It might be of convenience to the Committee if a general Debate took place on the Amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Dumpleton), on page 7, to leave out line 31, and if the Committee decided to divide on that, there could be a Division on the next Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) in page 7, line 31, to leave out "fifty" and insert "twenty." Then if that Amendment is put to the vote and "fifty" stands, the other Amendments could not be voted upon. Therefore, I suggest that discussion on those Amendments should take place on the first Amendment.
On a point of Order, Mr. Bowles. May I draw your attention to the Amendment to page 7, line 42, to insert a proviso? That is an Amendment of a different character from those which you have so properly suggested should be taken together. I was not clear from what you said whether we were going to discuss that with the other Amendments on page 3436 of the Order Paper, because if so, I should raise my voice in objection to that procedure.
No, I was referring to all the Amendments in page 7, line 31, down to the Amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) to insert a new proviso. Also the two Amendments in the names of the hon. and gallant Member for Barnstable (Brigadier Peto) and Devizes (Mr. Hollis), in lines 34 and 40 respectively, may be discussed now.
Further to the point of Order, Mr. Bowles. Would you kindly indicate exactly what you have in mind on this point? I understood you to say that you would call, for the purpose of Division the Amendment standing in my name, but I understood you to indicate that in the event of that Amendment being divided on and defeated, it would exclude a Division on the subsequent Amendments.
I beg to move, in page 7, to leave out line 31.
I move this Amendment in the temporary absence of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Dumpleton), and although I do not subscribe to the numerical basis for determining the retention of a commission of the peace, I am glad to accept your Ruling, Mr. Bowles, that the Debate will now be free for all.
This is undoubtedly the most controversial Clause in the Bill, and there is no doubt that there will be a considerable amount of special pleading during the discussion which I have the opportunity of beginning. I feel that this special pleading is right and proper in a Clause which deals with non-county boroughs which many of us have the honour to represent, and if the consensus of opinion in the Committee, as it was on the Second Reading, is very much in favour of an Amendment to this Clause, I hope that the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General will not hesitate to reconsider it.
In another place, when this Clause was being discussed, there was a most acceptable spirit of compromise and, as the Home Secretary is in a very genial mood tonight, I hope he will show an equally conciliatory attitude. I hope that my right hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench do not feel that all the Amendments that can be made to this Bill have been made in another place. So far this afternoon we have had no Amendments accepted and have been given only promises about the Report stage.
In another place, after there had been considerable pressure, the Lord Chancellor finally brought in a figure of 50,000 population below which separate commissions would go. It seems to me that that was quite an arbitrary figure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Proctor) said on Second Reading, it seemed as though the Government took the Roche Committee's figure of 25,000 and, having thought of that figure, doubled it. In fact, there is little doubt that 50,000 was quite arbitrary and I know that many of my hon. Friends, and certainly I myself, do not accept it. I want, therefore, to take the Committee back to the Roche Report, paragraph 97, in which this numerical test is first applied. We find the following:
We recommend that separate commissions of the peace should be abolished in all boroughs in which the population is less than 25,000 unless there are some special circumstances in the administration of justice that make a separate commission desirable.
I stand by that decision as being the most equitable in all the circumstances. The Royal Commission thought that perhaps this figure might be increased, but my reading of the Royal Commission's Report is that they were basing their judgment rather on the difficulty of obtaining, whole-time justices' clerks than on a population test.
In the Second Reading Debate the Attorney-General replied to many points which had been put during that Debate on this Clause and I find myself, as I believe do many of my hon. Friends, in the position of not being able to accept the arguments which he put forward— certainly not if our figure of 25,000 population is the test accepted. I believe that many of his arguments might apply to non-county boroughs smaller than that. For example, he said that a satisfactory advisory committee could not be obtained in a non-county borough of under 50,000. I very much beg to differ with him because I am satisfied that in a town of 25,000, 30,000, or 35,000 a good advisory committee can be obtained.
The Attorney-General went on to say that everybody in such a town knows who is on the committee. I do not know who is on the advisory committee in my non-county borough and I know of nobody else who does. He went on to say that the members of the advisory committee would be canvassed. Obviously that inference cannot follow in view of what I said on the second point. He said there would be dissatisfaction on the part of candidates not appointed. Clearly that must remain whatever the figure and must always remain.
He said the areas are too small to find a sufficient number of justices. In a non-county borough of some 41,000, like my own, I would certainly disagree with him that it would be impossible to obtain sufficient men of integrity to serve on the local Bench. He said there would not be sufficient work to give the justices experience. Most of us who represent non-county boroughs of above 25,000 realise that these courts, which sit two and sometimes three times a week, provide plenty of experience for the justices. The Attorney-General said that in a small community every one knows every one else's business. That is certainly not so where the population is more than 25,000.
All these arguments, which I have taken carefully from his winding-up speech on the Second Reading, break down when we apply a test of more than 25,000. I agree entirely that in small communities below that figure the arguments which he propounded are acceptable but, in answer to a speech by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) my right hon. and learned Friend went further—he admitted at once that there was nothing logical about this decision. The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames was putting forward the argument that if it were right to retain separate commissions of the peace in a non-county borough of 20,000 which had a quarter sessions and a recorder, then clearly it was right to keep a separate commission of the peace in a population of 25,000 or more.
The Attorney-General said he would concede that point at once. In fact, therefore, he has proved that there is absolutely nothing logical about this present position. It seemed to me, too, that in another place compromise became caprice at one stage, because when a bishop and a general joined hands in a love dance on the theme of Winchester, no lawyer and certainly not the Lord Chancellor could resist their blandishments. We should like to do a little blandishing of my right hon. Friend this evening.
What are my hon. Friends, who support this Amendment, putting forward? We are fighting to save approximately 49 non-county boroughs with populations above 25,000. If this Clause is acceptable to the Committee in its present form, it means that 170 non-county boroughs will be deprived of their separate commissions.
May I explain again? We are having a general Debate on the first Amendment. Any hon. Member who wants a figure of 25,000 or 30,000 or 40,000 or so on is quite at liberty to put his case for that particular figure on this Amendment.
Yes. I was saying that if this Clause were amended by the Amendment which has been moved, then 170 non-county boroughs would be reprieved and would be permitted to retain their separate commissions of the peace, but if we accept the figure of 25,000 as the test then, in fact, some 49 boroughs are reprieved, and it is that particular reprieve which I am supporting this evening.
Many of these boroughs of above 25,000 are rapidly growing towns. They have a civic pride, a progressive spirit, a long tradition; and they are most ambitious to improve their status. Many of them have a long history in the administration of justice and many of them, I regret to say, are suffering at the present moment from a sense of great frustration because of the removal of some of their functions in the last few years. I believe the Home Secretary will understand this, because he has had a long experience of local government and he knows the value of local patriotism and psychology. Indeed, in another connection and when he was moving the Second Reading, he said:
The Government feel, however, that it would be undesirable at the present juncture—when the entire future structure of local government is a matter ripe for re-examination—to make changes which, however justifiable, would be regarded as affecting the prestige and status of the local authorities concerned."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 28th November. 1949; Vol. 470, c. 799.]
We are, in fact, arguing that very point—that by the removal of the separate commission of the peace we are affecting their prestige and status. I know that this is the feeling of many of my constituents in High Wycombe. They feel that their long-standing tradition is again being whittled down. In High Wycombe we have a town of great progressive zeal which has proved its capacity for self-administration over many years. For example, though our commission dates back only 100 years to 1852, our local courts date back for eight or nine centuries. It cannot be said, therefore, that in this town of 41,000 we are a picturesque survival of the past. I must ask my right hon. Friend—must we, now, in the 20th century, lose this further link with the past? Must all that we have achieved through the centuries be lightly cast aside in the mere hope of increased efficiency?
On our local bench we have 13 justices. Their average age is 61. When the Clause we have just passed is applied, two will depart, and the average age will be reduced to 58. However, there are plenty of others willing to serve on this bench. Moreover, they are efficient, they are all men of high integrity; men of character and ability; and they are held in great respect locally. They are fully adequate to the demand. We have before our local bench in High Wycombe 2,000 cases a year. That certainly provides the local justices with an opportunity for obtaining experience; which submission, I have no doubt, my right hon. Friend will willingly accept. We are certainly able to pay the local justices' clerk. A penny rate in High Wycombe produces nearly £1,300. Can the Home Secretary really say that the present bench in High Wycombe is not adequately carrying out its duties? Or can he give any evidence whatsoever of any reproof which has been administered to them? Certainly there appear to be very few appeals from the decisions which they have taken in the past.
My view is that these local courts—though I admit at once to my right hon. Friend that under the proposed change the same justices will sit on the same benches—still will not be in the same tradition. Yet these local courts, such as ours in High Wycombe, are the essence—indeed, the foundation—of our British liberty and justice. I hope they will not be lightly condemned to death.
I think it is a fortunate coincidence that it fell to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Haire) to move the Amendment on which this discussion is taking place, because he, in moving the Amendment which would, in fact, safeguard all existing commissions of the peace, disclosed that his own constituency had the substantial number of 41,000 people—I think I am right—in the petty sessional area. It so happens that I, who have on the Paper an Amendment asking for the lowest qualification figure, also have precisely that number of people living within the petty sessional area which I am anxious to preserve. So both the hon. Member for Wycombe and I can claim that we are not arguing any special case specially for our own constituencies, but that we are seeking, as I am sure is right, to argue this matter on the particular merits of the matter, only calling in aid the situation in our own constituencies by way of illustration of the general principles; and it does seem to me that that is the right way to approach this matter.
All the Amendments, in the group of Amendments which the Committee is discussing, differ in the solution which they offer to this problem, but they all agree in the conclusion that the figure at present in the Bill of 50,000 is too high. Indeed, this discussion is really a discussion as to what is a small borough. Everybody, I think, accepted the Home Secretary's logic that when we get to really small boroughs we do get a situation in which justice is not efficiently administered, both because of the absence of sufficient work and the absence of sufficient persons properly qualified to be justices. But the question has to be resolved as to what is the proper line of demarcation, assuming that we accept the population test at all.
The hon. Member for Wycombe, although most gallantly coming to the aid of one of his hon. and absent Friends and moving an Amendment which would do away altogether with the population test, I think himself accepted the population test, and, although I think it is a very unsatisfactory one, I admit, quite frankly, that it is difficult to produce a better. But it is an unsatisfactory test for this reason, that there are times, such as certainly occur in the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, and in many other boroughs, in which the amount of work for the local bench is immensely affected by the large number of people who do not live within the physical jurisdiction of the court but who come in about their business or pleasure and who, unfortunately, in the course of that business or pleasure, commit offences which bring them before the local magistrates.
Therefore, the population of a town is a very imperfect guide as to whether or not there is adequate justification for the retention of a separate commission of the peace. Having said that, I think one is entitled to put it in this way. If population is the only practical but a somewhat imprecise test, then the figure should not be applied too rigidly. The figure should err, if it errs at all, on the low side; and it is, among other reasons, for that reason that in my Amendment the figure of 20,000 is put forward. I put it forward, too, for the reason to which the hon. Member for Wycombe has already referred; that is to say, that I share with the Attorney-General an incapacity to distinguish between the position of a petty sessional bench where there is a recorder's court and where there is not.
The Committee will recall from the Debate on Second Reading that where there is a recorder's court or a court of quarter sessions, if there are 20,000 people in the town, not only the recorder's court but the bench of magistrates is also saved; whereas the absence of a recorder's court condemns the bench of magistrates to extinction unless the population is 50,000. I asked on Second Reading why this differentiation was made—why if 20,000 was too small where there was no court of quarter sessions it was adequate where there was; and in words to which the hon. Member for Wycombe referred, though he did not actually quote them, the Attorney-General frankly admitted that there was no logical basis for this differentiation. He said:
There is obvious reason—and I concede this point to the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter)—why a separate commission should be satisfactory in a town with a population of 20,000, either because it is a county borough or because it happens to have a recordership as well, and not satisfactory in a non-county borough which has not got a recordership."—[OFFICIAL RFPORT, 28th November, 1949; Vol. 470, c. 898.]
The Attorney-General was very frank there.
But surely we cannot proceed under this Bill to destroy existing commissions of the peace when the Attorney-General of England, speaking for the Second Reading of the Bill containing a Clause to that end, is unable to give any reason for such a differentiation. That is why I and some of my hon. Friends did put down this identical figure of 20,000 in our Amendment. The point we seek to put to the Committee is this: if 20,000 is right where there is a recordership, then 20,000 is right where there is not a recordership; and we rest our argument on that part of the matter on that proposition.
I agree—and I would not myself stress the matter very far—that there is a good deal to be said for the other proposition of fixing it at 25,000, which has the advantage of being the figure recommended by the Roche Committee. On broad general principles, there is not very much between 20,000 and 25,000. How- ever, if 20,000 is to remain in the boroughs which have courts of quarter sessions, then there seems to be good reason, if only from the point of view of administrative tidiness, for making 20,000 the figure where there are not—for making 20,000 the general test. That is the reason I have sought to argue this particular figure.
Now, the Attorney-General made a present to us in the most generous way of that argument. I would quote the expression, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, of any gift from the right hon. and learned Attorney-General; and, indeed, if there were any Member of the independent Liberal Party present I should translate it for his benefit thus: the Attorney-General is at his most dangerous when he appears to be conciliatory. But we have not yet been given any logical argument upon this point, and we have therefore put down this figure of 20,000.
The practical question with which we are concerned on the Home Secretary's own case is: Will such a figure, or any figure like it, give sufficient work? I have been able to give only the figures as they affect my own constituency. The number of people living within its petty sessional court area, which is threatened by this Bill, is 41,000—twice the 20,000. I gave the figures to the House on Second Reading; I have sent particulars to the Home Secretary, and I do not therefore propose to inflict them again upon the Committee. Nevertheless, they show something just under 3,000 cases in a year, many of them serious and substantial cases; and they also show a court with 290 sittings in the course of a year.
Obviously therefore, at the 41,000 level there is, in this case at any rate, more than sufficient work. It certainly is, on all accounts, a busy court. It is certainly a court in which a great deal of work is done, and I have yet to hear—and this is a matter with which the Home Secretary will be in every, sense familiar—that there is any difficulty in finding for that court justices of the peace of the highest calibre. However much the Home Secretary and I may differ on the general question, he will agree with me that justices of the very highest calibre sit in that court.
That being so, there being no logical argument and no practical argument for its destruction, we surely come to the view that it would be wiser and more sensible to exclude it from the destructive provisions of this Clause. On that point I once again call in aid the Attorney-General, since he was in generous mood on the Second Reading. He said:
In considering that aspect of the matter "—
that is the figure—
we had to add some weight for the long tradition and status of the county boroughs and of the nor-county boroughs which possessed their own recorderships."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 28th November. 1949; Vol. 470, c. 898.]
I do not dispute that proposition. I only add that long tradition and status are not confined to boroughs that have recorders, and are not confined to county boroughs. It is in many cases an historical accident whether a town has a recorder or has not, or whether, as in the case of Kingston-upon-Thames, it in fact has a recorder but, owing to the fact that that recorder does not perform judicial duties, is not protected by this Bill. That only goes to show how historical accident has decided a matter which itself is now to decide whether these courts are to continue or not.
I also urge this upon the Government. I am sure it is generally appreciated that in the administration of justice, as in so many other fields, local pride and local patriotism have their value. Justices, other things being equal, will do their work better if they feel that they are working in a court with long and honourable traditions than if they feel they are working in a court for an area arbitrarily carved out of some larger and unrelated area. That is a practical consideration and one which should weigh with the Government when they are taking a great deal of trouble to put on the Statute Book a Bill designed to improve—as many of its Clauses undoubtedly will—the administration of petty sessional courts. I therefore hope that before this Debate ends we shall hear from the right hon. Gentleman some indication that he is prepared to accept the weight of genuine feeling and, I believe, serious argument which has been, and I foresee will be, directed upon him from every quarter of the Committee.
I hope the fact that we are now discussing some six differ-
ent possible solutions to this difficulty will not be regarded by my right hon. Friend as evidence that there is any drastic division of opinion on the essence of the difficulty we wish to overcome. I think, it was well expressed by the Home Secretary himself when he said, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, that in the courts of summary jurisdiction the people of this country
get their causes heard and determined by people who understand their way of life, who give due weight to the law and at the same time bring to the consideration of matters a refreshing common sense which enables their decisions to be received with general respect by those whom they serve."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1949; Vol. 470, c. 813.]
I am quite sure my right hon. Friend feels that in most cases that description would apply to the members of county benches who, if this Clause remains unaltered, will replace the borough benches, as has been pointed out, very often in the same place and in the same court.
I ask my right hon. Friend to realise that in many non-county boroughs there is a strongly-held opinion that that will not be a real or satisfactory replacement, and that it is essential that when the line of demarcation is finally drawn—if it is to be a line in the accepted sense, on a population basis or otherwise—the way in which the decision is made as to whether a non-county borough shall or shall not retain its borough bench must be one which will not leave any justification for the feeling that there has been a real severance with the valued traditions of the past, or a real deprivation of a substantial population—such as 25,000 people—of their right to a borough bench.
As was said earlier, there has been a considerable and regrettable curtailment of the prestige and authority of the many non-county boroughs. The control of the schools, the fire service, and so on, have been surrendered to the county councils; the regional hospital boards now exercise their functions in regard to maternity and child welfare. We all agree—at any rate I hope we do—that there were very sound reasons for this, although the new machinery has not yet provided that measure of devolution which was promised and which is so necessary if the public are to get the maximum benefit. But the arguments which were quite relevant and cogent then, under those conditions, are not applicable and cannot provide the same saving in the case of non-county boroughs under Clause 10 as it stands, whereby it is proposed to close down the borough magistrates' courts.
There may be—and I think there is—a sound reason for amalgamating small benches of magistrates to save costs. On Second Reading the example was quoted of a borough with some 3,000 population, in which no cases had been heard for the last two years. I am not now speaking in support of the retention of a bench in such a case; but in the case of my own county town of Taunton, with a population of 32,000, there is a bench which sits every week and has a long list of cases to try, and has to sit all day and often on another day. In 1947 they tried 1,208 cases as compared with—and in my view this is important—only 440 cases for the county; in 1948 the number of borough cases was 1,205, and including the juvenile courts there were 100 sittings, compared with only 361 cases and 47 sittings in the petty sessional division. Not only was the work of the borough three times as great as that of the county, but if those two were amalgamated it would inevitably mean extra sittings, and possibly a duplication of courts on the same day, and there could not possibly be any saving.
As the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) pointed out, there is a very good reason why boroughs of this kind have a lot of work to do. Main trunk roads run through them, and there are big railway junctions there. Taunton is a large military centre, which means that many extra cases come before the court.
Reference was made by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Haire) to the remarks of the Attorney-General during the Second Reading. What struck me then was the very lame reason for rejecting the Roche Committee's recommendation of the 25,000 line of demarcation. The Attorney-General said that most people were agreed that the figure of 50,000 was about right. He added that people much better qualified than he was to judge thought that this figure was much too low, and that 50,000 was the level at which there was the broadest measure of agreement. I should like to know precisely who these well-qualified people are. They certainly do not include the Association of Municipal Corporations, who, I should have thought, were people well-qualified to judge.
I think that people in touch with the local situation know that to fix the minimum population as high as 50,000 for a separate commission of the peace is certainly not in all cases a good proposition. It is even more absurd when we get the anomaly which occurs in my area in the two towns of Taunton and Bridgwater, only 12 miles apart, one a town of 32,000 which is to lose its borough bench and the other a town of 20,000 which is to retain it, merely by an accident of history and because it has at present a quarter sessions.
The Home Secretary is too good a Parliamentarian and too good a student of history to disregard the intriguing situation which he has created. From a study of history he will recall that in 1645 those two eminent Parliamentarians, Cromwell and Fairfax, laid siege to Bridgwater, which was held by the Royalists, and before the town was finally reduced, it is recorded that Cromwell only escaped drowning by two minutes and only just succeeded in ducking a cannon-ball which killed an officer by his side. After the Restoration, the Royal favour was granted to Bridgwater and denied to Taunton which had its Charter annulled by Charles II.
I am aware of that. What I would like to know from my right hon. Friend is why he insists, three centuries later, in favouring Bridgwater so illogically, and whether it is a reward for holding out for the King or for having missed Cromwell.
I would suggest that if Bridgwater is rewarded for having produced Blake, Taunton should be no less rewarded for having assisted him to defend the town successfully. I suggest that the incident I have quoted shows the complete absurdity of the present line of demarcation, and I do not believe that my right hon. Friend would for one moment be prepared to defend it, because it is indefensible. I ask him to agree that there are non-county boroughs with a population of less than 50,000 which by their status, as he himself will appreciate, have a right to put forward a case for retention of their borough bench. I do not accept the Amendment of 25,000 as being necessarily the right one, but I hope that the Home Secretary will give us an assurance that he will endeavour to meet the case we have put forward.
Reference has been made to the necessity for having due regard to the sense of local dignity and tradition in populous and ancient boroughs. I can assure him that in the non-county boroughs, which are no less ancient or populous than some of the boroughs which by reason of their quarter sessions are to retain their bench, the traditions are just as great, and I hope, therefore, he will have due regard to all these factors and continue the good work and good intentions which he showed in regard to the previous Amendment.
The modern tendency is to complicate and centralise Government, and consequently tremendous burdens fall upon Parliament. We have seen today examples of that in the discussions which we have had about delegated legislation. There is also the development of the welfare State and nationalisation of both private industry and municipal undertakings. All these tendencies detract from the prestige, influence and local patriotism of the boroughs. It is not surprising if many of them feel that the honourable position they have held in times gone by is being undermined. Their gas and electricity undertakings are taken over by others; their hospitals, schools, fire Services—all these administrative responsibilities for which they have had the care for many years are taken away from them. Now it is proposed to take away yet another function.
It will be in the mind of the Committee that a great many of the people who sit on the councils are also justices of the peace, and so, in two directions, they feel that their power and influence is being taken away from them. Many of these boroughs are growing rapidly and becoming more and more important both industrially and commercially and from every other aspect. It does not seem to be the time, unless extraordinarily good reasons can be shown, to take away from them this very important function of administering justice locally.
One of the arguments put forward is that advisory committees of sufficient standing cannot be found to recommend magistrates. I cannot believe that is true. If it is true of a town of 40,000 or even 45,000 inhabitants that does not have a recordership, it must be true of a town of 25,000 that has a recordership. There is no logic about that argument. Nor do I think in practice that there is any foundation for it. If the alternative method were adopted whereby we put the borough bench into the county bench, we have still to get advice from somebody, and we shall find that we are getting advice from exactly the same kind of persons as those whom it is suggested are not capable of giving the advice.
I do not want to keep the Committee because many of the arguments I support have already been made, and I do not want to repeat them. I only want to put before the Committee the example of Morecambe and Heysham, because it is an example of injustice that will be done unless modification of these proposals is agreed to, and also because it is a seaside town where there is a special factor to which I want to make reference. The population of Morecambe and Heysham is 40,000, but in the summer it is 90,000 or even 100,000, which adds to the work of the magistrate's court in the number of cases it has to try. I am not by any means convinced that it is a wholly good test, but if a population figure is to be the test, then surely some regard must be had to the fact that during a large part of the year a town like Morecambe has twice as many people in it as this magical number. This also applies, of course, to other seaside towns.
I earnestly hope that the Home Secretary, who has shown himself to be very wise in these matters and sensitive to opinion expressed in the House, will reconsider this question and make some concession before the Debate ends, to enable towns like Morecambe, with an admirable bench of justices which carries out its work efficiently, to have its bench reprieved from the extinction this Measure threatens.
I want to add to the appeal from both sides of the Committee for my right hon. Friend to consider very carefully what he is doing in this Clause. Much has been said about the transference of powers from local to county authorities, but in this respect I think we are touching on something of a vital character. In my town we have a population of 36,000, and we have had our magisterial bench for something like 150 years. It has a great reputation for fair play and justice, which it is proud of and jealously guards. While serving as chairman of the magistrates, the one thing which impressed me, on each occasion when it was my duty to say to the prisoner, "Are you willing to be tried in this court, or would you prefer to be tried elsewhere?" was that in every case he wanted to be tried by the local magistrates. That proves conclusively the trust local people have in their local magistrates. It is a great tribute, not merely to the magistrates of the town, but to the traditions of the court.
It has been argued that no case has been put forward by the Home Secretary for the abolition of these courts. I want to be absolutely certain that a case can be made out, otherwise the old position should be maintained. I do not think a case can be made out. It has also been said that it is impossible to get justices to serve in local courts. That is not true. I have always been impressed by the type of person who has been appointed, and the willingness and sincerity with which he has administered justice.
For the first time in its history, Kidderminster has appointed a full-time magistrates' clerk. We made the appointment on the basis of sharing the clerk with two smaller authorities. It is an excellent arrangement, because it provides adequate work for him to do and enables us to share the expenses, showing that we had economy in mind. I know it has been said that in all probability the same courts will be retained under the new set-up, but there is no guarantee of that. Another point is the enormous amount of trouble that will be caused to minor offenders, such as those whose chimney has caught fire or those without dog licences, by having to travel miles away to some other court, if the Kidderminster magistrates' court is to go. The position will become ridiculous and farcical. I know that my right hon. Friend has all those virtues which make him a man of understanding when a good case is put to him, and I plead with him to give consideration to this matter again with a view to reversing his decision.
I should like to make a few observations on the Amendment standing in my name and that of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Maude), in page 7, line 40, at end, insert "and for Devizes." Devizes has played a considerable part in the deliberations on this Bill, both in another place and here. Members may remember that the Lord Chancellor in another place recognised that Devizes in some ways was in a unique position.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member, but is this one of the Amendments we agreed to take together? I thought we were to take this Amendment separately, because it would be a little difficult to deal with it now, as it deals with the position of recorders rather than the size of the population for Commission of the Peace.
As I was saying, the Lord Chancellor, by his own confession, was in two minds, and, as Members may remember, the question of Devizes was raised during the Second Reading Debate, not by myself, but by the hon. Member for Central Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Mr. Wilkes), who, as far as I am aware, is not interested in Devizes in a Parliamentary sense. The Attorney-General admitted that it was in some way a special and unique case. I do not wish again to go over everything that has been said, but to take the argument a little further from the point which it had reached by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speech.
The Attorney-General said that last year 31 people—rather fewer than the previous year—were sent to the Devizes Quarter Sessions. His argument was that that was a number which could well be taken care of by the county if the local quarter sessions were abolished. Although I believe that my case is a strong one it is one of certain delicacy, because it is open to an enemy to say that although Devizes has not an exceptionally large population, it breeds an exceptionally large number of criminals.
That is far from being the case, and what I wish to put to the Committee is that it is true that those 31 cases could be dealt with if the Devizes Quarter Sessions were abolished, but they would be dealt with much less quickly. Through certain historical enactments the Devizes Quarter Sessions take place at a time different from the county sessions and, therefore, justice is done a great deal more expeditiously than would otherwise be the case. People do not come solely from the town of Devizes or from the county of Wiltshire. On the contrary, owing largely to the high standing which the Devizes Quarter Session has attained, through a series of rather distinguished recorders, and for other reasons, people are sent there not merely from other parts of Wiltshire but also from the counties of Somerset and Gloucestershire, Bath and Bristol.
My contention is that through a series of historical enactments, as has been admitted, the Devizes court is in a unique position. It makes a serious contribution to the expeditious enactment of justice. As Lord Macaulay once said, "I have never raised my hand to destroy an enemy that is not also an injustice." A peculiar position has been built up by this court. It is no advantage to anyone, out of a mere desire for tidiness, that it should be abolished. If it were abolished it would delay the administration of justice, and I appeal to the Committee to recognise the special position of Devizes and to give it that recognition in the Bill.
I am not intervening now with a view to closing the discussion on this Amendment but, the Debate having gone on for some little time, I think it is desirable that the Government's view should be stated. The Attorney-General will be speaking later, but I thought it would be probably for the convenience of the committee if I intervened now to give the reasons why the Government have put forward the Clause in the form in which it is in the Bill.
There is an almost complete example of an arithmetical progression in the figures set down in the Amendments on the Order Paper. The lowest is 20,000 and the highest is 50,000. The only figure that is omitted on the 5,000 scale is 35,000. which might be arrived at by adding the highest and the lowest, 20,00 and 50,000. and dividing by two and saying "If we split the difference everybody ought to be happy." [HON. MEMBERS: "Thirty-five thousand is in."] Then the example is even more complete than I thought. I want to repeat something that I said on an earlier Amendment. These courts exist to serve the public, and not for the private convenience of the magistrates if that should happen to be in conflict with the needs of the public.
If people are willing to give their time as justices of the peace, they are entitled to have their convenience reasonably considered but not to the extent of inflicting any injury on the public service. It is desirable that the administration of justice in the country should be considered on a reasonably wide basis. Sometimes the existence of a small borough, having its own court, its own advisory committee, its own bench of magistrates, and its own limited jurisdiction, may conflict with that.
A great deal was said in the course of the Second Reading Debate, and has been said in this Debate today, about the destruction of benches. Let us be quite clear—that is an exaggeration of what happens. No bench is destroyed by the Bill. Certain benches that are now borough benches will in future become county benches under the Bill, and the area they are to serve will be settled by a magistrates' court committee, which will have regard to the convenience of justices in the county as a whole. There is nothing against that as an abstract proposition.
It is desirable that the widest possible consideration should be given. Quite frequently we have a case where a county bench and a borough bench meet in the same building. That is the case in Kingston-upon-Thames, where in the new Guildhall there are very convenient courts which are used sometimes by the borough bench and sometimes by the county bench. When, in fact, the assizes and the quarter sessions of the county could not be held in the County Hall owing to an accident through bombing, the quarter sessions at least were held there. I am not quite sure about the county assizes.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me that information. I thought it was so, but I could not be certain.
The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) on Second Reading regaled us with the history of his borough, some of which I think was rather imaginative, but at any rate it was interesting. All my life I have lived within seven miles of Kingston-upon-Thames. I am a believer in the greater Kingston—restoring Kingston to its original boundary, because the present little borough is not the historical place to which he alluded. There are adjoining it two boroughs, both of which he represents along with Kingston-upon-Thames—Surbiton and Maiden and Coombe, both of which are part of the original Kingston-upon-Thames. If the hon. Gentleman will look in the Victorian history of the County of Surrey, he will see that all the churches in Surbiton and in New Maiden are included in the Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames.
I can well understand, in the course of history, that it has been found desirable to remove the Attorney-General from that position. In 1835 it was said that the Corporation of Kingston was harmless but not useless, and at the same time it was said that the area of the Court of Kingston-upon-Thames "is complicated and confused, and varies from time to time." History can therefore be quoted on both sides on this issue. We are not so much concerned with history, although I hope I have indicated to the Committee that I give it due consideration when I have to bring these matters under review. What we are concerned with is the people who are living today, and with the best way of securing the due administration of justice.
I got into great trouble for saying that I believed that Kingston, Surbiton and Maiden ought to be united for municipal purposes. They were Kingston, and they are Kingston, for everything, except a few dots on the map, and only the hon. Member and I know exactly where they are, when we go through the borough and pass from one borough to another. It is important that the administration of justice should be according to the population as a whole and not to the population of that narrow group of people who now live on the 1,400 acres which constitute the modern borough of Kingston-upon-Thames.
I say the same with regard to the case put forward on Second Reading by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Swingler), and tonight, again, in the case put by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins). In both those cases there is a county bench that meets in the borough. I suggest that it is highly desirable, if we are to get to the position we all want to reach, that we should have whole-time clerks in place of the existing part-time clerks who, on occasion, have private business to do with a very large number of people living in the area for whom they must of necessity be suspected of having some regard.
I recollect that one of the part-time clerks of the bench of which I was a member went with us to view a proposed diversion of a footpath. I inquired where the representative of the landowner was over whose land the footpath went. The clerk who was supposed to advise us. said: "I represent him." I declined to go on the expedition and we got another person to advise us on a subsequent occasion. There is that difficulty if we rely upon part-time clerks. I do not want to anticipate the discussion that we shall have later, but I must say that unless we have an arrangement by which county administration can be considered as a whole, we shall have very great difficulty indeed in establishing a system of whole-time clerks.
My right hon. Friend has mentioned Taunton. The present position in Taunton is that the clerk to the borough court and the clerk to the county magistrates are the same person. Is there any difficulty about that? It is a full-time job.
I am bound to say that the greater part of the objection which has been raised seems to go, in that particular case. There can be no fault in people meeting separately to deal with this matter. Again, sometimes it is a very great advantage that the constitution of the bench can be made up from people living outside the ordinary small borough, which is the centre, where there is a person involved who may be of some consequence in the borough and where it would be very difficult for people to feel that persons resident in the borough and trying the case could be devoid of bias in one way or the other. Then the bench, if the area is wide enough, can be constituted from people who do not live in his immediate vicinity.
I will not say—I should be foolish to say—that the figure of 50,000 is in any way inspired. It is an effort to find a figure. My noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, supported, I think, by Lord Roche, thought that in this connection it was the best figure that could be got, but the Government are quite willing to consider what is the best figure to put in. However, I want to make it quite clear that we could not regard the lower figures which have been inserted in these Amendments as being likely to give us the proper figure. I admit that there is an anomaly in that the 20,000 borough which has a recorder presents a logical difficulty to put to us, but, after all, it was a desire to save certain recorderships which led us to include that figure.
I hope that before the Debate ends we may get some clearer indication of exactly where the main weight of opinion in the Committee falls with regard to the appropriate figure. I should find no great difficulty in going to the figure of 40,000, which I think might exempt one or two places which I still think ought to be included, but I hope that we shall get a clearer indication from the Committee than we have at present had, as we have really had hon. Members speaking more or less with a view to preserving their own borough rather than giving con- sideration to the general principles which I have tried to lay down and which I think ought to govern the decision of the Committee in the matter now before it.
We are all grateful to the Home Secretary for his intervention at this stage to give us some indication of the way his mind is working. I am sorry that I should rise to catch your eye, Mr. Bowles, on a matter of rather special pleading, but I think we are agreed with the Home Secretary in principle that what we must do is to see to the interests of the people of the present and the future and to work on general principles. It seems to me from the discussion which we have had so far that it is in the mind of the Home Secretary that we should not make any changes unless we can show that, first of all, justice will be expedited thereby and, secondly, there may be some saving in administrative cost.
I have risen to put the point of view of Banbury which I have the honour and privilege to represent at the moment. It is not one of the larger centres and, equally, I am glad to say, has not got such a large calendar of criminal charges as some about which other hon. Members have spoken. I want to put on record some remarks made by the recorder of Banbury as recently as September, when he pointed out that this recordship, which has been in existence for some 400 years—since the time of Philip and Mary—is of very considerable importance and a matter of prestige to the local authorities who, as the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Tolley) pointed out, are under heavy attack these days in other ways. The recorder went on to say:
Some of these non-county borough courts of quarter sessions serve a useful purpose because among the prisoners who are for trial at these sessions are some who have been in custody for some time and who would have had to remain in custody for a considerable number of weeks more before they could be tried at the county sessions. All the prisoners who are to be tried today would otherwise have had these charges hanging over their heads for a number of weeks until another court was held. Not only that, but both the county sessions and the City of Oxford sessions"—
which are the alternatives—
already have large calendars and these prisoners would go to swell the calendar at those courts.
Therefore in the case of Banbury, which is the centre of a larger area, there is not any way whereby under the present suggestion justice would be expedited; in fact, it would be retarded and individuals would be kept waiting longer.
The other point, which is of considerable interest in the more rural areas of this country, affects jurors. At present jurors can be called up in Banbury and, if not required that day, they are dismissed and can go back to their business. On the other hand, if they are called to go to Oxford, which is some 23 miles away, they will have to spend the whole day there because, even if dismissed, they will not get off in time to carry on with their normal work. This will be not only a considerable source of expense but also a considerable source of annoyance to those concerned. The calendar at Oxford will be longer and more people will be required to stand by for a greater length of time, so the expense will be increased considerably. I hope that the Attorney-General will listen to the plea put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) when he asked that we should insert "twenty" instead of "fifty."
We are all grateful for the intervention of the Home Secretary in which my right hon. Friend indicated that he is susceptible to the receipt of good advice from the Committee. I feel certain that one of the worst injuries one can do anyone is to do him what one imagines to be a good turn which he bitterly resents being done. I feel that the non-county boroughs have a case here for the consideration of this Committee. We should not do anything that violates their feelings unless there is an overwhelming reason for doing it.
So far as I have listened to and studied the Government case, I can see no overwhelming reason for taking the action that the Government propose in connection with the abolition of the commissions of peace where the population is less than 50,000. The argument that a place was so small that we could not get enough magistrates seemed to me to be difficult to sustain because I started life in a small country village with a very sparse population, but there was no difficulty in getting magistrates—
Yes, but other and more delightful colours have since appeared in the countryside. The next argument was that because the population was so small everyone would know the business of everybody else. In a community of 25,000 neither of those arguments will apply, and I hope that the Government will give careful consideration to that figure. Of course, as the population goes up to 30,000, 35,000 and 40,000 the case becomes stronger, and when we come to 44,000, which is the population I represent, in the borough of Eccles it is overwhelming. I must speak candidly. I find that on no other issue have the inhabitants and the town council of my borough been so disturbed as on this matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Yes, I say that. On no other issue have I received such a galaxy of advice and instructions. [An HON. MEMBER: "From magistrates?"] I have received it from the town council. Throughout the country there is a sentiment that we should not, if it is possible to avoid it, interfere too much with what local pride and devotion has built up over the years.
We can look with some confidence today to the acceptance by the Home Secretary of good advice. I recognise the need to convince the Front Bench to be reasonable in this matter. I recollect the happy compromise of the past when my right hon. Friend was in charge of another Bill. When we had the Licensing Bill he started off by being execrated by the brewers; the tenants suspected him, the landlords abhorred him and the managers doubted him; but he accepted so much good advice from both sides of the Committee that in the end the tenants regarded him as their good companion, the landlords accepted him as their friend, the managers looked upon him as their possible benefactor, and the brewers, despite his personal teetotalism, regarded him almost as a confederate. If my right hon. Friend takes the good advice that has been offered him on all sides this evening, there will be a very happy outcome of the proposals now before the Committee and in the results to be obtained by the Bill.
I still plead the figure of 25,000 as a reasonable one, that it will meet all possible objections and that no great inefficiency would result from it. I am sure that justice would be administered as efficiently in the future under that system as it would if the figure of 50,000 were left in the Bill
I join with the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Proctor) in saying that of all the alternatives put forward this evening to the Home Secretary, the right figure is 25,000. That figure represents a compact and suitable unit, and in suggesting it we have the reinforcement of the Roche Committee. I am bound to say, however, that my belief in that figure is rather shaken, for since we have now agreed that where a recordership exists the figure can be reduced to 20,000, I cannot help feeling that in sheer logic we must have the same figure for boroughs, whether a recordership exists or not.
The Home Secretary, in his very attractive and historical intervention, for which, I am sure, the whole Committee are grateful, said we are concerned with the people who are living today. That, of course, is perfectly true. We are not concerned really with preserving into the future recorderships which came from the past or in preserving them because they may be useful training grounds for judges of the High Court. We are concerned with the people who are living today.
We have the assurance of the Attorney-General that despite the difficulties which he admits, and which he puts quite freely, it is possible to satisfy the criterion of the Home Secretary and efficiently to provide for the administration of justice in units of 20,000. I believe that in logic and in justice the Roche Committee recommendation of 25,000 should have been accepted. Perhaps the Government were unwise to depart from that figure, but, having departed from that figure in places where a recordership exists, to 20,000, I believe that in logic and fairness to preserve the historical connection which exists in so many ancient boroughs, the figure of 20,000 is right.
The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins) drew an agreeable parallel between the case of Bridgwater and Taunton, the one safeguarded because of its recordership and the other not safeguarded. Of course, the one without a recordership was the one which took the side of the Parliament in the 1640's. Boston is in exactly the same position and had not the ancient borough of Boston displayed its loyalty to Parliament in those days without doubt there would have been a recordership and it would have been reprieved But we cannot allow the history of our ancient institutions to govern us in deciding whether the figure recommended by the Roche Committee or the figure advocated by the Government should be accepted. I am happy to say that in either case Boston would be reprieved.
We are all glad to have had the intervention of the Home Secretary, because he indicated that the Government would be prepared to reconsider the figure of 50,000; but I thought that his arguments were rather unexpectedly based on a bit of special pleading with reference to the example of Kingston-upon-Thames. We expected special pleading from all sides of the Committee in this Debate and perhaps it is appropriate that the Treasury Bench should have fallen for it.
As I said on Second Reading, I believe it a good principle that when a Committee is set up to inquire into a subject and make recommendations, if Ministers dissent from the recommendations they should give good reasons for doing so. I still feel that we have not had good reasons given to the Committee why we should dissent from the recommendations of the Roche Committee that the figure should be 25,000. That is why I stick to that figure. Perhaps everyone who takes part in this Debate should declare his interests, and in that case I name Stafford, which has a population figure of about 38,000 and I should be glad if that figure were accepted. But I think the figure of 25,000 is a good figure, first, because it was recommended by the Roche Committee and, secondly, because no one has yet produced any good reasons for dissenting from it.
I think that everyone in this Committee, however, urged on by the need for special pleading, agrees with what the Home Secretary said, that we are concerned with what is the public interest in the administration of justice. There are two main points about determining the area of the commission. One is whether we have an adequate catchment area for the appointment of justices, and the other is whether there is sufficient work for them to do. The Home Secretary suggested that we had not a sufficient catchment area for the appointment of justices in an area with a population of under 50,000, but nothing has been said to suggest that we have not competent benches in boroughs with populations of less than 50,000 at the moment.
There has been a certain amount of vying about the amount of work some of those benches have to do. I do not propose to enter into that, because it is not necessarily a particularly good argument to show what an extraordinary number of offences there may be in Taunton or Stafford. I do say that a borough which has a population of 25,000 or over has provided up to now, and can provide, a sufficient number of competent justices of the peace. I should like to hear any arguments to the contrary. The experience now is—and figures have been produced by my hon. Friends and other hon. Members to show—that there is sufficient work for them to do.
Therefore, why not adopt this figure, because it fulfils another recommendation, namely, that a local court should be local. The bias in favour of the bigger figure is a bias against making the court local. There is a desire to merge as many non-county boroughs as possible with the county so as to have a much bigger area. The whole basis of that trend of thought is against having local courts and the maintenance of a local basis. I hope that the Attorney-General will go a little further than the Home Secretary did. The Home Secretary has reduced the figure from 50,000 to 40,000. Perhaps the Attorney-General can reduce that figure from 40,000 to the figure recommended by the Roche Committee of 25,000.
The Amendment which we are discussing is concerned with rather a broad issue by comparison with the small Amendment which I put down, in page 7, line 34, at the end, to insert:
or that a joint Recordership existed for two boroughs which together had a population of twenty thousand or over.
That is a very narrow issue. It was referred to in the Second Reading Debate as dealing with a unique case. The Amendment has been put down on
account of the fact that the Government have already seen fit to make an exception in the case of boroughs which in June last had a commission of the peace and also a recordership. I cannot see why the Government should not go a little further and include in that provision two boroughs where there is a joint recordership, provided that the same two qualifications are fulfilled.
In the Second Reading Debate, the Attorney-General mentioned the small matter I had raised in regard to Barnstaple and Bideford. He based his answer to that point first on the ground that we had to do away with the courts of small boroughs because of a lack of business. Those were not the words he used, but I think that is what he really intended to say—because there were not sufficient prisoners to justify having the courts there. Secondly, he said there was the difficulty of empanelling a sufficient number of jurors.
I have been in consultation with the Recorder of Barnstaple and Bideford, who in a letter which he has written to me takes exception to the Attorney-General's arithmetic. The Attorney-General, in his reply to the Second Reading Debate, said that in Barnstaple and Bideford the number dealt with worked out at one-sixteenth of a prisoner for each sitting over a period of two years. To go into the exact details would be too wearisome, but the recorder for these two boroughs has given me the number of cases tried and appeals heard, which he worked out as representing in the two years 1947 and 1948, which from his point of view are the two worst years, at two-thirds of a prisoner for each sitting. But in 1949, which is a much more normal year, he has already had no fewer than six prisoners before him and one appeal. So that in the years 1948 and 1949 there have been a total of 11 cases. That may or may not be a very large number, but that is one of the things I was asked to bring out—that the point about the one-sixteenth of a prisoner was not correct.
The reason Barnstaple and Bideford wish to continue with their recordership, their commission and their quarter sessions is, firstly, antiquity. My hon. Friend mentioned the antiquity of Banbury, but the antiquity of the recordership of Barnstaple, for example, goes back to 1377, when the first quarter sessions was allowed to them. That of Bideford goes back to 1574. In an intervention just now, the Home Secretary said that these courts were really established for the convenience of the public and not for the convenience of those who served as justices. How can it be to the convenience of the public to send jurors, justices, prisoners and policemen in large numbers—probably two to each case—to Exeter? It is 40 miles to Exeter from Barnstaple, and getting on for 60 miles from other parts of the county. Why waste a lot of time and money going to Exeter when they could have their courts at Barnstaple and Bideford?
It must be a good deal more expensive to the public at large, through the Exchequer, for claims to be made for travelling and other expenses by those who have to serve as witnesses or jurors than it would be to keep these little courts of quarter sessions in 'the towns we are discussing. That costs the public nothing. The expense of these courts comes entirely out of the amount paid by the borough. In the case of Barnstaple the average payment, including the salary of the recorder, and including the clerk and all expenses, is £125 a year. That cannot possibly be considered excessive.
With regard to the point about the loss of dignity which I mentioned on Second Reading and which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) stressed in his speech, I bitterly regret the continual withdrawing of responsibility for local government from the local authorities. I think that is a point which is increasing in importance throughout the country as it becomes more generally realised.
I wish to assure the House that I speak impartially, because if I was ever informed of the population of Wallsend I must have forgotten it. In these days we hear a great deal about personalities. Personality is something we ought to preserve. Non-county boroughs have their personality and their character, and I am sure it will be agreed that that character should be preserved as far as possible. Under this Bill Wallsend may lose its characteristics in this sphere of local activity. Many hon. Members have described the characteristics of their boroughs, and I wish to indicate to the Committee the characteristics of the borough of Wallsend. Wallsend stands upon that great river the Tyne. It has large shipbuilding yards; it has one of the largest pits in the county of Northumberland; and it has a very intelligent population. I, therefore, say that it should continue to have its court, and the activity it has carried on in the past should be ensured to it in the future. We ought to preserve these activities for the smaller boroughs who have their varied life and personalities. Many local activities 'have been taken away from them in the past few years.
While I appeal for a lower figure in the Bill, I shall not use the technique of describing the high character of the Home Secretary, in an attempt to induce him to share my point of view. We all know his good qualities, and there is no necessity to enlarge upon them. We know from past experience on previous Bills that when we have appealed to him, putting forward a good case, his nature is such that he has been prepared to yield to our appeals. Has sufficient evidence been adduced today, has a sufficiently strong feeling been expressed, so that we can again appeal successfully to his flexibility and good judgment? He has already conceded our point to a certain extent. Surely after the logical arguments adduced and the unanimity of opinion expressed, the Home Secretary will be able to accept our point of view today.
I hope that the Home Secretary will listen to the appeals that have been made from all parts of the House on behalf of the boroughs which hon. Members represent. We are all grateful to him for the intervention he made in the Debate. From one point of view, however, I find myself in disagreement with the line which he took. He suggested that it was desirable and necessary that Parliament should lay down some logical and universal rule that was to apply throughout the country. I feel that what has been particularly interesting about this Debate has been the way in which hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken on behalf of the boroughs they represent.
I should have thought that the Home Secretary, deeply versed as he is in the history of this country, would realise to what an extent the local administration of justice has arisen out of the spontaneous activities of quite small localities. I believe that there is a general feeling in this country now that Parliament and Whitehall try to lay down general principles without sufficient consideration for the sentiments of the local authorities and the people who live in their areas.
I hope that I shall not be considered an extremist when I speak in favour of the actual Amendment now before the Committee. Even the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Haire), who moved it in the absence of the hon. Members who put it on the Order Paper, was not prepared to propose that no existing benches should be abolished, but that is the position I adopt because of the size of the borough of Glossop where, I think, there is a strong feeling that the bench which has existed for 70 or 80 years and administered justice in an entirely satisfactory way should not be taken away.
As the hon. Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) has pointed out, during the last few years—it has not been confined to this Parliament but it is true of other Parliaments also—one function after another has been taken away from the smaller boroughs, and I very much regret that it should be proposed in this Bill to take away one more of the local rights to which, I believe, the people of the borough of Glossop are deeply attached.
I should like to congratulate all the hon. Members who have taken part in this Debate not merely on the force with which they have put forward their arguments but on the diversity of the arguments, which never appeared to run dry however similar was the ground which hon. Members seemed to be following—a diversity which was to be found in every quarter of the Committee. I think that we all approach this problem with a profound historical and nostalgic regret that any change is to take place. I do not think that is a bad thing when we are considering it from the point of view of the many associations which our constituents have with those olden days and old institutions.
On the other hand, my mental process has been that I do not like to pay lip service' to the admirable reports which Lords Roche and du Parcq have produced and then refuse to consider the suggestions that constitute the admirability of those reports. Therefore, I will turn back for a few moments and see what these reports have stated. The argument of Lord Roche's Committee was that in the small boroughs we have a considerable danger of a shortage of magistrates, especially, as was bound to be the case, when some of the magistrates are members of the local authority. There is the further argument the right hon. Gentleman has advanced about an overdose of local knowledge. The Lord Roche Committee also commented on the lack of experience the small area is inclined to produce.
These are the arguments we have to meet, and we have to consider whether they are of substance or not. I have listened very carefully to practically every speech, and I still hold the opinion that there is substance in them. The ingenuity of Members has not been defeated by these arguments, because they have said: "Well, after all, Lord Roche's Committee only recommended the abolition of boroughs of 25,000 and over, so where do we go from there?" We have to recognise that Lord Roche's Committee went on to say, with regard to boroughs between 25,000 and 75,000, that they would come into the grouping suggested by that report, which would make substantial alterations in the set-up as it existed.
Let us look now at what the Lord du Parcq Committee has to say. They put it sharply, that the small commissions are detrimental both to the selection of justices and the efficient organisation of the work. I think that the great respect and affection which all of those who knew him had for Lord du Parcq deserves repeating. No one would believe for a moment that he would come to that conclusion rashly, or without due consideration of the position. That is the position in which we find ourselves when we ask, what are the tests we have to apply? They are the tests we find in these reports.
Therefore, in considering the problem before us tonight, we have to say, whether, if we have a population of x thousand, we shall have a shortage of magistrates and difficulties in selection of justices and in regard to the organisation of the work. As everyone has agreed, there is a difficult problem here. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, there is no magic in the figure of 50,000 in answering that question, or in any other figure.
I believe that when we are in that difficulty, when within a small range of figures we find there is no clear guidance given by the criteria I have mentioned, it is a healthy rule to try and get the general feeling of the Committee, especially when, on a subject like this, we can try to collect the feeling of the Committee irrespective of party or political predilections. I suggest to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that our national genius for compromise is not at all a bad characteristic; after all, it has stood us in good stead in much more difficult problems than the one we have had to face tonight. I believe that it would meet that feeling and the general sense of the Committee—although, of course, there would be some disappointments—if the right hon. and learned Gentleman were to give us another 5,000 and go to a figure of 35,000 as a reasonable way out of the difficulty.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that there was no criteria, and implied that there was something like a Dutch auction in arriving at the figure of 35,000. One of the criteria was that 25,000 was the lowest figure mentioned by the Roche Committee and the other was that 25,000 was put forward by the Association of Municipal Corporations, which represents all the non-county boroughs which are interested in this matter.
The hon. Member has put forward a point which is well worth consideration by the Committee. The Roche Committee certainly did not consider independent existence for boroughs under 75,000. The Du Parcq Committee said they thought we might have to go above the figure of 25,000, or even deal with the matter on a county borough basis, which was the original form of the Bill and which would be far more severe. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins) implied that I said that we had no criteria. It may be my fault, but I did not mean to go as far as that. I indicated the criteria which I thought applied from the reports. I say that when we seek absolute guidance between the figure of 35,000 and the figure of 50,000, I do not think this is a criterion which gives us absolute guidance. When we are in that difficulty we ought to seek a reasonable compromise, provided it does not let us down on the important points I have mentioned.
I do not think that 35,000 would let us down. I do not think there would be a shortage of magistrates, or any difficulty in the selection or arrangement of work. Conscious as I am that I am putting forward a compromise, of which I am not in the least ashamed—I hope I never shall be when it is a reasonable way of obtaining agreement—I ask the Attorney-General whether he could not satisfy the general view of the Committee.
I am very much obliged to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) for the fair way in which he has put this matter, which we have at all times recognised as constituting a most difficult problem. I said on Second Reading when we were discussing this particular aspect of the Bill that it was undoubtedly the most controversial part of the Bill, and we saw then, as we are seeing today, the great force of the argument that the abolition of the small commissions of the peace will weaken—but certainly not destroy—the tradition and the esprit de corps of the boroughs to which the Commissions are attached, and that is a most important consideration, and I would concede it at once. So far from detracting from these admirable local traditions, from this corporate sense, from this esprit de corps, we ought to do all we possibly can to encourage them. That would certainly be the wish of all of us on both sides of the Committee.
On the other hand, there is fairly general agreement, and certainly there is agreement between the right hon. and learned Gentleman and myself, that these very small commissions of the peace are inimical to justice. That matter was very fully considered by the two committees which studied the problem and during the long Debates in another place. It is right to say that all the incidents mentioned in the course of our discussions earlier this evening and during the Second Reading Debate about maladministration on the part of justices of the peace, and the criticisms of cases where something had gone wrong in the course of the work of the justices were cases which related to the smaller boroughs, and which arose from the evils which are inherent in the small and separate commissions of the peace.
The problem, therefore, comes to this—at what figure is it right to draw the line? I do not depart for a moment from the position I took on Second Reading when I said that the process by which we had arrived at the figure of 50,000 was an arbitrary process. In another place, some people thought it was too large; others thought it was too small. In this Committee I believe there are still some, although we have not heard many in the course of our discussion today, who think a figure of 50,000 is too small, and that even at that figure we would not get satisfactory separate commissions of the peace.
On the other hand, it is quite obvious from the Debate we have had here that there are a great many in the Committee who think we have fixed the figure too high. We are quite prepared to go through the same process of compromise as we went through in another place and by which we reached the figure of 50,000, and if we can find something which commends itself to the majority of the members of the Committee as an optimum figure and a proper basis of compromise, we will put down an Amendment on the Report stage embodying that figure.
The question is—what is the figure at which there is the most general consensus of opinion? That is the figure we would seek to reach—not going too low, because clearly we cannot sacrifice the principle of this thing and we cannot go back to the very small commissions with the evils which are attached to them. For our part, we would be quite ready to accept the figure suggested by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that of 35,000. I am particularly happy about it, because, as hon. Members know, I am interested in it. I am the recorder of a borough of 40,000, and under this figure my borough is safe. I am glad to think we shall not stop at 40,000, but shall go a little further, and by going a little further we shall bring in a considerable addition to the number of boroughs.
If we take the figure of 35,000 we shall save from abolition 32 boroughs, of which seven have recorderships, so that the net saving is, in fact, 25. I hope that hon. Members who have spoken about the matter and who very naturally approached it, as I confess I have, from the point of view of the town in which they have some particular interest, and who have consequently advanced a figure which would save their particular town, will agree, looking at the matter as objectively as they can, that this figure of 35,000, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has put forward—and which I confess is a little smaller than the one we had in mind—is a fair compromise figure. It is a figure which does not go as far as some of us would like to go and which will involve the abolition of the commissions of the peace for some towns and boroughs where many of us would like to see them remain.
That involves another feat of mental arithmetic which is really too much for me at this time of night. I will try to get instructions on it, and give the Committee the figure that will now go.
I hope, on that view, that hon. Members will consent to withdraw the various Amendments, on our undertaking that on Report stage we will put down an Amendment saving all those commissions which have more than 35,000 population.
That is all right. I am much obliged to the hon. and learned Member. I thought that was one of the figures which were missed out in this—as one of my hon. Friends 'behind me called it—rather peculiar Dutch auction we have been conducting in this matter. I am quite prepared to accept the Amendment which is on the Order Paper. The hon. and learned Member for Chester (Mr. Nield) will have the distinction of having his Amend- ment on this important, difficult and controversial matter accepted. I hope on that Amendment we shall all be able to vote and that it will not be necessary to divide the House on other Amendments in which some lower figures are suggested.
The question is, what would be saved by the additional 15,000 of population? It is a very considerable number. I must say quite frankly that I do not think we could go to that figure. I quite agree with the point, and I will refer to it in a moment, that probably it is illogical to retain commissions of the peace for 20,000 when there is a recorder, and not to retain them where there is not a recorder. We have had to add weight for the fact that there is a recorder. Perhaps for this reason some better administration of justice is to be found in those small boroughs
That is so. May I now pass to this question of recorders, which is the subject of a number of suggestions? I very deeply regret that some of these old recorderships are to go. As one who has been a recorder, I regard them with great favour. They are not only useful as judicial tribunals in areas where they are trying a reasonable number of cases, but even in those towns in which they are not doing much judicial work they are a link with the historic past and to some extent the centre of that local tradition and esprit de corps which I referred to in connection with commissions of the peace, and to which it is quite right to attach great importance.
We should have liked to retain them if it had been possible. I have given the most anxious consideration to the matter in consultation with the Bar Council—I have had very close consultation with them—to see if there was any device by which we could preserve the old recorderships notwithstanding the abolition of the commissions of the peace to which and with which the recorderships have hitherto been associated. One suggestion was that it might be possible to amend the law so as to enable jurors to be selected from petty sessional divisions of the county instead of the area which had previously been the borough. That would not be possible under the Bill. It would be quite outside the scope of the Title of the Bill. So, if we abolish the small commissions—I mean now the ones under 20,000—it seems inevitable that we should be left with recorders exercising a limited jurisdiction in their own boroughs but drawing jurors from the whole of the county, with the result that all sorts of curious and impossible anomalies would arise.
Moreover—this is the real difficulty about the matter, and one has to face it—most of these recorderships have long since ceased to exercise any significant judicial functions. Under the Criminal Justice Act. 1925, power was given to county petty sessions to commit a borough quarter sessions if so doing would save time and expense. That would have been very useful if the recorders had altered the date of their sessions so as to space them in between the holdings of the county sessions, but unfortunately they very rarely did so. One or two did, but as a general rule I am afraid that the holders of the small recorderships, who are remunerated in very small amounts, exhibited no great thirst for additional work.
If they were now to perform any useful function in expediting trials and diverting cases from county sessions, it would be necessary to take statutory powers to fix the times of the borough quarter sessions. I think it would be very difficult for the Executive to take power to fix the times at which these recorders should hold their courts. I doubt whether the recorders would welcome powers of that kind being taken, and if one took them in regard to the small commissions of the peace, I think it might be very difficult to avoid taking them also for the larger recorderships. On the whole, we have come to the conclusion—I have had a lot of consultation with the Bar Council about this, and I emphasise it because I have had a special interest in the matter as an ex officio head of the Bar—
—that it really is impossible to find any means to save these small recorderships. I regret it as one who has been a recorder for some time and who realises the useful work which some of these recorder's courts have done and the tradition which they assist to maintain, but there it is—I do not think there is any possibility of going below the figures we have fixed in the Bill.
Now I come to the special cases which have been mentioned, first of all, the case of Devizes. We should certainly have liked to make an exception in that case. It has a very distinguished recorder and at one time by staggering the court—by spacing it in between the county sessions—he succeeded in handling a considerable number of cases. The fact that the dates had to be put back was, I think, due to circumstances over which he himself had no control. If we dealt with Devizes specially it would mean putting that town, which has a population of only 7,000 I believe, in a very special and preferential position, and I have no doubt that if we did that in the case of Devizes very strong claims would be made out by other small boroughs for similar preferential treatment. As a result of the abolition of the quarter sessions there, a certain amount of additional work will be thrown on the county sessions but not such as they will not be able to handle.
On a point of Order, Major Milner. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has now gone on to the question of recorderships. I hope this will not prevent discussion of the Amendment standing in my name which deals with the discretionary power to retain a recordership even if the population be below 20,000.
Is there, in fact, any other town of the same size as Devizes which draws from as wide an area? What is pertinent is not only the size of the town but the size of the area from which it draws.
I raised this question at the outset of the Debate, I think with Mr. Bowles, and I distinctly said at that time that it would be inconvenient to take it in this Debate. Indeed, he did not suggest it should be taken because I stressed that it raised a quite separate point which we have not had an opportunity of discussing. In fact, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is the first person to touch on this point.
In answer to the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis), the fact is that the Devizes quarter sessions are not now drawing prisoners from a wide area. The numbers have dropped. In practice they are only trying cases from the borough. It would have been open to any borough courts, by arrangement with the county, to draw prisoners from the county. I believe that in Berkshire some of the quarter sessions have been doing that, but the practice has not been widely developed and in the great majority of; these cases—I think we are abolishing 32 recorders' courts—the total number of cases tried in the course of last year was 174, giving an average of about five persons a court a year. That is the position and it is difficult to justify the retention of judicial courts on that basis.
That is also the answer I must make to the hon. and gallant Member for Barnstaple (Brigadier Peto), who raised the question of the rather curious arrangement existing there of a joint recordership for Barnstaple and Bideford. He has suggested in his Amendment that we might save those cases where a joint recorder-ship was arranged for. That would mean that the Home Secretary, by appointing the same gentleman as recorder for a number of small boroughs, could bring those boroughs up in the aggregate to over 20,000, thus saving a separate commissioner of the peace for each one of them. That would be quite impracticable and anomalous.
While the venerable and respected recorder of Barnstaple and Bideford may go down to his sessions—I suppose he has eight of them each year—what happens in the great majority of cases is that the mayor appears, the clerk of the peace appears and the police appear; the usher and the town crier are there, and then the recorder says, "Bring up the prisoner." The policeman then says, "Prisoner? We have not had a prisoner for years." That is the truth in one of those towns. They have not had a prisoner for four years. If our arithmetic went wrong earlier, it was because I was dealing with the number of cases and the hon. and gallant Member was dealing with (the number of prisoners. It really is impossible to justify the retention of that particular recordership.
The position is very much the same in the case of Banbury, which was raised by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Dodds-Parker). That recorder has tried, I think, five cases in the course of the last year. When the point is made that the existence of these recorders' courts saves prisoners being taken a long way, travelling expenses and all the rest, it really is quite illusory if one looks at the number of prisoners who have been dealt with at the recorders' courts. I hope the Committee will feel that we have tried—
I do not think that it will delay justice in any way or involve increased expense. The number of cases involved here is so small as to be negligible when considered against the large number of cases for trial. I feel quite confident of that.
I now have the arithmetic worked out. If we save commissions of over 35,000. the net result is that 108 separate commissions of the peace will go. That is a large number, but the great majority of them are very small in population. I should say the majority of them are certainly below the 20,000 mark.
I hope the Committee will feel that we have approached this matter as reasonably and as fairly as we can both in regard to the recorders and in regard to the commissions, and will let us deal with the matter upon that basis.
It is a very great pity that we did not have this list long ago. Many of these places have very little idea what is happening. I happen to represent one of them at Dartmouth; there are many others in the West Country. I have no intention of talking out this discussion, but I wish to raise the question of certain places because during the Debate many of us have been prevented from putting the cases of our constituencies by the very quick way in which the Government have replied. At a convenient time, if I possibly can, I shall put the case of many places which have had no chance whatever of being discussed tonight—places of great historic value and which undoubtedly should have had a fair chance of being discussed before these proceedings ended. I know perfectly well what is the position now: the Government get up and make their last offer; there it is, and it is just as well to accept it. But it has not been fair to many of the most ancient and historic boroughs in the whole of Great Britain.