Dr Huppert: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am astonished at how many constituents I see who have been poorly advised. The most extreme example was a lady who applied for asylum through a lawyer and got leave to remain, but when she went to renew her passport she discovered that the whole thing was a forgery. We are still trying to resolve that case. We

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need decent, good quality lawyers, not the rather shabby and disreputable people whom we sometimes see in their place.

The main point that I want to make is about the approach taken by the UK Border Agency. Its attitude is a well-known sticking point. It rarely allows scope for negotiation or mediation. It seems to take the view that it will stick to its decision until a court tells it otherwise almost regardless of the evidence. In so many cases, applications for the right to work were ignored until the agency was ordered to deal with them by higher courts.

Many applications for refugee reunion that are refused are then overturned on appeal, and it seems that the appeal system is being used by the agency as a safety net. Under the Government’s proposals, those cases would no longer be in scope for legal aid, and there will be no opportunity to fix the agency’s errors. I urge the Government to listen to practitioners and the representatives of asylum seekers and refugees. The Government should ensure that asylum support remains in scope as a high priority. They should also ensure that applications for family reunion are treated as extensions to a claim for asylum and thus be within scope for legal aid purposes.

There are certainly cases in which applicants with a poor case abuse the system, looking for appeal after appeal in a fruitless quest for victory. However, those with a strong case are also forced to jump repeated hurdles to get justice. The key solution is for the agency to get more decisions right first time, as was accepted by the Minister for Immigration, when I raised the matter in the Chamber.

I could say more about that, but I want to give a brief example of the impact that the Government’s proposals may have on service providers, and I shall then allow others to speak. I have spoken to service providers about the possible impact of the proposals on various vulnerable groups. I have received comments from a range of organisations and individuals that provide support. I wish that I could have talked to all of them, but I shall focus on the role of Citizens Advice, as I suspect that all Members will appreciate the vital role that it plays in our constituencies, not least in preventing the flood of case work that we all receive from becoming even more torrential.

Citizens Advice has produced detailed briefings showing the unintended consequences of the Government’s proposals on social welfare law work. Its cost-benefit analysis makes a strong case for retaining and even strengthening its role. For instance, its research found that for every £1 of legal aid spent on housing advice, the state potentially saves £2.34; on debt advice, the state saves £2.98; on benefits, it saves £8.80; and on employment advice, it saves £7.13. With impressive understatement, Citizens Advice suggests that the Ministry of Justice

“gets a good return from expenditure on legal help in these areas.”

It estimates that if funding were no longer available for these categories of law, at least £172 million of additional costs would accrue for both state and society.

What effect would the proposals have on the Citizens Advice service more widely? More than half of the bureaux surveyed in December last year said that the changes to legal aid scope and the reduction in fees

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would pose a real risk to the continuation of their local advice service as a whole. Again, I do not need to remind Members of the havoc that that would wreak in our communities, or of the large amount of extra work that would almost certainly come our way as a result. In passing, I praise the excellent work done by Rachel Talbot and the staff of the Cambridge citizens advice bureau, who are always there to help me and my constituents. I also praise Cambridge city council, which last year provided it with a 25% increase in grant. I wish that all councils did that, rather than pulling resources from such a vital public service.

Time is running short, but I wish to raise two brief points. The first, raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), is about the effect of combining the legal aid proposals with Lord Jackson’s proposals on clinical negligence cases. Lord Jackson was clear about it. He said:

“I stress the vital necessity of making no further cutbacks in legal aid availability or eligibility…the maintenance of legal aid at no less than the present levels makes sound economic sense and is in the public interest”.

Will the Government take account of that plea, and avoid a double whammy? Legal aid changes and the Jackson proposals together would mean that those who have suffered through error would not be able to continue with their cases.

Secondly, I flag up a concern raised with me by Andy McGowan, the access and funding officer of Cambridge university students union. He is one of those rare people on free school meals who got to Oxbridge—the Government would like to see more of them—and he wants to practise as a criminal legal aid solicitor; he is driven by a motivation that I am sure we would all endorse to help the most vulnerable in society. He asks how he can fund the legal practice course in the absence of the training contract grant scheme, knowing that he will be unlikely to be as well paid as those lawyers for whom money is the principle motivation. If we lose people like Andy from the profession and from public service, we will create a less fair future for many years to come.

It is not my intention to attack the Government’s proposals without offering an alternative. That is not a helpful or effective way of approaching such debates, and I am always disappointed when others do not say clearly what they would do differently. There is clearly much in the Government’s proposals that is sensible. I cannot claim to be an expert on legal aid, and I have relied heavily on the hard work of many other people in preparing this speech. I am grateful to them for all that they do to preserve what is good about the present system, and for their wider struggle to provide access to justice for all, especially for the most vulnerable. The case that I have attempted to build draws on the research and evidence of others. The same is true of the alternative that I offer the Government.

The Law Society, which for a long time was officially responsible for legal aid, has continued to play a major role in shaping the debate on this important subject. It has produced an alternative set of proposals that aim to go beyond the savings that the Government have set out. It projects savings of £384 million, which could even reach slightly more, yet at the same time it claims

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to be able to protect the vulnerable about whom I have said so much. The Government are duty bound to look seriously at those proposals and, if they are workable, to adopt them. If the Government are serious about access to justice, they must listen to those who know what is necessary to provide it.

I look forward to hearing what other hon. Members have to say, and to the Minister’s response. I hope that he will signal a willingness to modify the proposals in the light of the concerns that have been raised.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. Five Members wish to speak, and we have about 40 minutes before the wind-ups. I ask them to do the maths and to be as brief as possible.

2.58 pm

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): As always, Mr Weir, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this debate.

Many quotations have been used in support of legal aid, from the Magna Carta onwards. I have one from George Washington, who said:

“The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.”

I firmly believe that the current proposals to reform legal aid risk rocking the very foundations of that pillar, and I submit that I am not alone in that.

More than 5,000 responses to its consultation were received by the Ministry of Justice. A number of common concerns were raised, one of which is the loss of most early intervention advice, with access available solely through a telephone gateway. I believe that such proposals will disadvantage the most vulnerable in our society—the disabled, the elderly, those on a low income with a pre-paid mobile phone who often ring about debt issues, those with mental health issues, those whose first language is not English and many others. Expansion of telephone advice is welcome, but it should not be the sole means of contact.

That leads me on to another issue—where will we refer the people who are found to be ineligible? The assertion is that advice and help are available from other sources, but that is inaccurate. Many of the organisations that were identified in the Green Paper do not provide, or do not have the resources to provide, specialist, face-to-face advice. Government delivery agencies such as Jobcentre Plus and independent tribunals do not, and cannot ever, provide independent advice. In the absence of alternative provision, I fully expect that many more social welfare and other legal problems will turn up at MPs’ surgeries and casework services.

Civil legal aid has been disproportionately cut, especially social welfare law, and that will disproportionately affect the not-for profit providers, which provide more than 75% of the social welfare law advice under contracts with the Legal Services Commission. It is no exaggeration to say that when the cuts in legal aid are taken in conjunction with the other reductions in funding at primary care trusts, local authorities and central Government, the effect on the sector will be catastrophic.

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More than 50% of citizens advice bureaux surveyed said that they did not expect to survive or would certainly be much reduced. Again, where will the people who use these much loved and much trusted services go? They could seek help from other statutory agencies as they move from coping with assistance to not coping. They could end up at MPs’ surgeries, where we have neither the knowledge nor the resources to help them all, or they could become litigants in person, pursuing their cases without assistance or advice and causing huge backlogs in the courts and tribunal system.

As the Minister has often asserted, these cases are not simple and they sometimes involve issues of liberty. I have previously mentioned a case from Wigan citizens advice bureau in which a client had been convicted of benefit fraud. With the assistance of a specialist adviser, they appealed and were able to reduce the amount owed from £27,000 to £236.

Debt problems are often complex; they require advisers to understand time orders, unfair credit relationships, bailiffs and insolvency law. Indeed, removing help from debt cases will inevitably lead to more calls on the health service. I refer hon. Members to a paper on debt-related suicide, which was produced by Zacchaeus 2000. Its case studies provide tragic examples of the effect that debt can have on an individual’s state of mind. Taking away legal aid for people in debt will mean that 110,051 fewer people will have access to such advice. There will still be the fee-paying debt management sector, which seeks to make a profit out of misery while often providing a poor-quality and inappropriate service.

The proposals will not save money in the long run; they will merely move the expenditure to other Departments. I urge the Minister seriously to consider many of the suggestions on saving money from the independent advice sector and the other consultation respondees, and not to take social welfare law out of scope. There have been many suggestions, such as reducing bureaucracy and looking at the services that are provided. As the Legal Action Group said,

“The personal, social and economic consequences of removing access to justice for so many people is unknown”—

and unforgiveable.

3.3 pm

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I will bear in mind your exhortation about brevity. I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on following your strictures, and I shall do likewise.

I speak as a former practitioner in legal aid, at the Bar for nearly 20 years, and as someone who has had wide experience of criminal, family and civil legal aid. It has been a changing picture. I hesitate to use the phrase “permanent revolution”, but it has felt like that at times, especially over the past 10 or so years, when the previous Government bombarded the profession with consultation after consultation and literally made it revolve on the spot with the number of questions that they kept on asking of the system.

The reality is that whoever had been elected to Government last year would be dealing with the legal aid issue. Whoever was sitting in the Minister’s seat now would no doubt be putting forward proposals that

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would involve a reduction in expenditure on legal aid. It is important that we take out party politics from this issue. I do not believe that that either helps the debate or puts it in a proper context.

I am a member of the Justice Committee. As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), whom I congratulate on securing this debate, the Committee produced a report in recent months, which was based on a series of evidence sessions on the Green Paper. I commend the report to the Chamber. It is the result of a lot of hard work from Committee members. Its conclusions and recommendations are being carefully considered by the Minister. I must say that the Minister has, at all times, been extremely open to suggestions, proposals and counter-proposals about the future of legal aid, and I pay tribute to him for the work that he is doing.

The report is a challenging read. One of its fundamental points is the dearth of evidence at case level to work out the key cost drivers of legal aid expenditure in England and Wales. In other words, there is precious little evidence to help decision makers come to a view on why we spend more on legal aid per head as a percentage of GDP than other comparable countries. It is the strong view of the Committee that far more academic research needs to be done domestically to work out the reasons for that expenditure on legal aid.

During my research into the subject, a couple of facts shone out. First, many more cases tend to be prosecuted in England and Wales than in other jurisdictions. Secondly, some of our processes of law are much more complex than those in other countries. One example is in the field of welfare benefits law, which, without the guidance and help of a lawyer, can be a real minefield for litigants and lay people.

An important fact that we must not overlook is the global view of expenditure on legal processes. It is wrong to look at legal aid in isolation; we should be considering the cost of prosecutions, court processes and the judiciary. When we consider those three areas together, the Council of Europe’s most recent report, which offers comparators between England and Wales and other European countries, shows that our expenditure as a percentage of GDP per head is equal to the average. Suddenly, the assertion that we spend more on legal aid compared with other countries becomes a little hollow. Perhaps, therefore, we should be careful before we base any policy developments on assertions such as that.

Having said that, it is quite clear that there are a number of areas in which we can make reforms to reduce expenditure on legal aid. We were particularly struck as a Committee by the evidence of Sir Anthony May, the president of the Queen’s Bench Division, who reminded us that when it comes to the scope of judicial review, there was a case for saying that, for the merry-go-round of appeal on appeal in asylum cases—as a Lord Justice of Appeal described it—legal aid should be removed. A substantial saving could be made there. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, it is incumbent on Committee members or Members of Parliament to come up with constructive proposals that can offer real and effective savings.

The problem does not, however, begin and end with the law. As has been said, the quality, or lack of quality, of Departments’ decision making has led to an explosion

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in appeals, and the Department for Work and Pensions is a notable example. One statistic that came before the Committee showed that 92% of appeals against DWP decisions were successful, which speaks volumes, I am afraid, about the poor quality of the decision making.

The Committee’s view was that we should adopt the “polluter pays” principle and award costs against Departments that make poor decisions that result in successful appeals; in other words, we should place an incentive on Departments to get their decisions right in the first place. The counter-argument is that that merely involves transferring money from one Department to another, but we really need to get the incentives right so that we avoid the need to go to law in the first place. We should encourage such an approach across the piece when it comes to poor decision making.

The report raised many other points, some of which have been covered, and I will not repeat them. However, the Minister will forgive me for repeating something that he has heard me say many times before, and I make no apology for saying it again. Adopting a narrow definition of domestic violence and a narrow reliance on previous court orders, as opposed to undertakings or promises made by people to the court, opens up a host of problems when it comes to ensuring that people have fair representation in what are often quite serious cases. The definition is not a good one to rely on, and the report submits that it should not be relied on—or that it should, at the very least, be expanded to include domestic abuse. Indeed, I would go further and refer to a course of conduct representing domestic abuse to avoid the Government’s quite proper concerns about one-off situations being characterised as something more serious.

For all those reasons, I argue that more work needs to be done to improve the ambit of the Green Paper and to ensure that any changes to the legal aid system do not disadvantage those who genuinely need it.

3.12 pm

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I will truncate my remarks because other Members wish to speak.

I do not wish to trump the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), but I have 35 years’ experience of family and criminal legal matters, and I have been publicly and privately funded. However, I totally agree with most of what he said, and when people agree across the House, there is obviously something to worry about because there is a problem. The hon. Gentleman laid out some important facts. Like me, he is a member of the Justice Committee, and he made several of the points I was going to make.

I really wish that the Government would slow down. Many of their proposed changes, including those we are discussing today, are being rushed, and there is not adequate time for real consultation. Yes, there have been 5,000 consultees in this case, but the consultation has been a rushed job, and it has left a real fear out there. For example, Desmond Hudson, the chief executive of the Law Society, has said:

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“If the government persists with these proposals it would represent a sharp break from the long-standing bipartisan consensus that effective access to justice is essential to underpin the rule of law.”

To that I say, “Hear, hear.”

Given the time constraints, I will confine myself to family law, although I recognise that there are problems in relation to immigration law, welfare law, housing law and many other parts of the social welfare legal system. As has been said, a mistake has been made, albeit one whose consequences were not imagined at the time. The way in which the qualification criterion relating to violence has been framed is utterly unworkable. As a practitioner, like the hon. Member for South Swindon, I have seen accusations made for various reasons, and it is as sure as the fact that I am standing here that people will make accusations of violence simply to avail themselves of a legal aid certificate, that being the only way in which they will be able to get representation.

Victims of violence may be brought to court by those seeking to continue their control over them. As has been said, we need to look at the definition. It could cover abuse, including mental abuse and all kinds of other dominant abuse. It will not always be male on female, but it will mostly be. To use European parlance, there will be an inequality of arms, which will, in effect, mean that if one party can afford a lawyer, and the other party is honest enough to say that there has been no violence, that party will not avail herself—it will probably be a woman—of any assistance. That must be wrong.

I accept, by the way, that mediation is a good step forward in some ways. It has been tried for many years in relation to a great number of issues, including some that are as far from the one we are discussing as multimillion-pound shipping contracts; indeed, it seems that London is the mediation capital of the world, and good luck to the lawyers involved. However, the issue before us is an entirely different kettle of fish.

I have received dozens, if not hundreds, of letters from lawyers practising in this field. Every time a lawyer claims that the loss of legal aid will damage members of the public, that is thought to be special pleading on behalf of the lawyer. Let us cut to the chase: legal aid lawyers have not had an increase in fees for the past 11 years, so anyone wanting to become a fat cat would not open a legal aid practice. As a lawyer yourself, Mr Weir, I suspect that you know that, too, although you should not get involved in the debate. This is not a question of self-serving special pleading; the people we are talking about are dedicated to providing a service, and as anyone will know if they have been in court when there has been the possibility that a family will be permanently broken up and one party will never see the children again—I have been in court on such occasions—such cases are very fraught and emotionally charged.

Mrs Grant: The proposals also rely on judges, chairmen of tribunals and magistrates having the time to give advice to litigants in person. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that time simply does not exist? Judges already have back-to-back lists. To give an example from Kent, there is already a five-month waiting list to see a judge for parents who are being denied access to their children. That is totally unacceptable for any parent.

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Mr Llwyd: Yes, that is absolutely right. That is partly because of judges’ time, but it is also to do with the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and various other things. I should add that if a person seeking legal aid to protect their relationship with their child is denied legal aid, they will not walk down the road and say, “Tough. That’s it. I’m not going to have anything done about this. I’ll walk away.” That person will go into court, very often without the expertise, knowledge and learning to do the job properly, and they may even do themselves down.

When he gave evidence to the Committee, Sir Nicholas Wall said that people do not give up easily in matters involving a child, and nor should they. As he and others have also said, the courts will be flooded out with litigants in person, and any conceivable saving that the Government are looking at will be swallowed up in dealing with that issue, let alone anything else. As we know, there is the “no order” principle in the Children Act 1989, and it will drive people to go to court to ensure that they have contact with their children.

I urge the Minister, by the way, to look at section 64 of the Family Law Act 1996 as some kind of backstop. That provision, for which I was responsible, would give the children independent representation. Nobody in this Chamber or anywhere else would want the children to suffer, because they are what this process is all about. When parents break up, they might throw things at each other and do whatever they want, but ultimately the damage is done to the young person or persons in the middle. I do not want to stand idly by and see that sector of society not being looked after properly; anything short of that is downright uncivilised.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Llwyd: Very briefly, because others wish to speak.

Jim Shannon: In my experience over the past 30 years as a councillor and so on, I have found that those who need legal aid most are those who come looking for it. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if we are not careful, the changes that the Government are proposing will lead to a two-tier system—one for those who can afford it and one for those who cannot?

Mr Llwyd: I am sorry to say that that is exactly it. We are rapidly reaching that point, and one might argue that we are already there. Some people will get access and others will not, and that is abhorrent. We are all equal before the law, and are all entitled to equal access to the law and its procedures. It appears that these measures will definitely limit that scope. There will be law for some and not for others. I urge the Government again to look once more at the issue.

I will not go beyond the changes in family law today, for obvious reasons. The National Association of Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers—if it does not know what it is talking about, nobody does—says that the changes are premature, that they have no sound evidence base and that children have not been considered as stakeholders for the purposes of the impact assessment.

In conclusion, I merely refer to page 71 of the Justice Committee’s report, the main part of which the hon. Member for South Swindon mentioned, about domestic

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violence as a criterion. In fairness to the Minister, he said when he came before the Committee that he would look at the issue again. With respect, he has had time to look at it again. Will he tell us today whether he has a better definition that will not work against the best interests of the children we are here to protect?

3.24 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing the debate and setting out succinctly many of the challenges that the coalition Government face in both reining in the budget and minimising the impact on those reliant on legal aid. What is not in dispute today is the fact that budget reductions need to be made. Given that the Ministry of Justice’s budget consists principally of staffing costs, prisons and legal aid, there are not many areas to which the Government can go to identify savings. It is also true that a number of organisations that I, and I am sure other Members, have met have confirmed that their view is that there are potential savings. The Law Society and others have set out ways in which those savings could be made.

I will not run over the growth in expenditure on legal aid in recent years, because it is well known. It is clear that the budget reductions will have an impact on many organisations. I do not know whether the Minister has read all 5,000 submissions; I doubt he has, and we would not expect him to have, but he may have read a sample of them and I am sure he has had a large number of meetings with a range of organisations, so he will have heard the main concerns. I thank him for meeting me with my local citizens advice bureau and Citizens Advice to hear their concerns about some of the proposals.

Given the limited time, I will restrict my comments to telephone advice, medical negligence, the impact assessment and savings. I think that telephone advice can play a key role. It is accessible to people who do not feel able to access a face-to-face contact because they are put off by it in a way that they might not be put off by telephone contact. However, there remain many queries about how telephone advice will work.

There will clearly be people, as other Members have said, for whom telephone advice is inappropriate, and therefore a clear pathway from initial contact, to a referral, to a face-to-face contact will need to be provided by that service. How will urgent inquiries be dealt with? What referral process will be used to ensure that the calls are passed to the relevant organisation to deal with them? Can the Minister do any more to flesh those details out? I know many organisations that would be interested to hear more.

I am sure that many Members have been lobbied about medical negligence—particularly those cases involving children who have been most seriously affected by it and how they can continue to be supported. As an aside, the Minister might want to talk to Health Ministers about whether introducing a duty of candour—in other words, requiring health professionals to confirm when an accident has taken place—could play a role in reducing the need for cases to go to court in the first place. Other Members have referred to family law, so I will not touch on that.

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As the impact assessment confirms, because black and minority ethnic communities, women and low-income groups are more represented in the group of people who receive legal aid, the impact on them will be disproportionate. However, I hope that the coalition Government will still want to redress that, not simply accept that it is the case—put more emphasis on ensuring that those groups are not disproportionately affected by the change because they are disproportionally represented in the group that receives legal aid.

Other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, referred to the savings that we can derive through providing advice services: £1 of legal aid expenditure on housing advice saves £2.34, and employment advice saves £7.13. I hope that the Minister, if not now then later, can provide some analysis of the impact of the measures that we, as a coalition Government, are proposing, to ensure that we do not see the cost-shunting that many people believe will arise as a result of the changes. Simply passing costs on to other organisations or Government Departments will not be helpful.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge referred to the proposals from the Law Society. How will those concrete, detailed suggestions be taken on board as part of the consultation process? I am sure that the Minister is also aware of the proposals that Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, put forward on how costs can be saved in the wider legal arena.

I hope that the Minister will respond to those points. The Government clearly and quite rightly have to address the budget, but there are ways and means of addressing it most effectively. I hope that they are looking carefully at the proposals on the table from a range of organisations about other ways to address it and that they take those proposals on board where appropriate.

3.27 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on obtaining the debate and on how he introduced it. It is a valuable subject. I apologise in advance to the Minister as I might miss part of his reply because I have a delegation from Disability Action in Islington to meet just before 4 o’clock. I hope that he understands that I need to be there to see them.

This is not the first or, I suspect, the last debate that we will have on legal aid. I hope that the Minister will give us an idea of when the Government will respond to the consultation. I hope that there will be adequate time for us to digest their response and a full day’s debate on the Floor of the House long before any legislation or changes are put in place.

It must be almost unprecedented to have 5,000 replies to a consultation of this nature—I am sure that the Minister has read all of them. I hope that he read the one from Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North, because it was greatly laboured over. It did not involve only my views; I called a consultation meeting of local legal aid practitioners, advice agencies, the local authority and others, so what I put forward is on their behalf as much as my own. They have extremely strong views about the situation, as one can imagine.

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The knock-on effects of legal aid and Ministry of Justice budget support to advice agencies are very important indeed. I do not believe—any more than anybody else does—that people should litigate for the sake of litigation. However, effective citizens advice bureaux play a very important part in giving people access to justice ahead of the danger of going to law. Cuts in CAB budgets or advice budgets are simply not very sensible at any time—particularly now, when many people are facing economic difficulties.

I pay enormous tribute to Islington council, which has just managed to reopen the CAB in the borough. It reopened on 1 April and it is already heavily overloaded, as we had predicted, but it is doing its best in the circumstances. Commendably, there is a liaison arrangement between the CAB, Islington Law Centre, Islington People’s Rights and the local authority, to ensure that they share out responsibility and specialist knowledge to offer any particular help that is required. That is very good as it ends the idea of competition between advice agencies, particularly where funding is concerned.

There are many issues to be covered in this debate, but I want to be brief as the Front-Bench spokesmen obviously need to respond. Housing issues are massive and they are faced by people in inner city communities, such as the one that I have the honour to represent, probably more than by anyone else. I will just quote from an e-mail that I received from Anne Baxendale of Shelter about this issue:

“The government is proposing to remove all housing benefits cases and a third of other housing cases from the scope of legal aid. Shelter is alarmed that this is happening at the same time that huge changes are taking place within homelessness legislation, social housing tenure and the housing benefit system.”

People are already coming to my surgery or advice bureau about this issue and the same is true for Islington People’s Rights, Islington Law Centre and the CAB. Those people are being told that their housing benefit, or housing allowance, is insufficient to meet the new rent levels; even with the transitional payments, they are nowhere near meeting them. In some cases, they are £100 a week—or even more—light on the demands being made of them. The only alternative for them is to move to somewhere else that is cheaper—if they can afford to do so, given all the associated uprooting. These people are scared, even terrified, and they desperately need access to good-quality legal representation to protect themselves at a time of emergency. Taking legal aid away from such people is simply grossly unfair—it would be unfair at any time, but it is particularly unfair at this time.

I will be very brief on the issues relating to children, as there is not much time left. The question of children and immigration issues is a very great one indeed. I understand, appreciate and welcome the fact—indeed, I applaud it—that asylum cases have been removed from this picture. Contrary to what the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) said, I do not believe that there is an endless merry-go-round of appeals. What I have found is that there is an incredible degree of inefficiency at the Home Office and the Border and Immigration Agency, such that asylum cases often hang around for years.

I am embarrassed to tell people that they must wait a year for a reply to a letter and that if they phone up the Home Office they will only make things worse. That is

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not how a Government Department or any public service should ever deal with or respond to anybody. I say to the Minister that he should keep legal aid for asylum cases, but he might ask his colleagues at the Home Office kindly to reply to letters and not lose files. I have said that to every Government I have had dealings with, so it is not a party political point; I said it to my own Government and I will say it to any Government.

The decision to give legal aid only for cases of detention is simply unfair. If legal aid is given, an application is made and the person is then released from detention. However, they then lose legal aid; they might end up back in detention where they might get legal aid again, so that they are on a merry-go-round. It is simply not credible that such an arbitrary distinction can be made between support for detention and support for immigration cases. Immigration cases should either be supported or not; I do not see how a simple distinction can be drawn in that way.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): My hon. Friend and I are part of a 10-year campaign to try to get the proper inspection and registration of immigration advisers. These measures could take us back to those back-street advisers again, whereby the most vulnerable people are exploited in dreadful ways and wind up in detention as a result.

Jeremy Corbyn: I was just talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) about the exploitative individuals—and, frankly, the chancers—who have now become involved in immigration law. Basically they are spivs, who charge very vulnerable people very large sums of money for writing letters. They do no more than that. Some of them are not even qualified.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) is absolutely right. For many years, we campaigned in this House for proper registration of immigration practitioners and for an end to immigration advisers, who in any case are often unqualified. The late Bernie Grant, the former MP for Tottenham, was extremely active on that issue and we basically got rid of most of those immigration advisers. However, they are all back now, big-time, and they are making a great deal of money out of extremely vulnerable people. I am sure that the Minister is aware of that problem. It has been reflected in many of the submissions made to him and I look forward to a response from him that recognises that.

The final point that I want to make about children is about the removal of legal aid for education cases. I have a distressing number of immigration cases in my constituency involving education. I do not have a vast number of them, but they are often very distressing and the people involved need representation. That is because some children who are suspended or expelled from school then have to go to another school. Unfortunately their representation and their files often follow them around and they end up being almost totally excluded from the whole education system. That is not good for them and it is not good for anybody. Proper representation would often prevent that situation from happening.

The number of cases that are dealt with by legal aid in this country at the moment is 934,000, apparently. Unless the Minister is going to give us some very good

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news at the end of the month, or whenever the reply to the consultation comes, the cuts being proposed will mean that more than 600,000 people will not have access to legal aid. If we want a fair, decent and just society, everyone must have access to the law. We are seeking not a litigation society, but a justice society and I hope that the Minister will understand the strength of feeling expressed in the representations that he receives on this matter.

The vast majority of solicitors and barristers acting on legal aid cases do not make much money out of that work. They make far more money on commercial cases, libel cases, media cases or “personality”-driven cases. The majority of solicitors I meet who deal with legal aid cases that are hard to sort out are paid very little. They work very hard and they are doing us a lot of good.

Furthermore, the loss of training contracts means that many of the solicitors of tomorrow will not be around to represent people. Many young people are studying law in universities and colleges at present. We want them to use their skills and we want them to represent the hardest-hit and most vulnerable people in society. I ask the Minister to think carefully about the very thoughtful and very carefully prepared representations that I know he has received on this subject.

3.37 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): May I start, Mr Weir, by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship? I also want to congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), not only on securing this debate but on making a very thorough and persuasive speech.

It was in November last year—six months ago—that the Minister first produced his proposals to restrict the scope and availability of legal aid. A lot has happened since then. In fact, this is our third debate on the issue in this House and I know that the Minister has also debated it outside the House with others, including my noble Friend Lord Bach. The other place is debating the issue again next week. As a result, many of the arguments should be familiar to the Minister, but what we have not had so far is any effective response to those arguments.

Several Members have already spoken in the debate. We have heard from Members from all parties who are committed to legal aid and understand its importance in our system. Among the many good points that the hon. Member for Cambridge made was one about viability; he asked whether the cuts will actually leave a viable legal aid service at all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) drew on her own experience to make the point that telephone advice, however important it is, cannot be the only entry point to the system. She said that the alternative provisions that have been suggested are not adequate and that the alternative providers suggested by the Government are not equal to the task that has been set them; they have said so themselves.

In addition, the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) nailed the allegation that legal aid is hugely expensive in this country. As he said, spending on legal aid as a proportion of the costs of the legal system is not high. Clearly, it must be restrained but I

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think that there have been false arguments that it is disproportionately higher than similar spending in other jurisdictions.

The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), who has, I think, more experience in this field than any other Member here, urged the Minister to think more slowly and carefully, and to make the decision not in the rushed way that has been portrayed so far, but in a way that takes account of all the views that have been expressed. That, perhaps, is the key point coming out of this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) talked about housing—a subject very dear to my own heart as well—and the effect on our constituents in London, and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) talked about the false economies that there will be in making the cuts to legal aid.

All those arguments might be familiar, but the Minister needs to respond to them today. He has had the benefit of the report from the Justice Committee, which took evidence from senior judges, the Minister himself and leaders in civil society, and criticised the lack of an evidential basis for the Minister’s proposals. On issue after issue, from the increase in litigants in person to the additional cost to the public purse and the inability of alternative providers to pick up the pieces should the proposals come into force, the Select Committee told the Minister to slow down, do some research and come back with revised proposals.

Other organisations, in particular practitioner organisations, have done the work that the Minister and his civil servants have not done, in providing evidence of the effect of the changes. I mention in particular the Legal Action Group, which took the original figure of 500,000—my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North said it was more than 600,000—and added in the most up-to-date figures for the past financial year and for the telephone advisory service. The resulting figure was nearer 725,000, which is almost 50% more than the Government initially said.

The Legal Aid Practitioners Group has considered the point about viability. The fact that the entry point has to be through telephone advice has its disincentives. Many people will not be able to cope with the telephone system; they rely on face-to-face advice, and will simply not access the system at all. The figures by local authority area show that if we relied on such a system, the reduction in the service that could be provided face to face would bring the service down to something like 7% to 10% of existing levels, which would not be sustainable. Purely by way of example, in my own borough of Hammersmith and Fulham that would take us from the current 1,600 case starts to 155 under the new system, which would not be sufficient to pay one person’s salary for a year. If that situation were replicated across local authority areas, there would be no service at all.

The Law Centres Federation has looked at the impact of cuts that have already taken place, including local authority cuts, which are at 53% in law centres—61% in London and 100% in my own borough. Those figures ought to be considered before any legal aid cuts are brought into effect this financial year. A Citizens Advice

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survey has shown that more than 50% of its members do not believe they will be financially viable once the cuts take effect.

I ask the Minister to listen to those hugely experienced and articulate voices. Labour Governments over the past 65 years have fielded a good record in this area, setting up the legal aid system, funding the first law centres and increasing spending on advisory services such as Citizens Advice, and on social welfare legal aid. But we also restricted the growth in legal aid funding from 2003 onwards, and would continue to do so if we were still in government.

I am at a loss to understand why the Government have abandoned some of the plans that we had to restrict that growth further, particularly in the tendering process, and particularly in the criminal legal aid field. Social welfare legal aid is only 5% of the total legal aid budget, and I hope that the Minister is giving a lot of scrutiny to that area in deciding on the revisions to his plans. Removing social welfare legal aid from scope will, I believe, give the whip hand to large public and private corporations, and will allow an inequality of arms that is unacceptable in our civil and criminal justice systems.

I would like briefly to deal with the issue of who is most affected. The Minister has said previously that it is inevitable that poorer people will be affected because it is they who are in receipt of legal aid—but that is a slightly glib answer, if I may say so. The excellent brief prepared for this debate by a young legal aid lawyer drills down into the figures and shows that, were the proposals introduced, 44% of people who received representation last year and 68% of those who got legal help would not now receive that assistance, and that more than 80% of people who would lose the assistance are in the poorest fifth of the population. Also, 80% of people who will be affected by the eligibility changes are in the poorest fifth of the population. Not a lot has been said about those changes, but they are highly significant.

When one looks at the discriminatory effects of what the Minister proposes, one sees that 31% of those affected by the scope changes in housing are from the black and minority ethnic population, compared with 8% in the general population; some 63% of those affected by the scope changes to welfare benefit legal aid are disabled, compared with 18% in the general population. The Minister might say that that is a truism, but his Government should be ashamed that changes of that kind are being proposed, given the disbenefit that they will have. It is a myth that representation is not for legal purposes, but for general advice—people need it to understand complex legal issues and to make appeals to higher courts—and that the people who currently benefit are in a position to represent themselves.

The Minister has heard from both sides of the House today, including very eloquent speeches from Government Members who have many years’ experience of this issue. I notice that Joanna Lumley has joined the growing campaign, which should provide the Minister with pause for thought, given her track record on such matters. I do not expect a full response today, but when the Minister finally comes to respond to the 5,000 responses—compared with the 50 received in the last consultation on legal aid by the previous Labour Government—I hope that, even if he has not read each response, he will

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have considered the overwhelming weight of opinion on the effect that the measures will have, not only on very vulnerable people and on those of us who still try to provide an advice service with very limited means, but on the whole criminal and civil justice system. That will be in jeopardy if we take away access to justice, removing the right of anyone with a meritorious case to get the initial advice, representation and assistance that they need to bring the case to court.

That is not, I hope, something that the Minister, given his background, would wish to see. I hope that he will give an indication in his response today, and a fuller indication in that formal response—the date of which he will no doubt provide now—that the Government have been listening to all those voices and will respond with a more sympathetic and pragmatic attitude to the continuation of legal aid.

3.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing the debate. I am always pleased to debate with him. Many important points have been covered by the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), the hon. Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland).

I of course recognise the strength of feeling about our legal aid system and the importance that Members here attach to that system, and to access to justice. I share that feeling, and can assure Members that the Government do not look to reforming legal aid lightly. As Members know, the context of the Government’s overall reforms is to recognise the need to tackle the deficit that we inherited on entering office. It is hard to overstate how serious the situation we found was. Robust action was essential to maintain market confidence and to create conditions for recovery, which is why the Lord Chancellor agreed with the Home Secretary to significantly reduce real-terms spending in the broad area of justice and law and order, and why the Department is playing its part in taking the necessary steps to get our economy back to growth and stability.

Last month’s spending review set out the considerable scale of the challenge for the Ministry of Justice: it has to reduce its budget by £2 billion in 2014-15. We are looking for savings in various ways. Legal aid, one of the three big areas of spending in the Ministry of Justice, will need to contribute substantially to that reduction, as I believe the coalition parties—and indeed the Opposition—accept.

However, as I have mentioned in previous debates, our policy cannot and will not be determined simply by the need to deal with the deficit. One need not be well acquainted with our justice system, legal structures or legal aid system to see considerable potential for reform. Financial considerations and the need for reform come together, which presents us with an opportunity to develop new policies that secure access to justice and a legal aid system for the future. The coalition Government’s aim is a more efficient and effective justice and legal aid system, not just a more affordable one.

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In that context, we make our proposals to reform a legal aid system that has grown considerably over the years. Since the modern legal aid system was established in 1949, its scope has been widened far beyond what was originally intended. Without indulging in caricatures, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge put it, the facts of the matter show that by 1999, legal aid funding was available for virtually every type of potential issue, including some that should not require any legal expertise to resolve. Legal aid forms a vital part of a justice system of which we can all be rightly proud, and the Government are committed to maintaining and safeguarding that system, not least by ensuring that legal aid is appropriately targeted and set at levels that are sustainable in the long term.

The scheme now costs more than £2 billion a year, making it one of the most expensive in the world, even—I say to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon—taking jurisdictional difference into account. We must understand that, even after reform, we will still have one of the most expensive schemes in the world, if not the most expensive. In developing our legal aid reform proposals, we went back to basic principles in order to choose which issues are of sufficient priority to justify the use of public funds, subject to people’s means and the merits of the case.

The proposals in the consultation paper aimed to take into account the importance of the issues at stake, litigants’ ability to present their own case, the availability of alternative sources of funding and routes to resolution and our domestic and international legal obligations. I can confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge that help for the most vulnerable will be prioritised under our proposals. As hon. Members will be aware, the consultation closed on 14 February. Since then, we have been considering all the responses received, around 4,800 in total. I also received during the consultation many letters from hon. Members representing their own views and informing me of their constituents’.

This is our third debate in the House on legal aid. I welcomed the helpful input in the recent report of the Justice Committee, and I can confirm to hon. Members that we in the MOJ are listening hard. We expect to announce our way forward in the next few weeks. I hope that hon. Members will see then how the coalition Government’s response shows that we are committed to working with them and stakeholders to ensure access to justice and a legal aid system fit for the future.

I am, of course, unable to give details about the Government’s response today, but it might be helpful for me to recap some of our proposals. In order to focus financial support where it is most appropriate and necessary, the proposed reforms involve significant change to the scope of legal aid funding, about which many hon. Members have raised concerns. We did not propose any changes to the scope of criminal legal aid. It was also proposed that legal aid should remain routinely available in civil and family cases where people’s liberty is at stake or where they are at risk of serious physical harm or immediate loss of their home.

For example, we proposed to retain legal aid for asylum cases, for debt and housing matters where someone’s home is at immediate risk and for mental health cases. It will still be provided where people face state intervention in their family affairs that might result in their children being taken into care, in cases involving domestic violence

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or forced marriage and in immigration detention cases, where the appellant’s liberty is at stake. We also proposed that legal aid should remain available for cases in which people seek to hold the state to account by judicial review and cases involving discrimination that are currently in scope. Legal help to bereaved families in inquests, including for deaths of active service personnel, would also remain in scope.

I can confirm, particularly to the hon. Member for Makerfield and to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, that we are looking closely at telephone advice proposals. I maintain that to a great extent, our proposals will help rather than hinder access to justice, particularly for the disabled and those in rural areas. That will be covered in our response. We openly accept that there will remain times when face-to-face meetings are required.

The Government further proposed to remove claims of clinical negligence from the scope of the civil legal aid scheme. In many cases, alternative sources of funding are available, such as no win, no fee arrangements. We also proposed to remove from scope the categories of employment, education, immigration, some debt and housing issues and welfare benefits, except for cases involving risk to anyone’s safety or liberty, risk of homelessness or discrimination. In many such cases, the issues are not necessarily of a legal nature, but resolving them requires information, practical advice or other forms of expertise.

We recognise that international or domestic law require some cases within the areas of law that we proposed to remove from scope to be funded by the taxpayer. We therefore proposed a new exceptional funding scheme for excluded cases. In those cases where it is appropriate to keep supporting with legal aid funding, it is important that the Government secure the best possible value for money in procuring legal services. The consultation paper therefore announced the Government’s intention to introduce price competition for legal aid in criminal proceedings and, in the longer term, for civil and family cases, too. Further, more detailed consultation on criminal competition will follow later in the year.

In the meantime, the paper proposed more immediate changes to criminal fee schemes that should encourage cases to be brought to justice more quickly and efficiently. They include harmonising the guilty plea fee paid for certain either-way cases regardless of venue and for other Crown court guilty pleas regardless of the stage in the proceedings. We also proposed to reduce all fees paid in civil and family matters by 10% and to exert greater control over the rising costs of expert fees. We proposed to increase the proportion of advice delivered by telephone through the existing community legal advice helpline, as I have discussed.

We recognise that the proposals would affect funding for not-for-profit legal aid providers such as Citizens Advice. I have had numerous helpful meetings in recent months with representatives of not-for-profit organisations to discuss the impact of the legal aid proposals and listen to their concerns during the consultation, although I must say that in the past, I have queried the Citizens Advice figures mentioned.

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However, legal aid is only part of the picture. Local government, not the MOJ, is the largest single funder of the not-for-profit advice sector, and several other Departments provide significant funding. Indeed, legal aid accounts for only about 15% of the total income of citizens advice bureaux. Around half of bureaux do not receive any funding from legal aid. That is why a cross-governmental approach is needed.

I can confirm that the Ministry of Justice is working actively with colleagues in the Cabinet Office, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and other Departments that fund advice providers or deal with the impact if people do not receive the advice that they need to identify how best to work across Government to examine the issue. I have had several meetings with ministerial colleagues to consider how that can be achieved.

In the very little time remaining, I will try to cover some of the specific points raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge mentioned immigration. We proposed to keep legal aid for asylum cases. In the consultation paper, we proposed to remove immigration cases from the scope of legal aid, except in detention cases where a person’s liberty is at stake and cases before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission in which a person may be removed or excluded from the UK on the grounds of national security or other public interest. The tribunal process in immigration cases is designed to be straightforward, and interpreters are provided. I can confirm that, separately from the legal aid consultation, we are piloting the provision of legal advice earlier in the asylum process to help to improve the quality of asylum decision making. We are currently considering the responses to the consultation on that issue and will publish our own response in due course.

On the relationship between immigration and domestic violence, the consultation paper did not propose to make an exception for immigration cases under the domestic violence rule. Although we recognise that domestic violence victims may need more help with forms and procedures than other immigration applicants, what is needed is not necessarily specialist legal help. We are currently reconsidering responses on that issue, and we will come back to the House. However, I confirm that we proposed that legal aid should remain available to those seeking an injunction to prevent domestic violence, regardless of their nationality or immigration status.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge mentioned domestic violence in the context of private family law and asked whether the definition of domestic violence was too narrow. That was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon, the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and others. In the consultation, we proposed that private law family legal aid should continue to be available where there is objective evidence of domestic violence. We have asked for views on what might provide objective evidence and therefore trigger private family law legal aid. We have been giving careful consideration to the points raised in response—

Mr Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. I am afraid that we have run out of time for this debate.

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Avon Ring Road (M4 Link)

4 pm

Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): The Avon ring road, or the A4174, runs through the Kingswood constituency like a spine, passing alongside Emersons Green, Kingswood, Warmley and Longwell Green before joining the A4 at Hicks Gate junction near Keynsham. It is, for many constituents, a vital transport network that allows quick and efficient access to most areas of the constituency.

Recently, the local, Conservative-run South Gloucestershire council has invested heavily in improving congestion on the ring road, including the introduction of traffic light signalisation on two roundabouts in Warmley and Longwell Green, with the promise of further investment, with traffic lights to be added on Tower Lane roundabout at Barrs Court. Having doubled the road budget, which suffered for so long from chronic lack of investment under the previous administration, the local area is finally witnessing real change for the benefit of local residents and commuters alike.

Many of my constituents in Kingswood will be familiar with the proposal for an M4 link to the Avon ring road. For many years, since the completion of the A4174, which runs within a few hundred metres of the M4 near the Westerleigh roundabout, local residents in the Kingswood constituency, particularly Emersons Green, have had to face lengthy morning commutes to get on to the M4, either by travelling on the Avon ring road to the M32 in Hambrook, which is about 3½ miles away, or by taking a 7-mile trip along minor roads through Pucklechurch to Tormarton. Not only does that add several miles to their journey, but the ring road in the morning is frequently heavily congested, with cars at a standstill.

An M4 link to the Avon ring road—what was once proposed as junction 18A—would help to solve that problem by giving the local community and east Bristol easy access to our motorway network, which is already enjoyed by those living in north Bristol.

Sadly, the proposal for a new link road and a new junction on the M4 is by no means a new idea. It was first put forward by the former Avon county council as far back as 1985. It was accepted in principle by the then Department for Transport, but it was never included in the Government’s trunk road programme. Responsibility for the scheme later passed to South Gloucestershire council following local government reorganisation.

Mention of a possible junction 18A on the M4, linking the A4174, was last raised in Parliament in 2000, when the then Minister acknowledged:

“The Council subsequently carried out a review of a number of major road schemes in their area in the context of current Government transport policy and emerging development plan policies. As a result, they decided in 1999 not to pursue this particular scheme.”—[Official Report, 13 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 496W.]

The decisions, or, rather, mistakes, made more than 10 years ago by a previous administration of South Gloucestershire council are now coming back to haunt local residents. Despite that, over the past decade, Conservative councillors have fought hard for an M4 link to the Avon ring road to be considered. In July

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2005, an amendment was tabled in full council that, when considering the joint local transport plan for the west of England,

“the M4 Link should be specifically named as a potential JLTP Major Scheme Bid.”

Sadly, that amendment was voted down by the previous administration.

In thanking those who have fought at a local level for the M4 link to remain a possibility, I pay tribute to local Emersons Green Councillors Colin Hunt, James Hunt and Dave Kearns, for their commitment to standing up for local Emersons Green residents, who know just how much easier their daily lives would be with an M4 link road in place. Another strong and vocal supporter of the M4 link was the late Ian Morris, who was a councillor for Emersons Green and who would have taken a keen interest in today’s debate. He was a passionate champion for Emersons Green who understood the community’s need for greater infrastructure.

The reason why I have called this debate today is to make the Minister aware that the need for transport infrastructure in my local area is greater than ever before. Not only has Emersons Green expanded in size to a population of nearly 9,000 residents, but the Emersons Green East development will start shortly and will provide an additional 3,000 homes to the region. As was made clear in the consultation response to South Gloucestershire council’s core strategy document:

“There is a need for a new M4 Junction to serve the increased population.”

There is also a strong economic case for the link road, which was considered by the “Greater Bristol Strategic Transport Study” in 2006. Overall, it found that an M4 link road would have a net present value of £247 million and a benefit to cost ratio of 12. In other words, the M4 link would pay for itself many times over.

Since that study, the economic case for the M4 link to the Avon ring road has become even stronger. The reason for that is the exciting and vital prospect of the £300 million Bristol and Bath science park, which is currently under construction in Emersons Green. The science park points to the future for our local area. Not only does it have the potential to create 6,000 new jobs in the local neighbourhood, but it will be at the cutting edge of manufacturing in the local area, housing test-bed facilities, laboratories, office space and semi-industrial workspace for a range of science and technology businesses. It is intended to provide a stepping stone for fast-growing, innovative new companies, particularly those emerging from the region’s universities.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the excellent National Composites Centre at the site. It is one of the first buildings that will be operational, and it will act as the main hub for research and development into carbon fibre technology in the UK. It was recently named as one of the Government’s high-value manufacturing, technology and innovation centres. The Deputy Prime Minister has praised these centres—there are currently only seven—as

“a major early milestone in our ambition to rebalance the economy”

and the Business Secretary also recently visited the National Composites Centre.

Currently, corporate inward investors from across the globe are considering whether to invest in the Bristol and Bath science park. They are attracted to the science

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park by a number of factors: access to educated and talented graduates; existing managerial talent at local corporations; the culture and lifestyle that the region offers; and the business eco-system of the science park itself, which will provide state of the art facilities, buildings and landscape.

Science park representatives are currently speaking to a number of prospective international occupiers who would create centres of excellence in applied technology on the site and potentially fund early stage research at the universities. The majority of jobs at the site would be newly created and would require a high education and skill level. However, transport access is also a significant part of creating an attractive offer.

For international companies, transport links to the science park are vital, particularly from Heathrow. They seek assurance that, upon arrival at Heathrow, their international senior executives will have easy and straightforward access to a local operation. Most prospective occupiers have undertaken due diligence and are fully aware of the long-standing need for an additional junction on the ring road from the M4 between junctions 18 and 19. Above all, they can see from visiting the science park themselves that the M4 is literally a stone’s throw away.

A new junction 18A connecting the ring road to the M4 would ensure that the science park would be able to thrive in the international climate of corporate investment and become a world-class facility for the region, promoting growth and investment to the benefit of the local economy and, above all, generating local jobs. It is not just the science park that would benefit from an M4 link; the nearby Emerald park, the Harlequin business park and the Emersons Green treatment centre are also close by, and one of the main hubs for Avon and Somerset police will shortly be moving into Emersons Green.

The Bristol and Bath region is rich with both leading businesses and academic research, but it is clear that the infrastructure—both transport and digital provision—has not kept pace with the potential now available. In addition to the science park, the university of the West of England, Airbus and BAE Systems, to name a few, are considering the development of new business parks on their sites in the west of the region. All those developments have the potential to create thousands of new, high-value jobs. The attractiveness of those developments to investors, employers, employees and residents could be in question if investment in new infrastructure were to be ruled out indefinitely.

I thank the Minister for his correspondence with me over the possibility of an M4 link to the Avon ring road. I am a realist and am fully aware that, for the time being, in the current comprehensive spending review period, the funds are not available for a link road. However, all that I ask is that the proposal is not ruled out indefinitely, and that the Department seriously considers the prospect of a junction 18A and a link road to the Avon ring road from the M4. I also want to use this opportunity to launch a petition of local residents to join the campaign for an M4 link. I hope that, when the signatures are finally gathered, the Minister will kindly accept that petition.

This campaign is not merely about getting a road built. It is about encouraging economic growth and enterprise in the Kingswood area, which, as the local MP,

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I am absolutely determined to drive forward. We need the infrastructure in place to ensure that both business and the local community can grow. An M4 link to the Avon ring road would be a vital part of that infrastructure, and I hope that it can be considered for the future in due course.

4.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): Congratulations, Mr Weir, on a marathon session in the Chair today. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this important debate and on representing his constituents so diligently in the matter. There are two strands to my response: first, the process for prioritising the funding of local major schemes in the spending review period up to 2015 and beyond; and secondly, the importance of local authorities considering a range of options for addressing transport problems in the short and longer terms and what short-term options he might consider to try to deal with the situation that he describes so eloquently.

Of course, my hon. Friend will not need to be reminded of the economic situation that the Government have inherited and that the main priority is to reduce the deficit and promote sustainable economic growth. The emergency Budget last June and the October spending review were part of that strategy. However, in the spending review, the Government recognised the importance of transport infrastructure and its ability to help the economy to grow. There is a clear link and he is right to draw attention to that link in general and to the specifics of his constituency’s science park, to which he referred.

We are committed to investing capital of £6 billion over the next four years in local transport, including £1.5 billion in local authority and major schemes. Nevertheless, over the next four years, we simply cannot afford to deliver every scheme that is being proposed. We inherited from the previous Administration a completely unrealistic pipeline of schemes that could not have been delivered, even if the economy were in its most buoyant form. We have therefore had to take tough decisions to prioritise schemes. My Department has set out a process for delivering a programme of local major schemes over the spending review period. The long lead time for developing major transport schemes means that we have only considered schemes that had already secured conditional approval or programme entry funding approval, or that had a bid for programme entry already lodged with the Department prior to the suspension of major scheme activity on 10 June 2010. That is when the portcullis came down, if I can use an appropriate metaphor for the House.

We have been keen to ensure that we get value for money and we have driven down the costs of schemes that we have been considering in the pool. That will enable us to proceed with more schemes than would have been the case if the previous Government had simply accepted the estimates available to them. We announced on 4 February this year the schemes we were approving, those we were not going to take forward and those that are in the development pool. Promoters of schemes in the development pool have until September to come back with best and final offers and we shall announce in December which ones are approved.

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Despite what may have been said elsewhere, I must make it clear that the road that is the subject of this debate has, I am advised by officials, never been put forward officially to the Department for Transport for funding as a local authority major scheme. Indeed, South Gloucestershire council’s core strategy talks about the road only being a reality post-2026. So I hope that my hon. Friend would accept that it is unfair to consider funding it within the current spending review period given the process we have been through. For the record, again, despite what may have been said elsewhere, the scheme has certainly never been promised funding by the Department for Transport. I am not aware of the comments made by my ministerial predecessor some years ago, but I have asked officials to dig them out for me and let me have copies, so that I can see for the record what was said.

The Department for Transport is working on the development of a policy for prioritising and funding local authority major schemes beyond 2015. We recognise that it is not possible to progress many schemes in this period that, nevertheless, have merit and ought to be considered properly post-2015. It is our intention to move to a more devolved funding framework for major schemes, with local enterprise partnerships and others being more relevant in the process. That framework will be developed further during 2011 and I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will make a further announcement in due course about exactly how that will operate.

To answer my hon. Friend’s specific point, I can say that his proposal has not been ruled out indefinitely, but that it cannot proceed within the present time frame that I have identified up to 2015. It is certainly up to him and others to make further representations, collect local support directly from residents and also perhaps through local councils, the local enterprise partnership and others, so that when the next round of transport schemes is considered, the case has been well advanced. If he wants to do that, I encourage him to do so. In the meantime, if he wants to present a petition to me, I will certainly be happy to accept it from him and his constituents.

Moving on to the second strand of my speech, I encourage promoters of schemes to consider a range of solutions for addressing transport problems. As part of the case that my hon. Friend wants to build up and may well be building up—I encourage him to do so—it is worth drawing attention to some of the comments made hitherto about the road, so that he is aware of them. The “Greater Bristol Strategic Transport Study”, which was produced in 2006, was commissioned by the Government office for the south-west to consider the case for building the link road. For the benefit of those who have not had a chance to read the document, let me read the concluding paragraph of the section that considers the link road:

“Although the new M4 to A4174 Link road scheme has a strong economic case, mainly derived from travel time savings for journeys from outside the study area, it is not being recommended by the study. The new link would alter flow patterns in the congested area between M4 J20 and M4 J19, M32 J1 and the northern stretch of the A4174 Avon Ring Road, putting additional strain on the A4174 and causing congestion problems on the M4 to the east of the new junction with the strong likelihood that the widening of the M4 between Junctions 18A and 18 would be necessary. The improved linkage to the M4 is likely to encourage

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long-distance commuting to and from developments in Emersons Green and Pucklechurch, which would go against the principles of sustainable development.”

I stress that those were the comments of the Government office for the south-west in 2006. I read that out partly for the record, but also because if my hon. Friend is keen to promote his scheme, he will need to address the arguments that will be made.

However, I want to be optimistic about the short term, as well as looking at the longer-term possibilities. My hon. Friend might be interested in looking at options that provide short-term benefits. In the development pool of major schemes, to which I have referred, one is being promoted by South Gloucestershire council in conjunction with the West of England Partnership and Bristol city council. If approved, that scheme may help to address some of the congestion issues to which he has referred.

The scheme I am talking about is the North Fringe to Hengrove package, which includes a series of complementary projects that would facilitate the development of three new rapid transit routes linking the North Fringe, East Fringe and South Bristol areas via Bristol city centre. The promoters argue that the rapid transit network will provide a fast, frequent and reliable public transport service, where services run on a combination of segregated busways and bus lanes separate from car traffic. Services would be given priority over other road users at traffic signals.

Promoters argue that the scheme would provide a high-quality passenger experience, with ticket machines at stops, user-friendly electronic information displays, high-quality stop design including CCTV and lighting, and safe and secure access to stops. The network would also provide improved pedestrian and cycling measures, including new footways and cycleways and appropriate modern and safe crossing points. A decision will be made on Government support or otherwise for that scheme in December. I am not clear about whether my hon. Friend believes that that is a useful scheme. If he does, it is on the table at an advanced stage and he may want to make representations in favour of it before we take a decision later this year. I referred to that today for background. I stress that no decision has been made for or against the scheme at this stage.

The West of England Partnership has also submitted a bid to the Department for funding from the local sustainable transport fund, which I launched with the White Paper, “Creating Growth, Cutting Carbon,” earlier this year. The promoters argue that elements of that bid would help to ease congestion in the area we have been talking about by promoting an integrated package of low-carbon alternatives to single-occupancy car use. The full bid document can be found on the Travelplus website. The Department will make a decision on that bid at the end of June this year. I stress again that no decision for or against has been taken; it has not been evaluated properly. However, if that is something that my hon. Friend supports, he may want to make representations about that before we take a decision in June—not very far away.

On a more general point, I would like to mention the local transport White Paper, “Creating Growth, Cutting Carbon”, which I launched in January. It shows how the Government are empowering local authorities, from streamlining transport funding from 26 to four grants—

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reducing all the unnecessary, bureaucratic streams that the previous Government had—to powers in the Localism Bill. The White Paper also sets out a number of sustainable transport choices that local authorities can make for their areas, from making public transport more attractive to car-sharing clubs; from improved cycle networks to bus partnerships; and from community transport to travel planning. Those are the sorts of things that allow people to travel freely without hindering economic growth or increasing their carbon footprints. I urge local authorities to consider those options in developing solutions to transport problems. There is a further tranche of money available after tranche one.

To conclude, we have set out a process for prioritising local major transport schemes over the next four years. Consistent with our localism and decentralisation agenda, it is our intention to move towards a more devolved framework for prioritising and funding local major schemes beyond 2015. That suggests that local people’s views will perhaps be more important than they have been hitherto in deciding the priorities for local schemes. Garnering local opinion, therefore, may well be a useful exercise for my hon. Friend in the meantime. Beyond that, the local transport White Paper sets out the wide range of sustainable transport options for local authorities and others to consider to support economic growth and to reduce carbon emissions. Those two objectives are and remain the central objectives of the Department for Transport.

4.21 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Women Offender One-stop Shops

4.27 pm

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): It is with great pleasure that I speak in this debate under your wonderfully impartial chairmanship, Mr Weir. I am pleased to see, yet again, my colleague from the Ministry of Justice, with whom I participated in a recent Westminster Hall debate on coroners. I hope that this debate on women in the criminal justice system is equally consensual, and that we reach a partnership in the same way.

I asked for the debate today because I am extremely concerned about the disconnect between the Government’s stated aims and policy on alternatives to prison, to which I am very committed, and the lack of sustainable and increased funding for the network of organisations that could help the Government achieve their long-term aim.

I have long felt that it is a national disgrace that we jail more women than any other country in the western world. The number of women in jail is increasing more quickly than that for men, yet the offences women commit are often petty, small in nature, requiring short sentences. In the past decade, the number of women entering prison has increased by 44%. The rise is not driven by an increase in criminality among women but by the courts, increasingly sentencing women to jail for minor crimes. My focus today is on the funding for women’s centres, the one-stop shops, which provide a cheaper and often more effective rehabilitative outcome as an alternative to prison for women.

The most common reason for women to be imprisoned is shoplifting, and 64% of women sentenced to jail are serving short-terms of less than six months. Female prisoners are much more likely to be serving short-term sentences than men, and are much more likely than men to have been imprisoned for non-violent, acquisitive crimes. To put it bluntly, if men had committed many of the offences that these women have committed, they would not have been jailed. All of the recent expert reviews of the criminal justice system, by Baroness Corston, Lord Bradley and the Fawcett commission, have come to the same conclusion: prison is not the answer. I am pleased that we also often hear that statement coming out of Government.

We need services providing interventions to help and support women in turning their own lives around, services such as those provided by one-stop centres for women offenders, which are also known as women’s centres. Building on the excellent work done by charities such as the Asha centre, the Calderdale women’s centre, Together Women and the women’s turnaround project in Cardiff, in 2009 the Ministry of Justice invested £15.6 million. There is now a national network of almost 50 women offender one-stop shops around the UK but, sadly, that is not enough: coverage is patchy, particularly in rural areas.

The way in which each such centre works is unique and the services available to women can vary, as the centres are often run by local or regional charities, with their own ethos and practices. Such centres work with women at every stage in the criminal justice system. What they have in common is that they will take women referred to them by the courts, police or social services who have offended or are at risk of offending, helping

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the women to take responsibility. The centres do not only contain them, they get the women to take responsibility for their own lives.

Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust said to me that, when women are sent to prison, they do not have the opportunity to address the underlying reasons for their crimes. They are not encouraged to take responsibility for their everyday lives: for sorting out somewhere to live, paying bills, cooking meals or looking after their children. Prison takes women away from their lives, and refuses them the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves or to address their problems.

One-stop shops for women offenders operate as hubs, offering back-up and support to ensure that appointments are kept and that courses dealing with the issues taking women into the criminal justice system in the first place are completed.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate. Does she agree that, as a consequence of the comprehensive nature of the support from women’s centres, we are seeing dramatic reductions in the rate of reoffending? That is of benefit not only to the women, but to the children and to society, and makes the centres extremely cost-effective. If we look at the issue in the cold terms of cost per crime avoided, a concept that might be applied more generally in the criminal justice system, women’s centres are extremely good value, as well as the right thing to do.

Mrs Moon: Absolutely. That is very much the direction in which I am hoping to take the debate, demonstrating exactly those points made by my right hon. Friend.

In many cases, we find that prison allows women to opt out of responsibility; to opt out of the life experiences that have often brought them into the criminal justice system. The one-stop shops get the women to the stage of beginning to see what they want for their future, beyond coping with the moment. That is an incredible thing to do; to help people move on from coping with the moment to seeing a life and the potential in the future, not only for themselves but for their children.

Many women offenders are also the victims of crimes that have left them with enormous problems in their lives, so a prison sentence presents a unique problem and difficulty for women. Up to 50% of female prisoners have experienced violence in the home, and one in three has been the victim of sexual abuse; up to 80% of women in prison have diagnosable mental health problems; 70% of women coming into custody require drugs detoxification, compared with 50% of men; 16% of the female prison population self-harm, compared with 3% of men; and the rate of suicide is higher among female prisoners than male ones, despite the opposite being the case in the general population. Women prisoners are also less likely than male prisoners to have settled accommodation, qualifications or experience of working, and they are more likely to have been living in poverty. Because there are so few women’s prisons, they are often situated further away from their children, friends, families and support networks, so they receive less help and support during their sentences and when they leave prison.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue she is coming on to, how prison takes women away from their families and from

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contact with and responsibility for their children, is one of the ways in which prison does not work for women offenders, because it does not enable them to take those responsibilities in the future or to manage normal lives, which is what those women need to learn how to do?

Mrs Moon: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Even more devastatingly, prison sets up a future generation who, potentially, because of that trauma, will end up in the criminal justice system. That is the great failure we have to tackle.

In a lot of cases, many of the factors I have talked about—the sexual abuse, the violence experienced, the mental health problems, the drugs—are all experienced by individual women. It is not only a case of one woman having a mental health issue and one a drugs problem, with another having experienced sexual abuse: many will have all three combined. If they are to be rehabilitated, they will not be able to do it by themselves. Housing such women in a prison will not tackle those major issues, which is why we must deal with the problems that caused the offending if we are to look at rehabilitation and reducing reoffending. If we do not deal with the effects of these women’s life experiences as victims of abuse and suffering, we will not change their lives or the lives they are helping their own children to build. More importantly, we are doubly punishing those women, doubly victimising them—they are victims of abuse in their childhoods, then victims as adults in society.

Two thirds of women prisoners are mothers, and one third are lone parents. Only 5% of the children of women prisoners remain in their own home while their mother is in prison. Ninety-five per cent. must leave their home, to be looked after by grandparents or family friends, or to go into care. Eighteen thousand children live away from their home because their mother is in prison, setting up a future generation of damaged, disadvantaged and traumatised children. We could say, “Well, it’s only six months—such women mainly undertake short sentences,” but the sentence can be catastrophic for women and their families. The 2007 Corston report made the case for a completely new approach:

“a distinct radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach.”

I recommend watching a short film on the Prison Reform Trust’s website called “Smart Justice for Women”. It makes a strong case for alternatives to custody, and sets them out visually so much better than I can in words.

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that the public need more confidence in community sentences, and that we must deal with the scepticism, and show that they are not fluffy options, but intensive interventions that challenge women to change their lives?

Mrs Moon: It is not just the public we must convince; we must convince the courts, and ensure that they know of the centres’ work, their success, and that turning a life around is a hard choice. It is much easier to remain in the victim status, and to live life in that way. We all know that. If someone has been the victim of sexual abuse, been physically abused, or has a mental health problem, or a drug or alcohol problem, tackling those issues is not a soft option. It is a hard option, and that is what we are asking the Government to make available—not

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a soft option, but a hard option. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention because it is crucial to get the message across.

The sort of work carried out by one-stop shops for women offenders is clear, as is the fact that they are effective at reducing reoffending and improving the lives of these women, and that they are cost effective. Evaluation in 2009 found that between July 2007 and July 2008, only four out of 87 women who accessed the Evolve integrated women’s project at Calderdale women’s centre reoffended. The rate of self-reported reoffending in the first year of operation of the Together Women projects was 7% in the north-west, and 13% in the Yorkshire and Humberside region. That compares with a national reoffending rate of 33%, and is a clear demonstration of success.

The SWAN project in Northumberland has achieved a 70% reduction in the rate of reoffending by women who have engaged with the project. The sort of intensive support that is provided in these projects needs specialist training and specialist resources. That is why, although there are huge savings to be made, they require investment. We cannot afford to lose the skills base in those centres. We cannot afford to see people moving away from working in those centres to other areas of the criminal justice system because of funding instability.

Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. My experience of women who are released from custody and the associated costs is that it is often difficult to find accommodation for them. When I managed a women’s refuge, we would often take women released directly from prison, who may have had electronic tags or other reporting requirements. The difficulty is that when those women have a prison sentence behind them, many accommodation projects will find it difficult to accommodate them, and will refuse them, thus compounding the damage that can be done.

Mrs Moon: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and what is so sad is that when they go to prison, some of those women have accommodation where they can look after their family and children. Instead, they lose that accommodation, and build up debt, which makes them unattractive to landlords in the future. Their children go into care, sometimes at a cost of up to £30,000 a week per child. All that could be saved if, instead of a prison sentence, those women could stay in the community and tackle the issues that led them into crime.

It can cost £50,000 a year to keep a woman in prison. The cost to taxpayers and society through the criminal justice system, policing, social services and the benefits system of not addressing the problems that bring women into offending is enormous. Research has shown that intensive community order support costing £15,000 can save the public purse up to £264,000 over five years.

What I am looking for today is a consistent source of funding, so that projects can be established and maintained with the confidence that they are sustainable. Funding for most existing centres for 2011-12 has been secured through the Ministry of Justice and the Corston Independent Funders Coalition, and I am extremely

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grateful for that. The National Offender Management Service will be responsible for commissioning those services in 2012-13 if the centres are shown to be effective in diverting women from reoffending. But we do not have information about when and how decisions will be made, and what criteria will be used for assessment. The centres do excellent work, and the women who benefit from them need to know as soon as possible what measures they will be being judged against.

Prisons are not an optional extra in the criminal justice system, and we do not expect them to have to fund themselves year on year to keep going. Women’s centres should not be considered to be optional extras, or be funded in that way. They need to be part of the bedrock of our criminal justice system, with continuous funding guaranteed for those centres that are working well. I am more than happy for them to be judged against criteria. They should be inspected, and they should demonstrate that they work, but their funding should be assured within those parameters.

The recently announced national liaison and diversion service for mentally ill people in the criminal justice system should use women’s centres as a foothold to promote the agenda more widely, and not sideline them as an experiment. We have a fantastic joint commitment from the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health. Women’s centres should be used as a model to move forward, and they should be expanded so that we do not start from scratch in 2014, but have a bedrock and a base that we could be utilising now. The women’s justice task force, which was established by the Prison Reform Trust, is due to publish its findings shortly, and I hope that the Minister will read them carefully, and provide leadership, as my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) did under the previous Government.

The previous Government were quick to accept the findings of the review showing that intervention and support in the community is more effective than prison, but they were too slow in coming forward with sustainable, increased funding to put the policy into practice. The Justice Secretary bought a lot of good favour in the sector with his warm words last summer, but unless the Green Paper acts on those words he will have wasted a golden opportunity. Will the Minister take the opportunity today to detail how the network of women’s centres will be put on a sustainable footing with funding secured for the future so that they can expand, how the Government will provide leadership, how the network of centres will be made accountable to the Ministry of Justice with a system of assessment and inspection, and how the courts will be provided with more information about women’s centres so that they can use community sentences with confidence, and so that we do not carry on with the waste of human lives which is represented by the number of women and their children who are damaged by involvement in the criminal justice system?

4.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I thank the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) for raising this important issue. It has been a good debate with helpful contributions. As part of the proposals for reforming the justice system, the Government want to continue to focus on turning women away from crime. One-stop shops provide much

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needed community provision for women offenders. The complex reasons underlying women’s offending, and the particular vulnerabilities of women, were recognised by the Corston review in 2007, and Baroness Corston is welcome here today.

The hon. Lady began by mentioning funding, so I will also start with that issue in case I run out of time. I understand her point about consistency. It has always been the intention to embed the wider network of women’s community services—one-stop shops as they are sometimes known—into mainstream local commissioning. I acknowledge, however, that in the current fiscal climate, securing funding at local level has been extremely challenging for many projects. In recognition of that, and of the work needed to embed that approach into mainstream local commissioning, National Offender Management Services and the Corston Independent Funders’ Coalition have agreed over £3.2 million of funding for 2011-12, as the hon. Lady recognised, to sustain the majority of projects that were previously funded by the Ministry of Justice. In addition, Michael Spurr, chief executive of NOMS, has made a commitment from 2012-13 onwards to commission services that demonstrate effectiveness. That will be worked through as part of the discussions on the allocation of next year’s budget.

Baroness Corston’s report highlighted the different risks and needs faced by women. Women are more likely to serve short sentences for acquisitive crime, and to have complex needs that could include a combination of mental health, drug or alcohol problems, or long histories of abuse. As the hon. Lady noted, 37% of female prisoners self-harm compared with 7% of male prisoners. Women tend to be convicted for less serious offences—34% of women prisoners were sentenced for theft and handling offences, compared with 17% of men. About 45% of those remanded in custody in both the magistrates courts and the Crown court do not get a custodial sentence. Women offenders are also likely to be victims of crime.

The costs of the failure to tackle women’s offending do not relate only to criminal justice—55% of women in prison have children under the age of 18, and imprisoned mothers are more likely to be lone parents. Twelve per cent. of their children are in care, staying with foster parents or have been adopted. There is, therefore, both a social case and a strong business case for tackling those issues in the community, not least because of the possibility of breaking the intergenerational cycle of offending.

Mr Andrew Smith: Given the commitment the Minister has made, which I welcome, will he undertake that future payment-by-result contracts will have a dedicated stream to address the needs of women offenders?

Mr Djanogly: I will come on to talk about payment by results, and we are certainly looking at that matter.

Baroness Corston called for a greater focus and a gender-specific approach to women in the criminal justice system, and the development of one-stop shops for women offenders was strongly influenced by that report. The Government broadly accept the conclusions in Baroness Corston’s report, and we want to ensure that earlier progress continues as part of wider reforms to sentencing and rehabilitation.

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A key part of that approach has been the development of a network of women’s community services over the past two years. Funding was given to well-established voluntary sector providers to develop effective community-based interventions, working in partnership with probation services. That approach aimed to provide new options for the courts, strong bail provision and robust community sentences. Most of those services are based around a central hub such as a building—a one-stop shop, for example—or a key worker, so that at any point in the criminal justice system, women can access support to meet their complex needs and turn them away from crime.

To date, 45 projects have been supported, including 13 that were jointly funded by the Corston Independent Funders’ Coalition through the women’s diversionary fund. Over 4,600 women have been referred to those projects—58% with drug and alcohol needs, having made positive progress, and 56% with health needs, including problems of mental health. Women’s bail services were also funded to enhance the Bail Accommodation and Support Service contract, and to provide higher levels of support and mentoring for women.

The Government recognise that voluntary sector organisations have long shown the way in providing some of the solutions to reoffending. The £2 million partnership between the MOJ and the Corston Independent Funders’ Coalition is a ground-breaking and ongoing collaboration that is, I believe, an excellent example of the big society in action.

Nationally, we are beginning to make an impact on these deeply entrenched problems. The women’s prison population has reached a plateau—as the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) pointed out, numbers of women serving short sentences fell by 12% between 2008 and 2009. NOMS works to ensure that we take account of women’s different needs, and has developed gender-specific standards. It works to promote and support community-based interventions for women, including out-of-court disposals to intervene at earlier stages. A specific strand of work with probation trusts exists in some of the highest remanding areas.

Criminal justice champions, including the judiciary, are also working to raise awareness and increase confidence in community-based interventions for women. Baroness Corston, the chair of the all-party group on women in the penal system, which focused on women’s diversion, has acknowledged that improvement in her assessment of the progress made that was published at the beginning of the year.

There is, however, more to do. We want to ensure that community services are in place to meet women’s complex needs and to help them to stop reoffending. The coalition Government do not view effective rehabilitation as what my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) called “the fluffy option”, and I am pleased to highlight that again today. In December we published a Green Paper entitled “Breaking the cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders” because we could see that the system was not delivering what really matters, such as more effective punishments that reduce the prospect of offenders reoffending time and again. That pattern is true for many women offenders as well as men. Our aim was to set out how changes to the sentencing framework, coupled

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with more effective rehabilitation, will help to break the cycle of crime and prison. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Bridgend, many of the issues that affect rehabilitation, such as health and education, are devolved matters. We are working with the Welsh Assembly to consider how we can take forward our plans in Wales.

The Green Paper provides an opportunity to put a spotlight on the issue of turning women away from crime. It recognises that the needs of women offenders are different, and that the majority of those offenders have multiple and complex needs. We are seeking to create more effective and robust community sentences, with greater flexibility for the assessment and provision of mental health requirements and treatment as part of a community order. We must do more to promote recovery from dependency, and we know that more effective rehabilitation will reduce the number of victims.

The Green Paper confirmed our commitment to an approach that addresses all those matters, including the development, together with the Department of Health, of more intensive community-based drug treatment options for women offenders. It recognises that the criminal justice system is not always the best place to manage the problems of less serious offenders when the offending is related to mental health problems—an issue very relevant to women offenders. The MOJ, the Department of Health and the Home Office are working to ensure that front-line criminal justice and health agencies focus on identifying those people with mental health problems at an early stage of the criminal justice process.

There are also important plans for six payment-by-results pilots to reduce reoffending. Those pilots will test the principle of payment by results, and explore how different commissioning models can help to implement that system. We will ensure that women are included as part of the new approach. The “Breaking the cycle” consultation closed on 4 March 2011, and received over 1,200 responses. Baroness Northover led a consultation event on the specific implications for women. That stimulated an important and informative debate, and we received some thought-provoking responses on how we should

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further develop our approach to women offenders. The Government expect to publish their response soon in the Green Paper, but we have already started to deliver some of our plans for addressing problems of mental health and substance misuse. The Secretary of State for Health is investing £5 million in 20 mental health pathfinder areas, with the aim of ensuring that liaison and diversion services are available in police custody suites and at courts by 2014.

We already know from women’s community services how successful such schemes can be. In Birmingham, for example, the Anawim project has been working with partners to provide specialist mental health women’s services. Another major strand of work under way across Government is that of supporting victims of violence. That includes support for women offenders who have been abused and who may face barriers in accessing the support that they need. Women’s community services provide much needed support to that group. The MOJ and NOMS have worked with the Home Office in developing the “Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls: Action Plan.”

For women in prison there must be a much stronger focus on rehabilitation. Prisons should be places of education, work, rehabilitation and restoration, and we must ensure that all those approaches work with women offenders. For women leaving custody, support is needed to get resettled and eventually to be supported into stable employment.

Many women’s community services are working to improve women’s employability. North Wales women’s centre, for example, put together a package of support for women to gain skills and confidence by embedding that into practical learning through a volunteer programme that exposes participants to practical activities. That programme boosts confidence as well as giving the participant the opportunity to gain practical skills such as food hygiene within a simulated work environment. Across the women’s prisons estate good work is under way.

5 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).