HL Deb 21 March 1974 vol 350 cc377-86

3.25 p.m.

Debate resumed on the Motion moved on Tuesday, March 12, by Lord Taylor of Mansfield—namely, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:

"Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."


My Lords, may I first express my gratitude for the generous welcome I have received in your Lordships' House, and for the abundant advice I have had. All of it has been encouraging; some of it has been conflicting—which is no doubt yet another illustration of the many-sidedness of truth.

I am deeply conscious, in addressing your Lordships for the first time to-day, of the quality of those in whose footsteps I follow. I am particularly mindful of the immense and distinctive contributions made by my immediate predecessors, three of whom continue to be active Members of the House, to the task of improving the administration of justice and of ensuring that the law is developed to fit the conditions of our modern society.

Each of my three distinguished predecessors, the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, has made his own distinctive contribution in this field. Lord Dilhorne came to the Woolsack after a long tenure of the office of Attorney General. As Lord Chancellor, among his many contributions was the establishment of the National Advisory Council on the Training of Magistrates. As a direct result of that, the compulsory training of magistrates was introduced in 1966, and that is now acknowledged to have brought great benefit to the magistracy. My noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner, with whom I had the great privilege of working as Attorney General, will always be remembertd, among many other things, for his great achievement in setting up the Law Commission, which, as I know from my close personal association with him at the time, owes its very existence to his personal inspiration and enthusiasm.

The impetus of reform was maintained by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham. It was he who piloted the Courts Bill through Parliament and ensured that the reforms flowing from the recommendations of the Royal Commission presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Beeching, were brought into operation smoothly and effectively. Everyone concerned with the administration of justice is grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his great drive to get more court accommodation to cope with the unhappily immense increase in the number of criminal cases awaiting trial, and for his determination to reduce delays. It is, if I may say so, typical of him that he allowed no conventional obstacles to stand in the way. Who but he would have thought of using the officers' mess at Wellington Barracks for a court and the wine cellars for cells—presumably after the elimination of the wine? Who but he would have had the temerity also to take over a stately mansion in St. James's Square for the very same purpose? He was, of course, fully justified by the results of what he did.

My Lords, to-day's debate is concerned with Home Affairs. The keynote of this part of the Queen's Speech was the commitment of Her Majesty's Government to work for a greater measure of social justice as a prerequisite of national unity at this difficult time. There is, indeed, much to be done. In many of our inner city areas there are conditions straight out of Mayhew or Dickens. There are streets of old, decaying houses lacking a bath and without modern sanitation, with gross overcrowding, dirt, a complete absence of space for play and recreation—in a word, squalor. It is in these areas that tens of thousands of our fellow citizens today try to bring up their families. In them local unemployment is far higher than the national average. The children are handicapped from birth by old, ill- adapted schools with a serious lack of teachers. The Welfare State has done a certain amount for the needs of people living in these so-called twilight zones, and recent legislation has been aimed at overcoming some of their worst physical conditions. But your Lordships who are familiar with these areas will readily agree that their problems must be given far greater priority than hitherto.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary, regards the problems of these areas as one of his very highest priorities, and I am speaking here not merely of the physical environment, but of the whole complex of values that go to form what is called the quality of life. Already we know a good deal about the forces that can mould a small urban community—the movement away of traditional industries, like the docks in London for example, followed by the loss of many younger families in search of work elsewhere; the change in the character of the community as an older age group predominates; the influx of newcomers, often coloured, in search of the only housing they can afford; and the characteristic employment pattern that follows, where large numbers of those in employment can obtain only menial work at low wages.

We have become aware in recent years, too, of the terrible secondary problems of a fresh generation of newcomers in some of these inner urban areas. A report published last year by the National Children's Bureau, Born to Fail, illustrates in a striking manner the prospects that face socially disadvantaged children who are being born and brought up in these conditions. The Bureau found that more than one child in every three was in either a one-parent family, or a large family, or a low income family, or had been badly housed. Handicapped from birth, deprived of the normal home life and the decent education that we so wrongly tend to take for granted, is it any wonder that some of these youngsters of to-day will become the criminals of to-morrow? It may well be that hooliganism and violence are the criteria of the rapidity of social change in these urban areas and of the failure of a community to adjust quickly enough.

My Lords, the Government intend to attack these complex and interlocking problems of the inner city areas—with their overtones of community relations—urgently and energetically. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is carrying on the work of the Urban Deprivation Unit in the Home Office, the formation of which was announced in another place last year. In consultation with the Community Relations Commission, we are planning to direct additional resources at areas with a high immigrant population. We shall ensure that money available under the Urban Programme is directed to the most urgent needs. But we are far from satisfied that the measures taken so far are adequate. We are therefore studying the fundamental causes and problems of urban deprivation in order to see what further resources of Government and, if necessary, what further policies, matched in boldness to the scale and urgency of the problems, can be brought to the aid of our fellow citizens who live in the areas I have described.

Bad housing and lack of houses is unhappily widespread in most of our country and the chief cause of great family misery and discord. In 1973 fewer than 300,000 houses were completed—for the first time since 1963. The total of new housing starts was the second lowest recorded in the period and in the public sector the number of houses started and completed was the lowest recorded. The latest figures, for this January, also show substantial falls in the private sector in both starts and completions as compared with January, 1972. The Government are determined to achieve substantial increases in local authorities' building programmes and the Secretary of State for the Environment is preparing an action programme as a matter of urgency.

I hope I may be forgiven if to-day I concentrate on the part the law and lawyers can play in the completion of the social contract between Government and people which it is the Government's purpose to achieve. In my view, the needs of our contemporary society require that at every point law and social reform should work closely together and that legal services should be a key element in a comprehensive social welfare service.

The sphere where advance is most urgently needed in the legal field is in the extension and improvement of legal services to the community, and especially to the less advantaged members of it. It is high time that the provision of legal assistance and advice was recognised as a major public service and should take its place as such. The noble Lord, Lord Gifford, has already put down a Motion calling attention to the 23rd Report of the Legal Aid Advisory Committee for whose work I should like to express my gratitude. I hope he will forgive me if on this occasion I refer to Part III of the Committee's Report, which was published last week, dealing with the provision of legal services. It contains a serious fourfold indictment of present arrangements.

The Committee say they have little doubt that, first: there are many people whose legal rights are, for a variety of reasons, at present going wholly by default; secondly, that some of these are unaware even that they possess such rights; others realise it but either do not know how to obtain help in enforcing them or lack the money or the ability, or both, to do so; thirdly, that there is a severe overall shortage of solicitors in the country and, mainly for economic reasons, their geographical distribution is very ill-suited to serve many of the poorer sections of the community; fourthly, that there are considerable areas of the law, notably those relating to housing, landlord and tenant matters and welfare benefits,"— which concern millions of our people— where expert advice and assistance is urgently needed, but is often hard to come by. This presents, my Lords, a daunting challenge. But it is one which must be faced.

There has not yet been time to discuss the problems with those working in this field. At this stage, therefore, I can do no more than outline to your Lordships the main ways in which in my view the problems should be tackled. I have three methods in mind. The first is to extend legal services and, in particular, law centres, as fast as funds will permit. Second, it is important to encourage the development by the legal profession itself of knowledge and expertise in the fields of welfare and social law. Thirdly, it is my hope that further steps can be taken to increase the public's knowledge of the legal services available to them. I should like to take these briefly in turn.

On the first point, I think we should concentrate, at least initially, on the provision of law centres. It is clearly not a propitious time for obtaining Government finance. Nevertheless, I intend to do all I can to support the existing centres and encourage the creation of new ones. At the end of their first year in operation, the pioneer in this field, the North Kensington Neighbourhood Law Centre, said in their first Annual Report: One thing is clear; if it were necessary to prove that there was an unmet need for this kind of service (one provided by a law centre) we have proved it. Not everyone was convinced by that declaration at the time. But there are few who can doubt the need to-day. The Legal Aid Advisory Committee themselves say in their report, that they regard law and advice centres as much to be welcomed, and add: the urgent need for them in many parts of the country is, in our view, beyond argument. If I may introduce a personal note, it is not long since I saw young volunteers in shirt sleeves knocking boards together in Stepney while converting a former shop into a neighbourhood law centre. I must say that I find commitment of this sort by our young people—and they are doing it all over the country—extremely heartening. I, for my part, intend to do all I can to see that funds are available for such centres I have not yet made up my mind as to the most suitable statutory and other provisions which should apply to them in the longer term. I am not unaware of the considerations, but differing points of view will plainly have to be heard before decisions can be taken.

A further possible development in this field would be the greater use of duty solicitor schemes. These have the great merit of needing no further legislation, for their use is already envisaged in the Legal Advice and Assistance Act 1972. This enables assistance to be given by solicitors under the so-called £25 scheme to any party to civil or criminal proceedings before a magistrates' court or a county court. So far as I know, there is at present only one such scheme operating in London. This, I understand, is doing well, in conjunction with the local citizens' advice bureau, and I would hope that it could form a pattern for similar schemes in other parts of London. A number of local law societies have started such schemes outside London and I hope that many more will be initiated as soon as possible.

Our second aim is to encourage greater expertise by the legal profession itself in the fields of welfare and social law. I believe there is increasing awareness that training in welfare law should be a necessary part of all lawyers' equipment. The task of making the public more aware of the legal services available to them is not easy. As the Advisory Committee report, many people are unaware even that they possess certain legal rights, while others realise it but do not know how to obtain help in enforcing them.

There is the further difficulty that even when people know that facilities are available, quite a number are unwilling to make use of them. The previous Administration advertised the facilities available through legal aid, advice and assistance, and I hope that we shall be able to continue with this and to extend it. But the problem is, I think, more fundamental. It is partly a matter of ensuring that people are educated from a fairly early stage to recognise problems that need the help of a lawyer. It is partly a question of diffidence. Many people dislike the thought of consulting lawyers, an estimable element of the community as some of your Lordships may think they are. Why it should be so is a fruitful field for study. These are difficult problems that I have mentioned, but they must be faced. It will continue to be a reproach to us all if there are people who are being denied their legal rights and benefits.

I now turn to the law's delays. Hamlet was not the first to speak of the law's delay. It has been a continuing theme of the frustrated litigant throughout the ages. The Crown Court had a difficult start, for its birth coincided with a rapid increase in the rate of indictable crime. Happily this now shows some signs of falling away. Nevertheless, in 1973 the Crown Court had to cope with over 20 per cent. more committals for trial than assizes and quarter sessions had dealt with two years before. This increase imposed a considerable strain on the new system but it says much for the efforts of all concerned—and, of course, not least the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham—that the increase was successfully contained and that now there are distinct signs of improvement. In 1973 for example there was some decline, although relatively slight, in the number of outstanding cases awaiting trial.

We have set ourselves the target of eight weeks as being a reasonable waiting period between committal by the magistrates and trial in the Crown Court. Outside London, this has been generally achieved. The latest figures for last month, show that the defendant on bail waits about 8½ weeks for trial while the defendant in custody waits 5.7 weeks. In London, however, the position remains serious and the delays are still unacceptably long. The bail defendant is waiting on average over 25 weeks and the defendant in custody 13 weeks. Two years ago he had to wait 15½ weeks, but despite the improvement, your Lordships may think that 13 weeks in custody before trial is far too long, particularly as many defendants are in the end acquitted or are not sent to prison at all.

Law reform tends to be regarded solely as lawyers' business. But study of the work of the Law Commission shows how directly it impacts on the daily lives of our fellow citizens. The most obvious example lies in the field of divorce. Few people would now want to bring back the old and discredited law. The output of the Law Commissions has already been prodigious. Turning to the future, your Lordships will be glad to learn that work now in hand and indeed at an advanced stage includes such matters of general significance in the lives of ordinary people as injuries to unborn children, joint ownership of the matrimonial home, the rights of a surviving spouse on the death of the other to a share of the family property, exemption clauses in contracts for the supply of services, and the introduction of a new and more civilised code for matrimonial proceedings in magistrates' courts.

I turn next to the proposals in the gracious Speech for securing equal status for women. This is a subject upon which a great deal of public attention has been focused in recent months, not least in your Lordships' House. Indeed, your Lordships have been pioneers in this field since it was here that nearly two years ago a Second Reading was given to the Anti-Discrimination Bill introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. A Select Committee of this House sat from June, 1972, to February, 1973, under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Royle. The Government recognise that for far too long women in this country have been subjected to treatment which is unfair and unequal both by law and by custom. We believe that this situation should not, indeed cannot, be allowed to continue. The time is now ripe for progress and we intend to introduce proposals before the end of the year.

I am sure that the House will be delighted to see the pledge in the gracious Speech that Comprehensive proposals will be brought forward to reform the law relating to adoption, guardianship and fostering of children…. As a basis for those proposals we have the Report of the Committee on the Adoption of Children, chaired by Sir William Houghton until his deeply regretted death, and then by Judge Stockdale. Some of the issues in the Report are difficult and complex and some are controversial. Social issues and legal procedure are closely intertwined, perhaps closer than in some other fields, and the courts have, and will continue to have, to make anxious decisions between conflicting claims relating to children and to weigh the many factors involved, including the welfare of the child himself, which is the most important consideration. It is important that our proposals on this subject should command general support, and I hope that when they appear it will be found that they merit the approval of the House.

Finally, I want to say a word about the pledge in the Queen's Speech to initiate discussions in Scotland and Wales on the Report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution and bring forward proposals for consideration. I want to emhasise that the purpose of those discussions is to produce action as quickly as possible, to produce the White Paper and the Bill which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has already promised in another place.

As your Lordships will be aware, the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, has been appointed as adviser to the Government on constitutional questions to give further impetus to this urgent work. There is no need for me to stress that his intention is not, of course, to press the recommendations of his Minority Report. All the options on Kilbrandon are open and, of course, at least three different schemes were recommended in the Majority Report. It is the job of the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, in the light of his professional expertise and long aquaintance with these matters, to give impartial advice on all aspects of these highly complex problems.

One last point on this urgent work on Kilbrandon. May I remind your Lordships that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, speaking in another place, said that the services of the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, would be available to all the political Parties. This is to ensure that their views on the different aspects of the Kilbrandon Report will help shape and develop the detailed work on which the Government have embarked in the preparation of the White Paper and the Bill. I hope, therefore, that all Parties will enter into discussions with Lord Crowther-Hunt at once the sooner they do so the more quickly we shall be able to produce an acceptable White Paper and Bill.

My Lords, I fear I have only touched on some of the Home Affairs matters referred to in the Queen's Speech although I may perhaps have taken an excessive length of time in doing so. I hope they will all commend themselves to your Lordships. Your Lordships will recollect the passage in the speech of my noble friend Lord Brockway that it is in moments of crisis like that through which we are now passing (and from which our country will, of course, emerge) that we have the greatest sense of fairness as between sections of the community. I hope that it is in this spirit that we shall be ready to face the sharing of the burdens that lie ahead.