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My Lords, I welcome proposals in gracious Speech for legislation to reform the way in which offenders are rehabilitated and the introduction this morning by my noble friend the Minister of a Bill to that effect. Liberal Democrats have always believed that increased concentration on the rehabilitation of offenders can be a major contributor to cutting crime. A wider use of well run and well resourced community sentences can be far more effective than putting ever more offenders in prison and keeping them there for terms that are longer than necessary. Considerable publicity has been given to the appalling reoffending rates for people leaving prison, but the figures bear repeating. More than 57% of prisoners released in 2010 from sentences of less than 12 months reoffended within a year; the figure for prisoners released from longer sentences over the same period was just under 36%. In particular, as my noble friend Lord Dholakia pointed out, we imprison far more women than we need, and there is evidence that many of those we imprison would be less likely to reoffend if given community sentences.
The coalition Government propose to provide greater diversity of probation services in the belief that a wider range of well targeted services, involving the voluntary and not-for-profit sectors, as well as those currently in the probation service, will produce more imaginative and more effective delivery of community sentences and a better service for offenders leaving prison. However, for these new arrangements to work well, they must be properly resourced. Payment by results can be successful, but wider savings to the public purse from cutting reoffending rates, not so easily recognised by traditional Treasury accounting principles, may justify a more flexible approach to expenditure in this field. The points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, lead me to stress the importance of retaining the service of experienced probation officers within the field, even if they are to work within new structures.
We welcome the Government’s proposals to give support for the first time to prisoners leaving prison after serving sentences of 12 months or less. However, to achieve the best chance of rehabilitation on leaving prison, prisoners need somewhere to live, something to do and preferably family to go to. Many also need medium and long-term help with mental health problems and drug and alcohol dependency. It follows that if we are to help prisoners settle back into the world outside prison, we must ensure that at least the last few months of their sentences are served at locations close to the communities into which they are to be released. Only then can through-the-gate services be effective. The gate in question must be in the right place to enable the care given to prisoners to be continuous through their preparation for release and following their release.
However, for the Government’s plans for rehabilitation to work, we must continue to provide a fair and humane criminal justice system in which offenders are properly represented by high-quality specialist advocates. I declare an interest as a practising barrister, although not now undertaking criminal work, but with many colleagues who do. Just as the quality of justice in criminal trials depends on the quality of the advocates involved, so the success of sentences imposed on offenders depends heavily on the contribution of defence barristers and solicitors in securing sentencing decisions for their clients that can be made to work. It is therefore important on both counts that we do not undermine the system by reducing the availability of high-quality lawyers prepared to undertake criminal work, particularly defence work, at modest but viable cost. I fear that some of the Government’s proposals for criminal legal aid, on which they are consulting, threaten that availability. The proposals for price competitive tendering and generalised fee cutting present such a threat. I expect that my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford will go into greater detail later.
Lawyers, particularly barristers, have in the past been attracted to criminal practice by the opportunities for advocacy, the challenges and the excitement of working in the criminal courts and a strong sense that they are performing an important societal function. Traditionally, they have been prepared to accept far lower rewards than they might have earned in other fields of practice. However, there is a limit, and the brightest and best new entrants to the profession will not opt for criminal work if it is so underrecognised and underrewarded that it does not offer them a reasonable living. They will simply opt for other fields, perhaps less glamorous but financially more rewarding. After all, they have a choice. Already most criminal judges complain that there has been a significant decline in standards of advocacy in the criminal courts over the past few decades because of the continual rounds of real terms cuts in criminal legal aid rates. Creating a demoralised corps of underfunded criminal lawyers will not only undermine our criminal justice system, it will also prevent us making the most of the other changes the Government propose.
I suggest that there needs to be a new settlement between the legal profession and the Government on legal aid. The Government must recognise the importance of retaining the services of legal aid lawyers and paying them appropriately while the legal profession must accept the need to provide services efficiently and cost-effectively and to look for savings where they can be made. I give one example of where innovative thinking might save money. The Government have rightly pointed out the disproportionate amount of public money spent on high-cost criminal cases. These are a small number of long-running and complex cases, mostly fraud cases, which consume a very high proportion of the legal aid budget. They require detailed and careful work by senior and specialist lawyers. They are the interesting and challenging cases which many ambitious younger criminal lawyers aspire to undertake. Yet the consultation paper’s response has been to suggest cutting the rates paid by 30%. The effect of such cuts would be that these cases would be less well handled, aspirant lawyers would be further deterred from criminal practice and the quality of the criminal justice system would suffer accordingly.
Many of these cases involve company directors and officers, many of large and medium-size companies. We could consider funding the defence costs in an entirely different way. Were we to introduce compulsory legal expenses insurance to cover the defence costs of company directors and officers prosecuted for fraud, a great deal of cost could be removed from the system altogether. We do not object to compulsory insurance for motorists; why not here? There are other areas where innovative thinking can save money and government and the profession should be willing to explore them. However, the endless drive to reduce spending by indiscriminate salami slicing of legal aid rates will ultimately destroy the system we are trying to improve.