I thank the Justice Committee for securing today’s debate. Its members play a crucial role in highlighting the failings in our justice system and in offering very constructive ways to tackle them. I also welcome the new junior Justice Minister to today’s debate. It is a shame that the Justice Secretary himself could not be here; perhaps he is busy having to defend the rule of law again after some not very anonymous briefings from Dominic Cummings, his boss. Perhaps he does not want to defend his own record that we have just heard about of voting for Conservative cuts, which have caused such damage to our justice system. Our justice system is in a Tory-created crisis. The driving cause is cuts of billions of pounds over the past decade, with the Ministry of Justice the second most cut Department.
We have heard a lot today about percentages here and millions there, but beyond that there is a real human cost to these cuts. What effect does the Minister believe that Government cuts have had on public safety? Does he believe that halving youth offending team budgets, along with wider cuts in youth services and elsewhere, has contributed to the violence that has seen the loss of too many young lives? What impact does he think that these justice cuts, along with those to the police and the CPS, have had on tackling serious crime? For example, what impact does he think that they have had on the all-time record lows of rape convictions that mean that women’s groups are warning that rape is now effectively decriminalised.
I want to be clear that the Conservative party’s cuts have left our criminal justice system less able to keep our streets safe and ensure that victims of serious crime get justice, and have enabled a wave of violence that affects too many families. That is the record of the Conservative party and we will never let its members forget it.
Cuts have consequences, and nowhere is that clearer than in our prisons. Slashing hundreds of millions of pounds every year from prison budgets and axing thousands of staff unleashed unprecedented levels of prison violence. Political choices at the very top caused that. Prisoners, staff and the wider public paid the price. Recent one-off funding awards to prisons are simply tinkering at the edges. Everybody knows that tackling understaffing is key to making prisons safe, yet there are still thousands fewer officers than in 2010. The latest figures show numbers falling again. Is the junior Minister aware of any plans to return levels to those of 2010 as the Labour party has committed to do? None was announced at the Conservative conference. Will he confirm that any prison officers recruited above the 2,500 announced in 2016 have been funded not through new Treasury funding, but within existing Department budgets? Could he clarify what else has been cut in justice to fund them?
Over the summer the Prime Minister pledged funding for 10,000 new prison places; 10,000 new prison places were also promised by each of the five previous Justice Secretaries in every year since 2015 and by the last two Conservative Prime Ministers. Will the Minister apologise to the public for trying to pass this off as a new announcement, as he and the Prime Minister have both done? We do not need 10,000 new prison places or repeats of the errors of the past. We need effective alternatives that are proven to keep the public safe. As we have heard, women’s centres are one such alternative. Members of the Government’s own advisory board on female offenders have expressed frustration at this underfunding, stating that at least £20 million is required annually for community provision. A Labour Government will immediately plug the funding gap in the female offender strategy. Does the Minister have plans to do the same?
Nearly two thirds of short-term prisoners go on to reoffend, committing crime costing £7 billion to £10 billion a year, so will the Minister confirm that the Government have scrapped plans to legislate for an end to ineffective short-term sentences? The Ministry’s own evidence shows that 30,000 victims of crime each year could be prevented by replacing ineffective short-term prison sentences of less than six months with community orders. Will the Minister explain why the Government are ignoring that evidence?
As we have seen, justice cuts go hand in hand with a push for privatisation. Since we last debated the Ministry of Justice budget, the Government have been forced to take HMP Birmingham off G4S and return it to public ownership, yet the Conservative party simply refuses to learn the lessons and plans yet more privately run prisons. Why did the Government insist that these new prisons had to be privately run? Why was the public sector excluded from bidding? Is this not simply ideological? Will the Minister publish the research that led the Government to decide that this apparent carve-up is actually supposedly in the public interest? The companies bidding for new prison contracts need to be clear that a Labour Government will put an end to our prisons being run for private profits. These private companies should not bother wasting their money bidding for such contracts because our lawyers will be better than theirs, and will ensure that those prisons are put back into public ownership.
Probation was one area of privatisation that even the Conservatives have had to agree to reverse, but only after hundreds of millions of pounds were wasted bailing out failing companies that had not even managed to keep the public safe. However, the Justice Secretary managed nothing more than a single, vague platitude about probation in his party conference speech. There are concerns that the Government still plan for £280 million of annual probation contracts to be allocated by the market, and that that is a ruse to allow failing corporate giants to keep their hand in. Will the Minister make a commitment today that none of the companies that botched probation will be allowed to run these new contracts?
The single mention of probation in the Justice Secretary’s party conference speech was disrespectful to a system that manages a quarter of a million offenders in the community, but at least it did get a mention. There was not a single mention in his conference speech of courts—unbelievable, especially as the Tories are not just under-investing in our courts but are selling off hundreds of courts and sacking thousands of court staff, undermining the ability of victims and witnesses to access justice. The NAO’s recent report on court reform found that progress was behind schedule, with expected savings having fallen by over £170 million. Does the Minister accept that there is a real risk that these court reforms will repeat the failings of probation reform, and without such scrutiny? Will he back Labour’s call for a moratorium on further closures until there has been proper public and parliamentary scrutiny of these changes?
On access to justice, just as with courts, there was not a single mention of legal aid in the Justice Secretary’s conference speech—absolutely disgraceful. Labour is committed to reversing all cuts to legal aid-funded early legal help within the first 100 days of a Labour Government. There is, as we have heard, clear evidence that cuts to legal aid-funded advice are simply a false economy, but if the Minister is not prepared to look at the evidence, will he at least commit today to undertaking independent research into n how much the state can save by restoring all funding for early legal help?
This July, Lambeth Law Centre announced its closure after nearly 40 years of service, citing financial pressures caused by legal aid cuts. Is the Minister aware of any MOJ plans for an emergency fund to prevent more law centres from going under? Given that a PwC report calculated that law centres produce direct net cost savings to the Treasury of over £200 million, does the Minister plan to undertake research into the benefits of investment in legal support for disadvantaged communities?
In conclusion, today has been an important opportunity to discuss a Department that is much neglected by the Government—well, neglected in one sense, but certainly vigorously attacked in another. For those who thought that the latest Secretary of State for Justice would bring a welcome and moderating approach, his conference speech, with its paucity of detail and no mention of crucial things raised today by Members on both sides of the House, will cause incredible concern. The Ministry of Justice is a Department in crisis. That is not a situation that has fallen from the sky; it is the direct political consequence of how people have run this country for the past nine years. I hope and trust that those people will not be running the country too much longer.