It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter.
On Monday, I attended Hazelwood Primary School in my constituency, which is holding school council elections this month and learning more about democracy. In the hallway of the school is a display about British values as part of the curriculum. These include liberty, mutual respect, democracy, tolerance and the rule of law.
The rule of law underpins our unwritten constitution and is rightly given prominence in education. Unfortunately, over recent years, it has been wilfully neglected and what should be a stable pillar is now crumbling due to years of under-investment and spending cuts. Despite last month’s announcement from the Government of a funding increase of 4.9%, by 2020 the MOJ will have seen cuts totalling 40% since 2010.
What is worse is that the additional funding has already been earmarked for certain policy initiatives announced by the Home Secretary, which might make for good soundbites but makes little logical sense. We know that part of the £2.5 billion announced is earmarked for an extra 10,000 prison places—no doubt the Home Secretary is expecting an increase in offending—but the reality is that the United Kingdom’s incarceration rate, with a current prison population of 82,600, is the highest in western Europe.
Violence in prisons is at record levels, due to lack of staffing and poor conditions in our existing prisons. At an average cost of £40,000 per year per prison place, our money would be far better spent on reducing reoffending rates. Reoffending rates are now at 48.3%, but this increases to 64.4% for those released from short sentences of less than 12 months. My hon. Friend Ms Rimmer made that point excellently. The annual cost of reoffending is £18.1 billion per year, so why is more money not being invested in preventing people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place? Why is more money not going to health, housing and local authorities? In recent years, we have seen the abject failure of the privatised probation service, and the Government threw good money after bad in an attempt to salvage it. Having now abandoned the probation privatisation experiment, I hope that the Government will properly fund the probation service, which can make a huge difference in preventing reoffending, if it is adequately resourced.
The proposed new funding for the MOJ is also linked to the additional new police numbers, but, once again, this fails to look at the current trends and to address existing problems. According to the Howard League, across 2017-18 some 103,000 women and girls were arrested, which cost the police an estimated £1 billion in time and resources, yet only 7,745 were sent to prison. Surely that demonstrates the need for more funding for women’s centres and other preventive measures, which would be much cheaper than prison.
Still on the issue of criminal justice, the additional funding for the Crown Prosecution Service is welcome, but there is nothing for criminal legal aid. Unless there is investment across the entire criminal justice system, it will not deal with the problems that are so plaguing the system. One such problem is the growing shortage of criminal duty solicitors. The Law Society estimates that in five to 10 years’ time there will be insufficient criminal duty solicitors in many regions, as far fewer solicitors are entering the profession. The average age of a duty solicitor in England and Wales is 47. That is hardly surprising as legal aid rates have not increased for more than 20 years. Unless steps are taken now, this problem will only get worse; we are at the tipping point right now, and urgent action is needed. It is not just criminal law that is affected; there are now legal aid deserts for housing law across England and Wales. The Law Society estimates that 37% of the population are living in areas that have no housing legal aid providers. At a time when we hear horror stories about homelessness, evictions and disrepair, we are in desperate need of these types of lawyers. More investment is needed in this area and in others. As part of the LASPO review, it has been accepted by the Government that early legal advice can help save time and money for all concerned. The Government should be pouring more money into early legal advice, which will benefit everyone.
After years and years of slashing the Ministry of Justice, the additional funding for the MOJ is welcome, but this is like putting a sticking plaster on a gaping wound. To cut the MOJ budget by 42% and then re-provide 4.9% and hail it as a wonderful policy announcement is akin to breaking all the windows in a house but then saying that at least you have painted the front door. The additional funding is not enough, it is a false economy and it is going to the wrong places. If the Government are serious about reducing crime and re-offending, they will invest in preventive measures such as women’s centres, healthcare and addiction services, housing, employment, education and diversionary measures. There also needs to be investment in our courts, our legal aid system, and prison and probation. As I mentioned at the start, the rule of law, one of the pillars of our society, cannot be allowed to crumble. We need true investment in it, and we need it now.