(3 months, 2 weeks ago)Read Full debate
Order. We have seven speakers, so if everybody takes about eight minutes we should be able to get everyone in comfortably for the winding-up speeches.
Let me say what a pleasure it is to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), who speaks with such authority, particularly on prisons. It was a privilege to serve alongside him on the Select Committee on Justice.
It is important to put this debate on spending into context by setting out how much money we are talking about and where it sits in the grand scheme of things. The useful briefing provided by the Justice Committee makes it clear that the MOJ’s resource budget for 2020-21 will be a little over £8 billion. True, the total amount spent will be a little more, due to annual managed expenditure, but the departmental expenditure limit is about £8 billion. To put that in context, total Government expenditure is anticipated to be over £850 billion, the point being that, whether it is a little less or a little more, the MOJ’s budget is at or around 1% of total Government expenditure. That may or may not be remarkable in and of itself, but the items that the MOJ has to fund and secure could not be more important in our society.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the funding of prisons, and while that is critical, what he did not touch on—this is no criticism of him—was legal aid. The danger when discussing legal aid is that there could be a misconception in society—which could even be reflected among the relatively modest number of hon. Members present in today’s debate—of legal aid and access to justice as a “nice to have” rather than a fundamental and essential part of a functioning democracy.
That critical nature was recognised back in the 1940s, when British politicians were grappling with what the shape and nature of the welfare state should be. At that time, they considered the NHS, but they also considered the provision of legal aid to people of all means to be a critically important duty. In reaching that conclusion, they no doubt drew on some of the learning that came from Magna Carta, which said:
“We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”
Those ancient words convey something extremely important: if we are to be equal before the law, we must have access to the law. And so it was that, in the White Paper that preceded the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949, these words appeared:
“no one would be financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or defend a legal right”.
That must be the underpinning of a fair society. If people are granted rights by this place, they should be able to prosecute and defend them.
What has happened since 1949—no doubt, to cater for the increasingly complex world—is that the rights available to people are themselves more complex, whether it is to do with the employment sphere, protecting data or securing contact arrangements with children, which may be increasingly complicated, with one parent living abroad and so on. However, securing those rights is no less important now than it was then. The Supreme Court gave a trenchant judgment back in 2017 in the Unison case, when it had to consider whether employment tribunal fees were set too high. Ultimately, it concluded that they were, but the point that Lord Reed made—I am not quoting but paraphrasing—was that unless every person can get access to justice, the laws made in this place are liable to become a dead letter. He said that the work done in this Parliament would become nugatory and, in a memorable phrase, that
“the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade.”
In those powerful remarks, Lord Reed encapsulated a fundamental truth, the importance of which I suspect hon. Members from across the House will have experienced in their constituency surgeries. I had a constituent—I will not name her, for reasons that are obvious—who faced a very upsetting set of circumstances. Her child was subject to contact arrangements made in a French court, which meant, putting it very simply, that she was unable to have access to her child, because there was a conflict-of-laws issue that needed resolving. Of course, she could not get legal aid to help her with that. Ultimately, she was assisted by a lawyer who gave tens, if not hundreds, of hours entirely pro bono to assist her. Justice was done because that lawyer was able to show that she had indeed been wronged by the courts process and that her rights needed to be asserted.
I want to take this opportunity, if I may, Madam Deputy Speaker, to pay tribute to all those lawyers up and down the country who give of their time to speak truth to power, to redress grievances and to do so entirely free of charge. They really do heroic work. It is unfashionable in this place to pay tribute to lawyers, but those who work pro bono are some of the best in our society.
The total budget for legal aid is at or around £1.7 billion, and I want to conclude by putting that figure into some context. To the Syrian crisis alone the UK will be giving—in a gesture that is no doubt entirely appropriate and that entirely speaks of our humane and responsible nature as a nation—something like £2.7 billion. That may be entirely appropriate, but we should not neglect the legal aid budget. I do, of course, declare an interest as a legal aid lawyer, but that experience has taught me that, unless we properly resource legal aid, there will be a number of outcomes.
First, there will be the sorts of cases I referred to a few moments ago, with individuals being denied justice. Secondly, there will be an increase, which we have already seen, in litigants in person, who have to contend with an extremely alien and sometimes forbidding environment—a situation, by the way, that several judges find extremely difficult to deal with, despite their best efforts. The third and most important thing is manifest injustice. I went along to the Gloucester Law Centre, and it was really troubling to hear from hard-working and dedicated lawyers that they do what they can but that they recognise there are large areas that simply cannot be addressed.
The fourth thing—we do not want to scaremonger, but we must keep this in mind—is that if people cannot get access to justice, there is always a risk that they will take justice into their own hands. Although I suspect that the British people do not get quite as exercised about issues of legal aid as they might about the health service or education, they do recognise injustice when they see it. We all recall the case of Liam Allan, a young man who had been accused of rape. It emerged that, because of failings in the prosecution, critical text messages on the mobile telephone in that case were not disclosed. When they were, it emerged that he had been wrongly charged, and he was ultimately acquitted. When the British people became aware of that, they were rightly horrified, and the Government and the House have a duty to ensure that they will not be horrified in future by people not being able to seek access to justice.
I know that the Government are doing fantastic work in this field and that the overall budget has gone up by £4.9 billion. I also know from speaking to my hon. Friend the Minister’s predecessor that early advice and assistance have been given very close focus. As my hon. Friend begins his ministerial career, which I know will be long and successful, I urge him to give the closest possible attention to access to justice. We cannot have a society where the finest courts, which we have, and the finest judges, which we have, are truly accessible only to those with the means to pay. If we want to continue to be a shining light, with an international reputation for upholding the highest standards, those standards and that justice must be available to all.