Lord Beecham: My Lords, debates on the Queen’s Speech inevitably feature ministerial double acts. Today, the event stars the noble Lords, Lord Taylor and Lord McNally. The genre is, of course, a familiar one. We think perhaps of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” or the Geordie comedy “The Likely Lads”, though perhaps

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“The Likely Lords” would be a more appropriate description. The latest example is the new comedy series “Vicious”, although I would not for a moment suggest that that is an appropriate adjective to describe two highly congenial and respected Ministers, and in any case I cannot quite decide which would be Ian McKellen and which would be Derek Jacobi.

My responsibilities as a shadow Minister are limited to justice matters, but in a debate ranging across crime, justice, equalities and constitutional issues I will inevitably touch on some matters beyond my normal brief.

I start with constitutional issues and especially those that concern Parliament as a whole and your Lordships’ House in particular. In so doing, I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for her intention to bring forward the Bill to which she has just referred. Last Wednesday, the Select Committee on the Constitution published a report entitled The Pre-emption of Parliament. The report deals with the tendency of the Government to pre-empt legislation or, in a phrase that I coined with regard to the Public Bodies Bill, to engage in pre-legislative implementation, as opposed to the established concept of pre-legislative scrutiny and post-legislative review. The report asserts that,

“the principle of restraint in the name of good constitutional practice should apply to all pre-emptive actions, not just those involving expenditure under the new service rules. This recommendation particularly applies to re-organisations of public bodies”.

The report concluded with an emphatic injunction:

“Where the pre-emption involved is such that it threatens effective parliamentary scrutiny, it should not be undertaken. It is for Parliament, not the Government, to decide whether to change the law”.

I ask the Minister when the Government will respond to this report and the recommendations that it contains, and, if it is at all possible, to give an indication of their thinking today.

However, there are other aspects of the way that the Government deal with legislation which arouse concerns across the House. The committee of the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, reported recently on the Government’s approach to consultation and was critical of the shortened timescales that they too often impose. Frequently, moreover, we receive details of the response to consultation and, in turn, the Government’s response to the outcome of consultation at a very late stage in the legislative process. Proposed statutory guidance or draft regulations are all too often simply not available at all in time to be taken into account as we scrutinise the legislation. In these circumstances, neither House is able to discharge its responsibility to scrutinise and improve legislation properly.

We are already seeing the sour fruits of this approach in a number of areas—not least, relevant to today’s debate, in relation to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act and the Crime and Courts Act. The president of the Family Division has proclaimed that the courts are “wholly unprepared” for the changes now being implemented. The Government are pressing ahead, as we learnt today, with the privatisation of much of the work of the probation service and the introduction of a payment-by-results system. Not only have they cancelled the two pilot schemes they were running, in Staffordshire in the

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West Midlands and in Wales, they have even refused a Freedom of Information Act request made by colleagues in the House of Commons that sought information on the evaluation of the schemes. Can the Minister explain those curious decisions?

While welcoming the Government’s intention to reduce reoffending rates and to offer supervision to ex-offenders released after short sentences, we will wish to examine carefully—as will your Lordships’ House as a whole—the details of the proposals, their practicality and their impact on the probation service. I echo the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Marks, on these matters. Time and again, after all, the Government have charged ahead with ill-thought-out measures that have caused huge problems and cost large sums of money. The fiasco of the new court interpreter system, the process of issuing all civil monetary claims from a single court and the outsourcing of court security—that paragon of efficiency, G4S, apparently pays its staff £6.45 an hour but is itself paid £11.49 an hour for the hours worked by its staff, and makes a gross profit of £42 million a year—all testify to that ideological obsession with outsourcing to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield referred this morning.

I will, however, commend the Lord Chancellor on at least one recent decision, which is to set up a review of the Court of Protection, about which I have voiced doubts on a number of occasions. It needs a root-and-branch examination, and I look forward to the outcome of that. Equally, I welcome what I take to be the Government’s intention to proceed with the equal marriage Bill, and I support the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who made a remarkable speech this morning, on what he said about the Bill. Too often, it seems to me, the Lord Chancellor indulges in the politics of the dog whistle—a tendency that will no doubt become more evident as the UKIP pack snaps at the Tories’ electoral heels. It is interesting that his recent announcement on prisoner privileges, uniforms and the like, affect privately run prisons more than publicly run ones.

However, it is in the fields of legal aid and litigation that the most profound damage is threatened to our system of justice and of access to it. It is extraordinary that one of the main justifications advanced for the changes which will deprive 650,000 claimants a year of legal advice or legal aid is that the scheme has changed over the past 65 years to cover more areas of law, although, as it happens, a smaller proportion of the population. Would the same argument be advanced to justify cutting the National Health Service where more treatments become available, or any of the other areas of public policy where needs change as society, the economy, technology or the environment change? We will continue to scrutinise and challenge the regulations still to be made to implement the LASPO changes, and we look forward to the Low commission’s report on the effect of the changes and the cost to the court system. Both in this context and in relation to criminal legal aid, to which I now turn, we will look for alternative savings across the whole system which will not imperil access to justice.

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The Government’s proposals on criminal legal aid rely yet again on the discredited tendering system which has given us Atos, Group 4, the interpreter fiasco, and more besides. But these proposals are even worse because, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, pointed out, those who qualify for legal aid will have no choice of representative. A mere 400 firms will be given contracts and clients will be allocated to them apparently on a crude rotation basis. Fees for both barristers and solicitors will be cut by at least 30% and 17.5% respectively from in most cases a low base which, of course, includes substantial overheads. The criminal Bar in particular will be very hard hit, but the real damage will be done to the client and the courts as well as to the practitioners. Nor do the Government’s sums add up. They claim a saving of £220 million a year but their estimate shows only £118 million a year by 2016-17. As that is the product of the cut in fees the tendering exercise appears to make no difference. The proposed savings on prison law will save all of £4 million allegedly, and Answers to Parliamentary Questions tabled by colleagues in the House of Commons have established that there is no estimate of the savings to flow from the proposed 12-month residency test, or even how much is now spent on legal aid for foreigners. It is all just another blast on the dog whistle.

Astonishingly, the Government have just produced a series of amendments to their own consultation document, several of which modify the original claimed savings. One of them corrects a figure given at paragraph 5.3 on page 72 of the consultation document for the costs of very high value cases from £592 million to £92 million, a reduction of 84%. If only the Chancellor of the Exchequer could amend the OBR figures in the same way. We await with interest the outcome of this amended consultation and the Government’s response, which on past form will probably largely ignore it.

Even the Daily Telegraph ran a piece by one of its feature writers proclaiming that it is the end of the legal system as we know it. I am pleased that the noble Lords, Lord Marks and Lord Thomas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, have voiced serious concerns about the Government’s proposals. I hope that they will join with us in challenging them if, as I assume, secondary legislation and regulations will be brought to this House for approval.

Change is not limited to the criminal law. At the behest of its generous friends in the insurance industry the Tory party—with, apparently, its Liberal Democrat partners once again colluding with it—is embarking on radical changes to civil justice, extending the scope of small claim courts and imposing a rigorous cost regime which will make it uneconomic for practitioners to undertake the work given the need for relevant expertise to be deployed. Coupled with the LASPO changes, significant roadblocks are being placed on access to civil justice, based in part on the myth sedulously fostered by insurance companies of a compensation culture, a notion recently dismissed out of hand by Lord Dyson, the newly appointed Master of the Rolls.

There are also deep concerns about the future of judicial review, an essential tool in holding government and public bodies to account. The Government claim

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that only a tiny percentage of claims are successful. In fact, a significant number of cases are settled in the claimant’s favour before the stage of judicial permission to proceed. Of those which do proceed to hearing, again a substantial proportion is successful. Lord Dyson has said:

“There is no principle more basic to our system of law than the maintenance of the rule of law itself and the constitutional protection afforded by judicial review”.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has stated, “Judicial review is critical” and that the Ministry of Justice,

“is showing a remarkable lack of concern for the precision of the facts”.

What answer does the Minister make to those remarks of the eminent judges who have pronounced upon the Government’s policy?

Unfortunately, we now seem constantly to denigrate the human rights legislation which it was once our proud boast as a nation to promote at home and abroad. We appear much keener to sell access to British justice to wealthy foreigners than to secure it for our own citizens.

The grayling, I understand, is a protected species of the salmon family, which apparently provides thrilling sport when the trout season is at an end. If the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, who is apparently a keen angler, was in his place now, as he was this morning, he would no doubt confirm the description of the fish. For our part, we do not regard the Lord Chancellor as a protected species, nor will we treat opposition to his destructive policies as a sport, thrilling or otherwise. Our concern on these Benches—and I think the concern of many across your Lordships’ House—is to protect the enduring values of our legal system and to preserve access to justice for all who need it, while of course striving to do so as efficiently, effectively and economically as possible.

5.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Taylor of Holbeach): My Lords, it is a great pleasure to reply to this, the first substantial day of debate on Her Majesty’s gracious Speech. I think I am the 37th speaker and I thank all Members of the House for their contributions in these important subject areas. They have ranged far and wide, and way beyond the areas I have been briefed on, but that is the nature of having to wind up a debate of this kind. However, we have dealt with topics such as constitutional affairs, equalities, home affairs, justice and the law. My noble friend Lord Cormack complained that this is a thin Queen’s Speech, but I think noble Lords will agree that his definition of thinness perhaps differs from mine. He was a little concerned that this House would not have enough work to do. I think that is an unnecessary anxiety. As one who will be partly responsible for seeing through elements of this programme, I have to say that there will not be a shortage of things for noble Lords to do. It is very much in the tradition of this House that we scrutinise in a proper fashion.

The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, obviously has plenty of time because he can watch television programmes that I have never even heard of, but fortunately someone else spotted it while I was trying to assemble my notes.

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He asked me about the Constitution Committee report on the pre-emptive scrutiny of legislation. The report has only just been published and we have 60 days in which to respond. If we take that time, it is because we want to respond to it properly, but we will respond within the time. We take pre-emptive legislative scrutiny seriously, as we do post-legislative scrutiny. These things help to improve the quality of government.

As noble Lords have said, this debate has been a two-man operation. My noble friend Lord McNally and I work together well and quite a lot of this legislation will indeed be joint Ministry of Justice and Home Office legislation. Our two departments work closely together to, I think, very great effect.

Perhaps I can move on to some of the issues that noble Lords have raised. We heard that the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill will radically reform the way in which anti-social behaviour is tackled. Generally, it has been warmly welcomed by noble Lords. Through the introduction of the community remedy and the community trigger, it will focus response on the needs of victims and communities, which all too often are let down by the current system. That will give front-line professionals—the police, councils, housing providers and others—more effective and streamlined powers. As noble Lords will have heard, the Bill will also address a number of other important crime and policing matters, including making it easier for landlords to take swift and decisive action against their tenants, thus creating a powerful deterrent against problem behaviour. It will tackle irresponsible dog ownership. Although that has caused some amusement, it is certainly a very serious issue and one which, when I was a Minister in Defra, I was much exercised about. It will extend to any place the offence of owning or being in charge of a dog that is dangerously out of control. It is a measure that I think is long overdue. It will explicitly make an attack on an assistance dog, such as a guide dog for the blind, an aggravated offence. In addition, the Bill will target not only people who use illegal firearms but those who import or supply them. We need to send a clear message that people who are involved in this trade are as responsible as those who actually pull the trigger for the terrible harm that gun crime causes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter both talked about the community trigger and expressed some concern about how effective it will be. There was a suggestion that there needed to be several complaints before the process came into play. It will become evident, when we take the legislation through the House, that this is not the case. The duty already exists on local agencies to deal with every report of an ASB incident, and many agencies already respond quickly. The community trigger will be used in situations where victims’ problems have been ignored and will give victims the right to demand that agencies take action. There is some evidence that some individuals have been ignored in the past in this regard, and this empowers them to demand that their complaints be taken seriously.

A number of noble Lords raised the issue of minimum unit pricing, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield, and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke

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of Alverthorpe, who made a very powerful speech demonstrating his concerns that this issue has been ignored. In March 2012, the Government proposed a range of measures in the alcohol strategy to radically reshape the approach to alcohol and reduce excessive drinking. Public consultation closed on 6 February and we are carefully considering the views expressed. It is right that we consider these matters carefully before we rush to legislate and we will set out our proposals in due course. The noble Lord will know that the court in Scotland had indeed determined the issue, but the drinks industry is appealing against that. We do not want to get ourselves in a duplicate litigious battle on this. We are working on an alcohol strategy which will come to this House when we have it in place.

My noble friend Lady Harris was concerned about the effectiveness of the police force following budget cuts and thought that this might perhaps harm the degree to which police were able to tackle ASB. Again, this is not the case. Every part of the public sector has to play its part in cutting the country’s budget deficit, but police forces across the country are showing that they can meet this challenge. I pay tribute to them because crime is falling and front-line policing has largely been unaffected by these cuts.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, expressed concern about our immigration proposals, and other voices expressed concerns that there would be problems with those policy initiatives indicated in the gracious Speech. It is evident that there is clear support for ensuring that this country has tough immigration laws that prevent abuse of the system. We have been clear that people who do not meet our rules should leave the country and that foreigners who commit serious crimes should be deported from the UK in all but the most exceptional circumstances. I have no doubt that the House will want to support the proposed legislation to ensure that courts take notice. The noble Baroness suggested that our reforms would be ineffective. That is not the case; the reforms are bold and will bring about real change. There will be consultation with those organisations that are affected by these matters.

It is not true to say that landlords are feeling exposed by the suggestion that they, too, will have responsibility for making sure that properties are not let. The National Landlords Association has made it quite clear that it supports these measures to help regularise the legitimate letting of properties. This will be particularly effective in making sure that illegal immigrants cease to find it easy to get housing. Health workers, too, will have a responsibility for ensuring that the system is proportionate. People will not have to present a passport every time they see a GP but it is not unreasonable that health service provision in this country is available only to those who are legitimately allowed access to it.

The Government welcome people with the skills we need who want to come to this country to study, to work hard, to invest and to contribute to our society. However, in order to continue to attract those people, and to protect hard-working people here, the system has to be fair. It is only fair to expect people to contribute to our public services before they benefit

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from them. It is only fair to prevent those with no right to be here from accessing public services. It is only fair that hard-working taxpayers do not end up funding the “benefits tourism” that has been all too prevalent in recent times.

As noble Lords are clearly aware, Her Majesty’s gracious Speech referred to proposals to enable the protection of the public and the investigation of crime in cyberspace. We will bring forward our proposals as soon as possible, which may involve legislation. Noble Lords will wish to note that the cross-party Joint Committee that scrutinised our draft provisions concluded that,

“there is a case for legislation which will provide the law enforcement authorities with some further access to communications data”.

Turning to the offender rehabilitation Bill, all the contributions recognised that this was an important area and indeed welcomed the Government’s focus on it. Reoffending has been too high for too long. The case for a new approach is clear. We spend more than £3 billion a year on prisons and almost £1 billion annually on delivering sentences in the community. Despite this investment, almost half of all offenders released from prison offend again within 12 months. The very highest reoffending rates are among prisoners sentenced to custodial sentences of less than 12 months: nearly 60% reoffend within a year of release. Our reforms to rehabilitation will ensure that offenders are given targeted support to help them turn away from crime for good.

A number of noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield, the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollins, Lady Howe and Lady Williams, and the noble Lords, Lord Dholakia, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, Lord Thomas and Lord Phillips of Sudbury, voiced their concern about the professionalism that supports the probation service. Professionalism lies at the heart of so much of public service. I understand that people are concerned that the rate and pace of change might affect the professionalism involved. However, we believe that it will be possible to bring together the best of the public, voluntary and private sectors and give them the freedom to innovate and focus on turning round the lives of offenders. We heard examples of where voluntary and third sector services had been remarkably successful in this area. We can build on that success, and I assure noble Lords that there is no intention that these contracts should be given just to big organisations. They will be given to voluntary and third sector organisations as well.

We expect the majority of staff who are currently in probation roles to transfer to new providers. It will be a managed transition, carried out under statutory provisions set out by Parliament. However, we must not forget our responsibility for public safety. That is why we are creating a new probation service, building on the expertise and professionalism already in place that makes an important contribution to public protection. I support the comments of noble Lords who have spoken on this subject. I think that we will have some good debates in this area and am grateful for the general welcome given to this important and overdue measure, which will provide an opportunity to tackle offenders with some of the highest reoffending rates.

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The Government’s plans for criminal legal aid have come in for considerable criticism. As my noble friend Lord McNally, said, we are in consultation. It is a genuine consultation; the Government have not made up their mind. If noble Lords wish to have a meeting with my noble friend, he will be very happy to talk to them about their points of view so that the Government can bear them in mind.

We have an excellent tradition of legal aid—we have the best legal aid and the best legal profession—but we cannot close our eyes to the fact that legal aid costs far too much. We are clear that the system will continue to uphold everyone’s right to a fair trial, but that does not mean that we should not look at the way in which it operates. The consultation does not close until 4 June and the legal profession is actively engaged with my noble friend in discussing this matter, but, as I have said, the opportunity for discussion is extended to Members of this House. Our proposals present the fairest way to reduce the overall bill for advocacy at a time when businesses across the country are having to adapt to a very difficult climate.

Perhaps I may turn to the justice Bill. It is intended that an essentially dual-purpose justice Bill will be brought to Parliament later in this Session. First, it will reform the administration of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to ensure value for money for the taxpayer while maintaining quick and effective access to justice. Secondly, it is our intention that measures in the Bill will help us to disrupt the business models of organised crime groups. It will ensure that law enforcement agencies have the right tools and powers to disrupt their activities, including those of enablers and “kingpins”—if one might call them that—who may never come into contact with illegal commodities but who play a key part in directing crime.

Although the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was not included in the Queen’s Speech, I suppose it was inevitable that it would be a matter for discussion. We heard from my noble friend Lord Fowler a passionate advocacy of the fairness and justice behind this Bill. Similarly, I respect the concerns of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, and the noble Lord, Lord Dear, about the Bill. There is no subterfuge involved in this Bill not being mentioned in the Queen’s Speech.

Lord Cormack: Will Ministers in this House have a free vote as they had in the other House?

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I can confirm that that will be the case. I for my part will be supporting the Bill, but that is my own position. I have listened to my noble friend Lady Stowell speak on the issue. I am sure that she will convince a vast majority of noble Lords of the rightness of this Bill, which is about giving those who want to get married the opportunity to do so while protecting the rights of those who do not agree with same-sex marriage. No one stands to lose, but we all stand to gain by building on a tradition of tolerance and inclusiveness. I must sum up, because I am going on a bit longer than I should.

Baroness Smith of Basildon:I do not want to detain the noble Lord, but he is always generous and courteous

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in seeking to answer questions raised in the course of the debate. I raised a specific point about individual voter registration and the reserved power that the Government have over the Electoral Commission. I appreciate that he will not have time tonight, but if he could write to me on that specific point, I would be very grateful.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: Yes, certainly I will. I have no information about any decision to be made on that.

Lord Fowler: Can my noble friend give some indication about Leveson and the Government’s reaction to the alternative royal charter put forward by the press? I simply want to know the Government’s position on that.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I have a note on that, and I realise that that was an important issue that was raised in discussion. Any proposed royal charter is submitted not to Parliament but to the Privy Council and must be considered against the Privy Council’s set criteria. The draft charter submitted by the newspaper industry has now begun that process. However, I should inform noble Lords that the royal charter published on 18 March and proposed by all party leaders has the support of all three party leaders. I hope that makes the position clear. I have little doubt that it will continue to be debated in this House, but the royal charter as proposed when we introduced it into the Crime and Courts Bill still has the support of party leaders.

Lord Fowler: Forgive me, but in summary does the royal charter which all three party leaders supported remain government policy?

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: Yes, that is a correct analysis of the position.

On devolution, there has been a lot of comment on Sir William McKay’s report. It takes a positive step forward on an important issue. Again, we will provide a suitable response to it in due course.

The noble Baroness, Lady Henig, among others, mentioned the SIA, a body for which I have enormous respect, and I have enormous respect for the work that she did there. The proposals are working their way through and we are looking to try to match the timetable that we have set ourselves. I was with the leaders of the SIA only the other day to agree the fee structure under the new arrangements.

I apologise if there are matters that I have not covered. I will write to noble Lords. This has been an engaging debate. The truth of the matter is that we will have plenty of opportunity of going into these matters in considerable detail when the Bills come to this House. I look forward to engaging with noble Lords on those occasions. Meanwhile, I thank them.

The debate adjourned until Monday 13 May.

House adjourned at 6.09 pm.