Orders of the Day — Administration of Justice Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 19th October 1982.
"2A. The Secretary of State shall by order made by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution by either House of Parliament specify non-metropolitan districts which shall for the purpose of sections 55 and 59 of this Act be deemed to be metropolitan districts".'. —[Mr. Archer.]
'After section 19(2) of the Justices of the Peace Act 1979 there shall be inserted a subsection as follows—
2A. The Lord Chancellor shall by order made by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution by either House of Parliament specify non-metropolitan districts which shall for the purpose of sections 55 and 59 of this Act be deemed to be metropolitan districts".'.
These new clauses embody a proposal that was described in Committee as being a preliminary canter round the course. In an attempt to expedite the work of the Committee I suspect that I may have described the proposal somewhat elliptically and in the process I may inadvertently have misled the Solicitor-General in what I was proposing. Reading the debate again I suspect there was a misunderstanding, and I accept my part of the responsibility. I had believed that the hon. and learned Gentleman had had access to what was proposed and in that I may have been wrong.
New clauses 5 and 6 are identical except in one very narrow matter. New clause 5 proposes that the power and the duty that is proposed shall be vested in the Lord Chancellor, while new clause 6 proposes that they shall be vested in the Home Secretary. The reason is that. having originally proposed that the powers should be given to the Lord Chancellor, I was later persuaded that the Home Secretary was the appropriate Minister. Therefore, new clause 6 is the important clause.
The new clause is designed to meet a problem. The servicing of magistrates' courts in relation to such matters as court accommodation, staff and so on, is decided by a magistrates' courts committee. The committee has no money of its own, so it directs the appropriate local authority to make provisions that it considers necessary, and to pay the costs of them. There is a requirement that the local authority should be consulted before certain requirements are made, but the magistrates' courts committee may overrule the local authority and reach a decision even if the local authority does not concur. The local authority then has the right of appeal to the Home Secretary.
In practice, matters are usually resolved without formal appeals, but there are sometimes differences of opinion, which can go deeply and become heated, on occasions within the magistrates' courts committee itself and on other occasions between the magistrates' courts committee and the local authority.
Of the money which the local authority expends for this purpose, 80 per cent. is recovered directly from the Home Office, leaving the local authority with only 20 per cent. of the budget. Of that 20 per cent., half is likely to be reflected in arrangements for rate support grant, so that whichever local authority bears the cost, only about 10 per cent. will fall on local government as against the Exchequer. If the cost is borne by the county council, recovery is by way of precept from the ratepayers of the various districts. If it is borne by the district council, recovery is from the same ratepayers, whose payments go to the budget of the district council. This is not about who provides the money, because whichever authority meets the cost, all the respective proportions of the burden will fall on the same shoulders.
Before 1974, each city and borough council provided for the needs of the magistrates' courts in its area. There was a magistrates' courts committee for that area consisting of representatives of magistrates on the local bench. The magistrates' courts in areas falling outside cities and county boroughs were provided for by the county council and there was a single magistrates' courts committee for those areas within county boundaries falling outside cities or county boroughs. That system seemed to work quite well, and I still do not know why it was changed.
The Local Government Act 1972 will have many sins laid to its charge by history, and it includes among its misdemeanours the: fact that it changed that system. In metropolitan counties there is still broadly the same system. There is still a magistrates' courts committee for each metropolitan district which makes the provision required, and one committee for the remainder of the county. But in non-metropolitan cities and districts, the position is different. All the provisions for the magistrates' courts within the county are made by the county council and there is one magistrates' courts committee for the whole of the county. Magisterial benches for large historic cities and boroughs, such as Hartlepool, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Worcester, Stoke-on-Trent, Newport and others, must rely on the provision decided by the magistrates' courts committees which they share with small towns and rural areas having different practices, traditions and problems.
In my opinion it would be as sensible to ordain that one local authority should deal with the problems of inner city areas together with the problems of rural parishes as to say that one magistrates' courts committee should deal with both categories of bench. We may hear later from my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) some of the anxieties about magistrates' courts in that area, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Forrester) will have something to say about his area.
The new clause simply proposes to revert to the position as it was before 1974 when the 1972 Act took effect. In debate in Committee, it appears that the Solicitor-General perhaps did not fully grasp the proposal. No doubt that was because I did not make it totally clear, in the interests—I thought—of expedition, because I thought that he had access to more details of the proposal than he had. He objected on the ground that a local authority would have to deal with more than one magistrates' courts committee. But that is not the proposal. The proposal is that in the case of magistrates' courts in one of the districts which it is thought appropriate to specify within the powers given in the clause, the district council will be responsible for making the necessary provision, and the district council will deal with the magistrates' courts committee for the district. The county council will provide for the remainder of the county, so that each local authority will deal with one magistrates' courts committee, and of course each magistrates' courts committee will deal with one local authority. That is the way in which advisory committees are at present arranged.
Although after the 1972 Act the Home Office approached the problem of magistrates' courts committees in this way, the Lord Chancellor evidently took a different view on how to organise advisory committees, and not for the first time—even in our debates on the Bill—I find myself on the side of the noble and learned Lord Chancellor and against the Home Office.
It is not easy to understand why the Home Office took the view that it did, but I hope that I have now elaborated the proposal so that the Solicitor-General understands how it is intended to operate. It enjoys support within the Justices' Clerks' Society, and it is no secret that the suggestion originated from members of that society. I do not know whether others will take a different view, but if so, those views have not yet been made known to me. Perhaps in the course of the debate the Solicitor-General will enlighten us on the matter, but having expounded the proposal and the reasons for it, I hope with the support of a number of my hon. Friends, I am content to leave the matter there.
I should like briefly to express my support for new clause 6. In doing so, perhaps I should say that as I have no legal expertise, I have been briefed on the matter by those who are fully aware of the practical disadvantages that have arisen in large urban areas which are quite distinct from the counties that surround them, since the operation of the Local Government Act 1972 created the changes of 1974.
The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) mentioned discussions that took place in Standing Committee A. However, concern was expressed about the situation long before that. Certainly, the clerk to the justices of the city of Portsmouth expressed views in no uncertain terms in the representations he made on behalf of the Portsmouth city bench about the Local Government Finance Act 1982, when it was thought that there was a possibility of reform.
I do not know whether it is possible at this stage to expect the Government to take on board these proposals, but I am certain that, if not, an assurance that the justice of the case which has been put forward on behalf of the justices' clerks, and by them in turn on behalf of the magistrates of the city benches that they support, is recognised by the Government as valid. In Portsmouth we have a densely populated urban area with many social and economic problems which are quite distinct from the problems experienced in the county of Hampshire. That shows itself in this matter, as in so many others.
The Portsmouth city bench was and is unanimous in seeking a return to the pre-1974 position. The Portsmouth courts staff is also unanimous in seeking a return to that position. I suggest, therefore, that those who have had the task of administering the new system have found it wanting, insofar as it has proved insensitive to the particular needs of administering justice in an urban area, when the authority to whom it is necessary to turn for the provision of facilities is a county area which is in fact the most wealthy county in this country, while Portsmouth is by no means the most wealthy city.
It may be thought that a return to the pre-1974 position would probably be administratively difficult. I cannot comment on the situation in other districts, about which we may hear later, but certainly the Portsmouth magistrates' courts committee, although it ceased to have any statutory function after 1974, never completely dissolved itself. It was not disbanded, and continued to operate in a shadow function to provide the kind of advice that it was specifically qualified to give.
It has been recognised that representations need to be made to a local authority body such as the Portsmouth city council which, by its very nature and by its local expertise and knowledge, is sensitive to the needs of the administration of justice in a city. I shall not elaborate on individual problems that have arisen but, I shall give examples to illustrate their range. For instance, the need to introduce computerised operations was not apparent to our county council, whereas it was immediately apparent to the justices in Portsmouth, and undoubtedly would have commended itself to the Portsmouth city council. It was difficult also to obtain a speedy decision by the Hampshire county council on providing physically improved premises. In applications for regrading by staff, the same lack of immediate and urgent understanding was revealed.
I am certain that whatever decisions were reached by the Hampshire county council on those matters, they were reached with the best of intentions. Nevertheless, the result is that those concerned with the administration of justice in the city of Portsmouth are dissatisfied with the arrangements that exist. In particular, they say that the Hampshire magistrates' courts committee has no fewer than 31 justices as members, but only five of them represent the interests of Portsmouth. Nevertheless, the city provides—it is not proud of this—20 per cent. or more of the workload which is undertaken by those same magistrates. The city is grossly under-represented on the Hampshire magistrates' committee. I am told—I imagine that this is probably true—that in this respect Portsmouth is the busiest town in Britain. Therefore, it needs to have close links with the local authority which is to make financial provision for it.
I am looking for the acceptance of the new clause, which was moved so ably by the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West, or at least for an assurance that when it becomes apparent that there is an unsatisfactory system in operation the Government will consider bringing forward legislation in the not too distant future to permit the restoration of magistrates' courts' committees in district authorities that are distinct from the county councils that surround them.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) said that in Committee he permitted himself a preliminary canter. I am sure, bearing in mind his long experience in these matters, that he had at the back of his mind the considerable history of representations following what might be described as the anomalies that arose from the Local Government Act 1972. I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered that measure before its enactment. I spent many hours debating some of the problems that we foresaw would stem from the Bill and we are now discussing one of them.
I hope that the Solicitor-General will not be critical of me when I say that no Home Office Minister is present. Even if he is not sufficently persuaded by our arguments to support the amendment, I have sufficient experience of his good self to feel that his flexibility in these matters might be more helpful than the rigid positions that have been adopted by the Home Office in the past. The Solicitor-General's good offices are needed to provide some persuasion. If he cannot give firm support for the new clause, I hope that he will leave the door open slightly so that the Home Office can, through him, receive the mood of the House.
It may be the position of the Home Office that the issue before the House does not comply with the principle of the boundaries of magistrates' courts' committees being coincident with the local authorities which finance them. The very purpose of the Bill is to provide for districts the right to have their committees financed by their district councils. I understand that the Association of District Councils does not oppose the amendment.
More than that, the magistrates of the district councils in the non-metropolitan county areas have responsibility for administering justice. They are at the nub of the application of justice. They, and not the Home Office, implement justice. The considerable amount of opinion and experience that has been presented to the Home Office over the years should be sufficient now to persuade the Government to accept that the clause is reasonable and will increase the efficient implementation of our magistrates' duties.
The Home Office may say that there has been a lack of consultation. That is a legitimate view to take. But similar amendments were brought before those in another place on 15 and 30 October 1980 when the other place was considering the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill. The amendments were lost but they could not have been introduced in their Lordships' House if there had not been considerable prior consultation. The proposers of the amendments did not accept that there had been no discussion. In any event, it is clear that since then there has been more positive and pertinent discussion. I submit that the Home Office is not without knowledge of the methods of district councils in bringing various bodies into consultations.
I am informed that the Home Office has known about these proposals for several years. Apparently it does not support any change. It has been asked for its updated views. It was asked to present them on 22 November 1980 and it took it until. July 1981 to respond. That is hardly a sign of enthusiastic support for something which had general agreement among the magistrates' courts committees of the various districts in the non-metropolitan areas.
I understand that the Lord Chancellor takes the view, quite rightly, that this sort of new clause is specifically for the Home Office and not for his Department. It will be helpful if the Solicitor-General will convey to the Home Office that hon. Members on both sides of the House are trying in a reasonable manner to permit a continuing dialogue to take place. I hope he will consider ways of keeping the doors open for a little longer.
The Home Office may consider that the proposal before us amounts to what might be described as piecemeal change. From the point of view of Governments, that is often a good defensive element to introduce into a debate. Of course no one wants what might be called piecemeal change. However, it is inevitable that some change should arise from the piecemeal changes that followed the enactment of the Local Government Bill. The argument for piecemeal change is invalidated on the ground that experience over the years has shown that the piecemeal changes stemming from the 1972 Act have produced inefficiencies and a good deal of discontent among magistrates who are concerned that the new clause should be adopted.
In the area which I represent, the Hartlepool borough council—following the 1972 Act, it was the natural successor to the old county borough authority—has made it abundantly clear that it is happy, willing, and eager to pay for the magistrates' courts committee.
The Hartlepool borough council is ready to undertake the fullest responsbility. The Hartlepool court staff would welcome the restoration of the Hartlepool magistrates' courts committee. It is understood that the practising solicitors in Hartlepool would welcome the restoration of that committee.
The Lord Chancellor has accepted the principle that while, under the 1974 provisions, the magistrates' courts committees were dissolved, in Hartlepool and other districts the committees are still elected and acting in a shadow capacity, giving the county committees the benefit of their local knowledge. Therefore, the infrastructure is there. The councils are willing to pay. From the magistrates' point of view, the district committees are already there. They are working on a shadow arrangement that is acceptable to the counties and the Lord Chancellor. Therefore there is no difficulty in finance or organisation that would persuade the Home Office not to accept the new clause.
Moreover, in Hartlepool, the Lord Chancellor has retained a separate advisory committee in respect of justices on the Hartlepool bench. All matters affecting those justices are being dealt with directly by the North Cleveland advisory committee, which is responsible for the Hartlepool bench only, and the Lord Chancellor's office. We have the finance and the organisation. The district committees are working in a shadow capacity. The Lord Chancellor's advisory committee is working directly with the Lord Chancellor. The committees are working and ready to comply with the objectives of the new clause.
However, there is a problem. At present the workload in the county is split between the three established districts of Teesside, Hartlepool and Langbaurgh. Teesside's workload involves about 34,290 people being dealt with by the courts. In Hartlepool the figure is 7,859 and in Langbaurgh it is 2,687. Experience has shown that the county magistrates' committee tends, because of the majority of magistrates coming from the higher workload area, to attend to Teesside matters more than to Hartlepool affairs. That is understandable. That is human nature and I have no criticism. There are 14 members from Teesside on the county committee but only four from Hartlepool and two from the Langbaurgh division. The chairman from Teesside is always the chairman of the committee. That causes a good deal of difficulty. In addition, there are bound to be delays because the district committee of Hartlepool has to deal with the county committee, which is 15 miles away, separated by the river Tees.
Therefore, we have poor economies, poor efficiency and unnecessary delays. There is prejudicial treatment because the sitting chairman almost always comes from the larger authority. The majority of the magistrates deal with Teesside matters. However, the smaller authority, Hartlepool, that is 15 miles from that area, wants to get on with its own work.
A case has been made out. Consultation has taken place in the past few years. The Home Office is fully aware of all the arguments. The magistrates' committees want to get on with doing the job efficiently, with their knowledge of their own areas, which is better than that of the Home Office. They have the finance and the co-operation of the district councils. There are the Lord Chancellor's advisory committees and in addition there are the shadow committees, which were dissolved under the Act but which in practice have not been disbanded.
I hope that the Solicitor-General will accept that there is a strong case to persuade the Home Office to change its mind. The argument could continue. The Home Office has taken a view that has been respected in the past. However, a decade has now passed since the Local Government Act 1972 and we should now look forward to a suitable change.
I wish to make a short contribution on behalf of Stoke-on-Trent without going over all the arguments that have been eloquently put forward.
Before 1974, Stoke-on-Trent was one of the cities and county boroughs with its own magistrates' courts committee. It feels, like so many others, that it has been demoted under the Local Government Act 1972 and that it is dominated by rural views and demands because it is a minority on the magistrates' courts committee. Civic pride has been dented. We should not take that lightly. People in our area do not understand why metropolitan districts that are the same size or smaller can have their own magistrates' courts committee, when they cannot. They argue that if places such as Solihull can have their own magistrates' courts committee, why should not Brighton, Hartlepool, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Stoke-on-Trent have their own magistrates' courts committees?
It has been argued that if a small group of towns and cities were given their own magistrates' courts committees, all the old county boroughs would have to be given their own committees. Eight years after the reform of local government, that argument does not follow. It is not necessary to pursue it. If one applies new clause 6, which we hope the Government will accept, common sense will prevail.
There is a feeling in the magistrates' courts areas that there is much waste of time and money under the present procedure. The meetings with local authorities have to take place in distant places. We have heard of the long journeys, for example from Plymouth to Exeter, which is 100 miles. It is not 100 miles from Stoke-on-Trent to Stafford—it is only 15. However, the people involved in magistrates' courts feel that Stafford is a foreign country. Before local government reorganisation, people in Stoke did not know where Stafford was. However, we are beginning to learn and perhaps in another 50 years we shall get there easily.
People believe that the knowledge of local government officials is deficient for the work of the magistrates' courts. Why should they be experts? They have other things to do. Having to keep up to date with the monthly changes on how to calculate local government finance should be enough for anyone who works in local government, without having to cope with matters that can be dealt with much more efficiently by others.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) referred to the cumbersome procedure that often leads to delays in decisions being taken and the necessity for an appeals procedure, although he said that that procedure was not often necessary because eventually people could talk their way through the problems. It is a delaying process that could be eradicated if the Solicitor-General were prepared to accept the principle of new clause 6.
In Stoke-on-Trent repairs, maintenance and improvements to the court house and offices are all done by the Stoke-on-Trent direct works department, but it is a long circuituous route to get the order from the court house via Stafford, back to the city of Stoke-on-Trent before the work can be carried out. That matter was raised in another place in 1980 under the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill. It has been raised in Committee, but I understand that no promises have been given. However, one hopes that the period has been filled with useful consultations, and that in his reply the Solicitor-General will tell us that wiser counsels prevail now.
Stoke-on-Trent contains 36 per cent. of the population of the county of Staffordshire. It provides 30 per cent., or 140, of the justices of the peace. Twenty-nine per cent. of full time staff are employed in Stoke-on-Trent, which provides 39 per cent. of the workload, but the city has only a 17 per cent. representation on the magistrates' courts committee.
Stoke on Trent's influence on the Staffordshire MCC is negligible. The committee is dominated by the 83 per cent. representation from mainly rural areas. That cannot be good, because people from rural areas cannot be expected to understand the problems associated with large cities such as Portsmouth, Hartlepool, Stoke-on-Trent, Plymouth and others. A good case is made out for independence for the committees. The Stoke-on-Trent magistrates want a return to the pre-1974 position. The city council agrees that that should be so. The staff want it, and while I know that the legal profession never has views on such matters, their nods and winks lead one to suppose that they would not be opposed to a return to a pre-1974 position.
The transfer would be smooth. There would be no great hitches or problems. In Stoke-on-Trent the court house and offices are all self-contained. The petty sessional area is the same as the local government area. Stoke-on-Trent has a computerised operation, because that was necessary in a city of its size. The rural areas are as different as chalk from cheese. While they work together they do not always understand each other's problems. There are anomalies, delays and duplication of work within the present system. I hope that the Government will seize the opportunity to put the matter right.
The Solicitor-General: The effect of the new clause would be to require the Home Secretary to designate certain non-metropolitan districts within the non-metropolitan counties as areas which would have separate magistrates' courts committees and for which the paying authority would, presumably, be the council for that district rather than the non-metropolitan county council. Thus, within a county there would be some districts with separate magistrates' courts committees looking to the district council for the provision of resources, while the county magistrates' courts committee cover the remainder of the district. The county council would provide for the courts in those districts. I am assuming that although the provisions in the new clause are mandatory, it would not be intended that they should require the Home Secretary to make every non-metropolitan district comply.
The provision would introduce unevenness into the system, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) lightly accepted. There are other difficulties. It would work where a county borough was coterminous with one petty sessional division—as it is in many cases—but it would not be so easy where the county council was no longer coterminous with the petty sessional division. I am not saying that that reason is conclusive, but the hon. Member for Hartlepool recognised that any proposal which has that effect is unattractive. One has to have arguments good enough to overcome that apparent disadvantage.
I am a county borough man. For many years I represented a county borough and I understand its feelings. One would think now that the councils of the county boroughs were a collection of all the archangels that ever lived. That is no': the view that was put to me when I was a Member for a county borough. The speeches made by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen have been motivated to a considerable extent by civic pride, which I recognise is good. Small county boroughs such as the one that I represented, and the larger ones represented by hon. Gentlemen who have spoken, take great pride in their character and separate existence.
Some representations have been made during the year, but they have no: been numerous. They have come from the Members of Parliament representing a few county boroughs. They have not come from the Justices' Clerks' Society, and they have not been sufficient to persuade the Minister responsible for that part of our affairs that legislation or the consultations which would be the necessary first step should be undertaken. I refer to consultations with the Justices' Clerks' Society to take its views, as distinct from the views of the individual clerks, many of whom share the views expressed by hon. Gentlemen. The Association of County Councils, the Association of District Councils and the Council of the Magistrates' Courts Committees would also need to be consulted.
I have no doubt that the representations that have been made have been listened to by my colleagues at the Home Office, but they have not been sufficiently persuasive to lead to the next stage. The value of the debate is that hon. Gentlemen representing those areas who have strong feelings about the matter have had the opportunity to express both why the views are held and the strength of feeling behind them.
I freely and happily undertake that I shall draw to the attention of my colleagues who have responsibility for that part of our affairs the fact that we have had a debate in which strong feelings have been expressed by those who are close to the matters about which they have spoken. I have no doubt that those views will be given careful consideration. As the hon. Member for Hartlepool said, one can get more feeling about the mood and temper in a debate in the House than can be put into a letter, however long one spends drafting the terms of the letter.
I am obliged to the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) for taking the initiative Much led to this second preliminary canter round the course, and to the hon. Gentlemen who have taken part in the debate for the trouble that they have taken to explain the position in their areas and for expressing their views with such clarity and courtesy. I suggest that the best course for the House to adopt, if perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman feels that he could take the initiative, is to leave the matter there for the time being.
I take on board the temper and mood in which the Solicitor-General has responded, but he will I hope bear in mi ad that there is no opposition from the Association of District Councils. Although I recognise that in the larger question of the magistrates' courts it is not the only body involved, it is, nevertheless, a start. Will the Solicitor-General ;state his willingness to suggest to his Home Office and other colleagues that an initiative for formal or even quasi-formal talks by the Government might be helpful?
We have before us briefs and appeals for a reorganisation from only a limited number of authorities. We have not had the benefit of the views of a larger body, and it is important for the Government to take them into account. They could be obtained in the manner that I suggest.
The one thing that I must not do is to give undertakings other than those which I know I can implement to the full. I hope that I have shown my sympathy for what seems to be a legitimate aspiration to have those views fully considered. I have no reason to believe that my colleagues in the Departments responsible will view it in any other way.
What should be a next step is a matter on which I should not make a commitment. Some of the bodies to which I have referred—my reference was to the effect that we do not know what their corporate view is—may feel that the next step is for them to express a corporate view, if they have one.
We are grateful to the Solicitor-General for his careful response. The House has heard tonight not only the theoretical arguments in favour of the new clause but a great deal about the practical difficulties that are being encountered by hard-working magistrates who are trying their best to make the system work. I am grateful to all who have participated for the benefit of their experience.
I am not wholly persuaded on what I understand the Solicitor-General to say is the chief stumbling block—that it might introduce some unevenness if the system were to be introduced in relation, as we think, only to about eight towns and not the others. I cannot for the life of me understand why that should be an argument against the proposal. A number of things are done in some areas and not in others because those who have to operate matters in some areas think that they would be better done in that way whereas others do not. What is wrong with that? I do not understand why it should not be possible for those areas in which the magistrates say that they would like to have the system to have it, but not others.
I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for his response so far as it goes. There has been a sign of sympathy from him and I have no doubt that the debate will be read by others in the Home Office who have responsibility for these matters. Benches in at least eight towns, consisting of at least 1,000 magistrates, support the proposal, so it is not entirely devoid of support. I hope that at this stage at least the Home Office might feel that it could begin the consultations. It is in a much better position to consult than anyone else. Simply to suggest that it should consult the bodies which might have a view on the subject is not an unreasonable activity to ask even of the Home Office. But it is not possible to take the matter further tonight. If we divided the House the result would be a foregone conclusion and a waste of time.
In the circumstances I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.