It is always a privilege to serve under your chairship, Mr Bailey.
To declare my interests, my wife is employed as a criminal duty solicitor and part-time judge and, before my election to the House, I was a member of Wilberforce barristers’ chambers in Hull. I was a junior member of the Bar and certainly not earning “fat cat” moneys, as David Mowat might want to believe.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock on securing this important and timely debate. It could not have come at a better time, because the commission chaired by Lord Willy Bach is as we speak hearing evidence from experts in the professions on how we deal with this problem of access to justice and legal aid.
The Bach commission was established by my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party. It is fair to say that the Leader of the Opposition understands legal aid. He, unlike any other leader of a political party that I can remember, actually gets it, as no one else has done. He understands it, he cares about it and, as a result, he has established the Bach commission to look at access to justice and legal aid. He is also doing that in a non-party political way.
Members of the commission have been appointed by Willy Bach not because of their politics or any sort of association with or affiliation to any political party, but, on the contrary, because of their expertise and their knowledge not only of legal aid and access to justice, but of other things. For example, one member, a particularly huge asset to the commission, is Tanni Grey-Thompson, who is also providing expertise in relation to disability. So the commission is non-partisan and we hope that it will come to a view on how we provide access to justice for the most vulnerable people in our society.
It has to be said that the Government have made a real mess of access to justice and legal aid. Since 2010, advice-and-assistance matter starts in social welfare have gone from 471,000 down to 53,000, a drop of 91%. So more than 400,000 people are now not provided with the opportunity to receive legal advice and are not given the chance to access the courts. They are often left paddling their own canoe, faced with extremely complex issues of procedure and law, and left to do all that on their own.
In reality, no money is saved, because the courts are delayed. Judges are complaining constantly, privately in the main, but complaining none the less that cases are delayed while litigants in person are left fending for themselves, trying to navigate through complex areas of procedure and law. There is no real saving.
Following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, exceptional case funding was supposed to help people who are denied access to lawyers. I think this is right—I will be corrected by the Minister if I am wrong—but last year, for example, only 394 applications were granted under the scheme, rather than the 3,700 or so estimated. Clearly, the system is not working.
The Government might be about to reintroduce the residence test. They got excited about that and were pleased that the judicial review was successful, in that the Government won, but the lord justices who heard the case for review were not considering the practical effects of the residence test. They were simply deciding whether the residence test was legal or “Wednesbury unreasonable”; they were not considering whether the test itself was practical or could be implemented successfully. To reintroduce the residence test would be a huge mistake. I have not heard from a lawyer who has been able to explain how it would work. I have asked the Minister, too, how it would work. Will he explain exactly how he intends the residence test to work in practice?
As for criminal legal aid, the Government are now attempting to implement a system that will see the number of duty contract providers reduced from some 1,650 to 526. There has been a cut of about 17.5%. The Government say that the number of providers needs to be reduced and consolidated, in order to allow them a profit on their work. The system, however, cannot work. It will not work and the Minister knows that it will not work. It is undergoing litigation, but the reality is that the Government have made a terrible mess of the duty criminal contracts since 2010. It was needless, in truth, but the entire thing is in a terrible mess now, to the point of a whistleblower coming forward. The whistleblower was employed through the Legal Aid Agency to help with the procurement exercise and was able to explain how chaotic the entire system was.
Last night I received an email from a criminal law solicitor, Mr Andrew Gurney of Gurney Harden Solicitors in Ashford. I will not read the entire content of the email, but that firm of solicitors was successful in its application for six contracts. Mr Gurney makes the point:
“We were involved in 6 successful bids and our early estimates put our costs at £30,000”— so he knows. He knows that the system is impossible to implement. His firm has spent £30,000 in applying for contracts that everyone knows will probably not happen, because everyone knows that it is impossible to implement the system.
The system is not fit for purpose, and the Government have been warned about it. The Justice Secretary privately accepts that the idea of removing more than 1,000 firms of solicitors and leaving some areas without access to duty solicitors is unmanageable. So even Ministers privately believe that access to justice for the most vulnerable people will be denied as a result of the Government’s plans to implement a system that is absolutely chaotic. It is time that the Government listened to people who know better than them.
That brings me to the point made by the hon. Member for Warrington South. We need consensus. We need to put politics aside. It is all right for me to come here and attack the Government—I enjoy that—but the reality is that will not get us anywhere. We need to sit down and accept that people need access to law. As my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party has said, that ought to be considered a basic human right. If the state is taking on an individual, surely the most basic thing required of a civilised society is to allow that individual access to people who have experience and expertise in the area of law that they are trying to navigate.