[3rd Allotted Day]
MINISTRY OF JUSTICE
[Relevant Documents: Oral evidence taken before the Justice Committee on 26 June 2018, on Prison Population 2022: planning for the future, HC 483; oral evidence taken before the Justice Committee on 22 May and 12 June 2018, on Criminal legal aid, HC 1069; and oral evidence taken before the Justice Committee on 7 March 2018, on The work of the Ministry of Justice, HC 418.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2019, for expenditure by the Ministry of Justice:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £3,673,299,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 957 of Session 2017-19,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £198,182,000 be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £3,635,304,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Paul Maynard.)
It is a pleasure to start this debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for having facilitated it, my colleagues on the Select Committee on Justice for the work that they have done on the estimates and, more broadly, the work of the Ministry of Justice during this Parliament so far and beyond.
This is an important debate because although the Ministry of Justice is one of the smaller Departments in budgetary terms, its work is fundamental to the nature of a civilised society. Ultimately, justice is not a transaction; it is something that underpins the way in which we live our lives and the way in which we treat each another in a civilised society. Perhaps it should be measured more by its impact than purely in monetary terms. It has to be said that in that regard, frankly, we get our justice system pretty cheaply. Overall the Ministry of Justice is about 12th in terms of spending Departments. Its total expenditure, on the current form, is a resource departmental expenditure limit—a resource budget, in effect—of £6.9 billion. To put that in context, it is less than 2% of total Government resource DEL and about 1% of total public spending across the UK, which amounts to some £800 billion. We are talking about a small amount of money.
The problems that the Ministry faces are twofold. Within that amount of money, the Ministry has to deal with key issues. Some 50% of its budget goes on prisons and probation, some 20% goes on the courts services and related matters such as legal aid, access to justice and so on, and the rest is spent on a number of key agencies. The two biggest issues—prisons and probation, and courts and legal aid—are very much demand-led. At the same time as being a Department most of whose work and services are demand-led, the Ministry also has to cope with the difficulty of being an unprotected Department in terms of our necessary approach to reducing the deficit and public debt. That places particular pressures on those who work in the Department and its agencies. I will be frank; as a former Minister, I know that it also places particular pressures on the Ministers, to whom I pay tribute. Over the years, many of them have been friends and they work really hard to deal with a difficult situation, but Parliament needs to take a look at whether we give adequate resource to the task required of them.
It has been very clear that the resources have been reduced considerably—and more than many other Departments—because of the Ministry’s unprotected nature. The upshot has been that the resource DEL for 2016-17 is 29% lower in real terms than it was in 2010-11. The prison population has not declined since 2010-11. In fact, it spiked up initially and then stabilised only over the past couple of years. That is a significant cost pressure that has gone on. Because we do not seek, naturally, to inhibit the sentencing decisions of individual judges in individual cases, there is limited control over what can be done.
In addition, for reasons that we will perhaps touch on, there are costs to the public purse that go beyond some of the failures in our prison system. We imprison a higher number of people than many of our comparators, and unfortunately we have worse rates of reoffending. As the Department and the Government accept, reoffending has an economic cost to the United Kingdom of some £15 billion a year. So not only is there a squeeze on the attempts—the genuine attempts —that are being made to reduce reoffending, to rehabilitate and reform, but we are not getting the outcomes that we need from that. Equally, the failure to achieve all those outcomes creates a further cost pressure at the other end of the scale as well. That is why the reforms that the Government and Ministers are seeking to make are all the more important.
Moreover—other members of the Select Committee will touch on this in more detail—there are real pressures and difficulties within different parts of the prison system. Over the years that we have been a Select Committee, both in this Parliament and its rather short predecessor, we have delivered a number of reports on matters such as prison safety, the way in which we treat younger adults in the prison system—where there are real and specific difficulties—the recruitment and retention of prison staff, and morale within prisons. These issues are all interlinked.
Because the number of prisoners remains stubbornly high and because the resource available has declined, there has been a concerning deterioration in a number of key areas. Prison safety is an obvious example. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, whose work we should all pay tribute to, has produced a number of reports that show, regrettably—despite a number of initiatives by Ministers to seek interventions to remedy the position—a considerable increase, over a period, in assaults, both inmate-on-inmate assaults and assaults on members of staff. There has been a 44% increase in prisoner assault incidents since 2015. The rate of assaults, which is perhaps the most telling figure, has increased from 190 per 1,000 in 2007 to 344 per 1,000 in 2017. Assaults on prison staff have increased from 43 per 1,000 in 2007 to 98 per 1,000 in 2017.
That has an impact on staff morale and staff retention. It also means—because of the need, naturally, to keep the prison regime safe—that only a very small percentage of prisoners are being unlocked for the 10 hours that is the expectation of Her Majesty’s chief inspectorate. That is a problem because restricted regimes make it much harder to carry out the reform and rehabilitation work that Ministers—and, I believe, every one of us in this House—want to see. Further budgetary pressures that currently seem to be the case for the Department can only make that harder without some radical change. We have to bear in mind not only that there are past budgetary pressures, but that the Ministry needs to reduce its annual spending by £500 million from 2015-16 levels to 2019-20 to meet the 2015 spending round.
That, in my judgment and that of many others, can be done in only two ways. Either we change those spending levels and put more money into prisons, at great expense to the taxpayer, or we—as a society and as a Parliament—seize the bull by the horns and make a determined resolve to reduce the prison population. That can be done, in particular, by releasing prisoners who are not a threat to society in a physical or serious financial sense and by finding robust and credible alternatives to custody that enable sentencers to deal with many more offenders in the community without the need for the extreme cost of imprisonment—some £23,000, on average, but much more for certain classes of offender, particularly young offenders. Unless we want to have a permanent bottomless pit, we have to make investment to make savings in the long term, not only in economic terms but in social and human terms.
I am concerned about cuts to legal aid, because I have constituents who have domestic problems and need legal aid to fight their case in the courts. Will the hon. Gentleman say a little more about that, particularly with regard to the situation of women?
I am trying to give an overview, so I will come on to legal aid and access to justice issues. I will deal with the prisons and probation part of the budget first, because it is the largest element and therefore the elephant in the room in financial terms.
There have been efforts to deal with this. The Ministry succeeded in getting the funding for 2,500 extra prison officers. That is admirable. It is worth noting that extra equipment has been provided by way of body-worn cameras. Real and valuable initiatives have been proposed such as the employment and education strategy and the female offender strategy. Those are all welcome, but what we really need to do is grasp the nettle and have a joined-up approach to looking again at our assumption about imprisoning people to a greater degree than most of our comparators. That decision has to be made now.
I turn to an issue that our Committee has touched on already in our inquiry into transforming rehabilitation—the costs of reforming the National Probation Service. What concerns us, from a budgetary point of view, is that the split between the National Probation Service and community rehabilitation companies was clearly not fully costed. Instead of making the savings that had been intended, some £400 million more has had to be put in to shore up those companies and those contracts. We do not regard that as sustainable. We need a clear plan from the Government on how this will be rectified. We have published a report to that effect. I welcome the Minister’s robust approach in saying that nothing is off the table, including removing contracts from failing providers if necessary. It is important that that is tackled urgently.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. While there are challenges in the new system of probation supervision, does he agree that it is very welcome that we are now supervising short-term prisoners, which for many years we did not do?
That is an admirable objective, but I regret to say that the evidence of our inquiry is that it seldom happens adequately in practice. One of the findings, which is for another debate, is that in many cases the level of supervision has in fact declined. Sometimes, it happens purely by phone calls once every six weeks, and in many cases the involvement of the voluntary sector and other local agencies has declined. The objective was absolutely laudable, but I fear that there are serious question marks about how it is being delivered in practice. It is very patchy across the country, to be frank.
I turn to matters to do with the Courts and Tribunals Service. The question of legal aid is a vexed one. We have reported on that, too. There have been reductions to legal aid. I understand the pressures that the Department was under, and the whole Government were under, when the coalition came in in 2010 and the consequent need reduce public indebtedness, with everything having to bear a share of that. My personal conclusion is that we went too far in those matters and that we now have a situation where cuts to legal aid are becoming counterproductive. For example, there have been attempts to raise extra—
I really cannot give way again because time presses, and I know that others will touch on this issue.
There have already been concerns about certain cost-raising measures. Increasing fees and reducing eligibility were found to be unlawful by the courts, so those measures have had to be revisited. Withdrawal of legal aid in some areas has created a significant increase in litigants in person. Litigants in person are an undesirable feature, for a number of reasons. The obvious one is it damages equality of arms, which is central to a justice system, but also, in practical and budgetary terms, cases involving litigants in person take longer to hear. There is much greater likelihood that, without early legal advice, litigants will pursue unmeritorious claims that have to be litigated in court rather than siphoned off with robust advice from lawyers.
In family court cases, rather than seeing an increase in mediation, as was anticipated, mediation has fallen through the floor. That sharp decline, all the evidence now shows, is because it is early advice from experienced family lawyers that signposts mediation to people. I believe there is a very strong case that reinvestment in early legal advice through legal aid would save money and save social damage.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will, but this really must be the last time.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. On mediation, does he agree that what might be needed from the Government is more publicising of that method of dispute resolution, because a significant number of people do not know that it exists?
That is an entirely fair point, and I welcome it. There needs to be more publicity generally for public legal education, and mediation is an important part of that, but even then, it is important to realise that many people—particularly those going through a family breakdown—will not feel able or confident to go to that on their own initiative without some assistance. Early legal advice will get them into the mediation process, rather than drawn-out litigation in front of a family court judge. That will be a cost saving.
The other point is that this is one of many burdens that are affecting judicial morale. In the statement earlier today, the value of our judiciary was highlighted by the appointment of a High Court judge, Sir Brian Langstaff, as is often the case, to head an inquiry into important and grave matters of public concern. We do that because of the high reputation of the integrity and quality of our judiciary, but there are now real concerns from the senior judiciary about how we sustain that. Recruitment to the High Court bench and now to the circuit bench is struggling. That used not to be the case.
There is a raft of reasons. First, it is partly a question of pay. The truth is that we are often asking people to give up highly lucrative practices to undertake public service. The second is the pensions regime, and the third is the working conditions. Part of that is due to the growth in pressure that litigants in person brings, particularly at the district judge and circuit judge level. There is also the additional administrative work that is forced upon us, and the lack of investment on the capital front in the court estate means that the working conditions are not those that one would expect of senior professional people. That is an argument for looking again at the capital budget.
There are a number of other matters that one could readily touch upon, but time does not permit it. I know and respect the Ministers in the Department. I know that they seek genuinely to reform and to find a cost-effective justice system that delivers, but they need the help of the House and far greater public awareness of the pressures upon the system, the need to be radical with the resources that we have and the need to be prepared to invest for the future. Ultimately, justice is not a transaction; justice is central. The more that that is said in such debates and elsewhere, the better, and this debate is an opportunity to say precisely that.
Order. There is some pressure on time this evening, but I would prefer not to impose a time limit. If Members could stick to eight minutes, that would be very helpful.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee; I will touch briefly on the Committee’s “Transforming Rehabilitation” report. I also welcome the relatively new Ministers—one of them is very new—to their places.
I want to begin with a positive, which is the construction in my constituency of the largest prison in western Europe, HM Prison Berwyn—a proposal the size of which concerned me deeply, to such an extent that I initially opposed the construction of the prison. However, I have worked very closely with the Ministry of Justice over a considerable period and have benefited from that. I would particularly like to thank Amy Rees, the current leader of the Prison and Probation Service in Wales, and the governor, Russ Trent, with whom I met on Friday and with whom I have developed a close working relationship.
I never had a prison in my constituency until this prison was opened, so this is new to me and there are real challenges relating to it. However, I say cautiously that I think the prison has been welcomed in Wrexham, and positive work is taking place there, which we all want to support. Wrexham’s community has been working hard with the local prison, and the prison has been very good at engaging with business and local voluntary organisations. At this stage, the prison is around half full—perhaps a little more—and the close relations between the community, me as the Member of Parliament and the prison have been very positive. I would like to thank those working at the prison for their engagement.
On probation, I was interested to read the “Transforming Rehabilitation” report to which the Chair of the Select Committee referred. I will not rehearse what I said last week, but there has been an extremely serious case in Wrexham involving the murder of one of my constituents, Mr Nicholas Churton, which appears to have been the result of a failure to adequately supervise an individual who was under supervision and on licence from prison. That is currently the subject of two Independent Office for Police Conduct investigations. I have spoken in detail with the probation service about it but unfortunately have not had the same level of co-operation from North Wales police. That causes me profound concern about the current probation regime. The incident that led to the murder of my constituent happened well over a year ago. We are still awaiting the outcomes of the inquiries, and I will watch those extremely closely. I have profound concerns about the resourcing of the current system. I hope that when the reports come back to the Ministers, they will look at them extremely closely and ensure that there is no repeat of the appalling failures that appear to have happened.
The third area that I want to raise is the court system. In a previous life, I was a solicitor, and for a time I worked as a practising solicitor in the criminal courts. That was so long ago that if there was an issue at Wrexham magistrates court that concerned me, I would speak to the local clerk to the justices face to face and receive a response on the issue. I regret that the court system today is, to my mind, entirely unresponsive to the local communities that it is supposed to serve. Wrexham is the largest town in north Wales. It is administered within the court system in Wales by someone who I believe is based in Llanelli, which is a long walk away and has no affinity or contact with the local area in Wrexham.
I will raise a single case, with which the Ministry of Justice will think I am obsessed: the cells at Wrexham magistrates court. This is an example of how detached the court system is under the present Government. I have commended the Ministry of Justice thus far for the close relations that I have had with the Prison and Probation Service, but I am afraid that my contact with the Courts Service has been very bad indeed. The cells at Wrexham magistrates court are important, because at present they are served by the local police station, which is in the process of closing. I raised the closure of the police station because I knew that when the police station closed, the custody facility at Wrexham magistrates court would also disappear. Towns are very important places, and solicitors’ practices in towns that serve places such as magistrates courts are also very important.
None of that appears to have occurred to the Ministry of Justice or, indeed, North Wales police, which clearly had not thought about what would happen to the cells at Wrexham magistrates court until I raised the issue some years ago. That began a sequence of correspondence with the Ministry of Justice and with Ministers concerning the magistrates court and led me to secure in 2016 what I believed was an undertaking from the then Minister that criminal cases would continue to be heard in Wrexham—the largest town in north Wales—and that custody facilities would be developed and built to serve the court. I was therefore very upset last week to receive a notice that I believe was sent to magistrates in Wrexham, saying:
“As you are aware, the closure of Wrexham Police station has led to the loss of the shared custodial facilities at Wrexham Magistrates Court. As such, from Friday 17 August, cases that have a custodial requirement will be listed at Mold.”
That is exactly what I have been working for a number of years to avoid. My objective has been to ensure that there continues to be a fully functioning and effective working magistrates court in the largest town in north Wales.
The decision that appears to have been made thus far by the Ministry of Justice or its officials in the local area is that the court will cease in August. We do not know at this juncture—there has been no discussion with anyone that I am aware of, and certainly not with me—what the proposals are for the magistrates court in Wrexham. The local administration of the magistrates court knows very well that I have been following this extremely closely, and that I have intervened a number of times to obtain information about the case. At no stage, however, has there been any attempt to contact me concerning the present circumstances at the court.
It seems to me that this is a microcosm of how the court system is now operating certainly in Wales and, I am sure, across England too. The remoteness of the court system and the administration from Members of Parliament and from their local communities is the absolute antithesis of what a local system of justice should be. I, as the Member of Parliament, have no idea what the correct point of contact is. I would therefore welcome a complete rethink by Ministers on the Front Bench as far as the courts are concerned, and I would welcome a re-engagement with elected Members of Parliament about the future of their local magistrates courts and the local justice system.
Local justice is hugely important, and towns need the thriving local businesses—for example, solicitors’ offices—that serve the magistrates court in civic centres such as Wrexham. The way in which the Government and the Ministry of Justice are operating at the moment is that they have scant regard for those towns, for the Members of Parliament and for the people that I represent. That needs to change fundamentally, and I would really welcome such a change from the Ministers who have been listening to me so courteously.
Order. I am afraid that I will now have to put on an eight-minute time limit.
It is pleasing to be able to contribute to this estimates day debate. It gives me the opportunity to cover some general issues concerning the criminal justice system, and also a couple of specific ones. I think we would all agree that it is of course the first obligation on any Government to protect their people. We often hear that said in a defence context, but it is just as pertinent in a civilian one. We have to recognise that crime has the ability to undermine the very fabric of our society.
I was pleased to hear just that point made my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who is a very competent Chairman of the Justice Committee. I was a member of the Committee under his predecessor, Lord Beith, who was also a very competent Chairman. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance for the whole of society of having a strong justice system. He is also very correct to point out where there are failings in the system. I do not always agree with him on the points that he and his Committee makes, but it is incumbent on the Chairman of a Select Committee to make such points well known.
My hon. Friend raised the issue of the supervision of short-term offenders, and it is very correct that he should point out failings where there is a lack of resource and where we can improve that supervision. Ever since probation officers started to supervise offenders, failings have always taken place. I would not argue against that perhaps still being the case today, and there are some improvements that can be made. Where I would depart from him, however, is that I very much welcome the fact that short-term offenders or prisoners are getting some assistance. That assistance may well need improvement, but it is right to have introduced a system to end the frustration of seeing people leave prison after a few weeks—they are given a small amount of money and sent on their way—and somehow being surprised when those individuals come back into the penal system again. It is a huge step in the right direction that we are now supervising those individuals. Even if that supervision needs improvement, it is welcome that we are supervising those individuals for the first time in many years—perhaps for the first time ever.
Generally speaking, I believe that the issue of law and order is not perhaps given the prominence it should have. We all want good schools, hospitals and public services, and we want a good strong economy, but if we allow crime to take over a particular area, we undermine the very fabric of society and everything else that we are trying to achieve. It is good to have an opportunity to have this debate on the criminal justice system to highlight just how important the system is for the very bedrock of our society.
Like me, my hon. Friend has a long background in the criminal justice system as a practitioner. Does he share my concern that there has been a marked decline in the availability of duty solicitors and other legal aid solicitors to attend police stations and courts, and that the average age of a duty solicitor is now about 47-plus?
As a 48-year-old, I instinctively have sympathy with the point my hon. Friend makes. While the prosecution must be represented, it is absolutely essential that the defence has representation as well. That is in the interests of justice.
It is fair to say that this country, compared with the rest of the world, spends a favourable amount of money on legal aid. I concede that it is always difficult to compare the justice system with others internationally—it is not always an easy comparison to make—but if we look at the overall amount that this country puts into legal aid, we can be reasonably proud of it. However, I concede that there are huge frustrations among some of my former colleagues in the criminal justice system about being unable to represent their clients and pursue matters in the interests of justice in the way they were perhaps once able to do.
My hon. Friend is quite right that I spent some 20 years in the criminal justice system as a duty solicitor. I do not have the experience of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) of going into the cells in his area. However, I had the experience of trying to administer justice on the frontline, which is undoubtedly what happens for duty solicitors and solicitors who work in the criminal justice system. What I learned during that time is that crime is a very complicated thing. I do not believe that there is a simple solution to any of the problems we face with crime in this country. We cannot tackle it from one single angle; it needs a multifaceted approach.
I believe very strongly that criminals tend to have one thing in common, which is a selfish failure to take responsibility for their own actions, but the reasons behind that are often very complex. This sticks in my throat a bit, but to be fair, Tony Blair was actually going in the right direction when he said, “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Whether or not he took that approach is open for debate, but it is the one we need. We need to take a holistic approach to tackling crime. We cannot deal with it simply by locking up more and more people. Equally, we cannot deal with it by trying to cuddle people and to help them on their way. As I say, this needs a multifaceted approach.
It is good that on this estimates day we are concentrating on how we can ensure that society is protected, and that we do not end up trying to regain lost causes because the system has failed, which is much harder to do. Part of that is about ensuring that criminals receive the right sentences for the offences they commit, which is why I advocate expanding the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. We have already taken some steps in that regard. It is right that the defence should be able to appeal against sentences that are too harsh, but in my opinion it is wrong that in so many instances the prosecution cannot appeal against sentences that are unduly lenient. For malicious wounding, actual bodily harm, child cruelty, distribution of child abuse photos, burglary and even rape, when dealt with in the youth court, the prosecution cannot appeal against the sentence handed down, however unduly lenient, because those crimes are not covered by the current scheme. That needs to change. We all agree that the punishment should fit the crime. When it does not, there should be a mechanism in place to allow appeals.
We also need the Government to be flexible in their approach to law and order issues. Government attitudes have to change in accordance with society’s attitudes. I welcomed the announcement that it will now be possible to impose a life sentence for death by dangerous driving, because too often we have seen the courts impose inadequate sentences for some of these incredibly serious crimes. I would also like to see the Crown Prosecution Service making more use of manslaughter charges in the most serious cases.
A lot of work needs to be done in this area. I congratulate the Government on some of the things they are doing to ensure that law and order are at the top of the agenda. I think that we should give this area greater priority. If we do not get our approach to law and order right, we undermine the whole fabric of our society.
I thank the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to the debate and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for introducing it. The debate is about the Ministry of Justice’s estimates. In practice, that means that it is about how we protect the public; how we turn around the lives of offenders by rehabilitating them so that they can go back into society; how we have a proper through-the-gate system to ensure that people leave prison in a better state than when they went in; and, in particular, how we reduce reoffending by ensuring positive inputs in prison.
The challenge for the Minister today—I will be particularly interested to hear his contribution—is to explain how he will do all that against the backdrop of the challenges we have faced over the past eight or nine years, and the funding regime over the next three or four years of the current cycle. He will know, although it is still important to remind him, that there are some serious funding challenges. We have seen a 40% decrease in funding for prisons and probation, which are the areas I will focus on today. The annual budget will have fallen from £9.3 billion in current prices in 2010-11 to £5.6 billion by 2019-20, and we are facing potential cuts of £800 million from April 2017 to April 2020. The funding challenge is important because, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst explained, prisoner numbers have not fallen. If anything, the seriousness of offences has risen, the age and infirmity of prisoners have risen and the number of prisoners reoffending in under 12 months has risen. The level of violent crime in our prisons today is a serious challenge.
The Minister’s first challenge today is therefore to explain to the House how he will achieve what I know he believes to be laudable objectives over the next few years, despite the massive reduction in funding to date and in the future. He needs to explain how he will manage the challenges resulting from his Government’s decision to outsource some of the services that he wants to improve as part of his back to basics campaign on prison conditions.
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s desire to get prisoners back into work. Does he agree that the changes that can be made to achieve that are actually quite small? The previous Justice Committee saw during a visit to Denmark how communal cooking by prisoners of food that they had bought was a very good marker for getting them to move on in life after prison.
There are a number of things that we can do, and I know that the Minister is interested in how we can make the things that happen in prison relevant to the things that happen outside prison, so that skills, training and communal activities prepare prisoners for life outside in a positive way.
The Minister needs to focus on the consequences for probation, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), because every indicator over the past seven years has proved difficult for the Government. The Minister needs to explain how he will turn that around, given the current estimates. Let me give just three examples. There are still 7,000 fewer prison officers today than there were eight years ago. The Government are now trying to increase the number of prison officers as a whole, but however many they increase it by, there will still be fewer officers to deal with the same number of prisoners we had eight years ago. The number of assaults on prisoners increased last year by 11%—to over 29,000. At more than 80 per day, that is the highest number of assaults since records began. The number of serious assaults on prisoners increased by 10%, which is the highest level since records began, and the number of assaults on staff increased by 23% over the past year. The number of serious assaults on staff reached 864 in 2017, which is the highest number since records began.
Those indicators are in part the result of underfunding, so it is important that the Minister explains how he will turn the prison system around, particularly with regard to prison numbers, prison officer engagement, training and employment schemes, and meeting his aspirations of having a cohort of six prisoners per officer. The budget is already down by 40%, and it will decrease still further over the next few years. The rate of self-harm—there were 44,651 incidents in 2017—is now at its highest since records began.
What is the Minister going to do to turn that situation around at a time of less resources? Eight prisons are currently in special measures. Within those cohorts—given the time available, I will not expand in great detail—we face some real challenges. He talked last week about the potential expense of Carillion’s collapse for the Ministry of Justice. We have heard about his back to basics campaign, in which he wants to increase investment and focus on the condition of cells and maintenance, but I would like to know how he will do that within the terms of the estimates.
A little over a week ago, the Justice Committee, ably chaired by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, published its “Transforming Rehabilitation” report. It is particularly important that in this estimates debate the Minister touches on what he will do about probation through-the-gate provision, community rehabilitation companies and transforming rehabilitation. I could spend the next hour reading the recommendations of “Transforming Rehabilitation”, which points to massive failures of contract management, massive subsidies of public money for no definitive outcomes, and massive mistakes by Minister in managing contracts. The question prompted by the estimates is: what is the Minister going to do about that?
When the Minister was questioned by the Committee last week, he teased us by saying he might reduce the number of community rehabilitation companies in the next few months and would make an announcement before the end of July. Press speculation last week said the reduction would be from 21 to 14. Current contracts for community rehabilitation companies last until 2022, and the Minister teased us with the possibility of the end of those contracts in 2020.
It does not take a genius to know that the contracts are not performing well. The Minister’s Department bunged the companies more than £400 million last August to shore them up because of failures of the contract mechanism. This is an estimates debate, so the Minister needs to explain to the House what he sees as the future of community rehabilitation companies, how he sees the funding mechanisms, whether those funding mechanisms impact on the estimates before us, and how the companies will operate in the period up to the next comprehensive spending review. He needs to set out to the Committee what he will say to the Treasury about the estimates that he and his own chief financial officer admitted last week are difficult, but are not yet cemented down for the comprehensive spending review from 2018 to 2022.
This matters because it is, as the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) indicated, about public safety. It is about preventing crime, rehabilitating offenders, reducing offending and making our society safer. This is not so much an estimates debate as a “how are we going to do it?” debate. How are we going to make the improvements the Prison Service needs? How are we going to make the necessary comprehensive improvements to CRCs? The Minister has a duty to the House to set that out now in this debate.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson).
Justice could not be more important and it is fundamental to what it means to be British. Why do I say that? One only has to look at Department for Education guidance on the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect of and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs. If we look further at the understanding the Department wants to promote and the values it wants to engender in young people, it states:
“An appreciation that living under the rule of law protects individual citizens and is essential for their wellbeing and safety”.
In other words, the rule of law is not just some arcane phrase beloved of lawyers; it is about concrete rights that ordinary human beings and citizens in our country are entitled to enforce.
The rule of law and the principles we hold dear represent one of our most precious exports: the common law system. Yet surely there has never been a greater gap between the importance of an issue and its political profile —not under this Government or any other Government specifically, but as a general position. Issues of the law do not tend to move the dial politically in the same way as the NHS or education. That is a really important point, because it is incumbent on us in this place to make those arguments. The truth is that respect for justice is culturally ingrained through such things as the strength of our jury system. There is a collective common sense among the British people that rails against injustice wherever they see it, whether it is in the cases of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four or, more recently, Liam Allan. The British people are appalled when they see injustice, yet there is a disconnect because it does not seem to enjoy the political profile that it should.
As this is an estimates debate, it is important that we consider funding. Governments must live within their means—that is absolutely right—but it is important to observe the total allocated for this budget, which we all recognise as so vital. The total annual managed expenditure of £7.36 billion for 2018-19 will be reduced in 2019-20 to £6.89 billion. To put that into context, the Treasury Red Book states total UK Government expenditure for the first of those two years as £809 billion. By my calculations, £7.36 billion out of £809 billion is less than 1%. The Department for Work and Pensions spends the equivalent of the entire Ministry of Justice budget in about 10 days. The total Department for International Development budget is about double the MOJ budget. The amount spent on aid to Syria alone—one country—of £2.3 billion is more than the entire legal aid budget. Those are sobering figures. I do not for a second doubt the Government’s sincerity when they say they want to prioritise the rule of law and access to justice, but that is none the less a startling suite of statistics. It is important that although this area does not necessarily have support within the media, it has its champions here in Parliament.
I just want to take issue with my hon. Friend slightly on the political saliency of some of these matters. I think all Members know that prisons, prison reform, rehabilitation and legal aid do carry weight with the public. What would he say to those who suggest that this area does have political significance, and that we need to make sure that Conservative Members are making the arguments for the reforms that we want?
The point is that it has significance when it goes wrong. People will assume that our justice system and our prisons are working absolutely fine, but if there are occasions when that is shown to be wrong, people have a sense of utter outrage. I do not think it is too grandiose to say that we have an instinctive respect for justice in this country. It is considered to be a British value, and people want to see that value in practice.
I want to make a few simple points. Without proper legal aid, rights become meaningless and the laws that frame them become redundant. We might metaphorically slap ourselves on the back and say we have done a wonderful job when we enact legislation, but unless rights can be upheld, they become redundant. As the Supreme Court put it:
“laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade.”
That is why it is vital that we ensure there is sufficient legal aid so that individuals are able to prosecute their rights.
When this Government came to office in 2010, it was entirely appropriate for them to have a look at the Ministry of Justice’s funding. It is also the case, however, that we must do what we can to ensure that access to justice is truly maintained. I know that a review into the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is taking place. That review will led by evidence, and I have every confidence that the Government will look at the matter with the seriousness it deserves, but it is important that by the end of the process we ensure that individuals are able to access justice and defend their rights. To be clear, this is not about esoteric high-falutin’ rights. This is about ensuring that individuals who have been wronged are able to get redress in the courts because, heaven forbid—I am not suggesting that this will come to pass for a moment—if people start to lose faith in their ability to seek redress in the courts, we can be absolutely sure what will happen: they will take their dispute outside the courts and that is the last thing we want.
I commend the Government for taking an extremely enlightened approach and ensuring there will be additional funding for criminal legal aid. That is important because it is such a precious resource to maintain. I declare an interest, for obvious reasons, but if ever there was a system that was properly set up to incentivise people to work hard, the Bar is it. People realise that if they want to get that next brief, they have to work to the nth degree to ensure that they are doing the best possible job, whether they are instructed by the CPS or defence solicitors.
Does my hon. Friend agree about the importance of the objectivity that properly experienced counsel on both sides bring to these matters, as has been seen demonstrated in a number of recent cases? That cannot be got on the cheap—and I must declare my interest as well.
Of course that is absolutely right. People who serve on a jury want to be satisfied that there is proper equality of arms. Again, that is not a high-falutin’ principle. They want to ensure that there is a proper prosecutor and proper defence counsel, because juries have an excellent way of providing justice if they think that others will not. What do I mean by that? Anecdotally, prosecuting counsel will say that the worst thing that can happen to them is to find that the defence counsel is simply ill-prepared or has been inadequately resourced, because juries may then seek to acquit defendants who ought otherwise to be convicted because they perceive that that individual has not had a proper defence.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) made some pointed remarks about the conditions in our prisons. He was absolutely right to do so, but we have to recognise that keeping people in custody is an immensely expensive business. We want to ensure that we can do all the things that are important—ensure that there is access to justice and that people can properly safeguard their rights—but we have to recognise that if there is a shrinking budget and a similar number of people in custody, there is every risk that what gets squeezed is the remaining parts of the budget, which covers issues such as legal aid.
The UK—I refer to that country specifically, rather than England and Wales—incarcerates in the order of 95,000 people. In Germany, the figure is a little over 60,000, as is the case in France. In other words, compared with other countries, apart from Russia and a small number of others, the United Kingdom incarcerates a higher proportion of people, so we should do away with the argument that is sometimes peddled in certain newspapers that we are somehow soft on crime. Nothing could be further than the truth. We incarcerate a high proportion of our citizens, relatively speaking.
We have to deal with some hard truths in this estimates debate, and one of those is how many people this country can afford to put in prison. It is all very well for politicians on both sides of the House to talk tough, but we have to recognise that a cost comes with that. If that cost is too high, it will crowd out something that is intensely precious to who we are as a country: the rule of law, access to justice and the freedom of individuals. Those are principles worth preserving.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and particularly to follow the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who said a great deal with which I agree. As we have heard, the cuts that the Ministry of Justice has suffered over the last eight years have been particularly harsh and have led to a crisis of safety in some of our prisons, and, given the scathing report that the Justice Committee produced last week on the transforming rehabilitation programme, there is much to be very concerned about.
However, I want to welcome the announcement last week of the female offender strategy, with its focus on the complex factors that act as a backdrop to female offending. I particularly welcome the decision not to build new women’s prisons. Many of us, including campaigners and others in this House and in the other place, repeatedly pleaded with Ministers not to do that, and it is really encouraging that they have taken the decision to concentrate on community solutions, which have been shown to be more effective in reducing reoffending and do less damage to women, families and communities.
The whole-system approach that Ministers wish to take offers a real opportunity to see women not through the lens of “offenders”, but as women who have a complex range of social and economic needs that require multi-faceted solutions. If the strategy is to be effective, it is absolutely vital that they are seen in that way, because key to the whole-system approach’s success is bringing on board all the agencies, not just from the criminal justice system but from local government, health, education, employment and so on. If we look at women through that lens—that they have a complex range of needs that need to be met by a range of agencies—we will have a more effective strategy.
I have to say, having welcomed the strategy, which I do, that the funding for the women’s centres seems on the low side, especially compared with the savings that the Department will now make by not building the new prisons. Sadly, those savings appear to be flowing right back into the Treasury for the most part, which is a real missed opportunity for justice reinvestment. Although I welcome the fact that the settlement will benefit new provision in the women’s centres, it is very important that Ministers place on a sustainable basis, now and for the future, funding for all women’s centres—existing and new, and those with residential accommodation and those without it. Up to now, we have seen a patchwork of charitable, local and some community rehabilitation company funding. We really need a funding model to ensure that the women’s centre model is secure and stable if it is to succeed, as it can, into the future.
We have heard quite a lot about the transforming rehabilitation programme this evening. I was particularly interested that the Justice Committee declined in its report to say very much about women’s experience of transforming rehabilitation, pending the publication of the female offender strategy. I can say, however, from what I have heard from my women’s centre in Manchester, that funding women’s centres through the CRCs is unlikely to be a very effective way of spending money. It will not foster good practice because we can see already that the CRCs are struggling to offer very well designed and specialist programmes for women.
Indeed, the evidence that I have seen so far suggests that transforming rehabilitation has not been very effective for women offenders. A lack of specialist programmes means that if one programme does not work, there is no alternative to try that has been particularly designed for women. There is often an emphasis on group work, which, while it has its place, is not suitable for all women in all circumstances. Not all CRCs are willing to work with or commission provision from their local women’s centres, and as we also know, the certainty about the future contracts held by the CRCs is now in question. The Minister has indicated that he will review those contracts early, so it is not even clear that all these CRCs will continue to the end of this estimates period. I therefore urge Ministers to look carefully at putting this new funding directly into women’s centres and not through the medium of the CRCs, because I think that will prove more effective.
The hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) raised the issue of post-release supervision, of which I was originally a great fan—it is probably the only aspect of transforming rehabilitation of which I was a great fan—but which I have to say, for offenders being released after short custodial sentences, has really not worked out in practice. The incidence of breaches and recalls has been much higher than we expected. That is putting more pressure on the prison system. Women again face particular challenges with a model that makes it more likely that they will not comply and face breach proceedings —for example, childcare may break down or they may be coerced into not attending an appointment. That means that we are seeing a higher incidence of women being returned to custody because of a breach. Will the Minister look carefully at what opportunities there may be to revisit this model? I do not think that anybody’s intention could have been that more supervision post-release would result in more women being returned more often to prison. That cannot have been the intention.
In support of what other colleagues have said, I think there is much more work to be done on the through-the-gate model. Indeed, it is often non-existent at present. The Minister suggested in his evidence to the Justice Committee that through-the-gate had never been seen as being anything more than some signposting of other services in the community. I do not think that is the impression that any of us was given when the transforming rehabilitation model was first proposed to us. We were led to expect something much richer, but in any event, it will be a real missed opportunity if Ministers do not now design women’s centres not just to be places of diversion away from custody but to have a key role as reception institutions for women who are released from custody. This happens now with my women’s centre, which has a very close relationship with Styal prison. It is really important that Ministers now define very clearly and carefully how they see that women’s centre function meeting at the gate, and working through the gate, women who are being released from short sentences.
I have two final points. First, I welcome the further work that is to be done by Lord Farmer on family visits, but I just mention to Ministers that if it is correct that, as I have been told, family visits to approved premises are not being facilitated in the way that they are to prisons, that is ridiculous and nonsensical. Finally, the female offender strategy says some women would prefer video links to returning to court, and that may be true, but we should proceed with caution. As Transform Justice has shown, understanding, engagement and interpersonal dynamics are all affected when the offender is not present in the court room.
In conclusion, I hope that the courts Bill, which we still await, will properly address those concerns. There are issues that the all-party group on women in the penal system, in particular, would like to discuss further with Ministers.
Order. I am sorry but I have to impose a five-minute time limit on speeches.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) said it was the duty of a Government to protect their people, and obviously that is the case with prison, which ultimately serves two purposes: to remove freedom from criminals and therefore their opportunity to reoffend, and then to work with them so that they do not reoffend after they leave.
I spent the first 35 years of my life at one end of the spectrum, firmly believing that prison worked simply by removing criminals from circulation, and I thought it the best place for them. Immediately before becoming an MP, I went to work for YMCA Birmingham, which has accommodation for 300 formerly young homeless people and a 72-bed hostel in Northfield that typically serves as a place for people leaving prison to stay. We always ensured that senior members of staff were based at our various accommodation sites across the city, where we had an opportunity to meet residents every day, speak to them and understand their stories.
From that experience, it became much clearer to me that this was a more complex problem. My boss decided it would be appropriate for me to attend the Meridian course with an organisation called Common Purpose, and that gave us the opportunity to go into prisons and see the problem at first hand. We visited Featherstone Prison and Leicester Prison. It was at Leicester Prison in particular that I became aware of the challenge. Ralph Lubkowksi, one of the deputy governors at the time, took us round the prison and explained some of the challenges—for example, preparing the menu for Christmas day: if it sounds too indulgent, the press say, “These dreadful prisoners are being looked after too luxuriously”, and on a budget of about £2.20 per inmate per day for three meals.
Not only does the governor have the complex task of managing behaviour and rehabilitation, but he has to run a small town on a very tight budget. Leicester Prison, which was opened in 1828, has 300 inmates—a very small village, shall we say; it is clearly a restricted site in the middle of Leicester. What are the challenges facing the governor? I understand that about 24% of the prison population has been in the care system, compared with a figure of 2% nationally, and that the typical reading age of a prisoner is 11. Clearly, this is very challenging stuff.
What are the Government going to do about it? For one, they are investing in the unlocked graduate programme, which is trying to entice the brightest and best graduates into the prison service to work as prison wardens and with prisoners to understand how they might break that cycle of reoffending. The idea is that they study for a two-year masters degree, fully funded, so that they might apply their thinking to a problem that has caused some difficulty. The reoffending rates of 44%, rising to 56% for those with less than a 12-month sentence, are not new; historically, they have remained largely unchanged.
The other thing we can do to check reoffending is to support the “Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, which has a specific item in it about how prisons should put families at the heart of breaking the reoffending cycle. We know that those who leave prison with families to go back to are much less likely to reoffend. I completely understand the maxim “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, but let us understand that the causes of crime can go back some 20 years before an offence is committed.
The primary role of prison must be to keep the public safe, and to achieve that sustainably we must keep prison officers and prison staff safe, but, as was highlighted by the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), since 2007 the number of assaults on prison staff has more than doubled while the number of prosecutions has remained very small. We need to put the law firmly on the side of those who protect us, whether through the private Member’s Bill being steered through the House by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill, or another legislative vehicle.
As this is an estimates day debate, I should mention that we must also consider ways in the current legislative framework to protect prison officers and prison staff and to reduce the number of assaults, whether on staff or other inmates. Evidence shows a strong correlation, at the very least, between the rise in the number of assaults and the increase in the use of psychoactive substances in our prisons, so I welcome the investment in tackling access to such substances and—linked to that—the threats posed by mobile devices in prisons and the use of drones around them.
Ultimately, our prisons should be places where staff and offenders are safe and prisoners are challenged and supported to make the most effective use of their time in custody and to better prepare themselves for when they leave prison. The £100 million investment in recruiting 2,500 extra prison officers will make possible the roll-out of the new offender management in custody model, which will improve how offenders are managed from the moment they enter prison until their release. The scheme will tackle reoffending and should help to keep staff in our prisons safer. Similarly, a key workers scheme has been developed to enable prison officers to case-manage between six and 10 prisoners, supporting and encouraging them to address their offending behaviour and to lead productive lives both while in prison and particularly once released.
Prisons need to be places of reform and rehabilitation, but we should remember that incarceration is a punishment for people who commit serious crimes. The people who work there must be protected and any risk to them minimised. While there will never be such a thing as low risk in our prisons, there is certainly such as thing as lower risk, and that risk must always be managed and, where possible, reduced. Our jails must become places of safety, discipline and hard work, places where people are helped to turn their lives around. To achieve that, we must protect those who dedicate their lives to keeping us safe.
In preparing for this debate, I went to the Ministry of Justice website to look at its strategic priorities, and one of them is for a global Britain that promotes the rule of law.
Those of us interested in the rule of law know that Lord Bingham’s eight principles of the rule of law include that it must afford adequate protection of fundamental human rights. Last Thursday, I attended a workshop in Geneva under the auspices of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The purpose of the workshop was to discuss and share experiences of human rights monitoring within Parliaments across the world. My remit was to speak about the work of the Joint Committee on Human Rights in this Parliament, of which I am a member, and the Equality and Human Rights Committee at the Scottish Parliament.
I regret to say that it was clear to me from some of the soundings that I took while I was in Geneva that the UK’s impending withdrawal from the European Union, this Parliament’s rejection of the charter of fundamental rights and the Windrush scandal had severely dented international opinion about respect for human rights in the UK. I know that those concerns are shared by my colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, which, unlike this one, has voted to keep the charter after we leave the EU. I also know that they are shared by Members from all parties in the House. Indeed, last week’s damning report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the detention of the Windrush generation is an important example of Members on both sides of the House—from all parties and, in the case of peers, from no party—coming together to draw attention to an abuse of human rights that was perpetrated in this country by a Department.
Today, however, we must focus on finance and budgets. Another facet of the rule of law is access to justice. Lord Bingham said that the law should provide that access, especially when people could not resolve interpersonal disputes themselves. Others who have spoken today have touched on the provision of legal aid in England and Wales. I want to take the time that I have left to draw attention to a recent review of the legal aid system in Scotland, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government. It was not an internal review, like the UK Government’s review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, but an independent strategic review that looked at the current system and made recommendations for the future.
The review found that although the Scottish Government spend less per capita on legal aid than the UK Government spend in England and Wales, the scope of legal aid in Scotland is broader and a larger percentage of the population is eligible. At this point, I should perhaps declare an interest. At present, I am a non-practising member of the Scottish Bar, but I have done a great deal of legal aid work in the past. I know that lawyers like to moan from time to time that the rates are not as lucrative as they may be in other fields of work, but that is probably inevitable.
The report of the review shows the contrast between what is done with a smaller budget in Scotland and what happens in England and Wales. According to last year’s figures from the Ministry of Justice, legal aid expenditure in England and Wales has been cut from £2.51 billion to £1.55 billion in real terms in a few short years. In England, that has led to a substantial reduction in the scope of family, social welfare, debt, housing and immigration cases. We do not have the same problem in Scotland: although we are spending less per capita, legal aid is still available for such cases.
The report compares publicly funded legal assistance in Scotland with that in other European countries. On page 16, the author explains that it is difficult to do that, because legal systems are different in different countries, and there are differences between jurisdictions. However, it is possible to provide a general comparison between the Scottish legal aid programme and those in other European countries. In 2002, the Council of Europe established the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice, which publishes biennial detailed comparisons of the justice systems of the 47 Council of Europe members.
The review examined three key areas of legal aid to compare the service in Scotland with those in other jurisdictions: scope, eligibility and cost. In relation to scope, it found that the provision of criminal legal aid in Scotland compared very well with other systems. In almost all criminal cases prosecuted before a jury, the accused will receive legal aid, which, potentially, will pay for the best criminal defence lawyers available. When it comes to civil legal aid, the scope in Scotland is broader than those in many other jurisdictions, with comparatively few areas excluded. As for eligibility, approximately 70% of the Scottish population are eligible, on the basis of income, for a degree of civil legal aid to fund at least part of their actions. That is one of the highest levels of eligibility in Europe. As regards cost, Scotland’s expenditure per capita exceeds €30. The European average is €9, and the median is €2. The figure in England and Wales is €38.14, and in Scotland it is €33.28.
Scotland is one of the leading jurisdictions in Europe in the provision of legal aid on the basis of scope, eligibility and expenditure. Internationally, its legal aid programme is also recognised for its independence from the Government and the public accountability of its legal aid authority. I draw attention to that because, sadly, in the past few years—there have been many speeches about this in the House, and I am sure that there will be more during the evening—there has been much criticism of LASPO. In 2016, Amnesty International said that cuts under the 2012 Act had created a two-tier justice system in England and Wales. Earlier this year, a Ministry of Justice report, leaked and then reluctantly released, told of judges’ concern about the number of people facing criminal charges without a lawyer in England and Wales.
I have drawn attention to the legal aid system in Scotland not because it is perfect—indeed, the independent strategic review suggested changes—but because it shows that with less spending per capita, it provides wider eligibility and a far wider scope.
Is the hon. and learned Lady’s experience from Scotland that broadening access to early advice and assistance can help litigants to understand the strengths and weaknesses of potential litigation and perhaps even to decide not to pursue it?
Absolutely. I think that in any system, early access to a lawyer, before the litigation stage and before parties become entrenched, is vital.
I must draw my speech to a close, because I am conscious of time. I have three questions for the Minister. Does he agree that the Scottish experience shows that, with less spending per capita, it is possible for legal aid to involve a wider scope and more eligibility? Will he look to the Scottish example? Will he consider commissioning, rather than an in-house review of LASPO, an independent strategic review of legal aid in England and Wales similar to the one commissioned by the Scottish Government?
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making the debate possible.
The House needs to give much more scrutiny to the Ministry of Justice. The changes that are under way are unprecedented, threatening access to justice and even to the rule of law. Our justice system has two key functions: to defend our hard-won rights and the rule of law and to help to keep communities safer with fewer victims of crime. Tory cuts are undermining both those functions. By the end of this decade, the Ministry’s budget will have been slashed by 40%, more than the budget of any other Department. In cash terms, that is nearly £4 billion a year, and it explains the crisis that is afflicting our justice system.
The estimate that we are debating shows that cuts amounting to hundreds of millions more are to come. That risks turning the current crisis into a full-blown emergency. Much of what we value in our justice system is being sacrificed on the altar of free-market dogma, austerity and privatisation. No doubt, we will hear excuses for the cuts this evening, but it was a political choice. We have just marked the eighth anniversary of the infamous emergency Budget from the now editor of the loss-making Evening Standard, which led to tax cuts for corporations worth £110 billion alone, but to public service cuts for everyone else.
The Tories thought that the MOJ cuts would be cost-free—out of sight, out of mind—but that is not true. There are real human costs. A single mother battling a dodgy landlord can no longer obtain legal support. A young family who are forced to skip meals after a flawed benefits decision can no longer get help from their law centre, which has been shut down. A migrant—or even a person who looks like a migrant to some—faces deportation without legal advice. A young worker cannot afford to take an exploitative boss to an employment tribunal because of the unlawful fees imposed by the Tories.
I am sure that we are all enjoying the debate, but must the hon. Gentleman not accept that in 2010 his party’s Government left the country with a deficit of £150 billion—which, by the way, is about 20 times the entire Ministry of Justice budget? Does he not want to take some responsibility for that?
The Conservatives need to take responsibility for their giveaway to billionaires. If balancing the books is so important, why give billions away to those people?
Whole communities are affected by rising crime, because under the privatised probation system offenders are bizarrely dealt with over the phone. Young people are threatened by street violence because of the Government’s decision to cut Youth Justice Board funding in half. On this side of the House, we will be fighting every single one of the cuts that the Government plan for the justice system over the next period, because we cannot do justice on the cheap. Our communities should not pay the price.
Turning to prisons, the Conservatives recklessly axed nearly 7,000 prison officers from 2010. These layoffs are the root cause of much of the unprecedented levels of violence and chaos in our prisons. Faced with a crisis of their own making, the Government have recruited 3,000 new officers over the past 18 months, yet there are still over 4,000 fewer frontline officers now than in 2010.
There is no clarity on whether there is extra money to recruit any more officers. If so, how much? Are the Government committing to reversing all the prison officer posts cut since 2010? If not, how many new officers will be recruited by 2020, and when will they be on the landings? In short, when will there be sufficient staffing to keep both inmates and staff safe?
This is not just a simple numbers game. Officers with many tens of thousands of years of collective experience have been lost since 2010. That is creating a dangerous cocktail of inexperienced officers and experienced prisoners. What is the Government strategy to end this exodus of experienced officers from our prisons? This year’s real-terms pay cut of £980 a year will only make retention more difficult. Do the Government have any intention of ending below-inflation pay awards for prison officers? Labour would do so.
What about the new female offender strategy? Good ideas, and even good intentions, are not enough. Even the Minister’s former ministerial colleague has said this strategy is not properly funded. The Government’s own advisers say this plan faces a £15 million shortfall. With no serious funding, it risks being yet another missed opportunity for reform. Likewise, the Government’s new education and employment strategy seems to be based on governors doing more with less—another recipe for failure.
As the prisons budgets are cut, the push for outsourcing and privatisation increases. Some people might even suggest that that is the intention. It is clear that we cannot hand over huge swathes of the justice system to mega-corporations and expect anything other than profit to be put first. We need only look at Serco’s role in ripping off the public by overcharging for tagging prisoners, including dead prisoners. That is so serious that there is an ongoing Serious Fraud Office investigation against Serco, yet it somehow continues to have £3.6 billion-worth of contracts with the Ministry of Justice; given the new Justice Minister’s previous role as spin-doctor-in-chief at Serco that is something we will all need to be shining a light on.
Beyond Serco, public cash was thrown at Amey and Carillion for prison maintenance works despite cells being rat-infested and left in disrepair. And beyond Serco, the Sodexo-run Peterborough Prison recently became the first women’s prison in years deemed not safe enough by inspectors, and the G4S Oakhill child prison is no better, yet last week the Government announced yet another privately financed prison and are preparing the ground for more to follow. So I want to make one thing clear to the Government and to those who wish to bid for any new private prisons: a Labour Government will end the discredited outsourcing of prison maintenance works and bring them back in house. We will oppose the building of more private prisons. We will put an end to the wasteful scandal of PFI in our prison system. And we will use every power possible to bring the work of underperforming private sector companies in our prisons back in-house at the earliest opportunity.
Of course, the Tory privatisation of probation has not just put the public at greater risk, but has left the taxpayer out of pocket, just as we warned it would. The Select Committee on Justice recently labelled this part-privatisation a “mess”, yet the companies delivering this mess received £342 million in a bail-out last year. Imagine what we could have done to transform our justice system with those resources, instead of giving them to line the pockets of private companies.
Press reports suggest even more changes to the contracts to boost the profits of the private companies. We in the Opposition will oppose that all the way. The Government should stop rewarding failure. They should commit today that not one penny more will go on bailing out these failing companies, and then they should terminate their contracts. Probation should be brought back in-house where it can focus on reoffending rather than making profits for private companies.
Justice and access to justice have been seriously undermined by the Tory cuts agenda. With sweeping cuts to legal aid, this cruel Tory Government are not only attacking people’s living standards but deliberately undermining their ability to defend themselves against those very same attacks. When people cannot afford to enforce their rights, those rights are worth nothing more than the paper they are written on—so much for equality before the law.
At last, the Government have launched a review of their legal aid polices, but if they are serious about reversing the damage, proper funding is needed. That means new Treasury money, not more rearranging of the deckchairs. We need to fund legal aid properly; we need to value legal aid and access to justice.
Finally, I raise our concerns about the funding of our courts. A £1 billion-plus courts reform programme is under way that will fundamentally change the way justice is delivered in this country, but it is being done with no real piloting, with no parliamentary or public scrutiny, and without legislation, and with financial decisions that could lead to long-term costs for our justice system—and it seems that it is in danger of coming off the tracks.
May I begin by thanking colleagues for their contributions? It is very striking in justice debates how much learning and experience there is around the House; almost every Member who has spoken is either a distinguished ex-prisons Minister or has worked as a solicitor or criminal barrister, and brings deep passion to their work. I also want briefly to pay tribute to the fact that this debate has generally, with perhaps a single exception, been conducted in a very practical, non-ideological, focused fashion, with great charm and commitment and a deep and pragmatic understanding of the individual issues, without lapsing in any way into lazy clichés or any slogans prepared perhaps for YouTube. I also want to thank the officials whose work underlies most of this debate. We owe a huge debt of gratitude, as many have pointed out, to our judiciary, in particular the criminal Bar, which underpins a lot of the respect in which Britain is held throughout the world.
On prisons, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) who kindly picked out Amy Rees and Russ Trent for the work they have done in communicating their work in Berwyn, and also to the prison officers on the landing, who my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) pointed out are taking on the most extraordinarily challenging and often very dangerous job, day in, day out.
The core of this debate, however, was set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill): the fundamental paradox at the heart of this discussion that, on one hand, justice is not a transaction, but on the other hand, it is demand-led. Somewhere between the deep values of justice—the values that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) connected so exactly to our national identity—and the constraints imposed by population and funding lie many of the problems that Members have touched on today.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) talked, in a very valuable speech, about many of the problems and challenges in our justice system; my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham extended them to the courts system; the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) found many of those issues within probation; and again the right hon. Gentleman connected this forensically to the questions within both the main estimates and the supplementary estimates over the past four years. I would of course, as expected, want to point out that there have been some elements of progress and some things we should be proud of, but I will come back to the challenges towards the end of my speech, and in particular to the comments of the right hon. Gentleman, who rightly asked how we are going to deal with them; I will wish to finish on that practical question.
First, however, I want to talk about the achievements. A number of things have happened. One of them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) pointed out, is the transformation in the supervision of offenders on short-term sentences, and in particular, in the supervision of an extra 40,000 offenders during the first 12 months after leaving a short-term custody. The hon. Member for Wrexham used the example of Berwyn to highlight the development of the new prison programme and the 10,000 new places that will be provided through those prisons, with public capital coming forward for the prison in Wellingborough and a private finance initiative for the prison at Glen Parva. Those new prison places, which will ultimately house 20,000 prisoners, will make a huge difference. It is often tawdry buildings—some of them Victorian, some of them more recently built—that underlie the real problems relating to dignity, cleanliness and everyday life that contribute directly to violence.
May I point out to the Minister that Berwyn is a public sector prison that was delivered on budget and on time, and in which a lot of hope is invested? Why have the Government excluded the public sector from tendering for the new prisons that he is referred to?
Wellingborough will be built with public capital. Glen Parva, on the other hand, will be a private finance initiative. We believe in having a mixed economy. That is partly because we think that there are things we can learn from the private sector. The public sector remains the core of our prison estate, and we owe the sector an enormous debt of gratitude, but in Thameside, Altcourse, Park and elsewhere, we have learned about family centres and about technology—particularly in Thameside, with the use of in-cell telephony and computers. At Altcourse, we have learned a great deal about workshops and employment. There is a great deal that we can learn from each other.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston was kind enough to pick out some of the positive elements in the female offender strategy, and I would like to take this opportunity of welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) to his place. I think that he will do an enormous amount for the youth estate, for female offenders, and for the general principle, which we all support across the House, that women should not be in custody unless it is absolutely necessary. We have also made progress, through Lord Farmer, in our approach to families. In the past two weeks, we have achieved smoke-free prisons, and we have now managed to announce new policies on scanners for intercepting drugs, of which I am proud.
We also have 2,500 extra prison officers, which we have perhaps spoken about too much in this House, but they are important because they drive our ability to deliver the key worker system. That system will involve a relationship between one prison officer and six prisoners, and for at least 45 minutes a week, an individual conversation about a prisoner’s sentence plan and education plan. That will be an important element in bringing decency and reducing violence. Body-worn cameras and doubling the sentences for people attacking prison officers will also be an important part of restoring some of the civility and decency that we need in order to bring about rehabilitation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) pointed out.
I wish to conclude by addressing the question posed by the right hon. Member for Delyn. He asked how we were going to do all that in a tight financial situation. From my point of view, the answer is that there are of course no silver bullets. Everyone in this Chamber, on both sides, has enormous experience of the system that has existed in this country for a very long time. In fact, there is a prison in my constituency that is almost 2,000 years old; it is a Roman prison. There are no simple answers to the question of how we balance punishing someone and isolating them from the public with doing the difficult work of turning around their life and preventing reoffending.
However, the central lesson—which my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) put his finger on—is training. In the end, this is going to come down to the individual relationship between the prison officer and the prisoner. It is going to come down to the confidence they have to unlock their prisoner, to how they deal with violence and assaults, to how they push towards reoffending and to how they develop in their everyday engagements such as a decision on a telephone call, on a blanket or on a family visit. It is going to come down to the sense of trust and predictability that will ultimately turn around the lives of prisoners. More than 40% of our prisoners have come out of care. More than 50% have been excluded from school. Similarly, more than 50% have not achieved the reading level of an 11-year-old. It is going to take patience and resilience to turn that around.
This training cannot just be about super-governors parachuting in to turn around troubled prisoners and then leaving, only for the system to collapse again. A resilient system is one in which the uniformed prison officers at band 3, band 4 and band 5, in their pride, their purposefulness and their courage, will demonstrate that they can achieve remarkable things. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) highlighted this achievement in Perth prison, which is an extraordinary example of a decent regime being run in a tough local prison in Scotland. Prisons in this country are already achieving remarkable things in places such as Dartmoor and Altcourse, and even in some of the toughest prisons such as Leeds. If we can get those elements of training and leadership together, I believe that even in a tough financial climate, with all the pressures of the financial crisis and with all that we owe the national health and education systems, we can deliver a prison system that works for prisoners and ultimately protects the public.
This has been a most useful and well-informed debate. I am grateful to the Minister for his response, and we will undoubtedly return to a number of these matters, both with him and with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), whom I and my Committee members also welcome. I value the comments that have been made. It is right that we are ambitious and bold and have breadth of vision, and it is also right that we are practical. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) referred in his powerful speech to the importance of family. As a practical measure, to demonstrate breadth of vision, and relating to estimates, perhaps the Ministry will look again at the reduction of £250,000 in support for the family drug and alcohol court’s national unit, which has been described by Sir James Munby, the president of the Family Division, as the most significant development in family law for 40 years. For the sake of saving £250,000 out of the departmental spending limit of £6.9 billion, it would be a shame to lose the vision that those courts and other initiatives bring.
Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54).