I am sure it will be a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I have not done so previously, but I am very hopeful.
I am delighted, and relieved, to have secured this debate on an important issue, because without it and the recent Backbench Business Committee debate, the Government had no plans whatever to give Members of Parliament the opportunity to challenge profound, fundamental changes to our justice system.
I am pleased that the Backbench Business Committee granted time to discuss the issue, and it was telling that we had contributions from 31 Members, the vast majority of whom were opposed to the proposals. Furthermore, more than 100 Members of Parliament have put their names to the early-day motion urging the Government to think again about their plans, while the e-petition sponsored by Rachel Bentley has attracted more than 103,000 signatories.
It is a shame that the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice was unable to attend the Backbench Business Committee debate as he had more pressing matters—campaigning in a marginal Tory constituency—but I am pleased that the Minister is here to respond for the Government. It would have been fitting, however, for MPs to have had the opportunity to challenge the Lord Chancellor on the latest attack on our justice system, although I suspect that he is not keen to be challenged in whatever guise.
At this point, it is right to pay tribute to Michael Turner, QC, the former chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, for his achievements in uniting the two professions—I suspect that the Government were hoping for a divide between the two, which has not happened. I was surprised, and suggest that it was a shame, that the Lord Chancellor refused to meet Michael Turner—who, as chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, represented thousands of criminal barristers—apparently on the basis of his having been rude about the Lord Chancellor. To be clear, Michael Turner has never been rude about the Lord Chancellor. He has, however, dared to criticise publicly the plans and proposals of the Government in their consultation. The Lord Chancellor does not seem to like being criticised.
Furthermore, the Joint Committee on Human Rights report seems likely to be ignored by the Government, and the Lord Chancellor will plough on with his barmy proposals without even considering it.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, which is of considerable importance. I agree that the proposals contain many things that are hugely damaging. On the JCHR’s ongoing investigation, does he agree—I am sure he will—that the least the Lord Chancellor should do is to delay any decision on the proposals until the investigation into whether they are fully legal has been completed?
Absolutely. That should be the least that the Lord Chancellor is prepared to do, because the further proposed cuts to legal aid come hot on the heels of the last hacking that legal aid received from the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Within a few months of taking power, the Government introduced that Bill to Parliament to slash legal aid and remove many areas of civil legal aid from scope, which has already denied many of the most vulnerable access to justice. We saw the effects in our surgeries when the changes kicked in, in the spring. I have seen a huge increase in the number of people at my surgery who cannot get a lawyer, but who are desperate for legal advice on housing, benefits and other complex legal issues.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the impact on access to justice, with many of our constituents turning to MPs for advice on complex areas of law, although most of us are not in any position to give such advice. Will he mention the big worry about the insidious impact of the new proposals on victims of crime?
My hon. Friend makes my point for me. He is right: Members of Parliament are not competent to give legal advice. One option that had been open to us was to signpost people to citizens advice bureaux and other pro bono clinics, but due to budget cuts—local authorities and charities being slashed—they have closed or are buckling under the pressure of reduced resources and vastly increased referrals. Local authorities are desperately struggling to provide advice services as they try to absorb cuts of more than 30%, while charities and authorities up and down the country are being forced by the Government to withdraw vital funding for local projects simply to ensure that they can sustain basic, statutory obligations.
During the first attack on civil legal aid, my party’s Front Benchers and I were accused of scaremongering. Since implementation, however, 600,000 people have been denied access to advice on many aspects of civil law. There has been a 30% fall in the number of providers of civil legal aid and a 12% fall in providers of criminal legal aid, yet the most recent consultation paper, “Transforming Legal Aid: Delivering a more credible and efficient system”, which was published on
The proposals aim to save £220 million from legal aid spending by 2018-19, but the Government have not said from which year’s spend that money is meant to be found. Many of my colleagues in the profession believe that the proposals will cost the taxpayer more money in the long run—a valid point to make. A common misconception promoted by the Government is that legal aid is the principal cost, but as Mr Davis rightly pointed out in his contribution to the Backbench Business Committee debate, the cost of our legal aid system is just three quarters that of similar systems in many other European countries. The President of the Supreme Court—no less—supports that notion. He said that the bill for legal aid increased substantially between 1965 and 2000, which I accept, but it has since been cut and projections show that it will continue to decrease over the coming years.
I am persuaded that in some areas there may be further savings to be made, but I do not believe that the proposals are the way to achieve such savings. At the Justice Committee session at which the chairman of the Bar Council, Maura McGowan, QC, Michael Turner, QC, and others gave evidence, Michael Turner suggested savings of a surprising £2 billion. The Government should be prepared to sit down with the professionals, the practitioners and the people who are expert in the area to discuss where those savings might be made.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Is it not the case that some of the motivation for the proposals has nothing to do with savings? The Lord Chancellor himself has acknowledged that, for example, restricting access to legal aid for prisoners is a simple matter of ideology.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point and I will develop it in a moment. She is right to raise the issue, and many people argue that the changes are a false economy because costs will increase. Matrix Chambers and Bindmans LLP have pointed out that the Government’s proposed savings are nonsense. They believe that costs—I suspect that they have done proper research—will increase by £24 million if the proposals go through. I agree with Bill Waddington, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association—
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which looked at the matter. Does he agree that the inefficiencies of the Courts Service may increase as more people try to represent themselves? I was recently a witness in court and saw for myself at first hand how inefficient that is. Perhaps the Minister should concentrate on some of those inefficiencies.
My hon. Friend makes a point that, again, I was about to develop. It is accurate to say that costs will increase and people will self-represent.
I was about to say that I agree with the chairman of the CLSA who said that the Government are wrong to say that the issue is simply about savings when their figures show that costs have been coming down for years and projections show that they will continue to fall. Ministry of Justice figures show that public expenditure on legal aid between 2004 and 2009 has fallen by 25%. Figures also show that, between 2004 and 2010, the cost of criminal legal aid fell by £165 million. Those are Government figures, and they are expected to fall by a further £264 million by the end of 2014. My respectful submission is that it is about not saving money, but ideology.
Desperate people who have no choice but to represent themselves—this is my hon. Friend’s point—will clog up the courts and cost more money. Court time is expensive and not only will extended court time cost more money, but self-representation will provide fertile ground for miscarriages of justice and I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that.
My hon. Friend is making his case very well. A long time ago, I ran a solicitors firm on a high street in north Shropshire. Does he agree that it is extraordinary that a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government are making proposals that will specifically hit small firms on our high streets which are some of the most important providers of advice and services to local communities?
My hon. Friend has stolen one of my best points. He is right of course.
I want to concentrate for a moment on the courts and staffing levels. I was not practising in the criminal courts during the recess, but I was there briefly. It is clear that since 2010, the courts have been stretched. There is no doubt that the proposals will put more pressure on the clerks in trying to advise clients who may be faced with no option but to self-represent.
Last year, the National Audit Office found that the cost of our legal aid system was average compared with other countries, and costs continue to fall. I accept that, according to the Government, 48% of criminal legal aid costs account for 1% of cases. Those are the cases that we should look at to make savings. The Government should concentrate their attention on high-cost cases. In times of austerity, we should look at all Departments for efficiencies, and the Ministry of Justice should shoulder its responsibilities and accept the burden for that.
It is right to make those who can afford it pay legal fees. It is also right to freeze the assets of convicted criminals to fund their legal costs. I am sure that my Front-Bench colleagues would be happy to work with the Government on that. However, it is not right that the legal aid system is sold off to the lowest bidder at the expense of quality. It is not right that huge global corporations that also run prisons, probation services and tagging—they do not do that well—are likely to bid for criminal defence contracts. That suggestion is appalling.
It is clear that there is a conflict when organisations involved in criminal defence also run the prisons. It is not right that companies such as G4S, which have great financial power, outbid smaller local firms at the expense of quality and local expertise. Local expertise is valuable. The legal aid scheme has evolved and changed over many years since its inception in 1949, but it remains a system in which the Government fund private expert practitioners to provide a pivotal public service.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. A solicitor in my constituency says that 50% of the clients he deals with are innocent, and are neither cautioned nor charged. Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposals are also an attack on the innocent and, as is sometimes painted by the Government, that they do not affect just people with criminal records?
Absolutely. That is correct. Before coming to the House, I was at the Bar with local chambers in Hull, but before that I was a criminal solicitor. I attended police stations and the vast majority of clients I represented had no further action taken against them or were dealt with by an alternative to court, but most often no further action.
Of course, but the point is to dispel the bonkers notion that old lags cost the money. The reality is that people are entitled to a defence, and I will address that later.
I want to deal briefly with the suggestion that the previous Labour Government were profligate with the system. I have spent years defending my party because many practitioners say that the previous Government cut the system to the bone, but we were careful with legal aid spend. I also want to dispel the myth that only self-interested, fat-cat lawyers are concerned about the changes. I have been lobbied by charities, constituents, colleges and trade unions that do not benefit in any way from legal aid, but want a system that continues to be fit for purpose and protects the most vulnerable at the time when they need access to justice.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important matter to the House for consideration. On his reference to those who are less well off, Citizens Advice in my constituency has told me—I am sure that many other hon. Members here have received similar information from their citizens advice bureaux—that the least well off will suffer more and those with little or no money will be unable to take a case to court to protect or defend themselves. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the critical issue is that the less well off will suffer more?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The reality is that the proposals will lead to a system in which only the rich—those who can afford to be represented privately—will have access to the courts. That is simply not justice.
My hon. Friend is rightly making a point about justice and has drawn attention to the danger of miscarriages of justice if we go back to a system that we thought we had left behind. Does he agree that there is another side for the victims of crime because if the wrong person is convicted they suffer a double injustice?
Of course. My hon. Friend highlights the point that victims of crime suffer again because funding for charities that represent the interests of victims of crime has been severely slashed under the coalition Government.
On victims of crime, does my hon. Friend not also agree that with access to a good, trusted legal adviser, many defendants will plead guilty early, saving pain to the victim as well as cost to the system?
In my experience, for what it is worth, my advice to a client was based on the evidence. If that was overwhelming or strong, and if, in my opinion, the defendant needed to plead guilty, they were advised accordingly. I think solicitors and barristers will always act in the best interests of the client.
May I address the caricature that the Government have peddled, which is that all lawyers earn salaries like that of the Prime Minister’s very wealthy brother? It is not true. The vast majority of legal aid lawyers, up and down the country, earn a modest wage; often, they will take home less than a nurse or a teacher. I wonder what information the Government have on that issue, because I think that the Bar Council could provide them with information about average salaries at the Bar, and that the Law Society could assist as well.
A very important point, and perhaps an unintended consequence, is that the proposals will prevent many young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, less advantaged backgrounds, and poorer backgrounds from coming into the professions. This is not a plea for the so-called fat cat lawyers, but, as John Cooper QC put it:
“This is recognition, before it’s too late, that if the proposals go through we will be complicit in excluding many young people from less advantaged backgrounds from becoming part of what can only be described as the National Health Service of the Law”.
I also want to deal with the misconception that all people seeking legal aid are old lags. I have dealt with that briefly, but the Government seem to suggest that such people do not deserve representation. Of course, there are repeat offenders who are found guilty, or who plead guilty to a further offence, but just because someone has previously been convicted of burglary does not mean—cannot mean, surely—that they are automatically guilty of the further alleged offence. They might not be.
Fundamental to our legal system must be the presumption of innocence. Denying people’s liberty is one of the strongest powers of the state. It is vital, therefore, that that can be done only when a court of law is presented with evidence, for and against, by highly skilled and trained lawyers.
Fundamental to our system is the issue of choice, which the hon. Gentleman may come on to. He is a former member of the Select Committee on Justice, which I now sit on. The right for someone to choose who represents them goes very much to the heart of our system.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would agree that the price-competitive tendering proposals, as originally drafted, would appear to deny that, but as he knows from the Justice Committee’s hearings and the Backbench business debate, the Government have moved on that issue. I wonder what his feeling is on where that movement on choice, which very much holds the PCT proposals together in their original form, leaves us. He should acknowledge that the Government have already moved a little on the issue.
I will address that point later in my remarks.
I am concerned about what seems to be an outdated concept, in the Government’s vision, of a Tesco-style justice system, but I still believe that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Surely we should be looking to protect that system. I add that these stereotypical clients are not the only people who seek criminal legal aid. Thompsons Solicitors, in its response to the consultation, made it clear that many who seek legal aid are people such as teachers, nurses and police officers, who are wrongly accused of assault or similar, and who need to clear their names and save their livelihoods.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He has not mentioned a category of people who suffer a form of injustice greater than anything he has spoken about. Those people cannot defend themselves, either because they have died as a result of a state action—I am thinking of Baha Mousa, in particular, who was beaten to death by British soldiers—or because they are incarcerated by either British or foreign states. Such people, without legal aid, have no recourse whatever. There is no self-representation, because they cannot do that, and no cheap representation, as they cannot do that either.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valid point, which I, again, want to address briefly in my remarks. I disagree with many aspects of the proposals—the right hon. Gentleman is correct—but as my hon. Friend Kate Green said, denying prisoners access to legal representation simply goes against everything that a civil society should represent.
Defending prisoners is not a vote winner, but we live in a civilised society, and I believe that prisoners must have the right to legal representation. The reforms will essentially mean that justice stops at the prison gates and that prisoners are denied legal representation, if the Government plans go ahead. As colleagues have said, denying prisoners access to justice in the way that the consultation proposes seeks to save £4 million. In times of austerity, it would be flippant to say that that is peanuts, but actually, when I think about it, those efficiency savings come at what cost? For goodness’ sake—it seems incredible to me.
It is likely that the proposals will save nothing in the round, because they will lead to more inefficiencies inside prisons, as people will be kept in higher-security conditions, when they need not be, for longer, and as there will be greater difficulty in managing discipline and behaviour in prison as a result.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a valid point.
I think that this next point was the one made by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden. I am also concerned that the proposals to introduce a residency test will see victims of human trafficking denied access to legal representation and will prevent many cases from being brought against the Government when they are accused of wrongdoing abroad. The new proposals will mean that families such as that of Jean Charles de Menezes would not have been able to fight the case for their dead son, who was wrongly shot by armed police.
I also disagree with the proposals to reform judicial review. They will mean that an individual will no longer be able to hold public bodies to account. Shelter, for example, provides specialist social welfare law advice—on housing issues, in particular—to about 15,000 people each under year, under various legal aid contracts. However, it is clear that the proposals will prevent it from doing that.
The Government proposals limit funding for judicial review to only those cases where permission to proceed is granted by a judge. That must severely limit Shelter’s ability to help people. None of us in this place can imagine the prospect of losing our homes. It seems incredible that the Government, in their plans, seek to attack the most vulnerable people at the time when they need assistance the most.
Clearly, the Lord Chancellor has thought about the proposals since the Backbench business debate. Following absolutely overwhelming criticism from many Opposition Members and Government Members, I was very pleased to see the Secretary of State U-turn on the accused having the right to choose their lawyer. However, we do not know what the impact of that will be, because as far as I understand it, the Lord Chancellor is still keen to press ahead with what he thinks is a workable system of PCT. I suspect that it is not workable; I do not think it ever has been.
The client choice issue was designed to assist with PCT, in the sense that it would be attractive for large corporations to bid for contracts on the basis that they are getting a vast client base, but I am not sure what the impact of that will be and how the proposals will change things as a result. I hope, however, that the Lord Chancellor continues to listen, and that he will concede that PCT, in any form, is not suitable for allocating legal aid contracts. Legal aid contracts should not simply go to bidders who are willing to do the work for the lowest price.
As I have said, I am concerned about many aspects of the proposals, but I want to focus, in the time remaining to me, on chapter 4 of the consultation document, which is about PCT in relation to criminal legal aid.
A constituent of mine recently wrote to me in praise of a small local firm of solicitors that had supported her and her family through a long, traumatic and very serious case. She felt that the attention to detail and dedication shown by that small local firm would not be replicated in the new system, in which speed and economics would be of the essence. Does my hon. Friend agree?
Absolutely. That is an excellent point. It is just the reality of business. Small firms of solicitors have established themselves over a long period. David Mowat thinks that my remarks are amusing. They may be amusing to him, but I can tell him that the reality of the proposals will not be funny to people in my constituency who are looking to access justice.
I am listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, and he is making a strong case for access to justice with which no one, in any part of the House, would disagree. What I would be interested to understand, though, is whether his position is that legal aid as it is currently is pretty much right and cannot be reformed or that reforms are possible but the Government are pursuing the wrong ones. If it is the latter, why has the Bar Council not come forward with more substantive proposals than it has apparently done so far.
I am not the Bar Council; I do not represent the Bar Council. It is not for me to say why it has not come forward with proposals, but my opinion is this. Why should the Bar Council, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, the Criminal Bar Association or any other organisation that represents the professionals come up and do the Government’s job? I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes away and reads the evidence of the Justice Committee and looks at the proposals put forward by the experts—the practitioners, the people who do this work every day. Michael Turner, QC, came up with a suggestion for making £2 billion of savings if the Lord Chancellor was only prepared to allow him enough time to sit down and discuss the proposals with him.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I thought I heard him earlier give that figure of £2 billion, which of course is a very significant amount. I believe that it is 10 times the amount that the Lord Chancellor is seeking. If Michael Turner has identified £2 billion of savings, would it be possible for the hon. Gentleman to identify for other hon. Members the main areas in which those savings would be made?
The former chairman of the Criminal Bar Association put forward various suggestions in the Justice Committee evidence session. I happen to think that some of them are feasible. He talked about saving money in courts. In my experience, an awful lot of money is wasted in the courts system. Then there is the Crown Prosecution Service. I do not mean to criticise colleagues in the profession, but very often defence lawyers are blamed for delays and loss of court time when in fact it is the CPS, whose staff are rushed off their feet, overworked—in my area, the service is terribly understaffed—that causes the delay. There are all sorts of things that the Government could look at, but the reality is that the Lord Chancellor is simply not prepared to sit down and discuss them. I am hoping that the new chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, Nigel Lithman, QC, has the ability to persuade the Lord Chancellor to sit round a table and discuss the proposals.
First, let me help the hon. Gentleman with a reminder of some of the things that were proposed. There was a proposal for a levy on the commercial courts in London that would raise large amounts of money. There were proposals that the banks should pay for the fraud cases that make up a large part of what we are discussing.
I also want to ask the hon. Gentleman a question. The Law Society has come up with a proposal that maintains choice but still puts in place a bidding system— a rather more thoughtful bidding system, if I may so—a rolling three-year bidding system, which would keep in place some of the smaller specialised companies and so on. Does he think that that is a good route to go down?
Absolutely. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Law Society’s proposal, I think, is a much better alternative. To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Warrington South, of course I accept that efficiency savings have to be made across the board in Departments—I made that point earlier—but it seems to me that the Lord Chancellor has just gone off without really being prepared to consult. I think that we are talking about a period of two months. It seems to me—the Minister shakes his head, but this is the justice system. There are a lot of professionals involved. I think that the Government received 16,000 responses. Surely there was a requirement to have some form of proper consultation—I do not think that it was proper, frankly—so these things could have been discussed more properly.
I think—this point was also made by my hon. Friend Ian Lucas—that what is proposed defies everything that the Conservatives allegedly stand for. It is contrary to all that they say they are doing to promote growth on the high street. The idea of savagely attacking small businesses seems barmy to me. Do the Tories not believe that small private firms are the backbone of our economy? It beggars belief that this policy will without doubt break the backbone of the legal profession and, in my submission, severely undermine local economies such as my own in Hull. Let me be very clear.
For the record, I am still a practising solicitor, although my firm does not do criminal law. I want to take up the point about rural areas. Already in places such as Cumbria there are gaps in terms of the legal profession giving advice. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that the potential is that the reforms will exacerbate that problem, particularly in rural areas?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have not read the 16,000 responses to the Government consultation, but I know from my discussions with colleagues in the profession that a vast majority of those responses make the point about advice deserts. Let me refer to my area of Humberside. Bridlington, which is in the area, will, in my submission, become an advice desert. It is covered currently by all the firms of solicitors in the area, but there is one firm of solicitors that is based in that town.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that whatever changes to legal aid are brought in, they will, in Wales, have to accommodate the legal requirements of the Welsh Language Act 1993? It is a great concern of many people that the capacity will not be there to do that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point. Clearly, this is not my area of expertise, but the point has been raised by Mr Llwyd, the leader of Plaid Cymru in the House, who is very worried. He is a practising barrister and is concerned that that obligation will go as a result of the proposals. That cannot be justice.
I am conscious of the time, so I will now make a little progress. The Government proposals for PCT will irrevocably damage the criminal justice system. PCT will inevitably lead to the market being dominated by the big multinationals—the usual suspects—G4S, Serco, Capita; and I fear that many new entrants to the market who have no experience whatever of delivering criminal justice will dominate the market. The small businesses, the expert businesses, that have established their practices over a number of years and have a great relationship with local authorities will just close their doors. It will become economically unviable for them to continue to exist.
The proposals are designed to cut a further 17.5% on top of the 2011 reduction of 10%. Firms that win the contracts will assert that they can provide the service at the cheapest possible rate. Stack it high and sell it cheap will see our criminal justice system reduced to the lowest common denominator. I have no doubt that it will be taken over by less qualified people providing a less qualified service. We will see the cornerstone of a civilised society reduced to a factory mentality where quantity will trump quality each and every time. The only consideration in our justice system will be the cheapest provider.
The plans also perversely propose the same fee being paid whether the case is resolved by way of a guilty plea or contested at trial. To me, that suggestion beggars belief. There is undoubtedly a concern that that will lead to undue pressure being put on a defendant to plead guilty to speed up the process, thus saving time and money for big legal aid providers. There will be a clear financial incentive for the defendant to plead guilty as quickly as possible, even when a trial would be in the client’s best interests. It is unlikely to happen, because, in my honest view, solicitors always act in the best interests of their clients and always advise based on evidence alone and the strength of the evidence presented in the case, but do the Government not accept that advice might be misconstrued? A particular client might plead guilty to an offence when the evidence is strong and overwhelming, but there might be a later discussion, perhaps in the pub, along the lines, “You pled guilty, mate, because your brief was paid the same money whether they did their best for you in a trial or forced you, with your arm up your back, to plead guilty.” Surely that will be the result.
Order. I do not wish to interrupt the flow of the hon. Gentleman and I have no idea how much longer he intends to go on for, but other people wish to contribute, not least some of his hon. Friends. I urge him, in the spirit of co-operation with his colleagues, to consider bringing his remarks to an end.
I am grateful, Mr Davies. I will bring my remarks to a close. I apologise. I think I took too many interventions.
Well-established, local, high-quality providers that have strong links with local police authorities, courts and councils will be replaced by large corporations. That is not a good idea. It is not helpful to the justice system. The reality is that people will suffer as a consequence of the proposals. I hope the Government listen. I hope that the Lord Chancellor—according to rumour, this will be the announcement tomorrow—has changed his mind and decided once and for all to bury the idea of price-competitive tendering.
Order. It appears that five hon. Members wish to catch my eye. I intend to go to the Front Benchers no later than 10.40 am, which leaves just less than half an hour for other contributions. I do not intend to set a formal time limit, but I hope that people will do the maths—it leaves just under six minutes each—and bear it in mind when considering other speakers.
I declare an interest as a member of the Bar, albeit that I do not do any criminal or legal aid work at all. Whether that makes me a fat cat, I leave to others, and my tailor, to conclude.
I congratulate Karl Turner on his marathon performance this morning; he ranged over the full width of the criticisms to be made of the policy. The debate is somewhat reminiscent of the discussions we had in the first Parliament of the Tony Blair Government about the Access to Justice Act 1999, when I was in the position of Mr Slaughter, arguing against slashes to legal aid and actions that would deny access to justice, rather than improve it—so much changes and so much does not change. It is a pity that we have got to where we are today because there appears to be intransigence on both sides of the argument. Both sides have good points to make.
The economic constraints that the Government face are obvious and need to be dealt with—that is undeniable, and I think the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East is prepared to accept that. Unfortunately, the Whitehall system of government means that everyone works in a silo and nobody pays any attention to the consequences of a cut in one Department on the expenditure of another. We saw that with the closure of magistrates courts.
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman not concede that estimates from his esteemed colleagues show that there will be an increase in costs? For example, a doubling in the cost of legal aid for prisoners’ cases and an increase of £1.3 million to £4.5 million for judicial reviews are additional costs that will result from the proposals.
I rather thought that was the point I was making. If we cut one Department or one aspect of expenditure, it has a knock-on effect on another, which is why I referred to the closure of magistrates courts. It saved one Department, through the Courts Service, a certain amount of money, but impacted on the police forces that had to transport defendants from, for example, Market Harborough to Leicester, some 15 or more miles away. Such discussions are perennial. That is not to say that we should not have them, but nobody should be surprised when the Government and the Opposition stand against each other in this way.
The consultation is to be responded to at some stage in the future, whether it is tomorrow, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East suspects, or some other date, we do not know—the Minister may be able to give us a sneak preview of what is going through the mind of his Secretary of State—but I hope that it has not yet been printed, because there are plenty of things about which the Lord Chancellor needs to think before he responds. I, unlike the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, have had the joy of meeting the Lord Chancellor: once in his office in Parliament and once in his office in the Ministry of Justice. I have always found him an entirely reasonable person to talk to. It will be interesting to see quite how much of what I invited him to consider ends up in the response to the consultation document; no doubt, in due course, we shall see.
A number of points need to be borne in mind. The first is the important constitutional point the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East addressed and my right hon. Friend Mr Davis mentioned, by implication this morning and on an earlier occasion in the Backbench Business debate. Access to justice and representation, particularly in cases against the Government or the authorities, are hugely important. If we deny them, we undermine an aspect of the civilised nature of this country. I am not sure that that is what the Lord Chancellor has in mind, but we are necessarily fearful that it could happen.
Reducing expenditure on prisoners’ cases as a blanket policy is of course worrying, but if we are preventing public money from being spent on people complaining about whether they have one blanket or two or whether they get this or that pornographic magazine, I do not think I will lose much sleep. There will clearly be cases involving prisoners, the downtrodden, asylum seekers and so forth for which legal aid will be essential to see that justice is done and the Government are not oppressive.
Does the hon. and learned Gentlemen agree that the cases prisoners bring are not necessarily trivial? They may be to do with a prisoner’s mental health, mothers wanting to be with their babies in mother and baby units or children and young people in custody who desperately need legal representation if, for example, they do not have access to proper programmes in their sentencing plan.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Her point is not controversial. The argument against it, and perhaps against my points, is often made the basis that there are far too many people taking judicial review proceedings about trivial and silly cases on pornography or whatever it might be. Those cases need to be got rid of, but the cases she mentions need to be dealt with properly.
Constituents drew to my attention a problem that the changes, if they go through as advertised, will cause for not only the future representation of defendants, but the administration of our justice system. At the moment, thousands of criminal barristers, and this may be true of criminal solicitors as well, are doing the most complicated cases, particularly child abuse and sex crime cases, which can in my view be prosecuted and defended only by professionals who have experience of such cases. They are not paid huge sums of money. They are the senior juniors: 35 to 40-year-old juniors at the Bar, who are the potential QCs—silks—and Crown Court judges. If we push those people away from the profession, we will not be able to develop the judges and senior members of the profession of the future. Perhaps that consequence has not occurred to the Lord Chancellor, but I know that it will have occurred to my hon. Friend the Minister, because he is a former criminal barrister of huge thoughtfulness and experience.
If we push those people away, we are in danger of utterly changing how we deliver the criminal justice system. I have had any number of constituency members of the legal profession coming to me, and they do not live in vast houses or drive Bentleys. They live in small houses on little executive estates, drive second, third and fourth-hand cars, and send their children to state schools. They are not rich; they do a difficult job for little money. They do it because they have a vocation and because they think it is right that innocent and guilty criminal defendants alike are represented.
I will stop there because I have overrun my time by far too long. I urge the Minister to take the points that I have gently put to him with the seriousness that the constitution requires.
I will try to be brief, Mr Davies, because of that stricture.
Does the Minister accept that price-competitive tendering must always lead to the reduction or complete withdrawal of client choice? As long as we begin from the principle that we are not only entitled to a fair trial, but must be seen to have a fair trial, the latter is incompatible with the prosecuting body limiting the defendant’s choice, or even choosing the person employed to defend them. If the Department plans to put contracts that guarantee an equal share of work out to tender—as stated in the document it has produced—by necessity, choice is being limited. The central concern about choice therefore remains. As I said in the legal aid debate called by Sarah Teather, the establishment of choice goes back to the Magna Carta. It is fundamental to our system, and I have yet to hear why the Lord Chancellor thinks it can be discarded in this way.
Even if the Government are not interested in the perception or the subjectivity of receiving a fair trial, tendering, and the guarantee of work without quality control, can lead only to an objectively less fair system. The system proposal means that firms will be forced to compete on price rather than on quality, and I do not want lawyers doing that. The lower firms bid, the fewer resources they can commit to each case. That is why, when we went down that road with those who would provide food for our children in schools, we ended up with turkey twizzlers. It is why, when the NHS decided to contract out the cleaning services in our hospitals, we ended up with MRSA. So I say to the Minister, let us remain committed to quality in the system—a point well made by my hon. Friend Karl Turner and Sir Edward Garnier—and not discard it for a cheap and, by definition, substandard service.
The savings we need can be found in other places. The significant bulk of the £220 million, as the Minister knows, comes from high-cost cases, half of which deal with banking fraud. Why does the banking sector not have an insurance scheme for fraud against its banks? That would halve the sum that the Minister is looking for. Again, it would be nice if the Lord Chancellor could say whether he was considering taking banking fraud out of criminal cases so that we could find the savings in a way that was much more friendly to our justice system.
Do we want the situation that we see in the United States of America, with substandard lawyers and huge miscarriages of justice? There are an estimated 10,000 cases of innocent people convicted of a felony there. Do we want that system? We need to think very carefully about price-competitive tendering.
I want to end briefly with the proposals that still stand on judicial review. This matter affects us all. If the state comes to take my kids away, I will seek judicial review. If the state wants to bulldoze my home to make way for High Speed 2, I will seek judicial review. If the state is unwilling to provide a care home for my mother, I will seek judicial review. Seeking to restrict judicial review is a travesty. It is a fundamental area that has largely been protected by law, and the inroads into it should be of great concern to every individual in this country. We really need to consider the matter again, given that the savings are so minuscule.
The caricature of fat-cat lawyers has been a disgrace—most lawyers are high street lawyers in places as different as Cornwall and Tottenham, and are on less than nurses and teachers. The clamour outside this building is not being made by just the legal profession. It is not about the lawyers, but about the many people who will see miscarriages of justice if the measure goes through.
I congratulate Karl Turner on securing the debate. Many Members will remember that my hon. Friend Sarah Teather led a well-attended debate on legal aid reform in June, which focused on civil legal aid and was helpful in moving the debate forward. Those of us with an even better memory might remember that two years ago I held a debate in this place on legal aid reform, before the previous legislation was passed.
We will not have time to touch on some things, such as the residency test, which I still consider pernicious, but I wish to talk through a whole range of issues. We accept, as I think everyone must, the principle of making savings. It has been accepted, I think, across the board. The Labour party’s manifesto at the last election stated:
“To help protect frontline services, we will find greater savings in legal aid”.
The question is how to do that.
As co-chair of the Liberal Democrat committee on home affairs, justice and equalities I wrote formally, with my colleagues, to the Lord Chancellor, and we received a detailed response to our suggestions. Sadly, I will not have time to go through all the suggestions or every aspect of the response, but I was pleased that he said:
“It is important to note that I have yet to make any final policy decisions.”
He is absolutely right not to have done so, and I am sure that he will listen carefully to the concerns we are all expressing. He also referred to a short period of further consultation, which I think we would all welcome.
The Lord Chancellor also talked about working closely with the Law Society. I was at the Law Society yesterday and had the opportunity to talk to it about some of the new proposals. I hope we will be able to come up with something that it will find not necessarily ideal but an acceptable way forward. As has already been said, the society’s suggestions for savings are definitely worth looking at; it has an improved model.
Our biggest concern as a committee was the lack of choice. When a scheme including that was tried in Scotland in 1998, under a different Government, there was substantial dissatisfaction with the representatives. It was clear that getting rid of choice did not work then, and I am pleased that the Lord Chancellor has taken the right decision to abandon that approach.
We must also look at quality. We saw the problems with the bulk contract awarded to Applied Language Solutions—now Capita—for interpreting services. It did not provide the quality that was needed, and we must avoid anything like the same problems again. The Lord Chancellor said that quality was
“critical to any future model of procurement”,
and that must be absolutely explicit. We do not want cut-price justice; we must ensure good quality, and that includes the smaller firms that many colleagues have spoken about. An idea that I have suggested is to encourage firms to work together in consortia rather than to have large bidders. There will be a firm operating in one town that can work happily as part of the same contract with one in a town somewhere else, in Cornwall, Cambridgeshire or wherever it might be. It does not make any sense that such firms should have to bid against each other. I hope that the Lord Chancellor has considered that and will respond in detail, with some helpful ways forward.
Judicial review is an important remedy. It is essential to have ways in which the state can be held to account at local government and national level. The proposals will not save a huge amount of money. I look forward to detailed suggestions about how to deal with cases of suggested misuse of the system without affecting the vast majority of cases that are important and which form a clear safeguard.
A particular concern has been put to me by several lawyers doing judicial review cases: because of the requirements for payment only when permission has been given, in a really strong case—for example, when a local authority that is failing to provide the care it should, gives up and settles at the point that there is a claim for judicial review, because it knows that it will lose—there may be no opportunity for the lawyer ever to be paid. I did not know until recently that a local authority will quite often settle, subject to not having to pay the fees. If the Government and the local authority will not pay the fees, the people with the strongest cases will never get paid. That is clearly not right and must be addressed in some way, because I am sure that it is not what the Government want to happen.
It is important to have a system of legal aid for prisoners. There may well be some trivial cases, but there are some incredibly serous ones. By all means, let them go through a complaints system that has to be used first, but if that is unsatisfactory, there must be a proper legal route and support for prisoners. The change will not save much money, so it should not be done purely for ideological reasons.
We can do much in relation to savings, as has been touched on. The use of restrained funds, with appropriate judicial control and capping, would be a fantastic way forward. It seems odd to pay for legal aid for people who have money, but not allow them to spend it. That would be one way to save a substantial amount of money. That can be used in some cases—the Home Office has access—so let us make sure that it is available here.
I support the idea of dealing with high cost fraud cases by having a form of compulsory directors insurance or some other scheme—I do not mind about the exact details—so that we are not paying in cases where there is another substantial source of money. That would enable great savings.
Lastly, there could be more efficiency savings in how courts operate. The system too often does not work: the late arrival of prisoners due to transport failures has caused delays for a third of defence solicitors; half of solicitors have been delayed because the prosecution did not follow disclosure rules; and there are unnecessary adjournments and listing failures. The court system does not operate as efficiently as possible, which costs us money in legal aid. We could provide better justice for less money.
I look forward to the Minister’s response and the Lord Chancellor’s final decisions. Yes, we can save money, but it must not be at the cost of justice.
I want to speak briefly about the impact of the proposals on prisoners. I raised that in the debate we were able to have before the summer, when the Minister did not have time to respond to all the questions asked. I will quickly highlight two or three points.
The representation of prisoners inside prisons on such matters as resettlement, categorisation and access to health care treatments and programmes is classed as a form of criminal legal aid, but in practice the skill set required and the nature of the lawyers carrying out that work makes it much more akin to civil public law. That deeply concerns me, because where there will still be an entitlement to access legal aid in prisons—that will be severely curtailed, in any event—it is likely that the national or international firms receiving many of the contracts will simply lack those skills. I ask the Minister to comment on how that expertise will be protected under the contracts.
I am particularly concerned about children and young offenders. Thankfully, the number of young people in custody is falling. I pay great tribute to the Youth Justice Board and the criminal justice system for that achievement. Young people, in particular, need good quality representation with a specialist advocate who is used to working with children and can recognise that they often arrive in prison in particularly difficult and chaotic personal circumstances. The advocate needs to have the time to build a relationship with the child or young person, and I am very concerned that we could lose that for young offenders. I wanted to ask the Minister about that in the debate earlier in the summer. I am keen to hear from him that special arrangements will be put in place to protect the interests of children and young offenders, and I really hope that he can say something reassuring.
As time is so limited, I will make my final point, which is a similar one about older prisoners and those who are disabled or very unwell. They form an increasing part of the prison population, as the Minister will know. I have a constituency case of a prisoner who is very unwell, has disabilities and, as a result, is unable to participate in the programmes that are part of his sentence plan. That means that he cannot be moved, on successful completion of his programme, to a lower-security prison. That is mad for the Prison Service, and it is bad and unfair for him. I again invite the Minister to say what special arrangements could be put in place for such particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged disabled and older prisoners.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as ever, Mr Davies. Having cut down my speech, I seem to have more minutes that I thought.
The debate over legal aid cuts is about more than just lawyers’ fees; it is about access to justice and to our legal system, without which equality before the law cannot function. Any cuts to legal aid must be targeted and thoroughly thought through, otherwise they will be fraught with risks to our legal system.
I understand that savings need to be found across the criminal justice system, and that legal aid should be reserved for those who need it most—those whose inability to pay legal fees threatens their access to justice. I feel strongly that steps should be taken to address the problems of very high cost cases, although I recognise that there are very few of them. I support efforts to root out inefficiency in the court system, as well as in prosecutions and the wider criminal justice system. I cannot, however, support cuts that might lead to an increased number of miscarriages of justice, which I fear the model will promote; it will also promote quantity over quality.
I question the first plank of the Government’s plan, which is to replace the current model and reduce the number of providers from 1,400 local providers to 400 larger ones. The Secretary of State has claimed that that will be a more efficient model of criminal legal aid procurement, but I do not follow that logic. For example, if someone has a solicitor from Berwick at the other end of my region, that will add at least an hour and a half to the time for them to get legal advice. The ideology that bigger means more efficient and that local means wasteful is part of a trend with this Government, but it is misguided.
Small and medium-sized legal aid firms will be obliterated by the changes; yet it is those very local firms that have the strong links with local courts, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service that larger companies simply do not have. Indeed, they often have relationships with repeat offenders, and sometimes a bit of common sense can be used in a situation, rather than letting it escalate into a massive legal case. With no pilot, no monitoring and no quality control, the lowest cost provider will win out, regardless of quality. Tendering time scales are so tight that many existing providers will not have sufficient time to restructure themselves into larger consortia.
On top of the previous 10% cuts to legal aid lawyers, the further proposals would cap bids at 17.5% below the current fee. The same fee will be paid regardless of the nature of the plea, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend Karl Turner. The cuts will price firms out of the legal aid market, and may even increase pressure on people to plead guilty, so heightening the chances of miscarriages of justice. The reforms, particularly price-competitive tendering, threaten universal access to justice, and I therefore urge the Government to reconsider and amend the proposals.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend Karl Turner for his outstanding speech—a tour de force—demolishing the Government proposals. I also thank all hon. Members who have made very fine speeches on a range of issues—and, indeed, all 20 Members who have turned up, not one of whom have I heard give unqualified support to the Government proposals; there has been much for the Minister to think about and reply to. In its way, it is almost as impressive as the 31 Members who attended the Backbench Business Committee debate. There has also been a debate in the other place.
As my hon. Friend said, it remains a scandal that the Government have not provided any of their own time to debate these issues. We had a year going through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill—now an Act—but these measures are equally controversial and should have been the subject of primary legislation or, if not, certainly given ample Government time. We will no doubt return to the issues in other debates, but such debates all seem to be up to Back-Benchers and the Opposition to supply. I remind the Minister that the Government’s own lawyer said about the consultation document:
“We consider that the proposals in the consultation paper will undermine the accountability of public bodies to the detriment of society as a whole and the vulnerable in particular.”
More than 100,000 people have so far signed the petition opposing the proposals.
In the few moments that I have this morning, I want to look at where we are. A two-month consultation process earlier this year yielded 15,000 responses. We had the climbdown on choice, which was welcome as far as it went. The Joint Committee on Human Rights then intervened, asking the Government to pause, partly because some of the proposals might be unlawful. That was rejected out of hand by the Lord Chancellor, who said that he had to get on and make the cuts.
The areas of particular concern that the Joint Committee identified for review were the proposals on judicial review, residency and prisoner rights that, on the Government’s own estimation, make savings of no more than £6 million. The Government still cannot say—the Minister may want to correct me—what the savings will be from introducing the residency test. Some have pointed out the appalling consequences of such a test for the relatives abroad of those who have died in custody, the Gurkhas or other groups for whom justice should be done. The Government say that those proposals will save £6 million.
I hope the Minister has read the excellent paper by Dr Nick Armstrong at Matrix Chambers. It has been endorsed by the probation service, which says that, cumulatively, the proposals will cost about £30 million. The Lord Chancellor is simply wrong to say that it is on the grounds of cost that we must proceed in a hurry to make those fundamental constitutional changes.
We are told by the usual channels—a leak to the Law Society Gazette—that tomorrow there will be an oral statement and the publication of the Government’s response. I am not sure whether the Minister is in a position to confirm that today. He might as well, because we do not know whether the Lord Chancellor will even turn up to the statement tomorrow; someone might be rude to him on the way there or he might have to go and do a bit of canvassing in a marginal seat.
Let us hear what the Minister can tell us this morning. Will he answer my questions? First, given that choice is back in, what is the savings target now? Is it still £220 million or has it changed? What effect will the second consultation, which we are told will take place shortly, have on the timetable for implementation of the changes? What will the new tendering regime look like? Is the decline in the number of firms by 75%—1,600 to 400—still on the table?
Will anything be done on the issue of specialism? A lot has been said about that in relation to, say, black and minority ethnic firms and small rural firms, but these measures go across the board. One submission that has already been mentioned was from Thompsons Solicitors, which represents a lot of public sector workers such as paramedics, nurses and care workers, who are often accused of serious offences that have implications for not just their liberty but their continued career and employment. They need specialist representation, and it is very unlikely that they will obtain that under the proposals.
On average, what will be the costs of a bid? We are told in the consultation paper that they need to be digitally prepared and done in a certain way. The process will be extremely expensive for small firms, which may not be able to make the investment with any certainty that they will be successful at the end of the day. Will the Government’s proposals still discriminate against small, rural or specialist firms?
The Government have said nothing so far on the issue of the perverse incentives. It is nonsense to suggest that the same fee should be payable for an early plea, a cracked trial or a short trial of up to three days. Given his background, the Minister should know that and that it must be addressed at some stage. Retaining choice is a step forward, but it is not the magic bullet that will sort out all the problems.
The Government have been asked to pause. They are bringing forward a second consultation, but they have not addressed the main reason for the pause. They have not addressed the issue of legality that the Joint Committee has raised, and the timetable thus far has shown the confusion and inadequacy of the proposals.
The other matter I want to raise with the Minister is the cumulative effect that this avalanche of proposals is having on the criminal justice system as a whole. We saw in the research from the shadow Home Secretary this morning that the number of domestic violence cases being handed by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service has fallen by 13%—primarily due, it appears, to a lack of police numbers and time.
Reference has been made to the crisis in the CPS. Again, a leading defence firm that responded to the consultation estimated that in 85% of cases, disclosure is not supplied timeously by the CPS. The consequence is more applications in court and more wasted costs orders against the CPS.
The court amalgamations—we are told that there may be more closures coming forward—are also causing great problems of management for magistrates, court staff and the CPS. The continuing interpreters fiasco is not only a problem in itself but an indication of where we might be in relation to the proposals. Having a system in which the lowest common denominator drives down prices to the lowest possible level means that we just cannot get the people to do the work. There will be solicitors who either cannot or will not work for those rates, because the costs are just too low.
We have not seen the full impact of the cuts enshrined in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which were introduced in April. We have not seen the effect of other savings such as the defence costs orders, which were introduced at the end of last year. They effectively mean that if a person is paying privately for their defence and is acquitted, they may now recover only 25% of their actual costs.
There seems to be an issue of justice there; people should be put back into the position where they should have been had they not been falsely accused of offences. None the less, there will be a saving there. Will the Minister say what that will be? Equally, what additional costs will we increasingly see to litigants in person, and what are the additional costs that will come about because of some of the so-called cuts that Dr Armstrong has identified in his papers?
The Government are hardwiring inefficiency and injustice into the criminal justice system. There are inefficiencies in the system and they should be taken out. Several hon. Members have alluded to possible ways of making savings in a way that would improve the efficiency of the courts and the administration of justice. The Government’s proposals offer the worst of both worlds. They are increasing inefficiency, making things more uncertain and putting delay into the system. At the same time, they are unlikely to achieve many of the savings that the Government have outlined.
On the way to the Chamber, I was reading an article by Stephen Sedley, one of our most eminent judges, in the London Review of Books. He says:
“The decision in 2012 to put a political enforcer, Chris Grayling, in charge of the legal system carried a calculated message: the rule of law was from now on, like everything else, going to be negotiable.”
He adds that
“departmental housekeeping is being used not to rebalance but to unbalance a central element of the constitution.”
We have to make cuts in legal aid and elsewhere in the public finances. However, putting in jeopardy the justice system of which this country is so proud and on which so many people rely is not the way to do it.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I begin by registering my interest. I, like Karl Turner, practised in the criminal courts for some time, and I, like him, was very much a thin cat. I recognise and agree with the comments that he has made about the quality of advocates who practise in our criminal courts. I also agree, of course, with my hon. and learned Friend Sir Edward Garnier on that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East on securing the debate and thank all Members who have spoken or intervened in it. The hon. Gentleman knows that this is a debate and a discussion that has been ongoing for a considerable time and that the Government have listened to a variety of different contributions. He knows that, for example, Ministry of Justice officials have travelled across England and Wales and met approximately 2,500 practitioners, members of the judiciary and members of the public.
We have heard and considered views expressed by the hon. Members who participated in a previous Westminster Hall debate on these proposals, secured by my hon. Friend Mr Williams, and of course the views expressed in the Backbench Business Committee debate, which has also been referred to today and which I had the pleasure of responding to. There have also been meetings of the Justice Committee; a moment or so ago, we heard from my hon. Friend Steve Brine about those. In addition, there have been meetings of the all-party group on legal aid.
Furthermore, Ministers have met a variety of different stakeholders. We have received just under 16,000 responses to the consultation, which have all been considered in order to inform the development of the policy. We have also had a variety of letters from the public and from parliamentarians, a multiplicity of parliamentary questions and debates in the other place, which Lord McNally has responded to. Of course, there is also what has transpired in the media. So there has been a good deal of engagement and that process will continue. I certainly welcome the contributions that have been made to it today.
Let me be clear on one or two points in general. I think that the first point is recognised; I welcome the fact that Mr Slaughter referred to it late on in his remarks. It is that we have to make savings in the legal aid budget. There is simply no getting away from that; in fact, I think that it is also well understood within the legal profession. So that point is not in dispute; it is a question of how we make those savings.
In that process, it is important that we listen to all the people I have mentioned, and to those in the legal profession. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East asked us to sit down with those in the legal profession and listen to what they have to say to us. Well, we have done that and I think that he will see the fruits of that when we respond to the consultation, which we will do as soon as possible.
Let me try to deal with some of the other points that the hon. Gentleman made. As he will understand, I will not be able to respond to everything he said in the time that I have—indeed, I will not be able to respond to everything that other Members have said in the debate. However, I will do my best to pick out some of the things that he referred to.
The hon. Gentleman and others referred to inefficiencies in the legal system and in the courts process that need attention. They are all absolutely right about that. Meg Hillier, my hon. Friend Dr Huppert and Julie Elliott all referred to such inefficiencies, as did the hon. Gentleman. Of course, it is an area that we must look at, but it will not exclude the need to find savings within the legal aid budget.
Mr Lammy and others said that we should look at the very high-cost cases, and they are absolutely right. We are looking at the issue; our proposals include a 30% reduction in the fees paid for cases of that nature. Again, however, dealing with those cases on their own will not do the necessary job of delivering savings.
Many Members who have spoken in this debate have been concerned about quality, and of course they are right to be. No part of the proposals that we are making suggest that quality is not important in the provision of legal aid services, and any system that we institute will require those providing those services to maintain standards of quality. In addition, those standards must be properly monitored.
It is important when we talk about eligibility for legal aid that we are clear about what these proposals actually are. It is not sensible to refight all the battles over the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012; we certainly do not have the time to do so and you, Mr Davies, would not let me. However, in relation to the particular proposals about criminal legal aid, the argument over eligibility is limited to whether it is right to set an eligibility threshold at a disposable income of £37,500 a year. The only people who will not have access to legal aid for criminal cases will be those who have a disposable income of that level or above. That is a generous level, and I think that the majority of our constituents would consider it right that people with substantial wealth should pay up front for their legal fees, which of course will be refunded to them if they are, in the end, acquitted.
Does that not counter a tradition in British law that someone is innocent until they are proven guilty? The fact that the Minister is suggesting that somebody who is yet to be found guilty will not have access to the law is an absolute affront to the criminal justice system in this country.
I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Lady, because we are not talking about changing that presumption of innocence. What we are saying is that people with the means to pay—sometimes, very substantial means to pay—should not have access to taxpayer-funded subsidy for their legal fees if they are, in the end, found guilty. If they are found innocent in the end, the amount that they have paid for their legal fees will be considered for refund. That is important, but it is not about a presumption of innocence, which remains intact, as—of course—it should.
I will say something about prison law, because that is an issue that many people have raised. Kate Green asked some sensible and detailed questions about it. If she will forgive me, I must say that in the five minutes I have left to me I will not have the opportunity to respond to those questions, but I will write to her about the specific points that she has made.
However, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough is entirely right that the nature of the case that is being considered and that may be litigated is crucial. It is not the case that every instance of grievance raised by a prisoner should be litigated through the courts. Also, the changes that we are proposing say that it is important that when a prisoner’s liberty or the length of their sentence are considered, they should still have access to legal aid. However, there are a whole range of other complaints that can be more properly and more effectively dealt with through other methods, rather than involving the courts and costly lawyers.
I will also say something about the residence test, because the right hon. Member for Tottenham and others expressed concern about it. Again, I think that in principle it is right that those who have a strong connection with the United Kingdom should have access to taxpayer-funded legal aid, and that those who do not have a strong connection to the United Kingdom should not have access to it. There are exceptions to that principle, which we have made clear. For example, these changes will not apply to refugees or asylum seekers. In general, however, applying that principle is the right thing to do, and I think that it will have the support of the public.
Judicial review has also been referred to. We absolutely support the principle of judicial review. Those who have spoken up in favour of it were right to do so; it is a crucial tenet of our system that the public should be able to hold Government to account through the judicial review system. However, it is equally important that that system should not be abused, and we simply have to face up to the fact that there has been a huge increase in the number of cases pursued through the judicial review process that are not found to have merit.
It is important that the crucial pre-court phase does not cover the initial preparatory work on a judicial review case. In that phase, lawyers should think carefully about whether a case has merit, and they should have something at stake when they do so. That is the basis for the proposals that we are making.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point in relation to settlement. Again, if he will forgive me for now, I will write to him about it, because it is not something that I can go into in the two minutes I have left. Nevertheless, he is right to make the point, and we will certainly explore it—
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I would rather not give way to him; I want to deal with the point about price-competitive tendering that he referred to. Obviously, it is a crucial question. Should we deal with legal aid reform in that way? I am sure he is aware that as recently as last year, the hon. Member for Hammersmith was still saying that there was no reason not to do price-competitive tendering in legal aid, and that he said that he had seen nothing in the past two years to say why we should not press ahead with it. The hon. Gentleman may want to speak to the hon. Member for Hammersmith about whether price-competitive tendering is a deeply flawed concept that could never work.
However, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East will also know that we are considering a range of submissions—we will also consider his submission—and that the Government will respond to the consultation that we have held. In addition, he knows that there will be a further period of consultation on some of the proposals. I hope that he will be a little more patient and see what those responses entail, because we will want to consider carefully a number of things and to decide what our response to them should be. He will forgive me if I cannot give him a sneak preview today, but he will not have to be patient for very much longer to see how we intend to respond.
There are crucial points to be considered—they have been raised again in this debate today—about the nature of rural areas and the advice to be provided to people there. As I say, hon. Friends and hon. Members have made those points, and they have been listened to and understood. Similarly, the point was made about Welsh language requirements. Any contracts that are issued will include a requirement that Welsh language services be provided. That is the law and that is as it should be.
Again, I stress that this process is an opportunity for people to contribute their views about what we have set out. With our legal aid reforms, the intention is to do two things: first, to address the real financial challenge that we face; and secondly, to reinforce public confidence in what is a very important system of providing taxpayer-funded subsidy to those who need it in our courts. Our proposals have those twin objectives. We will listen to the submissions that have been made to us, but in the end those objectives are what we seek to achieve.