[Relevant documents: Twelfth Report of the Justice Committee on Criminal Legal Aid, HC1069; and Sixteenth Report of the Justice Committee on Prison population 2022: planning for the future, HC483.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the spending of the Ministry of Justice.
It is a pleasure to open this debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating it, and my colleagues on the Justice Select Committee who are in attendance today. May I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), to his place on the Front Bench for the first time? It was good to see him at the opening of the legal year, although I hope there was not too much information overload from the practitioners he met. He is a fairly close London MP neighbour of mine, as well as a good friend, and I hope that this is the start of a long career on the Treasury Bench for him.
The Ministry of Justice has a portfolio that is varied, frequently overlooked and frequently under-appreciated. It employs—directly or indirectly—some immensely dedicated, talented and brave people, who frequently do not get the credit they deserve, but the work that it does is fundamental to any civilised society. The tests of a civilised society include how we deal with those who break the rules and offend; how we try constructively to prevent that; how we protect the public from further harm; and how, whenever possible, we seek to rehabilitate and turn around those who have transgressed, to make their life better.
That key part of the Ministry’s work largely relates to the criminal justice system, but the Ministry also deals with another part of the justice system and of our court system: access to justice in matters of civil and family litigation, and the myriad types of cases that go through the tribunals. All those are a key part of our social infrastructure, too. There is no point having rights if we cannot access them. Providing the means of accessing those rights, and of seeking redress when wrong is done, is equally important. That is sometimes overlooked a little in these debates.
The difficulty that the Ministry and all Ministers contend with is that it is a downstream Department: it inherits the consequences of things that started to go wrong much earlier in an individual’s life or career, and of things that went wrong under the remit of agencies outside the control of the Ministry. It therefore has greater pressures on it, and in many ways it cannot control those pressures.
Also, the Ministry is an unprotected Department. For a number of years, our Select Committee’s concern has been that the Department runs the risk of being in a near-perfect storm in that regard. I therefore welcome the Chancellor’s statement only the other week, which added significant sums of money back into the justice system. That is much needed. As we are able to open up spending a little in a careful and targeted way in areas where it can make a difference, we will bang the drum loudly for the justice system getting its fair share of that. I hope it will be recognised that spending should not be used as a sticking plaster: there should be opportunity for significant reform so that we spend the money more effectively and more cleverly. The most obvious example of that is the situation in our prisons.
On Monday nights when we are not in a packed Chamber, as we have been for the past couple of weeks, Members will I hope have had the opportunity to watch the Channel 4 documentary “Crime and Punishment”; if they have not, they can find it on Catch Up. It is a profoundly disturbing but very effective documentary by highly experienced journalists. What it found did not come as a surprise to any of us on the Select Committee, who have visited prisons over a number of years and seen the conditions there. The documentary focuses on HMP Winchester, which ended up in special measures quite early on in the series.
In the documentary, we see brave, dedicated prison officers struggling in almost impossible circumstances, in a crumbling Victorian building. They try to deal with people with a background of serious issues—violence; addiction or abuse of drugs, particularly new psychoactive substances; and real issues of mental ill health and self-harm. These are people who have committed crimes and are a threat to themselves as well as to the staff who are tasked by the state with keeping them in custody. They deserve better. We have a real concern that spend at the moment does not enable prisons to offer the safe environment that they ought to, as a basic. The previous Minister with responsibility for prisons, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), very much recognised that, as does the current one, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), and the Secretary of State.
We need to get out of the vicious circle whereby we imprison more people than any other country in western Europe, but also have some of the worst reoffending rates. We are unable to turn lives around as much as we should, and, as a result, reoffending costs the economy about £18.1 billion, through direct economic, and indirect social and then economic, costs; we ought not to forget that. That is not a wise use of money. We need to get things safe, first of all.
I am glad to see that money has been put into the recruitment of more prison officers, which is critical. Of course, we must remember that getting experienced prison officers take some time, and one of the really worrying things in the documentary was the number of dedicated young people who came into the service—a young prison officer called Ellie has been referred to quite a lot on Twitter—who do their level best and then leave. One young lad gets “potted” on more than one occasion, which means that the contents of the slopping-out pot—faeces and urine—are thrown over him. He is probably getting paid less than a barista would do in some parts of the south-east. What concerned me was that there did not even appear to be a proper exit interview for those people. We need a much more systematic strategy, as our Select Committee has suggested, for not only the recruitment but the retention of prison staff and experienced people. Money is part of that, but joining things up is critical.
While there has been a significant increase in the resource departmental expenditure limit budget, we also need significant capital spending. The estate has deteriorated appallingly, and the prison maintenance backlog now runs to many hundreds of millions of pounds. That cannot be sustainable, so I hope that the Government will, in addition to this year’s initial money, set out a greater programme both for the human side of prison assets and for the estate side. Many of us regret that the disposal programme has stalled somewhat, and that also needs to be looked at again.
I understand the reasons behind the Government’s desire to spend more money on catching criminals, recruiting more police officers and recruiting more staff in the justice system, but all those things flow down. The more we spend on policing, the more criminals we catch, which may not be a bad thing in itself, but that will have a knock-on effect on the court system that has to try those criminals, and then in due course on the probation service, which has suffered difficulties over recent years. I welcome the bold, radical changes that the previous Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke), initiated in grasping the nettle of some failed contracts, and I welcome the changes to the prisons themselves. The money that has been offered this year is worth while, but it needs to be part of a much more holistic plan. The money is unprotected, so we have seen a major reduction since 2010 to about 40% of the Department’s budget. That is not sustainable, and it must start growing back as the economic circumstances permit, thanks to the success of our coming out of the economic mess that we inherited.
As for the courts budget, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has virtually staked the house on an ambitious programme of modernisation and on the introduction of technology. That is not a bad or undesirable thing in and of itself, but I am worried that too much reliance is being placed on the introduction of technology, because it is ambitious and, frankly, Governments of all shades do not have the best of track records on grand technological projects. I do not want it to be seen as the silver bullet, because it does not deal with the question of physical access to courts. Some 256 court facilities have closed over recent years. In some cases, that is understandable and legitimate, but we have to think very hard about how that enables vulnerable court users in particular to get to court.
Again, this is not just about criminals, victims and witnesses, because it applies to the civil side, where people may be party to stressful family litigation, for example, and may be going through bad times in their lives. For someone who has to go to court to deal with a possession hearing because they have got into debt and are about to lose their home, having actual physical access is important to them. We also must ensure that we have decent facilities where the hearing can take place.
As you and others may know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I practised for some 25-plus years in the criminal courts in the south-east of England. When I have visited the courts that I knew and was fond of in those days, I found conditions there pretty shocking now. For years—literally years—a corridor in the judge’s area of one of our major London Crown courts had a bucket to catch the drips from the ceiling. In the robing room at Southwark, the wall had not been repainted for so long that the telephone number scrawled up by the telephone—when people used those rather than mobiles—was still an old-fashioned number from before we had 0207 and 0208. That shows the lack of investment in our courts.
We cannot expect to recruit quality people to serve in our judiciary if they have to work in those conditions. A number of surveys have indicated concern about judicial morale. The principal issue is that judges often do not feel valued, and the working conditions are part of that. Neither is it fair to expect practitioners to be able to advise people properly if they do not have proper facilities to have a conference and instead have to try to find a corner in what might be a crowded room. We need much more significant investment in the day-to-day bricks and mortar of our Courts Service. The National Audit Office expressed concerns about the operation of the reform programme and noted the concerns about the growing maintenance backlog. We need to look at investment. We are prepared—I am glad to say that this is my party’s slogan—to “invest, invest, invest”. Investment in the structure and fabric of the system is massively important.
There are also places where a small amount of money would make a real difference. For example—this is the final thing I will say about courts—I welcome the work by the Criminal Bar Association to expose rather shocking statistics about the underuse of the court facilities we have. I used to practise quite a lot at places such as Chelmsford and Basildon. As of two days ago, only two out of five courts at Basildon, and only three out of six at Chelmsford, were sitting. The same applied not far away at St Albans, where two out of six courts were sitting. This is not the summer recess; this is the autumn, when our courts are normally at their busiest. At the same time, cases are being listed for trial in 2020 in relation to allegations from 2018. That is not just. There is truth in the old saying that justice delayed is justice denied. It is not fair on defendants or witnesses.
I regret to say that that is happening because of the arbitrary measures taken by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to limit the number of sitting days. We used to make up the slack in sitting days by having recorders—part-time, fee-paid judges—come and sit. Now, many recorders are not being asked to sit even the minimum number of days they are required to sit under their contracts. To my mind, that is pretty serious mismanagement by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, and I suspect our Committee may wish to look at that further. That cannot be right. That is not big money; it is just about clever use of the assets and resources we already have.
There are small things that would make a difference in other areas. Jurors are expected to come to court. A constituent of mine—one of my councillors—did jury service recently. The allowances we pay to jurors have not been updated in years. They actually end up out of pocket by the time they have forked out for their lunches. We cannot expect people to do a public duty and treat them in that way. That small change in a budget that, after all, is only 1% of total spend would make a difference to the quality of the outcome. The same applies to magistrates’ expenses. Magistrates are sometimes deterred from sitting in court centres distant from their homes because of the poor rates of expenses they get.
Putting more money into the legal aid system to ensure early access to legal advice in criminal, civil and family matters would not be a great cost in the overall scheme of things either. The Government have already shown a willingness to put more into the system. I urge them to continue with that, because access to legal aid often leads to the swifter resolution of cases: represented defendants’ cases are dealt with more swiftly, sounder advice is given, unmeritorious claims are not pursued, and meritorious ones are often resolved sooner. That would be investment to save in the long term.
I have given an overview, and I know other Members of the Committee will touch on general issues. Although this often is not the politically sexiest of topics, it is very important; it is as fundamental a part of our social services and our social fabric as anything else. That is why this chance to debate it and to hear the Minister’s response to some of the issues we raise is most welcome.
Order. We have seven speakers, so if everybody takes about eight minutes we should be able to get everyone in comfortably for the winding-up speeches.
May I welcome this debate, as well as the introductory remarks from the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)—in this case, he is my hon. Friend—who spoke on behalf of the Justice Committee? Like him, I pay tribute to staff who work throughout the justice system. Today’s estimates pay their wages, provide their conditions of work and give them the tools to do the job that I know they are committed to. Therefore, while exploring these estimates, I hope we can focus on some of the real challenges faced by those staff.
I welcome the Minister to his new job. It is 10 years since I was Minister of State in the Ministry of Justice—a long time ago. When I was Minister—this is one of the challenges we face—there was 40% more expenditure on justice matters than is proposed today. Although changes were made by the Government in August this year—we will touch on that—there has been a 40% reduction in the amount of resource going into the Ministry of Justice over that time. Those provisions were volunteered up by Ministers, some of whom are not even members of the Conservative party these days in terms of their political affiliation.
The Ministry of Justice budget fell from £10.6 billion in 2010 to £7.9 billion in 2020. Let no one be mistaken: those reductions have had a consequence on the services delivered by the Ministry of Justice, on the performance of staff under pressure and on the safety of staff in prisons across the estate for which the MOJ is responsible. They have also had a consequence on the MOJ’s ability to improve reoffending rates and reduce crime and to provide a service to consumers and constituents of mine and every Member of the House regarding work on legal aid, access to justice, fighting for employment rights through the tribunal system and a range of other matters. That 40% reduction has made a real difference, and I wish to explore with the Minister the proposals for the revised sums he has brought forward.
Let us take this year’s figures. In many prisons, the safety of staff and those sentenced to prison is at higher risk than it was 12 months ago. We must address that issue to ensure a solid performance across the prison estate and achieve the reoffending rates that I know the Minister would want. Over the past 12 months, there has been a 24% rise in incidents of self-harm, to a record high of 57,968. The number of assaults has also risen to a record high of 34,425 in the past 12 months—an 11% increase on the previous year. In the 12 months to March this year, there were 10,300 assaults—11% of which were serious assaults—on staff and those doing their job to try to turn around those offenders in our prisons. That figure is up by 15% on the previous year.
The funding settlement needs to address ways to recruit more staff and to retain existing staff and support them in the workplace. We must try to professionalise and support staff on the front line. We know about the situation in prisons and about issues such as drugs entering prison, new psychoactive substances, increasingly violent prisoners being placed in prison and a range of people with mental health problems that cause aggressive behaviour. Those are real challenges, and the reduction in funding to date has meant they have been exacerbated by having a smaller number of staff, by the loss of experienced staff and by not allowing people out of cells to achieve some of the rehabilitation work, drug training courses or educational work that they need to turn their lives around. This settlement—the expansion in resource that the Government propose—needs to focus first and foremost on safety in prisons. Without safe prisons, we cannot have rehabilitation on the scale of our ambitions.
In August, the Government made a series of additional spending announcements. They announced additional police officers—I have also been the Police Minister—with 20,000 more officers to replace the 20,000 that have been cut. The Government announced the recruitment of police officers and prison officers: some would say that it is about recruitment of votes, rather than staff. The key point for the Minister to explain today is how he will address the issues. The policy announcements that have been made to date include 10,000 additional prison places, including investment in prison security—undoubtedly welcome—and an additional prison building programme. But we have no detail yet on how, when, where and at what stage those prison officers are to be recruited. We have no detail about the period over which those new prison places are to be built and whether they will replace new prisons or are genuinely new and additional prison places.
At the same time, a review has been announced by the Prime Minister of sentencing in England and Wales. It will not look at increasing community sentences or tackling short-term sentences, which the former Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke) wanted to look at. Instead, it will look at how we can put longer prison sentences in place. How will that all fit together? There were no policy details in the budget announcement in August about the condition of the prison estate, despite the fact that the prison estate is key to improving the rehabilitation of prisoners. The MOJ estimates a current backlog of some £900 million of repairs that need to be done in our prisons. There was nothing in the announcement in August that I could see about how much money will be put towards the maintenance work needed to ensure that we have safe cells. Fixing draughty cells, dangerously fitted cells, old cells and cells that people cannot leave to undertake education and training is material to improving reoffending rates.
Reoffending costs us £18 billion a year, which is far more than the Ministry of Justice’s budget for investment in prisons and probation. Reoffending, especially by prisoners with short-term sentences, is extremely high. We had a lot of rhetoric six to nine months ago about tackling short-term prison sentences. I have seen nothing in the estimates about a change to super-charge community-based sentences as an alternative to short-term prison sentences of under six months, particularly for women offenders, many of whom are in prison on a short-term basis that will not secure their long-term rehabilitation back into society.
I will discount the 40% cut for now, even though it has been significant over the past nine and a half years. Instead, I ask what steps will be taken, under the current budget settlement, to make the prison estate a place of safety for staff and prisoners. What steps are being taken to ensure that we recruit and retain professional staff? What steps are being undertaken to super-charge the effort to reduce reoffending? What steps are being taken to ensure that people on short-term sentences see a real and effective shift in the time they are in prison? What steps are being taken to reduce the female prison population as a matter of urgency?
There are real arguments for reviewing short-term sentences, supporting alternative sentencing for women and looking again at the rehabilitation and employment links that require money. The emphasis on a capital building programme is wrong. We should look at investing in and improving the existing estate, retaining and improving the quality of staff and making prisons safe. I welcome the debate, because there are some serious discussions to be had. I wish the Minister well in what is a tough old job for him and his team, but real dividends can be achieved and real changes can be made. It will require political drive, but that drive seems to have shifted back towards longer term prison sentences and away from community-based rehabilitation in the statements made since the Prime Minister took office.
Let me say what a pleasure it is to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), who speaks with such authority, particularly on prisons. It was a privilege to serve alongside him on the Select Committee on Justice.
It is important to put this debate on spending into context by setting out how much money we are talking about and where it sits in the grand scheme of things. The useful briefing provided by the Justice Committee makes it clear that the MOJ’s resource budget for 2020-21 will be a little over £8 billion. True, the total amount spent will be a little more, due to annual managed expenditure, but the departmental expenditure limit is about £8 billion. To put that in context, total Government expenditure is anticipated to be over £850 billion, the point being that, whether it is a little less or a little more, the MOJ’s budget is at or around 1% of total Government expenditure. That may or may not be remarkable in and of itself, but the items that the MOJ has to fund and secure could not be more important in our society.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the funding of prisons, and while that is critical, what he did not touch on—this is no criticism of him—was legal aid. The danger when discussing legal aid is that there could be a misconception in society—which could even be reflected among the relatively modest number of hon. Members present in today’s debate—of legal aid and access to justice as a “nice to have” rather than a fundamental and essential part of a functioning democracy.
That critical nature was recognised back in the 1940s, when British politicians were grappling with what the shape and nature of the welfare state should be. At that time, they considered the NHS, but they also considered the provision of legal aid to people of all means to be a critically important duty. In reaching that conclusion, they no doubt drew on some of the learning that came from Magna Carta, which said:
“We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”
Those ancient words convey something extremely important: if we are to be equal before the law, we must have access to the law. And so it was that, in the White Paper that preceded the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949, these words appeared:
“no one would be financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or defend a legal right”.
That must be the underpinning of a fair society. If people are granted rights by this place, they should be able to prosecute and defend them.
What has happened since 1949—no doubt, to cater for the increasingly complex world—is that the rights available to people are themselves more complex, whether it is to do with the employment sphere, protecting data or securing contact arrangements with children, which may be increasingly complicated, with one parent living abroad and so on. However, securing those rights is no less important now than it was then. The Supreme Court gave a trenchant judgment back in 2017 in the Unison case, when it had to consider whether employment tribunal fees were set too high. Ultimately, it concluded that they were, but the point that Lord Reed made—I am not quoting but paraphrasing—was that unless every person can get access to justice, the laws made in this place are liable to become a dead letter. He said that the work done in this Parliament would become nugatory and, in a memorable phrase, that
“the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade.”
In those powerful remarks, Lord Reed encapsulated a fundamental truth, the importance of which I suspect hon. Members from across the House will have experienced in their constituency surgeries. I had a constituent—I will not name her, for reasons that are obvious—who faced a very upsetting set of circumstances. Her child was subject to contact arrangements made in a French court, which meant, putting it very simply, that she was unable to have access to her child, because there was a conflict-of-laws issue that needed resolving. Of course, she could not get legal aid to help her with that. Ultimately, she was assisted by a lawyer who gave tens, if not hundreds, of hours entirely pro bono to assist her. Justice was done because that lawyer was able to show that she had indeed been wronged by the courts process and that her rights needed to be asserted.
I want to take this opportunity, if I may, Madam Deputy Speaker, to pay tribute to all those lawyers up and down the country who give of their time to speak truth to power, to redress grievances and to do so entirely free of charge. They really do heroic work. It is unfashionable in this place to pay tribute to lawyers, but those who work pro bono are some of the best in our society.
The total budget for legal aid is at or around £1.7 billion, and I want to conclude by putting that figure into some context. To the Syrian crisis alone the UK will be giving—in a gesture that is no doubt entirely appropriate and that entirely speaks of our humane and responsible nature as a nation—something like £2.7 billion. That may be entirely appropriate, but we should not neglect the legal aid budget. I do, of course, declare an interest as a legal aid lawyer, but that experience has taught me that, unless we properly resource legal aid, there will be a number of outcomes.
First, there will be the sorts of cases I referred to a few moments ago, with individuals being denied justice. Secondly, there will be an increase, which we have already seen, in litigants in person, who have to contend with an extremely alien and sometimes forbidding environment—a situation, by the way, that several judges find extremely difficult to deal with, despite their best efforts. The third and most important thing is manifest injustice. I went along to the Gloucester Law Centre, and it was really troubling to hear from hard-working and dedicated lawyers that they do what they can but that they recognise there are large areas that simply cannot be addressed.
The fourth thing—we do not want to scaremonger, but we must keep this in mind—is that if people cannot get access to justice, there is always a risk that they will take justice into their own hands. Although I suspect that the British people do not get quite as exercised about issues of legal aid as they might about the health service or education, they do recognise injustice when they see it. We all recall the case of Liam Allan, a young man who had been accused of rape. It emerged that, because of failings in the prosecution, critical text messages on the mobile telephone in that case were not disclosed. When they were, it emerged that he had been wrongly charged, and he was ultimately acquitted. When the British people became aware of that, they were rightly horrified, and the Government and the House have a duty to ensure that they will not be horrified in future by people not being able to seek access to justice.
I know that the Government are doing fantastic work in this field and that the overall budget has gone up by £4.9 billion. I also know from speaking to my hon. Friend the Minister’s predecessor that early advice and assistance have been given very close focus. As my hon. Friend begins his ministerial career, which I know will be long and successful, I urge him to give the closest possible attention to access to justice. We cannot have a society where the finest courts, which we have, and the finest judges, which we have, are truly accessible only to those with the means to pay. If we want to continue to be a shining light, with an international reputation for upholding the highest standards, those standards and that justice must be available to all.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) and particularly the Chairman of our Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill).
I want to repeat some of what previous speakers have said. The Department has seen its budget slashed by more than 40% since 2010—the greatest cuts of any Department. A great man, Winston Churchill, said, “You judge a society by the way it treats its prisoners”. He would not be very proud of the way we have treated them in recent years. Last year, the Ministry of Justice’s total budget was £8 billion—just 1% of total Government expenditure, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) said—but the cost of reoffending has now risen to £18 billion a year.
I want to focus on prison and probation. I want this to be considered against a backdrop of increased demand, which is not in the MOJ’s control. We have seen budget cuts of 40%. Planned efficiencies taken into account in budget planning did not materialise. We have also seen cohort changes: historical sex offenders and elderly people with ill health issues requiring care, attention and hospital escorts for heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, rheumatism and mental health illness. It is shameful to see these people in prison. We have young people with learning difficulties, autistic people, people with drugs and substance addiction and women, particularly young mums, separated from children. There is the issue of short-term sentences. Ten per cent. go through the gates—thank God it’s 10% and not more. Those women could be treated much better outside, with the support they need to keep them away from crime. They could be rehabilitated and it would save us money as well.
It has been chaotic in the prison system. Most of the prisons are Victorian. There is no planned maintenance programme. Everything is reactionary. It is an inefficient use of what capital resources we have. The capital allocation for 2009-10 was £716 million in real terms. In 2010-11, that changed to £63 million, a real-terms cut in the allocation—it is important to remember that this was a one-year allocation—of £654 million. That was a 91% cut in the first year. The annual allocation steadily reduced from £63 million a year to just £33 million a year, a real-terms cut of 47%. It was as low as £13 million in 2015-16, a real-terms cut of 50%. This is capital investment not going into this old estate that people are living in. We are supposed to be rehabilitating them so that they do not reoffend.
In 2016, the Government announced £1.3 billion for a prison estate transformation programme to create 10,000 prison places by 2020. That was then revised to 2022. Two new prisons were to be constructed and four were to be redeveloped. In 2017, the planned maintenance programme was postponed. Two of the redevelopments were put on hold. The building of a new prison in Wellingborough has started and the construction of a second, Glen Parva, is planned for 2020.
Here’s the interesting part: the MOJ agreed with the Treasury that the capital funding not being utilised could be used to fund current spending—that is day-to-day resource allocation—and £385 million was transferred from capital to resource. This was a one-off, so it won’t be there next year. Once it’s spent, it’s spent. It is not sustainable. It was essential to providing the day-to-day services and to paying the salaries of people in the prison system. There was not enough resource allocation.
The £385 million could be seen as a further cut to planned, shall we say, capital investment in our prisons, on top of what we talked about earlier. In 2019, we had an announcement of £2.5 billion, which we were told was capital investment and would be spent on creating modern and efficient prisons. I sincerely hope that it is, because previous allocations have not been spent. The £385 million went over to resource spending and the £230 million under the previous Prisons Minister was spent on increasing prison capacity. This leaves just £685 million of the £1.3 billion allocated for new spend. The outturn—actual spending—on allocations is down to 39% in some years and that is not good. It is all very well to make the announcement, but if the money is not spent, we have an announcement with nothing to show for it.
The basic conditions in our prisons are absolutely shameful. Most of them are Victorian. The cells are deplorable. People come out brutalised. Some of them have to remain locked up for 23 hours a day. What chance is there of rehabilitation?
The cost of keeping young people locked up—and that is what they are, locked up—is much higher. In one young people’s prison, Werrington, it is just pounds less than £125,000 a year. I am sure that there are much better ways in which we can help those young people to become better citizens and contribute to society when they come out of prison. The prisons are violent, ineffective and overcrowded. The cost of imprisoning an adult is £40,000 a year. We need to do something radical to reduce the prison population, so that people who need to be and should be in there can be rehabilitated, and those who need help outside and can be dealt with outside are dealt with outside.
The spending has been chaotic. As we heard earlier, the rate of reoffending is at 48.3%, and the rate among those serving short sentences is 64%. Someone serving a short sentence is much more likely to go back to prison. The revolving door of reoffending goes round about 11 times. The reoffending rate among young people is 65%.
I beg the Minister: please get someone to sit down and do some strategic planning and thinking, because at the moment it is just a case of hand-to-mouth spending and putting sticking plaster over where it is needed. There is a lot of money, but it is not being used efficiently because this is not being planned.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)for securing it. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer).
Ministry of Justice spending accounts for just 1% of total Government spending, yet the Department has received some of the most vicious cuts over the last nine years, with overall budget cuts of 40% by 2020. That dramatic decrease in funding has been felt across the justice system, and has had an impact on victims, families, local communities and vulnerable individuals, and their ability to gain access to justice. The modest increase in funding for the Ministry in the September spending review provides a 4.9% budget increase in real terms, but it is nowhere near enough to deal with the pressure that is being felt throughout the justice sector.
Owing to time constraints, I shall limit my comments to cuts in civil legal aid. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—LASPO—reduced civil legal aid expenditure from £1.02 billion in 2012 to £678 million in 2018. The cost of that has been significantly reduced access to justice, areas of the justice system being overwhelmed by litigants in person, and the sustainability of the publicly funded legal profession being deeply threatened. All that means that the Ministry’s demands on the Treasury are likely to increase over the long term, countering the savings made by the LASPO reforms.
LASPO removed from the scope of legal aid vast areas of law, including most private family law, and law relating to employment, welfare benefits, housing, debt, clinical negligence and non-asylum immigration. It also instigated tighter financial eligibility criteria for civil legal aid by changing the financial means test for areas of law that remained in the scope of legal aid. That included the ending of automatic eligibility for those in receipt of means-tested benefits, and reducing the limit on the maximum income and capital that an individual can have to qualify for legal aid. As a result of these reforms, many people who have previously been eligible for legal aid have been unable to gain legal assistance to pursue their cases. Instead, they must now pay for legal advice or representation themselves—often an impossible task—try to find free support or navigate the problem on their own. This greatly reduces the likelihood of an individual case receiving justice. The Amnesty International 2016 report states that the LASPO reforms have resulted in a two-tier legal system, open to those who can afford it but closed to those who cannot.
The reforms have impacted on access to justice in wide-reaching ways. For example, early legal advice is no longer in scope for legal aid, so cases that could otherwise be resolved early are now escalating into more complex cases, pushing further costs on to local and national Government. For example, Shelter has documented how this approach to housing advice has led to increased costs of temporary accommodation being borne by local authorities. LASPO has also led to the emergence of advice deserts in some parts of the country, especially in rural areas. Many solicitors have given up legal aid work because there is no longer funding for it, and this has particularly impacted on immigration and housing law.
The human cost of all this is often all too real for my constituents. For example, one constituent who was the victim of female genital mutilation, who had hepatitis B and who had fled a forced marriage needed urgent help to make a Home Office application or otherwise face removal. She was not entitled to legal aid and had nowhere to turn other than to a charity rather than getting proper legal advice and assistance. Another case I dealt with involved a 63-year-old women with breast cancer who had her benefits stopped and was told by the jobcentre to look for work. Her benefits issue was out of scope for legal aid so, while also battling cancer, she had to try to find free legal representation from overstretched charities to challenge her benefits refusal at tribunal. It is likely that she will end up having to represent herself.
The crux of this is that a lot of vulnerable people in desperate situations are being refused legal aid. Often the issue is not in scope, and when it is, the means test makes legal aid really difficult to access. The Government say that they are saving money, but in reality this is costing a great deal, both to society and to the Treasury. The recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report on the impact of LASPO found that unresolved welfare benefits issues were resulting in financial deprivation, including the risk of homelessness and an inability to pay for necessities such as food, heating and electricity, and that the difficulty of resolving legal issues in general was causing physical, emotional and mental health problems. Ultimately, the cost of this is likely to be far greater than providing legal aid in the first place.
The Government have a duty to provide a justice system that ensures that members of the public are able to obtain the advice and representation that they reasonably need, but the system that we now have under LASPO is clearly failing in terms of its ability to give people access to justice. Not only does it undermine the rule of law but it has serious consequences for the lives of many. If we are to avoid long-term and potentially irreversible damage to our justice system, the Government must properly fund legal aid to ensure that members of the public are able to secure appropriate advice and representation. This would require the reintroduction of legal aid for the areas of law removed from scope, and the introduction of more generous financial eligibility criteria. These reforms are necessary if we are to have any confidence in the justness of our legal system, and if we are to see the reversal of the development of a grossly unfair two-tier justice system.
This afternoon’s debate does feel like a meeting of the Justice Committee. It is very nice to see everybody, but the attendance for the debate may be a clue as to why the Ministry of Justice, as a Department, has suffered the largest cuts since 2010. I am not saying that it is our fault that that has happened.
Justice, as a subject, tends to be a little bit niche, and the public do not perhaps feel that it impacts on them directly in the way that cuts in other public services do. The reality is, though, that if legal aid is not there when we need it, we may not get a fair settlement in a civil dispute or get fairly treated by the criminal courts; and if we do not get the prison system right, even people who have not been to prison feel the impact, whether through recidivism or levels of criminality. The sad truth is that since 2010 every aspect of the Ministry’s work has suffered, whether it is prisons and probation, the Courts Service or legal aid.
In the past few weeks, we have talked a lot about the rule of law. There is perhaps a greater public awareness of the crucial importance of the judiciary and their role—thanks in large part to the Prime Minister and his unlawful acts. However, I do not think there is always a realisation that money is an essential driver of the justice system.
It is perhaps rather sad, therefore, that the one area of the MOJ budget that is receiving some attention financially is the Prison Service. Yes, we have heard about investment in new prison officers, but it is a shame that we lost the experienced ones that we had, and are still 2,500 below the 2010 level. There have been initiatives such as the 10 prisons project, set up by the former Prisons Minister, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). Although I am sure it was well intended, I thought it was a bit gimmicky, in the sense that it addressed one or two important aspects—drug use and assaults. It was not entirely successful. In the case of one of the 10 prisons, Wormwood Scrubs in my constituency, assaults actually increased by 50% between the second quarter of 2018 and the second quarter of 2019—the period of that programme. Even in the areas that the programme was designed to tackle, it did little more than tackle superficial elements and was very limited. I note that the inquest figures showed that in those 10 prisons, over the first 11 months of the programme, there was actually a 20% increase in deaths. So even where there have been initiatives, they are not necessarily working.
The saddest thing is that if there is going to be substantial capital investment in prisons, it appears to be all to do with new prison places—the 10,000 extra places that we have heard about. I am afraid that what the new Lord Chancellor announced this week is an extraordinarily retrograde step, and appears to be no more than a political crowd-pleaser. It appears that the restrictions on short sentences, championed by the previous Lord Chancellor and Prisons Minister, will not be going ahead, despite all the academic work that was done on that approach. That has now gone out of the window. Instead, we shall see longer time served for certain categories of prisoner.
That is all very well, in an attempt to get a tabloid headline; but in fact there already exists a power, in the case of very serious and dangerous criminals, for judges to specify an extended sentence for public protection—that prisoners should serve two-thirds rather than half their term, for example. All that is being achieved here is to push an already very high and inflated prison population even higher, and that will deplete the limited resources that are available. We will not see improvements in the appalling prison conditions that colleagues have spoken of, or tackle the lack of treatment and the lack of ability to treat mental health problems and addictions.
I look forward to hearing what the latest Minister has to say on that, but if we can get neither the personnel nor the policy to stay in place for more than a few weeks or months, we are not really going in the right direction.
On the Courts Service, all eggs have been put in one basket, which is digitisation. A huge amount of money is being invested in courts going paperless and things being done remotely. I do not think that anybody is against that in the Courts Service any more than in other parts of the public service, but it is a leap of faith. The real problem is that the money that is going to pay for a lot of that is from the closure and sale of about half the courts in the country, but that is being done in advance of seeing whether this remote access and digital processing actually work in that way.
There is real chaos in the way the court systems are working now. There has been a drop in prosecutions—down 45% over the last eight years. Even though some more money is going to be put into the Crown Prosecution Service as a response to the hope that there will be more activity by the police, more arrests made and more people charged where offences have taken place, I doubt that it is enough to correct what has happened. The consequence is that many courts are standing empty for large parts of the time—ironically, given that many courts have been closed or sold off—yet at the same time we are introducing extended court days. In my local area, for example, we will now have no courts in the borough. The county court has been moved three times so far in the last five or six years. That work is now being sent an hour or more’s journey away. Many courts are at the same time standing empty because there are not the judges to fill them and, as I have said, the court day is being lengthened, so hearings are taking place at 8 o’clock in the morning. Who has got a grip on what is happening in the Courts Service? It does not appear to be coming from the top.
Let me—[Interruption.] I hear you clearing your throat, Madam Deputy Speaker, which is a shame, because I did want to spend some time talking about legal aid. I will do that very briefly, given the time.
A huge number of law centres and other not-for-profit providers have closed over that time. We have had no increase in fees for criminal defence solicitors for about 20 years now. As a consequence, we have both legal aid deserts and practitioners either not continuing or not being prepared to go into that type of work. There is a review of criminal legal aid, but that is not due to report until next year.
I ask the Minister to have a sense of urgency in dealing with the crisis in legal aid and to look at legal aid for inquests again. It is a scandal that that is not being dealt with. I also ask that we have a proper review of LASPO and its consequences, because, frankly, what is being proposed barely touches the sides.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter).
On Monday, I attended Hazelwood Primary School in my constituency, which is holding school council elections this month and learning more about democracy. In the hallway of the school is a display about British values as part of the curriculum. These include liberty, mutual respect, democracy, tolerance and the rule of law.
The rule of law underpins our unwritten constitution and is rightly given prominence in education. Unfortunately, over recent years, it has been wilfully neglected and what should be a stable pillar is now crumbling due to years of under-investment and spending cuts. Despite last month’s announcement from the Government of a funding increase of 4.9%, by 2020 the MOJ will have seen cuts totalling 40% since 2010.
What is worse is that the additional funding has already been earmarked for certain policy initiatives announced by the Home Secretary, which might make for good soundbites but makes little logical sense. We know that part of the £2.5 billion announced is earmarked for an extra 10,000 prison places—no doubt the Home Secretary is expecting an increase in offending—but the reality is that the United Kingdom’s incarceration rate, with a current prison population of 82,600, is the highest in western Europe.
Violence in prisons is at record levels, due to lack of staffing and poor conditions in our existing prisons. At an average cost of £40,000 per year per prison place, our money would be far better spent on reducing reoffending rates. Reoffending rates are now at 48.3%, but this increases to 64.4% for those released from short sentences of less than 12 months. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) made that point excellently. The annual cost of reoffending is £18.1 billion per year, so why is more money not being invested in preventing people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place? Why is more money not going to health, housing and local authorities? In recent years, we have seen the abject failure of the privatised probation service, and the Government threw good money after bad in an attempt to salvage it. Having now abandoned the probation privatisation experiment, I hope that the Government will properly fund the probation service, which can make a huge difference in preventing reoffending, if it is adequately resourced.
The proposed new funding for the MOJ is also linked to the additional new police numbers, but, once again, this fails to look at the current trends and to address existing problems. According to the Howard League, across 2017-18 some 103,000 women and girls were arrested, which cost the police an estimated £1 billion in time and resources, yet only 7,745 were sent to prison. Surely that demonstrates the need for more funding for women’s centres and other preventive measures, which would be much cheaper than prison.
Still on the issue of criminal justice, the additional funding for the Crown Prosecution Service is welcome, but there is nothing for criminal legal aid. Unless there is investment across the entire criminal justice system, it will not deal with the problems that are so plaguing the system. One such problem is the growing shortage of criminal duty solicitors. The Law Society estimates that in five to 10 years’ time there will be insufficient criminal duty solicitors in many regions, as far fewer solicitors are entering the profession. The average age of a duty solicitor in England and Wales is 47. That is hardly surprising as legal aid rates have not increased for more than 20 years. Unless steps are taken now, this problem will only get worse; we are at the tipping point right now, and urgent action is needed. It is not just criminal law that is affected; there are now legal aid deserts for housing law across England and Wales. The Law Society estimates that 37% of the population are living in areas that have no housing legal aid providers. At a time when we hear horror stories about homelessness, evictions and disrepair, we are in desperate need of these types of lawyers. More investment is needed in this area and in others. As part of the LASPO review, it has been accepted by the Government that early legal advice can help save time and money for all concerned. The Government should be pouring more money into early legal advice, which will benefit everyone.
After years and years of slashing the Ministry of Justice, the additional funding for the MOJ is welcome, but this is like putting a sticking plaster on a gaping wound. To cut the MOJ budget by 42% and then re-provide 4.9% and hail it as a wonderful policy announcement is akin to breaking all the windows in a house but then saying that at least you have painted the front door. The additional funding is not enough, it is a false economy and it is going to the wrong places. If the Government are serious about reducing crime and re-offending, they will invest in preventive measures such as women’s centres, healthcare and addiction services, housing, employment, education and diversionary measures. There also needs to be investment in our courts, our legal aid system, and prison and probation. As I mentioned at the start, the rule of law, one of the pillars of our society, cannot be allowed to crumble. We need true investment in it, and we need it now.
As always, it is a pleasure to follow my good and hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous). This is an important debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for us to discuss these issues. I must declare an interest, in that I am a member of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group and I am proud to represent the interests of prison officers campaigning for a basic right: the right to a safe working environment. I also want to pay tribute to the dedicated and hard-working staff throughout the justice system—in the prisons, in probation and in every aspect of the Department’s work—whose work is often overlooked.
Time is short, so I shall touch on just three issues: other Members have covered the financial cuts to the Ministry of Justice, so I will refer to them only briefly; I want to talk briefly about the loss of experience in the Prison Service because of budget cuts; and I will address the consequences of cuts for prison staff who are trying to maintain a safe working environment.
I read a most disturbing article in my local newspaper, the Evening Chronicle, entitled “Seven staff stabbed at North East jail as prisoners leave officers ‘black and blue’”. That is from 13 July. The article quoted the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, who said in response:
“The Government is taking unprecedented action to improve safety in prisons.”
In the light of those comments it is important that, as part of our responsibility to hold the Government to account, we consider their record on law and order.
The Department has suffered cuts of more than 40% since 2010 and, according to some work that I have read by the New Economics Foundation, the indications are that that proportion will rise to more than 50% by 2023. My concern is that the cuts are a false economy. Several Members, including the Chair of the Select Committee, mentioned that the Ministry of Justice budget was around £8 billion and the estimated annual cost of reoffending is now more than £18 billion.
Ron Hogg, the police and crime commissioner in Durham, is a wonderful man who is currently struggling with a most debilitating illness. He pioneered the Checkpoint scheme in an attempt to address the issue of reoffending. Ron joined me on a delegation—in fact, he led the delegation; I joined him—to see the Secretary of State for Justice and put forward a powerful case for taking a new approach to tackling reoffending.
Private prisons are inefficient and are wasting resources. Although private prisons accommodate approximately 15% of the prison population, the Government spend nearly a quarter of the total prison budget on them. The main aim of a private prison is clearly to make profit for shareholders. Public service and staff safeguarding are secondary. Private companies aim for a profit margin of around 8% to 10%, so for every pound paid to a private prison operator, 10p is immediately top-sliced, to be given to shareholders rather than being spent on making our prisons safer.
The other method that the private sector has used to improve prisons’ profitability is to reduce wages, cut staffing levels and accommodate more prisoners. A report by The Guardian newspaper, based on parliamentary questions, found that private prisons are up to 47% more violent than public prisons, as a consequence of understaffing and overcrowding. Put simply, private prisons cost more and deliver less.
The House will remember that the Secretary of State said:
“The Government is taking unprecedented action to improve safety in prisons”,
so let us look at the evidence in the little time I have left. The Tory-Liberal coalition cut 7,000 prison officers, leading to the loss of more than 80,000 years-worth of prison staffs’ accumulated experience. The recruitment of new prison officers, to which I understand the Minister will refer, even if to the same level the Government inherited from the previous Labour Government, will not replace the lost years of experience for many decades to come. The Government’s unprecedented actions over the past decade have damaged prison safety and increased violence, through the loss of prison officers and the valuable experience that they have in running our prisons.
At Holme House near Stockton, which is the prison nearest to my constituency, seven staff were stabbed. Meanwhile, 11 staff at HMP Northumberland suffered fractures and another 22 needed stitches. Across the north-east, there were 46 incidents of prisoners spitting at staff, and 29 other serious incidents that resulted in injuries to staff were recorded. Indeed, the annual report of HM inspectorate of prisons for England and Wales found that among category B and C prisons staff shortages have
“been so acute that risks to both prisoners and staff were often severe, and levels of all types of violence had soared.”
The Government are failing in their duty of care to prison staff: their workplace is unsafe; prison officers’ wages have been cut in real terms for a decade now; and their retirement age has been increased from 60 to 68.
This Government, facilitated by the Liberal Democrats in coalition, are to blame for our prisons being unsafe and for failing in their primary duty of reducing re-offending and rehabilitating prisoners. Unless prisons are safe, secure and decent, rehabilitation is simply impossible. Our prisons have become, in many cases, universities of crime, with career criminals in control of prison landings.
In my opinion, the Secretary of State, or his Minister, should start by apologising to prison staff for a decade of failure. He should apologise for devaluing their jobs through real-terms pay cuts, and apologise for creating an unsafe working environment by cutting the number of officers, losing valuable experience, increasing the retirement age and expecting prison officers approaching 70 to tackle and deal with violent inmates who are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. He should apologise for allowing private prisons to profit at the expense of staff safety, for undermining our criminal justice system, for imposing a decade of cuts at every level—to policing, to legal aid, to our courts and to our Prison Service. I was frankly aghast to hear Conservative Back-Bench Members at the start of this debate wringing their hands about cuts to legal aid. I must have dreamt that Tory Members trooped through the Benches into the Division Lobby in 2012 to vote for cuts to legal aid. I do hope that the Government will acknowledge their role and start immediately to repair the damage they have caused over the past decade.
I thank the Justice Committee for securing today’s debate. Its members play a crucial role in highlighting the failings in our justice system and in offering very constructive ways to tackle them. I also welcome the new junior Justice Minister to today’s debate. It is a shame that the Justice Secretary himself could not be here; perhaps he is busy having to defend the rule of law again after some not very anonymous briefings from Dominic Cummings, his boss. Perhaps he does not want to defend his own record that we have just heard about of voting for Conservative cuts, which have caused such damage to our justice system. Our justice system is in a Tory-created crisis. The driving cause is cuts of billions of pounds over the past decade, with the Ministry of Justice the second most cut Department.
We have heard a lot today about percentages here and millions there, but beyond that there is a real human cost to these cuts. What effect does the Minister believe that Government cuts have had on public safety? Does he believe that halving youth offending team budgets, along with wider cuts in youth services and elsewhere, has contributed to the violence that has seen the loss of too many young lives? What impact does he think that these justice cuts, along with those to the police and the CPS, have had on tackling serious crime? For example, what impact does he think that they have had on the all-time record lows of rape convictions that mean that women’s groups are warning that rape is now effectively decriminalised.
I want to be clear that the Conservative party’s cuts have left our criminal justice system less able to keep our streets safe and ensure that victims of serious crime get justice, and have enabled a wave of violence that affects too many families. That is the record of the Conservative party and we will never let its members forget it.
Cuts have consequences, and nowhere is that clearer than in our prisons. Slashing hundreds of millions of pounds every year from prison budgets and axing thousands of staff unleashed unprecedented levels of prison violence. Political choices at the very top caused that. Prisoners, staff and the wider public paid the price. Recent one-off funding awards to prisons are simply tinkering at the edges. Everybody knows that tackling understaffing is key to making prisons safe, yet there are still thousands fewer officers than in 2010. The latest figures show numbers falling again. Is the junior Minister aware of any plans to return levels to those of 2010 as the Labour party has committed to do? None was announced at the Conservative conference. Will he confirm that any prison officers recruited above the 2,500 announced in 2016 have been funded not through new Treasury funding, but within existing Department budgets? Could he clarify what else has been cut in justice to fund them?
Over the summer the Prime Minister pledged funding for 10,000 new prison places; 10,000 new prison places were also promised by each of the five previous Justice Secretaries in every year since 2015 and by the last two Conservative Prime Ministers. Will the Minister apologise to the public for trying to pass this off as a new announcement, as he and the Prime Minister have both done? We do not need 10,000 new prison places or repeats of the errors of the past. We need effective alternatives that are proven to keep the public safe. As we have heard, women’s centres are one such alternative. Members of the Government’s own advisory board on female offenders have expressed frustration at this underfunding, stating that at least £20 million is required annually for community provision. A Labour Government will immediately plug the funding gap in the female offender strategy. Does the Minister have plans to do the same?
Nearly two thirds of short-term prisoners go on to reoffend, committing crime costing £7 billion to £10 billion a year, so will the Minister confirm that the Government have scrapped plans to legislate for an end to ineffective short-term sentences? The Ministry’s own evidence shows that 30,000 victims of crime each year could be prevented by replacing ineffective short-term prison sentences of less than six months with community orders. Will the Minister explain why the Government are ignoring that evidence?
As we have seen, justice cuts go hand in hand with a push for privatisation. Since we last debated the Ministry of Justice budget, the Government have been forced to take HMP Birmingham off G4S and return it to public ownership, yet the Conservative party simply refuses to learn the lessons and plans yet more privately run prisons. Why did the Government insist that these new prisons had to be privately run? Why was the public sector excluded from bidding? Is this not simply ideological? Will the Minister publish the research that led the Government to decide that this apparent carve-up is actually supposedly in the public interest? The companies bidding for new prison contracts need to be clear that a Labour Government will put an end to our prisons being run for private profits. These private companies should not bother wasting their money bidding for such contracts because our lawyers will be better than theirs, and will ensure that those prisons are put back into public ownership.
Probation was one area of privatisation that even the Conservatives have had to agree to reverse, but only after hundreds of millions of pounds were wasted bailing out failing companies that had not even managed to keep the public safe. However, the Justice Secretary managed nothing more than a single, vague platitude about probation in his party conference speech. There are concerns that the Government still plan for £280 million of annual probation contracts to be allocated by the market, and that that is a ruse to allow failing corporate giants to keep their hand in. Will the Minister make a commitment today that none of the companies that botched probation will be allowed to run these new contracts?
The single mention of probation in the Justice Secretary’s party conference speech was disrespectful to a system that manages a quarter of a million offenders in the community, but at least it did get a mention. There was not a single mention in his conference speech of courts—unbelievable, especially as the Tories are not just under-investing in our courts but are selling off hundreds of courts and sacking thousands of court staff, undermining the ability of victims and witnesses to access justice. The NAO’s recent report on court reform found that progress was behind schedule, with expected savings having fallen by over £170 million. Does the Minister accept that there is a real risk that these court reforms will repeat the failings of probation reform, and without such scrutiny? Will he back Labour’s call for a moratorium on further closures until there has been proper public and parliamentary scrutiny of these changes?
On access to justice, just as with courts, there was not a single mention of legal aid in the Justice Secretary’s conference speech—absolutely disgraceful. Labour is committed to reversing all cuts to legal aid-funded early legal help within the first 100 days of a Labour Government. There is, as we have heard, clear evidence that cuts to legal aid-funded advice are simply a false economy, but if the Minister is not prepared to look at the evidence, will he at least commit today to undertaking independent research into n how much the state can save by restoring all funding for early legal help?
This July, Lambeth Law Centre announced its closure after nearly 40 years of service, citing financial pressures caused by legal aid cuts. Is the Minister aware of any MOJ plans for an emergency fund to prevent more law centres from going under? Given that a PwC report calculated that law centres produce direct net cost savings to the Treasury of over £200 million, does the Minister plan to undertake research into the benefits of investment in legal support for disadvantaged communities?
In conclusion, today has been an important opportunity to discuss a Department that is much neglected by the Government—well, neglected in one sense, but certainly vigorously attacked in another. For those who thought that the latest Secretary of State for Justice would bring a welcome and moderating approach, his conference speech, with its paucity of detail and no mention of crucial things raised today by Members on both sides of the House, will cause incredible concern. The Ministry of Justice is a Department in crisis. That is not a situation that has fallen from the sky; it is the direct political consequence of how people have run this country for the past nine years. I hope and trust that those people will not be running the country too much longer.
It is a great pleasure to conclude this debate. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Chairman of the Justice Committee, as well as the other Committee members here, for securing this afternoon’s very important debate. When I attended the opening of the legal year on Tuesday, it became clear to me just how many of the senior judiciary in this country the Committee Chairman knows. I will certainly endeavour to listen to him, and to other members of the Committee from both sides of the House, as I embark on my new role.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) indicated, justice is of fundamental, vital importance to the functioning of our society. Justice is the foundation of any civilised society. Without justice, there is no freedom, and without the rule of law, there can be no prosperity, so the state discharges few functions that are more important than ensuring that justice is done. I join Members on both sides of the House in paying tribute to judges, lawyers, the police, Crown Prosecution Service officials, court officials, prison officers, probation officials, and of course Ministry of Justice civil servants for their work in making sure that our justice system functions.
As this debate is on funding, I should like to comment on the overall funding figures. A number of Members have referred to a reduction in spending of 40% since 2010. It is important to mention that that figure is based on figures for the 2015 spending review. Since then, there has been additional resource spending on Ministry of Justice matters from a variety of sources, and when that spending is added back in, the real-terms reduction is 21%. That is still a reduction, but of a great deal less than 40%. To put that in context, the British crime survey, which produces the most reliable crime statistics—in fact, the only ones recognised by the Office for National Statistics—finds a 33% reduction in crime over the same period; that is significant, and we should bear it in mind.
That said, there are clearly issues with the way that various parts of our criminal justice system operate that need addressing—issues that Members on both sides of the House have powerfully and eloquently referred to. That is why it is welcome, as some Members have acknowledged, that in the spending review statement made just a few weeks ago in this House, it was announced that the Ministry of Justice’s resource budget will increase from £7.631 billion this financial year to £8.142 billion in the next financial year. That is an increase of £511 million, which is over half a billion pounds, 6.7% in cash terms, or 4.9% in real terms. I am glad that Members across the House welcome that increase. On the capital side, the capital DEL budget has increased from £417 million in the current year to £620 million next year—a 48% increase.
The Department is going through the allocations process to work out where the extra £511 million will go. I heard powerful representations about the probation service from the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), and I think pretty much every Member who spoke in the debate mentioned the prison system. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst spoke about the courts system, and many Members discussed the legal aid budget, including the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), who spoke powerfully. What has been said in this debate will be carefully looked at as the allocations are made. However, we should remember that the reason why these savings had to be made was the catastrophic state of the public finances 10 years ago, so as we look forward to next year, as the economy continues to prosper and as public finances come under control, I hope that the 2020 spending review can do a lot more for the Ministry of Justice and the various areas that it looks after.
I will now respond to some of the specific points raised in the debate. On prison places, I am delighted that two prisons are now under construction, with 3,360 new places. Construction started just last week at the new prison in Wellingborough, and the Secretary of State turned the first sod of earth with his very own hands. That £2.5 billion programme will, as Members have said, add 10,000 places by the middle of the 2020s.
Members also made reference to the need to maintain and improve conditions in prisons themselves, with the right hon. Member for Delyn and the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) both referred specifically to the conditions within prisons. The Government fully recognise that issue, and I can confirm today that, in addition to the spending review 2019 figures that the House heard a few weeks ago, an extra £156 million will be spent next year expressly on prison maintenance and conditions. That is a 75% increase across the capital and resource budgets on the amount planned in the spending review, so I am sure that everybody in the House who raised the important matter of prison maintenance will be pleased to hear that.
Several Members mentioned the number of serving prison officers, including the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) a few moments ago. Members will therefore be pleased to hear that, as of June this year, there were 22,321 serving prison officers, which is an increase of 4,366 since 2016. The shadow Justice Secretary said a moment ago that 2,500 extra officers were announced in 2016, so I am pleased that we have delivered almost double that.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith talked about an important trial that took place in 10 of the most challenging prisons to try to improve prison safety and address, for example, assaults on prison officers. The trial published its results in August this year, and assaults fell by 16% and positive drug tests by 50% across those 10 prisons. Those are important results, and I hope that the pilots can be expanded. I will certainly be passing that point on to the Minister of State for Prisons and Probation.
We heard a bit less about our courts than about prisons, but they are also extremely important, with my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst drawing particular attention to them. The digitisation process is not, as he said, a panacea. It is part of the solution, not the whole solution, but it is welcome that uncontested divorce proceedings, probate proceedings, the issuance and response to civil money claims and minor pleas can now all be done online, saving both participants in the criminal justice system and the court system itself a great deal of time and money. The common platform designed to make criminal cases run more effectively and efficiently between the police, the CPS and the courts will start to be rolled out in the first half of next year. That will do more to make the courts run more efficiently.
My hon. Friend the Select Committee Chairman mentioned issues with sitting days and maintenance in the court system, which I recognise. As the Minister with responsibility for courts rather than prisons, I will of course make the case for sitting days and for the maintenance programme in the court system as we go through the allocation process in the coming two or three months to divide up that half a billion pounds of extra money.
On court closures, which the shadow Secretary of State raised a few moments ago, the courts that were closed—those that were consulted on in 2015—were running at about one-third utilisation, partly because of the one-third reduction in BCS crime since 2010. Clearly, having courts running at only one-third utilisation does not make a lot of sense, but before there are any further closures, there will be a consultation process and extremely careful thought, for the access to justice reasons that he and other Members mentioned.
Legal aid was mentioned by a number of Members, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Cheltenham and for Bromley and Chislehurst, and the hon. Members for Lewisham West and Penge and for Hammersmith. I am pleased to remind the House that last year the rates for criminal barristers were increased by around 10%—that was a £23 million commitment—and, as Members said, the criminal legal aid review is under way. In fact, some parts of that review, because they are so urgent, will report early: the parts related to unused material, cracked trials, paper hearing cases, pre-charge advice and payments for sending cases to the Crown court will report next month. The rest of the review will report in the summer of next year, and I hope it will address some of the concerns hon. Members raised about the legal aid system.
The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge mentioned victims. They are very important—particularly victims of sexual assault. The victims and witnesses budget is £92 million, and I am sure she will join me in welcoming last week’s announcement of an extra £5 million specifically to help victims of sexual violence.
Let me conclude with sentencing, which the Lord Chancellor and I have responsibility for. I support the change in the automatic release point for standard determinate sentences from half to two thirds, because I think the public expect someone who is sentenced to serve the majority of their sentence. Releasing them at the halfway point undermines public confidence in the sentence that is handed down. The change aligns the release point with the discretionary release point for extended determinate sentences, at two thirds. That will, of course, apply only to the more serious cases; it will not apply to all cases where a standard determinate sentence is handed down.
Will the Minister give way?
I would love to, but I only have a few seconds left. I would love to take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman on a future occasion.
On less significant offenses, I recognise the extremely high reoffending rate—60%—that Members referred to. As the Minister responsible for sentencing, I will look very carefully at expanding trials in which treatment, in particular for drug addiction, alcohol addiction and mental ill health, is put at the heart of sentencing and rehabilitation. There is much more we can do to learn from those trials and from countries around the world where more effective treatment is the key to reducing reoffending rates. That is my personal commitment to the House this afternoon.
It has been a great pleasure to participate in the debate. I look forward to hearing the Select Committee Chairman conclude it.
This has been a valuable debate. I thank all Members who participated in it. Some powerful messages have been sent. I recognise the Minister’s good intentions and good will on this topic, and I know he will take those messages away. I hope they are taken away beyond the House too, because we need a better public debate about the importance of our justice system and how it is integral to the way we see ourselves as a society. I hope that, in the future, that makes the climate and the task easier for those who want to see funding used in the right way—effectively and efficiently—and given the right priorities. I welcome the Minister to his role on his debut at the Dispatch Box. We have probably given him a fair bit to think about, and I am sure he knows that it comes with the health warning that we are likely to return to these topics before too long.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the spending of the Ministry of Justice.