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Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill debate

29th June 2011

Jonathan Djanogly winds up a debate on the second reading of the wide ranging Bill which will contribute to the reform of the justice system as well as contribute to the Ministry’s deficit reduction commitment.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We have listened to many considered and knowledgeable speeches today. The breadth of debate has only confirmed the importance of the issues before the House. The Bill contains provisions that would make a significant contribution to our reform of the justice system, and those reforms will deliver justice effectively and affordably, provide value for money for the taxpayer, protect the public from serious and violent offenders and tackle the over-reliance on courts and lawyers.

The Bill will also make an important contribution to the Ministry’s deficit reduction commitment, worth £2 billion by 2014-15. I can confirm that we have engaged widely on the Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) recognised. Most of the Bill’s proposals have been subject to three major consultations published last year, and they have been widely debated in the House—indeed, we have had no fewer than nine debates on our justice reforms since December last year. There have been hundreds of oral and written parliamentary questions and legal aid has been the subject of one Justice Committee inquiry and one report. I am looking forward to the Public Bill Committee, where we will continue these debates.

Many important issues have been raised and I shall refer to a number of them. The point about getting a balance between sentencing and punishment was made by my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). In that context, I note that the length of sentence is important, but what happens within the sentence is just as important for punishment and rehabilitation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) noted, for too long prisoners have spent their time in prison lying around and doing nothing. We want to make criminals work hard, an issue discussed very well by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire. Prisoners, some of whom hardly know the meaning of work, will face the tough discipline of a regular working week of up to 40 hours. As we refocus prison regimes around work, we will create more opportunities to make prisoners pay back to their victims. The Bill includes a new power to take a portion of money earned by offenders to help victims. Offenders serving community sentences will work longer and harder on unpaid work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) spoke strongly in favour of rehabilitation. Her points about private prisons were well taken, although the savings involved will depend on the prisons concerned. To answer the point made by the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) about knives, the Bill will send a clear message that those who possess a knife to threaten and endanger can expect to face a minimum prison sentence. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate spoke strongly about that; I agree that we must check its interaction with other offences. That point was also made in a different way by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander). I note, however, that this is not an all-embracing review of knife crime; it is filling a gap in existing legislation. We will be looking at the practical issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Simon Reevell).

Indeterminate sentences were a contentious issue for a number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley and the hon. Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman). Others, such as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, supported the proposals.

We will review indeterminate sentences with a view to replacing them with a clear, tough, predictable system of long, determinate sentences—the best way to punish criminals for their crimes and reform them so that, on release, they are no longer a danger to the public. We will complete the review by the autumn and bring forward our proposals for reform.

The right hon. Member for Tooting said that Labour would limit the use of indeterminate public protection sentences, but in reality by the time Labour had left power, those had gone out of control, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) explained in his excellent contribution. The Bill will also change the law to allow courts to hand down tougher punishments when prison is not an option. As part of community sentences, courts will be able to impose tougher curfews for longer periods, detaining offenders in their own homes with electronic tags to help enforce those curfews.

I am pleased to confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley that we are not introducing a new requirement on courts directing that the periods that offenders spend tagged on bail should count towards a subsequent prison sentence. As part of the community sentence, courts will also be able to ban offenders from going abroad. We strongly support help for victims, and I tell the hon. Member for Darlington that we will change the law to encourage courts to make more offenders pay compensation directly to their victims.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate spoke up on the important need to support victims, as did the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael), who also used his speech to promote the Youth Justice Board. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) spoke up for child victims very strongly.

Fines will not be a soft option. We are launching two schemes, in Norfolk and Cheshire, to seize prized possessions such as cars, TVs and other valuable items from criminals who ignore their fines.

My hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate and for Enfield North (Nick de Bois), the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury spoke on means-testing for advice given at police stations. I am pleased to be able to confirm that we do not intend to stop paying for police station advice.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley about suspended sentences, a number of judges have asked if the custodial sentence that is suspendable could be increased from 12 months to two years. That would add to judges’ discretion, but it is not a requirement to suspend in cases of offences that could attract two-year sentences.

I can confirm to my hon. Friends the Members for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) and for Battersea (Jane Ellison) that we intend to get more offenders off drugs for good by using drug recovery wings and by cracking down on the use of illicit drugs in prison. Many hon. Members made strong points about that. We also want to create a more transparent sentencing framework, which was elaborated on very well by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips).

Turning to our reforms of legal aid, I would like to thank hon. Members for their contributions.

Mr Straw: Before the Minister turns to legal aid, will he deal with the central proposal in respect of sentencing, which is to restrict the ability of the courts to remand defendants in custody in advance of trial? He skated lightly over that, saying absolutely nothing. Will he confirm what it says on page 166 of the Bill, which is that even where a defendant fails to surrender to bail, that defendant cannot be remanded in custody unless there is a “real prospect” of a custodial sentence? Is that what is intended?

Mr Djanogly: I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman. My understanding is that he is wrong on the issue.

Turning to legal aid, I thank hon. Members who have contributed today and those who have responded to the consultation, along with some 5,000 other people. The Bill sets out those elements of the reform that will require primary legislation. We received a number of detailed alternative proposals from respondents to our consultation, including the Law Society.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister is not making a speech or addressing the House; he is reading something into the record.

Mr Speaker: That is a point not of order but of frustration.

Mr Djanogly: We carefully considered those points in our consultation response, but we are clear that the proposals put forward by respondents do not, overall, represent a realistic alternative to our programme of reform. We can all agree on the need for greater efficiency. That point was made strongly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), and we already plan to deliver £1 billion of the Ministry’s savings through efficiencies. The Justice for All campaign also asked us to improve alternatives to legal processes instead of cutting legal help. The Government seized the point, which is why we are increasing the funding available for mediation by £10 million. Some 50% of the proposals suggested by the Law Society amounted to new taxation, but legal aid is primarily funded out of general taxation, and the Government are seeking to reduce the amount of public spending overall. The deficit is also shared across government, and suggestions of cost shifting will not address the overall financial position.

As the Lord Chancellor said earlier, we have the most expensive legal aid system in the world, except for Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington said, the Opposition have been quick to criticise but they have offered no viable alternative. They profess to want to cut legal aid without saying what they would do. They propose to spend £65 million more on social welfare. Does the right hon. Member for Tooting mean to say that he would cut criminal legal aid? If so, by how much would he cut it? By the way, we have looked into the proposals of 20 March 2010, and they were on criminal competitive tendering, so where will the right hon. Gentleman get his savings? This is an unsustainable level of expenditure. In some cases the system encourages people to bring issues before courts where other solutions might be better. In others, it enables people to pursue litigation that they would not contemplate were they paying for it from their own pockets.

I firmly believe that the range of cases identified for inclusion within the scope of civil legal aid reflects the desire—

Mr Speaker: Order. There is quite a lot of chuntering in the Chamber. I am sure that the Minister will want to speak up a bit so that everyone can hear him

Mr Djanogly: We must make tough choices and target scarce legal aid on those who need it most. I am sorry to tell the hon. Members for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and the right hon. Member for Manchester Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) that legal aid has never been available for all cases and that we simply need to prioritise our spending. The hon. Member for Sunderland Central said that everyone deserves their day in court. That might be so, but mediation can sometimes be more appropriate.

The Bill’s reforms are not limited to public funding but extend to provisions to implement a fundamental reform of privately funded no win, no fee conditional fee agreements. The changes we propose will rebalance the CFA regime.

The right hon. Member for Tooting, incredibly, refused to say whether he supports our attack on the compensation culture. Under current arrangements, claimants can bring cases without any financial risk. Risk-free litigation encourages unnecessary or avoidable claims to be pursued and puts businesses and other defendants under pressure of excessive legal costs. Under our changes, claimants using CFAs will have to think carefully about whether it is necessary to pursue their claim. I confirm to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) that CFAs will still be available for group actions against multinational companies.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed rightly mentioned fixed costs and referral fees, which we need to look at. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) mentioned the disgraceful episode involving referral fees in relation to miners’ compensation. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) felt strongly about referral fees and made a number of valid suggestions that are outwith the direct scope of the Bill but do, I agree, need to be looked at.

We are aware of the strong concern that the payment of referral fees in personal injury cases adds to the costs of civil litigation. We are considering the issue and will announce the way forward in due course. I point out, however, that in 1999 claimant costs represented 50% of damages but that by 2010 the figure had risen to 150%. The previous Government lost control of the situation. Under the relevant provisions in the Bill, the legal costs of all defendants facing CFA-funded claims will reduce. That said, we recognise that there are complex and difficult cases, such as clinical negligence cases, which the Chairman of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury and for Mid Bedfordshire and the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) raised. Our Jackson and legal aid reforms will address such cases. CFAs are a viable alternative to legal aid for these cases and the Bill will, exceptionally, enable the recovery of ATE insurance premiums for expert reports in clinical negligence cases, in recognition of the fact that they are important.

Bridget Phillipson: Will the Minister answer the question I asked the Lord Chancellor earlier about whether the Government will rethink their proposals to scrap legal aid for women applying for indefinite leave to remain under the domestic violence rule? It is a very small number of women.

Mr Djanogly: It is a small number but it is a complicated point, so I shall write to the hon. Lady.

Taken together, this is a balanced and sensible package of reforms of the kind that the Government were determined to achieve when we published our proposals. The overall effect will be to achieve significant savings while protecting fundamental rights of access to justice.

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