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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 19 January 2016

[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Access to Justice: Vulnerable People

9.30 am

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered access to justice for vulnerable people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak on what is an increasingly critical issue: access to justice, particularly for those who for whatever reason would otherwise be left without legal redress. The Opposition recognise the fundamental importance of legal aid in ensuring that everyone has access to justice. It is a significant time for legal aid, and today marks the inaugural meeting of the Bach commission, led by my colleague Lord Willy Bach and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). The commission has brought together experts from across the legal profession and will explore establishing access to justice as a fundamental public entitlement.

Since 2010 the Government have cut legal aid to the bone. The consensus that once existed around legal aid has been sidelined. Although we recognise the need to make savings, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Justice Committee have all criticised the Government’s failure to understand the knock-on costs and wider consequences of their reforms. The Labour party recognises the importance of legal aid in making sure the state does not infringe upon the liberty of its citizens, and we understand its crucial role as a tool for legal redress in family disputes. Those who traditionally benefit from legal aid—the poor and most vulnerable—have been marginalised by the policies of this Government. They have seen the erosion of their rights at work, in schools, and in their housing and welfare needs. In 2010, as Labour left office, almost 500,000 cases received advice or assistance for social welfare issues. The year after the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force, it was less than 53,000.

Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab): I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend has constituents in his surgeries every single week desperate for legal help, who previously would have benefited from the legal aid regime, but who now cannot find legal help or representation anywhere and cannot afford to pay for it.

Stephen Kinnock: My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. This is about the kind of society we want to live in. There is no doubt that a key indicator of that is the way in which we deal with access to justice. My constituents, like hers, are deeply concerned about the distortion of our justice system, which we are discussing here today.

The figures that I have cited show a massive drop in access to justice, and that has had a huge impact on people across England and Wales: parents unable to see their children; employees unfairly dismissed or discriminated

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against; tenants mistreated by abusive landlords; and women unable to leave abusive partners. Those are exactly the kind of people the Government claim to stand up for, but the reality is different. Consider family proceedings, for instance. In the first quarter of 2015, 76% of private family law cases had at least one party who was not represented. That means our constituents no longer receive the support and advice that is required for them to have effective redress in the courts.

The problem is most acute in the civil and family courts, which are dealing with an unprecedented rise in the number of litigants in person. Previously, litigants in person were most often there by choice, choosing to self-represent, but it is now the case that litigants in person are there because they cannot get legal aid. The personal support unit, which provides help to people facing civil court hearings, has seen a rise of 900% in clients helped. The deck is firmly stacked against the most vulnerable. What was once a relatively level playing field has been seriously distorted, with litigants in person now effectively battling uphill, often challenging decisions passed down by the Government.

The checks and balances that were previously in place for citizens to hold the Government to account have been seriously limited. Across the legal spectrum, we have seen the removal of vast swathes of legal aid, the closing down of law centres, and the removal of good quality legal advice from those who need it most. If that was not enough, the safeguard of judicial review has also been severely curtailed. We have seen the warm words from the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who decried a two-nation justice system, but unfortunately we all know his rhetoric is not being backed up by action. The Justice Secretary has carried on from where his predecessor left off: sidelining legal aid; the sector cut to the bone; court closures denying access to local justice; and massive increases in fees, excluding many from the system.

One particular section of the population in desperate need are the victims of domestic violence. During the passage of the LASPO Bill, the Government made a point of saying that it was not their intention to make legal aid available to all victims of domestic violence. The Government have been too narrow in the safeguards put in place for ensuring that victims of domestic violence can receive legal aid. The Justice Committee expressed concern in its report about the evidence requirements for victims of domestic violence, and a recent survey from Rights of Women revealed that 39% of respondents did not have the evidence required to qualify for legal aid. Another survey found that almost half of respondents did not take any action in relation to their family law problem because they were unable to apply for legal aid, and a further 25% opted to represent themselves in court. Those figures reflect the findings of the all-party group on domestic and sexual violence, which found that more than 60% of respondents did not commence action and that one in six had to pay more than £50 to get the required evidence to prove domestic violence. Victims of domestic violence should not be forced to choose between staying with their abuser and having to face them in court. Although the Opposition do not believe that that was the Government’s intention in the legal aid reforms, it none the less persists and must be addressed.

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Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab): My hon. Friend is raising important points about domestic violence and the barriers to accessing legal aid that particularly women face, but women face a double barrier when it comes to sex discrimination in the workplace. The new employment tribunal fees mean we have seen a huge drop in the number of women seeking justice.

Stephen Kinnock: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She makes an absolutely critical point about women in the workplace. This plays into the broader theme of today’s discussion, which is about how we ensure we include all elements of society so that we can build an economy and society that is cohesive and dynamic. The issues are not only about rights and equalities in the narrow sense; they are about how those rights and equalities play into the creation of an inclusive and dynamic economy where all people are able to bring their talents to the table, and women are a critical element of that. Without redress to justice, they will not have the checks and balances in place that they need to defend their rights, as should every other member of society.

A clear theme is coming through in the interventions from my hon. Friends. The overall theme is around the question of whether the Government have properly considered the impact of their legislation and policies on some of the most vulnerable groups in society, such as the homeless; those threatened with eviction and serious housing disrepair; those in need of community care services; parents and children involved in child abduction cases; and those with mental health and mental capacity issues. This test only further entrenches the gap between those who can and those who cannot access justice. The law is there to protect all citizens, and a robust justice system should make sure that justice should be afforded to all, not only those who can afford it.

Jo Stevens: Last week the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, issued his annual report in which he raised concerns about the lack of access to justice, and Lord Justice Briggs said:

“To any rational observer who values access to civil justice, this is a truly shocking state of affairs.”

If we have the most senior judiciary in our country worrying about lack of access to justice, does my hon. Friend not agree that the Government must take heed and start to change their policies in this arena?

Stephen Kinnock: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I agree entirely with every word of it, and with the sentiment. Members clearly have a deep and active interest in this issue, but we could never claim to be experts at the same level as the judiciary whom she just cited. We must defer to those views. If the most eminent experts in the world are telling us that the system is seriously flawed and the new legislation is deeply damaging, surely we must take heed of their interventions.

Nothing we see from the Government addresses what is increasingly being recognised as a two-nation justice system—and this from the party that claims to be a one-nation party. How we treat the most vulnerable is a key barometer of the kind of society we are and aspire

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to be, particularly when it relates to that most fundamental of rights: equality before the law. The increase in court fees, alongside reduced access to legal aid, restricts access to justice. Unless the Government change course, they will fail on the first duty of any Government: the just maintenance of law and order.

9.41 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I did not expect to be called to speak so early, Mr Bailey.

Mr Adrian Bailey (in the Chair): I did not expect to call you so early!

Jim Shannon: It is a pleasure to be able to participate, and I thank the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for setting the scene so well. Members present, including me, have a particular interest in this matter, which I shall discuss from a Northern Ireland perspective. Some things in Northern Ireland are not right and are not going well, and this is an opportunity to tell the House about them. Perhaps the Minister, having listened to my comments, can respond. In telling the stories from Northern Ireland, I want to show where we need to focus.

Legal aid is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, so the responsibility lies very clearly with the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Legal Services Agency Northern Ireland administers the statutory legal aid system, and although it is a devolved matter, that does not mean I cannot share views about Northern Ireland, and that is what I shall do. As the Member for Strangford, speaking on behalf of the constituents who have contacted me about this issue, it is important that we have those views on the record in the mother of Parliaments and at the same time stand up for fellow countrymen and women in England and Wales who may be affected by the changes to legal aid since 2012.

Over the previous parliamentary term, I had a number of discussions with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). He has been vociferous about legal aid on the Floor of the House. There has been no mention of it without him being there to speak about it. I look forward to the Minister’s response as well. He is a compassionate Minister who knows the issues and what we are about here, so I would like to hear his thoughts.

Despite being devolved, legal aid has proved to be an issue in Northern Ireland. More than 600 defendants have been left without a lawyer as the dispute over legal aid continues to prove an obstacle to the efficiency of the courts. I have been in contact with the Minister responsible for policing and justice in Northern Ireland, David Ford, as well as with solicitors and barristers who have expressed their views to me, so I am aware of the issues that we have back home and where the problems are. In his introduction, the hon. Member for Aberavon spoke specifically about vulnerable people, and I will as well, because they are the people we are here to represent.

Across Northern Ireland, hundreds of Crown court cases are stuck in the early stages of the legal process as lawyers continue to refuse to take on new criminal cases in protest against cuts to their pay. It is a critical issue, and there is a balance to be struck. I understand that

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the Government are under financial pressures, as we are in the Northern Ireland Assembly as well. The financial constraints might start here, but they go out to all the regional Administrations, particularly the Northern Ireland Assembly. The stand-off about pay has caused mayhem in the court system, with a growing backlog of cases as the dispute intensifies. Lawyers have taken industrial action in response to the cuts, withdrawing professional services in criminal cases as part of the protest.

The latest figures were released just last week and show that there are currently 817 cases outstanding in Northern Ireland. Of those, 545 are directly affected by the legal aid dispute. The magnitude of what is happening there is mirrored elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The issues are financial, and perhaps there are more complexities; nevertheless, the breakdown of the figures include some worrying cases. The outstanding cases include seven murder suspects, four accused of attempted murder, 60 accused of sex crimes, 76 accused of drug offences and 39 accused of fraud. Without stakeholder agreement and a reasonable solution here on the mainland, we could see a similar, if not worse, situation arise.

I say this with great respect because I am not someone who attacks political parties—that is not my form, Mr Bailey, and I never do it—but the Alliance party leads the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland, and its unreasonable approach has seen law firms operating at a loss as a result of changes to the legal aid system. Top solicitors in the Province have warned that law firms quite simply cannot continue to operate at such a loss without bankruptcy, and that with so many cases backlogged the situation can only get worse. Local solicitors in my town, Newtownards, and elsewhere in my constituency, have confirmed that.

Disputes over legal aid not only threaten the efficiency of the justice system but can lead to the erosion of the right to a free and fair trial for all. I have heard the shadow Minister say that on numerous occasions in the Chamber; I have not seen his speech, but he will probably say the same thing shortly in Westminster Hall. Some of the most vulnerable people in our society would depend on legal aid should they ever require legal assistance. We are talking about people who are unable to access justice because of their vulnerability. There are many more people out there who may need to call upon legal aid but will be unable to. As a House and as Members of Parliament, we have a duty need to ensure that such people are protected from changes to the legal aid framework.

To reduce costs, we must focus on those over-represented in the legal aid client base. Change is necessary to address that over-representation, but we must be careful of the unintended consequences. I do not think that the Government deliberately intended what we have seen, but there are unintended consequences, and we have already seen in Northern Ireland just how out of control the situation can get in a short space of time. The Government need to engage with pro-bono organisations, solicitors’ groups and other relevant bodies to ensure a comprehensive strategy to address over-representation in the legal aid client base while protecting the vulnerable people who might find themselves in genuine need of legal aid assistance.

The exceptional funding route for those who are disadvantaged is clearly not working. Not only does the Ministry of Justice fail to recognise that there are

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vulnerable people in our society who need this sort of funding, regardless of what the European Court of Human Rights, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission or the European Union says; it fails to provide, let alone implement, a strategy to ensure that no vulnerable person in our society is in such a position in the first place. We are elected by our constituents as Members of Parliament to speak out on their behalf about the issues that arise. That is what I do in this House, as do other right hon. and hon. Members. When vulnerable people are squeezed, pushed and coerced and find no one to turn to, we have to step up and do our best for them.

We have today an overdue opportunity to discuss legal aid, an issue that I am sure will not go away. That is why it is important that the Minister will respond and important to hear what the shadow Minister and other Members will say. It was also important to hear the opening speech by the hon. Member for Aberavon and the interventions by other Members. I hope that Members will take note of the experiences I have shared from Northern Ireland, and that they share my sense of urgency about this issue on behalf of my constituents. Everyone in a civilised country such as ours should have a free and fair trial and should be legally represented. The Ministry of Justice needs to go forth and resolve the issue in a sustainable, long-term and proper fashion.

9.49 am

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on raising this subject for debate. I did not intend to make a speech today, but in the absence of other colleagues I thought I would have a go.

Not one Member of this House regards access to justice as something that should be restricted to the rich, and nobody thinks that ensuring that people have access to fair trials and that the criminal and civil justice systems work are not serious issues. When the coalition Government came to power in 2010, it had already been flagged by the previous Government that changes to legal aid were in train. The hon. Gentleman did not set out which of the Government’s changes to legal aid the Opposition agree with. I presume they agree with some of them; perhaps the shadow Minister can tell us which.

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early. I think he is about to tell us that the previous Labour Government would also have made cuts to various Departments and that the Ministry of Justice would have taken a hit, but the reality is that the coalition Government and this majority Conservative Government have made a shocking mess of the justice system. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 cut hugely the number of vulnerable people who have access to the courts. The hon. Gentleman should not lecture the Chamber about the fact that the previous Labour would have cut. We accept that we would, but this issue is not about just cutting. The Government have been completely and utterly incompetent.

David Mowat: I thank the shadow Minister for his lengthy intervention, during which, I note, he did not answer the question I asked him. He will get a chance later to tell us which of the coalition Government’s

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changes to legal aid the Opposition support. Presumably they support some of them or would have done something else altogether.

Access to justice matters, and all of us have constituents who are affected by it. We heard that the Bar has been threatening to go on strike over some of the changes. I want to talk about the structure of how we do law in this country, because perhaps something is wrong with it. There were 2,500 practising barristers in 1980 and 15,000 in 2010, and there are 16,000 now. The Bar has grown hugely as legal aid costs have grown. I am not saying that is wrong—a very large number of talented people work at the Bar—but it is not indicative of a profession under major stress.

I do not want to make a cheap point about earnings at the Bar, but I will say this. A significant minority of practitioners earn from criminal legal aid sums significantly in excess of how much the Prime Minister is paid.

Karl Turner rose

David Mowat: One moment, and I will certainly give way.

That is not to say that salaries at the Bar are too high in general, but it is an issue. No other public sector employees—I accept that the Bar is independent, but perhaps that is one of the issues—earn money of that kind. Think of how much surgeons in the national health service earn.

Karl Turner Come on!

David Mowat: I will certainly give way, and perhaps this time the shadow Minister will answer the question.

Karl Turner The hon. Gentleman is about to begin the fat cat lawyer argument, but the reality is completely different. The reality is this. A criminal solicitor, for example—

Mr Adrian Bailey (in the Chair): Order. May I remind you, Mr Turner, that interventions should be short? We are not too constrained by time, and you will have a generous amount of time to make it up.

Karl Turner I am obliged, Mr Bailey, but I wonder whether you would just let me make the point. A criminal solicitor, for example, of about five years’ experience earns about £28,000. A criminal barrister with the same experience earns about £30,000, but is self-employed. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could visit his local chambers and make that argument to members of the Bar and criminal solicitors.

David Mowat: I thank the shadow Minister again for his intervention. I make the point again, because I chose my words carefully, that a minority of barristers earn from criminal legal aid—that is, the public purse—sums in excess of what the Prime Minister is paid.

Karl Turner Silks.

David Mowat: That is not the case with professions such as medicine—for surgeons and so on.

Jo Stevens: Part of the problem is that huge swathes of people are graduating and going into the law—both the solicitors’ profession and the Bar. The problem is

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that the work is not there for them now because of the Government’s cuts to legal aid, so it is very difficult to get a practice up and running. If we do not have solicitors and barristers, we will not have a judiciary in the future.

David Mowat: The hon. Lady’s point is spot on. Barristers have told me that too many people are going into the profession, given the work that is available, despite the fact that their numbers are several times more than a few years ago. The consequence is that too many of them are effectively working part time and are not able to do as many cases as they ought to be doing, given their productivity, so their earnings are lower, as the shadow Minister said.

Jo Stevens: The point I am making is that some of the work of representing vulnerable people that was previously available is not available to the Bar and the solicitors’ profession because legal aid has gone.

David Mowat: We will come to the amount of money we spend on legal aid, although I note that I have certainly got this debate going, so I guess we should at least be grateful for that—as I said, I did not intend to speak today.

A point has been made about the fact that we spend a large amount of money on legal aid compared with other countries such as Germany and France, which, as far as I am aware, do not have legal systems that are not fit for purpose. They have non-adversarial legal systems, which are different from ours, so they may be different in other areas. Despite the fact that we spend many billions of pounds on our legal system, that our spending on legal aid per capita is much higher than other countries—even those with adversarial systems, such as New Zealand—and that people work in good faith at the Bar, the judiciary, the Crown Prosecution Service and elsewhere, there is a structural issue with our legal system, and we need to look at it. Perhaps we should look at whether the Bar should be independent and at whether more barristers should be employed. Perhaps the shadow Minister will come forward with that proposal. It is not reasonable to say that the Government have no role in curtailing the amount of expenditure on that area, although we must be fair to all who are involved.

The hon. Member for Aberavon briefly mentioned judicial review, at which a number of the changes were aimed. The number of judicial reviews has increased by a factor of something like four in the past eight years. Such numbers are very significant, and it is reasonable that the Government look at them. I am not in the Government, and I do not know whether they have got it right in all cases. That is why I was so keen to get an answer from the shadow Minister to my question about which of the changes to legal aid he agrees with. I am sure we will hear from him about that.

It is wrong to say that Government Members are not as concerned about access to justice and vulnerable people as Opposition Members, but questions need to be asked about the structure of the legal system and about how things work at the moment. The rate of increase that we saw before 2010 would have been untenable if it had continued at that level, as the then Labour Government recognised.

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Mr Adrian Bailey (in the Chair): We come now to the Opposition spokespersons’ responses. Ordinarily, they would be confined to 10 minutes. However, we are not inordinately time constrained at the moment, so I am going to be a bit flexible. Given the heat that this debate has generated so far, could the Opposition spokespersons be sensible in the way they use their time and give the Minister plenty of time to reply? Equally, if the Minister could give Mr Stephen Kinnock an opportunity to sum up, that would be appreciated.

9.59 am

Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship as we debate a crucial topic, Mr Bailey. What can be more fundamental than ensuring access to justice? For that reason, I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) on his brave and spontaneous speech, which certainly got the debate going.

Different jurisdictions across the UK and across the world are each on their own journey as they continually grapple with access to justice, constantly updating procedural rules, introducing new technologies and reforming legal aid. Every jurisdiction can learn lessons from each of the others, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) suggested, but I agree with the hon. Member for Aberavon that the UK Government should be doing more learning than teaching. It is clear that access to justice has suffered under the Conservative Government, and the former coalition partnership, as yet another austerity sacrifice.

Turning to the motion, in one sense the words “for vulnerable people” could be seen as superfluous, because if a person’s access to justice is denied or made difficult, they become vulnerable people as a result. Thankfully, there is access to justice for most, but that is not good enough. If we believe in the rule of law, everyone should be able to vindicate their rights and have access to justice. Under this Government, access has become harder and harder for too many people. Understandably, and unsurprisingly, the main focus of the debate was legal aid, but we had good arguments about other aspects of proceedings, which gave food for thought on how every jurisdiction can improve access to justice.

Turning to the main point of contention, I agree that the huge cuts in funding and eligibility for legal aid brought about by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 are little short of a disgrace. The hon. Member for Aberavon highlighted some of the frightening statistics about the dramatic fall in the number of legal aid-funded cases, particularly for victims of domestic violence. As mentioned by the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), all the arguments were well summed up by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales when he said:

“Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most. In consequence there has been a considerable increase of litigants in person for whom our current court system is not really designed.”

Many of the issues were aired in another recent Westminster Hall debate on access to justice in Wales, and I want to tackle a couple of the arguments that Ministers have previously used to continue their attempted defence of legal aid cuts. They have said that it is better

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to encourage mediation than provide legal aid and an attempt at mediation should be encouraged or even required—by all means—but without pulling the rug from under people’s feet if it does not work. Legal aid spend should fall as a result of successful mediation, but not because people who have been forced into mediation have to sell themselves short and accept settlements even when mediation has failed. Ministers also claimed, and will probably claim again—the hon. Member for Warrington South started to make arguments along these lines—that the legal aid system in England and Wales

“remains one of the most generous in the world.”—[Official Report, 15 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 528WH.]

That is the same old chestnut that the Justice Secretary used when pushing the cuts through, but it is like comparing apples and oranges and the argument does not stack up.

Professor Alan Paterson of the University of Strathclyde, chair of the International Legal Aid Group, pointed out that systems here cannot be compared with those on the continent, which are inquisitorial systems, a point which was accepted by the hon. Member for Warrington South. Such systems generally require less input from legal representatives, but significantly more resources are spent on prosecution services and the courts. Once expenditure on those other parts of the equation is factored in, England and Wales comes about a third of the way down the European league table. Professor Paterson made a specific comparison with Holland: back in 2011, England and Wales spent more than twice as much per capita on legal aid as Holland, but with a total per capita spend of around €90 on legal aid, courts and prosecutions combined, Holland spends a greater overall per capita sum on justice than England and Wales, where the total was around €80 euros. Of course, even if England and Wales has a higher per capita legal aid spend, it absolutely does not follow that that is because it has more generous eligibility rules. The hon. Member for Warrington South mentioned New Zealand, but the Law Society of England and Wales pointed out that the differential was not significantly caused by any increased generosity. Indeed, New Zealand was more generous in that regard. More relevant were higher crime rates, higher divorce rates, and higher expenditure per case.

Briefly, I have some similar points about the position in Scotland. Professor Paterson, in his Hamlyn lectures at the University of Cambridge in 2010, pointed out that the Scottish Legal Aid Board spent around £29 per capita compared with £38 in England and Wales, and yet the system in Scotland was more generous in terms of scope, including personal injury claims and representation at employment tribunals. It was also considerably more generous in terms of coverage, with a significantly higher proportion of the population financially eligible for legal aid. The system in Scotland remains uncapped and demand-led. Why, therefore, was the per capita spend in England and Wales higher? One significant factor was the high number of high-cost fraud cases prosecuted south of the border compared with in Scotland. In reality, the Government were taking away from the least well-off in order to fund the prosecution of high-value fraudsters. That argument does not appeal to me. According to Professor Paterson, court procedures in Scotland, both civil and criminal, have received holistic reform to

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reduce legal aid spend. That is a better approach than wholesale legal aid cuts, which cause so much social damage.

The hon. Member for Aberavon also highlighted last year’s Select Committee on Justice report, which noted that the Ministry of Justice’s four objectives for the reforms were to discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense, to target legal aid to those who need it most, to make significant savings in the cost of the scheme and to deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer. However, the Committee concluded that,

“while it had made significant savings in the cost of the scheme, the Ministry had harmed access to justice for some litigants and had not achieved the other three out of four of its stated objectives for the reforms.”

The hon. Gentleman also pointed out that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have made similar criticisms. We are left wondering whether anyone actually thinks that the reforms have been a success.

The Justice Committee also made some excellent points regarding the claimed savings and delivering value for money. It said:

“The Ministry’s efforts to target legal aid at those who most need it have suffered from the weakness that they have often been aimed at the point after a crisis has already developed, such as in housing repossession cases, rather than being preventive.”

From my own experience as a solicitor, I would say that public money spent providing help to those who need it to fill in complex immigration application forms offers better value than pursuing tribunal appeals or judicial reviews after that person has got the form wrong. That is the approach taken by the Scottish Government in its 2011 strategy “A sustainable future for legal aid”, the themes of which are the right help at the right time, delivering justice efficiently and maximising value. That all points to a preventive approach that avoids problems escalating to the point at which they can cause lasting damage and disruption to people in our communities and increased cost to the public purse.

However, as other hon. Members pointed out, legal aid alone does not secure access to justice. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) pointed out that the fees that have been introduced for employment tribunals are making the vindication of important employment rights more difficult. Criminal court charges were introduced in the previous Parliament, encouraging innocent people to plead guilty. I warmly welcome the change of heart that seems to have been signalled by the current Justice Secretary. We could indeed spend days considering the simplification of procedures, the use of plain English, special safeguards for children, protections for those who are doli incapax, pro bono work, the provision of law centres and even the use of technology, which I am sure the Minister will mention.

Finally, as parliamentarians, we need to take care how we respond to Bills that are passing through Parliament. The Immigration Bill currently making its way through the House of Lords will make people leave their families and jobs and conduct appeals against Home Office decisions from abroad. I do not regard that as access to justice. The Bill would also cut back on appeal rights against refusal of asylum support, leaving vulnerable, destitute people without any legal recourse.

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Perhaps most disgracefully of all, the Bill will introduce procedures that will allow families with children to be summarily evicted without so much as a court order, never mind a court hearing. Any Government pursuing that sort of agenda cannot claim to be prioritising access to justice. As the new chair of the Bar Council said:

“Justice is not a luxury, and everyone should be able to defend their rights through the legal system.”

The Government need to listen and change course.

10.9 am

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): It is always a privilege to serve under your chairship, Mr Bailey.

To declare my interests, my wife is employed as a criminal duty solicitor and part-time judge and, before my election to the House, I was a member of Wilberforce barristers’ chambers in Hull. I was a junior member of the Bar and certainly not earning “fat cat” moneys, as the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) might want to believe.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important and timely debate. It could not have come at a better time, because the commission chaired by Lord Willy Bach is as we speak hearing evidence from experts in the professions on how we deal with this problem of access to justice and legal aid.

The Bach commission was established by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the leader of the Labour party. It is fair to say that the Leader of the Opposition understands legal aid. He, unlike any other leader of a political party that I can remember, actually gets it, as no one else has done. He understands it, he cares about it and, as a result, he has established the Bach commission to look at access to justice and legal aid. He is also doing that in a non-party political way.

Members of the commission have been appointed by Willy Bach not because of their politics or any sort of association with or affiliation to any political party, but, on the contrary, because of their expertise and their knowledge not only of legal aid and access to justice, but of other things. For example, one member, a particularly huge asset to the commission, is Tanni Grey-Thompson, who is also providing expertise in relation to disability. So the commission is non-partisan and we hope that it will come to a view on how we provide access to justice for the most vulnerable people in our society.

It has to be said that the Government have made a real mess of access to justice and legal aid. Since 2010, advice-and-assistance matter starts in social welfare have gone from 471,000 down to 53,000, a drop of 91%. So more than 400,000 people are now not provided with the opportunity to receive legal advice and are not given the chance to access the courts. They are often left paddling their own canoe, faced with extremely complex issues of procedure and law, and left to do all that on their own.

In reality, no money is saved, because the courts are delayed. Judges are complaining constantly, privately in the main, but complaining none the less that cases are delayed while litigants in person are left fending for themselves, trying to navigate through complex areas of procedure and law. There is no real saving.

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Following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, exceptional case funding was supposed to help people who are denied access to lawyers. I think this is right—I will be corrected by the Minister if I am wrong—but last year, for example, only 394 applications were granted under the scheme, rather than the 3,700 or so estimated. Clearly, the system is not working.

The Government might be about to reintroduce the residence test. They got excited about that and were pleased that the judicial review was successful, in that the Government won, but the lord justices who heard the case for review were not considering the practical effects of the residence test. They were simply deciding whether the residence test was legal or “Wednesbury unreasonable”; they were not considering whether the test itself was practical or could be implemented successfully. To reintroduce the residence test would be a huge mistake. I have not heard from a lawyer who has been able to explain how it would work. I have asked the Minister, too, how it would work. Will he explain exactly how he intends the residence test to work in practice?

As for criminal legal aid, the Government are now attempting to implement a system that will see the number of duty contract providers reduced from some 1,650 to 526. There has been a cut of about 17.5%. The Government say that the number of providers needs to be reduced and consolidated, in order to allow them a profit on their work. The system, however, cannot work. It will not work and the Minister knows that it will not work. It is undergoing litigation, but the reality is that the Government have made a terrible mess of the duty criminal contracts since 2010. It was needless, in truth, but the entire thing is in a terrible mess now, to the point of a whistleblower coming forward. The whistleblower was employed through the Legal Aid Agency to help with the procurement exercise and was able to explain how chaotic the entire system was.

Last night I received an email from a criminal law solicitor, Mr Andrew Gurney of Gurney Harden Solicitors in Ashford. I will not read the entire content of the email, but that firm of solicitors was successful in its application for six contracts. Mr Gurney makes the point:

“We were involved in 6 successful bids and our early estimates put our costs at £30,000”—

so he knows. He knows that the system is impossible to implement. His firm has spent £30,000 in applying for contracts that everyone knows will probably not happen, because everyone knows that it is impossible to implement the system.

The system is not fit for purpose, and the Government have been warned about it. The Justice Secretary privately accepts that the idea of removing more than 1,000 firms of solicitors and leaving some areas without access to duty solicitors is unmanageable. So even Ministers privately believe that access to justice for the most vulnerable people will be denied as a result of the Government’s plans to implement a system that is absolutely chaotic. It is time that the Government listened to people who know better than them.

That brings me to the point made by the hon. Member for Warrington South. We need consensus. We need to put politics aside. It is all right for me to come here and attack the Government—I enjoy that—but the reality is

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that will not get us anywhere. We need to sit down and accept that people need access to law. As my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party has said, that ought to be considered a basic human right. If the state is taking on an individual, surely the most basic thing required of a civilised society is to allow that individual access to people who have experience and expertise in the area of law that they are trying to navigate.

Jo Stevens: It is somewhat ironic that, later on this morning, the Minister for Human Rights will be appearing before the EU Justice Sub-Committee because the Government have not implemented a European directive adopted by other member states in 2013 that gives criminal suspects a right to access legal advice following arrest.

Karl Turner: I could not have put it better myself. My hon. Friend makes an important point.

It is time that we grew up. The Bach commission, with its cross-party members—I suspect some appointments are political and some non-political—chosen for their expertise only, not for their politics, will hopefully come to a view that can save money while providing access to the courts, lawyers and justice. As I have said, we need to do that in a non-partisan, non-political way. I sometimes find that difficult to manage, but it is crucial that we grow up.

Before I finish my remarks, I will mention the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). I think we have seen a drop of 80% in employment tribunals. The hon. Member for Warrington South talked about people in the law profession earning more than the Prime Minister, but we now have employment judges sitting idly in tribunals throughout England and Wales with no work to do because of the fee that needs to be paid for a tribunal to be heard.

Women want to raise serious issues. I think of a case that I advised on pro bono and referred the woman to a solicitor: she had told her employer that she would take maternity leave at some point in the not-too-distant future and he said, “Well, that’s not very convenient. I’m afraid you’ll have to find something else to do for a living.” I think she needed to find £1,300 to get her case to a tribunal, but she could not possibly afford that. I managed to find a solicitor who was prepared to act for her pro bono, but she still did not have the money—it would have taken her several months to save that up.

Sadly, the reality is that employers react to those cases only once the money is paid in. Before that, they do nothing—they are using that as a tactic. Therefore, while terrible employers such as that would have to settle if the case was to be taken to tribunal—they would not get anywhere near success, because they had clearly been discriminatory—because the woman concerned could not get the £1,300 together, she was at the stage of saying, “Fair enough, I give in.” The statute bar in employment cases means that people have to get their act together within three months and she could never have managed to save that money up in that period.

I do not know whether I am making this point well or not, but it is not about saving money because we have employment judges with no work to do. It is purely ideological. There is no reason for it—it does not save a penny.

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Jo Stevens: Does my hon. Friend agree that another consequence is that while there are lots of good employers, bad employers, because of the tribunal fees, can get away with unlawful practices and they have no incentive to change their behaviour to become good employers?

Karl Turner: Absolutely. I know the Minister well, I think, and he does not want a situation to arise where employers get away with treating their staff badly. I do not think he wants that for a second, but that is an unintended consequence of the Government’s policy and it needs to change. It comes to something when the Lord Chief Justice comes out of his comfort zone as a senior member of the judiciary and criticises Government policy. It is appalling.

I will finish on this note. The hon. Member for Warrington South—

David Mowat rose

Karl Turner: I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

David Mowat: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned me four times in his remarks, but he is yet to answer the question I put about which changes to the legal aid system the Opposition support. I want to ask him about his interesting comments on residency, because the Opposition reject the proposed changes to be used, at least in part, to prevent prosecutions against British soldiers in Iraq, which among other things led to Al-Sweady. Does he propose any changes to that mechanism, or is he sanguine about the fact that we are the only country in the world that pays people to sue our soldiers? I am genuinely interested in that.

Karl Turner: With respect, I am not prepared to go into the hon. Gentleman’s Daily Mail-reading fraternity line. Frankly, that is outrageous. One thing I think the Bach commission will establish is consensus of opinion, so I will not make Opposition policy about the residence test on the hoof, but it is disgraceful that women who have been trafficked will probably be refused access to law as a result of the Government’s proposed changes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara) indicated dissent.

Karl Turner: I think the Minister may be saying that that is not correct.

Mr Vara: There are exceptions.

Karl Turner: Of course there are exceptions, but we have seen how exceptions have failed. The Government must be careful. I finish on the point made by the hon. Member for Warrington South—

David Mowat: Mr Bailey, may I come back on that? As it happens, I do not read the Daily Mail, but clearly the hon. Gentleman does.

Mr Adrian Bailey (in the Chair): Order. I point out, Mr Mowat, that it is the privilege of the Member speaking to accept your intervention, not me.

Karl Turner indicated assent.

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David Mowat: I thank the hon. Gentleman. We have talked about how the country is on a slippery slope on access to justice, but can he name any other country whose criminal justice system pays people through criminal legal aid to sue its own Army?

Karl Turner: The hon. Gentleman is desperate to get me on to that. He mentioned fat-cat lawyers who earn more than the Prime Minister, so he was probably referring to the Prime Minister’s brother who is an eminent member of the Bar and Queen’s counsel barrister reported to have earned £1 million. What he does not mention is that some of that £1 million was probably paid privately—it is very unlikely that he earned £1 million from criminal legal aid. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue, and I was reluctant to comment on it, but I am afraid he tempted me too much.

David Mowat rose—

Karl Turner: I am not going to take a further intervention from the hon. Gentleman, because, frankly, he has nothing to offer that would benefit the debate.

Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon on securing this important and timely debate. We now need a consensus. We need the Government to listen. In my respectful opinion, the new Justice Secretary has had the sense to change policies of his predecessor’s that were wrong, and there are things that he can put in place to mitigate what has been an unmitigated disaster in the justice system. I invite the Minister to respond to the comments that have been made by hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber.

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bailey? I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on having secured the debate. I also thank the other hon. Members who have contributed. This important subject is capable of arousing many passions, and I am pleased that the debate, although lively at times, has been conducted in a measured tone. I very much hope that will continue.

Let me be clear at the outset: the Government share the passion for a justice system that works for everyone. I have spoken previously about our commitment to one nation justice, which is fundamental to the rule of law. At the heart of one nation justice is equality. We are committed to making sure that our justice system delivers faster and fairer justice for all citizens, not just some. We are committed to a justice system that safeguards and protects the vulnerable and that works better for victims and witnesses. It must be recognised that legal aid is only one part of the balanced provision of access to justice, but it is nevertheless an important part, and I accept that there is a responsibility on the Government to ensure that it is available for those in the greatest need.

When the programme to reform legal aid commenced in 2010, the scale of the financial challenge facing the Government was unprecedented. The coalition had to find significant savings, which meant making difficult choices. Despite that, we have made sure that legal aid remains available for the highest priority cases, such as

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those where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where people face the loss of their home, as in cases of domestic violence, or where people’s children might be taken into care. It is also available in relation to the treatment and detention of people experiencing mental health problems and in cases concerning the best interests of people who lack mental capacity.

Tackling domestic violence remains a Government priority. For that reason, we have retained legal aid for the purpose of obtaining urgent protection via an injunction. In addition, in private family law cases—those concerning child arrangements and financial matters—funding may be available for those who will be materially disadvantaged by facing their abuser in court.

I hope hon. Members will accept that it is reasonable to ensure that the correct cases attract funding. However, we have listened and responded to specific concerns. That is why, during the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, we made changes to make evidence easier to obtain. In April 2014, we expanded the list of evidence accepted in applications for legal aid in private family cases. We also extended the definition of health professionals to include psychologists. We made further changes in July 2015, including by adding new offences to the list of domestic violence and child abuse offences. Further regulatory changes ensure that, once a particular form of legal aid has been granted, no further evidence needs to be submitted for someone to receive legal representation for their case. We will, of course, continue to keep the evidence requirements under review.

Mention has been made of exceptional case funding, and funding has been provided where it is required by law under European Union legislation or European convention on human rights regulations.

Stuart C. McDonald: The Minister explains how legal aid is still available in some of the most urgent situations—for example, when someone’s house is at risk of repossession. However, does that not raise the question, why wait until we get to that stage? Why not provide legal aid earlier, so that people do not get into that mess in the first place?

Mr Vara: It is important that the hon. Gentleman recognises that there must be some limit, and I will come in due course to how much money is spent. However, his criticism is ironic, given that he admitted in his speech that there is less expenditure per capita in Scotland than in England and Wales.

Stuart C. McDonald rose

Mr Vara: The hon. Gentleman did explain the reasons for that, but I have to say that the facts speak for themselves. He should not try to explain away the fact that there is less expenditure per capita in Scotland than in England and Wales—it is easy to be disingenuous in explaining things away. As I will explain later, the fact is that the legal aid budget for England and Wales is one of the largest in the world.

Stuart C. McDonald: The Minister misses the two key points I made in my speech about per capita spend. First, it is not fair just to compare legal aid spending per capita; we have to look at justice spending overall.

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Secondly—this is a matter of fact, not explaining things away—the higher per capita spend in England and Wales is a result of things such as the larger number of expensive fraud cases prosecuted south of the border. The proportion of people eligible for civil legal aid in Scotland is about 75%—well in excess of that in England and Wales. The Minister must also bear it in mind that the financial eligibility rules are more generous and the number of legal cases covered is far broader. He should try to learn lessons from the Scottish jurisdiction, so that savings can be made not by removing all sorts of cases and people from the scope of legal aid, but by achieving efficiencies in the system and other changes.

Mr Vara: I would simply say that the hon. Gentleman should look at some of the cases in England and Wales. He will find that some of the fraud cases in this jurisdiction are pretty complex. However, I am grateful to him for saying that it is important that we look at matters from an overall perspective. With the best will in the world, some of those who have spoken already have not done so—they have seen legal aid in a narrow confine, rather than from the overall perspective the hon. Gentleman speaks of.

Even after the reforms we have put in place, we still have a very generous legal aid system, compared with other countries. Last year we spent more than £1.6 billion on legal aid, which is about a quarter of the Ministry of Justice’s departmental expenditure. As I said, that is one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world.

Jo Stevens: Is it not the case, though, that the Ministry of Justice budget has been cut? Therefore, to boast that the Government are spending that proportion, when the overall amount of money has been reduced, is not really a boast at all.

Mr Vara: May I gently tell the hon. Lady that, were it not for the economic mess that the Labour Government left this country in—[Interruption.] Labour Members may well shrug their shoulders, but the reality is that, were it not for the mess they left and their economic mismanagement, we would not have had to take the tough decisions that we are having to take. I will return later to the views the Labour shadow justice team has expressed on the record about whether the cuts should have been made.

During the previous Parliament the coalition Government proposed a civil legal aid residence test, which has been referred to. The Government continue to believe that individuals should have a strong connection to the UK to benefit from our civil legal aid scheme, and intend to implement the residence test following recent success in the courts. I should add that during the previous Parliament the Government were particularly careful to listen to, and take into account, concerns that were raised about the residence test. As a result a number of modifications and exceptions were proposed, including in cases involving particularly vulnerable individuals. We believe that the proposed residence test, with specific exceptions for vulnerable groups, is both fair and appropriate. It has to be right that when British taxpayers’ money is being used for legal aid, the recipient of the legal aid should have a strong connection to our country.

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Karl Turner: Will the Minister kindly explain how the residence test will work in practice?

Mr Vara: Clearly, we have said that someone has to be here for a minimum of 12 months. We will ensure that when an application is made that criterion is fulfilled. If the person is in one of the exceptional categories the criterion will not apply.

Karl Turner: Let us say that a solicitor is taking instructions from a client. What evidence will be needed to prove habitual residence in the United Kingdom?

Mr Vara: The hon. Gentleman is an experienced barrister and an experienced politician. He will appreciate that the function of this House is to put policy into implementation, by ensuring that it becomes law. The practical process will need to be thought out—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”]—as is the case with every other measure introduced by the present and previous Governments, and during the 13 years when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in government, and even before that. That is something that will be dealt with and resolved.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for whom I have huge respect and regard, spoke passionately; but he will of course be aware that the matter is a devolved one. I wish him well in his dealings with David Ford, with whom I too have had dealings. To the extent that it will help, I will certainly tell him the next time I see him that the hon. Gentleman was speaking passionately and would like him to give a sympathetic ear when he raises the issue. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) will appreciate that, again, the issue is a devolved one; but he has put his views on record—including in our little dialogue during my speech.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) for bringing a realistic perspective to the debate, and for pointing out the reality of the situation. He repeatedly asked the shadow Justice Minister which of the cuts that we have made his party would reverse. I am not surprised that no reply was forthcoming, because in an interview with The Guardian on 30 January 2015, the former shadow Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), said:

“I don’t have a magic wand to wave. I can’t commit to reverse the £600m cuts to legal aid made by the Tories and Lib Dems. We will still have to take tough decisions on reducing the deficit.”

However, it was not only the former shadow Justice Secretary who took that view. The person in his team dealing specifically with legal aid, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), was interviewed by John Hyde of The Law Society Gazette on 24 September 2014:

“‘We’re not going to get in a Tardis and go back to before,’ he said. ‘We are in a world where resources are tight and it would not be right to pretend otherwise.’”

The article goes on:

“Slaughter conceded that the Labour party would have been forced to make cuts to family law funding and promote mediation as a cheaper option. He added that a Labour government would seek to promote and improve mediation services on offer.”

He is quoted as saying:

“‘We are going to be honest about the tightness of resources—we can’t tackle everything immediately and other elements”—

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of public spending—

“will have a higher place in the queue.’”

Jo Stevens: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Vara: I will give way, but perhaps the hon. Lady might like to say something about those comments from the Labour shadow Justice team.

Jo Stevens: I want to ask the Minister: does he support the principle of mediation?

Mr Vara: I absolutely do support the principle of mediation.

Jo Stevens: There we go.

Mr Vara: The hon. Lady seeks to justify the fact that her party says it will not make cuts reversals of £600 million by saying, “There you are.” Of course we support mediation. In fact we have said that in family cases where there are divorces, rather than the two separating parties engaging solicitors and then barristers, and then going to court—all paid for by the taxpayer—it is far better for them to sit around a table, trying to have a constructive dialogue with mediation. That way of reaching a solution is preferable.

Given that the shadow team has said it would not make any cuts, perhaps its members could reflect on whether the next time one of them speaks they might be supportive of our proposals, rather than simply saying, “Don’t reduce.”

Karl Turner: Will the Minister concede at least that the leader of the Labour party has set up the Bach commission, to look at the issue of access to justice? It would be constructive for Ministers at least to acknowledge that. It is true that my colleagues said previously that they could not just wave a magic wand—of course not; but some of the cuts were badly made and chaotic. Areas—swathes—were taken out of the scope of legal aid, with the consequence that the most vulnerable people suffered; and the reality was that that did not really save money.

Mr Vara: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments I just made—that his party’s shadow team said it would not reverse any of the cuts. That kind of contradicts what he says; but as far as Willy Bach is concerned—and he is a man for whom I have much respect—I wish him well with his commission. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) will be aware that we have said there will be a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 three to five years from its implementation. That will be a thorough review in relation to the way forward.

I want to mention some other points made in the debate. The hon. Member for Aberavon referred to some research conducted by Rights of Women, showing that 38% or 39% of women do not have the evidence needed to apply for legal aid. That research was based on responses from 61 people, which I hope even the hon. Gentleman will agree is a small sample—much smaller than researchers would ordinarily use to generalise across the wider population.

There is much debate about the amount of work available and the number of lawyers around to do it. The Law Society has itself accepted that there are far

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too many people chasing too little criminal work. We must recognise that the legal profession needs to take a wider look—not just to legal aid—at how things are going. In a relatively short time the structure of the legal profession has changed. There was a time when there were simply solicitors, barristers and legal executives; but now barristers in particular face competition from solicitors who have higher rights of audience than previously. There are more people wanting to qualify as barristers, as well. Alternative business structures are coming on the scene. That means that more and more people are chasing the same amount of work.

Jo Stevens: The point is not that there is not sufficient work for barristers to do, but that there is no legal aid available to enable people who need legal advice to go to a lawyer and get help. We have more people going to prison than for many years, and more people going into the criminal justice system. There is plenty of work; it is just that those people cannot afford anyone to represent them.

Mr Vara: Perhaps the hon. Lady missed the point when I said that we have one of the largest legal aid budgets in the world, at £1.6 billion. I would say that that is capable of buying a substantial amount of legal aid assistance and advocacy for people. I go back to the comment from the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East about the importance of looking at matters in the round, from a broader perspective.

Much has been said about employment tribunal fees and the fact that people are not using employment tribunals any more. There should be some recognition of the ACAS early conciliation process, which did not exist before but has dealt with some 83,000 cases in the 12 months since it was introduced. There should also be some recognition of the fact that the economy is improving, and that more jobs are being created out there. It is always the case, looking back at the trend of such things, that there is less demand for employment tribunals when the economy is improving. People should not overlook the fact that more than 80,000 cases have been dealt with by ACAS’s early conciliation process. Furthermore, looking at matters in the round, let us not forget that this Government are committed to spending some £700 million on reforming the courts system, which means there will be a better way of accessing justice than exists at the moment.

Coming back to the words in the title of this debate, we very much hope that the reforms will particularly assist vulnerable people, including victims, witnesses and others. The reforms will mean, for example, that those people do not have to attend a court to give evidence, but can instead go to a convenient location close to them and give evidence by video conferencing. We will also make more use of modern technology in a broader perspective. We already have prisoners giving evidence from prisons, which avoids getting caught up in traffic jams and all the additional security costs that taking them to court would entail.

Stephen Kinnock: Given the changes that are being introduced and the impact they will have in real time, does the Minister not agree that waiting for three to five years before doing a review of LASPO is simply evidence of being asleep at the wheel? A review of LASPO needs to be brought forward in a far shorter timeframe.

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Mr Vara: It is important to recognise that LASPO made a huge change to the whole structure of the legal aid system. It is important that we ensure the changes have sufficient time to bed in, in order to make a proper assessment of whether they have worked. As it happens, the three to five year period is more or less approaching us, and we will do the review in 2016 to 2018, but it is important that we allow such fundamental changes to take place.

Jo Stevens: Can the Minister tell us whether the review of LASPO will be in 2016 or is likely to be at the end of the period?

Mr Vara: I am afraid I cannot tell the hon. Lady when the review will be. Clearly, we are giving much thought to that. We want to get it right and to ensure that the changes we have made already have the effect we wanted. If necessary, we will make changes. As I say, the timing of the review is yet to be decided, but we are committed to doing it and will do so.

I am mindful that the hon. Member for Aberavon must have an opportunity to wind up, so I will simply conclude by saying that I hope hon. Members will appreciate this Government’s commitment to a one nation justice system that safeguards and protects the vulnerable, supported by a strong and sustainable legal aid system to provide advice and support for the highest priority cases. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aberavon for securing the debate and to all other Members who have spoken.

10.54 am

Stephen Kinnock: It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bailey. I thank all hon. Members present today for some truly engaging and insightful contributions to this vital debate. We have heard a range of comments about the comparison between our system and others and the professed commitment to a one nation justice system, as well as a passionate exchange of views about the real role of a legal and justice system.

A conclusion from my point of view is that there seems to be very little traction in comparing other systems to ours; it is like comparing apples to pears. Another conclusion I draw is that change and reform are absolutely fine. Nobody thinks our system should be static and stuck in the mud, but if we are going to change, we do not change simply by slashing and burning. We change by having a proper plan B and a sustainable system to put in as a replacement, rather than simply salami-slicing across the current system. It seems we are creating a truly two nation justice system, and if that happens, it will be a tragedy.

We have seen some evidence of listening from the Government. The screeching U-turn that the Justice Secretary performed on the scrapping of criminal court charges is evidence of such listening, and Opposition Members certainly welcome that. Rather than diving down into the weeds, I will conclude by saying that a justice system needs to pass four key tests. First, it must uphold the belief that someone is innocent until proven guilty. Secondly, everyone should have access to justice, regardless of their means. Thirdly, it is essential that we have confidence that the true perpetrators of crime have

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been found guilty and are not walking the streets. Fourthly, the system must deliver value for money for the taxpayer.

I am afraid that on all four of those tests, the Government are failing. We hope they will listen carefully to the proposals we have made today about the changes that are required. I also hope that we can, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) said, try to put politics aside and work together to create a more equitable, efficient and fair justice system.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered access to justice for vulnerable people.

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Historical Cabinet Papers

10.58 am

Richard Burgon (Leeds East) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the annual release of Cabinet papers to the National Archives.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am delighted that this important debate has been called today, as it gets to the heart of this Government’s record on transparency and accountability.

The relationship between those we elect to govern us and ordinary people does not have to be built upon unbroken, uninterrupted trust. In fact, a healthy scepticism that challenges, scrutinises and protests is the hallmark of a democracy in good health. In order to do that, however, the scales needs to be as evenly weighted as possible between the people and the Government and between the institutions of the state and those who use them.

We have seen in communities up and down the land the consequences of secrecy, cover-ups and a breakdown in trust—put simply, the consequences of too much power in the hands of too few. In Liverpool, an entire community was shouting alone for justice for nearly two decades against institutions and a police force that felt that it was not for scousers to be questioning its version of events—a version of events that has been proven to be falsified, in order to protect the police at the expense of the truth.

Or take what happened on 18 June 1984 at Orgreave and the charges of police brutality, perverting the course of justice and misconduct in a public office—among the most serious offences that can be found in a country that upholds the rule of law, and yet they have still not been properly investigated to this very day. When secrecy in Government institutions prevails, the health of our democracy and the rights of our citizens pay the price. I am sorry to say that this Government’s record on transparency and accountability has been anything but exemplary.

Plans to water down the Freedom of Information Act 2000 have been cloaked in the grizzled words of Ministers, who talk darkly about journalists unacceptably abusing the Act to generate stories—something that many of us call journalism. Last year alone, such journalism uncovered remarkable details of hundreds of dangerous criminals on the run, how many times our data have been breached online, what police knew about child sexual exploitation, and details of Conservative party donors making millions in housing benefit. Those were not fanciful, frivolous requests, but stories very definitely in the public interest.

What about being held to account? We have seen the Trade Union Bill and the gagging Act. There is the strangling of the finances of political opponents, in contravention of decades-old convention. The Human Rights Act is seen as nothing but an irritant. There is the NHS weekly bulletin, which was due to begin publication late last year, but which no longer includes figures on four-hour waits. There are the new rules revealing that hospitals had effectively been banned from declaring major incidents—all that from a Prime Minister, who said airily just before entering high office, let “sunshine” be “the best disinfectant”. However, there is some cleaning up to do, because, put simply, this is a

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Prime Minister and a Government who do not like being challenged. This is a Prime Minister and a Government who do not like scrutiny.

It was with depressing familiarity, therefore, that we learnt over the Christmas recess that the Government had stopped the long-standing practice of releasing a comprehensive historical account of discussions and decisions made by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet under the 30-year rule—or, now, the 20-year rule—at the turn of the year. Instead, there was only a frankly pitiful selection of files cherry-picked from the Prime Minister’s office. For the first time in 50 years, a Government have not released official files in full. Although long-standing convention has seen some 500 files released simultaneously from the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister’s office at the turn of the year, this year just 58 files were released.

The Government try to reassure us that further files will be forthcoming throughout the year but as yet there is no timetable for release or any indication of whether that will be comprehensive. Will the Government choose to release them on Budget day, for instance, or perhaps on the day before the summer recess, so as to avoid scrutiny? These may seem like hypothetical musings, but Ministers already have a track record of doing that. On the day of the Christmas recess, the Government released 36 ministerial statements and 424 Government documents in one day. That was surely done in the hope that hard-pressed lobby journalists would miss—in the thousands of pages of data—revelations from the Department for Work and Pensions that three quarters of those affected by the hated bedroom tax have had to cut back on food, or that there has been a 45% increase in homeless families living in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

I would like to press the Minister on a timetable for the release of all public records and on whether that release will be comprehensive, as required under the Public Records Act 1958. It would also be helpful to the House if he could explain the contents of a somewhat cryptic answer that the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). He stated:

“Cabinet papers for the period 1986-1989 have already been transferred to the National Archives.”

The answer does not clearly indicate whether all those Cabinet papers have been released to the National Archives. As the Minister knows that would include, in line with precedent, some 500 files released from both the Prime Minister’s office and the Cabinet Office. Can he assure the House that all those files have been comprehensively released to the National Archives? If they have, and given that, as the Minister knows, it is procedure for the National Archives to release all files transferred to it as soon as possible, on what basis was it decided that some files would be released and others not? Was that decision taken by the National Archives, which does a fantastic job, or was it taken, as we expect, by Ministers?

On that point, how many applications have the Government submitted to the National Archives to retain documents for any reason under section 3 of the Public Records Act? Given that the use of these instruments of retention by the Government are not always publicly available, will the Minister at least confirm how many documents the Government have submitted instruments of retention for?

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Louise Haigh (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab): I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate, given that Ministers have so far failed to come and give a statement to the House on why the Cabinet Office papers have been delayed. Does he agree that it is particularly important that the Government are open and transparent about the documents they retain and release because, as of December 2015, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport now has the responsibility to approve the retention of documents on advice from the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives? Therefore, two advisers to the then Thatcher Government—the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) and the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale)—are now responsible for both the release and the potential retention of information relating to matters pertaining to that Government.

Richard Burgon: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is exactly right: these questions matter because the period covered was one of profound political sensitivity and because Ministers responsible for the release of these files were in the thick of it at that time as advisers to senior politicians.

In 2014—the last time there was a comprehensive release of Cabinet papers—we learnt that the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had lied to the public about the extent of the pit closure plan, her attempt to influence police tactics and the involvement of MI5 in spying on officials of the National Union of Mineworkers. That information demonstrated the extent to which the Government can use the institutions of the state against ordinary people. It is good for our democracy that the information was released, and it helps the ongoing fight for justice in the coalfield communities. This year, however, with such a small selection of files released, issues of political importance such as the discussions on the poll tax and the black Monday stock market crash have remained secret. Those were decisions that senior Ministers in the current Government were directly involved in.

Thanks to previous releases covering 1985-86, we know that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) advised the then Thatcher Government to use Scotland as a testing bed for the hated poll tax, but there the information, sadly, dries up. We do not know how this young adviser, in the teeth of powerful Cabinet opposition, managed to force through one of the most politically catastrophic and socially toxic policies in post-war history. Not only is that of historical interest, but it gives us an insight into the ideology and motives of the Prime Minister’s senior policy chief. We see a clear progression from the right hon. Gentleman’s policy formulation in the 1980s and policy implementation under the current Government.

Louise Haigh: On that point, is my hon. Friend aware that in the 1980s the right hon. Member for West Dorset authored an extreme pamphlet for a think-tank that offered suggestions on exactly how to privatise the NHS? Two of those suggestions have now been implemented by this Conservative Government. Does that not prove the direct link between policy formulation under that Government and the policy being implemented by this one, and further emphasise the need for transparency?

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Richard Burgon: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is right, and I am glad she has drawn the House’s attention to the extremist past and, I would say, the extremist present of some of those in such an ideological Government. The pamphlet she is referring to is “Britain’s biggest enterprise”, in which the right hon. Member for West Dorset called for a health insurance scheme and charging across the NHS. Thankfully, those shameful views have not been taken up by the current Government—yet. His views on increasing the use of joint ventures between the NHS and the private sector very definitely have been implemented.

This goes to the heart of the matter. If previous Cabinet releases have detailed damaging revelations about senior members of this Government and their ideology and motives—motives that have been carried into the current Government—why has this year’s release been so dramatically curtailed? What detail is in those approximately 450 files that have not yet been released? Did the right hon. Member for West Dorset, who is now a Minister in the Cabinet Office—the Department with responsibility for the release of these files—have any say in that?

Apparently, the Government have managed to find a way to water down the accountability of two Conservative Administrations in one go. The Government promised to be the most transparent in the world, but we increasingly find that their rhetoric does not match the reality. The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, the man charged with upholding the public’s right to information, boldly warned that the Government should not return to the dark ages of private Government. The Government should heed that warning. We all should.

11.11 am

The Minister for Civil Society (Mr Rob Wilson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) on securing this debate. I start by saying, as he did, that this Government are committed to being the most transparent ever and take their commitment under the Public Records Act seriously.

A key plank of our commitment to transparency is our work on releasing files after 20 years, rather than 30 years as was previously the case. I acknowledge openly that this is a really big, major challenge for the Government, which unfortunately we felt short of in December 2015. I hope it will be helpful to the hon. Gentleman and others here today if I respond to their points by setting out first how the Cabinet Office is working to meet its obligations under the Public Records Act, which sets out how and when Government records should be transferred to the National Archives, and explaining why some may sometimes need to be retained.

The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 shortened the period before which files are released from 30 years to 20 years. This means that for a transitional period, two years of files are being reviewed each year, a doubling of the information in scope. In this process, each file undergoes a series of detailed checks to protect, for example, national security and sensitive personal data. This in no way lessens our commitment to transparency but takes time to do properly. This is a significant challenge for all involved. For Departments,

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it is a doubling of the workload, and the same considerations need to be made before papers are sent to the National Archives.

The National Archives are meeting these challenges head-on, which means extra papers coming through to them with high public demand as the subjects covered are relatively recent. By 2023, this process of reviewing two years of records in one year will be complete.

In December, we transferred a number of 1987 and 1988 files and this formed part of a press event arranged by the National Archives. We will be transferring more shortly, with the aim of completing the transfer of our 1987 and 1988 files as soon as possible. Files up to 1990 will be released throughout the year.

Louise Haigh: I am a little confused. The Paymaster General wrote to me a couple of weeks ago saying the delay in the release of Cabinet papers was due to a change in policy by releasing some earlier in 2015, some in December 2015 and some at an unspecified date later this year. Now the Minister is saying that it was due to lack of resources or an increased challenge. Will he confirm whether it is due to a specific change in policy that will occur next year, or lack of resources?

Mr Wilson: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. If she will bear with me, all will become clear because I will set out in painstaking detail the process by which we are handling the matter.

The Cabinet Office was due to transfer all information from 1987 and 1988 by the end of 2015 but, as is clear, we did not manage to do so. Both 1987 and 1988 were eventful years, as we have heard from the hon Gentleman, and this impacted on the Department’s ability to get these files reviewed as quickly as we wanted. Each file is painstakingly checked before transfer, which is not about withholding secrets and covering up inconvenient facts, as the hon. Gentleman alleged. Let me inform hon. Members about the sort of information that must be checked.

Files emanating from No. 10 will cover the whole range of issues that the Government deal with, from benefits to defence spending, overseas trade, support for community groups and a whole host of other things. They will include things like personal information relating to individuals involved, even home addresses, and everything to do with relationships with other countries and national security. On every appearance of such information a careful consultation process takes place, which may result in documents being redacted or retained.

The transfers that have already taken place mean that nearly 70,000 Cabinet Office files or volumes are held by the National Archives, an amazing repository holding over 1,000 years of iconic national documents, which the public can access free. Its online catalogue is the single point of access to 32 million descriptions of records. In 2014-15, there were approaching a quarter of a billion downloads from its collection.

When files reach the National Archives, a number of processes are involved to make information available to as many people as possible—for example, through digitisation. This means an inevitable time lag between the Cabinet Office transferring files to the National Archives and their appearance in the collection. This is why the Cabinet papers for 1987 and 1988 have not yet appeared in the public catalogue although they have

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been transferred to the National Archives. Another factor is that files are not always transferred in the year that one might expect as they are not assessed for transfer until the date of the last paper on the file. This explains why papers sometimes appear in the National Archives later than expected.

We are aware of the changing landscape of records management. The National Archives, as trusted experts in information and records management, will help to ensure that in an age when more and more of the Government’s records are born-digital, we open more records to the public as soon as possible. To that end, our intention is now to release files more frequently throughout the year, rather than in a single annual event. This means that, from later this year, we will start to release records from 1989 and 1990 in advance of the traditional release at the end of December. Cabinet Office officials are working closely with the National Archives to strengthen the entire process of how and when Cabinet Office files are released to the public.

Throughout 2016, there will be a number of releases from the Cabinet Office to the National Archives, catching up on the 1987 and 1988 records and then working through the 1989 and 1990 papers. I believe this is consistent with our overall transparency objectives, and that the regular releases will be a more effective way to work, particularly in the context of a doubling of the amount of information in scope.

The hon. Member for Leeds East asked several questions about the Cabinet minutes for 1987 and 1988, and papers from the Prime Minister’s Office for the same period. The Cabinet Office has transferred the Cabinet papers and minutes for the period 1987-88 to the National Archives. Some of the Prime Minister’s papers are already with the National Archives, including those made available at the press event in December. Our aim is for the remainder of those that can be transferred to be with the National Archives as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman asked about freedom of information, and he mentioned Hillsborough in his opening comments. No Government have done more than this one to shine a light on the truth, after 13 years of a Labour Government who failed to do what was necessary to open up the facts of Hillsborough to the public in the Merseyside area who were demanding access to them. He said that the Government were pushing for a review of freedom of information. Actually, I think the first person to push for such a review was Tony Blair, who mentioned in his autobiography that he was keen to change freedom of information.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the series of statements that appeared at the end of the last Session. I have to remind him that it was a Labour special adviser who, when the party was in government, described a particular day as

“a good day to bury bad news”.

I hope he remembers that phrase; it certainly did not come from the Conservative Government. I know that there is a new Mulder and Scully “X-Files” series out, and I do wonder about the conspiracy theories that sometimes run riot around this place, because in this case, there are no conspiracy theories to be had.

Louise Haigh: The Minister has mentioned conspiracy theories. One of our main conspiracy theories is about the advisers that have been involved in both Conservative

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Governments, whom the Minister has not mentioned. He mentioned a consultation process. I wonder whether the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) is involved in that consultation process, and whether he has any say over the documents that are retained or released.

Mr Wilson: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. The consultation process is one that officials handle. As far as I am aware—I think I am as aware as I can be on these matters—I do not believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) has vetoed any of the files that I think the hon. Lady is referring to in her question. But if there is more information that we can provide her with, obviously I would be very happy to write to her to update her.

I will move on to some comments about freedom of information. Freedom of information remains at the heart of transparency and accountability, and it goes hand in hand with the Public Records Act. The Government fully support freedom of information, but after more than a decade in operation, we think it is time that the process was reviewed to make sure that it is working effectively for hard-working taxpayers while allowing free and frank advice to be given to decision makers. That is why we have appointed an independent panel to look at the issue and assess how the practical processes of freedom of information can be improved. The commission will publish a report, as the hon. Gentleman knows, as soon as possible after its oral evidence sessions have been conducted. It would not be appropriate for me to pre-empt its work by getting into discussions today about the relative merits of the different parts of the Act.

I will end by making a few comments on the broader question of transparency. The Government take great pride in the fact that the UK leads the world in transparency and open government. I am not the only one who says so. The World Wide Web Foundation’s open data barometer and Open Knowledge’s global open data index ranked the UK No. 1. Over the past five years we have opened up more than 20,000 Government datasets to the public. We publish an unprecedented amount of data about everything from procurement to the gifts received by Ministers, and we continually strive to go even further.

Releasing open data makes the Government more accountable to citizens, helps to improve the efficiency of public services and drives social and economic growth. We have made expenditure data covering more than £188 billion of Government spending available for public scrutiny, and through our renewed Government data programme and our leading role in the international Open Government Partnership we will continue to be one of the most open and transparent Governments in the world. Those are not insignificant achievements, and we want to go even further. In our next Open Government Partnership national action plan, which is due to be published in the summer, we will develop an offer on transparency—including freedom of information—that strengthens the Government’s commitment to open government overall.

In conclusion, this Government are the most transparent Government ever, and we are a world leader in the quantity of information available from a range of sources. I acknowledge that, in common with other Departments, the performance of the Cabinet Office in transferring

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papers from 1987 and 1988 has not been perfect, as I said at the outset. I am, however, confident that more of that historic information will be available to the public shortly, including the Cabinet Office papers that have already been transferred to the National Archives and will be available very soon. The aim is to complete the transfer of the 1987-88 papers as soon as possible. In future, we will move to release files more frequently throughout the year rather than in a single annual event. That means that before the end of the year, there will be 1989 and 1990 papers in the National Archives.

Question put and agreed to.

11.26 am

Sitting suspended.

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Cancer Drugs

[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the removal of drugs from the Cancer Drugs Fund list.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I secured this debate to raise the case of a constituent and to allow other Members to discuss the effects that removing drugs from the Cancer Drugs Fund will have and, I suspect, the current consultation on the fund. The latest delisting of some drugs from the fund has happened since the last debate on cancer drugs, and I am sure that many Members have heard from constituents who have been affected.

In November, I was contacted by a constituent, Tina Spencer-Keyse, about her husband Graham, who in 2010, at 51, was diagnosed with myeloma, which is a rarer cancer caused by abnormal cells in the bone marrow, where all blood cells are made. Myeloma is a relapsing and remitting cancer, meaning that there are periods when the myeloma causes symptoms and complications and needs to be treated, followed by periods of remission or plateau, when the myeloma does not cause symptoms and does not require treatment. Because myeloma is relapsing and remitting, it is crucial that clinicians are always one step ahead of the disease and that there is a treatment option for the patient to receive when it returns, especially when other treatment options have already been used.

Until August 2015, Tina and Graham had hoped to use one further drug treatment available for myeloma. Pomalidomide, also known as Imnovid, is used to treat relapsed multiple myeloma patients who have received prior treatment regimens but for whom the disease has continued to grow and spread. Imagine how devastated the Spencer-Keyse family were to find out then that the drug had been removed from the list of drugs available through the fund. Following the delisting, there are no other licensed treatments available for myeloma patients in England. Patients have no other options once the drug they are currently taking fails. They have nowhere else to go. Imagine the frustration, and probably anger, that they and thousands of others feel when a drug that was available just months before is no longer available to them but is still being used by other patients who were prescribed it before the delisting. The situation is such that a doctor might see one patient in the morning and be able to continue prescribing a treatment yet see another patient with the same disease afterwards and not be able to do so, even when they know it could help.

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Another example of a drug that has been delisted, causing similar frustration, is Abraxane, which is used in the treatment of advanced pancreatic cancer and was removed from the Cancer Drugs Fund in November. First, does she share my concern that although the delisting applies only to England, it causes worries across the rest of the UK as to whether the drug will

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become unavailable there, too? Secondly, although of course a consistent set of rules must be applied, one of the issues with pancreatic cancer is that 80% of patients are diagnosed when the cancer has already spread. Although Abraxane may only give a few weeks more life, those weeks may double life expectancy.

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Order. Interventions must be brief.

Pauline Latham: I accept what the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) says. I have also campaigned for Abraxane to continue because, very sadly, a former Member of this House died from pancreatic cancer in the last Parliament. He had very few weeks to live once he was diagnosed, so it is a particularly unpleasant disease.

Sir Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): On Abraxane, does my hon. Friend agree that if a cancer is fast-acting and the gap between diagnosis and death can be as little as six months, getting an extra month or two means that a person can settle their affairs and get peace of mind? That is very important time.

Pauline Latham: It is incredibly important time. Any extra few weeks in such a situation is so valuable to those patients.

In answer to a written question submitted by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on 10 December 2015, the Minister said:

“NHS England has advised that a draft treatment pathway for patients with multiple myeloma, which takes into account the…impact of treatments removed from the Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF), is currently being finalised.”

I hope he is able to update us today on when those proposals might be published. My constituent and his family would like to know what options, if any, he has.

It is not only drugs for rarer cancers that have been hit. Drugs to treat breast cancer, bowel cancer, prostate cancer, leukaemia and other blood cancers, some gynaecological cancers and cancers that affect the central nervous system have all been removed, which probably amounts to thousands of patients who are now unable to receive treatment. That is absolutely devastating for patients and their families, as the chance to prolong life for a few more months or years has been diminished.

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on the passion she is showing in putting her case. What does she think about NHS England’s proposal that the Cancer Drugs Fund should become a managed-access fund that pays for promising new drugs for a set period before the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence decides whether the drugs should be routinely available on the NHS? Does she think that is a good idea or not a good idea?

Pauline Latham: I will come on to that later. If my hon. Friend does not mind waiting a few moments, he will hear what I have to say.

Delisted drugs are still potentially available on an individual basis via an individual funding request. Is the Minister able to say how many of those requests have been successful as a proportion of all requests, and

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for which drugs? I know he is working extremely hard on this matter, about which he cares passionately, and I thank him for that.

Although there has been recent progress, the UK still lags behind most other developed nations on use and access to cancer drugs. In fact, we do not do as well on outcomes for cancer as many other nations. Nationally, cancer is still the largest killer, accounting for 29% of all registered deaths in 2014, the last year for which Office for National Statistics figures are available. Tracking the history of the Cancer Drugs Fund, a fund for which I have repeatedly supported investment, we can see that it has been on a rocky road to get to where we are now. Drugs have been removed, and the general consensus is that the fund has become unsustainable.

For the first three years, the fund underspent its budget—the opposite problem from the one we have now. In fact, between October 2010 and March 2013, the 10 strategic health authorities that administered the fund underspent by £128 million, or 28% of the fund’s total budget. That is a lot of money that could have been spent treating cancer patients. There was significant geographic disparity in the use of the fund. In the east midlands, which covers my Mid Derbyshire constituency, the number of patients supported by the fund per 1,000 new cancer cases in 2012-13 was just 27. That was the lowest figure in the country and represented a failure of the East Midlands strategic health authority, which was then in control of administering the fund, to promote its use to clinicians and patients. Several of my constituents died prematurely because they were refused funds for the drugs they needed when the fund was always underspent, despite pleading from me on behalf of people who were spending their own money on those drugs.

Since NHS England and Public Health England took control of the fund, the change has been dramatic. Having one central authority administering the fund removes the geographic differences whereby treatment authorities were promoting the fund and treatments at different levels. The effect is such that patient numbers skyrocketed. As last year’s high quality National Audit Office report on the Cancer Drugs Fund notes, the number of patients approved for funding increased by about 30% each year from 2011 to 2015, which should be viewed as a success for patients. Thanks to the fund, 84,000 patients have been able to access treatments that they would otherwise have been denied. The success is such that, in 2014-15, almost one in five patients started a new cancer drug through the Cancer Drugs Fund. What was meant to be a temporary measure is now a mainstay of cancer treatment in England.

Obviously, such growth comes with a price; the cost of funding the scheme spiralled out of control. Following the Government’s decision to extend the fund to March 2016, NHS England increased the annual budget from £200 million to £280 million for 2014-15 and 2015-16. In January 2015, it increased the budget for 2015-16 again to £340 million, meaning that the fund now has an expected lifetime budget of £1.27 billion.

Was taking drugs off the list a solution to the fund’s problems? It was certainly the easiest way to regain control of costs, but it hit patients hardest rather than solving the problems with NICE’s approval processes, which was the underlying reason for the fund’s creation. The rapid response to regain control of the budget also means that no new treatments were added to the Cancer

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Drugs Fund from January 2015. The decision whether to keep drugs on the fund’s list or remove them was based on their clinical effectiveness and cost, but from the start, the fund did not keep records of treatment outcomes. Surely it is hard to obtain a full understanding of drugs’ full efficacy if a full analysis is not available by which to judge them. The failure to collect data on patient outcomes until July 2015 is truly disgraceful and undermines any proper evaluation of the fund’s success.

I am particularly attracted to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) during a Public Accounts Committee oral evidence session on the Cancer Drugs Fund last year. She asked why the Department of Health did not

“knock the heads of the SHAs together to ensure that there was some sort of common collection of data”,

instead of just recommending it. Fortunately, NHS England and Public Health England have resolved the problem—today, every new Cancer Drugs Fund patient is automatically identified on the systemic anti-cancer therapy database—but five years to fix a problem is far too long, and a failing of the fund.

Although data outcomes are now mandated, the rate of return has been far from perfect. In 2014-15, many records lacked important data. Most shockingly, 93% of patient records submitted did not have an outcome summary. Will the Minister inform us whether there will be penalties for trusts that consistently fail to produce the required data on cancer treatments?

The lack of data collection also undermines efforts to establish whether the price paid for drugs is equal to their outcomes. As the chief executive of the NHS admitted himself, the NHS has not been good enough at negotiating a price for drugs. Many drugs have been delisted because they were deemed too expensive. The drug Imnovid, which would benefit my constituent Graham, costs the NHS £115,000 a year, compared with £90,000 in Spain.

The failure to negotiate the best price was demonstrated by the fact that when threatened with removal from the list, some manufacturers were able to offer a lower price for their drugs. I understand that Imnovid was already offered at a discounted price, but I cannot blame drug manufacturers for not immediately offering the lowest price that they can afford. They need profits to use on research and development and to show value for their investments. Will the lack of positive outcomes from the price negotiations be addressed in the new CDF proposals? Also, can the Minister provide information on the number of negotiations between NHS England and drug manufacturers that have been positively resolved, and which drugs they relate to?

The new Cancer Drugs Fund proposals aim to distribute more evenly the financial risk of placing a drug in the fund, but the Rarer Cancers Foundation strongly suggests that the NHS has not been flexible in negotiating with pharmaceutical companies on value propositions for treatments in the fund. Can the Minister confirm whether NHS England rejected multi-treatment cost reductions from drug companies because they would have fallen outside of NHS England’s standard operating procedure? Likewise, from evidence given to the Public Accounts

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Committee, it is clear that some companies have offered financial schemes stating that if the medicine does not work as expected, its cost will be returned to the NHS, but have been turned down in favour of straight discount schemes. Together, such schemes would offer a win for the taxpayer and would have allowed more drugs to be made available for the fund.

My final comments concern the proposed reforms to the appraisal process for drugs on the fund, which under current plans will be put solely in the hands of NICE. The proposal is that the CDF should become a managed access fund for new cancer drugs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) mentioned, with clear entry and exit criteria. It would be used to enable access to drugs that appear promising but for which NICE indicates that there is insufficient evidence to support a recommendation for routine commissioning. At the end of the period, the drug would go through a short NICE appraisal, using the additional evidence.

For those looking for treatment for rarer cancers, such as myeloma, there are a number of questions about the new proposals that need to be addressed to ensure access to new treatments. As I understand it, under the new proposals, only a limited number of patients will have treatment funded through the CDF, and the industry is expected to fund additional patients. The consultation sets out NHS England’s proposal to limit funding for each drug on the CDF to the number of patients required to be treated in order to gain further evidence for use in NICE appraisal. The consultation is not clear what data NICE might require to be gathered during the CDF funding phase or the indicative size of patient populations. It is therefore difficult to assess whether the proposals would result in more or fewer patients getting access to treatment than the current arrangements.

What consideration is there for drugs for rarer cancers, which will have smaller patient pools creating only a small amount of data? Does the appraisal process have flexibility for such drugs? It is not clear whether pharmaceutical companies will be willing to fund patients for the 24 months required to allow data to mature if they think the likelihood of NICE approval at the end remains small. That could result in patients losing out once again on innovative treatments, or a situation in which drugs are put on the fund list and taken off in 24-month cycles, leading to uncertainty for patients about which drugs they have access to, just like the uncertainty caused by the current delisting.

I would like reassurances from the Minister that patients seeking treatment after the number of patients required to be treated in order to gain further evidence has been reached will not be denied treatment given to others in their situation. Does he believe that the changes to the NICE process outlined in the consultation are sufficient to ensure that more cancer treatments will receive positive NICE recommendations? Patients should be at the centre of any new decisions about the fund. Finally, I ask the Minister how the views of patients will be given greater weight in the new CDF arrangements.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend. Does she agree that the crux of the matter is that the NICE evaluation criteria for those sorts of drug have not been adequate? The whole genesis of the Cancer Drugs Fund is in a

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failure of NICE. We need to get the NICE criteria right; then we would not need a drugs fund in the current format.

Pauline Latham: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. NICE has not done what it should have done. I hope that the Minister will be able to rectify that failure in the system.

Resolving data collection issues, negotiating value for the taxpayer and making the NICE assessment process flexible for innovative new drugs and drugs designed to treat only a small number of patients are vital for the fund to work successfully when it re-launches in April. Will the Minister please look again at the delisted drugs and give hope to people such as Graham that they can spend longer with their loved ones? Failing to do so will fail to help those whom the fund is designed to help most: cancer patients and their families.

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Colleagues, we have 40 minutes until the winding-up speeches begin at 3.30, so we are looking at six-minute speeches, by voluntary submission. I will call Jim Shannon first, as he has to go and chair an important all-party parliamentary group; I hope that colleagues will accept that. He has promised me to speak for no more than five minutes.

2.49 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Thank you, Mr Streeter. You have put me on a sticky wicket. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing this debate. It is good to be here and to be involved. About six months ago, I had a similar debate on the availability of cancer drugs, at which I think she was present. We hoped that six months later we might be back to say that things were better or had advanced, but unfortunately they are not, or not in the way that we would like.

I would just like to mention the many organisations that are helpful, because every one of us will have some cancer organisations close to their heart. Mine are Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and Marie Curie, because I have a very good friend, Irene Brown, who is terminally ill and she is in the Marie Curie centre in Belfast. The treatment that Marie Curie gives is second to none, and people only have to be there to be part of that family that helps.

The Macmillan charity says that 2.5 million people in the UK were living with cancer in 2015. It says that 5% of our total adult population are affected, which shows the problem is enormous. For many of us, cancer is not simply something that others talk about; it is something that affects each and every one of us every day. My father was a survivor of cancer on three occasions. I put that down to the skill of the surgeon, the prayers of God’s people—something that many of us here would understand—and the care of the nurses. He survived and lived for another 36 years, dying just last year, at the ripe old age of 85. The marvellous steps that modern medicine has taken are fantastic.

Moves such as the removal of drugs prevents thousands of cancer sufferers across England and Wales from being able to access the quality treatment they deserve. Thousands of people are disadvantaged, thousands of people lose out and thousands of normal people are in despair. That is the reality of not having access to cancer drugs. I do not know what it is, but I have more

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people coming to my office suffering from cancer than I can ever recall. I know that there is a 50% survival rate today for those with cancer, which is fantastic—what a step forward—but I see more people with cancer than ever before. I am not sure whether it is due to diet or lifestyle, or whatever it is, but cancer is certainly a greater issue for me than ever.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): We understand that, from April, NICE will have the overall say about what drugs and treatments people will receive. We know that we have to be prudent with money, but surely finance should not be the overriding factor when it comes to people’s lives.

Jim Shannon: I thank my hon. Friend for saying that. Over the last few months and before Christmas, I had the opportunity to meet some of the pharmaceutical companies, and I have to say—and to be careful what I say—that they are not terribly happy with NICE and how it has responded to them. Some of those pharmaceutical companies have reduced their prices and still NICE does not respond in the positive fashion that we would expect it to. That is one of my concerns, certainly.

I would put Queen’s University Belfast up there as one of the universities working in partnership with medical companies, including companies from China and from across the United Kingdom. The partnerships that the university has developed and the innovative drugs that it is coming up with, as well as the investigations and trials that take place there to find new drugs, are impressive. We have new developments in Northern Ireland in cancer research, and we need to see a national strategy. Perhaps the Minister could respond to that point—let me apologise to him again, having already done so beforehand, for not being here for his response to the debate.

My party colleague Simon Hamilton is a Member of the Legislative Assembly and the Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Health is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. We have a number of Members from Northern Ireland—there are five here today—which shows the interest in this issue in Northern Ireland. Simon Hamilton has taken the initiative to release £1.5 million to fund specialist cancer drugs. That will allow some of the NICE-approved cancer drugs and treatments to go ahead this year.

That move in Northern Ireland will go some way towards enabling the health service there to reach the cancer target. Each day in Northern Ireland, 23 people are diagnosed with cancer and 11 people die of it. There were more than 331,000 new cases of cancer in 2011 across the United Kingdom, and 161,823 deaths from cancer in 2012. The enormity of cancer—how it afflicts people and how many people die—cannot be underlined enough.

The latest delisting of drugs from the Cancer Drugs Fund looks like a step back rather than a step forward in the fight against cancer. I know that we cannot be completely resistant to change—the Minister knows that and, as elected representatives ourselves, we also know it. If drugs are proving ineffective, they should be delisted, but at the same time, if drugs are effective, let us get them on the list and make them available to those who need them most. We should be here to commend, I hope, the addition of a new form of effective treatment.

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To conclude—I am very conscious of what you said earlier, Mr Streeter—the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire mentioned Abraxane, and here is the postcode lottery. Those living in Northern Ireland do not have any access to Abraxane whatsoever. Those living in England had access to it in March 2014, but not now. People in Scotland have had access to Abraxane since January 2015 and will still have it. In Wales, people have been able to access it since September 2014, but now it looks like that might be affected as well. That is the postcode lottery for cancer drugs. It is completely unacceptable, and I commend the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire for securing this debate.

2.54 pm

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing this debate. She asked many pertinent questions that I will be very interested to hear the answers to today.

First, let us look at some good points for a moment, before I give what is quite a Solihull perspective on this issue. This is a unique fund in the NHS—it is the only one of its type. I believe it was originally intended to run until March 2014, with a projected budget of some £650 million. To date, spend has been around £960 million and 84,000 people have been treated under this fund, which is a real positive. This year alone, the spend will be £340 million.

In the main, therefore, policy makers have ensured that resources have been in place. However, perhaps at times the allocation of those resources has not been of the best. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the most recent assessments have seen 23 drugs being delisted, including Abraxane. Imnovid, which was particular to the case of my hon. Friend’s constituent, has also been delisted.

During the recent election campaign and since, Solihull’s breast cancer care group has been in regular contact with me about this issue and more widely about cancer treatment in the NHS. Hon. Members will be aware of the great sensitivity in my constituency about such issues, because unfortunately the rogue surgeon—Mr Paterson—carried out his work in the Solihull area. Many of the botched operations have added to the misery of my constituents and their cancer has been made far worse by his activities. Many people are still waiting for compensation and justice. However, what Solihull’s breast cancer care group and other patient groups in Solihull want is for the Cancer Drugs Fund to stay, and to be fair and transparent in its dealings. They do not want the fund to wither on the vine, but neither do they want it to become a free-for-all for drug companies. They understand that in a market we have to try to get the best possible price.

That is an important point, and I understand that there are still negotiations under way about all the drugs removed from the fund. Manufacturers have an opportunity to reduce the costs to the taxpayer. However, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, it is unfortunate that there are concerns about the negotiation process. Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the fact that data on every new Cancer Drugs Fund patient is now captured—it is quite an oversight that that was not the case before—but

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I am concerned at the failure to adequately negotiate good deals for drugs, particularly those to treat rare cancers, so I would add to her calls in that respect.

There are some other aspects of the Cancer Drugs Fund that need to be emphasised. I have been told that patients who are already in receipt of treatment should be able to continue with it. Individual funding requests are an option; however, as many Members present have probably discovered, they can often be very difficult to secure and ad hoc in their processes. I emphasise that point again to Ministers today.

Policy makers have to be careful that the Cancer Drugs Fund does not become a hostage to fortune to the drugs companies and their lobbyists. There must be sensitivity as well. The Cancer Drugs Fund is precious. I am concerned that although 84,000 people have benefited from it, there are 1,700 patients with blood cancer who may miss certain treatments because of the removal of the drugs. The top 10 drugs, it seems, account for 71% of all patients treated. However, there seems to be a black spot when it comes to rarer cancers and drugs that are more difficult to acquire.

There are options for change for the Cancer Drugs Fund. As has been pointed out, NHS England has proposed that the fund should become a managed access fund—effectively, providing drugs in advance of NICE deciding whether or not they should be routinely available. However, my hon. Friend has quite rightly raised issues in that respect.

In conclusion, whatever the future direction of the Cancer Drugs Fund, let us not forget that thousands of people are alive today and thousands of families still have their loved ones because of its advent. We must not lose sight of what the Cancer Drugs Fund has achieved. We must protect those achievements for the future, but be very mindful of the case laid out by my hon. Friend.

2.59 pm

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): As ever, Mr Streeter, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing a debate on this important subject; she has tirelessly raised the issue of access to cancer treatments since she entered the House. She was right to describe the Cancer Drugs Fund as having moved from being a temporary measure to being a mainstay, and therein lies much of the challenge we face today. In that respect, the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) was right to remind us of the many good things the fund has done, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to emphasise the increased number of people with cancer and the need for cancer treatment.

Let us be clear: last year’s delisting of drugs from the Cancer Drugs Fund was a retrograde step for many cancer patients across the country. The decision affected many thousands of patients, and I am sorry to report, as the chair of the all-party group on pancreatic cancer, that that included hundreds of pancreatic cancer patients, because the pancreatic cancer drug Abraxane was removed from the CDF on 4 November.

Pancreatic cancer has the worst survival rate of any of the 21 most common cancers, with less than 5% of patients surviving five years or longer. That survival rate has barely changed over the last 40 years. Sadly, as

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my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) emphasised, pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed late, with about 80% of diagnoses taking place when the disease has spread to another part of the body. Patients diagnosed when the disease is metastatic live, on average, for just two to six more months.

Trials have shown that Abraxane, when used in combination with the standard chemotherapy drug gemcitabine, can extend eligible patients’ lives by an average of about two months more than gemcitabine alone. However, it is important to note that some patients live for significantly longer than two months, with some on the trials living for more than two years, and with a significant increase in the number surviving for more than one year. Clearly, when the average survival rate is between two and six months, even an extra two months’ survival gain represents a relatively large amount of time for patients to spend with their loved ones, and the value of that was indicated earlier.

That survival gain is why Abraxane is now in use around the world. From Germany to the USA, and from Austria to Australia, it is making a small but tangible difference to patients. It is worth noting that Scotland and Wales have also approved Abraxane for use on the NHS. Yet, in England, as of 4 November, it is no longer available to new patients, creating a devastating postcode lottery, as the hon. Member for Strangford said.

There has been a significant outcry from members of the public—people such as my constituent, Maggie Watts, who lost her husband, Kevin, to pancreatic cancer in 2009, and the 102,000 people who signed her petition on Change.org calling for Abraxane to be put back on the CDF list.

Why was Abraxane removed? Unlike some other drugs, it was not removed because of cost. Instead, it was decreed that it did not meet the minimum clinical effectiveness threshold when that was raised in 2015. In short, it was removed because the CDF scoring system did not take account of relative survival gain. The scorecard CDF panel members must complete requires them to give a score of zero to a drug that gives an average of less than three months’ life extension. Despite there being few treatments for pancreatic cancer, the system also did not recognise that this cancer has an unmet need in terms of treatment options. Abraxane is the first significant new treatment for nearly two decades, but the scoring system was inflexible, so the drug scored low.

That is the issue: we cannot just compare a new treatment for, say, breast cancer, where the average five-year survival rate is more than 80%, and where there are many effective treatments, with a new drug for a cancer such as pancreatic cancer, which has the lowest survival rate and few treatment options. Put simply, where a cost-benefit analysis takes place in a system with a finite budget, and where drugs for cancers with relatively high survival rates are scored on the same basis as drugs with the lowest survival rates, that system will always work against new drugs for cancers such as pancreatic cancer.

That brings us to the NICE consultation taking place about how the CDF will be used in the future, which the all-party group will be submitting its views on. If a NICE committee defines a drug as an end-of-life drug, it can approve it at a higher cost threshold than other drugs. That is extremely important for cancer drugs and

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especially for pancreatic cancer drugs. However, the consultation document suggests only minor changes to the end-of-life three-month threshold, which, as hon. Members will gather from my earlier comments, is vital for cancers such as pancreatic cancer. This is where the issue of relative survival gain needs to be properly addressed.

Another way to have addressed issues affecting cancers with the worst survival rates would have been to introduce a system of patient and clinician engagement for pre-defined end-of-life drugs. That system is being used successfully in Scotland. Introducing it here would mean that NICE had to engage more with clinicians and patients to establish what extra benefits certain drugs might bring. NICE committees would then have to give due weight to that PACE evidence, in addition to the clinical and cost-effectiveness data they usually review. Without PACE, Abraxane would not be available in Scotland. The system could make a big difference to patients in England if it were introduced for certain pre-defined cancer types, such as rare cancers—the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire mentioned the failure we have seen in that respect—and cancers of unmet need with the lowest survival rates.