sensibly be made. However, the ability to access justice in a fair way is critical to the equality of arms and to the system’s integrity. None of us would want that to be undermined—I know the Minister would not—and that is why the Committee raised the issues it did in its report. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Chair of the Select Committee, remarked in the last debate that his pupil master advised him that the most effective form of cross-examination is polite cross-examination. Well, his examination of the report was polite and fair, but it was also honest—it was a proper critique of the issues the Committee covered. I am afraid, however, that I will be rather more impolite than the hon. Gentleman.

The report is a damning indictment of the Government’s haphazard, ham-fisted approach to reforming legal aid. The Committee has set out in clear terms what an unmitigated disaster the reform of civil legal aid has become under this Government. Their ill-advised attack on legal aid, in the guise of reform, has undermined a long tradition of access to justice. The legal system in England and Wales was once the envy of the world, but I hope hon. Members do not think I am being over-dramatic when I say that other countries are now starting to rather disregard it, and it is being quite heavily criticised. We should be proud of a history in which the poorest and most vulnerable have had access to the law.

The Government had four objectives in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. Those were to discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense; to target legal aid at those who need it most; to make significant savings in the cost of the scheme; and to deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer. Of those four objectives, they have achieved only one. Significant cuts have been made to the cost of the scheme, but at what cost to justice? Indeed, one wonders whether there is any saving in reality.

Criticism of LASPO is wide-ranging, coming from the Bar Council, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Citizens Advice and many others. The Law Society has argued that many people are being denied access to justice as a result of the huge changes to civil legal aid.

It is obvious from the report that the knock-on effects of such large cuts were not thought through. The driving force behind them was purely ideological. There was no evidence-based approach to legal aid—there was just a “slash now and see what happens next” approach. As a Back-Bench Member, I served on the Committee that considered the LASPO Bill. We heard evidence from various groups and speeches by Members from both sides of the House warning the Government of the risks. However, all of that was categorically ignored by a Government whose aim was to make the cuts and to ask questions later.

The report is clear that

“the urgency attached by the Government to the programme of savings militated against having a research-based and well-structured programme of change to the provision of civil legal aid.”

The evidence given by Dame Ursula Brennan gave the game away. Her concession that the primary motivation for the decisions was the size of the spend shows the intellectual deficit behind the changes. Access to justice should have been at the top of the Government’s list when it came to reforming legal aid, but, as we have seen in the last few years, it appears to have been an afterthought.

The Government claim to have targeted legal aid at those who need it the most, but I am afraid that is laughable. The Select Committee Chair gave anecdotal evidence from practitioners in the relevant area, and it is true that members of the Bar and solicitors who practise on a daily basis in civil legal aid areas encounter major difficulties as a result of the changes to the law. I could continue, but the critique by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst included all that I wanted to say. He was fair and is clearly objective about what he has read. I know that he was not involved in the work on the report, which was done by members of the Committee under its former Chairman in the previous Parliament.

Attacks on access to justice have led to massive shortfalls in advice. We should all be concerned about it. The impact of the cuts is devastating in both civil and, indeed, criminal legal aid. I do not want to digress too much, but today criminal solicitors throughout the land are being told whether they have managed to get a contract for criminal legal aid in duty cases. I very much fear that the Government are going to make the same mistakes that they made with criminal legal aid under LASPO. Will the Government make a commitment to bring forward their review, so that the changes to civil legal aid can be rigorously and thoroughly examined? The Labour party recently announced a full review of legal aid, to include criminal as well as civil legal aid, led by Lord Willy Bach. I wonder whether that may prompt the Government to bring forward their own review of the Act.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Brady, for what I believe is the first time—certainly as a Minister. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate. I am sure many colleagues will have noticed that I am not the Minister responsible for legal aid, and I want to convey apologies on behalf of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who is caught in the joys of the Committee on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. I shall address issues of substance—technical and detailed as they are—and principle as best I can. If I cannot deal with them I shall follow them up; or I am sure my hon. Friend will be able to.

I welcome the report and scrutiny, and particularly the tenor of the approach to the issue taken by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Justice. He began by pointing out that all the reforms are happening in the context of trying to deal with the deficit, and noted that the Ministry of Justice is not a protected area. There are no easy choices in this area and I welcome his emphasis on that. At the same time, I think it is agreed across the House that legal aid is a vital element in any fair justice system and I am proud to say that our system remains very generous. Last year we spent £1.6 billion on legal aid. That is about a quarter of the Department’s expenditure. All sorts of issues arise in connection with methods and modalities of legal aid reform—I thought that the Select Committee Chairman handled this aspect of the matter well—but it is incumbent on those whose bottom-line position is that we need to spend more to explain responsibly where the money will come from. They should explain whether it would be from prisons, within the Ministry of Justice budget. We have just had a debate on prison reform and we all understand how difficult the pressures are there. If more spending on legal aid is not to come from the Ministry of Justice budget will it be from the schools or health budgets?

The point, which the Committee made very well, is that there is not necessarily a real saving. There may be a top line saving. Legal aid spending may be reduced, but that is going down the road to another Department. Some other area has to pick up the bill in the end.

That is not correct or accurate and I will address the point in detail shortly. The hon. Gentleman must face up to the fact that the shadow Justice Secretary in 2011, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), made it clear that the Labour party’s position then was that cuts would have to be made. I have heard little of substance from the hon. Gentleman other than that the Labour party, even under its current leader, is punting the whole issue into review. It sounds a little to me as if there is a lot of critique but not many positive ideas about what to do.

In the context of the need for cuts, should we not bear it in mind that one of the issues of concern to the Committee was the underspend on legal aid? There were concerns about lack of information about its continued availability. Is not it important to ensure that where there is legal aid those who may be entitled to it are notified of that, to ensure that they get access to justice?

My hon. Friend is right and that is a more legitimate question to raise.

For all the bean-counting, and the importance of the deficit, the Government have a responsibility to ensure that those in the greatest hardship, at times of real need, are provided with the resources to secure access to justice. As well as being grateful to the Select Committee Chair, I am grateful to all hon. Members in this and the previous Parliament for their diligent and careful scrutiny of our legal aid reforms. Some fair points have been made in the reports, and by the Chairman today.

When the programme to reform legal aid commenced in 2010, the scale of the financial challenge faced by the Government was unprecedented, so we had to confront those difficult decisions. It was our clear intention to remove legal aid for some types of cases while protecting access to justice in key areas. That is why we have sought to make sure that legal aid remains available for critically important cases: where someone’s life or liberty is at stake; where they may, for example, lose their home; in cases of domestic violence; or where children may be taken into care. We were clear about wanting more cases to be diverted from court where suitable alternatives are available. Let us face it; the justice system is there not for lawyers but for society, citizens and victims. There is no doubt that in many cases the court should be the last, not the first, resort.

The changes we had to make to legal aid have been contentious. They were debated extensively, with amendments made throughout their passage, before they were approved by Parliament. Those changes need to be judged fairly, given the passage of time. Yes, the reforms in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 have made a considerable contribution to my Department’s programme to reduce its spending, and we are on course to achieve our planned savings; but legal aid continues to remain available where it is most needed. For example, last year we began funding legal representation on more than 46,000 new proceedings under the Children Act 1989 and almost 14,000 proceedings related to domestic violence protective injunctions. Those are the kinds of cases where it is really important that there is still a safety net.

We have also made sure that funding will be provided, where it is needed, through the exceptional funding scheme. That scheme has been criticised and it remains the subject of continuing litigation. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that I cannot comment on that litigation. The exceptional funding scheme has never been intended to provide a general power to fund cases that fall outside the wider generic scope of legal aid. That is not its purpose. The scheme is expressly aimed at making sure legal aid is provided when it is required strictly under the European convention on human rights or otherwise under EU law. In the two years following the implementation of LASPO we have granted exceptional funding in almost 300 cases, and the number of grants is rising with each quarter. In the most recent quarter, April to June 2015—I think that the same figures were cited by the Select Committee Chairman—there were 121 grants, the highest number since the scheme began and a three-fold increase on the same quarter of the previous year.

That the scheme has been subject to litigation is not surprising: it is a new regime, so litigants will seek to test its limits, particularly given the professional sector we are talking about. Having said that, we will listen to the concerns of the courts and address them where necessary—for example, by updating guidance or amending regulations to reflect the detail of the latest case law. My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee made a point about the complexity of the forms; we are looking at that and will see whether we can simplify how they are presented.

Litigants in person are not a new feature of our justice system. People involved in litigation are engaged in a range of disputes and have a range of different needs and capabilities. For many people, representing themselves might be the right choice, whether because they literally want their day in court, physically; because of financial considerations; or because of the nature of the case. Litigants in person have always been a feature of the family justice system. Family court judges are well practised and rather good at stretching and striving to find the right kind of support and to allow flexibility so that litigants in person can give the best evidence possible.

I am not saying that we should disregard the impact of the reforms on litigants in person. In anticipation of an increase in numbers, right at the outset we put in place £370,000 of extra support for organisations, including new guidance. We have kept that under review and, where there have been concerns, we have taken further action, which is why we announced £2 million of further support for litigants in person in October last year.

Is the Minister suggesting that the significant increase in litigants in person is based purely on the choice of the litigant, rather than the fact that they are just not in the position to access a lawyer, whether because of an advice desert in the area where they need advice or for other reasons?

No. As the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out, we are talking about behavioural conduct—human beings in very difficult situations. Sometimes their lives might be chaotic or difficult, or they might be under pressing conditions. I am not sure that we can say precisely why it has happened, because there could be a variety of reasons. The fact is that there is now a new litigants in person support strategy in place, led by the advice, voluntary and pro bono sector, which builds on domestic and international advice and evidence. Progress has been made, with increased provision of face-to-face, phone and online support.

It is not right to claim that increasing numbers of litigants in person have created knock-on costs that undermine savings from legal aid reform. The National Audit Office looked at the matter very closely and reported that the additional costs of the changes are relatively small compared with the gross figures—we are looking at around £3.4 million a year, compared with the scale of the civil and family legal aid savings achieved, which the NAO estimated at around £300 million a year. The suggestion about knock-on costs is therefore just not right.

Encouraging greater use of mediation has been a key plank of our wider reforms to the justice system, and it is germane here. Mediation can a be quicker, cheaper and less stressful means of dispute settlement than protracted litigation. It is right that we try to keep a whole range of disputes outside of the courts. As I said earlier, the justice system is there for citizens, not just lawyers. Mediation also plays a role in reducing conflict and helping the parties to communicate better with each other.

Admittedly, the volume of individuals diverted from court into family mediation was not as expected following the reforms, but family relations are difficult to predict, particularly on a societal scale. Nevertheless, we acted quickly to address matters when it became clear that the behavioural shift was not being achieved to the degree that had been hoped for and estimated, although it was only an estimate. The Family Mediation Task Force was established in January 2014 to respond to the situation, and we accepted many of its recommendations.

I understand the point the Minister is making, but, perhaps precisely because it is difficult to predict these things, would he accept that it is not realistic to wait three to five years for a review? Would he be prepared to review the situation in this coming year, in light of that very unpredictability?

I say to my hon. Friend that, in fairness, it can be argued both ways. One could argue that we ought to have a look now because of some fluidity in the figures, or one could say, “Hold on, shall we see if it settles down and we get a slightly bigger picture? Otherwise we’ll only end up having a second review or implementing reforms based on an initial review without having the big picture.”

Again, I understand what the Minister says, but will he also bear in mind that there is not only the issue of the unpredictability that is acknowledged on all sides, but the fact that there is a significant underspend? If there is a significant underspend, which is quantifiable, that tends to indicate fairly strongly that some cases that should be getting legal aid are not, even on the estimates that were made.

That is a fair point, but I am not sure whether that alone would justify bringing forward the review. We want to gauge the long-term direction of the reforms, but I take on board my hon. Friend’s point, which he made perfectly reasonably.

The actions taken as a result of the Family Mediation Task Force’s recommendations include the mediation information and assessment meeting and the first session of mediation for both participants, where one participant is eligible for legal aid. The number of publicly funded mediation starts have now increased for five consecutive quarters and are at their highest volume since the quarter April to June 2013. We acknowledge that the volumes are not where we would like them to be, but we are working on it. While the figures bed down and we tweak the system, we acknowledge that it has not been perfect or particularly easy to estimate with any great precision, but we are seeing significant and substantial improvements. Given the trajectory we are now seeing, it is not right to rubbish this aspect of the reforms.

We have also worked to increase awareness of legal aid and the Civil Legal Advice service on the Government web pages. There is a new, enhanced “Check if you can get legal aid” digital tool available, which provides interactive information to help individuals to assess their eligibility for legal aid. The service has been designed and tailored around the needs of applicants following extensive user testing—it has not just been put up there on a whim. A new communications strategy will be launched this autumn to increase the awareness of our partners, stakeholders and their front-line advice providers, on the availability of legal aid and the Civil Legal Advice service through the new digital tool.

Domestic violence is undoubtedly one of the most important dimensions of the reforms and their impact. I assume it goes without saying that domestic violence and abuse appals everyone present, as well as everyone across the House and across society. That is why it is a priority for the Government, and why we retained legal aid for protective injunctions, such as non-molestation orders. On top of that, in private family law matters—cases concerning child arrangements and financial matters—funding might be available for those who would be disadvantaged by facing their abuser in court. That is an important innovation.

Of course, evidence is required to ensure that the correct cases attract funding, but we have listened to and responded to specific concerns. Following an early review of the system, we made changes to make evidence easier to obtain. Since we intervened, the number of grants in such cases has risen quarter on quarter and by 25% over the past year. We will keep that under review and we will keep responding to the evidence, because that is the responsible thing to do.

I would like to touch briefly on the proposed residence test, which is also important. It is also the subject of litigation that is before the Court of Appeal today, I think, so I cannot comment on the detail. Nevertheless, I want to make it clear that the Government believe, as a matter of principle, that individuals should have a strong connection to this country in order to benefit from our civil legal aid scheme. We believe that the test we have proposed—with important exceptions for vulnerable groups—amounts to an approach that is fair and appropriate.

I want to pick up on some of the points that were made in the previous speeches. The Chair of the Select Committee referred to the estimates of the spend; we need to be honest that they were estimates. The scheme is demand-led, so it is difficult to make estimations with great precision, but, when needed, legal advice will be available. We will be conducting a post-implementation review. He may argue that it should take place sooner rather than later, but there are arguments both ways. We should not have a review too quickly before the reforms bed down; otherwise, we risk not seeing what the full impact and implications are, and we will get only a partial view.

Does the Minister agree, however, that the other relevant consideration is that the longer we leave it, the more scope there is for some people who should have access to legal aid to be denied it? That can have significant implications for those individuals. That is one of the competing considerations to bear in mind.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he makes the point fairly. As policy makers we always face that issue, but I am not entirely convinced—the Minister responsible for legal aid will have to think about this and come to a conclusion—that the balance of argument is in favour of risking a rushed review. We should wait and see how the reforms bed down. The Minister responsible for legal aid may take a different view, but I am sure he will give the matter careful consideration, as I have today.

I want to raise two or three other issues in the time available. First, McKenzie friends were rightly raised; they are an important issue. We will consider the report and the updated guidance from the judiciary once we have got it. The right thing to do is to wait until we have got the expert advice from the judiciary before we come to a conclusion.

Other questions were asked about domestic violence and why the rules are not subject to greater discretion. That is a perfectly legitimate issue to raise, but we need objective evidence to apply the rules in a way that maintains the basic integrity of the system. We can have a debate about some of the detail of it, but that is an important point to note. I want to emphasise that the two-year time limit relates to the evidence of the abuse, not the abuse itself. I think there has been some misunderstanding about that important distinction.

I hoped that the Labour party would take a slightly more consensual approach, because in 2011 the then shadow Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), told MPs that the legal aid budget is unsustainable. He said:

“We’ve got to be honest with the British public. When Labour left office, the legal aid budget was £2.1bn out of an overall MoJ budget of £8.5bn. That’s a lot of money. If you want to make savings you can’t cut courts, you can’t close prisons, you can’t cut probation, so the point that I make and I still make is: there are savings to be made.”

He was absolutely right, and if the shadow Minister disagrees he needs to explain where the extra money is going to come from. Punting it into review and saying they are going to pay for this thing by getting the Bank of England to print extra money—an idea that has been panned by the Governor as not only economically irresponsible but likely to hurt the most vulnerable in society, including the elderly and the poorest—will not do in a serious debate. We need credible contributions like the one today.

Listen, the point is this. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) made those comments in 2011. The reality is that the Opposition criticised the changes in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 throughout all stages of its passage through the Commons. Indeed, many changes were made in the Lords. The point is that the Select Committee is criticising the Act now. It is an objective criticism, and in truth the Chair criticised it more than I did.

The reality is that before the previous election the Labour party’s clear position was that cuts need to be made. Unlike the Chair of the Select Committee, who made a number of detailed points about the substance—

Exactly. It said very little on the substance; the hon. Gentleman is quite right. We have not had, amid the carping and criticism, any serious alternative approach on the “how”, rather than the “whether”.

Well, we will wait for that, just as we are waiting for proposals on a range of social policy areas. In fact, there seems to be very little policy that is not up for grabs and up for review.

We have made significant reforms to the legal aid scheme, and we believe they are sustainable. We do not say that they have been easy choices. The Legal Aid Agency undertakes regular capacity reviews of supply, which continue to show sufficient capacity in all categories of civil law in the majority of procurement areas. Where that is not the case—for example, where a provider has withdrawn from a contract—the agency has taken action to find alternative provision.

I recognise the strength of feeling on this subject and the importance that hon. Members from both sides of the House attach to it. The Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency routinely and closely monitor the operation of the legal aid scheme, taking action when issues or problems are identified. I have tried to set out as best I can the areas where we have already responded. We do not say that we got it right first time without glitches or problems in the implementation.

We have also committed to conduct a post-implementation review of our legal aid reforms within three to five years of implementation—in other words, by 2016 to 2018 at the latest. The precise timing and the form of the review will be guided by our assessment of the extent to which the reforms have reached a steady state, as I have already indicated, and by Government and wider stakeholder research and evidence on the impact of the reform. I appreciate that there is a perfectly proper debate to be had on the timing, but we want to wait for that evidence and research to come through.

I am grateful for the Select Committee’s report and its approach. I am grateful to hon. Members who have spoken in this debate. I appreciate the points made by the shadow Justice Minister, and I hope I have been able to address as many of the questions as possible. I am happy to follow up further afterwards if that is not the case.

I am very grateful to the Minister for the careful and considered way in which he dealt with this debate, having picked up what under different circumstances we would call a late return. I understand the constraints, and, as I hope I made clear, I am certainly not against making savings within the system. I will take the Minister at his word when he says that there is a need for objective evidence. We will continue to press the Government, because that objective evidence needs to be quantified sooner rather than later. We need to look at the knock-on costs, which I do not think have been adequately taken into account.

I welcome the expert advice that has been taken on McKenzie friends. The Committee will want to press the Government for a timetable on that, but we need not do so today because it is a small, simple and relatively cost-neutral change to the system, which will be of benefit. I hope that, given that the Minister accepts the need for objective evidence, he recognises that that must also apply to a quantification of the impacts, which we have not seen. We must deal with why the underspend arises at the level it does. That is the fundamental issue we raised, and it has still not been fully addressed.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response, but the Select Committee will inevitably need to return to this issue. It is important to understand why there is an underspend so that we can ensure that the proper advice and support gets to the people who need it, which is an objective that I know Members on both sides of the House share.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Eighth Report from the Justice Committee, Session 2014-15, on impact of changes to civil legal aid under part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, HC 311, and the Government Response, CM 9096.

Sitting adjourned.