Oral Answers to Questions — Lay Magistracy

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3 April 2001.

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Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield 12:00, 3 April 2001

What her policy is on maintaining the lay magistracy.[155200]

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my reply to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) on 6 March 2001, Official Report, column 210W.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Hardly. After all the closures of magistrates courts that we have witnessed up and down the land, including my own—which had lasted for 600 years until this Government came into power—what assurance can the Minister give lay magistrates that they will not be replaced by stipendiary magistrates?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

I simply offer the same assurance that I have given on many occasions in the House. The Government recognise the valuable role and service that the lay magistracy offers to society. Their civic responsibilities are very wide. We admire the work that they do and we are confident that they will continue to do that work long after the hon. Gentleman has retired.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

As a member of the Magistrates Association, I am delighted to hear the Minister again spell out her robust support for the lay magistracy. Nevertheless, there remain concerns which I hope she will be able to lay to rest about the delays in the publication of the Auld report. Are those delays linked to the views of the Home Office, which is thought to be less charitable and positive about the lay magistracy? It is thought that the Home Office may have a secret agenda to do what the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) has articulated.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

I would seek to reassure my hon. Friend by saying that Lord Justice Auld is currently drafting his final report, which will be published as soon as it is available. It would be premature to comment on the review before it has been completed, but Lord Justice Auld published a resumé of his early findings last year in which he foresaw a continuing role for the lay magistracy.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

As a result of court closures in Devon and Cornwall, there have unfortunately been a number of resignations from the lay magistracy. I hope that the Minister agrees that we need a representative lay magistracy. It is much to be regretted that a young mother in my constituency has had to resign as a lay magistrate because she is unable to afford three hours per day travelling to the court in Plymouth. Are any steps being taken by the Government to assist magistrates, witnesses and other court users to get to the large city courts, now that the Government have closed so many magistrates courts in our local rural towns?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

There are more than 30,000 magistrates across England and Wales. I am sorry to hear of the resignation of the lady whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, as it is always to be regretted when a magistrate feels that they cannot continue their service. However, the recruitment of lay magistrates is a matter for the local lay magistrates to determine and they review their recruitment requirements regularly. Clearly they will follow carefully the representations that the hon. Gentleman has made and I will look into the case that he has mentioned.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Following the closure of two magistrates courts in my area, lay magistrates have told me of the difficulty that they will have travelling one hour to court and one hour from court. Will the Minister make an assessment of the Government's policies on maintaining the lay magistracy? Will she review the assessment of those policies if they can be demonstrated to have an adverse effect on the reach, accountability and scope of magistrates?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

Obviously I will give that undertaking and I will continue to keep the recruitment and retention of magistrates under review. I was pleased to see the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues at our meeting on 19 March to discuss the local proposals that the magistrates courts committee is considering. All representations have been carefully noted and the committee locally will continue to consider responses to the consultation exercise as it proceeds. The committee will be responsible for maintaining recruitment and retention of benches locally.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Having heard today of the closure of courts in the west country, in Staffordshire—from my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant)—and in Wales, does the Minister recognise that although she comes to the Dispatch Box month after month, smiling sweetly and talking fine words about keeping the magistrates going, there is friendly fire from her hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor), who has mentioned the Home Office's not very well hidden agenda to undermine the lay magistracy? Are not the Government imposing huge costs—as we warned—as a result of the Human Rights Act 1998? The Act states that prisoners cannot be seen handcuffed because that is somehow inhumane and somehow equates to torture. Is not that undermining magistrates courts and causing them to close? The Minister's fine words are incapable of being believed.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

My fine words and sweet smile, as the hon. Gentleman describes them, contrast with the fine rant that he brings to the Chamber. The Government's policy is that the magistrates courts are best managed locally by the magistrates courts committee under the provisions of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997.