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Column 59know that there is a degree of jealousy and sourness about the very fact that the CPS was set up. Although we have always welcomed and supported the service, that will not prevent us from lodging criticisms if we believe them to be justified. We do not want the CPS to have a monopoly of prosecutions. It is extremely important that lawyers, and especially those who are likely to become judges, have experience of both prosecution and defence. Once they have learned to walk, there is a real case for them having the chance to do a bit of running--as members of the CPS in the Crown courts. However, perhaps we can discuss that at greater length when the Courts and Legal Services Bill comes before this House. Having said that about our support of the CPS, we are entitled to an explanation of why millions of pounds have been thrown away on cases that have not even been put before a jury for decision. I can think of about four or five cases that have failed before the courts. If we were to take the cost of those four or five abortive cases and transferred that money to the Legal Aid Board, it would be enough to keep the law centres going for another year or so.
The public want convictions of the guilty and the effective prosecution of criminals because that is one of the best forms of deterrence. I am sure that other hon. Members share my experience of being contacted by victims or the families of victims because they are aghast and infuriated by the way in which some cases are conducted. I shall give four examples from my personal experience and wish to put on the record the fact that the Attorney-General has treated one of these cases most sympathetically. People have come to me about examples in which there appears to be a strong case of causing death by dangerous driving and without any consultation the charge has been reduced to one of careless driving, to the immense fury of those who have lost a loved one. That is just one example, and, although that is the case that I have raised with the Attorney-General, other such cases have been raised with me. A second example is that people have often come to me because they are infuriated that bail has been granted to a defendant who has been guilty of the most violent assault and who has threatened future assaults against the victim, and when there has been no degree of discussion between the prosecution and the victim about the bail conditions that should be suggested to the court.
I have looked at the evidence in a murder case, which was provided to me by the family involved, in which I believe that the family had every reason to question the way in which the evidence was collected, preserved and presented. I have spoken to junior members of the Crown prosecution service, who have complained about the burden of their work and about having, at a junior level, to conduct murder cases. Turning now to the Kevin Taylor case, I do not question the innocence of those who were acquitted because a Crown case was drawn. I do not question for one moment the innocence of Mr. Kevin Taylor, who was acquitted by the court. It does not seem proper that a case should proceed to trial and be dropped when, according to newspaper reports, about £1 million had been spent on its preparation. If a case is to be dropped, surely it should be dropped well before it comes to trial.
Column 60In another recent case, that of the Crown v. Coren and Greenwood, allegations were made that information had been obtained from the Office of Fair Trading, including information about takeovers. That case involved not simply the guilt or innocence of those standing in the dock but the integrity of public administration and of a public institution. We are told in the newspapers that in that case about £750,000 had been spent and the case was dropped almost at the beginning of the trial.
It is sad to see headlines such as the one in The Sunday Times which said :
"Prosecution service failing miserably."
The Attorney-General must learn the lessons of recent well-publicised cases and others and of the expensive farce of trials which are abandoned at a relatively late stage because the prosecution was inadequate.
I am told by the National Audit Office that about two thirds of all cases which fail are dropped on the first court hearing. I hope that the Attorney -General will recognise that we support the CPS. We want to see it well rewarded. We want a proper career structure for those who join it and proper rates of remuneration. We support the service, but the Attorney- General must respond to criticisms of the standard and performance of the CPS and the amount of resources put behind it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East spent some time on discussing the efficiency of county courts. I remind the Attorney-General of the grave misgivings of those who practise in the county courts about the efficiency of the system. We should expect first-class efficiency from our judical system as a matter of course, especially if jurisdiction is to be transferred to county courts from the High Court, as recommended in the Courts and Legal Services Bill. If that is to be the case, we must be assured that the game will be conducted on a pitch which is fit to play on.
I talked recently in private to a county court judge who told me that in his court it took about two months to reply to a letter. That is simply not good enough. In other courts, it takes weeks or months to issue a summons or county court petition. In some courts there is well-documented evidence from practitioners that, when the postal budget runs out, the court does not send out replies to letters or summonses until the next month's budget is available.
If business is to be transferred to the county courts, we must have continuous trial centres. It is not good enough for a trial on a major issue in a county court to begin one day, be put off for three weeks and then be put off for another six weeks.
Whether there is a transfer of business or not, it is important that the county courts work efficiently and use their surplus fee income for the improvement of the service rather than showing a profit which is put into the Treasury. Litigants pay for a service in their fees, so if there is a surplus of fees let it go to improve the service, not to provide money for public expenditure.
I turn lastly to developments which the Labour party intends to bring about in the legal services and the legal system. I have already mentioned some changes in my remarks. The Opposition's principle is that real equality under the law is possible only if people have the ability to enforce their rights. I always refer to the quotation of Anatole France adopted by the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers :
Column 61"The law in its majestic equality forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread." That sums up the notion that freedom of equality under the law does not always meet reality. In the words of the Labour party policy review :
"Real equality under the law only exists in a society which provides equal access to the law and equal treatment before the courts. Neither is provided under our present legal system." There can be no equality of representation when there are gross social and economic discrepancies.
Advice and representation must never be limited by inability to pay. That is why we say that coverage of legal aid advice must be restored and extended to representation before coroners' courts, tribunals such as the immigration and social security appeal tribunals and the Appeal Court. I use the word "representation" in a wide sense for a particular reason. In some cases the services of a consumer adviser, or a specialist such as a refugee worker, immigration counsellor or non-lawyer who specialise in social security, will be just as appropriate and sometimes more appropriate than the services of a solicitor or barrister. It is important that the lay person should be able to obtain trained, professional, objective and adequate representation which is relevant to the case. Equality under the law is not simply about individual rights. Whether in a court or tribunal, it is about organising, informing and representing consumers, either individually or collectively. Representing and advocating consumers' rights should not be limited to members of the legal profession. I do not exclude the legal profession for one moment. Often it can represent people in cases of consumer rights, patient rights, equal opportunities, tenants' rights and rights of the small business man in partnership with other representatives.
I pay tribute to my local law centre, which has done a great deal for a group of people who own small businesses in the Brixton area. People found themselves assailed by large financial institutions who, for example, want to take away their security of tenure as a tenant and substitute a licence. To reflect the breadth of provision in the legal aid system the Labour party would extend the scope of the Legal Aid Board to that of a legal services commission. Furthermore, we would provide equality of access to the professions. I know that there have been improvements, but in my experience it is particularly difficult for someone to be called to the Bar and to succeed if he or she is from a working class background. [ Hon. Members :-- "No."] There is a problem in being called to the Bar. People from a working class background who go into the solicitors' profession are guaranteed an income almost as soon as they qualify, but that is not so with the Bar. That is not a reflection on the Bar or an attack on it, but we must recognise that there is a problem. If one is from a family with a low income, it is difficult to support oneself during the initial period. We should encourage such people to go into the professions.
The composition of the professions should represent and reflect the composition of the population that they advise and represent in court. The same is true of the composition of the judiciary and magistracy. I use the word "Bench" to cover both. Like the professions, the Bench must be more representative of the community that it serves and show greater social awareness. There have been well-publicised cases of judges who do not seem to understand the social conditions of those who appear
Column 62before them. A joke is sometimes made about a judge who is reputed to have put an alcoholic on probation. He asked him to promise that he would never drink again, not even a small sip of sherry before dinner. The judiciary and the Bench do not reflect the population that they represent. That causes difficulties.
Our system of selecting, training and promoting magistrates and judges remains mysterious, secretive and unaccountable and reeks of patronage. It should be neither the duty nor the privilege of a political Cabinet Minister to appoint members of the Bench. A Labour Government would create an independent judicial appointments commission, free from political control and better equipped to appoint those who sit in judgment on fellow citizens. We shall have a department for the administration of legal affairs, directly accountable through a Minister to the House of Commons and responsible for legal aid, courts, tribunals and their procedures, the judicial commission and the whole range of advice and representation. Such a department would be charged with putting the needs of users and consumers first. We want an efficient, user-friendly, legal system, not one which is full of mystery and lacks accountability.
I know that this is only a personal view, but I find the courts intimidating. The judge is dressed in the clothes of another century-- [Laughter.] I am simply remarking on the intimidatory appearance of those who wear wigs, Mr. Speaker. It was no reflection on the Chair. Our courts are intimidating. Even the construction of the dais is intended to rick the necks of those who sit in the well of the court having to look at the judge. We must construct a less intimidating, more friendly, legal system.
The Labour party does not want a legal system which is narrowly bounded by the organisation of the Bar, solicitors and the formal court framework. We interpret the need to provide legal services widely as a need for a network of advice, representation and assistance to uphold citizens' rights. The Government and local authorities jointly have a duty to provide such services through advice centres, law centres and a variety of institutions which supplement and provide access, as well as through the traditional legal professions.
There is no point is giving people rights or imposing duties on others unless the way in which we provide legal aid and advice and organise the professions turns rights and duties into realities. That is the policy that the Labour party will pursue when it is elected to office.
The Attorney-General (Sir Patrick Mayhew) : I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on his good fortune in the ballot and on his discrimination in making use of that opportunity to bring so many important topics before the House. As I read the motion, I found myself wishing that the hon. Gentleman would cheer up a little. As I read through the catalogue of disasters that he perceived I was reminded of a song of my youth in which the author recalls the lurid and various physical misfortunes that befall what nowadays is called his extended family. The hon. Gentleman looks at the family of legal services and sees nothing but feuding, crises of confidence and a serious state of collapse, a sort of super-collapse. It is not like that out of doors and I hope to take some time to justify that assertion.
Column 63The hon. Gentleman asked many questions. He had the courtesy to send me a fax this afternoon which set out some of them. It was not particularly legible, more because of the handwriting than because of the technology. The hon. Gentleman asked many questions during his interesting speech and I shall endeavour to deal with many of them. I cannot deal with all of them. If I did, I could not make some of the points that I have prepared. Consequently, what I have to say will be more disjointed than I should like, although perhaps not more disjointed than usual.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I agreed that there was a serious crisis affecting the Crown prosecution service. The answer is no. I acknowledge readily the handicaps which have always afflicted it and which continue to do so, but they are diminishing. In the words of the Director of Public Prosecutions in his recent evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the service is "making progress" towards its objectives. There is no crisis. Nor do I consider there to be feuding with the police or anything like it and I shall take more time on that shortly.
It follows that my answer to the hon. Gentleman's question whether I agree that the Crown prosecution service should be scrapped and started again is a resounding no. I do not agree that it has damaged the criminal justice system. Quite the reverse. There are many complimentary observations to be found in some of the representations made to the Select Committee and many more that come to me from magistrates, judges and others to the effect that great advantage has stemmed from the institution of the service.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) strongly support the principle of separating the prosecution decisions from those of the investigation of criminal offences and initial charging. That is common ground between us. So far as I know, nobody who made representations of a formal nature to the Select Committee has questioned the desirability and propriety of that principle.
We must ensure that a new service, whose inception constituted a major revolution in the conduct of our affairs, settles down and is given the resources to enable it to do its job. I agree with those who say that the service started too soon, in the sense that the time scale imposed on the Government by the abolition of the metropolitan county councils did not permit sufficient time for a smooth transition. One should acknowledge that it did not permit sufficient time for the examination of every possibility that might have to be faced. Accordingly, it has been common ground among those who have studied these matters, not least those who represent the Government, that the service suffered in its inception because of the time scale imposed on it.
It is also fair to mention that the new Crown prosecution service had the misfortune to come into being at a time of rapidly increasing growth in the demand for the services of lawyers. It was a time when the rewards of the private sector rose dramatically, as though it were caught in some thermal current. That made it imperative that the conditions of service, particularly of salary,
Column 64offered by the Crown prosecution service should be so attractive as to be able to compete at least reasonably effectively with the private sector.
Everybody agrees that it will never be possible for those in the public service to be rewarded on the scale commensurate with the highest rewards available in the private sector. There are compensating advantages in working for the Crown. Nevertheless, there comes a time when the disparity between the two levels of salary becomes so great that we fail to retain people of experience and to recruit people of sufficient quality. That assessment is not a science ; it is an art, in which one gets better with greater experience.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leicester, East for what he said about the evidence of the Director of Public Prosecutions to the Select Committee. One would not have expected anybody of the quality of Mr. Allan Green to display anything except complete professional honesty and candour, to use the hon. Gentleman's expression. It was notable from Mr. Green's evidence that he made no bones about the existence of those handicaps that I have endeavoured to describe. The hon. Gentleman did not do justice to the optimistic cast of the DPP's evidence, particularly his insistence that real progress is being made.
Mr. Vaz rose --
On the question of DPP evidence, I accept that the Attorney-General thinks that there is no crisis of confidence. By saying that, in his view, the Crown prosecution service has not damaged the reputation of the criminal justice system he rejects the premise put forward in the police evidence. Does the Attorney-General stand by the DPP's statement that at all ranks in the police service there are officers who fail to co-operate fully with the Crown prosecution service?
The Attorney-General : The hon. Gentleman must not be mischievous. He knows perfectly well that I have a statutory relationship with the Director of Public Prosecutions--a relationship of superintendence. The director gave full evidence about the need for co-operation between the police service and the Crown prosecution service. As the professional head of the Crown prosecution service, he gave it as his view that in some areas there was less co-operation than was desirable. It is not right, especially in advance of my own evidence to the Select Committee, to ask me the kind of questions that the hon. Gentleman has been asking. I shall say only that the director, as professional head of the Crown prosecution service, is an independent public official in whose qualities--including the integrity, percipience and thoroughness of grasp that I think the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge the director has demonstrated--I have the highest confidence. Beyond that, I will not permit the hon. Gentleman to drive a wedge between myself and the police service, between myself and the Director of Public Prosecutions, or between myself and anybody else. I have come to the House to answer questions and to set forth
Column 65what the Government are doing as regards the Crown prosecution service and the other legal services to which the motion refers. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his tribute to the Crown prosecution service and its staff--in particular, the staff in his own area of Leicestershire. There is much about which to be optimistic. Great progress has been made. I shall itemise some of the principal matters briefly, as other hon. Members wish to speak. Everyone knows that the service has had difficulty in recruiting enough lawyers. The director has therefore, with my full support, pursued a number of initiatives aimed at making the service more attractive to lawyers. In the last year there have been substantial improvements in pay at all grades, but in particular at Crown prosecutor and senior Crown prosecutor grades. Here the increases in the minimum and maximum salary have been 27.5 and 41 per cent. respectively--in London, 43 and 61 per cent. respectively. Those percentages relate to the initial salaries in 1986, but there were major increases during the last 12 months. Salaries have been increased substantially all the way up the relevant scales. Senior Crown prosecutors can now earn salaries that, in some parts of the country, have led to the recruitment of equity partners from firms of solicitors in private practice. I am glad to say that there has been a vigorous and very effective recruitment advertising campaign. I dare say that hon. Members will be aware of it. The CPS is now sponsoring members of its own staff as law school students so that they may qualify as solicitors or barristers, and for all newly qualified lawyers the service now has in place a scheme by which either articles or Bar pupillage may be taken within the CPS. I take up what the hon. Member for Norwood said about earnings at the early stages of a career at the Bar, as opposed to the early stages of a career as a solicitor. Under the scheme, trainee lawyers, from the moment they undertake articles or Bar pupillage, will be paid a competitive salary--in round figures, between £9,000 and £13, 000.
The CPS has already begun to benefit from this scheme, which is very much an investment for the future. The scheme should shortly begin to provide a reliablesupply of thoroughly trained and well-motivated Crown prosecutors. So, there is no crisis here--and, if I may say so, I am in quite a good position to make that assertion. I see the Director of Public Prosecutions regularly and frequently to discuss the affairs of the CPS. I also see his senior staff at headquarters, and I travel the country. I have visited the service's offices up and down the country. I have been to most of its 31 areas--in some cases more than once--and my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has probably been to each of the rest. On such occasions I listen to the Crown prosecutors and to their support staff, to magistrates and judges, to the police, and to everybody else assembled, including, sometimes, local journalists. The motion speaks of continued feuding between the CPS and the police--feuding that has given rise to a "crisis of confidence" between them. That is unreal. In addition, it does great injustice to two services that the motion describes as--here I agree with it ; it is only seven words out of 80, but that is something--
"essential parts of the criminal justice system".
All human institutions are mortal and, therefore, liable to human frailties, as even the House occasionally recognises. From time to time, at local level, even in public institutions, there may be a disagreement or a muddle or
Column 66a failure to do what should be done. Regrettably, this may lead to recriminations and, sometimes, to a public squabble if it gets into the courts. I do not contend that in the three years that have elapsed since the inception of the CPS this kind of thing has never happened in the relationship between the service and the police. I dare say that on occasions it has, but I hope and believe that these occasions have been rare. When they have occurred, no doubt the CPS has sometimes been at fault, and sometimes the police.
Equally, I think it quite likely that in some quarters within the police service there remains some lack of enthusiasm for the concept of a separate prosecution service. I think that that has become pretty rare, but I dare say that it still exists. When one considers the nature of the legislation that this Conservative Government introduced to give effect to the real principle of the report of the Philips Royal Commission--the separation of prosecution decisions from police functions--it is hardly surprising that, sometimes at any rate, there has been some resentment.
Mr. Vaz : The Attorney-General is being uncharacteristically unkind to me. The word "crisis" came not from me but from the chairman of the Police Federation in his evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs last week. It is the police, not I, who, in the very first paragraph of their evidence to the Select Committee, said that the operation of the Crown prosecution service has damaged the reputation of the criminal justice system. Is the Attorney-General saying that he rejects the police argument that the system is in crisis?
The Attorney-General : The hon. Gentleman is again indulging his penchant for mischief. I do not answer for the evidence of the chief constable who signed the report that was submitted to the Select Committee on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers. It will be for the Select Committee to evaluate that evidence when it has heard all the evidence given to it and has considered its report. I am entitled to say that I have never received from any chief constable individually--nor, I believe, has the Director of Public Prosecutions--any evidence couched in those terms. That description contrasts vividly with the opinions expressed publicly by the immediate past chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers. I shall say nothing further on that score.
There have been occasions, as the Director of Public Prosecutions has admitted, when points of irritation have arisen. They turn on such matters as the failure to warn witnesses--that was the function of the police--or perhaps upon the failure to submit witness statements in typescript rather than in manuscript. If they are in manuscript they take three times as long to read and that has an effect on efficiency. I do not doubt that, from time to time, other matters have been the cause of friction between the newly created service and the police service, for which I have a high regard. Those matters are taken up at local liaison committee level and at senior, national liaison committee level.
Recently the Director of Public Prosecutionsestablished an interdepartmental working group to take hold of such remaining points of irritation and friction as there are to see whether they can be argued out and
Column 67resolved between the police, the CPS and all the other agencies involved. I am confident that the result will be fruitful. The hon. Member for Norwood drew attention to a number of cases where people have been cross at the outcome of a trial, the withdrawal of a prosecution, the reduction of a charge and so on. Good news gets crowded out, but bad news makes headlines. There is a common perception that the CPS undercharges, contrary to correct police recommendations to charge for a more serious offence. I cannot claim that that has never happened as I cannot know, but I suggest that there are occasions when the reverse occurs. However, we read nothing of them, or, if we do, they are not remembered. I shall give relevant examples of such cases, which I drew from my visit to Greater Manchester last week.
Three of those examples concern police recommendations for careless driving charges to be brought. I hope that the hon. Member for Leicester, East will listen, as this is important. I note that he appears to be otherwise engaged, no doubt signing an early-day motion on another matter. I should be grateful if I could just have his attention on this matter.
While the hon. Gentleman was otherwise engaged I referred to police recommendations, made in three separate cases, that a charge for careless driving should be brought. In each of those cases the CPS prosecuted for causing death by reckless driving. Convictions resulted in each of those cases and prison sentences were imposed in two of them. The fourth instance to which I want to refer occurred within the past two years and represents an even more stark instance of the CPS going for a more serious charge. In that case the police recommended that no action should be taken, but the CPS brought a charge for murder and a conviction for murder resulted.
I do not claim for one moment that those instances are representative, because, in the vast majority of cases, there is no difference between the opinion of the police and the CPS over which charge should be brought. In the light of the criticism that one reads of the CPS undercharging, I mention them because I believe that they deserve to be known and because I believe that the CPS deserves to have them known. We do not read about such cases.
The other day the Director of Public Prosecutions said that 5 million cases had been prosecuted by the CPS in the past three years and yet in the nature of things we read only about that minuscule fraction in which something is thought to have gone wrong. When it has gone wrong we are seldom able to learn whose fault it really was.
The hon. Member for Norwood referred to the prosecution of Kevin Taylor and said that if we decide to drop a case we should do so before £1 million has been spent. The hon. Gentleman was not referring to the merits of that case and neither am I, but I am entitled to refer to the public fact that the Director of Public Prosecutions has requested the chief constable of Greater Manchester to consider whether a police inquiry should be set up into certain aspects of the police evidence given in that case.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to an Office of Fair Trading case, but in fact it was brought by the Department of Trade and Industry. That case related to insider dealing and the prosecution was withdrawn. The hon. Gentleman quoted that case as an instance of failure on the part of the
Column 68CPS, but it was a DTI prosecution and, as it happens, that prosecution was withdrawn by reason of judicial ruling on public interest immunity that rendered further proceedings impossible.
Mr. Fraser : I must point out that I used the collective phrase "prosecution service". Is the Attorney-General saying that in the Coren and Greenwood case the same Secretary of State who initiated the prosecution then decided to give Crown immunity to some of the evidence?
The Attorney-General : No. In cases of that kind the Secretary of State is the prosecuting authority. The question of public interest immunity arose--there is a duty to claim such immunity, which cannot be waived. A judicial ruling on the scope of public interest immunity led to the result I have described.
A valid example of the performance of the CPS is the percentage of cases brought by the CPS that are dismissed in the magistrates court. In relation to the total number of defendants whose cases are finalised, the figure is 1.7 per cent. The number of acquittals in the Crown court in relation to the total number of defendants whose cases are finalised is 11.52 per cent. Taken together, the number of CPS cases acquitted or dismissed at the magistrates and Crown courts is equivalent to 2.44 per cent.
I ask the House to accept from me that talk of a feud between the CPS and the police and of a crisis in the affairs of the CPS is sensationalist and alarmist nonsense. I pay warm and grateful tribute to the way in which so many of the police, at all levels, have adapted to what was a revolutionary change. Equally I pay warm and grateful tribute to the dedicated and scrupulously independent staff of the CPS under the exemplary leadership of Mr. Allan Green QC. The motion tabled by the hon. Member for Leicester, East goes on to deal with legal aid, the duty solicitor scheme, law centres and family courts. I am afraid I must deal with them briefly. As to legal aid, my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has set in hand a review that promises the biggest revision of legal aid since it was set up 45 years ago. That is in line with the reforming pattern of my noble and learned Friend's tenure of the Woolsack, which is without rival. The hon. Gentleman asked why that review is taking so long, but it is an extremely sensitive review that extends over civil, criminal and matrimonial legal aid. As and when matters are identified that need immediate treatment, steps will be taken to secure that that treatment is effected. That is a proper and sensible way to go about it.
The hon. Gentleman goes on about the numbers of people who are now eligible. It does not matter how many people are eligible when we do not know what proportion of the population is likely to engage in what type of litigation. What matters is that, based on sensible research, we know people's needs in relation to a particular type of litigation. That is being undertaken by the Legal Aid Board and our review.
The duty solicitor scheme came into being as part of the reforms--again introduced by a Conservative Government--connected with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. In 1987, the Lord Chancellor commissioned research into advice and assistance at police stations, and the operation of the 24-hour duty solicitor scheme because he wanted to review the existing
Column 69procedures. He wanted advice about whether changes were necessary or desirable. The report was published in November. It highlights the number of sectors requiring further consideration, in particular the role of the police and the quality of advice given by solicitors. The Legal Aid Board, which administers the scheme, recently issued its own consultation paper. The board will report to the Lord Chancellor this spring, taking account of the matters raised in the Lord Chancellor's research.
These developments are all of a pattern with the programme of improvement in the quality of legal services generally. It is a pattern of vigorous inquiry, analysis and action. It extends to franchising, which is being vigorously examined to discover whether it may lead to greater efficiency.
Immense changes have taken place in the county courts. They are dealing with more cases and, in many instances, more efficiently than before. There are shortages of staff, but the Lord Chancellor has secured another £70 million in resources for the forthcoming financial year, another 350 staff will be recruited, and another 100 in connection with the ongoing implementation of the civil justice review.
Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will cheer up. I have good reason to--
Mr. Vaz rose --
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will cheer up because, although I have good reason to know of the difficulties in the county courts, there are major pluses to be recorded in their performance, and the prospects for next year are encouraging.
Law centres generally perform a valuable service. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Legal Aid Board has taken over responsibility for the seven legal aid centres that were previously funded by the Lord Chancellor's Department. Their future will be reviewed.
Family courts have a great deal of support. However, there has always been a good deal less particularity about what they actually do. Before setting up what is called a family court, it is essential to have reformed the law relating to family matters so that the law is uniform and coherent--it certainly is not at present. The Government get a considerable amount of criticism for not having introduced the family court, but we are well on the way to developing a family court.
The Children Act 1989 will be implemented progressively over the next two years. That brought together the law relating to children in an admirable way. It has attracted general admiration, but we are a long way yet from that uniform system of law relating to the family that is the essential pre -condition of a family court.
We are asked when our rolling programme will be completed. It is difficult to set a date for that when it partly depends on reports from the Law Commission that have yet to be delivered. The Law Commission is considering the law of divorce, and will report on it. We do not know when we shall get that report, but it will be extremely influential.
What I have to say about family law has been said in previous debates in the House on the Children Act. There is everything to be said for bringing the law together, making it uniform, coherent and thoroughly up to date. However, that must be done before we set up anything
Column 70approaching a family court. I hope that that day will come and I think that those who share my view have good reason to be expectant. I urge the hon. Gentleman to take heart, and reflect that hopes are being fulfilled and progress is being made.
In whatever part of the legal services touched on by this thoroughly depressing and depressed motion there is a record of research, review and reform unrivalled by any Government over 50 years. The subject was left untouched by successive Labour Governments in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Not everything can be made to fall neatly into place at once. To recognise that and proceed step by step is part of the art and responsibility of government. Conversely, to demand the impossible by yesterday is part of the art and irresponsibility of opposition, so charmingly and classically evinced in the speech of the hon. Member for Leicester, East. 6.56 pm
Mr. Andrew Mitchell : I am extremely grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. Does he share with me a sadness that only members of the legal profession have been called in this excellent debate? I was hoping to appear on behalf of the consumer.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on initiating the debate and I shall make just two points. First, I agree with almost everything said by the Attorney-General about the Crown prosecution service. Public confidence in that service has been undermined. I can say that, but the Attorney-General cannot, even if he believes it. Public confidence has been quite deliberately undermined in some minority and restricted quarters of the police service. I hope that the police service will co-operate far more with the Crown prosecution service in future. The important thing about the CPS is that it is independent--and that means independent of the police as well as everyone else.
The way in which I regard the Crown prosecution service and make my assessment of it is by comparing it with what went on before. It seems that, despite considerable teething troubles, the Crown prosecution service has combined the best of the old county prosecuting solicitor services-- some of which were extremely good--with an avoidance of the worst services in a system in which private solicitors, some of whom were very good and some very bad at prosecuting, conducted prosecutions.
Salaries at the bottom of the professional grades of the CPS are still too low, particularly in London. In a medium-sized west end firm, a newly qualified and admitted solicitor commands a salary of £23,000 or £24,000 a year. I hope that in order to achieve the necessary quality for dealing with what is often difficult work in London, the Attorney- General will try to ensure that salaries that are at least broadly competitive with not the highest new solicitor's salaries, but the medium range in central London, are available to young solicitors.
Column 71The hon. Member for Leicester, East mentioned plea bargaining in a way that suggested it was wrong. I have never been able to understand why there is so much criticism of plea bargaining, which goes on now and has always gone on. If it did not take place the criminal courts of this country would grind to a halt. I ask the Government to recognise that plea bargaining takes place and to encourage a much more open system for it.
We must all confess to having been involved in plea bargains in the past, so why cannot we do it in open court? It shortens cases and benefits the criminal justice system. There would be much less complaint about plea bargaining if it were done openly and above board. Not juries--if there is a jury trial--but the public at large could then see that plea bargaining plays a useful, efficient, necessary and real part in what happens in courts.
I should like to say much more in the debate, but time does not permit that. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) took up an unwarranted amount of time--
It being Seven o'clock, proceedings on the motion lapsed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Arrangement of public business).
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that motion No. 3 on the Order Paper stands in my name and concerns an important subject : the pre-conditions necessary for a prime ministerial visit to South Africa. I know that, several times during the private notice question and the statement, you mentioned your concern about the time taken out of private Members' business. Would it be appropriate to discuss with the Procedure Committee whether, instead of giving us half a day, finishing automatically at 7 pm, it might be right to give private Members' motions a certain time limit? That would assist you in your job of protecting the interests of private Members and Back Benchers.
Mr. Speaker : If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that some of the speeches were very long, I would have to agree. But I think that he is pushing his luck somewhat if he believes that his motion No. 3 would have been reached in a half-day debate. A number of hon. Members wanted to participate in the debate that has just concluded, and there would have been another debate on the Health Service after it, if time had permitted.
Property Services Agency and Crown Suppliers Bill
Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.
The Secretary of State shall ensure that the functions hitherto exercised by the Property Services Agency and the Crown Suppliers are not, directly or indirectly, replicated within any department of Government.'.-- [Mr. O'Brien.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
The new clause refers to the replication of Property Service Agency functions--the mini-PSAs. We went into this in some depth in Committee, and the Minister replied to some of our questions. On 16 January he referred to the Ministry of Defence carrying out work that is now done by the PSA, and accepted that the Ministry is now recruiting people to take over the work of the PSA. Between 700 and 800 people will be employed to do the work in the Department. The Minister said that MOD was the largest Department, so it would employ the largest number of people to do PSA work.
In Committee I also asked the Minister about other Departments, in particular about the Home Office and its prisons. I also mentioned the Department of Social Security's new offices to be built in various parts of the country, and the Department of Health's hospitals and clinics. I also referred to other Departments that would assume the responsibilities of the PSA. My question was : "Is the Minister now saying that all those Departments will have their accountants, consultants, engineers and supervisory staff?" The Minister replied :
"That is right."
In other words, the Minister said that all other Departments will have their own staff to do the PSA's work. We have agreed on defence, but do I take it that the Cabinet Office, the Department of Education and Science, the Department of Employment, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Environment, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department of Health, the Home Office, the Northern Ireland Office, the Scottish Office, the Department of Social Security, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Transport, the Treasury and the Welsh Office will all start recruiting personnel to do the work upon which the Property Services Agency is now engaged? Will all those Departments take on accountants, consultants, engineers and supervisory staff, and will they be on the payroll of those Departments? If so, the estimated figure given us in Committee--1,000 people--must be far short of the true number who will be employed in the various Departments. May we have all the details and information?
If what the Minister told us in Committee was factual, it is obvious that value for money is important. So the