[Mr Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered public legal education.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
I rise today to open the debate on public legal education with the aim of highlighting its importance and supporting its expansion, so that it reaches as many communities across the country as possible. It is great to see the Solicitor General in his place today, knowing how passionate he is about this cause. His enthusiasm and support are especially vital, since successfully reaching as many communities as possible will take a lot of engagement on his part with the voluntary sector and the legal professions, which must themselves drive PLE. Before I get into the substance of the debate, I place on the record my thanks to voluntary organisations such as Young Citizens—formerly the Citizenship Foundation—and the Legal Education Foundation, and, of course, to the House of Commons Library for the briefings with which they provided me ahead of this debate.
I believe we should start from first principles, for Her Majesty’s Government’s first duty, above all else, is to keep its citizens and our country safe from harm—safe from those who wish to do us harm, both within and outwith. To that end, just as in Burke’s unwritten social contract between the living, those who have been and those who are yet to come, the Government form an unwritten contract with the population as a whole. In that contract, in exchange for their security and safety, the public agree to follow the rule of law.
The rule of law is one of those four fundamentals, alongside democracy, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those of all faiths or none, that are so crucial and central to our lives. It is described by the World Justice Project as,
“clear, publicised, stable and just”
“are applied evenly; and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property”.
An important part of that is the word “publicised”; not only must the great British public respect the law, but they must know it and they must understand it. They must understand their rights and, crucially, their responsibilities.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Does he agree that it is not just those rights that we need to educate people about? The courts are changing. We have online courts and we have online divorces, because of changes that are occurring in the Ministry of Justice. All of that plays to the strengths of young people. I wonder whether we ought to teach them how to access that justice, as well as what that justice is.
My hon. Friend makes an important point on how the justice system continues to evolve and how young people must be taught about all facets of the legal system, some of which I will deal with later. Indeed, in today’s increasingly complex society it is more vital than ever to equip as many people as possible—young and old—with at least some basic knowledge about our legal system and their legal responsibilities as well as their rights.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this important debate. As a former family lawyer for 23 years—that takes me back—I recognise the arguments he is making and will make. Does he agree that a public legal education programme should also focus on our diverse communities up and down the country, where language can often be an issue and a barrier?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. She has been a champion of greater diversity, and she is of course right that we should not exclude any community from the legal system. I will deal with those points later also. PLE, where it is implemented, provides people of all ages and backgrounds with awareness, knowledge and understanding. As a Conservative, I believe in people—the duty, desire and ability of people to look after themselves, their families and one another. PLE helps people do just that. It gives them the confidence to do it, and to gain the skills they need to deal with disputes and gain access to justice, in consequence improving the accuracy, efficacy and fairness of our justice system.
Equally important, however, is that PLE helps people to recognise when they may need support, what sort of advice is available and how to go about getting it, giving people their independence. In other words, I believe it can create less Government intervention in people’s lives, allowing them to get on with living their own good lives where they cause no harm to others.
Above all, PLE enables people to become fully participating citizens in our big society, whether through jury service or by serving as a magistrate, which I am proud to say my father has done for around 15 years, instilling in me the same example of those values of public service and participation in the legal system as colleagues here in Parliament do. PLE increases citizens’ knowledge of this mother of all Parliaments, the birthplace of parliamentary democracy, where we make the laws that others implement. It increases political engagement and, I hope, will increase representation.
Without understanding how our legal system works—without understanding actions and their consequences—people cannot live John Stuart Mill’s harm principle or understand the realist decisions that politicians must make. Without proper PLE, people vote for—dare I say—wishful thinking policies, borrowing potentially trillions of pounds more on our country’s credit card without thinking through what it really means. PLE and public financial education are similar and equally important, but I fear that PLE is often the forgotten half of that important paradigm.
One of the most important groups for us to reach with PLE is young people. Good PLE in schools will develop, by extension, fully participating citizens, who have the tools to confidently engage in our democratic parliamentary system under the rule of law, and therefore citizens who do not respond to views different from their own with violence such as we saw in the 2011 London riots, or by potentially no-platforming public speech as others do, or indeed by demanding a second referendum to overthrow the democratically expressed will of the British people without any consideration for the other side of the argument. Who knows? Some might even be encouraged to pursue law as a career—I should say that my wife is a non-practising solicitor—helping to expand the capacity of the UK’s world-leading services industry and, consequently, our economy.
Organisations such as the Citizenship Foundation have been working in hundreds of schools and colleges for almost 30 years to help deliver an important part of citizenship education. By helping legal professionals to partner with schools and young people and helping teachers to deliver engaging citizenship education, they aim to help
“young people to understand their rights and responsibilities as active citizens”.
Pupils at schools in my North East Hampshire constituency benefit, too. One of the Citizenship Foundation’s PLE initiatives is an annual mock trial competition, run in conjunction with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, with Hampshire heats, including a magistrates mock trial at Winchester Crown court, a Southampton heat and Bar mock trials at nearby Reading and Guildford. Thousands of pupils take on the various roles involved in criminal cases, such as prosecutors, witnesses, defendants, court clerks and jurors, and learn skills such as advocacy, public speaking, cross-examination and critical thinking, as well as understanding how the court system works.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the experiences of his constituents, but does he agree that while it is a very good thing for people to know their rights, being able to enforce them in a real court is what really matters, and that the Government’s cuts to legal aid and court closures have cut people’s ability to do that?
It is a shame that some people have to play politics on a day when we can commend the work of outside organisations that are doing much good work in schools, in my constituency and others. Indeed, by encouraging more young people to understand their legal position, I hope—I have mentioned it already and I mention it again—that more people will be able to take the right action, so that they need not face action in the courts. I think we can actually help people to help themselves to better understand their position in the legal system, and to find where they can get the advice they need.
If the hon. Lady will allow me to continue, I think it is absolutely fantastic that legal professionals, who are the experts in this area, are so involved. The cases in those mock trials are heard in front of real judges and magistrates, who give feedback to the teams. Some 2,000 legal professionals, including solicitors and barristers, volunteer their time to support these events. As Members of Parliament, I think we have a platform to encourage more dedicated legal professionals to get involved and to support those initiatives—indeed, to commend those initiatives and thank them for what they do.
Another example of a great PLE initiative that we need to see more of, and which might help to address the point raised by the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), is the legal branch of the Experts in Schools scheme. The scheme trains volunteer professionals from the Citizenship Foundation’s 40 corporate legal partners and matches them with schools, where they deliver sessions on subjects relevant to young people, such as social media or consumer rights.
As well as providing classroom resources for topical legal issues and immersion conferences led by leading barristers, the Citizenship Foundation wants to reach young people directly. It produces a pocket-sized guide to the law—“Young Citizen’s Passport”—which is now on its 17th edition. Millions of copies have been distributed. I put a call out here and now to fellow Members to encourage our generous and fantastically civic-minded law firms up and down the country, and indeed the wider voluntary sector, to consider whether they can help with this in the years ahead.
Other organisations also have worthy PLE initiatives, such as BPP University’s Streetlaw programme. Showing the potential for everyone to succeed, BPP University law students research, design, draft and deliver interactive presentations on the law to community groups that might not have access to legal information or education, or to those groups that may have a negative perspective of the legal system. Those can include basic presentations on civil and criminal rights to primary and secondary school classes in disadvantaged communities, helping children to learn about the legal system, the courts and the people who appear in them in an interesting and enjoyable way, as the group is currently doing across London. At the other end of the spectrum, I would contend, they can be presentations to enhance prisoners’ understanding of the role that law plays in civic society while imparting general legal information, with the aim of equipping prisoners with the skills and knowledge that will facilitate their reintegration into society upon their release. Those are absolutely critical in ensuring that no one is left behind.
BPP University also has a third branch of the scheme that works with several shelters and charities to provide highly practical presentations to homeless people, who are sadly part of the group of people who are largely sceptical of the English legal system. That takes us back to the principles that I voiced at the start: helping people to help themselves, empowering people to become fully participating members of society and allowing people to live their own lives within the law.
These smart initiatives I have highlighted make a great start, but we must do more to provide a legal foundation that stays with people throughout their lives. That is why I regularly speak to pupils at my own local schools about democratic engagement, and why I participate in schools’ citizenship events, such as the model United Nations. I know that many Members do likewise, and I encourage all Members to do so. I also regularly speak to the headteachers of my local schools, and I will raise PLE with them in the months and years ahead to encourage participation in all the great schemes that I have highlighted.
However, I believe that Members of Parliament can go further. We should strongly encourage local schools to make time for initiatives from local charities, even if they do not have time to teach the full citizenship course. Academy trusts, for example, could create the resources to provide such PLE and other citizenship education centrally and then alternate between which of their schools they direct that resource to. Indeed, they could share those resources with neighbours and vice versa.
Further, the Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement recommended a statutory entitlement to citizenship education from primary education to the end of secondary education, inspected by Ofsted. I am not here to make the argument that statutory involvement by the state is the way forward, although, as with any instance of major market failure, if the teaching of PLE, citizenship and fundamental British values should fade, the Government should rightly consider the good that they could do by stepping in.
However, we miss the point if we talk only about schools. PLE is not just about schools. It can be, and is being, delivered in all sorts of community settings to interested groups by members of the legal profession, but we must not reach interested groups only. There are a range of vulnerable or at-risk communities for whom a greater understanding of their rights, responsibilities and risks is really important.
For example, with our ever-aging population, the elderly are vulnerable to doorstep, phone or online scams, as are we all. In Hampshire in January, a fake detective sergeant, allegedly from the Met, conned a lady in her 70s out of more than £10,000 after phoning her continuously—harassing her, in effect—and sending a courier to her house to supposedly investigate counterfeit money.
There exist phishing, smishing and vishing, and we expect our vulnerable communities to keep up without providing them with PLE? We can do more. The disabled, those with mental health problems, the isolated and lonely and other vulnerable groups also face risks. We are seeing more instances of cuckooing, where gangs travel to towns and befriend vulnerable people, only to take over their homes. That is not good enough. We must do more.
Educating people and their friends, family and neighbours in the signs to look out for and their responsibilities to help one another would help to protect people and help fulfil the duty I talked about earlier—people looking after themselves, their families and their communities. As Sir Robert Peel said when he founded the Metropolitan Police in 1829, as a Conservative, the founding principles of policing a democracy are that,
“the police are the public and the public are the police”.
Everyone has a role.
I have highlighted a whole range of great voluntary sector PLE initiatives and great engagement from the legal professions—both as part of and in addition to their pro bono community work. PLE has links with the school curriculum, police engagement and scam-awareness initiatives, and I commend the Solicitor General for spearheading important work to co-ordinate and focus PLE, so that it reaches as many communities as possible. I am not alone in doing so; his efforts have been commended by the voluntary organisations that I have heard from. Clearly, better co-ordination of PLE initiatives and goals will ensure that everyone works together more effectively. His working group of professional and voluntary organisations does just that. He is doing good work, and may it continue.
Just as with health education or financial education, the long-term effects of public legal education include: fully participating, responsible and engaged citizens; better-functioning public services which are under less pressure and are better able to target resources; and potential savings for the public purse. The British justice system is held up as a shining example across the world. If that alone was not a reason to shout about it from the rooftops—educating the public about its benefits—then improving the accuracy and the fairness of its outcomes must be.
Greater PLE would improve our legal system by ensuring better educated and engaged jurors. It would improve our legal system by creating confident witnesses, aware of the importance of their testimony and often supported factually and emotionally by the Citizens Advice witness service. It would improve our legal system by bringing about the wider participation, and therefore better representation, of communities, as a result of citizens acting as magistrates, for example. It would improve our legal system by helping victims to recognise that they need support and enabling them to seek it in the right places, rather than their circumstances going unreported and unresolved. It would also improve our legal system in many, many other ways.
I am very pleased that we have been granted the opportunity to discuss the excellent PLE already going on in our country. However, I believe that it is more important than ever to equip as many people as possible with knowledge about their legal responsibilities—as well as their rights—under our great British legal system.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), partly because this debate has been an education for me. When I was growing up, as the son of a bus driver, in a typical Irish community in Birmingham, I aspired to be a JCB driver, largely because the people I saw around me were involved in construction of some sort and it is easy to aspire to be something that we can see.
I managed to spend a considerable portion of my life without interacting with lawyers of any sort, and when I did, I saw that largely as a negative thing. When I was purchasing a house, I clearly needed to use the services of a conveyancing solicitor. Once we have settled on a house that we think we can afford to buy, all of a sudden there are additional costs that need to be built into that model, so the cost increases and I think, “Oh my god, I have had to pay for this service that I didn’t think I needed and I have paid what felt like an unreasonable fee for it, and these posh lawyers are the people who benefit from it.” Little did I know that although good legal advice is expensive, bad legal advice can be very expensive. Only later did I come to appreciate just how brilliant some people in the legal profession can be, and just how necessary.
The next time that I engaged with solicitors was perhaps even less fortunate—it was when I was getting divorced. Again, the process seemed to cost me considerably more money than I had thought it would. It was an already perilous position to be in, but I needed to engage lawyers at least to mitigate the loss that I was experiencing. My point is that, clearly, if people do not engage with the law and solicitors except at a time when they are absolutely necessary to them in order to navigate life, their experience of them might be fairly negative.
Why do I make this introduction? I do so because I believe that I am the Conservative MP who represents the most deprived constituency represented by a Conservative MP. I believe that approximately 25% of my constituents do not have a passport. They certainly do not have high levels of education and they will definitely not be meeting solicitors or other legal professionals as a matter of course, so the law is, I imagine, probably something for them to fear. If people do not know it, do not understand it and are not aware of what their obligations are under it, life is likely to be all the more difficult, so for me, part of the reason for being excited about the concept of public legal education is the opportunity that it will give me, as an MP, to enhance my engagement with schools in my constituency and also, hopefully, to engage with legal practices in Walsall and give them the opportunity to come into schools and educate young people.
The reason for that is twofold. First, if people are introduced to the law and legal professionals and become more familiar with them, their greater understanding will allow them, I hope, to navigate the law more easily on their own and, should they need to engage professional legal services, they are likely to be better informed as to where to find them. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is the idea that schools interacting with legal firms will give young people, particularly those in my constituency, the opportunity to aspire to be something brilliant.
Since I have become more engaged with lawyers—let us face it: an awful lot of them end up becoming MPs—I have developed greater respect for the profession. We do not see them as people who are just going to take our money off us; they are actually nice people, deep down inside, and very useful. Many of them have great careers. What a unique thing for people in my constituency to aspire to.
Before I came to the Chamber this afternoon, I was speaking to some people from Lloyds Banking Group about a programme called Women in the Real Economy. The idea is that 10 MPs will be mentoring young people —young women—who otherwise would not have access to the networks and opportunities that might be naturally available to more middle-class families. What a great programme that is. We will be working in pairs—it will be me and a representative from Lloyds bank—to help those young women to develop skills and talents that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to develop. How great, then, that the timely arrival of this debate means that I have learned from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire about a number of the programmes that are available to schools and that I can engage some of those young women in them, so that they not only can aspire to great careers in professional commerce—as they might do through Lloyds Banking Group—but can be given some introduction to the law and perhaps, therefore, go on to pursue a career in law in future.
I wholly endorse the concept of the programme under discussion—the idea that we might educate people sooner and quicker. Young people will not be frightened of the law, but will have a grounding in it and a basic understanding of it and their obligations under it, but more importantly for me, the idea that some of them may go on to aspire to become legal professionals in the future is a great endorsement of this programme.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard; I am not entirely sure that I have done so before. It is wonderful to see you in the Chair today.
I thank my geographical neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), for calling the debate, because it has given me, like my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), an opportunity to look more closely at the work that the Solicitor General has been driving forward in this sphere. I shall speak particularly from the experience that I have had over recent years chairing the Women and Equalities Committee, which has given me an insight into things that I would like to draw on today. Of course, with the Solicitor General in his place, I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend—[Interruption.] My hon. and learned Friend—soon to be right hon., I am sure. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done in this area. As a solicitor, he might be forgiven for thinking that all of us know about these things. He has spent years—[Interruption.] Sorry, he is a barrister. Apologies; I will get into trouble with the Solicitor General! He has spent years honing his craft and knowing everything there is to know about the law. Then there are mere mortals, such as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire and me, who have not had that opportunity, although we did have the opportunity to go to the same wonderful university, the London School of Economics; that is something that we share.
Law shapes our lives. We know here, in the seat of democracy, that laws are an important part of the fabric of British society. We also know that the rule of law is integral to the way in which the British system of democracy works. We need look no further than north Hampshire to see the different ways in which we can make the rule of law work to underpin a better understanding of law are working in our community courts. We can look at the peer courts that have been set up. In those, young people sit and look themselves at community cases involving people of their own age, so that they can gain a better understanding of how the legal system works. We should applaud that and certainly applaud the Hampshire community court for pressing forward with it and rolling it out to ensure that young people understand that laws are not something that sits on a dusty shelf, but are put into practice through our courts and the rule of law.
The other critical part of the law is the political will to ensure that laws have the intended effect. Having been a Minister and been privileged enough to take laws through this place, I know only too well how they can sometimes not have the impact that we want them to have. One law that I believe has had a significant impact, although it probably still needs to go further, is the Equality Act 2010. It has had a significant impact, but we need to do much more to ensure that it has the political effect that was intended at the time. I think this is where public legal education can come into play.
I note the admirable words of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire, who talked about the importance of young people understanding the law: it should be part of the national curriculum and we should embed an understanding of the rule of law, hopefully to ensure that people can be good and upstanding citizens, who live their lives within the law. I gently suggest that that needs to go further and embrace those of us who are older, too. The lack of understanding, particularly of equality rights and our equality laws, is quite alarming. I will give a few instances where public legal education can focus in the future.
The first issue is maternity discrimination. Every year, tens of thousands of women feel that they have no choice but to leave their job because of the way in which they are treated in the workplace when they are pregnant or have new children. The Women and Equalities Committee, which I chair, has done an excellent report on maternity discrimination and has proposed some persuasive ways in which we could deal with this, including adopting a model that is in place in Germany, where women are not allowed to be made redundant when they are pregnant or have had small children. I hope the Government will eventually warm to that. As we will perhaps have a shortage of labour in future, we need to ensure that every single person in this country is able to play their part and not be excluded from the workplace for unlawful reasons. Few women understand maternity discrimination; they do not realise that what they might be enduring is maternity discrimination. I hope that the hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General can talk a bit about some of the work—I believe that his office or the Legal Education Forum may be involved in it—to help women to understand their maternity rights. I think it is critical that any programme he undertakes in future should try to include these equality issues. Perhaps his panel will take some evidence from or listen to some of the organisations that are dealing with these particular issues of equality discrimination.
Secondly, I will briefly draw on some of the issues behind the #MeToo campaign. Again, demonstrating an absolute ignorance of the law, people have perhaps been coerced into signing severance agreements that include gagging agreements—we call them lots of different things and I get into all sorts of trouble for calling them non-disclosure agreements, but we will call them gagging clauses—to stop people speaking out against wrongdoing. The Solicitor General, who is a learned gentleman, knows that these things are completely unenforceable, but the average person, such as me or perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire, would not be in that position and may believe that draconian measures to keep us quiet are entirely lawful. If the Solicitor General considered how he might use his excellent education programme to look into this further, he would be doing this country a great service indeed.
I could draw on many other areas in equality law, where the lack of understanding is hampering the original intention of the law. Hate crime, disability discrimination, maternity discrimination, which I have discussed, and tackling sexual harassment—the list goes on. I suggest to the Solicitor General that he look at the list of reports that the Women and Equalities Committee has published to see where his topics might lie, because this is a theme that comes up time and time again. I believe that the Equality Act 2010 needs some significant reform to make it work properly, but we also need people to understand it. That is where his programme of legal education comes in.
I wholeheartedly welcome this debate, the concept of public legal education and the excellent work that the Solicitor General is doing. Will he explain how what he is doing sits alongside the role of regulators, such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which has a statutory duty to promote the public understanding of citizens’ legal rights and duties? We recently had an opportunity to hear from the Solicitors Regulation Authority in one of our Select Committee hearings. I hope that the SRA will look more closely at this area in the future, particularly given the problems that many people are having with the way in which their employers may be using the law, which is not always as transparent as it should be. Many laws require people to know that they exist before they can come into effect, nowhere more so than when it comes to equality rights. I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire for bringing this issue to the attention of the House. I will listen carefully to the Solicitor General’s response, to hear whether he feels there is more he could do when it comes to the understanding of equality law as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) for introducing this pertinent debate. When I was asked to speak on this yesterday, not having a legal background, I must admit that I found the issue a bit daunting, until I looked into what it was actually about. It is very simple indeed. It is about citizens’ awareness of public legal procedures. It turned out—quite remarkably—that I am actually a patron of a public legal education entity, the Mason Hayes Charitable Trust, which is run by Marcus Hayes of Mayson Hayes Solicitors. We work with the University of Sussex, placing law students and lawyers in primary and secondary schools, mainly in the midlands. We bring some of the law students into Parliament to learn about how the laws are made in this place and the ways in which we can enhance parliamentary process. We bring them in to show them exactly how laws are made here. We are linked to this issue. It is important that we reach out to the public to show them that the law is not something to be frightened of. The law plays into our everyday lives. All of us will have to use the services of a lawyer at one time or another. It is important that we teach our citizens how to access that market and that part of our society.
My son, Thomas, who is a postgraduate law student at BPP, participates in the StreetLaw programme, run by BPP’s pro bono centre. He goes out to schools and teaches young people how to access the law, what the law is about and how it functions in our everyday lives. These are important issues that we have to cover. In my Morecambe constituency, we have many fine law firms—too many to list, and it would be inappropriate to single out any one of them—that do the same thing. It is good to know that the law profession is giving something back to the citizens who support and use them. I ask the Minister, how can we enhance this going forward? It should not be seen as a scary subject, as I thought it was when my colleague approached me to talk about it. It is not a scary subject, as I have explained. I am involved in it and I did not even know I was involved in it, not only as a Member of Parliament, but as a citizen. I wholeheartedly endorse public legal education. We should do this in a fashion that helps the society we are making in this great country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) on securing this important debate. I am fortunate indeed to have been surrounded by the law for the past 30 years, from studying it as a 16-year-old for A-level and going on to study at degree level to becoming a barrister and spending 18 years as a lawyer, and then in the past three years trying to help make the law in this place. In a way, this debate is about how we can help young people ensure that they never have to come across somebody like me. I believe absolutely passionately that young people should be put in a position where they can understand rights and wrongs, rights and responsibilities and the way to settle disputes without the need for them to escalate. That is why I am passionate about the concept of public legal education in our schools. I feel to a certain extent that we are almost there, and this is the bit I want to reference with respect to the Minister.
A year or so ago, I served on the Children and Social Work Bill Committee, and a big discussion was held on personal, social and health and economic education. It came up in a narrow fashion because the discussion was about sex and relationship education and whether that should be a compulsory curriculum subject. In my mind, there was a great opportunity to go broader than that to teach our young people something wider than the citizenship curriculum subject that we have at the moment.
Citizenship is a hugely important subject that covers the rule of law, the ability to articulate debate, volunteering, and how to plan one’s life in future, but it could be so much more, and public legal education could easily fold into that. Although it has been confirmed for primary schools that compulsory relationship education will come in—and for secondary schools, sex and relationship education—by September 2019, I think we are somewhat in the dark as to what will occur to the concept of PSHE on a wider basis. I would like to see PSHE established on a compulsory footing, but I would also want to make sure that we do not overload our schools with yet another subject in the curriculum.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely important speech. The law is already there; the Secretary of State has put in place a law that can make PSHE compulsory. It just needs to be enacted. I hope my hon. Friend welcomes that, because the Government have actually done something that had been not done for 17 years by Governments of successive colours.
It will be down to the Minister to confirm this, but my understanding is that although there has been some form of commitment—we are absolutely clear as to what has been brought in for primaries and secondaries with regard to compulsory relationship education—so far that clarity has not been given for the wider PSHE. I look to the Minister to confirm that, but my research, certainly from February, tells me that that was indeed the case, and that is the commitment I want to see from the Government.
On the current challenges for teachers, I have long taken the view that while it is essential to get the basics of English and maths right in our primary schools—we have known for many years that they have failed in that regard—I feel that there is a strong emphasis on those two subjects and they lead to the exclusion in some schools or a lack of attention in others on the wider curriculum subjects that will give our young children and pupils the ability to navigate their way through the challenges of life, which is as essential as giving them the basics in English and maths.
I will not delay any further. I know that the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who speaks with great knowledge on this matter, has had to cross out part of her speech, so I hope she will get some time back. I look forward to hearing from the Minister as to whether PSHE will be introduced and whether that gives us a golden opportunity to advance public legal education within that sphere.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to follow my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), who secured this debate. Like others who have spoken, I too had to educate myself on this subject before I came to speak in this debate. It is really important to welcome the work that the Government are doing in setting up a public legal education panel because the law can appear very complex and intimidating, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are not as lucky to be as educated as we in this Chamber are.
The trouble with the law, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) has referenced, is that it tends to affect us at the times in our lives when we are undergoing a lot of stress because of life events that come at us out of the blue, such as divorce or bereavement. It has touched me recently in the case of my mother, who is a dementia sufferer. I have had to apply for a lasting power of attorney and go through an entire process, which has been extremely difficult and complicated. There has been help for me, which I have welcomed, but I think a lot of people struggle with such concepts at difficult times in their lives.
We live in a society where there are still a lot of myths around the law. One area is very important. Women still sometimes believe in the concept of common law marriage, which is a concept with nothing behind it, yet sometimes people believe that they have some rights and protections in a relationship. They find out when it is much too late that they do not have protections and are left in a devastating financial position, sometimes losing access to their property or their children. I very much hope that the concept of public legal education can reach out to all areas of society and help people when they have tragic and difficult life events.
I am delighted, like other hon. Members, to mention some of the organisations that do an excellent job. I have been made aware of one organisation called Big Voice London. One of my daughter’s friends has done some work for that organisation, which focuses on the diversity aspect because, when we look at the legal profession, it is still very limited in terms of who comes into it. Unfortunately, social mobility is a real problem. In 2017, despite only 7% of school pupils attending private schools, according to the Sutton Trust 32% of law firm partners, 71% of QCs and 74% of judges attended private schools. As someone who went to a comprehensive, I do not think that is good enough, so I am delighted that there are organisations such as Big Voice. My friend, who came from a non-traditional background, said that it really helped him in his journey. He has just started as a young barrister and is doing very well. I hope that such organisations can continue to be supported.
I will touch on three issues—I do not think they have been mentioned—where public legal education is critical. The first is social media for young people in our schools. They sometimes do not realise the impact on their future careers of what they post on social media.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is imperative that, in a world that is increasingly litigious, people are educated from a young age to understand how systems work and, more importantly, understand where they can seek help from appropriate sources without the worry of feeling isolated, uncertain, overwhelmed and vulnerable?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; I agree with the point he has made. Social media can sometimes combat isolation, but it can also lead to isolation in and of itself.
Social media is one area where young people need to be more aware of the law and how what they post can affect their future job prospects. The other area is housing, which comes up all the time with constituents in my surgery. Unfortunately, there are very bad landlords out there. The Government have done a lot to protect tenants, but sometimes people lack awareness of their rights and responsibilities and they end up living in absolutely horrific housing conditions that none of us would want to see.
The final area is around employment law, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) has mentioned, and she was right to do so. There are many small business employers—I was one myself—who feel terrified of battling with employment law, and better awareness in that regard would help them as well as the employees whom she talked about in detail. I will conclude so that others can speak, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire for securing the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) on securing this important debate and on speaking so well in it. I do not want to be a churl, but I have to correct something that he said when he referred to the British legal system. It is not a nationalist point I am making. I can assure him that many of my colleagues at the Scottish Bar who are members of the Conservative and Unionist party would be just as anxious to say that there is of course a separate legal system in Scotland.
I was, of course, simply waiting for the hon. and learned Lady to call me out on that point.
I should nevertheless declare an interest, as a member of the Scottish Bar of some 20-odd years’ standing, although I have not practised since I was elected, almost three years ago. Since I have been in Westminster I have been touched by the friendship and hospitality of colleagues of all parties from the English Bar, and indeed from the Law Society of England and Wales. They have made me very welcome and invited me to many of their enjoyable dinners, which I was pleased to see are just as boozy as the Scottish ones; although perhaps, as I am from a country that has introduced minimum pricing for alcohol, I should not say that.
I am very proud that in Scotland I benefited from a free legal education. That was back in the 1980s, but law students in Scotland still benefit from the fact that there are no tuition fees there. It makes law more readily accessible to people from poorer backgrounds, although there is a lot of work to be done on that. I want to come on to discuss what my profession is doing, in the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland, to encourage people from more diverse backgrounds to enter the profession. In Scotland, public legal education starts at an early age because the study of human rights is part of the curriculum for excellence in Scottish schools. It is part of the core element.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
For the sake of clarity, this debate may now run until 4.17 pm, and the sitting as late as 5.50 pm, unless there are more Divisions in the House—that is not currently anticipated, but who knows?
As I was saying, public legal education in Scotland begins at an early stage. Human rights is part of the curriculum for excellence that is taught in Scottish schools, and it is a core element of the health and wellbeing module of that curriculum. Schools in Scotland work in collaboration with organisations such as Amnesty International to deliver the human rights element of the curriculum.
I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which is carrying out an inquiry into the enforcement of human rights and attitudes towards them. Last week, we heard evidence from a number of witnesses who said that there is a demonstrably different discourse about human rights in Scotland. They put that down to the teaching of human rights in Scottish schools, as well as to media in Scotland, which are less hostile to the concept of human rights.
Good human rights practice in Scotland flows from that less hostile environment towards human rights. The witnesses giving evidence to our Joint Committee last week gave as an example of that the embedding of human rights in the new Social Security (Scotland) Bill, which I am proud was introduced by my good friend and colleague Jeane Freeman, the Minister for Social Security in Scotland.
The witnesses also spoke of the wonderful work done by the Scottish Youth Parliament on legal education and rights. The Scottish Youth Parliament is a grassroots project—run in conjunction with the Scottish Parliament—that does a lot of good work in the area of human rights principles and children’s rights.
I am sure that other hon. Members present will, like me, have in their constituencies schools that are part of the UNICEF Rights Respecting Schools project. I am advised that 1.5 million children across the United Kingdom go to a rights respecting school. I am proud that I have worked with two schools in my constituency, Redhall School and Oxgangs Primary School, on rights respecting. The children were particularly interested in the importance of respecting the rights of child refugees.
Why teach human rights, and indeed legal education, in school? Scotland’s curriculum for excellence aims to enable students to become responsible citizens. As other hon. Members have said, learning about the law, rights, respect for others, and a commitment to participate in all aspects of public life helps children to grow up and aspire to be good citizens.
Students across Scotland, particularly law students, are involved in the delivery of public legal education through the Scottish Universities Law Clinic network. A number of universities in Scotland run free legal advice clinics for members of the public.
The hon. and learned Lady is making some good points. She is absolutely right that a lot of law students can give their free time to such projects, but is there not a real problem in that some of the bigger law firms do not sign up to pro bono work and do not free up their solicitors to spend time in schools or to do other important pro bono work? What are her thoughts on dealing with that?
I very much encourage those who have benefited from a free legal education in Scotland and beyond, and who are now doing well out of being lawyers, to engage in pro bono work. I am proud that the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland do that and encourage firms and individual advocates in Scotland to do it too. I will return to that in a moment.
The Edinburgh Napier law clinic is in my constituency. Edinburgh Napier University is a relatively recent deliverer of legal education in Scotland, but I am proud to say that staff and students have set up a voluntary clinic to provide free legal advice and assistance. We have a considerably more generous legal aid scheme in Scotland than in England and Wales, but nevertheless people fall through the cracks, and they can benefit from law clinics such as the one established by Edinburgh Napier University. One of the clinic’s main objectives is to broaden the concept of access to justice, and that is really what this debate is about, at least in part. Public legal education is about educating people and giving them access to justice.
I am also proud that Edinburgh University, which is not in my constituency but is my alma mater, has a free legal advice clinic, as does Glasgow Caledonian University, the University of Strathclyde, Aberdeen University, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen and the University of the West of Scotland. Those law clinics are thriving. Many MPs and Members of the Scottish Parliament refer their constituents to them from time to time.
The Faculty of Advocates, which is the Scottish Bar, of which I am a member, also runs a law clinic or a free legal services unit, which is part of its commitment to promote access to justice. That means that members of the public can be referred through certain organisations, such as citizens advice bureaux, to get free advice and representation from practising advocates in Scotland.
Has the hon. and learned Lady experienced the issue of local citizens advice bureaux being deluged with personal independence payment and employment and support allowance forms? In a great many cases, they find themselves unable to give that legal advice because of the change in the benefits system.
Yes, I have. My constituency office in Edinburgh South West, on Dundee Street in Fountainbridge, is next door to the local citizens advice bureau in Fountainbridge library. We work closely together on this sort of issue. Citizens Advice provides an amazing service. In my experience, Members of Parliament who work in conjunction with it can have successful outcomes in fighting issues of administrative justice in the UK social security system. That is a much-neglected area; we need to look at how the social security system is functioning or, in my experience, not functioning, and failing to properly respect people’s rights. We need to look at all the facts of the case. As in the immigration field, there seems to be a considerable amount of capricious decision making, which is why it is important for people to have access to legal assistance in facing down that unfair decision making.
I am happy to say that on a number of occasions, I have referred constituents to the free legal services unit at the Faculty of Advocates with good outcomes. The Faculty of Advocates also arranges open days to encourage students from schools across Scotland to come and see what life as an advocate is really like.
I am proud that the Faculty of Advocates has done much to increase its diversity since I was called to the Bar in 1995, when I was one of a small number of women advocates in Scotland and there were no female judges on the senior Scottish bench. Now, our second most senior judge is a woman and we have many women on the senior judicial bench in Scotland, but there is still quite a long way to go before we achieve parity with the men.
There is also the issue of trying to encourage more people from working-class backgrounds and from diverse and BAME communities to come into the law. As well as holding open days, the Faculty of Advocates runs a couple of mini trials—or mock trials—initiatives, which are particularly directed at kids from schools and backgrounds from which people would not normally be expected to end up at the Bar, to try to break down the barriers and to show that—if I am allowed to say this—the law can sometimes be fun, and that it is not just for posh people who went to a private school. I hope that my former colleagues are making some progress in that area. They run the mock trials as part of the Citizenship Foundation, which has been mentioned. It is a cross-UK foundation that is supported north of the border by the Faculty of Advocates.
Another way that legal professionals can contribute to legal education is by providing briefings to parliamentarians working on Bills. In the three years that I have been here, I have had invaluable assistance from briefings provided by the likes of the Law Society of Scotland, the Law Society of England and Wales, the Bars of Scotland and of England and Wales, and organisations such as Liberty, and Justice. I am proud that the Faculty of Advocates actively contributes to law reform north and south of the border under the excellent chairmanship of Laura Dunlop, QC, who was my pupil master, although she is not responsible for any of my mistakes—only for the good parts.
The Law Society of Scotland also provides fantastic briefings. I could not have done my job as an MP properly without its assistance in the last few years, particularly the assistance of Michael Clancy, who is the head of law reform there and is well known to parliamentarians from all political parties. In more general terms, it has also engaged in significant activity in the area of public legal education.
The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) mentioned StreetLaw. The Law Society of Scotland participates in the StreetLaw project. That involves sending out StreetLaw trainers to teach students and schoolchildren about the law, the legal process and the sort of knowledge and skills that students can use to recognise and prevent legal problems in their lives, and perhaps also to prompt them to consider participating as legal professionals in later life.
All the Law Society of Scotland’s StreetLaw trainers are law students studying in Scotland who undertake this work on a voluntary basis. I am very proud to say that they are supported by two major international law firms in doing so—CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang, and Pinsent Masons. They have also had support from the Law Society of Ireland and from international leaders in public legal aid education, such as Harvard University, Georgetown University and Penn State University.
As well as participating in the StreetLaw project, the Law Society of Scotland participates in a charitable foundation, which was set up to give bursaries to students and to support summer schools, schools programmes, visits and events. The Law Society of Scotland is also playing an active role in a campaign to increase diversity in professional services in Scotland.
Just before I draw to a close, I will add a note of caution. An awful lot has been said today about the importance of public legal education, but public legal education should never be viewed as an easy way to plug the gaps left by legal aid cuts. Access to justice should always be our paramount concern. Public legal education should be more about developing capacity and not really about answering specific legal problems because of unmet needs due to gaps in the legal aid system.
Recently we saw a leaked Ministry of Justice report that revealed judges in England and Wales are concerned that legal aid cuts are leading to an increase in the number of defendants without legal representation. I think it is fair to say that the extent to which legal aid has been cut in England and Wales has pushed many people out of eligibility for it in crucial areas of justice, meaning that vulnerable people are often left without legal aid and appear in court or before a tribunal without a lawyer. That is not just my view; it is also the view of many of the witnesses who have given evidence to the inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights into the enforcement of rights. It is also the view of Amnesty International, which has said that the cuts included in LASPO—the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—have created a two-tier justice system in England and Wales.
Recently in Scotland, we had an independent review of our legal aid system. It highlighted that, despite the fact that we spend less per capita in Scotland on legal aid than is spent in England and Wales, legal aid is far more widely available in Scotland and covers a wider scope of categories than it does south of the border. As I say, that was not a Scottish Government review but an independent review, chaired by Martyn Evans, the chief executive of the Carnegie UK Trust. It shows that it is possible to have legal aid that is more widely available without actually spending any more money. So, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I end by urging the Solicitor General to be cautious about letting public legal education plug the gaps that legal aid should fill, and I urge the UK Government—as I have done on previous occasions—to carry out an independent review of the legal aid system in England and Wales, rather than the in-house Government review that is going on at the moment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and I draw attention to my relevant entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a non-practising barrister at Civitas Law in Cardiff. Indeed, I practised as a barrister for some years before entering Parliament in 2015.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) on securing this debate on a very important subject and I join him in congratulating the many organisations that contribute to public legal education, which includes professional bodies such as the Law Society and the Bar Council, but also many other organisations, within our communities all around the country.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s passion for citizenship education, not only as taught in our schools but as part of lifelong citizenship education. He spoke very powerfully about scams and other matters when, of course, knowing your rights is important, whether that is at the age of 20 or much later in life. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) spoke very powerfully about a really important point to take from this debate, which is that nobody should ever feel that the legal profession is not for them. We want anyone to aspire to be in the legal profession on merit and not because of background.
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) raised another important issue, namely the fact that public legal education really should not be an intimidating subject; it should be something that we can all speak about and access. I share the passion of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) about public legal education in schools. Giving people the skills to go through life is indeed very important. I thank the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), who drew, in a moving way, on her own personal experience of dealing with her mother’s dementia and applying for a lasting power of attorney which, with our ageing society, is something that more and more people will have to apply for in the years ahead.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) set out well how law shapes our lives and she spoke very powerfully about the issue of maternity discrimination. The only thing that I will say about that is that we all need to be grateful to the Supreme Court for declaring tribunal fees unlawful, because I am sure the right hon. Lady will appreciate that between the introduction of the fees in July 2013 and the date on which they were declared unlawful by the Supreme Court the number of maternity discrimination cases fell significantly.
My point was much broader than that. Far more people are affected by maternity discrimination than bring maternity discrimination cases. Although the point that the hon. Gentleman has made is factually correct, I hope he agrees that it is important to think about those women who would never even have understood that they had been discriminated against. That is the point I was making.
I do not disagree with the right hon. Lady, and she is absolutely right to say that the problem is broader. However, she will appreciate that there must be an ability to enforce the right before a tribunal; otherwise, of course, the right loses its meaning. I think that we all hope that, now those fees are gone, we will get back to a position where everyone who wants to bring such a case is able to do so.
I do not doubt for a moment the Solicitor General’s commitment, and I know that he has been at the forefront of efforts to set up a panel that will co-ordinate work in this area. I will quote what he said when he set up the panel, because I agree with it:
“Teaching people about their legal rights and responsibilities, together with helping them gain the confidence and skills to get access to justice, can really make a difference to people’s lives—as well as our legal system.
The new Panel will help drive forward Public Legal Education, so more people can reap the benefits.”
That is all absolutely right.
Similarly, I do not disagree with what the hon. Member for North East Hampshire said when he maintained that one of the benefits of public legal education might be that more people can settle disputes outside court. That is absolutely right, as well. Of course we all want to see that; we do not want to see unnecessary litigation.
At the same time, although it is not my intention to be unduly partisan in a Westminster Hall debate, I have to record the concern that exists about the ability of people to enforce their rights before a court irrespective of their wealth. “Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most”—those are not my words, but those of the previous Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, who said them in January 2016 in his annual report to Parliament. There is concern that we have to put alongside an absolutely correct drive towards greater public legal education a similar ability for people to enforce their rights before our courts if they need to do so.
The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) mentioned a concern that exists about people in a very vulnerable position not having access to legal aid to enforce their rights. A very good example of that is state help in benefits cases, when people are indeed in a very vulnerable position and looking for advice as to how they can best enforce their rights and ensure the continuation of their income. The statistics on this are stark. In 2012-13, 83,000 people had the benefit of state help in those circumstances; by 2016-17, the figure was 440. That is a swingeing cut in help and assistance for those people to enforce their rights, and it is a great concern.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who is not in his place at the moment, rightly made the point that with the changing dynamics of our courts, with virtual courts and online courts, the idea of public legal education is becoming more important than ever. Far more people are representing themselves before the courts. In one sense, that reinforces the point about more public legal education, but there is a concern about the family courts in that regard. There has been a leap in those representing themselves from 45,000 people in 2012-13 to 64,000 in 2016-17, and the worry is that there is no protection in family courts for perpetrators of domestic violence to cross-examine their victims. Such a measure was included in the Prisons and Courts Bill, which was lost just before the general election of last year—I served on the Public Bill Committee. When will that provision be brought back? It would command wide support across the House, and the sooner it can be brought back and put into effect, the better for everyone concerned.
Legal aid is a huge concern across a number of areas, whether that is immigration, civil legal aid or criminal legal aid. I have looked at the figures, and between 2010-11 and 2016-17 there was a £950 million cut in legal aid. No wonder the legal profession has been driven to take the action it has, but it is about far more than figures; it is also about the idea that early legal advice can save money. I commend to the Solicitor General my noble Friend Lord Bach’s report, published in the past 12 months, in which precisely that issue of early legal advice is proposed as something that should be absolutely central in our justice system.
I think there is consensus about the importance of public legal education, and I am grateful to all those who do work in that area. I do not doubt for a moment the Solicitor General’s commitment and I am sure that progress will continue, but the means by which people can enforce their rights before the court should not be based on their personal wealth. At the same time as enhancing our public legal education, let us put legal aid back to where it was meant to be when it was introduced in 1949 as the fourth pillar of the welfare state.
Order. I remind Members that the debate closes at 4.17 pm. If the mover of the motion were given two minutes to have the final word that would be wonderful.
I will do that, Mr Streeter. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as it was under Mr Pritchard’s. It is almost a challenge for me to fit into the few minutes I have, everything I want to say on a subject I have a long interest in and passion for.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) for reminding us clearly and comprehensively about the unwritten contract, the Burkean principle that is so important to many of us, and for reaching into the present day by illustrating some of the excellent initiatives going on around the country. I will come back, if I may, to some of the observations made by the shadow Solicitor General and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), but I will begin by reminding everyone what public legal education, or PLE, is.
PLE provides people with vital awareness, knowledge and understanding of their rights and those of their fellow citizens. It builds their confidence and the skills that are needed to deal with the disputes that no doubt encroach on the lives of many of us, and it ensures effective access to justice. I was at the independent Bar for many years before I was elected to this place, and I played my part in the delivery of public legal education in schools and colleges in south Wales. I wanted to bring that experience with me into my role as Solicitor General. It is ever more important to ensure that the people of our country understand the law and their rights and responsibilities within it. Public legal education breaks down barriers of knowledge, circumstance and access. As we have heard, PLE is provided by myriad community-based organisations—youth workers and health workers, for example, and legal professionals themselves—all doing their part to ensure that particularly those people with social and economic disadvantages can still get the support they need.
The shadow Solicitor General made the observation that legal aid is a pillar of the welfare state. It is more than that; it is about access to justice. Both he and I, as practitioners, have seen Governments of various colours take legal aid measures that have resulted in reductions in overall eligibility, and the remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West were particularly interesting in that regard. Frankly, I do not think that any Government have got it absolutely right. I could go into a long history lesson about how in 1949 only High Court family cases were eligible for legal assistance and that under successive Governments that assistance was enlarged to a point at which under the Thatcher Government—some would think this almost ironic—84% of the population of England and Wales had some form of eligibility for legal aid.
An independent report published just a couple of months ago shows that 70% of the population of Scotland is eligible for legal aid, yet less is spent per capita on that aid than in England. With a bit of imagination, there could be wider availability of legal aid in England. Scotland shows that it can be done.
I am always interested in the hon. and learned Lady’s observations, but I am not sure whether 70% coverage is the right balance. I will consider with interest what she has said and study the issue more carefully, rather than making remarks that are not based on a full study of the evidence. I will, however, concede the point that public legal education is not some substitute or easy fix for eligibility for legal aid. It is a much more long-term approach, which focuses naturally on children and young people and is designed, above all, to give people the knowledge and the wherewithal to avoid the pitfalls of litigation and court proceedings in the first place. We have a very different aim in mind when it comes to spreading the provision of PLE. I pay tribute to all the organisations in Scotland that do so much work, the law clinics in particular, which the hon. and learned Lady mentioned—we have those in great measure too south of the border.
It is not just motherhood and apple pie; there is a statutory underpinning to public legal education in the Legal Services Act 2007 which, among its regulatory objectives refers to
“increasing public understanding of the citizen’s legal rights and duties”
“improving access to justice”.
It is not an option for the Government, or indeed any of the regulatory bodies, to neglect those objectives. I am glad that the Law Society, the General Council of the Bar and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives here in England and Wales play their part in ensuring that PLE is spread as far and wide as possible within the professions. Both the Attorney General and I, as the pro bono champions of the Government, work closely with those involved in PLE and support initiatives to increase its profile and reach more members of the public.
I come back to my earlier intervention, and put the same question to my hon. and learned Friend. There is a challenge, despite the best efforts of the Law Society and the Bar Council in encouraging pro bono work, as some of the big law firms, which are all about billable hours, do not free up enough of their solicitors to do important pro bono work. What does my hon. and learned Friend think the Government or the Law Society could do to encourage a more responsible approach from some of those firms?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. For those of us who were in the full throes of private practice, very often the delivery of PLE was a better use of our time than our having to immerse ourselves in often very unfamiliar areas of law, with all the concomitant risks. My message to the big firms is: where there is an issue about availability, allow members of the team to go into schools first thing in the morning. I have seen that in several state schools in London. I have joined employed barristers and solicitors helping to deliver citizenship foundation courses, for example in social media law. To see the engagement and sense of ownership that young people have when talking about issues so close to their everyday lives—when they suddenly understand that law is not some remote, dusty concept, but reaches into their existence and everyday experience—is quite a sight to behold.
I want to outline and underline the work that we are doing with the public legal education panel, which has been formed from leading organisations in the field to promote the importance of that work. It was convened by me last year. It involves the professions and organisations such as the Citizenship Foundation and Law for Life. We are bringing together organisations in a joined-up way to help work out where the need is and what the provision is currently. I have two sub-groups working on those issues.
There are two types of PLE. “Just in case” PLE is all about ensuring that people have skills, information and knowledge about their rights. “Just in time” PLE is all about giving people knowledge and support when a legal issue happens to arise. Both types of provision are equally important, and we are working our way towards getting a better understanding.
Through organisations and such events as National Pro Bono Week, I can champion the importance of PLE through the community, whether it is delivered in schools, to people who are homeless or those in prison, who really need to understand their rights and, most importantly, their responsibilities. Last year during Pro Bono Week, I took part in a session on social media and the law being delivered by university students to local secondary school pupils in Chester. It gave young people a chance to learn about their rights and the surrounding law. One issue that arose was the increasing problem in schools of young people taking videos of fights and other incidents in the playground. The session was about understanding what the sharing of those videos meant for privacy, the rights of the individuals involved and the problems that we are all familiar with here, but which all too often young people sadly only learn about to their expense after the event. I was proud of and impressed by the commitment of the university students delivering the sessions. That has been backed up in recent months by my experience at the Kent law clinic at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Law students there are not only delivering support and advice to members of the public; they are also helping to spread public legal education more widely.
We have some shining examples of the work that is going on, and I pray in aid the work of His Honour Judge Wildblood, QC at the Bristol family court. He is allowing his court to be used for public debates about the law. He is even using local drama groups to help to educate young people. He is bringing together the legal community in Bristol and the surrounding area in a most effective way. With that sort of leadership, many great things can be achieved but here, Mr Streeter, is where you and other colleagues come into play. As has been said by many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) and for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), there are opportunities for colleagues to take a lead in their local communities and work with local firms of solicitors or legal practitioners to help to deliver public legal education in our schools.
I know the Solicitor General has done his fair share of school visits over the years. Does he agree that there is still work to be done on diversity and encouraging more people to apply to the profession? We can all make a difference by visiting our local schools and speaking about these matters.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Only last Friday I was doing that at a school in my constituency, the Ridgeway. I was talking to young people in the sixth form who did not have a background in the law about what opportunity there was for them. Like me, he no doubt has taken on youngsters in chambers deliberately with the knowledge that they did not have a background in law. In fact, I would not take people who had any connection with the law because I wanted to empower young people and give them a chance.
I want to deal with some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) about the curriculum. The position has yet to be clarified because more work is being done, particularly on sex education in schools and the issue of consent and withdrawal. That is not yet a statutory part of the curriculum. Citizenship remains compulsory at key stage 3. We are talking about youngsters in years 7, 8 and 9 who can access that education in school, and it must include PLE. It is a matter for schools to determine how to deliver it, but by working collaboratively with professionals, a lot can be achieved.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) made some important points about access in the workplace, particularly for women who have no knowledge—I say that with respect; it is not their fault—about their rights. That is why the regulatory objective in the 2007 Act is important. More has to be done to deal with the question of empowerment of our citizens via the regulatory bodies. That would not just include lawyers, even though the 2007 Act has that remit. I will go away and think about her point very carefully. Perhaps we can use it as the start of an important discussion. I thank all hon. and right hon. Friends and Members for taking part today. The law is not some mystical holy of holies and lawyers are not the high priests. We should demystify it, and that is where public legal education is so important.
Mr Jayawardena has 20 seconds to wind up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank all my right hon. and hon. Friends and all Members for taking part. My lasting memory of this debate will be my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) outing me as a mere mortal for not having been a lawyer and for only having gone to the LSE. Sir Arnold from “Yes, Minister” would have said, “Oh, I am sorry.” I am not.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).