(1 year, 6 months ago)Read Full debate
As a 48-year-old, I instinctively have sympathy with the point my hon. Friend makes. While the prosecution must be represented, it is absolutely essential that the defence has representation as well. That is in the interests of justice.
It is fair to say that this country, compared with the rest of the world, spends a favourable amount of money on legal aid. I concede that it is always difficult to compare the justice system with others internationally—it is not always an easy comparison to make—but if we look at the overall amount that this country puts into legal aid, we can be reasonably proud of it. However, I concede that there are huge frustrations among some of my former colleagues in the criminal justice system about being unable to represent their clients and pursue matters in the interests of justice in the way they were perhaps once able to do.
My hon. Friend is quite right that I spent some 20 years in the criminal justice system as a duty solicitor. I do not have the experience of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) of going into the cells in his area. However, I had the experience of trying to administer justice on the frontline, which is undoubtedly what happens for duty solicitors and solicitors who work in the criminal justice system. What I learned during that time is that crime is a very complicated thing. I do not believe that there is a simple solution to any of the problems we face with crime in this country. We cannot tackle it from one single angle; it needs a multifaceted approach.
I believe very strongly that criminals tend to have one thing in common, which is a selfish failure to take responsibility for their own actions, but the reasons behind that are often very complex. This sticks in my throat a bit, but to be fair, Tony Blair was actually going in the right direction when he said, “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Whether or not he took that approach is open for debate, but it is the one we need. We need to take a holistic approach to tackling crime. We cannot deal with it simply by locking up more and more people. Equally, we cannot deal with it by trying to cuddle people and to help them on their way. As I say, this needs a multifaceted approach.
It is good that on this estimates day we are concentrating on how we can ensure that society is protected, and that we do not end up trying to regain lost causes because the system has failed, which is much harder to do. Part of that is about ensuring that criminals receive the right sentences for the offences they commit, which is why I advocate expanding the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. We have already taken some steps in that regard. It is right that the defence should be able to appeal against sentences that are too harsh, but in my opinion it is wrong that in so many instances the prosecution cannot appeal against sentences that are unduly lenient. For malicious wounding, actual bodily harm, child cruelty, distribution of child abuse photos, burglary and even rape, when dealt with in the youth court, the prosecution cannot appeal against the sentence handed down, however unduly lenient, because those crimes are not covered by the current scheme. That needs to change. We all agree that the punishment should fit the crime. When it does not, there should be a mechanism in place to allow appeals.
We also need the Government to be flexible in their approach to law and order issues. Government attitudes have to change in accordance with society’s attitudes. I welcomed the announcement that it will now be possible to impose a life sentence for death by dangerous driving, because too often we have seen the courts impose inadequate sentences for some of these incredibly serious crimes. I would also like to see the Crown Prosecution Service making more use of manslaughter charges in the most serious cases.
A lot of work needs to be done in this area. I congratulate the Government on some of the things they are doing to ensure that law and order are at the top of the agenda. I think that we should give this area greater priority. If we do not get our approach to law and order right, we undermine the whole fabric of our society.
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s desire to get prisoners back into work. Does he agree that the changes that can be made to achieve that are actually quite small? The previous Justice Committee saw during a visit to Denmark how communal cooking by prisoners of food that they had bought was a very good marker for getting them to move on in life after prison.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson).
Justice could not be more important and it is fundamental to what it means to be British. Why do I say that? One only has to look at Department for Education guidance on the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect of and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs. If we look further at the understanding the Department wants to promote and the values it wants to engender in young people, it states:
“An appreciation that living under the rule of law protects individual citizens and is essential for their wellbeing and safety”.
In other words, the rule of law is not just some arcane phrase beloved of lawyers; it is about concrete rights that ordinary human beings and citizens in our country are entitled to enforce.
The rule of law and the principles we hold dear represent one of our most precious exports: the common law system. Yet surely there has never been a greater gap between the importance of an issue and its political profile —not under this Government or any other Government specifically, but as a general position. Issues of the law do not tend to move the dial politically in the same way as the NHS or education. That is a really important point, because it is incumbent on us in this place to make those arguments. The truth is that respect for justice is culturally ingrained through such things as the strength of our jury system. There is a collective common sense among the British people that rails against injustice wherever they see it, whether it is in the cases of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four or, more recently, Liam Allan. The British people are appalled when they see injustice, yet there is a disconnect because it does not seem to enjoy the political profile that it should.
As this is an estimates debate, it is important that we consider funding. Governments must live within their means—that is absolutely right—but it is important to observe the total allocated for this budget, which we all recognise as so vital. The total annual managed expenditure of £7.36 billion for 2018-19 will be reduced in 2019-20 to £6.89 billion. To put that into context, the Treasury Red Book states total UK Government expenditure for the first of those two years as £809 billion. By my calculations, £7.36 billion out of £809 billion is less than 1%. The Department for Work and Pensions spends the equivalent of the entire Ministry of Justice budget in about 10 days. The total Department for International Development budget is about double the MOJ budget. The amount spent on aid to Syria alone—one country—of £2.3 billion is more than the entire legal aid budget. Those are sobering figures. I do not for a second doubt the Government’s sincerity when they say they want to prioritise the rule of law and access to justice, but that is none the less a startling suite of statistics. It is important that although this area does not necessarily have support within the media, it has its champions here in Parliament.