David Davis speaks about legal aid cuts in the House of Commons Chamber


Mr David Davis: My name is on this motion not because I do not think we need to control the cost of legal aid—we do—but should it be done in this way and at this speed? I think not. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is barely complete, and has had no assessment. The consultation was extremely brief and we understand that the Government intend to place contracts in the autumn. Frankly, without primary legislation, the likelihood is that this business will be challenged in the courts. We will have more haste and less speed on the delivery of savings.

I want to deal with some fundamental points. This is not, as has been intimated, about the protection by silver-tongued lawyers of serial offenders: in the Crown courts in contested cases, half are found not guilty. What we are talking about, therefore, is providing justice to the innocent and to victims.

Mr Raab: Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the discrete risks of allowing large firms to swallow up small firms may be a loss of small specialist firms capable of demanding the trust of specific local communities —in particular, practices representing victims such as in the Stephen Lawrence case and others?

Mr Davis: My hon. Friend makes a good point that I will return to later. He is exactly right—this is one of the likely unintended consequences of what is being proposed in the consultation.

In their efforts to cut legal costs overall, the Government are overlooking a far bigger cause of waste in the system than legal aid, namely the sheer inefficiency of the Crown Prosecution Service. In 2011-12, more than 123,000 prosecutions failed after charge because either no evidence was presented or the case was eventually dropped. The cost to the service, the courts and aborted defences was measured in tens of millions of pounds, not to mention the stress faced by people who were, presumably, innocent.

Meg Hillier: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Davis: If the hon. Lady will forgive, I am very tight on time. I will give way if I can a little later.

That does not tell the whole story, however. Time and again, we see trials delayed and extended by CPS incompetence. In my part of the world alone, the newspapers are littered with cases of lawyers not turning up, evidence not being presented and cases being adjourned again and again. I suspect we all have constituency cases just like that. This happens right across the country. We should not pretend that the legal aid system is a model of efficiency, but when it comes to finding savings and better, effective justice across the whole system, we should look first at the CPS itself before we let the axe fall again on legal aid.

I am yet to be convinced—this addresses the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab)—by Government assurances that the quality of legal aid providers will be guaranteed by a state body. This debate comes barely a week after the Care Quality Commission scandal. That demonstrates how difficult it is to guarantee the quality of complex intellectual services, which, of course, justice is. We should notice that even where the state has direct control—namely, the CPS and the Serious Fraud Office—it cannot guarantee quality there either. A judge in a recent murder case described the CPS lawyer as “completely inadequate”. The judge said that the lawyer cited old law, did not understand the current law, fell out with the prosecution team, and then simply did not show up on the following Monday. As a result, the trial had to be held six months later. If we cannot guarantee our own system and our own service, how are we going to guarantee 400 private operators around the country?

Mr Lammy: Does the right hon. Gentleman also recognise a Conservative idea that competition can drive down costs?

Mr Davis: The right hon. Gentleman is almost taking the words out of my mouth. I cannot believe that a Conservative Government are going to mandate how many companies and providers there should be. I know of no example in the world where a Government mandated the number of companies and then improved the efficiency of provision—not one. This is a Soviet proposal that I do not want to see. I do not mind if there are better ways of finding efficiency—as has been said, that is what we must find—but please do not lay down laws like that.

I wish briefly to discuss a couple of other troubling issues in the consultation document, the first of which is the 12-month residency test. That could deny justice to people who have suffered because of the actions of the UK Government—under UK jurisdiction—which we are responsible for resolving. Just to mention cases in which I have been directly involved, I can cite those of Binyam Mohamed, Serdar Mohamed, Yunus Rahmatullah, who is still in Bagram prison, and Baha Mousa. We are talking about: people who were subject to torture in which Britain was complicit; an innocent man beaten to death by British soldiers; people who have been rendered—and still are—to other countries; people who have been handed over to our allies

From a sedentary position, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton mentions de Menezes, who was shot, although accidentally, by the British Government. All those people would be denied their justice. More important, given that in many of those cases the person is deceased, the British people would not know about the misdemeanours of their own Government.

That brings me to my final point, which is about judicial review. I sympathise with Ministers who find it irksome that we have so many judicial reviews, but the Government are in danger of getting themselves a reputation for wanting to act above the law. Irksome as it is, judicial reviews are what keeps British Governments honest—it does not matter of which party or of which origin, they keep the Government honest. I say to the Government that before they strike down these things at their own convenience, they should think again, come back more slowly and present this House with some primary legislation we can then be proud of.