HC Deb 12 February 1990 vol 167 cc43-71 4.53 pm
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

I beg to move, That this House is shocked at the continued public feuding between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service which has developed into a crisis of confidence in two essential parts of the criminal justice system; and notes that the public legal services are in a serious state of collapse, in particular in respect of the legal aid system, the duty solicitors' scheme, the funding crisis of law centres and the failure of the Government to make progress on the issue of family courts. This is the first time in many years that the House has discussed the crucial issue of legal services. I am grateful to the Attorney-General for his presence in the House today, and I look forward to hearing his important contribution.

This debate is not just about lawyers talking about lawyers. At some time in his life, every citizen comes into contact with the legal services. I declare an interest as a former solicitor, who was employed at the north Leicester advice centre. I no longer practise.

In the time available I want to cover several crucial areas where I assert that the legal system is in crisis, and where I believe that early and urgent Government action is required. I shall begin with the Crown prosecution service.

As the House knows, the Select Committee on Home Affairs is conducting an inquiry into the operation of the Crown prosecution service. Members of the Committee, apart from myself, are at present on a site visit to Manchester. Tomorrow I shall join them in north Wales. Had they been here, I am certain that they would have wished to contribute to the debate.

On 23 January 1989, I asked the Attorney-General whether he agreed that the operation of the Crown prosecution service was approaching a crisis. He did not agree, and he stated in his reply to my request for an inquiry that he felt that it was an unnecessary disruption for an inquiry to take place.

Judging by the evidence given to the Select Committee by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr. Allan Green, and by representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Federation, there is little doubt in my mind that a serious crisis is besetting the Crown prosecution service. The public feuding between two essential elements of the criminal justice system has been astonishing. I felt that it was important to bring the matter before the House at an early stage, to seek the Attorney-General's views. The only people who could have an interest in the continuation of this quarrel are the criminals themselves, who have watched the proceedings, and watched the police and the DPP acting as sworn enemies rather than partners, as we have watched them.

I pay tribute to the staff of the Crown prosecution service for the work that they do under enormous pressure. I am a friend of the service, and I strongly believe in the need for an independent prosecution service. I pay tribute especially to the CPS in Leicestershire, which I have found to be efficient, fair and independent. All people agree that, from birth, the CPS has suffered from gross under-resourcing and understaffing. There are numerous complaints about the way in which it was established.

I ask the Attorney-General—I gave him notice of this and of several other questions—whether, with hindsight, he accepts the criticism that the service was established too hastily by the Government and without sufficient planning. Does he agree with the statement by Mr. Green to the Select Committee, that "I think the service was brought in too hurriedly."?

The inability of the Crown prosecution service to keep and recruit lawyers is legendary. Since its creation it has been understaffed by 23 per cent., or by 430 posts. In a recent parliamentary reply, the Attorney-General told me that, in the three years since its creation, 334 lawyers have left—304 resigned, seven retired, four were dismissed, 16 were transferred and three died. A total of £619,580 has been spent, until 14 November last year, on an advertising campaign to recruit more staff.

Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)

Can the hon. Gentleman give the exact figure of how many people work for the Crown prosecution service, so that we may know by what percentage it is understaffed?

Mr. Vaz

The service is about 23 per cent. understaffed at the moment, and the total number of posts is about 1,200, but I am sure that when the Attorney-General replies he will give us the correct, up-to-date figures. Those are the rough figures, as I see them.

Does the Attorney-General accept the proposals of the Public Accounts Committee, which would give the Director of Public Prosecutions more freedom to pay competitive rates for CPS lawyers?

Over the past three years more than £40 million has been spent out of the CPS budget on private agency lawyers. Does the Attorney-General know that an agency lawyer working full time for the CPS earns more than a CPS lawyer doing the same work? This afternoon when I spoke to the First Division Association I learnt that about £250 is the cost of an agency lawyer for a day's work in the CPS. That would give that person an income of £150,000 per year. I understand that that is more than the amount paid to any chief Crown prosecutor, except the Director of Public Prosecutions.

How can we justify the expenditure of such an enormous amount from the public sector on private solicitors? Does the Attorney-General accept that the Government are not getting value for money, given the criticisms that have been made about the calibre of the agency lawyers? What steps does the right hon. and learned Gentleman propose to improve that?

Those are important issues, but by far the most important current issue concerning the CPS arises from the evidence to the Select Committee. I found Mr. Allan Green, the Director of Public Prosecutions, a professional, honest and candid witness. In answer to a question from me he made an astonishing statement. He said: The introduction of the service was a bitter pill for some police officers to swallow. Some are not co-operating fully and might indeed be obstructing it in certain respects. These are areas in which we do need, if we are to do our job properly, very much greater effort, co-operation and willingness on the part of the police. I pressed him about who the officers were and their ranks, and asked how senior the officers obstructing the work of the CPS were. Mr. Green replied: It is a very difficult question to answer. I would say that at all ranks in the police force, from top to bottom, there will be certain people who are very much less willing to co-operate than others. His words "from top to bottom" included reference to chief constables and junior officers.

Does the Attorney-General stand by the statement of the Director of Public Prosecutions? Does he agree that there are officers at all ranks who are refusing to co-operate, hindering, or wilfully obstructing the workings of the CPS? How many officers are involved in that action? When did the Law Officers first become aware of that? I know from a conversation that I had with the Solicitor-General on Report of the Children Bill that he was aware of it in October last year. What steps has the Attorney-General taken to refer the matter to his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary? What disciplinary action, if any, has been taken against officers who have been found to be involved in that obstruction?

I now refer to the evidence of the police. The Police Federation maintains that there is a crisis of confidence in the CPS. Its evidence stabs the CPS not only in the back but in the front. The federation has become extraordinarily bitter. It asserts that the reputation of the criminal justice system has suffered as a result of the activities of the CPS. The federation is against almost everything that the CPS has done in the past few years. It challenges the calibre of agency staff, is critical of the plea bargaining system that the CPS has adopted, and attacks CPS lawyers for failing to make applications for compensation after cases. The federation also attacks the CPS for failing to keep witnesses informed and says that the actions of the CPS have damaged the morale of police officers. It challenges the way in which the CPS has taken prosecutions and decisions about the discontinuance of prosecutions.

Does the Attorney-General accept any of the police criticisms that are set out in written evidence? Does he agree with the police that the CPS is in crisis? Has he received any representations from the Home Secretary about the matter? Does he accept the view put forward by the Association of Chief Police Officers that the police should be allowed their own solicitors in order to second-guess the decisions of the CPS? Crucially, does he accept the police statement in paragraph 1 of their evidence, that the CPS has damaged the reputation of the criminal justice system? Does he agree with the Director of Public Prosecutions or with the Police Federation?

In respect of the evidence given last week by Mr. David Owen, the chief constable of north Wales, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman support the view that the evidence given on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers represents Mr. Owen's own views and that he is pursuing a vendetta against the CPS, or does he accept that Mr. Owen's evidence represents the collective views of the association?

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

On occasions I have had the advantage of being instructed by the north Wales CPS, under the leadership of its chief Crown prosecutor, Mr. Clarke, and I found that its Crown court preparation is of the highest possible standard.

Mr. Vaz

I certainly accept that. As I said, I shall join the other members of the Select Committee in north Wales tomorrow. I raised the issue of Mr. Owen because it has been raised with me in the past and was raised in the Committee. It is extremely important for the House to know whether the Attorney-General accepts Mr. Owen's views.

I urge the Attorney-General to act to stop this disgraceful public row, which must be having a profound effect on the public perception of two of three partners in the criminal justice system. I ask him to tell the House the steps that he will take, either on his own or with the Home Secretary, to end the feud.

The public evidence submitted by 23 organisations is a damning indictment of the Crown prosecution service. Everyone who gave evidence, including representatives of the Home Office, was critical to some degree. One of those giving evidence said that the CPS was in a shambles. Perhaps the problem lies in the lack of co-operation between the police and the Crown prosecution service. Those are serious matters that have attracted a great deal of public comment, and I hope that the Attorney-General will give us the assurances that I seek.

There is a view that, because of the enormous damage to its reputation, the Crown prosecution service should be scrapped, refurbished and re-established with a new name, and that it should be given the support that it has never received. I should like to know whether the Attorney-General shares that view.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman because I am anxious to learn whether he is criticising the police or the CPS. His solution to the problem is to change the name and re-establish the service. Does he accept the concept of an independent prosecuting authority—which is what the CPS is? If he accepts that, why will changing the name make the army fight any better?

Mr. Vaz

As is so often the case, the hon. Gentleman missed the beginning of my speech. I am sure that he was delayed elsewhere on parliamentary business. He will therefore not have heard me say that I am a great supporter of an independent prosecution service. I offered the example of the American system and said that we need to get away from the damaging criticism of the CPS. A change of name and a new approach may do much to reassure the public and the elements of the criminal justice system that we wish to begin again.

There is a crisis in the provision of legal aid. I welcome the announcement that the Lord Chancellor made in November of a review of the legal aid system. However, I question why it will take so long for that review to reach a conclusion.

In the past 10 years, 15 million people have lost the right to qualify for legal aid. Many proposals in many reports published over the past decade would, if implemented, directly benefit citizens. They include the same flexible upper limit for civil legal aid as for criminal legal aid so that people of all means will qualify, subject to an appropriate contribution; abolishing the means test in personal injuries cases; and bringing the capital rules for green form advice into line with those for civil legal aid. A single person who has savings of more than £890 is excluded from the scheme, however low his income. Legal aid should be extended to tribunals, particularly the social security commissioners. The commissioners are referred to in the Select Committee's report as a decision-making body, from which, as the Attorney-General knows, the next step is the Court of Appeal.

The Department of Social Security is almost always legally represented in such cases. Only 3,000 cases were decided in 1987—the last year for which figures are available. In written parliamentary answers, the Attorney-General conceded that only about 200 cases led to hearings, which on average take two hours. At current rates, the cost of advocacy would be no more than £20,000. Parliament is legislating for rights that cannot be enforced because citizens cannot pay.

The decline in legal aid and assistance is real and substantial; 8 per cent. fewer people used the green form scheme in 1988–89 than in 1987–88. That is the largest, and only the second ever, drop in the use of the scheme, from 1,077,054 people to 994,066.

There was a 3 per cent. drop in civil legal aid certificates over the same period, whereas previously there had been a steady rise. Fewer and fewer citizens qualify. This year, 56 per cent. of the population are eligible, whereas the figure for 1979 was 79 per cent. Justice is being cash limited; I call it justice capping. Never before has there been such a need for people to be given proper legal advice and assistance. Does the Attorney-General accept that fewer people qualify, and does he think that that is a healthy development?

The duty solicitor scheme is in danger of collapse. Research from Birmingham university, which was published at the end of last year, shows that the safeguards that were built into the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 have not worked. Only 25 per cent. of suspects in police stations seek advice, and fewer receive it. Research shows—and I am sure that the Attorney-General is familiar with it—that 22 ploys are used by the police to discourage requests for advice.

Citizens can obtain advice only if solicitors are willing and able to administer the scheme. Fewer and fewer solicitors are taking part in the service, which places greater strain on those who participate in it. The scheme does not provide adequate compensation for being on duty overnight or at weekends. I should be the last person to argue for a pay rise for solicitors—I have yet to meet a starving solicitor—but the quality of advice that is given must in some way reflect the number of solicitors who are taking part. What is the Attorney-General's solution to the problems of the duty solicitor scheme?

I am deeply concerned about how the contracting-out of legal services will be operated. Franchising may be good enough for McDonald's, but it is not appropriate for justice to be treated as a junk food chain. Will the Attorney-General tell the House what progress and decisions have been made on franchising?

Several hon. Members are present who support the concept of family courts. The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) was a member of the Commitee that considered the Children Bill. He and I tabled a new clause that would have realised a long-standing ambition—the creation of a family court. On Report, the Solicitor-General took the House by surprise by announcing the establishment or existence of what he called "a rolling programme" of the review of family law and administration. On Second Reading of that Bill in another place, the Lord Chancellor tried to placate the supporters of the family courts campaign by saying that the Children Bill allowed for the establishment of a family court in all but name.

If that is so, I cannot understand why the Courts and Legal Services Bill, which is currently being considered in another place, does not go the distance by allowing for the creation of a family court. What worries me is that there does not seem to be a time limit on the rolling programme that was referred to by the Solicitor-General. In addition, its terms of reference have never been properly defined. Government agencies and Departments meet regularly, but Parliament is not kept informed of developments. We want a proper family court—not a series of piecemeal changes, but one comprehensive change that will allow the procedure to be adopted. We were told many times in Committee on the Children Bill that the substantive law has been codified, but it is now time for the court structure to follow. Without a court structure, substantive law will never be properly achieved.

Mr. Devlin

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, but, as he knows, I have a great interest in this matter. Many parliamentary questions were tabled a week ago last Thursday, in answer to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General revealed that a programme of reforms was being worked on by an inter-departmental committee. Unfortunately, it does not appear to have met since last November, and many people will be concerned that the rolling programme does not appear to be rolling very fast. What has the hon. Gentleman to say about that?

Mr. Vaz

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree with everything that he said. He was in the Chamber on the dramatic day when the right hon. Member fo Blaby (Mr. Lawson) resigned, thus turning the Children Bill, which was being debated, into a controversial Bill when previously it had always progressed by consensus. We raised that matter with the Solicitor-General. The right hon. and learned Gentleman uses marvellous adjectives to describe the family court system, and he said that he was sorry that he could not provide the "all-singing and all-dancing" family court that we required. He went on to coin another phrase, the "rolling programme". As the hon. Member for Stockton, South correctly said, despite a number of parliamentary questions having been tabled in a completely unorchestrated way, the response by the Attorney-General was disappointing.

Mr. Devlin

I am sorry to keep interrupting the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is probably thinking that the hon. Gentleman has never specified what he means by a family court. When I moved the new clause in Committee, I was fairly specific about what I particularly wanted. I knew that there was not a consensus and that different people supported different ideas. Will the hon. Gentleman give us a better idea of how he sees the family court? My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General would be interested to hear it and would then be in a better position to respond.

Mr. Vaz

I shall not be tempted down that path and shall not turn the debate into a major debate on family courts. The Attorney-General is well aware of what we mean when we describe the need for a family court. I am sure that he has read at length the extracts from Hansard, including the speech of the hon. Member for Stockton, South. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman replies, he will probably say what all Law Officers have said from the Dispatch Box when this matter has been raised with them—"No". We shall be interested to hear whether that "No" has been tempered in any way, in the ferocity of its delivery.

As I said, the county court system is in need of major surgery. Like so many other parts of the judicial system, it is under-resourced and understaffed. There have been numerous complaints in cases where the inaction of the courts has resulted in a denial of justice. The proposals in the Courts and Legal Services Bill and the Children Act will result in more work being given to the county courts. When those proposals are enacted—the Children Act is not yet in force—it will bring the county court system to a grinding halt, unless there is a huge increase in resources and efficiency.

Those who use the county court system pay for the service. It operated at a notional profit of £6 million in 1988–89. yet the service in many parts of the country is appalling. The issuing of summonses has been delayed and there is a backlog in dealing with correspondence. According to the Law Society, Hastings county court is said to have a one-month backlog in dealing with its post. As at 1 November 1989, Birmingham county court had 8,000 unopened items of mail—the scenario that makes even Lunar house in Croydon look efficient.

I support the establishment of an ombudsman to investigate the complaints of maladministration or an extension of the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. I strongly believe that the public should be compensated when they suffer financial loss because of the state of the county courts. What words of comfort has the Attorney-General to offer them?

In passing, I should like to mention the state of the magistrates courts and the delays and injustices suffered there. Will the Attorney-General bring to the attention of the Home Secretary my worry and that of many others about the delays? In particular, I strongly support the idea of a fixed appointment system in the magistrates and juvenile courts as the best way of organising court business. That will help the system save a great deal of money. It will stop the legal aid fund paying out a great deal of money to solicitors for waiting around in the courts for cases to be called. It will provide a better deal for court users. The key must surely be proper liaison. I hope to see a structure of court user committees established in all local courts that will allow all those who participate in the legal service to be properly represented and to put their views.

I speak as one who has worked in a law centre. There is no better way of providing public legal services in terms of legal advice and assistance to ordinary people than that system. Law centres, citizens advice bureaux, consumer advice centres, rights centres and the like have been established in many cities, but they are always beset by funding crises. Does the Attorney-General agree that they are an essential part of public legal services? If so, when will the Government come up with more funding for them? The case for a centrally funded network of law centres is unanswerable. Why should people be denied access to legal information and advice just because they live in a certain part of the country and their local authority, which is more than likely to be Labour controlled, does not fund a centre?

I commend my local authority, Leicester city council, for the way in which it spends its money so wisely in providing three excellent law centres—the Leicester rights law centre, the self-help neighbourhood project and the Belgrave and Highfields law centre—as well as assisting in the funding of consumer advice centres and citizens advice bureaux. Justice would be denied to thousands of my constituents if anything happened to those important local organisations. Let us have a public commitment from the Attorney-General and let his assurance be simple—that more cash will be forthcoming for those important elements in our legal services.

There are so many other matters that I should like to bring to the attention of the House that, if I were to carry on speaking, I would take up the entire time allocated for private Members' motions. I am sure that other hon. Members wish to contribute, including my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser)—who has a tremendous record on campaigning on these issues—and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris). Unfortunately, time does not permit me to continue much longer. Justice can be made available to all our citizens equally only if the system works. In many respects—the Crown prosecution service, the legal aid system, the duty solicitor scheme, law centres, county courts and magistrates courts—it is not working efficiently or effectively. Parliament must ensure that, in the interests of justice, those problems are resoled with a minimum of delay. If they are not resolved, millions of our citizens will suffer from injustice.

5.28 pm
M. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)

I have listened with interest to the rarefied contribution, if I may call it that, by the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on various matters about which he plainly has thought deeply and has considerable experience. No doubt my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will answer many of the hon. Gentleman's questions.

I ceased practising at the Bar in 1976, before the Crown prosecution service came into being, but that leads me to declare an interest. Although I gain no money from practice at the Bar or from any other form of legal practice, I have had experience of such practice. I have held certain views on the country's legal services for many years. and the hon. Gentleman's motion gives me an ideal opportunity to express them. In doing so, I shall give rather wider consideration than he did to the legal aid services, the duty solicitors scheme, the county courts and the advice centres.

Before I embark on more general themes, however, let me take up what the the hon. Gentleman said about the county courts. For far too many years the legal framework has been diversifying into an excessive number of tribunals and other courts that are not part of the central system—the structure containing the High Court, the county courts, the Supreme Court. So much money and so many staff have had to be found that, sooner rather than later, we shall need another adjudicature Act. That will mean taking a close look at the whole structure of our court system to establish whether matters are now being dealt with in the right courts.

Diversification has gone mad since the Tribunals and Inquiries Act 1958. It was a mistake to diversify too much, rather than concentrating on improving the system as it existed for many years. That system could have incorporated many of the cases now being heard before tribunals that are not part of the main structure—a remedy to which we must address ourselves in future years.

Parliament contains many legal experts, although, surprisingly, not many are present today.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Gedling)

Special pleading.

Mr. Martin

It is not unusual for those who speak in debates of this kind to perform such a function.

The number of lawyers in both Houses of Parliament has always been considered a mixed blessing at best, and a curse at worst. I once read in a history of Parliament that in 1404 a parliament indoctum had been held in Coventry, from which all lawyers were excluded. That is obviously still a popular notion in some quarters, but the habit did not catch on any more than the cry of, "Let us hang all the lawyers" that was heard during the Peasants' Revolt 23 years earlier. Nevertheless, variations on that cry have been heard on many occasions, particularly from unsuccessful litigants or political revolutionaries, exasperated or frustrated by the pace of constitutional change and filled with a fervent desire to advance their own notions of liberty in the teeth of established law, custom or practice and the innate conservatism—with a small "c"—of any civilisation founded on the rule of law.

Mention of innate conservatism leads me to one of my themes, namely, what the present excellent Lord Chancellor is up against in promoting—by means of the Courts and Legal Services Bill—the reforms that are so crucial to the improvement of our legal services for the benefit of the consumer, or customer, who is foolish enough ever to attempt to resolve anything through a lawyer. From the White Paper onwards, my right hon. and noble Friend has been up against special interests that have been marshalled on a huge scale, particularly the existing power structure of the legal profession and the Bench. The judges' case-the Bar's case against some of his more imaginative reforms must be examined on the basis of narrow and special self-interest, rather than that of the public interest that they profess to have so close to their hearts.

The public interest is often paraded as women and children are herded into the van of an army that fears attack and hopes by such means to inhibit and deflect the fire of its opponents. Fortunately, my right hon. and noble Friend has been assisted in his task from the outset by the hysterical virulence of the Bench and Bar opposition not only to proposals that might have been considered to need modification, but to any proposals that appear to pose the slightest threat to the status quo and that past investigations under a different leadership in the House of Lords had not recommended.

Top judges, lesser judges, top barristers and lesser barristers alike, have fallen over themselves in the extravagance of their condemnation. It has been said—or, on many occasions, blustered in outrage—that my right hon. and noble Friend is attacking the independence of the Bar; that through such action he is attacking the independence of the judiciary; and that that in turn mounts an assault on the universal liberties that have been guarded so jealously for centuries by an independent judiciary. Those claims are bunkum, and should be examined far more closely before distinguished people parade them.

The Lord Chancellor is proposing to widen the rights of audience, which has been done many times before, not least in Devon and Cornwall. I have practised on the western circuit, and I know from personal experience what happened in those counties; I have not practised in Wales, but the rights of audience have been widened there, as well as in county and magistrates courts. That has not led to any loss of independence for the Bar, or to so much as a hint of its destruction, even where there is joint audience with solicitors.

The extensions that have already been granted have shown that it must not be assumed that those who possess a right will use it. Like every other hon. Member, I have the right to apply to the Crown to be appointed steward of the Chiltern Hundreds or the Manor of Northstead—and I understand that I would be appointed if I applied. However, I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), who looks extremely concerned at the possiblity of my making such an application, that I leave it to others to apply from time to time.

The same applies to many solicitors, who have rights of audience in the places that I have mentioned but choose not to take them up, preferring to get a barrister in. Every citizen has the right to appear to plead his own cause in every court of law, but few choose to do so. That is another indication that the conferral of a right does not guarantee that that right will be exercised.

With my experience of the Bar and my knowledge of its history, I have no doubt that it will prove strong enough—as it has for centuries—to survive change, not only the changes in rights of audience for general civil or criminal matters but those involving specialist knowledge of commercial, taxation or chancery matters. There will always be a need for good, independent contractors. The fact that some building firms have become very large and have in-house electricians and plumbers does not mean that independent contractors cannot continue to succeed. I see no difference, in principle, between their position and that of the independent barrister advising clients on intricate matters. Surely they have nothing to fear; nor do many express fears. They will survive the moderate reforms that are being proposed.

Mr. Alex Carlile

I do not quarrel with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. However, will he explain how someone living in Devon who has a complicated chancery matter requiring attention and advocacy in the High Court will secure the services of an independent advocate skilled in that area of the law unless someone can advise him who those skilled advocates are? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a danger of people who are not competent to do particular types of work taking on such work?

Mr. Martin

That is a valid point, but the present position is no different. If a member of the public wants advice on a complicated matter, he can visit his local solicitor who may decide that he can deal with it himself and not recommend that counsel should be employed to give better advice. That sort of thing could still happen under the new arrangements. Adequate information must be provided and there should be wide advertising of barristers who have particular skills so that people in Devon can read The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror, the Sun or whatever and see advertisements for the services of competent counsel, based in London if necessary or anywhere else, to whom they can have direct access. That would improve the present position in which solicitors have the discretion as to whether to bring in counsel.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

A few moments ago my hon. Friend said that a solicitor might deem that he had the knowledge. He may deem that, but, as my grandmother used to say, his saying so does not make it so. He may be so conceited to believe that he is competent when he is not.

Mr. Martin

That is right and my hon. Friend has made that point graphically. Some people may believe that they know something, but they do not and often another person should be brought in to advise on the matter. Many complaints have arisen about that. Some solicitors always go to counsel whether or not they believe themselves competent to deal with the case and problems may arise when the client thinks that he has to pay two people when he could have paid only one. I do not believe that those matters will change significantly under the new system. They will certainly not change for the worse for the customer, but some proposals may improve the position.

I have no doubt that the Bar will adjust to the new arrangements. When the fees increase and standards of living are not threatened but improved, no one will admit to my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General or my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General—who will all probably have retired by then—that they were right and that the reforms did not mean the destruction of the Bar. People will not admit that the Bar is actually thriving when they did not think that it would. The Bar will thrive and those who said that that would happen will get no credit for saying so.

An equally substantial charge about the reforms made against my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor was repeated last week at Exeter university by Lord Ackner. The charge is that my right hon. and noble Friend is making it easier to extend executive control and to deprofessionalise the legal profession. The Lord Chancellor is said to be arrogating to himself, through an advisory committee, unacceptable powers not only of widening the categories of those who will be entitled to plead, but of setting out clear codes or standards of education, training and professional conduct.

Constitutionalists, whether they be self-appointed, elected or otherwise, throw up their hands in horror that so powerful a Minister should presume to exercise such awesome power in such a way, assisted and indeed "dominated"—to use Lord Ackner's words last week at Exeter—by people who

do not have expertise in the very profession which it is their function to oversee. In other words, "Intelligent laymen—keep out. You have nothing to offer so far as those very important matters are concerned with regard to standards of education, training and professional conduct of lawyers."

If only those who had expertise were able to make judgments in those matters, very few Ministers would ever be appointed. In some cases, Ministers are appointed to oversee engineering, but they are not engineers. Lay people on both sides of the House must take highly intricate decisions when they are not necessarily qualified to do so. However, in our humility we do not say that we cannot take those decisions; we take them. That is the same with regard to the lay benches. Lay magistrates have no legal training, but they give of their time and use their experience as people of the world. They offer their experience in that highly intricate——

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

They are advised by a competent clerk.

Mr. Martin

Indeed, that is only part of the function of lay magistrates. As lay people, they have an important function in helping in the process of the law. They must take decisions about what happens in the courts while the clerk simply advises. The lay magistrate plays a very important role and I do not see why lay people should not be competent and so be part of the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee, which is to be chaired by a judge. Their common sense could be of great benefit to the profession.

For generations, the office of Lord Chancellor has involved the most extraordinary totalitarian powers. Constitutionalists have commented on those powers on many occasions. The theory of the job is quite horrifying when we consider what powers are concentrated in the Lord Chancellorship.

The Lord Chancellor is the most senior Cabinet Minister. He has precedence even over the Prime Minister. With such Executive power in charge of the system of access to justice in this country, the Lord Chancellor appoints—and people advise him about the appointment of—virtually irremovable judges. The Lord Chancellor decides who will practise as silks, Queen's counsel or senior barristers and he also appoints recorders. He receives advice, although not necessarily only expert advice.

The reason why the Lord Chancellor's powers do not in practice become intolerable or lead to the goosestep in this country is that they have been exercised in the true British fashion of good sense and restraint in the context of the firmly rooted traditions of a free country governed through an open parliamentary democracy.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell

Hear, hear.

Mr. Martin

I note the support that I hear from my hon, Friend. Parliamentary democracy is the main bastion of people's freedoms. In particular, the House of Commons has proved historically the best guardian of liberty. It is a fanciful notion that judges carry out that role in any but the most marginal of ways or that they have ever done so or are ever likely to do so.

The much-vaunted role of judges in administrative law, in protecting the liberties of the subject, is grossly exaggerated. Parliament holds Ministers to account and it makes and changes the laws. The fear of having to face Parliament, and in particular this House, and so preserve a majority in this place, is the real check on ministerial powers and actions; it is not the apparent check claimed by judges. The judges have a role to play, but that should not be exaggerated.

The basis for the complaints made by judges lies in the power structure and influence that they possess at the moment. That applies in the courts, with rights of audience, and to the conduct of barristers and the Bar generally. It also relates to the Bar's promotion prospects. Those factors have an influence on the way in which people are promoted and the advice given to the Lord Chancellor about advocates. Wider influence in the way in which that advocacy is conducted will do nothing but good for the standards of independent advocacy in court.

There are bound to be amendments to the Courts and Legal Services Bill, and they will meet many of the criticisms that have been made. The biggest outrage is being done to my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor by people not considering the proposals in a calm and reasonable manner. The atmosphere has changed because of the damage caused by those who went off at the deep end at the outset. Misrepresenting the proposals as an attack on the constitution and representing judges and barristers as the guardians of liberty, any erosion of whose traditional rights, powers and privilege will lead to the loss of our treasured freedoms, is just not on. In future years, when legal services are operated in the light of the new Act, people will wonder what all the fuss was about.

5.49 pm
Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on his success in the ballot. Legal services, including legal aid and advice, are to citizens' rights what the National Health Service is to their health, yet, in terms of parliamentary time, legal services are the Cinderella of parliamentary debate. The Government have not helped. Despite the importance of the subject, the Government gave Opposition Members no time to discuss the wide-ranging civil justice review. The Government have provided no time to discuss the Lord Chancellor's Green Paper, White Paper, or the reform of the profession. The Government have consulted virtually everybody except hon. Members. To emulate the example of High Court judges, we might have had a little more time if we had taken some industrial action. The House owes my hon. Friend a debt of gratitude for his luck and for his judgment.

The House creates many rights and duties and provides guarantees of liberty and fair play. At one end of the scale it provides for the right of silence—although that is under threat at the moment—and it provides consumer guarantees at the other end of the scale. It provides thousands of rights. However, rights and duties are meaningless unless they are understood and operate in practice with equal force, irrespective of the income, wealth, power or influence of those in whom they are confirmed. The scale of legal services and how they affect people's daily lives is much broader than that which is measured by the time that we have to discuss such matters in the House.

For instance, in the last complete year for which figures are available, more than 600,000 people received legal aid orders for the defence of criminal proceedings—incidentally, a rise of about 250,000 in 10 years, which goes to show how ineffective the Government have been in checking crime. Every year, about 2 million people are prosecuted for offences ranging from the most serious to the most trivial, but all those people have an interest in the efficiency and integrity with which our courts are conducted. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people will be the victims of crime. Their interest are often unvoiced or unheard, but they have an interest in the efficiency of our legal service and, in particular, the prosecution service.

It is said that it is better that 10 guilty men should go free than that one innocent man should be convicted, but it is much better that all guilty men are convicted and all innocent men should go free and that the guilty do not go free simply because of the incompetence or inefficiency of the system. Last year, about 250,000 people received legal aid for civil proceedings. Of course, many more will seek assistance and advice. Millions of people will seek advice in one form or another—for example, advice on housing, social security, immigration and police matters—and millions of people are served by the green form.

Only last week, the Financial Times mentioned the need for advice. We were told that At least 200,000 households—1 per cent. of the national total—are in serious financial trouble because of the increase in the use of credit, according to a working party set up…at the request of Sir Gordon Borrie". The report went on to recommend an extension of advice services.

Hon. Members are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East for raising several issues and giving hon. Members a chance to raise matters concerning legal services.

I did not wish to say anything about the duty solicitor scheme, but I hope that the Attorney-General will discuss with the Home Secretary some improvement in the way in which defendants are advised about the duty solicitor scheme at police stations. There have been reports of the 22 ploys that the police use to rob people of their rights to legal representation. There is great professionalism among custody officers. There has been a massive change since the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. All practising lawyers and academics come across cases in which people have asked for legal representation at a police station but have not received it or have not had their rights properly explained. One suggestion is that the person in custody should be required to make a positive statement that he does not require help from his own solicitor or from the duty solicitor, rather than ticking a box, which is what occurs at the moment.

I do not intend to politicise every issue. There are some issues upon which the Opposition will probably support the Lord Chancellor more strongly than we support the Attorney-General. We shall not turn it into a partisan debate. However, I shall say something about the competence, efficiency, effectiveness and coverage of some of our legal services, such as the prosecution service and legal aid, and then refer to some ways in which the Labour party sees the development of legal services, advice and representation at their broadest. I shall refer first to competence, coverage, efficiency and effectiveness and some of the matters for which the Attorney-General is responsible.

We welcome the Lord Chancellor's extension of legal aid for the elderly and for children, the extension of legal aid to some personal injury cases, and the disaggregation of some assets and income. We welcome the Government's long overdue admission—they have told us previously that the figures could not be collected—that only 56 per cent. of the population were eligible for legal aid before the recent changes were made. Although we welcome those changes, they do not go nearly far enough. The loss of legal aid eligibility is a massive blemish on any Government's duty to make civil and legal rights a reality.

In 10 years, the number of people eligible for legal aid has fallen by about 14 million individuals and 5.5 million households. It is almost as though we had said to 14 million people, "You no longer have access to a National Health Service hospital." That is a correct analogy. In the past two years alone, 1 million households and 2.5 million people have ceased to be eligible for legal aid. The reason is that the increases in the limits for legal aid—the allowances that enable people to qualify for legal aid and assistance—have increased far more slowly than either the increase in the retail prices index or the increase in earnings. Taking 1979 as the base year, and giving each of the figures an index of 100 for 1979, we find that the increases in the allowances for a single person to qualify for legal aid have gone up by only 48 per cent., and the increases in allowances for a couple with two children to qualify for legal aid have gone up by 53 per cent. In contrast, since 1979 the retail prices index has gone up by 93 per cent., and average earnings have gone up by 134 per cent.

That is the plain reason why, during the past decade, the effect of successive reviews of legal aid eligibility limits has been to take more and more people out of eligibility. That is effectively to destroy the civil rights of millions of people who might want to claim damages for personal injury, apply for custody of children, or conduct property disputes. We simply cannot divorce civil rights for legal aid from effective enforcement and the provision of legal aid for those who are in need of advice and assistance.

Research by the London School of Economics and the department of statistical mathematical sciences has shown that the figures that were disputed by Cyril Glasser, which we quoted extensively during the passage of the Legal Aid Bill, were correct. We asked the Attorney-General and the Lord Chancellor to cease to deny the effects of the legal aid income limit and capital limit policies and, in addition to the cases that were recently dealt with by the Lord Chancellor, to restore eligibility to 1979 limits.

It is interesting that, although the number of civil legal aid certificates has remained relatively static over the past 10 years, the number of criminal legal aid orders has just about doubled, increasing from about 300,000 in 1979 to 600,000 in 1989. Of course, people who are accused of criminal offences must have representation and a fair trial. Indeed, they cannot have a fair trial without representation. However, those who have not even been accused of a criminal offence have equal rights to representation. What is even worse about the way in which we have whittled away eligibility for legal aid is that civil legal aid costs very little and, because there is a sieve, many of the cases are successful. Many cases involve the recovery of damages and of costs. Therefore, the burden of providing civil legal aid and of extending the limits is minor, compared with the expense of criminal legal aid work. In the light of the most recent research, I ask the Attorney-General seriously to consider restoring eligibility to the 1979 level of about 80 per cent. of the population.

Apart from eligibility, there are further problems with legal aid relating to the quality and choice of representation and to the efficiency and the quality of the legal system. I know that it is intended that the Legal Aid Board and the recent changes should improve efficiency, but it is an outrage that in 1988—the last year for which complete figures are available—in south London, part of which area I represent, the average waiting time for a legal aid application to be approved was eight months. Even now, it is not unusual for the granting of a legal aid certificate to take six months. That is not good enough.

The time taken to administer the legal aid system once a case is successful is also indefensible. I am sure that, like me, other hon. Members have often come across cases in which somebody has been successful in a claim—it might have been settled or it might have been the result of going to court—and damages have been awarded, but because of the operation of the statutory charge and sometimes because of the inefficiency of legal aid committees it is months, and sometimes almost a year, between the time that the damages were received and the time that they reach the assisted person. That cannot be right.

There is another thing wrong with the system—or where there is a great danger of something being quite wrong with the system. I refer to the choice and the quality of representation. There is a great danger that legally aided people will soon be offered a lower quality of representation simply because the rates of pay for legal aid lawyers are getting further and further behind the comparative rates of payment for those in privately funded work. Research has already shown that lawyers are tending to leave legal aid work in their 30s. As soon as lawyers become experienced, they are moving from legal aid work to more remunerative work. Other research has shown that about 40 per cent. of solicitors had given up, or were seriously considering giving up, their criminal legal aid work.

The gulf between the payment of legal aid work for lawyers and the payment of non-legal aid work is growing wider. Last year the pay settlement for those doing legal aid work was about 6 per cent. This year, rumour has it that the Goverment—no doubt for reasons connected with the ambulance workers and other considerations—have suggested a 6.5 per cent. increase in remumeration for legal aid work, which is much the same as the amount offered to other public employees. As a consequence fewer and fewer well-qualified solicitors or counsel will want to—or be able to afford to—do legal aid work. It is not a question of people being greedy because there comes a point in the running of a legal aid practice at which it is no longer possible to continue with legal aid work because it will be loss-making.

As I have said, it is not a question of the greed of those who are operating on behalf of legally assisted persons; it is the sheer necessity of life. If the payment for the work that is done is not sufficient to reward the service or to pay the rent, rates and all the other costs that are involved in running a legal aid practice, there is a great danger that the rates of reward will turn legal aid work into a second-class business and then it is only a matter of time before the quality of representation also becomes second class.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East referred to law centres. We ask the Government for a clear statement that funds will be made available to save the law centres that are currently supported or that were supported by the Lord Chancellor's Department and where the responsibility has been transferred to the Legal Aid Board. Law centres do an immense amount of good work and we in the Labour party should like to see them supported nationally, by a partnership with local authorities. The very least that the Goverment should do is to meet the case of the law centres and to continue the funding of those that are now supported from central funds. If they do not, at least two or three centres are bound to close because the necessary funds cannot be found elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East rightly devoted much of his speech to dealing with the Crown prosecution service. The Opposition are not satisfied with the efficiency and effectiveness of the Crown prosecution service. I do not say that with any joy or pleasure because we have always supported the concept of the CPS and of an independence of judgment about whether a prosecution should be brought. We do not share the sour grapes that have been expressed in some quarters about the CPS. I know that there is a degree of jealousy and sourness about the very fact that the CPS was set up. Although we have always welcomed and supported the service, that will not prevent us from lodging criticisms if we believe them to be justified. We do not want the CPS to have a monopoly of prosecutions. It is extremely important that lawyers, and especially those who are likely to become judges, have experience of both prosecution and defence. Once they have learned to walk, there is a real case for them having the chance to do a bit of running—as members of the CPS in the Crown courts. However, perhaps we can discuss that at greater length when the Courts and Legal Services Bill comes before this House. Having said that about our support of the CPS, we are entitled to an explanation of why millions of pounds have been thrown away on cases that have not even been put before a jury for decision. I can think of about four or five cases that have failed before the courts. If we were to take the cost of those four or five abortive cases and transferred that money to the Legal Aid Board, it would be enough to keep the law centres going for another year or so.

The public want convictions of the guilty and the effective prosecution of criminals because that is one of the best forms of deterrence. I am sure that other hon. Members share my experience of being contacted by victims or the families of victims because they are aghast and infuriated by the way in which some cases are conducted. I shall give four examples from my personal experience and wish to put on the record the fact that the Attorney-General has treated one of these cases most sympathetically. People have come to me about examples in which there appears to be a strong case of causing death by dangerous driving and without any consultation the charge has been reduced to one of careless driving, to the immense fury of those who have lost a loved one. That is just one example, and, although that is the case that I have raised with the Attorney-General, other such cases have been raised with me.

A second example is that people have often come to me because they are infuriated that bail has been granted to a defendant who has been guilty of the most violent assault and who has threatened future assaults against the victim, and when there has been no degree of discussion between the prosecution and the victim about the bail conditions that should be suggested to the court.

I have looked at the evidence in a murder case, which was provided to me by the family involved, in which I believe that the family had every reason to question the way in which the evidence was collected, preserved and presented. I have spoken to junior members of the Crown prosecution service, who have complained about the burden of their work and about having, at a junior level, to conduct murder cases.

Turning now to the Kevin Taylor case, I do not question the innocence of those who were acquitted because a Crown case was drawn. I do not question for one moment the innocence of Mr. Kevin Taylor, who was acquitted by the court. It does not seem proper that a case should proceed to trial and be dropped when, according to newspaper reports, about £1 million had been spent on its preparation. If a case is to be dropped, surely it should be dropped well before it comes to trial.

In another recent case, that of the Crown v. Coren and Greenwood, allegations were made that information had been obtained from the Office of Fair Trading, including information about takeovers. That case involved not simply the guilt or innocence of those standing in the dock but the integrity of public administration and of a public institution. We are told in the newspapers that in that case about £750,000 had been spent and the case was dropped almost at the beginning of the trial.

It is sad to see headlines such as the one in The Sunday Times which said: Prosecution service failing miserably. The Attorney-General must learn the lessons of recent well-publicised cases and others and of the expensive farce of trials which are abandoned at a relatively late stage because the prosecution was inadequate.

I am told by the National Audit Office that about two thirds of all cases which fail are dropped on the first court hearing. I hope that the Attorney-General will recognise that we support the CPS. We want to see it well rewarded. We want a proper career structure for those who join it and proper rates of remuneration. We support the service, but the Attorney-General must respond to criticisms of the standard and performance of the CPS and the amount of resources put behind it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East spent some time on discussing the efficiency of county courts. I remind the Attorney-General of the grave misgivings of those who practise in the county courts about the efficiency of the system. We should expect first-class efficiency from our judical system as a matter of course, especially if jurisdiction is to be transferred to county courts from the High Court, as recommended in the Courts and Legal Services Bill. If that is to be the case, we must be assured that the game will be conducted on a pitch which is fit to play on.

I talked recently in private to a county court judge who told me that in his court it took about two months to reply to a letter. That is simply not good enough. In other courts, it takes weeks or months to issue a summons or county court petition. In some courts there is well-documented evidence from practitioners that, when the postal budget runs out, the court does not send out replies to letters or summonses until the next month's budget is available.

If business is to be transferred to the county courts, we must have continuous trial centres. It is not good enough for a trial on a major issue in a county court to begin one day, be put off for three weeks and then be put off for another six weeks.

Whether there is a transfer of business or not, it is important that the county courts work efficiently and use their surplus fee income for the improvement of the service rather than showing a profit which is put into the Treasury. Litigants pay for a service in their fees, so if there is a surplus of fees let it go to improve the service, not to provide money for public expenditure.

I turn lastly to developments which the Labour party intends to bring about in the legal services and the legal system. I have already mentioned some changes in my remarks. The Opposition's principle is that real equality under the law is possible only if people have the ability to enforce their rights. I always refer to the quotation of Anatole France adopted by the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers: The law in its majestic equality forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread. That sums up the notion that freedom of equality under the law does not always meet reality. In the words of the Labour party policy review: Real equality under the law only exists in a society which provides equal access to the law and equal treatment before the courts. Neither is provided under our present legal system. There can be no equality of representation when there are gross social and economic discrepancies.

Advice and representation must never be limited by inability to pay. That is why we say that coverage of legal aid advice must be restored and extended to representation before coroners' courts, tribunals such as the immigration and social security appeal tribunals and the Appeal Court. I use the word "representation" in a wide sense for a particular reason. In some cases the services of a consumer adviser, or a specialist such as a refugee worker, immigration counsellor or non-lawyer who specialise in social security, will be just as appropriate and sometimes more appropriate than the services of a solicitor or barrister. It is important that the lay person should be able to obtain trained, professional, objective and adequate representation which is relevant to the case.

Equality under the law is not simply about individual rights. Whether in a court or tribunal, it is about organising, informing and representing consumers, either individually or collectively. Representing and advocating consumers' rights should not be limited to members of the legal profession. I do not exclude the legal profession for one moment. Often it can represent people in cases of consumer rights, patient rights, equal opportunities, tenants' rights and rights of the small business man in partnership with other representatives.

I pay tribute to my local law centre, which has done a great deal for a group of people who own small businesses in the Brixton area. People found themselves assailed by large financial institutions who, for example, want to take away their security of tenure as a tenant and substitute a licence. To reflect the breadth of provision in the legal aid system the Labour party would extend the scope of the Legal Aid Board to that of a legal services commission. Furthermore, we would provide equality of access to the professions. I know that there have been improvements, but in my experience it is particularly difficult for someone to be called to the Bar and to succeed if he or she is from a working class background. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] There is a problem in being called to the Bar. People from a working class background who go into the solicitors' profession are guaranteed an income almost as soon as they qualify, but that is not so with the Bar. That is not a reflection on the Bar or an attack on it, but we must recognise that there is a problem. If one is from a family with a low income, it is difficult to support oneself during the initial period. We should encourage such people to go into the professions.

The composition of the professions should represent and reflect the composition of the population that they advise and represent in court. The same is true of the composition of the judiciary and magistracy. I use the word "Bench" to cover both. Like the professions, the Bench must be more representative of the community that it serves and show greater social awareness. There have been well-publicised cases of judges who do not seem to understand the social conditions of those who appear before them. A joke is sometimes made about a judge who is reputed to have put an alcoholic on probation. He asked him to promise that he would never drink again, not even a small sip of sherry before dinner. The judiciary and the Bench do not reflect the population that they represent. That causes difficulties.

Our system of selecting, training and promoting magistrates and judges remains mysterious, secretive and unaccountable and reeks of patronage. It should be neither the duty nor the privilege of a political Cabinet Minister to appoint members of the Bench. A Labour Government would create an independent judicial appointments commission, free from political control and better equipped to appoint those who sit in judgment on fellow citizens. We shall have a department for the administration of legal affairs, directly accountable through a Minister to the House of Commons and responsible for legal aid, courts, tribunals and their procedures, the judicial commission and the whole range of advice and representation. Such a department would be charged with putting the needs of users and consumers first. We want an efficient, user-friendly, legal system, not one which is full of mystery and lacks accountability.

I know that this is only a personal view, but I find the courts intimidating. The judge is dressed in the clothes of another century—[ Laughter.] I am simply remarking on the intimidatory appearance of those who wear wigs, Mr. Speaker. It was no reflection on the Chair. Our courts are intimidating. Even the construction of the dais is intended to rick the necks of those who sit in the well of the court having to look at the judge. We must construct a less intimidating, more friendly, legal system.

The Labour party does not want a legal system which is narrowly bounded by the organisation of the Bar, solicitors and the formal court framework. We interpret the need to provide legal services widely as a need for a network of advice, representation and assistance to uphold citizens' rights. The Government and local authorities jointly have a duty to provide such services through advice centres, law centres and a variety of institutions which supplement and provide access, as well as through the traditional legal professions.

There is no point is giving people rights or imposing duties on others unless the way in which we provide legal aid and advice and organise the professions turns rights and duties into realities. That is the policy that the Labour party will pursue when it is elected to office.

6.21 pm
The Attorney-General (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on his good fortune in the ballot and on his discrimination in making use of that opportunity to bring so many important topics before the House.

As I read the motion, I found myself wishing that the hon. Gentleman would cheer up a little. As I read through the catalogue of disasters that he perceived I was reminded of a song of my youth in which the author recalls the lurid and various physical misfortunes that befall what nowadays is called his extended family. The hon. Gentleman looks at the family of legal services and sees nothing but feuding, crises of confidence and a serious state of collapse, a sort of super-collapse. It is not like that out of doors and I hope to take some time to justify that assertion.

The hon. Gentleman asked many questions. He had the courtesy to send me a fax this afternoon which set out some of them. It was not particularly legible, more because of the handwriting than because of the technology. The hon. Gentleman asked many questions during his interesting speech and I shall endeavour to deal with many of them. I cannot deal with all of them. If I did, I could not make some of the points that I have prepared. Consequently, what I have to say will be more disjointed than I should like, although perhaps not more disjointed than usual.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I agreed that there was a serious crisis affecting the Crown prosecution service. The answer is no. I acknowledge readily the handicaps which have always afflicted it and which continue to do so, but they are diminishing. In the words of the Director of Public Prosecutions in his recent evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the service is "making progress" towards its objectives. There is no crisis. Nor do I consider there to be feuding with the police or anything like it and I shall take more time on that shortly.

It follows that my answer to the hon. Gentleman's question whether I agree that the Crown prosecution service should be scrapped and started again is a resounding no. I do not agree that it has damaged the criminal justice system. Quite the reverse. There are many complimentary observations to be found in some of the representations made to the Select Committee and many more that come to me from magistrates, judges and others to the effect that great advantage has stemmed from the institution of the service.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) strongly support the principle of separating the prosecution decisions from those of the investigation of criminal offences and initial charging. That is common ground between us. So far as I know, nobody who made representations of a formal nature to the Select Committee has questioned the desirability and propriety of that principle.

We must ensure that a new service, whose inception constituted a major revolution in the conduct of our affairs, settles down and is given the resources to enable it to do its job. I agree with those who say that the service started too soon, in the sense that the time scale imposed on the Government by the abolition of the metropolitan county councils did not permit sufficient time for a smooth transition. One should acknowledge that it did not permit sufficient time for the examination of every possibility that might have to be faced. Accordingly, it has been common ground among those who have studied these matters, not least those who represent the Government, that the service suffered in its inception because of the time scale imposed on it.

It is also fair to mention that the new Crown prosecution service had the misfortune to come into being at a time of rapidly increasing growth in the demand for the services of lawyers. It was a time when the rewards of the private sector rose dramatically, as though it were caught in some thermal current. That made it imperative that the conditions of service, particularly of salary, offered by the Crown prosecution service should be so attractive as to be able to compete at least reasonably effectively with the private sector.

Everybody agrees that it will never be possible for those in the public service to be rewarded on the scale commensurate with the highest rewards available in the private sector. There are compensating advantages in working for the Crown. Nevertheless, there comes a time when the disparity between the two levels of salary becomes so great that we fail to retain people of experience and to recruit people of sufficient quality. That assessment is not a science; it is an art, in which one gets better with greater experience.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leicester, East for what he said about the evidence of the Director of Public Prosecutions to the Select Committee. One would not have expected anybody of the quality of Mr. Allan Green to display anything except complete professional honesty and candour, to use the hon. Gentleman's expression. It was notable from Mr. Green's evidence that he made no bones about the existence of those handicaps that I have endeavoured to describe.

The hon. Gentleman did not do justice to the optimistic cast of the DPP's evidence, particularly his insistence that real progress is being made.

Mr. Vaz


The Attorney-General

I have many questions to answer, and the hon. Gentleman spoke for quite a long time. However, I shall give way.

Mr. Vaz

I am most grateful to the Attorney-General.

On the question of DPP evidence, I accept that the Attorney-General thinks that there is no crisis of confidence. By saying that, in his view, the Crown prosecution service has not damaged the reputation of the criminal justice system he rejects the premise put forward in the police evidence. Does the Attorney-General stand by the DPP's statement that at all ranks in the police service there are officers who fail to co-operate fully with the Crown prosecution service?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman must not be mischievous. He knows perfectly well that I have a statutory relationship with the Director of Public Prosecutions—a relationship of superintendence. The director gave full evidence about the need for co-operation between the police service and the Crown prosecution service. As the professional head of the Crown prosecution service, he gave it as his view that in some areas there was less co-operation than was desirable. It is not right, especially in advance of my own evidence to the Select Committee, to ask me the kind of questions that the hon. Gentleman has been asking. I shall say only that the director, as professional head of the Crown prosecution service, is an independent public official in whose qualities—including the integrity, percipience and thoroughness of grasp that I think the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge the director has demonstrated—I have the highest confidence. Beyond that, I will not permit the hon. Gentleman to drive a wedge between myself and the police service, between myself and the Director of Public Prosecutions, or between myself and anybody else. I have come to the House to answer questions and to set forth what the Government are doing as regards the Crown prosecution service and the other legal services to which the motion refers.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his tribute to the Crown prosecution service and its staff—in particular, the staff in his own area of Leicestershire. There is much about which to be optimistic. Great progress has been made. I shall itemise some of the principal matters briefly, as other hon. Members wish to speak. Everyone knows that the service has had difficulty in recruiting enough lawyers. The director has therefore, with my full support, pursued a number of initiatives aimed at making the service more attractive to lawyers. In the last year there have been substantial improvements in pay at all grades, but in particular at Crown prosecutor and senior Crown prosecutor grades. Here the increases in the minimum and maximum salary have been 27.5 and 41 per cent. respectively—in London, 43 and 61 per cent. respectively. Those percentages relate to the initial salaries in 1986, but there were major increases during the last 12 months.

Salaries have been increased substantially all the way up the relevant scales. Senior Crown prosecutors can now earn salaries that, in some parts of the country, have led to the recruitment of equity partners from firms of solicitors in private practice. I am glad to say that there has been a vigorous and very effective recruitment advertising campaign. I dare say that hon. Members will be aware of it. The CPS is now sponsoring members of its own staff as law school students so that they may qualify as solicitors or barristers, and for all newly qualified lawyers the service now has in place a scheme by which either articles or Bar pupillage may he taken within the CPS. I take up what the hon. Member for Norwood said about earnings at the early stages of a career at the Bar, as opposed to the early stages of a career as a solicitor. Under the scheme, trainee lawyers, from the moment they undertake articles or Bar pupillage, will be paid a competitive salary—in round figures, between £9,000 and £13,000.

The CPS has already begun to benefit from this scheme, which is very much an investment for the future. The scheme should shortly begin to provide a reliable supply of thoroughly trained and well-motivated Crown prosecutors. So, there is no crisis here—and, if I may say so, I am in quite a good position to make that assertion. I see the Director of Public Prosecutions regularly and frequently to discuss the affairs of the CPS. I also see his senior staff at headquarters, and I travel the country. I have visited the service's offices up and down the country. I have been to most of its 31 areas—in some cases more than once—and my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has probably been to each of the rest. On such occasions I listen to the Crown prosecutors and to their support staff, to magistrates and judges, to the police, and to everybody else assembled, including, sometimes, local journalists.

The motion speaks of continued feuding between the CPS and the police—feuding that has given rise to a "crisis of confidence" between them. That is unreal. In addition, it does great injustice to two services that the motion describes as—here I agree with it; it is only seven words out of 80, but that is something— essential parts of the criminal justice system". All human institutions are mortal and, therefore, liable to human frailties, as even the House occasionally recognises. From time to time, at local level, even in public institutions, there may be a disagreement or a muddle or a failure to do what should be done. Regrettably, this may lead to recriminations and, sometimes, to a public squabble if it gets into the courts. I do not contend that in the three years that have elapsed since the inception of the CPS this kind of thing has never happened in the relationship between the service and the police. I dare say that on occasions it has, but I hope and believe that these occasions have been rare. When they have occurred, no doubt the CPS has sometimes been at fault, and sometimes the police.

Equally, I think it quite likely that in some quarters within the police service there remains some lack of enthusiasm for the concept of a separate prosecution service. I think that that has become pretty rare, but I dare say that it still exists. When one considers the nature of the legislation that this Conservative Government introduced to give effect to the real principle of the report of the Philips Royal Commission—the separation of prosecution decisions from police functions—it is hardly surprising that, sometimes at any rate, there has been some resentment.

Mr. Vaz

The Attorney-General is being uncharacteristically unkind to me. The word "crisis" came not from me but from the chairman of the Police Federation in his evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs last week. It is the police, not I, who, in the very first paragraph of their evidence to the Select Committee, said that the operation of the Crown prosecution service has damaged the reputation of the criminal justice system. Is the Attorney-General saying that he rejects the police argument that the system is in crisis?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman is again indulging his penchant for mischief. I do not answer for the evidence of the chief constable who signed the report that was submitted to the Select Committee on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers. It will be for the Select Committee to evaluate that evidence when it has heard all the evidence given to it and has considered its report. I am entitled to say that I have never received from any chief constable individually—nor, I believe, has the Director of Public Prosecutions—any evidence couched in those terms. That description contrasts vividly with the opinions expressed publicly by the immediate past chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers. I shall say nothing further on that score.

There have been occasions, as the Director of Public Prosecutions has admitted, when points of irritation have arisen. They turn on such matters as the failure to warn witnesses—that was the function of the police—or perhaps upon the failure to submit witness statements in typescript rather than in manuscript. If they are in manuscript they take three times as long to read and that has an effect on efficiency. I do not doubt that, from time to time, other matters have been the cause of friction between the newly created service and the police service, for which I have a high regard. Those matters are taken up at local liaison committee level and at senior, national liaison committee level.

Recently the Director of Public Prosecutions established an interdepartmental working group to take hold of such remaining points of irritation and friction as there are to see whether they can be argued out and resolved between the police, the CPS and all the other agencies involved. I am confident that the result will be fruitful.

The hon. Member for Norwood drew attention to a number of cases where people have been cross at the outcome of a trial, the withdrawal of a prosecution, the reduction of a charge and so on. Good news gets crowded out, but bad news makes headlines. There is a common perception that the CPS undercharges, contrary to correct police recommendations to charge for a more serious offence. I cannot claim that that has never happened as I cannot know, but I suggest that there are occasions when the reverse occurs. However, we read nothing of them, or, if we do, they are not remembered. I shall give relevant examples of such cases, which I drew from my visit to Greater Manchester last week.

Three of those examples concern police recommendations for careless driving charges to be brought. I hope that the hon. Member for Leicester, East will listen, as this is important. I note that he appears to be otherwise engaged, no doubt signing an early-day motion on another matter. I should be grateful if I could just have his attention on this matter.

While the hon. Gentleman was otherwise engaged I referred to police recommendations, made in three separate cases, that a charge for careless driving should be brought. In each of those cases the CPS prosecuted for causing death by reckless driving. Convictions resulted in each of those cases and prison sentences were imposed in two of them. The fourth instance to which I want to refer occurred within the past two years and represents an even more stark instance of the CPS going for a more serious charge. In that case the police recommended that no action should be taken, but the CPS brought a charge for murder and a conviction for murder resulted.

I do not claim for one moment that those instances are representative, because, in the vast majority of cases, there is no difference between the opinion of the police and the CPS over which charge should be brought. In the light of the criticism that one reads of the CPS undercharging, I mention them because I believe that they deserve to be known and because I believe that the CPS deserves to have them known. We do not read about such cases.

The other day the Director of Public Prosecutions said that 5 million cases had been prosecuted by the CPS in the past three years and yet in the nature of things we read only about that minuscule fraction in which something is thought to have gone wrong. When it has gone wrong we are seldom able to learn whose fault it really was.

The hon. Member for Norwood referred to the prosecution of Kevin Taylor and said that if we decide to drop a case we should do so before £1 million has been spent. The hon. Gentleman was not referring to the merits of that case and neither am I, but I am entitled to refer to the public fact that the Director of Public Prosecutions has requested the chief constable of Greater Manchester to consider whether a police inquiry should be set up into certain aspects of the police evidence given in that case.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to an Office of Fair Trading case, but in fact it was brought by the Department of Trade and Industry. That case related to insider dealing and the prosecution was withdrawn. The hon. Gentleman quoted that case as an instance of failure on the part of the CPS, but it was a DTI prosecution and, as it happens, that prosecution was withdrawn by reason of judicial ruling on public interest immunity that rendered further proceedings impossible.

Mr. Fraser

I must point out that I used the collective phrase "prosecution service". Is the Attorney-General saying that in the Coren and Greenwood case the same Secretary of State who initiated the prosecution then decided to give Crown immunity to some of the evidence?

The Attorney-General

No. In cases of that kind the Secretary of State is the prosecuting authority. The question of public interest immunity arose—there is a duty to claim such immunity, which cannot be waived. A judicial ruling on the scope of public interest immunity led to the result I have described.

A valid example of the performance of the CPS is the percentage of cases brought by the CPS that are dismissed in the magistrates court. In relation to the total number of defendants whose cases are finalised, the figure is 1.7 per cent. The number of acquittals in the Crown court in relation to the total number of defendants whose cases are finalised is 11.52 per cent. Taken together, the number of CPS cases acquitted or dismissed at the magistrates and Crown courts is equivalent to 2.44 per cent.

I ask the House to accept from me that talk of a feud between the CPS and the police and of a crisis in the affairs of the CPS is sensationalist and alarmist nonsense. I pay warm and grateful tribute to the way in which so many of the police, at all levels, have adapted to what was a revolutionary change. Equally I pay warm and grateful tribute to the dedicated and scrupulously independent staff of the CPS under the exemplary leadership of Mr. Allan Green QC.

The motion tabled by the hon. Member for Leicester, East goes on to deal with legal aid, the duty solicitor scheme, law centres and family courts. I am afraid I must deal with them briefly.

As to legal aid, my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has set in hand a review that promises the biggest revision of legal aid since it was set up 45 years ago. That is in line with the reforming pattern of my noble and learned Friend's tenure of the Woolsack, which is without rival. The hon. Gentleman asked why that review is taking so long, but it is an extremely sensitive review that extends over civil, criminal and matrimonial legal aid. As and when matters are identified that need immediate treatment, steps will be taken to secure that that treatment is effected. That is a proper and sensible way to go about it.

The hon. Gentleman goes on about the numbers of people who are now eligible. It does not matter how many people are eligible when we do not know what proportion of the population is likely to engage in what type of litigation. What matters is that, based on sensible research, we know people's needs in relation to a particular type of litigation. That is being undertaken by the Legal Aid Board and our review.

The duty solicitor scheme came into being as part of the reforms—again introduced by a Conservative Government—connected with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. In 1987, the Lord Chancellor commissioned research into advice and assistance at police stations, and the operation of the 24-hour duty solicitor scheme because he wanted to review the existing procedures. He wanted advice about whether changes were necessary or desirable. The report was published in November. It highlights the number of sectors requiring further consideration, in particular the role of the police and the quality of advice given by solicitors. The Legal Aid Board, which administers the scheme, recently issued its own consultation paper. The board will report to the Lord Chancellor this spring, taking account of the matters raised in the Lord Chancellor's research.

These developments are all of a pattern with the programme of improvement in the quality of legal services generally. It is a pattern of vigorous inquiry, analysis and action. It extends to franchising, which is being vigorously examined to discover whether it may lead to greater efficiency.

Immense changes have taken place in the county courts. They are dealing with more cases and, in many instances, more efficiently than before. There are shortages of staff, but the Lord Chancellor has secured another £70 million in resources for the forthcoming financial year, another 350 staff will be recruited, and another 100 in connection with the ongoing implementation of the civil justice review.

Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will cheer up. I have good reason to——

Mr. Vaz


The Attorney-General

I shall not give way because time is getting on.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will cheer up because, although I have good reason to know of the difficulties in the county courts, there are major pluses to be recorded in their performance, and the prospects for next year are encouraging.

Law centres generally perform a valuable service. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Legal Aid Board has taken over responsibility for the seven legal aid centres that were previously funded by the Lord Chancellor's Department. Their future will be reviewed.

Family courts have a great deal of support. However, there has always been a good deal less particularity about what they actually do. Before setting up what is called a family court, it is essential to have reformed the law relating to family matters so that the law is uniform and coherent—it certainly is not at present. The Government get a considerable amount of criticism for not having introduced the family court, but we are well on the way to developing a family court.

The Children Act 1989 will be implemented progressively over the next two years. That brought together the law relating to children in an admirable way. It has attracted general admiration, but we are a long way yet from that uniform system of law relating to the family that is the essential pre-condition of a family court.

We are asked when our rolling programme will be completed. It is difficult to set a date for that when it partly depends on reports from the Law Commission that have yet to be delivered. The Law Commission is considering the law of divorce, and will report on it. We do not know when we shall get that report, but it will be extremely influential.

What I have to say about family law has been said in previous debates in the House on the Children Act. There is everything to be said for bringing the law together, making it uniform, coherent and thoroughly up to date. However, that must be done before we set up anything approaching a family court. I hope that that day will come and I think that those who share my view have good reason to be expectant. I urge the hon. Gentleman to take heart, and reflect that hopes are being fulfilled and progress is being made.

In whatever part of the legal services touched on by this thoroughly depressing and depressed motion there is a record of research, review and reform unrivalled by any Government over 50 years. The subject was left untouched by successive Labour Governments in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Not everything can be made to fall neatly into place at once. To recognise that and proceed step by step is part of the art and responsibility of government. Conversely, to demand the impossible by yesterday is part of the art and irresponsibility of opposition, so charmingly and classically evinced in the speech of the hon. Member for Leicester, East.

6.56 pm
Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

I shall start what is bound to be a short contribution by declaring my interest as a practising barrister, a recorder and secretary of the all-party barristers group.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell

I am extremely grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. Does he share with me a sadness that only members of the legal profession have been called in this excellent debate? I was hoping to appear on behalf of the consumer.

Mr. Carlisle

The hon. Gentleman took twice as long as I had agreed he could take, and I have no comment to make on his contribution.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on initiating the debate and I shall make just two points. First, I agree with almost everything said by the Attorney-General about the Crown prosecution service. Public confidence in that service has been undermined. I can say that, but the Attorney-General cannot, even if he believes it. Public confidence has been quite deliberately undermined in some minority and restricted quarters of the police service. I hope that the police service will co-operate far more with the Crown prosecution service in future. The important thing about the CPS is that it is independent—and that means independent of the police as well as everyone else.

The way in which I regard the Crown prosecution service and make my assessment of it is by comparing it with what went on before. It seems that, despite considerable teething troubles, the Crown prosecution service has combined the best of the old county prosecuting solicitor services—some of which were extremely good—with an avoidance of the worst services in a system in which private solicitors, some of whom were very good and some very bad at prosecuting, conducted prosecutions.

Salaries at the bottom of the professional grades of the CPS are still too low, particularly in London. In a medium-sized west end firm, a newly qualified and admitted solicitor commands a salary of £23,000 or £24,000 a year. I hope that in order to achieve the necessary quality for dealing with what is often difficult work in London, the Attorney-General will try to ensure that salaries that are at least broadly competitive with not the highest new solicitor's salaries, but the medium range in central London, are available to young solicitors.

The hon. Member for Leicester, East mentioned plea bargaining in a way that suggested it was wrong. I have never been able to understand why there is so much criticism of plea bargaining, which goes on now and has always gone on. If it did not take place the criminal courts of this country would grind to a halt. I ask the Government to recognise that plea bargaining takes place and to encourage a much more open system for it.

We must all confess to having been involved in plea bargains in the past, so why cannot we do it in open court? It shortens cases and benefits the criminal justice system. There would be much less complaint about plea bargaining if it were done openly and above board. Not juries—if there is a jury trial—but the public at large could then see that plea bargaining plays a useful, efficient, necessary and real part in what happens in courts.

I should like to say much more in the debate, but time does not permit that. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) took up an unwarranted amount of time——

It being Seven o'clock, proceedings on the motion lapsed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Arrangement of public business).

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that motion No. 3 on the Order Paper stands in my name and concerns an important subject: the pre-conditions necessary for a prime ministerial visit to South Africa. I know that, several times during the private notice question and the statement, you mentioned your concern about the time taken out of private Members' business. Would it be appropriate to discuss with the Procedure Committee whether, instead of giving us half a day, finishing automatically at 7 pm, it might be right to give private Members' motions a certain time limit? That would assist you in your job of protecting the interests of private Members and Back Benchers.

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that some of the speeches were very long, I would have to agree. But I think that he is pushing his luck somewhat if he believes that his motion No. 3 would have been reached in a half-day debate. A number of hon. Members wanted to participate in the debate that has just concluded, and there would have been another debate on the Health Service after it, if time had permitted.