Sunday 22 September 2019 / 4:41 PM Justice / Richard Burgon

Richard Burgon speaking at Labour Party Conference

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Conference, this year marks 70 years since the radical post-war Labour government introduced Legal Aid. Built out of the ruins of the Second World War. A huge step forward for access to justice. Because our hard-won rights aren’t worth the paper they’re written on if people can’t enforce them.

But in recent years, deep cuts have hollowed out legal aid. In much of our country, crucial legal support is no longer available to people who need it. When that happens, equality before the law is a fiction. The Rule of Law undermined. And as the UN Special Rapporteur warned, it’s an attack on people’s human rights.

So today, I commit that within the first 100 days of a Jeremy Corbyn led government, Labour will reverse all the Conservative cuts to legal aid-funded Early Legal Help. That means legal aid to empower the single mother to fight back against the lousy landlord, the worker to fight back against the bullying boss, the migrant to fight back against heartless Home Office decisions, the disabled person to fight back against disgraceful DWP rulings. And legal support to avoid stressful family breakdowns, unnecessarily ending up in the Family Courts

Hundreds of thousands will benefit from this legal aid – building on our previous manifesto’s commitments. As Secretary of State for Justice I’ll empower hard-hit communities – deliberately targeted by Conservative cuts – to take on unjust decisions.

That’s why I’m announcing that a Labour government will launch a brand new £20 millon fund to create a Golden Era of Law Centres. These People’s Law Centres will be run by the community, for the community.

Law Centres – like our Party – are about enabling working class communities to secure justice and defend their rights. So, I want to see new Law Centres in the heart of our communities. In health centres. In community centres. Working with housing groups. With women’s organizations. Ensuring the law serves not just the privileged few – but everyone.

And we don’t just want more Law Centres based in people’s communities. We want people from their communities fighting for their communities.

I’m proud that after being the first person in my family to go to university, I used my education to return to the community I grew up in to serve for a decade as a trade union lawyer.

But many of my friends at law college couldn’t become legal aid lawyers like they’d wanted. They had to work for whichever law firm could fund their training.

So, I’m proud to announce Labour’s new Community Lawyer initiative. Government funded training contracts for 200 lawyers to serve their communities. A new generation of lawyers using the law to secure justice for the many.

Conference, access to health and education are seen as the right of every citizen. Labour believes that access to justice should be too.

So, I announce that a Labour government’s Constitutional Convention will look at how to give every citizen a constitutional “Right to Justice”, as the Bach Report into Access to Justice calls for.

Delegates, the Tories have slashed the Ministry of Justice budget by almost more than any other. Cuts have consequences. Nowhere is this clearer than in our prisons.Record levels of violence. More prisons in crisis than ever.

This matters. Most people who go into prison will come out sooner or later. Returning to their community. My community. Your community. All our communities.

So, when prison doesn’t work and people come out more likely to reoffend, our communities pay the price. With more and more victims of crime.

Our prisons can’t be safe if they’re not properly staffed. Despite Tory spin, there are still thousands fewer prison officers than under Labour. And disgracefully new figures show the Tories cutting prison officer numbers again.

So today I announce that the next Labour government will reverse the Tory cuts and restore prison officer numbers to 2010 levels. Creating safer prisons focused on rehabilitation to reduce the number of victims of crime.

If Boris Johnson is serious about tackling the prisons crisis, he should match that. Under the Tories, there aren’t enough prison officers for the current prison population, let alone for 10,000 new prison places Johnson recently announced

Even this untrustworthy Prime Minister should be embarrassed to call this a ‘new’ announcement. It’s one of the most recycled Tory promises ever. Promised by five different justice secretaries and in every year since 2015. By Theresa May and David Cameron too. Even if delivered, it wouldn’t make people safer. Because it doesn’t tackle the causes of reoffending.

Labour’s priority is to reduce the number of victims of crime. 

Figures I recently uncovered show nearly half of all women sent to prison were homeless. Up 70 per cent in just 4 years.

We have thousands of people jailed each year for shoplifting.

Is building more prisons really the solution?

Prison is often the worst place to tackle the drug addictions, mental health and debt problems that mean people commit certain crimes in the first place.

The Ministry of Justice’s own evidence shows there’d be tens of thousands fewer victims if ineffective short prison sentences were scrapped. Reducing the £18 billion annual cost of reoffending. We don’t need 10,000 more prison places. We need effective alternatives.

That’s why the next Labour government will legislate for a presumption to end ineffective super-short sentences of six months or less for non-violent and non-sexual offences. Some Conservative Ministers were discussing this. We offered to back them. But sadly, it never got further than talk. 

But we won’t stop there. We’ll use some of those funds lined up for additional prison places to fund schemes actually proven to reduce reoffending. Meaning proper investment for women’s centres. One-stop shops focussing on rehabilitation as the Corston Report called for.

To show our commitment to this, as a first step Labour will immediately provide the extra £20 million funding women’s justice campaigners are calling for to plug the shameful gap in the government’s female offender strategy.

And instead of selling off hundreds of courts as the Tories are – and which we will halt – Labour’s Shadow Courts Minister Yasmin Qureshi is drawing up plans to invest in problem-solving courts tackling the root causes of offending. All backed up by a probation system fully returned to the public sector.

Because conference, austerity and privatisation go hand-in-hand. As cuts bite, huge swathes of our justice system are handed over to G4S, Serco, Sodexo and the like. Profit put before safety.

After Chris Grayling privatised probation, £100 millions were wasted bailing out failing corporate giants. Now the Tories, driven by free market ideology, plan a new wave of private prisons. Let me be clear, it is morally wrong to incarcerate human beings for profit.

A Labour government will put an end to the Americanization of our prison system. There won’t be any new private prisons under a Labour government. And we won’t stop there. Labour will bring all PFI prisons back in-house.

And while we’re discussing privatisation, I want to pay tribute to the outsourced cleaners and security staff at the Ministry of Justice who had to take strike action because they’re not paid a proper living wage. Conference let’s give them a round of applause.

Delegates, be it through austerity or callous policies, our justice system is letting too many people down. Rape conviction rates are now so low that women’s organisations warn it’s “effectively decriminalised”.

A Labour government won’t allow this. Along with Shami as Attorney General and Diane as Home Secretary, as Justice Secretary I will launch a fully independent review into how our justice system is handling rape. Women must be able to have confidence in our justice system.

And I’ve asked Shadow Prison Minister Imran Hussain, as part of his review of the deep failings of our Youth Estate, to prioritise ending the shocking situation where half of all children in our prisons are from BAME backgrounds.

Justice should be a right not a privilege. But too often it has to be fought for. I am proud to support the struggles of those fighting for justice.

Including the families of Zane Gbangbola, the victims of Orgreave and blacklisting; the Shrewsbury 24 and Cammell Laird shipyard workers.

The brave Hillsborough and Grenfell families called for a Public Accountability Law that would force officials and private companies to come clean about wrongdoing and failures.

And today I commit the next Labour government will deliver it.

Comrades, Martin Luther King said, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

Our Party – our Movement – exists to destroy those dams and make justice and equality flow. And make no mistake, the next Labour government will.

Thank you.