Thursday 22 October 2020
[Clive Efford in the Chair]
Foreign Affairs Committee
Select Committee statement
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them and should respect the one-way system around the room. We come in one way, and leave by the door marked “Exit”. Members may speak only from the horseshoe and only if they are on the call list. That applies even if debates are undersubscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list. They are not expected to remain for the wind-up speeches. Members in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move to the horseshoe when seats become available. I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that they stay for the next speeches once they have spoken. This is to help manage attendance in the room. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech, but they should be aware that doing so might prevent Members in the seats in the Public Gallery from moving to the seats in the horseshoe.
Tom Tugendhat will speak on the publication of the fourth report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, “A brave new Britain? The future of the UK’s international policy”. He will speak for up to 10 minutes during which time no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members as they appear on the call list to put questions on the subject of the statement and will call Tom Tugendhat to respond to them. Questions should be brief. We have 20 minutes.
Thank you, Mr Efford. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and it is good to see the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), back from his adventures in the middle east. It is a huge privilege to have him with us today.
This is not the speech that I had hoped to give. I was hoping that the report that we in the Foreign Affairs Committee produced would help the final stages of the integrated defence and foreign policy review, but sadly that has been put on hold. For reasons obvious to all, and to all members of the Committee with whom I was fortunate enough to draft the report, the Government have delayed the multi-year settlement that is necessary to make the document one that will be fit for the future. That is more than unfortunate. It is a mistake. Although I understand the pressures on the Government and on Government finances in the coming years—it is true that the world has rarely been less predictable—this is the very moment in which to invest in the future, because it is at moments like this that change happens.
Over the coming months and years, new deals will be done and norms will be set that change the international system. Agreements over everything from a medical assistance programme or vaccine sharing to new supply chains or travel corridors will set a new tone for a new world. We need to make sure that Britain’s voice helps to shape that. This matters more to us than to most. Our economy is truly global. Our services are international and our historic norms have set the pattern for the world, and we now exploit that today. It did not happen by accident.
Over centuries, British integrated effort helped an emerging order. We all remember the troops and ships that achieved it. Yesterday’s celebration of Trafalgar Day reminds us of the Royal Navy’s contribution to the system we enjoy today. But the reality is that it was the quiet clerks, just like in Parliament, who really ran things. As an aside, I should say that our report was brilliantly drafted by Nicholas Wade of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He has been working with us for several years, and his understanding of strategic integration is matched only by the two who were stolen from the Committee a little while ago to go and work in No. 10 in a very good act of theft by the Prime Minister.
Those organisers and accountants created a network of plumbing and accountability that has shaped the world we enjoy. They encoded the concepts of the individual, the company, the state, and values of privacy and freedom so deep into our system that they now reflect the embedded nature of liberty and the pursuit of happiness that others went on to champion. Today, that operating system is under threat.
We all know that China’s rise is one of the great successes of the free market. Since it broke away from communist isolation and instead turned to co-operation—okay, albeit that it is authoritarian—with the integrated system, China’s people have prospered. Capitalism, the system rejected by Chairman Mao, has lifted 850 million out of the poverty that he reduced them to. With a bit of luck, it will help more.
In the past few years, the international co-operation that we have been used to has been under strain. Its very operating system is being reprogrammed by those seeking to replace networked interdependence with a bilateral obedience. At moments of stress, like now, that will only speed up. That is why Britain cannot afford to wait. We cannot simply focus on our own internal difficulties and hope that others will wait for us to catch up when we are ready. They will not and cannot. The world moves on, and our choice is simple: will we help to drive the change and choose the direction, or will we wait and find out where we are going?
Our Committee speaks louder when it reflects the many voices that we hear as witnesses. The line-up that we had for this report was unprecedented. Serious people from every corner of the Earth said the same thing. We were exceptionally lucky to have a first: His Majesty the King of Jordan spoke to us on the record. Former Presidents of Colombia and Liberia, both of whom have Nobel prizes, shared his view. They want Britain to take a lead. We had three Foreign Ministers, three former ambassadors to the United Nations, and a United Nations high commissioner. On top of that, 80 written submissions were published, and we surveyed more than 1,500 young people from around the world. What was striking was not just the different perspectives but the common desire. They want Britain back on the world stage, not to command, but to shape and enable other voices.
The implication from some, which we hear too often, is that after Brexit, Britain is essentially a diplomatic irrelevance outside the EU. Some even say that it is a small country nostalgic for an imperial past. That is not the view shared by our friends—not even by France’s former ambassador to China. All our witnesses said that the UK is an influential country with a modern and innovative contribution to make. They regretted our recent absence, called on us to do more and feared that we may retreat. That is a view that I hope we can all share.
The other view that was widely shared was one of struggle: not that we are countries at war, but that we are under threat. We are engaged in an intense struggle to protect our values and interests as democratic and free powers. The UK is admired abroad as stable and prosperous. It is a predictable country, but one that stands for something more than itself. That should not be taken for granted and must be protected. We have to take decisions that will matter and make a difference.
I hope my fellow Committee members will forgive a slight digression from the report. Although we did not cover defence, which is rightly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), my views are clear. We need to ensure that this interconnected world is addressed with an interconnected strategy. That is the point of the integrated review. Too often in our country and our defence industry, we have made decisions that have cost our country influence and cash because we have made them for the short term. We need this review to reverse that, to address long-term thinking and shape a new future in which recognising that we need allies and partners shapes our decisions as we purchase, not just as we operate, so that the kit that we buy works with the shallower end of the technology pool, not just the most exquisite and unique.
Those decisions should not be made in the Ministry of Defence alone. We should no more be planning defence equipment in isolation than buying a kitchen for a house that we have never seen. If we do not know where it is going, we will spend a long time trying to force it to fit. That is why diplomacy matters. Talking to each other and helping partners to solve problems and realise opportunities is a huge chance for Britain. Get it right, and we see a rising tide that raises all ships. Get it wrong, and we see the rocks emerge, and wrecks are more likely.
Diplomacy is the glue that holds global co-operation together. It is seen as the key skill that the UK possesses on the world stage. Do not take just my word for it or that of the Committee, it was emphasised by witnesses and the British Council survey. We have a great diplomatic service and some of the world’s finest diplomats—use it, resource it and come up with a strategy that allows it to lead.
Yesterday’s announcement was understandable, but it does make life for our diplomats harder. They can only shape the views of partners and achieve the aims that we need for our country if Whitehall is clear in the strategy that it seeks, with tasks and outcomes prioritised in the crisis we are in. We know that this is not a time to rest. Although I know that no one in King Charles Street or Downing Street is sitting idle, the reality is that we need to up our game. Nigerian protests today show the instability that can exist in countries with very young populations, especially when covid has knocked the economy for six.
If a deep international crisis breaks out tomorrow, on top of the pandemic we are already in, the rest of the world will not care whether we have launched our reviews or not—they will only care if we are ready to help and if we have thought about it. If the Government seek to publish the integrated review now, it should be followed by a clear plan for how it can be delivered in the current circumstances. Writing a strategy is the easy bit; it is delivering on it that is hard. That is why we call on the Government to make it clear that their foreign and national security priorities are clear, have been determined and are now prioritised as regards the funding that they will require to be delivered.
We need to make sure that businesses in Glasgow have the reach they need in the Gulf; that in Cardiff, the regulations that shape manufacturing are built on principles we share; and that from Belfast to the great county of Kent, the strength of our services continue to underwrite that growth.
This is not an academic exercise that can simply wait. The integrated review is about promoting the prosperity and happiness of the British people across these islands, and nothing is more important than that. As, today, the Government rightly announce the space programme out of the Shetland Islands, we should think about not just our islands and space, but the world that comes between.
My congratulations to the Chair of the Select Committee on an excellent report. He said that it has been indicated that the Government intend to delay the publication of the integrated review. Has he any indication of when that publication will see the light of day?
I congratulate the Committee and the Chair on its report. Who knows who else No. 10 might snatch for promotion!
The hon. Member has touched on this point: does he share my concern that there is a bit of a mismatch between the rhetoric and the reality of the Government, particularly the domestic-facing Departments? We have UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office embassies saying, “Come to the UK and study on Chevening scholarships,” and the Home Office refusing visas to students who have been granted Chevening scholarships; we have the FCDO publishing frameworks on business and human rights and then we have the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy funding companies that are perhaps in breach of some of those business principles. The integrated review needs to be properly integrated.
Could the hon. Member also say a word on the scrutiny of official development assistance and the role of a dedicated ODA Committee in this House?
I agree. The point about integration is that it is not just about having Foreign Departments for the sake of co-ordinating embassies—it is about delivering effects for the British people across these islands. That means that integration needs to include the Home Office, of course, and Education and Justice. That does not mean, I hasten to add, that everything should be run by our diplomatic service, but merely that it should be co-ordinated so that the effect is properly strategic. The hon. Member’s own work in Malawi, to which I pay huge tribute, is a demonstration of how co-ordination can work between the public and private sectors and between different levels of government on our islands. I think there is a real opportunity there.
On his second point, there is always a challenge in the rhetoric. We have to make sure that the rhetoric matches the reality. That is why linking up the strategy with the money really does matter.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on a really interesting and readable, well-presented report, which should be the foundation of our thinking about a new and confident United Kingdom as we progress to our new independent status. I also commend him on emphasising how important delivery is. Strategy is not complete unless it reconciles ends, ways and means, which means that we need to consider what resources we are prepared to commit before we can decide what policies we should adopt. Can I ask him, in particular, to focus the attention of his Committee on the people? Our people are our greatest force multiplier: how will they be trained and developed, including developed for leadership roles in a way we perhaps have not thought about deeply for many years?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The one brief response I will make is that one of the big changes William Hague made when he was Foreign Secretary was to reopen the language academy. Bringing together understanding, as well as leadership, is fundamental if we are to have the delivery that my hon. Friend rightly emphasises, and bringing that together with the military elements of leadership and co-ordination makes a huge difference.
I confess that when I listened to the witnesses, I kept remembering those words of the Victorian poet:
“We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven”.
However, the truth is that much still abides for this country. The BBC is the most respected newscaster around the world; English is still becoming the world’s language; we are often the penholder in all the major international institutions; and many people want to do their legal business in this country because we respect the rule of law. Do we not need to find that new niche where we are still special?
I personally pay huge tribute to my friend the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), whose work on the Committee in recent years has been so important, and I agree with him totally. We came up with the idea of a very lateral system, as we have been calling it: a system in which the enabling element, the bureaucratic element, if you like, of the UK is the strength that brings people together. I agree with him entirely that there is a huge opportunity for us to co-ordinate and cohere with other countries.
I commend my hon. Friend on his statement and the quality of his report. Were the Government to accept his recommendation to tilt to the Indo-Pacific and to deploy atrocity prevention capabilities, how much of the Government’s Foreign Office efforts does he think would be taken up with China?
It is quite clear that a lot of our effort will be taken up with China over coming years, no matter what we do. However, the tilt to the Pacific should be seen not just as a tilt towards China, but a tilt towards the countries that we also have as friends in the region—Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and I could go on—and the effort we could make there not just to balance against some of the nefarious aspects of China, but to help China grow into the integrated global system that we think will enable future prosperity for all of us, including the Chinese people.
I thank my hon. Friend for his statement, and congratulate him on the publication of his report. I firmly believe that the FCDO’s work, as well as having a global impact, can have a really positive impact on my constituents as they live their lives across Bishop Auckland. From the findings of his report, can I ask my hon. Friend how our diplomats, who, I know, do great work across the network, can ensure that my constituents have more job opportunities, better services and a cleaner environment, and can continue to stay safe?
The truth, as my right hon. Friend knows—my hon. Friend, I mean, although I have no doubt that she is very soon to be right honourable—is that the people of Bishop Auckland depend not just on their proximity to Durham, or indeed their place in the wonderful County Durham, but on a global and international system that is linked through services and trade to an entire world. The delivery of an integrated review is not just about the prosperity of some people in some parts, but about the fundamental prosperity and happiness of the British people: our ability to travel and trade, love and study, anywhere in the world.
I thank my hon. Friend for having brought forward this report at a crucial crossroads for Britain’s future as a global power. Britain has many international opportunities lying ahead of us, and part of the risk—as highlighted in the report—is not grasping those opportunities in defence and aid. Perhaps our largest strategic threats are the destabilising effects of Russia, China and Iran on the global scheme. Could my hon. Friend share some of his thoughts and concerns on that matter?
I pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend, who knows more about Iran than I will ever know. His work with the various communities in the area that have been particularly concerned about it is inspiring. At the moment, we seem to be falling between two stools—the E3 and the United States. We can bring together an integrated review and we can make it count.
I commend my hon. Friend on this fantastic and digestible report. When it comes to our wider strategy, one way to ensure that all parts of the country benefit from a truly strong FCDO, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) mentioned, is to consider how we package brand Britain. Part of that is ensuring that our diplomats understand the regional variances in our country so that, as we go out there with that soft power, all parts of the country benefit.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Whether it his constituency or indeed that of the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), different parts of the United Kingdom have different aspects that need to be prioritised. That is hugely important, and having diplomats who can speak not only for Kent—although it is, of course, the most important—but for places such as Scotland and the north of England is absolutely essential, and of course, who could ignore Wales, which is so well represented on the Committee.
Integrated Activity Fund: Transparency
I beg to move,
That this House has considered transparency of the Integrated Activity Fund.
May I say from the outset that it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and to see Members here for this Thursday afternoon debate? Many MPs from different parties have attempted to question the Government on this fund, only to be met with unclear and murky answers. This is a fund of up to £20 million each year to countries accused of human rights abuses, so the last thing the Government should be is unclear and murky.
I will raise several issues regarding the transparency of the fund, in the hope that the Government can finally provide some answers. We know that the fund is spent across the Gulf Co-operation Council states—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. However, the Government have failed to provide a breakdown of spending in each country. Ministers reason that this lack of transparency is because:
“Many of the projects and programme activities were delivered regionally, so it is not possible to provide a breakdown by beneficiary state.”
It seems clear to me that a solution would be to outline the projects that the IAF supports, then we could understand how the money is spent across the region.
However, when MPs have inquired into the projects that the fund supports, the Government continue to be vague:
“The Integrated Activity Fund supported a range of non-ODA programmes and projects across the Gulf. These included, but were not limited to, activities focusing on culture, healthcare, youth engagement, economic diversification and institutional capacity building.”
I am afraid that that is not clear enough. The House deserves to know exactly what projects the UK Government are funding across the region through the IAF.
The hon. Gentleman is setting up the debate nicely here, but may I suggest that it might be helpful to go back to first principles and ask ourselves whether, in the areas he has just outlined, the need for any reform within the Gulf Co-operation Council countries may not necessarily be rooted in lack of money?
The right hon. Gentleman puts a good point on the record, and it is something I will attempt to develop later in my speech. In terms of first principles, he is perhaps right, and I am sure that when he speaks he will reaffirm that to the Minister.
Considering the accusations from human rights groups over the legitimacy of this fund, the Government should be obliged to publish the results of the risk assessment that they should obviously have undertaken. However, the Government will not even disclose to the House the beneficiaries or implementers of, or projects funded by, the IAF, giving Ministers and the public no idea how their money is being spent.
Members of this House and of the other House have repeatedly questioned the Government on the specifics of the Integrated Activity Fund. However, we have only received vague half-answers in response. I guess that begs the question: if the Government have nothing to hide, why will they not be completely transparent on the fund?
The question of transparency clearly links with a topic brought up by hon. Members across the House, that of human rights abuses in the gulf region. Hon. Members have brought up the fact that the UK Government funds projects in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where we know the death penalty, torture and political imprisonment take place. Indeed, the human rights situation in those countries is worsening; Saudi Arabia executed a record 184 people last year, while the indiscriminate Saudi-led bombing of Yemen is responsible for what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian catastrophe.
This is not the first time the Government have been criticised over their funding of projects in GCC states. A case in point is the controversial conflict, security and stability fund, the CSSF, which drew criticism from UK aid watchdogs for serious shortcomings in the way it operated. It was found to have been insufficiently rigorous in applying safeguards to prevent collaboration with foreign entities with suspect human rights records.
One project funded by the CSSF was the contentious security and justice programme in Bahrain. In its 2018 report, the Foreign Affairs Committee urged the Government to review the programme, particularly in light of the evidence that Bahraini prison staff and security personnel had been implicated in torture and extrajudicial killings.
That programme, which cost at least £6.5 million, caused the CSSF to come under parliamentary investigation for its lack of transparency. However, once the programme began to face scrutiny, it was simply transferred over to the Integrated Activity Fund. If the CSSF faced severe criticism from this House for its funding of the programme, then it is only natural that the IAF, which is arguably more opaque, should receive the same investigation.
The IAF has also come under further scrutiny for its links to the Bahrain Special Investigations Unit. Recent freedom of information requests obtained by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy revealed that in 2018, visits were made under the IAF from the College of Policing, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, and Merseyside’s professional standards department to meet counterparts at Bahrain’s Special Investigations Unit. Since those visits, Bahrain’s SIU has been criticised by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims as “critically flawed” and failing to meet,
“the minimum professional standards and minimum international legal standards”.
Bahraini judges and representatives from the Ministry of Interior visited the UK in 2018 and 2019 under the IAF. According to the Bahraini embassy in London, these visits were conducted to discuss,
“both the scope and implementation of alternative sentences in the UK”.
The FOI requests also indicate that no overseas justice and security assessment was conducted for the judges’ visit, violating the Government’s own human rights safeguarding policy.
Prior to a mass prisoner release to ease the severe overcrowding of Bahrain’s prisons following the outbreak of covid-19, evidence suggests that alternative sentencing legislation was discriminating against political prisoners, including Sheikh Mirza Al-Mahroos and human rights defender Ali Al-Hajee. Alongside revealing the other contentious programmes and activities that the IAF supports, the FOI requests further highlight that at least two programmes have been provided exclusively to Bahrain. This evidence shows that certain activities are, in fact, country specific, thus negating the FCDO’s claim that country-specific breakdowns are impossible, since activities are only covered regionally. In the light of that, I again urge the Government to provide a clear breakdown of the individual projects and programmes they fund in each of the countries that the IAF supports.
With a history of controversial projects and their insistence on being vague about the Integrated Activity Fund, the Government are not painting a particularly clear image of their support for the GCC region. Lord Scriven said of the IAF:
“I have never seen a situation where it started open and became more swiftly opaque as criticisms grew… the Government have become hypersensitive if not paranoid to the fact that the truth will be exposed”.
It is imperative that the Government are more transparent about the Integrated Activity Fund, including by releasing information on the specific projects that the fund supports, in what countries, and crucially, whether they comply with the human rights risk assessment. I look forward to the Minister, for whom I have the utmost respect as a personal friend, enlightening the Chamber this afternoon as he closes the debate on behalf of the Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I say to the Minister through you that we need three things. First, we need a direct answer to the question of why the Government will not provide the information that has been asked for over the years, not just, “It’s the spy clause” or whatever else it may be. Why has not the information been made available in the way it would be on virtually every other element of Government spending, whether through the Cabinet Office, the FCO, the British Council or the Home Departments?
Secondly, how can MPs and the public judge the effectiveness of the programme if they do not know what the money is spent on? We can all produce a list of things that we would like money to be spent on, whether in these fields or others.
The third issue, which is the underlying one, is the transparency process. One of the Minister’s predecessors, Alistair Burt, was very sympathetic and helpful as far as he could be as a Minister when I and others worked with the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy on some of the Opposition activists whose experience of the Bahraini justice institutions was appalling.
I have been in Parliament for some time. Two periods have been under Labour Governments. I would class myself as an Opposition activist. There are times when I have been on the streets protesting about things—whether it is trying to help drug dealers by imprisoning the social workers or a whole range of issues, when I have challenged either our fiscal politics or our justice system. We have to believe in the rule of law, but the law is not always justice. A campaign to change the law or constitution is something that ought to be allowed and encouraged. I take pride in living in a country where I can stand outside No. 10 Downing Street and shout abuse, or at least say to a Prime Minister, “I think you ought to be a different person or a different party.” That is part of opposition and we find that, without the kind of dictatorships we had 400 years ago and without the slaughter of political opponents, we have developed a better system—not perfect, but capable of improvement and recognising mistakes when they are made.
My judgment on the limited information that is available in public is that the Government have made a mistake in not being more transparent about this fund. I think we probably knew more about its predecessor fund than this one. It is interesting that it has not always been spent. The average spend is only about two thirds of the allocated £20 million a year.
This debate is not just about effectiveness, transparency and the other things I have talked about. The fund is also a way of introducing those countries where it may be spent on co-operation and all kinds of things from institutional changes to aquaculture and the like, to the idea that we are interested in their trying to make fewer of the mistakes that we made in our past so that they will make fewer of the mistakes that they are making in their present. If we are going to be effective collaborators and we can put our weight of different kinds, be it military, diplomatic or economic, behind the states that are trying to resist some of the more powerful and worst elements in that region—we understand the difficulties they are facing—we would like to know that public money and public process is working in a way that allows us to understand what is going on, so we can support the money being properly spent. That is why we need to have greater transparency and greater effectiveness from the money.
It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, for the first time. I hope it all goes well—from both sides.
Some people might think this is something of a niche debate concerning relatively small sums of public money in the context of overall Government spending. We have heard that it has been about £20 million a year for the past five years, although there were predecessor funds and not all of that was spent. Having said that, we could pay for a lot of free school meals in the holidays with the money that is going to what many people will think is a rather prosperous region of the world.
I pay tribute to other sponsors of the debate, the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley). I remember a lot of Conservative Members—I exonerate the hon. Member for Worthing West from this—complaining that the former Department for International Development funding regime wasted money by sending it to countries such as India and China. I wonder whether we will hear the same about money being sent to Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. That in itself deserves some explanation.
I thank the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, which has been mentioned, and Reprieve, which has helped with briefings for the debate. It sometimes seems like a thankless task, but they and other human rights organisations labour constantly to bring to light abuses of human rights in Gulf countries. The crux of the issue—I think it has already been said—is to do with secrecy. There have been few statements about the fund. Initially, there was no admission of the fund at all. It was like the security services used to be—it did not exist. When it was finally introduced to the public, the distinguished former Minister, Alistair Burt, said:
“The IAF provides funding in support of a range of programmes across the Gulf Region. These include, but are not limited to, activities focusing on aquaculture, sport and culture, healthcare and institutional capacity building.”
What could sound more benign than that? Aquaculture sounds like a wonderful thing to spend British taxpayers’ money on in Oman. “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is perhaps a sorer point.
However, that is not really the full extent of it, is it? With all due respect to Alistair Burt, for whom I have a great deal of time, it emerges that about a third of the projects could be euphemistically called “justice projects”: they are related to justice, security, imprisonment and other similar issues. Despite the plethora of FOIs, the Library briefing is almost entirely made up of questions with inadequate answers to them—some from the Minister, who I am sure will give us a far more candid response. We have a whole list of UK Government Departments that are spending the fund’s money, but we do not know how much each is spending or, indeed, on which projects. We do not know which of the Gulf countries are in receipt of the money and how much each of them is given. I notice that a written answer to the noble Lord Scriven said,
“All IAF-funded project work undergoes assessment and review. We are not able to disclose information related to particular IAF projects in greater detail as we have a duty to maintain the confidence and confidentiality of our partners.”
It appears that they do not want us to know what they are doing in the aquaculture field.
A couple of months ago, I asked a question that drew attention to the contrast between the funding of Bahrain through the IAF and the two prisoners who had undergone abuses through the Bahraini justice system, Mohammed Ramadhan and Husain Moosa, who are still on death row. Again, the reply simply said, “Yes, we object to the death penalty being used in these circumstances, but we are designing to support Bahrain-led reform in areas including human rights.”
I return to the question asked by the hon. Member for Worthing West: how effective is that? The answer must be, not very effective. The record on human rights across the board is getting worse year on year in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, which is much larger and more proactive in the region—although, UAE is becoming increasingly so—draws a lot of the attention. We have heard about the 184 executions, quite a number of them by crucifixion and other horrific practices. We know about those protesting for women’s human rights who were locked up and tortured. All of that is happening now under the current Saudi regime.
However, we also know that Bahrain lifted its moratorium on the death penalty in 2017, has executed six people and has a further 26 on death row. Those are the headline figures, but the practices and conditions in prisons, which are squalid, lead to epidemic-level outbreaks of illness. Prisoners do not get treatment for serious health conditions. Many of these individuals are long-standing human rights campaigners going back decades. They are now quite elderly, but they are locked up. Despite having serious health conditions, they do not receive any health treatment.
The situation in Bahrain has gone downhill since the Arab spring, when there was a popular uprising, which was supressed using Saudi forces. Since then, anyone speaking out on human rights has been dealt with in a summary fashion. Civil liberties in these countries are virtually non-existent now. Things that we would take for granted, such as a free press, the right to assemble and the right of opposition political parties to form—most of them have now been dissolved—do not exist. In Bahrain, unlicensed gatherings of over five people are illegal and public protests are supressed with violence.
I ask the Minister, how are our attempts, funded by the British taxpayer, to improve human rights in these countries going? It all seems to be going in the opposite direction. I do not have time to go over the many individual cases, but there are cases of people—such as Ali Al-Hajee, Ali Al-Wazir, Hassan Mushaima and all those on death row—who should be held up as supporting human rights and arguing for better conditions of life, but who are being supressed by entirely oppressive regimes.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that obvious point, which I wish I had thought of. Now that it is on the record, perhaps the Minister would like to respond to it. Why are we supporting the organisations that we have heard about today, such as the special investigations unit and other human rights bodies in Bahrain? They all have wonderful names, such as the ombudsman. The problem is not just that these organisations are ineffective, despite the money they receive from the UK, but that they collaborate with the prosecuting authorities. They provide a shield against proper investigation and often turn down investigations on little or no evidence, which puts the individual whose case they are reviewing in a worse position than when they started. Yet those are exactly the organisations that we are supporting.
When I was shadow Justice Minister, I put it to the then Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), in very strong terms, that we were selling prison services—this is a peculiarity of our relationship with Gulf countries: half the time we seem to be giving them money, and half the time we seem to be selling them services—through what was called the Saudi prison contract, when in fact what was going on in those prisons was torture, abuse and appalling conditions. To his credit, he ended the contract that had been started by his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), which was exactly the right thing to do.
If mistakes have been made in the past, look at them again. How effective are they? Are they, in fact, giving cover to repressive regimes? Are they, in fact, making the situation worse? We cannot answer those questions because of the secrecy surrounding this and other funds. It is simply outrageous that the Government continue to use national security or other measures to disguise the use of money that they say is for entirely benign purposes. We look to the Minister for some answers today, but what we would actually like is a proper review of whether this is an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I remind the Chamber of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I chair the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group. I am struggling to remember, but I think I am also an office-bearer for the all-party parliamentary group on Kuwait, but other hon. Members will know that the amount of commitment that those offices bring with them is, shall we say, variable. My engagement with those APPGs has, however, given me, I hope, a small measure of insight into engagement with Gulf countries—those in the Gulf Cooperation Council in particular, although I am not sure that there really is a functioning GCC at present.
I am not without sympathy for the purposes behind the idea of such funds. As I said to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), I am not really persuaded that the deficiencies in civic Government, human rights and even in agriculture—rarely does a debate come up where the MP for Orkney and Shetland cannot talk about agriculture—are necessarily down to a lack of funding. However, I am also always aware that when one engages with countries that have deficiencies in those and other areas, it is best always to do so from a starting point of a measure of humility. We rarely achieve much by lecturing and preaching to people in other countries. Understand a bit of their own history and how they have come to the point they are at today.
To draw on my experience with Qatar, for example, I have been genuinely impressed in recent years to see some of the progress that has been made in relation to labour rights. The abolition of the kafala system and the opening of an International Labour Organisation office in Doha are significant achievements, and we should be pleased. When I speak to people in the Qatari Government, of course we want to talk about those things, as they inevitably do—every Government always want to talk about where they have made progress—but we also have to be mindful that there is still a significant way to go in relation to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, for example. To engage with any measure of integrity with these countries, we have to be able to tell them that, while appreciating the progress they have made, we see other areas where progress still has to be made.
I am always very conscious of the fact that in Britain the abolition of the death penalty and the legalisation of homosexuality both happened in the course of my life. Both date back to the 1960s, so we should engage and encourage, but we should be mindful of the fact that we have not always had the greatest story to tell. On labour rights, for example, let us not kid ourselves, because we still have a problem with human trafficking in this country, notwithstanding the gangmasters legislation that we have now had for about 10 to 15 years. So humility is the order of the day.
That said, engagement must bring with it other things. The most important of those, as the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) said, should be transparency and accountability. It is in the operation of the IAF that we find a worrying lack of both transparency and accountability, and I fear that permeates other aspects of our engagement with Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
Although it is not necessarily directly on point in relation to the operation of the IAF—at least I suspect that is the case, but who knows?—I am very concerned that the police chief in Dubai appears to be a front-runner for the presidency of Interpol. Nasser Ahmed Al-Raisi was in charge of the police service that detained a British academic, Matthew Hedges, for around six months on trumped-up charges, bluntly, which Matthew has always denied. I understand that he was eventually forced to sign a confession in Arabic, which he just did not understand, and in that time he was tortured. The engagement with the United Arab Emirates in relation to that case, for example, is not one that in any way, shape or form can be seen as working in the interests of United Kingdom citizens.
It is because of the lack of transparency and accountability that the business of engagement with GCC countries looks, from time to time, as if it is operating on double standards. We criticise China—I am 100% behind the Government’s new policy on China—but at the same time we seem to find it very difficult to criticise the Saudi Government, notwithstanding, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) outlined, their truly appalling human rights record. Yes, they have recently passed legislation allowing women the right to drive, but at the same time they are jailing those who actually campaigned for that very right. They also use the death penalty for people who would have been minors at the time they committed any crimes. They seem to continue on an almost unrestricted basis, including—God help us—having crucifixions.
If UK taxpayers’ money is being spent in such countries, the UK Government have a duty to account to taxpayers for where it is being spent and what it is being spent on. The little that we do know about the operation of the IFA, particularly as it relates to Bahrain, is that it involves sentencing reform and alternative sentencing there. That is a cause that I am prepared to support—indeed, it is a drum that I have beaten for many years in this country. That is certainly something we should support. However, if we consider the way in which alternative sentencing policy is pursued in Bahrain, we find very quickly that in fact there is no benefit for the political prisoners there. The beneficiaries of alternative sentencing are all within the country’s criminal justice system. I would have thought that one of the things we would want to promote is equal treatment, at the very least, of criminal prisoners and political prisoners. We should of course be pursuing a situation in which there are no political prisoners, but for those who find themselves imprisoned in Bahrain, any advances should be equally available to all.
There is a case for doing at least some of the work associated with the IAF, but I cannot think of many areas of public expenditure, even at this scale, that are allowed to be maintained in such conditions of secrecy. It is totally lacking in transparency and accountability. If the money is genuinely being spent on capacity building, we should expect it to be spent through non-governmental organisations, which I know is not easy in Gulf countries. However, they are there and they do operate, and they would seem a more obvious route for channelling support through, as we do in virtually every other theatre in which we spend overseas development moneys.
Indeed, which is why I deliberately did not use the terms “overseas aid” or “overseas development assistance”. However, to the hard-pressed British taxpayer, it is money that is being spent overseas, and the objectives set for the IAF would not look out of place in our overseas development assistance budget. If the objectives are the same, there would have to be some compelling reason why, on this occasion, we are effectively giving money to state actors, rather than non-state actors.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in this regard. I fear that it is a topic to which the House will continue to return for some time to come.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Mr Efford. I am conscious that other Members have other places to go, so I will not dwell on my speech for too long. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for setting the scene, as he always does. He and I might have a difference of opinion on one big issue, but we agree on a great many other things, which is important. I am always glad to see the Minister in his place as well. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief.
I have long spoken in this House about the need to ensure that any funding for conflict zones should be traceable to relieving the effects of conflict on innocent victims, not to those who carry out the conflict. One example of that has been—I make no apology for this—the funding to the Palestinian Authority, who carry out campaigns against Israeli women and children, and who use education and propaganda to perpetuate hatred between the two nations. As the UK has not published a full list of the projects that the IAF supports, it is unclear whether we directly fund such textbooks. I seek clarification on that from the Minister, and receiving that today would be extremely useful.
The British Government have signed a memorandum of understanding with the Palestinian Authority. The text is regurgitated each time it is signed. Paragraph 2(i)i confirms that, to receive our support, the Palestinians must adhere to non-violence, yet they do not, but the money seems to keep rolling in. My concern lies in the fact that if the Government have difficulty in enforcing an agreement that sends tens of millions of pounds every year to people who endorse violence, what chance do they have of controlling and properly supervising the IAF, the budget of which is a fraction of the size? I have argued that we need more transparency, and I am very happy for this debate to take place today. No one should benefit from British aid who is not carrying out the most basic human rights obligations.
One such issue raised with me relates to Bahrain, which other Members have referred to. Freedom of information requests have demonstrated that IAF funding has supported religious organisations in Bahrain, and the Government have frequently praised Bahrain on its religious tolerance, stating on their website that:
“Bahrain maintained a positive record on freedom of religion or belief.”
However—there is always an however—it has been clearly illustrated that that is not what is happening.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has repeatedly raised concerns about systematic discrimination against Bahrain’s indigenous Shi’a population by the Sunni Government. Without full transparency about Government funding to the Gulf, how can taxpayers be sure that public money is not being used to underpin bodies involved in religious discrimination and the violent suppression of civil societies in the Gulf Co-operation Council? That is why we need transparency and why this debate is so important.
The Government have often pointed to Bahrain’s alternative sentencing legislation as an IAF success story. However, although an impressive number of individuals have been released on alternative sentences—that should be noted and congratulated—I have been made aware that there might be evidence to suggest that releases may have discriminated against political prisoners. At Jau prison, there are now reportedly entire cell blocks that exclusively house political prisoners, and those on criminal charges are granted alternative sentences.
A notable example of discrimination relates to the prisoners known as the Bahrain 13—the leaders of Bahrain’s political opposition, jailed for their role in the 2011 pro-democracy uprising. Four of those men—Sheikh Mirza al-Mahroos, Mohammad Hassan Jawwad, Mohammad Ali Ridha Isma’il, and Sheikh Abdul-Hadi Abdullah Hassan al-Mukhodher—have completed nine years of their 15-year sentences, making them eligible for alternative sentences. However, despite their advanced age—some of them are over 70—all have been excluded from recent prisoner releases, while individuals convicted of violent criminal offences have been released ahead of them. When International Activities Fund-backed legislation is applied in such a discriminatory manner, without any transparency in how the IAF money was spent supporting this initiative, how can the public, the British taxpayer and we as elected representatives be confident that our taxes are promoting genuine reform in Bahrain and the wider GCC?
Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa are Bahraini political prisoners who have been sentenced to death for his participation in pro-democracy protests and are at risk of imminent execution. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) referred to them. It is clear that they were tortured, sexually assaulted and forced to sign false confessions, which acted as the basis of their capital convictions. As a matter of principle, the UK opposes the use of the death penalty in all circumstances, and I welcome that. However, the use of executions has risen in Bahrain by a factor of more than 10 since 2017, in spite of IAF assistance to strengthen the rule of law.
The Special Investigations Unit is an IAF beneficiary—it sounds very dramatic and it has lots of power. The results of its so-called investigation were criticised for being flawed, failing to comply with the Istanbul protocol and leading directly to the re-imposition of the death sentences, so that review and investigation led nowhere. Amnesty International has found that IAF beneficiary oversight bodies that are responsible for investigating allegations of torture and abuse
“continually contribute to a pervasive culture of impunity in Bahrain through their failure to independently carry out their mandates.”
In the light of those well-documented and well-known failures, will the FCDO freeze funding until an independent review has been conducted?
Naji Fateel, a prominent Bahraini human rights defender, is currently serving a combined sentence of 25 years and six months for his human rights activism—something that we all subscribe to and speak about. He has now been away from his five children for more than seven years. When he was arrested, he was severely beaten and officers stomped on his head. During interrogation, Naji was severely tortured: he was kicked, forced to stand for long hours, suspended from the ceiling for long periods of time and electrocuted grievously on his genital area. His torture was so severe that he lost consciousness multiple times and had to be rushed to the hospital. There are publicly available pictures of the resulting scars on his body and he has suffered long-term consequences from this torture. Although Fateel now requires specific medication and surgery for his various injuries, the Jau prison authorities routinely deny him such treatment and have cancelled surgical appointments numerous times. Again, are we helping those people financially through the International Activities Fund, and are they then disregarding human rights, as they seem to?
After Naji made complaints to a human rights oversight body, the National Institute for Human Rights, it merely reviewed his medical records and swiftly closed his case, concluding he has
“his rights related to access to healthcare”
without a proper investigation or any action to remedy his situation. If the National Institute for Human Rights cannot do that job fairly, impartially or in a way that we can be satisfied about, it is time to do something about it.
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
To conclude—it is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson—will the Government make their funding streams to the GCC transparent, so that Naji and the British taxpayer can be sure that money is not going to, in effect, the institutions that cover up abuse?
Those are just a few examples of why the so-called secret package of funding must be transparent. Let us see where it goes, so that we can hold people accountable and allow for scrutiny. We must have dialogue with those we are helping, to ensure that human rights protections are not just a talking point, but a reality. Those examples show why we need it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I put on record that I am also all-party parliamentary group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this important debate and thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part for their contributions this afternoon, for the way they have sought to get to the truth of exactly what this fund is and what it is being used for, and for shining a light on places where, frankly, the Government and the recipients of the money would rather a light not be shone.
Although this debate has been a useful exercise, it remains a matter of deep regret that in a democracy there should be such a lack of transparency about how the shadowy Integrated Activity Fund is being used that the only way that we as hon. Members can scrutinise it is to have the occasional debate every couple of years. I fear that, as always happens when the Government are asked about the fund, we are going to be fobbed off with the standard response that the IAF is being used for
“aquaculture, sport and culture, healthcare and institutional capacity building.”
Sadly, that old “Nothing to see here” answer has been the hallmark of the Government’s response ever since the fund was established. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) was absolutely spot on. The Government must think we button up the back if they are asking us to believe that sending money to the cash-rich states in the Gulf is, “to help to develop aquaculture and sporting activities—but don’t ask about it, because it’s a secret.”
We live in hope, however, and the Government should be aware that even the expected non-answers will not deter us from continuing to ask these hugely important questions. The secrecy and lack of transparency that surround this fund make a mockery of the Government’s claim to be pursuing an ethical foreign policy. An ethical foreign policy does not fund states that are complicit in human rights abuses, and then seek to deny elected representatives the right to scrutinise that.
How can it be remotely ethical to give money to regimes that are accused by many highly-respected international human rights organisations of routinely using torture and executing political dissidents? How can it be remotely ethical for a Government to do everything they can to prevent democratic scrutiny and avoid public accountability for what has been done in our name? The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—always a great champion of the rights of people across the world to practise their religion or belief—is correct when he points out that we do not believe that there is freedom of religion and the ability to practise one’s belief in those states, and we should not be funding states that deny that.
I am sure in his response, the Minister will say that the UK Government fully respect human rights and that he will condemn any form of torture and say that they are working to promote best practice among our allies. That is absolutely fine, and no one would disagree that they should be doing that. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East said in his opening remarks, the problem is, if they are so confident about their position, why do they run a mile from any form of serious scrutiny?
Due to the Government avoiding scrutiny, it remains unclear where the money goes and what has been done, leading to the inevitable conclusion that they have something to hide and know that, should that truth get out, they would have plenty to answer for that would not be covered under the
“aquaculture, sport and culture, healthcare and institutional capacity building”
defence. The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) said that the Minister has to accept that hiding from public scrutiny is not a good look and only leads to further suspicion, and that the reason the UK keeps this out of the public eye is because they know that there would be outrage if the UK taxpayer discovered what their hard-earned cash was being spent on. If there is nothing to fear and nothing to hide, why this lack of scrutiny and transparency? Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, said:
“The only way for the British public to be confident their money is not leading to abuses abroad is for the government to publish a full and transparent account of projects we are funding and the human rights assessment for each.”
There is nothing in that that I can see a democratic Government could argue with.
Despite all the evidence of the human rights abuses that this money is going towards, the Government continue to give their unconditional political and economic support to many Gulf states. I think we should be asking more of our allies and friends. Surely we have a moral and ethical obligation to reassess any current aid relationship we have with states that stand accused of human rights violations.
I commend the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for calling out the double standards at play here, considering that we treat other states, quite rightly, as pariah states for how they treat their political dissidents. I fear that the United Kingdom stands accused of turning a blind eye to abuses when it believes it has something to gain.
Given that the opportunity to dig into the workings of the fund are extremely limited, in the time remaining I will ask the Minister a series of questions. He may wish to answer them this afternoon, but I am more than happy to receive a more considered written answer, so long as they do not contain the words
“aquaculture, sport and culture, healthcare and institutional capacity building.”
First, will the Minister accept that criticism of the fund is growing and will not go away? If the UK Government are so confident that the fund only funds lawful, peaceful and legitimate activities, will he explain what they have to fear from an open and independent review of how it is being used? Why, at a time of this supposedly ethical foreign policy, will he not agree to suspend the fund while it undergoes that independent review, in the hope of restoring public confidence? Why do the Government believe that there should be no transparency or independent democratic scrutiny of the activities of those who benefit from these funds? In what way do the Government believe that releasing the information about the activities of those receiving funding would threaten our relations with the GCC states?
The Government have claimed much credit for the human rights oversight bodies now operating in Bahrain, yet numerous human rights organisations have accused them of being complicit in torture and other serious abuses. Will the Government publish their internal evaluations and let Members of this House and the public see how they assess the recipients of IAF money and how they are making progress towards building those effective and accountable institutions? The UN committee against torture and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy have revealed that those organisations have frequently failed to investigate and have actively shared confidential correspondences with Government bodies. They have been shown to be not only ineffective, but deeply compromised. Does the Minister not agree that those bodies provide the Bahraini Government with a veneer of reform, while achieving very little in the promotion of human rights?
The Government repeatedly claim that they benefit from an ongoing and genuine dialogue. If that is true, why have the Government been unable to come out to condemn the death sentences against torture victims in Bahrain? Why is the receipt of funding from the IAF not contingent on the states seeking it not executing people, including their own dissidents? What is Minister’s explanation for why two states in particular, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which receive millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, are now executing more people, at a faster rate, than they were before receiving money from the IAF? Will the Government name all the bodies that receive funding, as well as those that deliver the funding? Will the Government provide a breakdown by country or activity? Do the Government believe that there is, currently and in the past, no IAF programme that has failed to comply with the UK’s human rights obligations?
Finally, I once again thank all the Members who have contributed today, and put on record my gratitude to, appreciation of, and respect for those human rights organisations and committed activists who, on behalf of us all, are shining a light where too many people do not want a light to be shone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. To start with, it is worth making the point that there have been six contributors to this important debate so far this afternoon, and there has been a commonality among all their contributions, which I really think the Government have to take note of. It is also worth reminding ourselves of why we were told this fund was established in 2015. The then Minister of State for the Middle East indicated that the fund was
“intended to support the delivery of flexible, cross-cutting and sustained investment in the region. The IAF provides funding in support of a range of programmes across the Gulf Region. These include, but are not limited to, activities focusing on aquaculture, sport and culture, healthcare and institutional capacity building.”
However, it is pretty clear that the fund is used for a whole range of activities that go well beyond the limited areas that were specified.
A few months ago, I participated in a Zoom conference organised by the Bahraini Government, on the alternative sentencing programme in that country. Many positive things were stated, and there had no doubt been a distinct British influence on what was described to us. However, I have to say that, as we all know, the programme was very limited, because it included only certain kinds of prisoners. Other prisoners, such as political prisoners—who, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) mentioned, should not exist anyhow—are not included in such programmes. They are people who are unspoken of and unrecognised, but we all nevertheless know that they are there.
It is also important to recognise that it is not simply parliamentarians complaining about a lack of information and transparency. It is objectively true that this information is not fully, freely available to a whole range of non-governmental organisations, and is certainly not available to members of the public and anybody else who wants to inquire about how the money is actually spent. Even the House of Commons Library, on which we rely for objective information, has been unable to find out very much about the allocation of resources. I have read the Library briefing on this topic, which said very clearly that although the funding allocations are
“reported in the FCO’s departmental Estimates and its Annual Report and Accounts”,
there is little else besides. The Library has looked everywhere for additional information, and has had “to rely on PQs” and written replies from the FCO and other Departments to glean more information, but it knows very little about this fund. This debate is therefore incredibly important, and the Minister’s response will be very important as well.
As we all know and as Members have mentioned, there are a whole range of concerns about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and many people believe that, far from getting better, the situation is getting worse. It is therefore extremely important that we focus acutely on how these resources are allocated and why, and whether or not they are being used truly effective.
Two organisations that have done a tremendous amount of work in this area are Reprieve and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, and it is significant that BIRD submitted a freedom of information request to the Government in July 2019, in which it asked a number of important questions.
One of the key questions asked in that letter was
“whether any risk assessments were conducted by the Government under the overseas security and justice assistance guidance to evaluate the human rights implications of such assistance, and, if so, what were the findings of these investigations?”
What was the answer from the FCO?
“No OSJA risk assessments were carried out.”
That is it. The FCO did not bother to ask, look or inquire. It simply did not carry out the assessments.
Not only is that wrong, but it is in stark contradiction to the express policy of the Government themselves. They are proud of those assessments, yet they do not bother to implement their own policy. That is why I think the debate is important. I also think that it must continue beyond today. I welcome the request that has been made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), for example, for responses following the debate. We will look carefully at the responses from the Government, because the debate is not a one-off. Our concern is deep, entrenched and widely held, and I look forward to the Government’s responses to questions asked today, and to those that will inevitably be asked later.
It is central to a modern democracy that we have openness and accountability, and that the Government should give us a clear statement about how public money is being used and whether it is being used appropriately and effectively. It is not our money that we are talking about. The people of this country have a right to know how their hard-earned resources have been spent by the Government, and whether that is effective. I look forward to a full response from the Minister and hope that our debate will continue beyond this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for securing the debate today. I am also grateful for the contributions of other hon. Members, and I will attempt to answer as many of the points that have been raised as possible.
The UK continues to look at ways of deepening our already strong and historic relationships with Gulf partners. Our 2015 strategy sought to increase our mutual security, prosperity and regional stability interests. In making that point, I reflect on the comment of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) about doing things with a degree of humility, as well as the importance of doing them with a degree of sensitivity. He was right to highlight that. The UK Government seek to work alongside the GCC countries and to support and encourage a positive direction of travel in reforms there. However, being a hectoring bystander is probably not the most effective way to do that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and will address some of his points in my speech.
The creation of the Integrated Activity Fund in 2016 was part of the process to support that work to encourage and steer our friends in the GCC. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland highlighted the fact that they are for the most part wealthy countries, and a number of Members have questioned whether there should be any expenditure at all in the region. I remind Members that diplomacy is cost-efficient, but it is not free. If we want to make a positive difference and be a force for good in the world and in the region, we must recognise that it has to be paid for, but it is completely understandable that Members and the British public want the money to be spent ethically and effectively.
I will touch on the transparency of our expenditure in the region.
Earlier this week, I came back from Oman, where I saw first hand some of the work that the fund has enabled us to deliver. For example, it has helped to provide technical assistance to key economic institutions to help them respond to the reduced oil revenues and strengthen their regulatory process and staff capabilities, because stronger economies underpin stability. This work creates a stronger business environment, which is beneficial to the people of Oman, and it builds a better business environment for UK traders and investors. We also launched the UK-Oman digital hub in partnership with UK universities and industry to raise Omanis’ digital skills. That helps to build an innovative and more diverse economy in Oman. In February, we used the IAF to fund a trade mission to Saudi Arabia, which secured export contracts worth £80 million in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s smart cities sector. Our support for scientific and medical work on genomics in Qatar has established the UK as the partner of choice in that field.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the importance of tolerance, religious freedom and human rights. He is absolutely right to do so, but it is through such partnerships that we are able to raise these incredibly important issues with our partners in the GCC.
I want to recognise the excellent work that the Government and the Minister do, but I gave three examples of human rights being deliberately abused and disregarded. That surely indicates that the words that the Minister has with the people in the Government there are not effective. If that is the case, we need to find a different way.
I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I will attempt to address them in my speech.
As I was saying, this co-operation, which is to the benefit of the people of both the Gulf and the UK, is possible only because we are able to build strong and resilient partnerships with countries in the GCC. Of course, building trust has to be balanced with the desire for transparency—a point that various right hon. and hon. Members have made. I take issue with a comment made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), who said that the only way to scrutinise the Government’s activity in this area is to have debates. I remind him that that is the way that Governments are meant to be scrutinised; that is how Parliament works. I am here at the Dispatch Box to be part of the scrutiny process of the Government.
I think the Minister knows the point that I was making: having this debate once every 18 months or every two years is simply not enough, and having written questions fobbed off time and again with almost identical answers is an inefficient and inadequate way to do business.
I understand. The hon. Gentleman knows that, since becoming the Minister for the region, I am the responding Minister. If he is critical of repetitive answers, it is because the same questions keep being asked, but I will try to address promptly some of the points that were raised, if hon. Members permit.
I am very conscious that, as we have seen today, through written correspondence and more broadly, there has been criticism of the fund, and particularly of our work in Bahrain, but our policy has been to engage with Bahrain and to encourage and support its institutional reform through targeted assistance. For example, the IAF has enabled British expertise to help develop Bahrain’s independent human rights oversight bodies. I know that Members present have been critical, but the creation of those bodies is important, as is their improvement and reform. I know that the ombudsman’s office has, again, been criticised, but it must be recognised that it has investigated more than 5,000 complaints. I invite hon. Members to consider whether those investigations would have happened had we not been involved.
I am going to try to rattle through my speech, because, unfortunately, I will run out of time otherwise. A number of the points that Members have raised are embedded in it, but if I do not get to the end, I will not be able to cover them.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said that the alternative sentencing programme is a welcome step in the right direction and that he would like to see it go further. He is right, but if it were not in existence it would not be able to go further, and it is in existence at least in part because of the technical assistance from the UK Government. Those outcomes have strengthened human rights adherence and accountability in Bahrain, and they are possible only because—
Thank you, Mr Robertson. The UK is confident, and it is evident, that we are having a significant positive impact on human rights in the region because of the funds that we have allocated to technical assistance. We conduct rigorous overseas security and justice assessments in support of this work. That preparation enables us to put safeguards in place that ensure that our co-operation strengthens rather than undermines human rights and the rule of law.
The fund has evolved and is now the Gulf strategy fund. Ministerial colleagues and I will continue to use these funds to work with countries in the region to support our mutual prosperity and, as I say, strengthen their adherence to human rights. We have reviewed and strengthened the governance of the fund, so we do listen to concerns raised by colleagues from both sides of the House. We have invested in our programme expertise and brought more senior-level oversight through a streamlined cross-Whitehall governance board in London. We have appointed new programme teams in each Gulf state, with the ambassador or head of mission held accountable for effective programme delivery and value for money.
I can confirm that we will publish a summary of work funded by the Gulf strategy 2021 for Members of this House and broader society to scrutinise. Please be assured that I and my colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will continue to monitor the governance and operation of the Gulf strategy fund, as it now is, so that it delivers true value for money and viable results, supporting the UK’s explicit desire to be a force for good in not only the region but the world
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to colleagues from a number of parties. Normally, a Westminster Hall debate on a Thursday afternoon would be one man and a dog. Unfortunately, in this case, it is several men and no dogs, but the point remains that we have had Members from the Conservative party, the Labour party, the SNP, the Democratic Unionist party and the Liberal Democrats. It is very unusual for so many parties to come together and, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, to affirm the same message to the Government. I hope the Minister reflects on that.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) made the point that, several times in his remarks, the Minister, for whom I have the utmost respect, was able, on a country-by-country basis, to reference countries such as Oman, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where funding is becoming available. I am afraid that that rather flies in the face of the argument that has been made to hon. Members of this House who have lodged written questions that the information cannot be provided on a country-by-country basis, but that is what the Minister has just done that in his summing up.
I welcome what the Minister said about publishing a summary of 2020-21 financial year spending, but I come back to the central point that we are not just looking for a summary; we are looking for all the information. If the Government have nothing to fear, they will have no difficulty publishing that information.
Finally, I have been involved in politics for 19 years, including three years in this House, and more often than not Conservative Members demand to know about every single payment spent on international development. A number of us in this House have had concerns about the merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I accept that that has gone ahead, but the Government cannot have their cake and eat it. If they want to have that level of transparency in international development funding, it must surely be the same with the IAF.
I hope the Minister will accept that this is not something that will go away. I invite him on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) to come to the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf to continue this conversation. As he knows, I consider him a friend, and I am sure he will be more than happy to continue this conversation and to seek to allay the fears of hon. Members of this House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered transparency of the Integrated Activity Fund.
Ministry of Justice: Legal Aid Spending
I beg to move,
This this House has considered the spending of the Ministry of Justice on legal aid.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Robertson, and to move this motion on behalf of my colleagues on the Select Committee on Justice, which I have the honour to chair. I am delighted to see a number of colleagues here today.
People might think that spending on legal aid is a technical and rather dry subject, but it is not, and nor should it be, because ultimately it is about access to justice. When preparing for today, I was struck by a comment from the late Lord Diplock, one of our very distinguished jurists, who said:
"Every civilised system of government requires that the state should make available to all its citizens a means for the just and peaceful settlement of disputes between them as to their respective legal rights. The means provided are courts of justice to which every citizen has a constitutional right of access.”
The last point is important. It is the realistic ability to access justice that is important, if we are to talk about genuine access to justice, as opposed to the theoretical.
Rightly, after world war two, the legal aid scheme was set up under the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949. Governments of all parties have sought to provide means of access. To quote another distinguished late jurist, Lord Bingham:
“Denial of legal protection to the poor litigant who cannot afford to pay is one enemy of the rule of law”.
In a democracy, we are all committed to the rule of law. We debated it not long ago in Westminster Hall, Mr Robertson. To achieve that, it is important that those who have rights that they seek to enforce have a means of going to the courts to do so. They should not be constrained in exercising those rights by their means. The test ought to be the merits of their claim, rather than the means they have to bring it. In the same way, in criminal matters, those whom the state charges with an offence are entitled to a proper means of putting the state to proof as to whether that offence is made out against them. Their ability to do that should not be constrained by their means either. The test in a criminal case should be whether the state can prove the case against them on the merits and the evidence, to the appropriate standard. Those are basic things we all sign up to.
We have to ask how we can do that effectively in reality, in circumstances where many of the population find affording to pay for litigation, which no one embarks upon lightly, not viable or within their grasp. It is not just about litigation. I remember that when I started as a young barrister—I refer to my declarations in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—some of the most important things were those done through the green form scheme, such as giving important early advice on whether a contract case, or a case for possession of property, or a matrimonial case, had merits. It is not purely legal criminal matters that we are concerned with. Often, that early advice saves a great deal of trouble for individuals and for their families, either enabling them to resist an unfair claim against them, or warning them off pursuing an unwise course of action that might get them into more expense.
Access to justice and an effectively functioning legal aid system are in everybody’s interests and a societal good. Governments of all complexions have had to balance the need to do that with the need to sustainably fund it at times when there are other pressures on the public purse. It has struck me throughout my time in this place, that governments of all complexions have, from time to time, reduced spending on legal aid. No one is entirely free of that, and it is almost inevitable at a time when the Ministry of Justice also has to deal within its budget with prisons, probation and many other matters. It is very easy for legal aid spending to be seen as one of the more discretionary elements in the system and to be squeezed out.
That is why on a number of occasions over the years the Justice Committee has carried out inquiries and issued reports on spending on legal aid and its sustainability. Indeed, very recently we conducted an inquiry into legal aid in the context of the pressures placed on the legal profession and the court system by the covid-19 pandemic. We have now embarked on a fresh inquiry into the future of legal aid; we started it on 7 September and we are looking for evidence until 2 November. I hope that people will submit evidence to the Committee on the broad sustainability of legal aid.
Of course, the current statutory basis of legal aid is the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, or LASPO, but the Government have rightly undertaken to review that. There have been delays in that process and it has taken some time, but we need to see how effective that Act is. Some of the changes it made were sensible; others have not necessarily stood the test of time and we need to be honest about that. Perhaps the problem was that the introduction of LASPO was linked with a very significant reduction in legal aid spending. It was not the first time that had happened; the Labour Government before the coalition reduced spending on legal aid quite significantly in a number of areas. Now, however, we have a chance to consider what is a sustainable basis for legal aid. I hope that eventually we reach a degree of consensus so that legal aid ceases to be something of a party political football, which any type of public spending can sometimes become. I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on the progress of the Government reviews.
That does not mean that in the future we have to deliver legal aid in exactly the same way as before. However, it is important that people should have access to early advice, and there is no doubt that, for various reasons, the financial pressures on the system are creating real difficulties in delivering to people the level of service that we would wish to see. I note the briefings that have been provided by both the Law Society and the Bar Council in that regard.
As many will know, I spent most of my life in practice at the criminal Bar. A great deal of my work, either prosecuting or defending, was publicly funded. There is no doubt that there is a real problem now in attracting bright young lawyers, either solicitors or barristers, to undertake that sort of work. The cases that I worked on started with a solicitor attending the police station—in those days, the duty solicitor scheme had been brought in quite recently. We have heard compelling evidence over the last two or three inquiries, and indeed over the last two or three years, from solicitors and other practitioners that there is now a real dearth of people who are willing to undertake the fairly onerous task of turning out, sometimes in the middle of the night, to sit in a police station when somebody charged with an offence—often a serious criminal offence—is interviewed. It is part of that person’s constitutional right—part of ensuring both that the guilty are properly prosecuted and the innocent are defended—but in many areas now it is very hard to find legal aid solicitors available to undertake that work. The average age of a duty solicitor is pushing 50, whereas the average age of those in the legal profession as a whole is much younger, so disproportionately legal aid work is becoming an older person’s part of the profession. If we do not recruit new people to do the work, the supply of duty solicitors will dry up.
In the civil field, there is a geographic difficulty regarding the availability of housing advice; that was a particular example that we were given. I suspect that post covid more people will be in financial difficulty, facing problems of debt, and housing possession actions will loom even larger in the courts. However, in many places, including quite large local authority areas, it is physically very hard to find more than one legal aid practitioner who will provide advice on housing law for people. That is not a sustainable position.
The position is similar at the Bar. Even large specialist sets of criminal chambers—such as mine, and I suspect the Minister’s—will probably say anecdotally that far less of their work is publicly funded than was the case in the past. That bears particularly hard on young barristers just starting out, who very often cut their teeth on this sort of work. We need a sustainable means of making sure that people can make a living. I am not talking about a grand living—one of the most unpleasant and annoying things for those of us who understand this area is these ridiculous headlines about fat cat lawyers doing criminal work; that is simply not the case. The facts clearly demonstrated to our Select Committee in reports over the years show that that is not the case, but of course the easy headlines make the most noise, as far as public debate is concerned.
We have recommended that a particular focus should be given to ensuring that we can uplift the funding for criminal legal aid. I recognise that the Government have put more money into this and revised some of the payment schemes. I welcome that, but I say to the Minister that there is more still to be done. Particular issues have been raised with us about interim payments to ensure that at the present time, during the covid-19 pandemic, cash flow for solicitors firms and sets of chambers undertaking publicly funded work continues to be available.
I know the Minister had an important role in securing the valuable money that has been expended in support for legal advice centres. That is important and welcome, but we need to ensure that they are put on a sustainable footing, too. There is a concern about the very high level of administrative costs in the Legal Aid Agency. An administrative budget of £88.8 million seems an awful lot for the organisation, which is supposed to be a light-touch operator.
That comes against the background—as the Minister himself rightly said when he was a distinguished member of the Select Committee—that spending on legal aid is a fraction of a fraction of total public spending in the United Kingdom,; it has been said to be about 0.1% of total spend. We are not talking about large sums of money in the overall scheme of things, but those sums of money make a profound difference to the citizen’s ability to enforce their rights or to defend themselves against unjust accusations.
I have not had time to talk about family or civil work, but I know that some of my hon. Friends will show their expertise in those areas. I will, however, make two points. Since certain changes were made, there has been a real collapse in the number of people able to access the employment tribunals. I suspect that, given the pressures of an economy damaged by the pandemic, demand will grow in that area.
It was always thought that changes to family legal aid would lead to more mediation. In fact, we found that mediation fell through the floor, because early access to the lawyer was the gateway for pointing people to go into mediation as a cheaper and less confrontational means of resolving their family disputes. Actually, the risk is that some of the savings that were taken out have not been cost-effective; they have been false savings, because there has been a growth of litigants in person, making the cases longer to deal with, resulting in greater burden on the judges and court time, and less good outcomes for the individuals and society as a whole.
I know the Minister understands these matters much better than most. I hope that the Government will commit to continue the review of LASPO in a timely fashion, and that we will not be afraid to come to certain interim conclusions and put some interim money in, where it is appropriate and justified by the evidence, to keep the legal aid market sustainable under the current pressures. I hope we will take a broader view about the sustainability of legal aid going forward.
Finally, perhaps all of us could use this as an opportunity to improve public awareness of the importance of the law. The law is not a purely transactional matter. I think Lord Kerr put it well in the Unison case. This is not purely a matter of private concern between the individuals; there is a public good in access to the courts. It is important constitutionally that people should be aware of their rights and how they enforce them.
We should not be afraid, therefore, of saying that any civilised society should resource its justice system just as much as it would resource any other social service—as much as we would expect to resource education, care for the elderly, healthcare or housing. Those are all matters that we would regard as part of the fundamental social fabric. Access to a workable court system is an equal part of that, requiring proper funding of the courts and judiciary, as well as, where appropriate, ensuring that those who have meritorious claims—a test to ensure that is fair—are not deterred purely by want of means from bringing them.
I hope that serves as an introduction to this debate. I have tried to explain why we think this is important, and why we regard the inquiry that the Select Committee is currently undertaking as important. I hope the Government will be able to respond positively.
It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair for this debate, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), on securing the debate and on the content and nature of his speech, which I think will strike a number of chords across the Chamber. He made, as always, a powerful case for the principles on which legal aid rests. It underpins the rule of law in this country. If people are unable to access representation in civil and criminal cases, the rule of law is effectively denied to them. That is a powerful and important point. He also laid out some of the ways in which the pressures on the legal aid system are affecting individuals and communities, which I am sure will be reinforced, and which I certainly intend to reinforce myself.
[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]
Two years ago almost to the week, I was fortunate enough to open a debate in this Chamber on legal aid and to set out a number of the facts of what has happened to the legal aid service in the years since the LASPO Act was introduced. The grim truth is that, in almost every respect, the situation has got worse in those two years, and I will refer to a few of the figures in a moment. However, I particularly want to adopt as the context for my comments—as was briefly introduced by the hon. Gentleman—the impact of coronavirus. Grave as the situation was before, we are about to enter a period in which all the inequalities in access to justice and in the experiences on which that rests will become significantly worse.
We all have different experiences in different parts of the country, but I can say that my case load as a Member of Parliament has doubled in the past six months or so. Of those cases, a worrying—indeed, terrifying —number are outside my capacity to do anything about. They include people seeking urgent advice, help and representation on aspects of their lives that have been fundamentally disrupted by covid, particularly in the area of employment. Although there are sources of advice out there, and although—I will reinforce this again in my comments—I am lucky, in terms of the access to services that I have in my part of inner London, it has been absolutely terrifying how little assistance there is to refer people to.
I spoke to my local citizens advice bureau, which is superb, about that demand and about the early advice that it has been able to give. It told me that it received 6,000 separate inquiries between April and June, with 1,400 about social security—people losing incomes and jobs—1,000 housing-related inquiries and 500 employment- related inquiries, covering self-employment, redundancy or dismissal, the furlough scheme and access to employment tribunals.
It is absolutely clear from my case load, the citizens advice bureau’s and many other organisations’ that under the surface of the volume of need for advice, advocacy and representation, some of it is a need for early help and some is a need for being guided to the right kind of advice for people to make the right decisions in their own circumstances. However, it conceals a significant number of cases involving rogue employers or rogue landlords—sometimes rogue employees and claimants too, it must be said—where people are at severe risk. They are being exploited and need legal representation, which they are unable to get. I do not consider myself able to give any form of employment advice, so I have to signpost people to sources of help that are often simply not available to them.
I have had to deal with the number of illegal evictions during these past months. There was an evictions ban, now lifted by the Government, during the worst of the coronavirus months, but we know that people have been exploiting the vulnerability of a number of tenants and there have been illegal evictions. We need to be able to provide representation for those individuals. While we all agree that early help is a good thing and is frequently lacking, access to a legal aid solicitor is crucial in those circumstances, and far too often it is simply not forthcoming.
As I say, I am aware that we are well-resourced in London—nothing like compared with the level of need, but certainly compared with some other parts of the country. We know from the figures what has happened to the number of legal aid suppliers in different parts of the country. For example, when the LAA carried out its civil tender exercise in April 2013, it found that there were 3,500 civil provider legal aid offices, but as of October 2020 that had dropped to 1,774, or half the number of civil providers. In crime the picture is not so different: in 2013, there were 2,338 offices practising criminal legal aid. As of this month, that figure has now dropped to 1,058.
The number of providers has plunged and some parts of the country are simply deserts—we know the phrase—in terms of legal aid and access to services. As for access to civil aid in community care, the Law Society figures show that 37 million people in England and Wales are in a local authority area without a single community care legal aid provider and 37% of the population now live in a local authority with no housing legal aid providers at all. As need has intensified and as the coronavirus has exposed the level of need and vulnerability even more starkly, the providers are simply not there, and that is reflected in the expenditure figures and in the numbers of matter starts in all those areas of service.
We know how grave the situation is. We rely on legal aid lawyers now to carry out their work effectively, in some parts of the service almost for nothing. The level of remuneration is so poor that we rely heavily on the goodwill, dedication and vocation of legal aid lawyers to do this work. The Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, referred to the kind of demands we place on people in the criminal service to provide services in the middle of the night in police stations, but in civil law we are also asking people to carry out work on very complex cases for an extraordinarily low level of remuneration.
At the same time, we are asking this overstretched and under-resourced service to cope with more and more demands on it. We have a constant, but increasingly faster, drumbeat of abuse of the legal profession: they are all too frequently labelled “fat cat legal aid lawyers” who are regarded as if they are growing rich at the public’s expense. Also, sadly all too frequently, there is this smearing by associating lawyers with political motivation and the label of “activist lawyers”, which is a highly dangerous way of labelling a profession. I am sorry to introduce a non-partisan element to the debate, but it is disgraceful that Ministers—I exempt the Minister who is here today—are not standing up for the legal profession in the way that they should. In not defending those professionals, they are undermining the rule of law, which we all agree that legal aid is such a central part of.
The need is greater than ever it was. If it was a dire situation in 2018 when we last had a full debate on legal aid, we are now on the edge of the abyss in terms of legal aid provision. As we say again and again, the expenditure is not great, proportionately in public expenditure terms, but the expense of failing to invest in legal aid properly is great. I am not saying for a second that rising homelessness is a consequence of the lack of legal aid services, but I do say that when people are unable to get proper advice and representation in dealing with debt or housing benefit claims, that is part of the reason that people lose their homes. We have seen street homelessness double and family homelessness increase by 50% in the last 10 years. Those figures are not wholly accidental and that is an expense that falls on other parts of the public purse. It is truly a false economy.
I am delighted that the Justice Committee is conducting its inquiry. The all-party parliamentary group is also conducting an inquiry; we will have the first meeting next week, looking at criminal legal aid. We are looking at legal aid in the context of the recovery from coronavirus, and it is absolutely right that we should do that. We need to embed our public policy in the context of a set of pressures that we have never seen before in this country; it cannot be isolated from that. I look forward to what the Minister has to say, but I echo what the Chair of the Justice Committee said: we need assistance for the sector and we need it urgently.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), for securing this debate and for raising the points he has.
When I looked at the figures, the overall cut in expenditure for the Ministry of Justice since 2010 was about 38% and the reduction in legal aid spending was about 18%. My first question to the Minister is, was it worth it? Have we cut out a tremendous amount of abuse of the legal aid system, or have we merely tinkered away at the edges or cut out things that we ought not to have? In that context, and particularly in the context of the overall reduction in departmental spend, just how much have the changes that are occurring in the legal system been recognised? Have they been factored into the changes to its budget and to the legal aid budget? There has been an enormous advance away from litigation to mediation and arbitration. I must declare an interest as an associate of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, which I happily do. The Minister and I were talking about it earlier. He was amazed that I had the time to be able to carry on any work at all, but there we are. There is an important point here, however. Yesterday, I spoke at a very big event, with about 200 mediators and arbitrators. The question that came up was: what we can do in order to get the message out? Many of the disputes of the kind that the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) has mentioned can be better sorted by mediation, and occasionally by arbitration.
I pointed out that when I did an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship in the law, I sat for the first couple of times with a judge in the commercial court. Both cases were quite complex, but personal—one was a lawyer who was complaining about his treatment by a firm of lawyers. The judge made the point that they should go away and conduct mediation before they came back to him. I have no idea whether that person was eligible for legal aid, but the point is that mediation can sort things out much more quickly, and it can do it much more cheaply. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution, I am trying to get that emphasis on mediation and arbitration pushed through the whole of Government and outside, so that people are able to take it on. There have been great successes. In family law, many people take mediation before they go into divorce proceedings, and I know from my own experience that that is done at a cut-price level. Again, I ask the Minister: has that been factored in? Is it part of the benefit that we are getting out of the reduction in legal aid?
The Chairman of the Justice Committee mentioned not-for-profit legal organisations, which provide a lot of experience. Education is needed there, too, about the fact that mediation is a better way of approaching things than going for expensive litigation in the first instance. I am pleased that the Government have put almost £5.5 million into that, but they need to look at the role that not-for-profit legal organisations play and whether they can be used in a far better way.
There is no doubt that this covid experience that we are all going through has changed how people access and want to access legal services. I am sure it has meant that a lot more people want to go for mediation and arbitration, rather than litigation. We should seize the moment to press these points home, enable people to do that and encourage the development of these skills in the legal profession, but not just there—one of the great advantages of mediation is the breadth of the types of people who have the skills to conduct it. I have to say that I think politicians are ideal to conduct mediation. We deal with it all the time when we resolve disputes between constituents and big organisations. I do not know about hon. Members in the Chamber, but I certainly approach that with a mediation bias, and use the skills that I have acquired in the process of looking at this. A lot of work could be done to ensure that the provisions are there for litigants in person to be provided with the right sort of legal aid to take this forward.
I will end on two questions to the Minister. First, what are the challenges for the future of legal aid, and has he taken mediation and arbitration into account? Secondly, what has been the impact of covid on legal aid? That is the basis on which we seek to provide the access to justice that so many people want, but they do not necessarily want it in court. As long as they get their access to legal justice somehow, they are very happy with that sort of solution.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, and to follow the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill); the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck); and a fellow member of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). We have the hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), a shadow Home Office Minister and the shadow Justice Secretary to come. I hope the Minister is taking that on board and realises the quality, if not the quantity, of what he has. I hope he is not thinking, “Oh, it’s Thursday afternoon in Westminster Hall. It must be Members from London and the home counties present.” I know he is a better man than that.
To save time, I would like him to make a series of admissions. I think he probably would admit that the cuts to the Ministry of Justice have been some of the highest, if not the highest, in any Government Department over the past 10 years, that legal aid has been in the frontline of those cuts and, indeed, that those cuts have gone too far. I think that is axiomatic: given that the Government are rowing back from some of the cuts now, there must be some appreciation of that fact.
I do not know whether I can stretch my luck and ask the Minister to admit that the premise of LASPO and the criminal legal aid changes that followed it was the wrong approach. As Members present will know, the main feature of LASPO was that it overturned 70 years of practice in legal aid. Instead of allowing matters to come within scope unless they were specifically excluded, it required matters to be entered into. The consequence was that the majority of welfare law, private family law, social welfare law, and a whole range of other disciplines—housing, immigration, and so on—was wiped out, or almost entirely wiped out. In practice, those disciplines were wiped out, because most firms could not keep going with what little remained in scope. That was a mistake, and I hope the Government will come to admit that. If they do not, I hope that a future Labour Government will reverse that trend, which has been detrimental to access to justice and equality of arms in the courts ever since.
I do not want to dwell on this too much, so I will race through what I think have been the developments over those 10 years. I am afraid that Ken Clarke, now Lord Clarke, who we all appreciate for his stand on Brexit and other matters, was the axeman in these cases, as he so often was in other Governments. He cut a swathe through civil legal aid in particular; that was not his area of practice, so I wonder whether that is a case in point. He was followed by the next Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who caused the chaos and confusion in criminal legal aid that we are still living with to this day, not just through the cuts in funds but through the way in which it has been so shambolically reorganised. Of course, his reverse Midas touch is known across the piece in the MOJ, and is now a matter of legend.
A number of concessions were allegedly made in response to the Government’s many defeats in the House of Lords when LASPO was going through, which turned out to be nugatory. There were a number of significant—but again, small—victories in the court under judicial review in the areas of domestic violence, children’s law and refugee law, which corrected some of the worst features of LASPO. There have been several very moderate and well-reasoned reports over the years, such as the Bar Council report and the Low commission, which have tried to appeal to the Government’s better nature by saying, “At least look at these areas of law in which the most suffering has occurred.” Those reports have mainly fallen on deaf ears.
Finally, we got the review of LASPO, slightly beyond the five-year period in which it had been promised during LASPO’s passage. I distinctly remember that report, because it was a well-written report by civil servants that gave all the justifications for why LASPO was wrong, and then threw a few crumbs on the table at the end of it. Yes, it is welcome to have £3 million to support the now huge number of litigants in person; yes, it is great to have £5 million for innovation in the justice system; but compared with the hundreds of millions of pounds that have been sucked out, those sums of money really do not touch the sides.
I am struck by the fact—I noticed it in one of the briefings we had for today’s debate, from the Bar Council—that there has been a slight change of approach by the professions, perhaps because they have been bashing their head against a brick wall for 10 years. In the Bar Council’s spending review submission, to which it alludes in today’s briefing, it is almost starting from scratch: rather than saying, “Can you put this back into scope? Can you change this back?” it is saying, “This is the basis of what a modern legal aid system should look like.” It talks about access to early legal advice, non-means-tested legal aid for all domestic abuse cases, and early access on social welfare issues. Those are laudable aims, but I would nevertheless urge the Bar Council, the Law Society and other representatives of the profession not to give up yet, because I do not think we can turn our back on LASPO quite yet.
I heard what the hon. Member for Henley said, but my understanding of the briefings I have read is that there has been a cut of about 38% in legal aid funding over the past 10 years, from about £2.6 billion to about £1.7 billion. At its lowest point, it was £1.6 billion. In any case, there have been such large cuts that they have threatened the whole sustainability of the field.
The changes to the means test have excluded many people on low and moderate incomes from having any access to legal aid. We have the abhorrent the innocence tax. I am sure that if the Minister were speaking freely, he would say it is wrongly conceived and executed. It is a sin crying out for justice, if not vengeance.
The Chair of the Justice Committee said quite a lot about criminal legal aid, so I will not say a great deal about it. The most striking figure is the 8.75% cut in fees—until very recently there had been no increase in fees for about 20 years. There was a cut in 2014 and the net effect of that—the median net profit for practitioners after that—was minus 3%. In other words, businesses were on average running at a loss. Where else would the Government, even in their most intolerant mode, expect people to work for nothing or less than nothing and not complain about it?
It is equally true on the civil side. The number of providers of civil legal aid has been cut by half over the last seven years, but the number of cases starting has gone down by more than 80% over the period 2010, when austerity first came in, to 2017. A particular point of sorrow for me is the way that law centres and other advice agencies have been treated. I declare an interest as a non-practising barrister, but also as somebody who sat on the management committee of Hammersmith and Fulham law centre for nearly 30 years, and have seen it struggle for survival. Organisations whose very existence is to help other people in need were themselves living hand to mouth from month to month, just to keep going. Frankly, sometimes they were not able to provide anything like a comprehensive service. I am pleased to say that, thanks to the generosity of the local authority and others, but in no sense thanks to the Government, our law centre is now growing and thriving again. It is now almost entirely reliant on grant aid and charitable funding rather than legal aid starts.
The reviews that are under way have already been mentioned and we welcome them. I am pleased to be taking part in the Justice Committee and the all-party parliamentary group reviews. I hope they will throw up some arguable points to bring to the Government. I am also aware that the Government are themselves undertaking a series of reviews. Will the Minister tell us a little more about the scope and timetable of those reviews and their ambition? Part 2 of the criminal legal aid review was announced in August—part 1 did not do very much—but there is no timetable. Two years after we were first promised a review, there is still no timetable for the principle of sustainability and the majority part of that review.
We have a review of the means test—again, long overdue—but that was paused in June. What is happening on that? Although we do not have a formal review of civil legal aid, I will here quote from the Select Committee’s brief, which, as always, is extremely useful. The Lord Chancellor’s cover letter, which is attached to the Government’s response to the legal professions report, states that, alongside the legal aid means test review, the Government are
“looking into the sustainability of the civil legal aid system and will consider the delivery and contractual model for civil legal aid within this work.”
Again, that is long overdue. Can the Minister say a bit more about what is promised from those reviews?
In a way, it is dispiriting that we are still looking at reviews 10 years on. We all know about the level of need, but it is in the Government’s hands. Can we at least have a sense of urgency and a promise that if it is a fair review and serious problems are found, as I think will be the case—underfunding, or the way that the Ministry acts with the profession—they will be seriously corrected?
I repeat what the chair of the all-party parliamentary group, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North, said: it is not an auspicious time when we have the Home Secretary, and indeed the Prime Minister, making frankly childish and incendiary remarks about lefty lawyers, legal activists and things of that kind. It is trivial and it is what we have come to expect, particularly from this Prime Minister, but it has serious consequences, as we saw with the attack on lawyers’ offices. The specific aim of the attack—a man has been charged with serious criminal offences as a consequence—was to punish people for simply doing their job. Given the Minister’s distinguished career in the profession, I know he will share those views. I hope he is able to say them publicly.
We are told that the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General have expressed their reservations privately to the Home Secretary. I know the Minister is a trusting and ambitious man in Government, and perhaps he will want to put on the record that he also deprecates those attitudes. It is a serious matter. We cannot expect the Government to deal fairly with the profession and, more importantly, with its clients—particularly their poorest clients, who go without representation now—if at the same time they are denigrating those who are trying to carry out this essential work.
I, too, thank the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), for securing the debate. It feels to me like a really important opening to be talking about legal aid. Perhaps for the first time in about a decade, there is a real opportunity to shift the terrain.
When I was preparing for the debate, I returned to my earliest days in practice in order to remind myself what the atmosphere around legal aid was in 2007. We were swimming in such different waters. I read Lord Carter’s review of legal aid procurement, which had been commissioned by Lord Falconer. He was dealing with a system that he described as bloated and inefficient, and he talked about wasteful legal practices and the budget, which had swelled by about 35% to £2 billion. It kept on going from there, because by 2010 Jack Straw said on record that we were
“in grave danger of becoming over-lawyered and underrepresented.”
When we got to 2010, it was therefore inevitable that a Government of any stripe would have to make some tough choices about legal aid. Then we got to LASPO. It is fair to say that those choices were deep and dramatic, and they affected the criminal side and the civil side, particularly by removing from scope housing and welfare and by circumscribing a lot of education law —apart from special educational needs—and a lot of private family law, as has been observed.
When the post-implementation review was published last year, some people said it was overdue, but it was a really important moment to take stock. I want to focus my remarks on a few conclusions that emerge from that. I will start with aspects of civil law, then I will talk about criminal law. On the civil law side, one of the things that really came through from the review concerned representation. Access to justice has a number of component parts, and being able to access affordable representation is one of them. Any significant cut to legal aid runs the risk of denying the people who most need recourse to the courts the ability to get legal advice and representation. It does not matter whether we limit the scope of claims that qualify or reduce the eligibility thresholds. The reality is that it leads to two outcomes: either the person abandons their claim, in which case there is a rank denial of justice, or they proceed with their claim on their own. A lot of judges have either written or spoken about what that means in court: pressure on court staff and judges having to act as quasi-lawyers and perform the representative function. It leads to delay, inefficiency and extra costs, and, in my own experience, it sometimes does not lead to the right result.
There has been investment—I think it is £3 million—in the legal support grant for litigants in person, and there was more previously, since 2015, but I hope that when the civil legal aid review is undertaken, this sphere will be kept under close review and investment considered.
The second thing I want to talk about is the quality of support available for early resolution. When Baroness Hale retired and did her circuit of valedictory speeches, I was struck by the fact that in almost every single one she talked about legal aid. When she addressed the Legal Action Group last April, she did an exercise where she imagined herself as a hypothetical mum in her hometown of Richmond—I think there is a military barracks in Catterick—and she created an example of a serviceman who had come back from war. He was drinking, the relationship with his wife had become violent, and social services said that they would take the kids into care unless she resolved it. So she needed to separate from him and get herself housing and a non-molestation order. She needed to make arrangements.
Baroness Hale took herself to the library in Richmond. Approaching it as the young mum, how could she find out what she had to do and who would help her? It is not all bad; it is not a story with a terrible ending. She found quite a lot of information, but she said that the picture was patchy in terms of the level of the service offered and the extent of the information available. She said that developments in online information and filing may help to iron out the differences, but they do not make up for the lack of properly informed advice from a skilled person who is not necessarily a lawyer, who can not only give advice and information but set about doing something concrete to help, whether that is making calls, writing letters or filling in the court forms. She said that she believed the Secretary of State understood the problem and was trying to think creatively, but that where securing the right result depends more and more on the early resolution of claims, the focus must remain on the accessibility of adequate legal advice.
I think I am right in saying that law centres have got all the money that they asked for during the crisis, but also that they have a backlog and there are delays, so the funding of not only law centres but equivalent services is something that the MOJ should keep a particular focus on.
On criminal legal aid—I need to use the right expressions—the August announcement was part of the accelerated asks scheme. I know that it is welcome and viewers will know that the criminal Bar or criminal lawyers have said that it is not enough. It is fair to say that—I do not want to say too much—it has been a really long road for criminal practitioners and criminal legal aid. I will confine my remarks to the point about retention and diversity, which is so important. The nuts and bolts of how each piece of work gets remunerated will be a question for the next stage of the review, but it should be informed by a sense of who we want to recruit and retain to do this difficult and important work. This question has to be asked: what is the pathway for a young person who does not have any public funding and is considering a career at the criminal Bar? They can use the Inns of Court scholarships to get them to the door, but then they have to try to earn a living.
I spoke to a practitioner yesterday, who gave me a really neat case study. She said that if someone was a young junior in her chambers and they covered a sentencing hearing, they would have three to four hours of prep and maybe two hours on their feet, so six hours’ work for a case where the stakes are high. It concerned the deprivation of liberty and the person might be looking at 10 years behind bars. For that they get a standalone fixed fee of £126. That has a chilling effect on not only recruiting talent, but retaining it.
One of the most eye-catching features of the Government’s published response in August was at the end. I am sure that others noticed it, too. It was the equality impact assessment where they said that the focus of the funding was about proportionately increasing fees at the junior end of the criminal Bar, and that is where we find the majority of ethnic minority practitioners and the majority of female barristers. We know that this kind of diversity at the junior end of the Bar is not just desirable, but essential. It is from there that you get the pipeline into silk and the pipeline into the judiciary. If we do not act, in 20 years, we will have a judiciary that does not look as we would wish it to look.
The August announcement was interim, and a comprehensive review remains ongoing. It is an independent review, but the choices that follow it will be political. Of course I know that it is important that public funds for legal services are used efficiently and economically, but when it comes to early and effective legal advice, less is definitely not more. Also, remuneration for those engaged in the system has to be commensurate with the level of skill and expertise. It should be possible to say what a junior legal aid criminal practitioner should earn, and ask how we set about putting the mechanisms in place to achieve that.
Before I call the next speaker, I would just like to point out the time. We have until 4.30 pm, so if we are to give 10 minutes each to both Front Benchers, I am sorry, but I am putting a squeeze on the contribution of the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous).
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I will be as brief as I can.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) who chairs the Select Committee. It was a real pleasure to serve under him for the two years I was on the Justice Committee.
I start by pointing out—as already mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter)—the cuts to legal aid since 2010. The budget was cut from £2.6 billion to £1.7 billion. For criminal legal aid, that figure dropped from £1.4 billion to approximately £897 million today. That is a huge cut. Those cuts were made by the coalition Government under the guise of austerity, which underpinned LASPO. The guiding principles of LASPO were to discourage unnecessary adversarial litigation at public expense, to target legal aid towards those who needed it most, to make savings to the cost of the scheme, and to deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer. Only one of those objectives was achieved, and that was saving money. That money was obviously swallowed up by the Treasury because it was not reinvested in justice and legal services.
Moving whole areas out of scope, such as family, employment, immigration, welfare and benefit law, has led to more litigants in person. As the hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) said, that has caused huge problems in various proceedings. I recently read “Fake Law: The Truth about Justice in an Age of Lies” by The Secret Barrister, and it draws an analogy about litigants in person attempting to navigate legal proceedings with someone trying their hand at removing a gallbladder for the first time. The author says that it would take far longer and create more of a mess than if it were carried out by a trained professional. That is true. The expertise is needed to make sure that things are done properly in the legal sphere.
Although I welcome the £3 million made available to support litigants in person, it is woefully inadequate when we consider the £900 million that has been taken out since 2010. We do need more money in that area. The book gives various examples of people in circumstances that are not in scope, who do not get the legal aid help they need with their cases. Rachel was fleeing domestic violence and a sexually abusive husband. She had to deal with his legal proceedings to have contact with the children. Florence was bought to the UK as an undocumented minor by her mother, then abandoned and made homeless. At 16, she was taken into care, and on reaching the age of 18, she faced detention and deportation unless her status was regulated. Jenna had life-changing 50% burns to her face and body following an acid attack, leaving her housebound and unable to work. She needed help to appeal the decision of the Department for Work and Pensions to strip her of her disability benefits. Those people would have been helped had legal aid been available.
The Bar Council reported that, among their members in 2018, 91% of respondents found a significant increase in litigants in person in family law, and 77% found an increase in civil cases. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Karen Buck) referred to advice deserts, and the Chair of the Select Committee referred to criminal legal aid being a problem.
The Law Society has noted that there is an existential threat to criminal legal aid firms. Shockingly, there are 124 fewer legal aid firms in 2020 than there were in 2019, which in turn was far fewer than the 1,861 there were in 2010. The Law Society has also highlighted a number of instances of criminal legal practitioners being in decline, and it has highlighted the existential threat. It believes that in five to 10 years’ time there will be insufficient numbers of criminal duty solicitors in many regions, leaving many people vulnerable, in need of legal advice and unable to access justice.
I know that the Minister understands that because he and I served on the Justice Committee when we produced the report on criminal legal aid and the need for more support for practitioners. I ask him to listen to the Law Society and Bar Council’s call to fast-track the criminal legal aid review, particularly on legal aid fees, and promise the significant investment in the criminal justice system that is desperately sought. Post the implementation of LASPO, there was also a promise to look at the pilots for early legal advice in civil legal aid by autumn 2019. That is way behind and we very much need to see it take place now.
As the Secret Barrister puts it:
“Without legal aid, without access to the knowledge and the skills by which we can enforce our rights, we are voiceless.”
It is therefore up to us to ensure that those voices are heard.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), on securing the debate, and I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck), for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), and those of the hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), in particular, to whom I am very grateful. I declare an interest as an associate tenant at Doughty Street Chambers, which uses legal aid.
The right to a fair hearing is a human right guaranteed by the Human Rights Act 1998 under article 6. Just like the right to no punishment without law, the right to freedom of expression and the right to participate in free elections, it is a fundamental part of our democracy. A legal verdict is not fair if one side is able to pay a team of expensive lawyers to fight on their behalf while the other is left to make their case on their own. That is why paragraph 3(c) of article 6 states that if a party
“has not sufficient means to pay for legal assistance”,
they should get
“it free when the interests of justice”
require it, and they do require it. In this country we have legal aid, which gives assistance to people who are unable to afford representation.
Too often, legal aid is not given to those who deserve it. Consider the case of Zane Gbangbola. On the evening of 7 February 2014, seven-year-old Zane and his mother and father went to bed in their Surrey home. Due to circumstances that remain unexplained, Zane tragically died in his sleep and his father was left paralysed for life. The 2016 inquest into Zane’s death found that he died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by the use of the petrol pump used to remove water from their flooded home. However, numerous doubts have been expressed regarding the verdict reached by the coroner from both sides of the political spectrum, including the local Conservative council.
Over the course of the past seven years, Zane’s mother and father, Kye and Nicole Lawler, have fought tirelessly for answers to what caused his death. One of the reasons justice does not appear to have been reached in this case is that Zane’s family were denied legal aid after the case was deemed not to be in the public interest. It is completely unjust that the family, at the time of their greatest need, were left to present their case with just one crowdfunded lawyer against a team of six QCs. Extraordinarily, the coroner was also given his own legal team. Of all those present at the inquest, Zane’s parents were the only ones not to have a barrister in some way funded by the public purse.
Access to the justice system and the ability to enforce our rights should be open to every person, regardless of their wealth, social class or background. Legal aid has long provided this for many of us, and for many of the most vulnerable people in society at their most vulnerable moments, but legal aid spending and access to justice has reduced significantly since the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. A review of the Act published in February 2019 moved in the right direction, but there is still so much more to do.
Two years since the post-implementation review, recommendations on early advice, legal aid, means tests and support for litigants have not been implemented in full. The impact of LASPO, combined with the 8.7% cut to criminal legal aid providers in 2014, as well as inflation and small profit margins, have resulted in the contraction of the market for both criminal and civil legal aid.
The criminal legal aid review is designed to look at the sustainability of the profession, but we do not have time to wait for action. The report is not likely to be published until 2022. By then it will be too late to save money, or to save many firms that are going out of business. Already in June 2020 there were 124 fewer criminal legal aid firms than the 1,271 there were in 2019, a drop of almost 10% in the past year and far fewer than the 1,861 firms that existed in 2010. How many more firms are the Government prepared to lose? Without urgent steps there is a genuine risk of the system collapsing on itself.
Between 2010 and 2016, net spending on legal aid fell by an eye-watering 38% in real terms, from £2.6 billion to £1.6 billion. It has since increased slightly, to £1.7 billion, out of the Ministry of Justice total budget of just more than £10 billion. As the Chair of the Select Committee put it, it is just a fraction of a fraction.
To put that £1.7 billion into perspective, last night Serco CEO Rupert Soames revealed to UK taxpayers that his outsourcing company had £1.2 billion per year of Government funding. That is even before its failed £12 billion experiment with track and trace. Labour has repeatedly called for access to legal aid to be a priority for this Government, especially during a time when people are so vulnerable.
As a result of LASPO, large areas of civil legal aid are deemed out of scope. This leaves thousands of people each year without the representation they need. When legal aid was first introduced by Clement Attlee’s Government after the second world war, around 80% of people were eligible for it. By the 1990s, that figure had dropped to 45%. Today it is a miserly 20%.
In 2020, most housing, employment and family disputes do not get legal aid. This causes real injustice. In 92% of domestic violence cases in the family courts in 2019, one or more parties was left without legal representation. But it is not just for adversarial cases that we need legal aid. It is a crying scandal that those who were deported and detained as a result of the Windrush scandal could not access legal aid.
At a time when the court backlog is approaching 50,000, we cannot expect legal aid practitioners to weather the coronavirus storm with warm words alone. Even before the pandemic, there was a 45% reduction in prosecutions over the past decade, but since the crisis began, many areas of legal aid work have been nearly cut in half. There has been a 41% decrease in police station attendances, a 45% decrease in applications received for representation in the Crown courts, and a 42% decrease in applications received and representations made in the magistrates court.
When asked what support this Government would offer to keep the professions functioning, the Minister responsible pointed to unbilled work. He stated that legal aid providers were sitting on hundreds of millions of pounds for unbilled work, interim payments and hardship payments. This, he explained, was why legal aid providers were being hung out to dry. Legal aid providers were essentially told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps in the worst crisis since the second world war. The implication behind that was that they were not working hard enough to claim unbilled work.
Even if we accepted the dodgy maths, is the total that the Minister pointed to enough to keep a vital part of our democracy functioning? The Minister’s statement was made back in May, when the Government pretended that they had a grip on the crisis. Now we know that the crisis will go on right through 2021, what will happen when the unbilled payments are billed? Will the Government finally rethink? The breaking point is likely to arrive early in 2021, especially when the volume of completions in the Crown court remains so low. The legal aid profession has received little support, if any, during the covid-19 crisis, and that must change.
Much of this debate has been financial. It is about CLAR 2—the second criminal legal aid review—LASPO, court backlogs, funding cuts and legal aid, but if we zoom out of the detail, this is a debate about the type of society that we want to build. There are two paths we can go down. The first is to continue on the route that the Government have set, letting legal aid collapse and allowing advice deserts to grow. A new legal wild west would result, and how someone does in legal disputes will depend not on their right to a fair trial but on how deep their pockets are compared with the person against them. The vast majority of the public will be unable to pay for representation in any serious legal matter. The wealthy 1% will be able to bully and buy their way to the verdict that they desire. That is a vision not of a democracy but a plutocracy—a society controlled by people of great wealth or income. It is a step back to pre-enlightenment, a period we should have long left behind.
However, there is room for hope. The second option is to give legal aid the support it needs, restoring it to where it was as a public service back in 2010. By doing so, we can build a better society at the heart of a real democracy founded on justice, fairness, equality and opportunity for all. I know that is a society worth fighting for.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), on securing the debate and on opening it in such a full, balanced and helpful way.
In preparing this speech, I looked back at previous debates, and what a joy it was to see that the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) secured a debate here in 2010. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) was there, as indeed was the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). There was a rather lovely moment when the hon. Member for Hammersmith paid tribute to the hon. Member for Westminster North’s
“unrivalled record in pursuing such matters”—[Official Report, 14 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 207WH.]
If she had an unrivalled record in 2010, it is even more unrivalled now. I genuinely congratulate her on the work she has done over so long in raising these issues.
I begin by emphasising some important points that have been made powerfully but bear emphasis. Legal aid stands as a pillar of our constitution and a bulwark of our freedoms. For a great many people, it operates out of sight; they may go through their entire lives without encountering it, and in that way it is not like the NHS or schools or policing. However, for those who do encounter it, its importance is immediately understood. Legal aid ensures that the guilty are convicted and the innocent walk free; that those facing conviction, punishment and disgrace on the accusation of the state will have those allegations properly tested. It is there to ensure that the rights and liberties of ordinary citizens, often created by this Parliament, are upheld. To paraphrase Lord Reid in the Unison case, legal aid ensures that statutes are not rendered a dead letter.
I echo the points that the hon. Lady for Westminster North made about practitioners. She referred to the good will, dedication and vocation of those who practise in legal aid work, and I cannot use any better words. She put it very well. They are not fat cats. I make the point, as I made in an earlier debate, that those who act in these cases, or indeed any cases, may very well not agree with their clients on the substance of what is being advanced, but they know that their first duty is to the court and their second duty is to their client. They must defend those interests and fight that case, within the law, without fear or favour. Those principles underpin why the Government spent £1.7 billion last year funding legal aid for those who need it. It is imperative that we properly protect this support and that it continues to be available in the future.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith asked me to concede that funding is less now than it was in 2012. That is a fact, so he is right about that. In fairness—I pay tribute to the entirely appropriate tone that the debate has been conducted in overall—in 2010 there was a sense that, whichever Government came into power, there were going to be some cuts. However, the question at this stage, as we take stock, is what legal aid should be required for and to what extent. That is a careful consideration that we intend to apply.
Over the past few months, the importance of the advice and legal sectors has been brought into sharp focus. My officials and I have been engaging extensively with various organisations across the advice sector throughout this period, and I know how challenging it has been for providers and their service users alike. I also know how many providers and practitioners across England and Wales have gone above and beyond to ensure that vulnerable people across society can continue to get the help they need.
As a Government, we have tried to support that work as best we can over this difficult period. I am delighted that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) pointed out, we were able to secure £5.4 million of emergency funding for the not-for-profit advice sector, to ensure that providers across England and Wales were able to adapt their operations and continue to provide their important services. In the early days of the pandemic, we understood that almost half the law centres in England and Wales were facing potential collapse, and I am extremely pleased that our funding helped to prevent that outcome. I do not suggest for a second that it solved all problems, but I hope it is fair to say that it was of some significant assistance.
I am also grateful for the close working relationships we have built with actors across the sector to ensure that funding can be utilised in the most effective way possible. Beyond the funding, we made a number of changes to support legal aid providers in the short term, including changing rules for payments on account and ensuring that providers can claim the same for remote hearings as they can for face-to-face hearings. In August we announced additional funding of up to £51 million for criminal defence lawyers through the criminal legal aid review.
Respectfully, and notwithstanding the point that can always properly be made that there needs to be more, £51 million is a significant sum. The point that I would gently make is that that was the first occasion when people were being paid for reviewing unused material. As practitioners in this room no doubt well understand, it is those hours spent between 10 o’clock at night and midnight reviewing the unused material that all too often discloses that critical point that allows them to advance in court the key issue that might lead to the acquittal of their client. That is now being remunerated in a way that it was not before.
I have very limited time, so let me try to deal with the issue of sustainability. Although I maintain that we have made some positive changes in the time available, I think everyone here would acknowledge that there is more to be done to ensure that the legal aid and advice sector thrives into the future. Many of us here will be well aware of the challenges faced by the sector, and we do not seek to suggest that they do not exist or to downplay them. The demands on providers, and indeed on the courts, are high and will likely remain high over the coming months as the covid-19 recovery gathers pace. Those impacts will no doubt be felt across society.
We are already doing important work in this space, and we want to go further in the coming months. As has been trailed, I recently launched our new legal support for litigants in person grant, which builds on the more than £9 billion that the MOJ has invested. There are some who would say, as did the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), who is no longer in his place, “Look, it’s not enough.” I understand why he says that, but we need to look forensically at what it is going to develop. The answer is that law does not stand still, just as the rest of the world does not stand still. There are other mechanisms by which legal advice and assistance can be delivered using technology, and we must be alive to that.
In some of the excellent conversations that I have had with law centres, they have started to recognise that maybe their catchment area of need is not simply the area around, say, North Kensington for North Kensington Law Centre or the area around Hammersmith for the Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre—which, incidentally, I know fine well the hon. Member for Hammersmith has spent many years supporting. Is there scope for technology to widen that catchment area, to broaden access to justice?
We have also launched a new project considering the issues relating to the wider long-term sustainability of the civil legal aid system. I am only too well aware that many practitioners and stakeholders say that this is a long-standing issue, but now, of course, it has been made more pressing due to the current situation, and we are taking a broad look at the system. Some hon. Members have raised the point about fee levels, and that is fair. In addition to considering the fee levels, we will look at structural issues such as the delivery model for civil legal aid and will seek to improve the remote delivery of advice where appropriate, to ensure support is available for those in hard-to-reach places, learning both from what has worked well during the pandemic and what has worked less well.
I have only a minute left, sadly, and I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst time to speak. I could have talked about the means test review. I wanted to talk about CLAR, the accelerated areas, the courts estate, which is getting more money, and my principal passion, early legal support and advice. I am absolutely of the view that intervening early makes a huge difference.
Let me end by saying that covid-19 presents a great challenge to our way of life, perhaps unknown in the modern era outside wartime. Other priorities will likely dominate the headlines—jobs, schools, hospitals, debt—but in a nation of laws, legal aid is vital, now and in the future. Legal aid work will never provide the personal financial rewards for practitioners of a commercial or chancery practice, and nor should it, but we need a system that continues to attract lawyers of sufficient calibre, prioritises acute legal need, achieve redress and improves people’s lives. That is the platform for those priorities that I have set out today.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).