Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:04 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 10:04 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, I begin by referring to my interests in the register—my local government interests and my unpaid consultancy with my former solicitors’ firm—but also by thanking the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, who has chosen to celebrate his birthday with us today.

Portraits of Lord Eldon, the reactionary Tory Lord Chancellor who held office for 25 years, have followed me all my life, from school in Newcastle, to the Oxford college where I studied law and finally to this House. The last seven years have seen no fewer than five Lord Chancellors appointed, only one of whom has been a lawyer. If we have to have a Conservative Lord Chancellor, many Members of your Lordships’ House will wonder why neither the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, nor the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, was appointed. Had either featured in the recent reshuffle, the justice section of the Government’s programme would perhaps have been less of a disappointment.

Faced, as we have heard from no fewer than seven noble Lords, with a prolonged and growing crisis in the prison service, the Queen’s Speech has nothing to say about staffing or prisoner numbers—the latter reflecting the fourth-highest incarceration rates among the 28 countries in Europe. Time after time, we are confronted with stories of violence, drug abuse, overcrowding and serious criticisms of the management of prisons, which are all too frequently managed—or mismanaged—by oligopolies which purport to be able to deliver any service the Government wish to outsource.

Despite concerns regularly voiced around the House, noticeably by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, we continue to have large numbers of prisoners—some 3,000—serving indeterminate sentences long beyond the tariff of their offences. I acknowledge that the problem arose under a Labour Government, but we are now in the eighth year of Conservative Lord Chancellors—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has clearly taken that point.

Just last week, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman reported that the number of prisoners over 60 has tripled in 15 years and that by 2020 it will be 15,000. The Chief Inspector of Prisons has called for purpose-built, older-prisoner jails, and the prisons ombudsman has stated that he remains,

“astonished that there is still no properly resourced older-prisoner strategy”,

such that he fears we,

“will simply continue to expose unacceptable examples of poor care of the elderly and dying in hospital”.

His predecessor points out that:

“Prisons are the largest providers of residential care for frail elderly men in the country”.

The Prison Reform Trust, which fully endorses these criticisms, called for additional action to cancel plans for new women’s prisons and provide a network of women’s centres, to review the arrangements for supervising short-sentence prisoners on licence under which 1,000 prisoners have been recalled since 2015, and to improve the support into employment on release.

Serious though these problems are, they are not the only ones with which the Government need to engage in their management of the justice system. The Law Society, although welcoming the ending of cross-examination of victims of domestic violence by their partners, seeks provision in the new courts Bill for qualified legal representatives to cross-examine the victim. Can the relevant Minister indicate how this will be arranged? We join the society in commending proposals to strengthen the law relating to domestic violence and abuse, and in particular its extension to child abuse.

On a different tack, will the Minister acknowledge that technology is not always the appropriate medium for criminal proceedings to be pursued? Indeed, the assumption that everybody is capable of mastering the techniques of this increasingly digitalised world, which is reflected in a number of areas of the proposed Bill, is perhaps too optimistic. I suspect I am not the only Member of your Lordships’ House who from time to time struggles with this new technology, as indeed we all have, not least in the light of the last few days.

The courts Bill promises,

“a better working environment for judges”,

with what it describes as,

“more leadership positions in the judiciary to be offered on a fixed term basis”.

Can the Minister explain, if not tonight then subsequently, what the Government have in mind? We have part-time district judges—I declare a paternal interest, as my daughter is a part-time deputy district judge—but do the Government envisage part-time High Court judges or merely term-limited service allowing judges to return to legal practice? What consultations have they held, or will they hold, about such matters? What do the Government intend to do in response to the concerns about recruitment to the higher courts, given the significant disparity in remuneration between such positions and practice, especially at the highest levels?

I turn to a matter touched on by the noble Lords, Lord Faulks and Lord Beith. The proposed civil liability Bill will resurrect proposals to deal with whiplash claims by banning offers to settle without medical evidence, which seems reasonable, but also by fixing a tariff for claims,

“with a duration of two years”.

Perhaps the Minister could explain that wording. Why should there be a fixed tariff? And why on earth should we believe that insurance companies will indeed pass on the estimated £35 a year savings to their insured in the form of reduced premiums? They have shown no disposition to do so in the last few years despite making very large profits. The real problem here is the parasitic and effectively underregulated claims industry, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, referred. We welcome signs that the Government intend to tackle this issue in the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill, but will that also include oversight of paid McKenzie friends?

The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, raised the issue of the discount rate, and we certainly share his views about that. The Government also propose to increase the small claims limit, under which costs cannot be recovered, to £2,000. While that is much better than the original proposal to increase it to £5,000, it will still have an impact, with people being deterred from making a claim or, if they do without legal assistance, the potential clogging of the courts in much the same way as we have seen resulting from the loss of legal aid. The increase in the limit is estimated to mean that 90% of claimants will be denied affordable or free assistance.

While we are in the area of compensation claims, why are the Government reviving proposals to weaken recourse to employment tribunals, when the number of claims has already fallen by 70% as a result of the fees required? Moreover, why do they propose to reduce further the role of lay members of tribunals, representing both employers and workers; to delegate judicial functions to case officers; and to allow changes to tribunal rules and procedures to be determined by the tribunal procedures committee without requiring any consultation with trades unions and employer organisations?

There are no references in the Queen’s Speech to access to justice either geographically, where court closures have had a serious impact on the system and where the role of lay magistrates and the convenience to parties, witnesses and advocates seem to be in decline, or, more importantly, with regard to the problems occasioned by the massive reductions in legal aid and advice. What would it take for the Government to review the provision of legal aid in the particularly sensitive areas of family law and housing law? For that matter, is it not time, as the Labour manifesto suggested, to provide for no-fault divorce, and to remove the requirement for domestic violence victims to pay perhaps as much as £200 for a medical report in order to make their case? While I am mentioning the Labour manifesto, which deals with this issue, will the Government review their negative position on the funding of judicial review cases in which, by definition, they have an interest?

The Prime Minister has produced a couple of phrases that have been endlessly repeated. One of course was “strong and stable”—which has gone missing. The other was “just about managing”. It is our view, which I suspect others may endorse, that government policy should be about managing justice in ways that reflect the need to protect and foster access to justice for all who need it, and to ensure that our custodial system is humane and capable of facilitating rehabilitation as well as securing the safety of the public.

I turn now to other issues. I have to say that, during the 50 years in which I have served as a councillor in Newcastle, local government has never suffered such draconian cuts as are now in progress—something referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. In my own city the budget has taken a £270 million cut, and it is proving impossible to maintain the level of services that people and communities need. In this, of course, we are by no means unique. In particular, the pressures on the social care budget are severe. Newcastle’s audit committee, on which I serve, last week discussed a depressing report on the current situation in children and adult services.

Interestingly, our auditors, Ernst & Young, reported that the National Audit Office had declared, in relation to the financial and service targets of the Government’s better care fund, that not only is the fund missing its targets for reducing emergency admissions but it is exceeding them, with a planned reduction of 106,000 emergency admissions turning into an increase of 87,000, while delayed transfers increased by 185,000 instead of reducing by 203,000 as planned. Of course, these figures illustrate difficulties in the National Health Service, but they necessarily have a knock-on effect on local council services up and down the country. Moreover, there appears to be a growing decline in the number of suppliers of residential care and support services on which councils have, regrettably, increasingly relied.

What comfort can councils and communities hope for from a Government who have steadfastly refused to fund the soaring costs of deprivation of liberty safeguard cases, which they have refused to recognise as a new burden—albeit making small, one-off grants in 2016? I illustrate the position by again relating Newcastle’s experience. In 2015-16, under this new responsibility, we received a one-off grant of £160,000. The number of cases has risen from 100 in 2013-14 to 2,226 in one authority last year, at a cost of £1.2 million. Multiply that across the country and it is a significant amount of money lost from the provision of basic social services. The Government need to get real about the unrelenting pressure on councils endeavouring to meet the palpable need for these and other services.

I conclude by asking whether the Minister can respond to the question posed by my noble friend Lord Smith about business rates, and how far the Government have got in working out how devolved business rates will operate. It is entirely unclear at the moment. I understand that a phased introduction is intended. How will that work between different authorities?

We have had a long debate tonight. I have contributed somewhat excessively to it, but only by a minute or two. I look forward to the noble Lord’s response and the follow-up, which will no doubt be directed in correspondence with Members, which will obviously be produced in the Chamber.