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|Sitting||Proceedings||Time for conclusion of proceedings|
|26th June (a.m.), (p.m.) 1st July (a.m.), (p.m.)||Clauses 1 to 4, Schedule 1; Clauses 5 to 6, Schedule 2; Clauses 7 to 35; Clauses 37 to 45, Schedule 4; Clauses 46 to 65, Schedule 5; Clauses 66 to 85.||5.00 p.m. on 1st July|
|8th July (a.m.), (p.m.)||Clauses 86 to 94; Clause 97, Schedule 6; clauses 98 to 104; Clause 107; Schedules 7 and 8; Clauses 108 to 110.||5.00 p.m.|
|10th July (a.m.), (p.m.)||Clause 36, Schedule 3; Clauses 95, 96, 105 and 106; new Clauses, new Schedules and any remaining proceedings on the Bill.||5.00 p.m.|
Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 26th June 2003.
As we discussed the motion earlier in the Programming Sub-Committee, I hope that much of the scheduling of the Bill is straightforward and self-explanatory. I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. Having served under your chairmanship before, I know that you have a reputation for being even-tempered and fair-minded, as all Yorkshiremen are—like my good self, as you will no doubt find out. The subject that we are about to discuss is relatively new to me, so I shall keep my contributions as simple and strategic as possible.
I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. I entirely endorse what the Minister said about your chairmanship, and I welcome him to his new responsibilities. Although I cannot claim to be a Yorkshireman, I lived in Yorkshire for many years and fought my first parliamentary seat there, and I agree with the Minister about the fair-mindedness of Yorkshire folk.
We are content with the programme motion. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should be able to complete the business in a straightforward way in the time agreed by the Programming Sub-Committee, and I shall hold him to his word that he intends to be simple and strategic.
I, too, Mr. O'Brien, welcome you to the Chair of this Committee on the umpteenth Bill this Session from the Lord Chancellor's Department, as was. Some of us are beginning to feel like permanent fixtures in Committee Rooms. I can lay no claim whatever to having a particular affinity with Yorkshire, but I hope that that will not be held against me. Somerset and Yorkshire enjoy playing cricket against each other, but that is about it.
The Bill is important. It has been improved hugely already, which is to everyone's credit, especially those in another place who fought for changes. We hope to improve it still further in Committee. I am interested in what the Minister's strategic responses will comprise. We await them with bated breath.
Question put and agreed to.
I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution and a Ways and Means resolution in connection with the Bill, copies of which are available in the Room. Adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, I do not intend to call starred amendments, including those that may be reached during an afternoon sitting.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 6, in
clause 1, page 1, line 19, at end insert
'and in particular a detailed analysis of the operation of this Act, especially the question of accessibility of the courts to court users.'.
Amendment No. 109, in
clause 1, page 1, line 19, at end insert—
'(5) In the course of preparation of any report under subsection (4), the Lord Chancellor must, in respect of each local justice area, consult with court users on the accessibility of courts situated in the relevant area.'.
Amendment No. 31, in
clause 21, page 10, line 34, at end insert
', and shall take into account the views of lay justices in any local justice area before making any changes regarding that local justice area, and in particular shall not allow any court building in any local justice area to be closed if the lay justices believe that location needs a court to continue to operate there in the interests of local justice, regardless of Lord Chancellor's Department circulars and guidance.'.
It is always nice to start a Committee with the most crucial subject of the Bill under discussion. The first group of amendments goes to the heart of the concerns of many people, not just those represented in the Room, but people outside who will have to work with the Bill in the future and who, although welcoming some aspects of it, fear some of its consequences. The Minister will know from
reading the reports of the debates in another place how much the principle of accessibility was at the heart of the discussion. It is also at the heart of our worries, because over several years—this is not exclusively due to the actions of the current Government; it has been happening over a sufficiently long period for the blame to be spread—we have seen the closure of smaller courthouses and the concentration of court hearings in an ever smaller number of buildings, which, by necessity, are therefore more geographically remote from the people whom they serve.
That worry has been exacerbated by a policy emanating from the Department formerly known as the Lord Chancellor's Department—I wish there were a shorthand way of saying that. It may be more convenient for Hansard if we still refer to it as the Lord Chancellor's Department, when we mean the previous Lord Chancellor's Department rather than the present Department for Constitutional Affairs. The policy laid down criteria that the present magistrates courts committees have had to follow, and resourcing streams that did not allow them the luxury of maintaining smaller cost centres such as courthouses in remote rural areas. However, the committees were blamed for the closures that resulted.
That was a wholly unsatisfactory position. It irritated and upset people in local areas when they found that their courthouse was closed, and closures had—and still do have—a disruptive effect on the principles of the justice system. In my area of the country and in many others, people were often obliged to travel considerable distances to a court. For those who have a car and a lot of time, that causes relatively few problems. For those who do not have a car and rely on the wholly inadequate public transport system in many rural areas, let alone in some urban areas, or for those for whom time means money because they are self-employed business men or similar people who find it difficult to take time out of their day, it makes it much more difficult for them to participate in the legal process. That is a worry.
Such a problem add costs for the police, too, because they have to devote whole days to being away from their normal patrolling area to attend a court distant from where they are based. It also adds time and difficulty for legal representatives. We already have a significant problem with the number of criminal defence solicitors in this country, and the number of people in general practice who are prepared to take on criminal work. Every additional burden for them in attending courts some distance from their normal practice is one more reason why they choose to cease to do that far from lucrative work and concentrate on other areas of legal practice.
There is also a problem with witnesses who cannot attend case hearings, with those who are affected by cases and wish to see the proceedings but are unable to do so, and with the defendants themselves. They are not the prime concern, but they, too, often find it difficult to attend the hearing in reasonable time. For all those reasons, we should deprecate the move toward the closure of courts. The Bill will increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the Court Service. That is its intention, and we have no quarrel with that.
Indeed we applaud it, but it also makes decisions more remote from the people whom the courts serve. They are taken at a national rather than a local level.
Many people are concerned that that will accelerate not reduce the speed of closures of smaller courts. There is a clear argument that accessibility—accessibility can be expressed in a number of different ways, but geographical accessibility is an important part of it—should be at the core of the Lord Chancellor's duties in implementing the Bill.
That is not just my opinion, it is that of individual magistrates, and a view that is widely held among the general public and local authorities. It is also significant that it is also the view expressed by the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department. In the one report that it has produced so far, its members have made a clear recommendation that the text in clause 1 should be changed so that the general duty of the Lord Chancellor included the word ''accessible''.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman concedes that access to justice means a lot more than the geographical location of courtrooms. Although it would be nice if everything were in clause 1, what is wrong with that being in clause 30, which acknowledges not only the desirability of accessibility, but the need for it?
It should be in both. I am grateful to the Government for the amendment that they have accepted to clause 30; it is a significant move forward, which will have an effect in practical terms, and I do not decry that. However, when setting out his general duties in maintaining the system of courts, it is obvious that the Lord Chancellor should apply that criterion when considering any aspect of the system, not simply the narrow issue of the position of courts.
There may be other factors involved. If the Government are genuine in accepting the case for accessibility as an important factor in placing courthouses—and I have no reason to suppose that they are not—they should have no difficulty in accepting that as a general duty. It is one among several. The trouble with the words ''efficient and effective'' is that they can be interpreted in several ways. We all know that things that are efficient and effective for the deliverers of a service may be far from efficient and affective for its recipients.
We are asking that the same degree of consideration be given to the interests of court users as to the interests of those who deliver the service, who may wish to do so in an efficient, effective and economical way. Evidence shows that that has not always been the case in the past, and that there is a risk that it will be even less so in the future, because of the inevitable detachment. Any sensible reading of the Bill suggests that it is inevitable that there will be detachment of local communities from the administration of the Court Service, despite the role of the courts boards, which we will discuss later.
This is an important matter of principle. It is a clear recommendation of the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department, whose members picked up the wording direct from Professor Bridges of the
university of Warwick. I cannot improve on what he suggested as a suitable amendment, and that is why I tabled the precise words in amendment No. 1. This is the touchstone of whether the Government are genuine about wanting to see a court system that works well not only for the practitioners but for the users.
Amendment No. 109 would add to the responsibilities in the reporting structure that the Government have accepted as a principle under subsection (4)—that the Lord Chancellor should give an annual report on the way in which he has discharged his general duty.
Amendment No. 109 would ensure that as part of that reporting process, the Lord Chancellor—or whoever is in charge of the courts—went out and asked people, ''How is this for you? Is it working? Can you get to your courts, and are they serving the local community that you represent?'' Such a safeguard would give us more chance of creating a system responsive to local communities, rather than ignorant of their needs.
There is ample evidence that even under the present system ignorance of local circumstances exists. I heard a story—I have no reason to suppose that it is not true—of one poor chap in mid-Wales who ended up walking 14 miles to attend a court hearing in Aberystwyth because his local court had closed down. That is unacceptable; it is not local justice, or what we mean by an accessible court system. I accept that that is an extreme case, but even in my area there are proposals to close Frome magistrates court. There is another proposal in the neighbouring constituency to close Wells court. The effect of those closures will be that people will have to travel to Bath or Yeovil to have their cases heard.
How do people get to Bath or Yeovil with the public transport system in its present state? My village has only one bus a week, and it goes to Frome, not to Bath or Yeovil. How might an 18-year-old defendant charged with taking a car without permission, who does not have the benefit of a car to get him to court, get to his hearing in Yeovil when there is no other transport available? Most youths accused of taking a car without permission would take another car without permission to get to court—and they would be in trouble again. Surely that is not what we want to promote in a sensible judicial system.
This is an important group of amendments. I hope that the Minister will say, ''Yes, we accept amendment No. 1 now.'' Then we could stop this argument. If he does not say that, I predict that it will return again and again. There is already a queue of Bills in another place waiting to reach their conclusion, and if the Minister digs his heels in, this will be another. He will probably say that in principle he does not disagree with what we are saying. However, wisdom dictates—even for a Minister who is new to his brief, which I know makes things more difficult—that he agree to my proposal, which I have reason to suppose will be
supported by other Opposition Members. We can then move on in good order, having established an important principle about the locality and accessibility of justice in this country.
I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about this group of amendments, and I shall expand on it.
There are a couple of Conservative amendments in the group, and amendment No. 3, which was not selected, would have had an effect similar to the Liberal Democrat amendment No. 1. We agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments about the recommendations of the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department. That must be the only Select Committee in history to be set up, produce one report and then have to change its name immediately—that is another one of the many bizarre features of the Government's botched reshuffle. Of course I do not blame the new Minister for that—this hot potato has been dumped in his lap, and I do not suppose that he is happy with that, but he will make the best of a bad job. As he said, he will be as simple and strategic as he can.
Members of the official Opposition feel as strongly about this as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) does. My hon. Friends and I have been asking questions about it at just about every Lord Chancellor's Department Question Time for many years, not merely for the past two weeks or months. Since they came to power, this Government have closed many more magistrates courts.
I want to explain a little bit about this closure mania. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, and the Minister will no doubt say, there were closures under the previous Conservative Government. However, the fact remains that it was not acceptable for the Minister's predecessors to repeat parrot fashion, as they so often did in successive question times, the phrase, ''Well, these are local decisions taken by the magistrates courts committees. It's nothing to do with us. It isn't our responsibility.'' That was the response so many times—the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues heard it, too.
The Government are responsible, as the hon. Gentleman said, for the severe constraints and tight guidance under which those magistrates courts committees have been working. They have been boxed in and forced by the trend of Government policy, which in my view has been misconceived for many years under Governments of both parties. There is an abnegation of the Government's responsibility to provide local justice. That is why the group of amendments is so vital, why Professor Bridges said what he did to the Select Committee, and why they endorsed it—and that is why the amendments should be made.
Unless the Government have, on reflection, seen sense and accepted the amendments as they stand, or some version of them, the official Opposition will wish to vote on amendment No. 31 when we get to clause 21. That would take the matter a stage further, because it would mean that court buildings would not close if
local justices did not want them to, and give them the final say, regardless of the guidance, the circulars and all that nonsense. We believe that local justice is so vital that it should take precedence over all that guidance and all those circulars.
I am sure that the Minister will respond with a lot of detail on how the decisions have been made by magistrates courts committees. Nevertheless, I want to explain something. In response to questions from my hon. Friend the shadow Attorney-General and me, we elicited a full list of more than 100 local magistrates courts that have closed since the Government came to power. Opposition Members feel strongly about that. Those closures include the magistrates court in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and various courts in other constituencies, including some in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. I shall talk about one or two of those.
When I received the list I remembered appearing as a barrister, as I used to do for many years in the midlands, at various courts on the list. I know that those courts provided local justice. They may not have been the brand spanking new court buildings that bureaucrats like to plan and work in, but they did have the majesty of the law. Most of those buildings were historic as well as local, and local people respected them. Some modern box designed in the 1990s or 2000 does not provide that, although it may have wonderful facilities for the bureaucrats and officials.
I shall give way in a moment, but I want to develop my point first. I am not surprised that I am provoking some reaction, but I want to stress how strongly I feel.
Let us consider some of the courts on the list in historic towns in rural areas, such as Stow-on-the-Wold, Lichfield, Wombourne—for the benefit of those who do not know it, I should explain that that is to the west of Wolverhampton—Evesham, Droitwich and Bridgnorth. I appeared in all those courts for many years, and they provided genuine local justice. It is nothing short of a scandal, which will stand to the discredit of the Government, that they have abandoned the whole concept of local justice.
The hon. Gentleman's argument would have some credibility had he produced the list that included all the courts that closed under Conservative Administrations. His Government should have listened to our representations when we were in opposition about the closure of courts such as Oakmere and Ellesmere Port.
I have already accepted that courts closed under the Conservative Administration. I did not agree with that decision then, and I do not agree with the acceleration of the closures—make no mistake, there has been an acceleration—since this Government came to power. There has been a closure mania, which has led to the kind of nonsense that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome talked about, with people having to walk to court. He, I and other
hon. Members, including the constituency Member concerned, who I think is from Plaid Cymru, have raised that matter at questions to the Lord Chancellor's Department. For every court that closes, the problem described by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome gets worse. Fewer and fewer people can get to the courts.
If the hon. Gentleman's experience when he started at the Bar was like mine, he would have found that the facilities for witnesses and police officers in many of those places were abysmal. If he wants to keep all those buildings in place, how does he hope to improve facilities and modernise the service?
I am delighted to have taken that intervention, because it shows the mania for so-called modernisation that is the biggest infection in the whole of this Labour Government. They believe that modernisation is a god, and I cannot stress too strongly the fact that I do not believe that modernisation is as important as the need for local justice.
Is it not true that although many ancient local courthouses provided poor facilities, the same could be said about a lot of ancient local schools? They too provided poor facilities—and the answer is to improve them and invest in them, so as to provide local education, just as we should provide local courthouses.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and he anticipates part of my argument. In my constituency, because of the tight constraints of the circulars from the Lord Chancellor's Department, the magistrates courts committee said that it had no choice but to close the court. It did not really want to; it wanted to keep the court in Camberley—the main town in my constituency—open, and improve the facilities. That should have been the priority.
I am glad to hear the sinner that repenteth. The arguments about modernisation were the previous Administration's arguments in favour of the closure of the two courtrooms to which I referred. The cost of modernising them would have been excessive, so the closures went ahead.
For many years, under Governments of both parties, there has been a corporatist, bureaucrat-friendly culture of saying, ''Because it's old, we have to close it.'' The Bill, the effect of which will last for many years, gives us an opportunity to change that culture. The amendments are important because if accessibility becomes the priority, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has advocated, we can stop dead in its tracks the mistaken mania for closure, and return to real local justice. The amendments put accessibility at the heart of the matter, and that is why they are crucial.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that if Government Members want to support the idea of accessibility they should vote for the amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrat spokesman? However, if they want to argue for modernisation, they cannot complain about the closures that took place when we were in government.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, with his usual perspicacity. I say to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) that we want enshrined in the Bill the concept that the need for justice to be local and remain local should be the first and paramount consideration. Any of the lawyers on the Government side will know that that is a phrase used in other areas of the law. The need for justice to be local is so important that it should be in the Bill, in order to override all the bureaucratic circulars and regulations. The Government should provide that wherever possible, courts stay open in the towns where they have stood, in some cases, for hundreds of years.
Looking at the list of the one hundred plus courts that have been shut since the Government came to power, I would say that we want to go further: what we really want is to reverse the trend gradually over the years. Some of those buildings are still available for use, and they should be reopened. In the end, that is what we will have to do if we want to get back to the concept of local justice.
Throughout my experience, and certainly since I started at the Bar in the late 1970s, officials have always had an empire-building tendency. Officials like spanking new buildings to work in with all mod cons and lovely facilities. They are often modern office-type buildings, which may comply with all the circulars but do not have the majesty of the law, as so many of the old buildings do. It is part of the obsession with modernisation that we deplore.
I would rather have buildings that are genuinely local. In many cases, court buildings are magisterial and historic. They lasted so long because they worked. They may not have every facility that we would aim for in an ideal world, but the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is right that the way to deal with that is to improve buildings, not close them down and make people travel, in some cases, 100 miles from a rural area to a large town or city to work in a huge but faceless new building called a court centre. The false god of modernisation has led the Government since 1997, which is why, if the Government have not seen sense by the time we reach clause 21, I shall urge my hon. Friends to vote in favour of amendment No. 31. At this stage, I simply support this group of amendments, which includes our amendment No. 6 and the Liberal Democrat amendment No. 1.
I tempted the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) to consider Oakmere courtroom. I am talking not about Somerset, Yorkshire or Surrey, but a minor county in cricketing terms: Cheshire. The hon. Gentleman, who made a powerful case for re-opening Oakmere, which was closed by his Administration, fails to acknowledge that it is not on a single bus route or in a town or village; it is merely on a crossroads. Its location was carefully chosen by a Conservative Government, I suspect, because of its proximity to Gallows hill. That is the kind of modernisation that the Conservative party wants. The hon. Gentleman's argument is absurd.
It was accessible for some people, especially undertakers.
Some of the arguments that have been advanced, in particular about 19th century buildings such as the courtroom in Ellesmere Port, which was closed by the hon. Gentleman's Administration, have huge flaws. A case was made by the magistrates courts committee, and nobody in the local community was listened to. As I understand the new provisions, there will be a requirement for local people to be engaged in the decision-making process and in determining issues such as accessibility. Although I agree with the spirit of what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, I draw his attention, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), to clause 30, in which the concept of accessibility is clearly included.
I accept that it is there now. The matter has been well argued and the clause should stay there.
It is appropriate to leave the argument at that point. Local people will be involved in the decision-making process. We welcome the fact that the process will no longer be centrally driven. Even the eminent and learned hon. Member for Surrey Heath, who represented a north-west seat before he took the chicken run a few years ago, did not know where Oakmere was, nor would I expect my hon. Friend the Minister to have known. Why should he? Geographic information of that kind is very local.
I did not say that for one minute. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should listen to every word, not just suspected ones.
The point that I am making, in response to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, who made a logical case about geography, is that geographical information is best understood locally. It is a matter not just of looking at a map or at the network of roads, but of understanding the public transport systems and so on. As the Bill contains provisions to enable issues of accessibility to be determined by those who speak for the local community, not simply by those coming, as in our case, from 200 miles away, my fears have been addressed.
To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), it is impossible in my constituency to accelerate the closure, because the previous Administration closed 100 per cent. of the court provision: county court offices and the magistrates court disappeared. Therefore, we are stuck with the reality that some cases are referred to the newly amalgamated bench of Chester and Ellesmere Port, whereas others are referred to Northwich. Here I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, because, as in the example that
he gave, it is an impossible situation. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that, in any guidance, common sense applies and cases are listed in a way that takes into account the likelihood of the individual being able to travel to the court. I know that the hon. Gentleman was not encouraging people to go round stealing cars, but his point must be considered. We must ensure, when cases are listed, that we meet the needs of justice fully by enabling witnesses and the accused to get to courtrooms.
The hon. Gentleman is making a perfectly sensible speech, but what he has just said is a strong argument for what I am proposing. It is important that the listings take account of the accessibility problems to which he refers, but that is not covered by clause 30. That is why there must be a general duty on the court system to provide for accessibility, rather than a specific duty on the places where courts sit, which comes under clause 30.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but he will acknowledge that there is sufficient variety in the geographical circumstances to make it difficult to include every dot and comma of what is necessary. He argues logically that there should be a general duty, but clause 30 is pretty general in the context of places, dates and times of sittings. It says:
''In exercising his powers . . . the Lord Chancellor shall have regard to the need to ensure that court-houses are accessible to persons resident in each local justice area.''
That point is stated firmly enough in the Bill to assimilate the hon. Gentleman's point.
As all parties in the House are concerned about this question of geography, I urge my hon. Friend to ensure in any guidance that is given that, when clerks list cases, they take into account the circumstances of the accused and the witness, and, in some cases, the practicalities of getting police officers to and from courts, so as to avoid wasting their time by making them turn up and sit all day for a case that might take a few minutes. The clerks should use the technology that they have at their disposal to call in officers more efficiently as and when they are needed. A lot of efficiency gains could be made, as well as improvements in the system of justice.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Gentleman, as we played together in the Houses of Lords and Commons tennis team. It is good to see that he has recovered from the thrashing that we received from almost every team in Europe at the recent—
It was a good example of ''Small is beautiful''. All the small teams, such as the Slovenes and the Macedonians, thrashed us, but we beat the Russians.
Those of us who have sat on Committees dealing with home affairs before are again swimming in a sea of lawyers, which makes those of us who like to keep our appearances in magistrates courts to a bare minimum a bit more nervous. I agree with what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath said about the key issue of accessibility. We all agree that local justice
is important. It is convenient for the court and the users, and in many cases is likely to be swift, because there is less moving around the country to get to places. Also, I believe that it is important that justice is seen to be done locally.
It is clearly right to put in the clause a duty on the court system to be ''efficient and effective''. However, that could sometimes clash with accessibility. An example that my local magistrates courts committee brought to my attention is that of specialist courts. It is hugely efficient and effective to have one court that deals with all the traffic offences, including speeding, because all the experts are there and one can push everything through one court in the county. However, if that court in Oxfordshire is the Banbury court, anyone who has committed another offence in Banbury will have to travel to Witney or Oxford, so there is a clash between efficiency and effectiveness, and accessibility, which the Minister must accept.
Guaranteeing accessibility in clause 1, as the amendments would do, is even more important in a relatively top-down system. From my reading of the Bill, the Lord Chancellor seems to appear all over the place. He is responsible for equipping the courthouses, establishing the boards, delineating the areas and changing the areas. An awful lot of power—for an office that does not seem to exist anymore—is being centralised in the hands of the Secretary of State. If the system is going to be top-down, the requirement for accessibility should be in the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath launched an interesting debate about whether one can have the concepts of both modernisation and localism. He is right that there is conflict. If we have uniform national standards that have large cost implications, rural areas will not have as many services. I see that in the ambulance stations, cottage hospitals and police stations, which are often linked to the courthouses, in my constituency. For example, there are no sergeants at Witney police station, so the cells cannot be used overnight, which means that detainees must be transferred to Banbury and so on. There is conflict, but that does not mean that one must either be totally in favour of localism and say, ''To hell with national standards,'' or be totally for national standards and close everything in local areas. However, there is a balance, and we need to tip the scales of that balance in favour of localism. To use new Labour-speak, putting accessibility in clause 1 would be a great move.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. It is also a great pleasure once again to sit opposite the Minister. I sat opposite the Minister in Committee when we considered the Local Government Bill, and he was in absolute command of the subject. After hearing what he said earlier, I am sure that—despite his brief tenure in his new post—he will prove again that he is on top of his brief.
Both you, Mr. O'Brien, and the Minister will have had constituency experience of talking to members of all political parties. It is the fate of all constituency MPs, me included, to talk to members not only of our own party, but of others. My hon. Friend the Member
for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said a moment ago that the Committee is drowning in a sea of lawyers. When I talk to people in my constituency—to members of the Conservative Association and to members of the Labour party—I feel as though I am drowning in a sea of magistrates. Senior members of the Labour party in my constituency often turn out to be magistrates, as do senior members of the Conservation Association. Those people have a great deal to say about the point addressed in the amendment that was so ably moved by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. Those people are concerned with the point about accessibility.
I will not rehearse the points already made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. If one examines the list of courts to be closed by the Government, one finds that, in only a few days' time, on 1 July, Beaconsfield court in my neighbouring constituency is due to close. Members of my party, and members of the local Labour party, were keen to discuss that closure when our court in Wycombe held an open day recently.
I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned Beaconsfield because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who is on the shadow Front-Bench team for home affairs, is also very concerned about that closure. Has my hon. Friend noticed that—I do not blame the current Minister for this—Beaconsfield appears twice on the list? It occurred to me that, to modify the words of a well-known song, it was so good they named it twice.
I had noticed that—greatly assisted by the squiggle that my hon. Friend drew on the list that he handed to me a few moments ago, joining the word ''Beaconsfield'' when it appeared for the first time to the word ''Beaconsfield'' when it appeared for the second time.
I will now say something that may please my hon. Friend rather less. I say it with great trepidation. I do not entirely follow his argument about modernisation all the way to the end of the line. I think that it is entirely right that the Government should seek to modernise the court structures. It is quite right that the Bill states that there should be an ''efficient and effective system''. That is the heart of the matter. The words ''efficient and effective'' would imply to any reasonable person a degree of rationalisation.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston used the phrase ''efficiency gains''. When that phrase is used, it normally indicates an element of rationalisation and contraction. That is fair enough in principle. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney said, the principle represented in the Bill needs a counterweight. That counterweight is admirably represented by the word ''accessible'', as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said. Where better to put that right than at the start of the Bill, so that the modernisation that the Government are rightly pursuing is balanced by the principle of accessibility, and so that our constituents do not find that their access to justice is limited? I am looking
forward to the Minister getting up in a few moments and saying that, so reasonable is the case that has been put by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, he will accept the amendment.
Opposition Members have made some effective points, but have overstated the case for accessibility. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston: we have to strike a balance between the need to manage the court estate strategically and the need to maintain localism and geographical accessibility. The case for keeping local courts open at all costs is often overstated.
Can the Minister reassure us that he has taken on board the concerns of those of us who represent rural constituencies that, although we need to rationalise the estate, the interests of victims and witnesses will always be taken into account? We welcome the fact that the new courts boards will include members of the local community. They will need to consider transport, accessibility and the needs of witnesses and victims. The Minister's acknowledgement of that requirement will be most welcome.
I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the fact that it is nice to have had such a wide-ranging debate right at the outset. I have served on Committees that have started with semantic and drafting changes, which rather takes the wind out of the sails of the proceedings. It is important that we have already had the opportunity to think about some of the significant principles of the Bill.
I shall start by providing some background to the Government's thinking behind clause 1, and, indeed, the rest of part 1. The current arrangements provide for separation of the management of the courts in England and Wales. The Supreme Court, as currently understood—the High Court, the Crown Court and the Court of Appeal combined—and the county courts are managed by the Court Service, an executive agency of what is now the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The magistrates courts are administered by 42 separate magistrates courts committees.
In his review of the criminal courts, Lord Justice Auld recommended that a single agency should replace the Court Service and the MCCs. In the White Paper ''Justice for All'', the Government accepted Sir Robin's view that the difference in practice, procedure, management and funding of the current 43 organisations and their respective administrative cultures is occasionally inefficient and could be harmfully divisive, contributing to the fractured nature of the criminal justice system as a whole.
That is why the Government are considering the unification of court administration. It has important benefits. First, the unification process will establish a clear overall direction and accountability for national performance, while giving managers the freedom to innovate as local needs require. It will enable resources to be better used at both national and local level. That includes the better use of the court estate. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas) asked about the local dimension. The agency will be
flexible and will be able to match resources to need, uninhibited by organisational boundaries. It will be more efficient, providing better value by sharing and pooling resources and purchasing power, freeing resources for front-line operations.
The proposal will make justice more accessible. Many hon. Members have mentioned their concerns about rural access to justice. The process of the Bill might help to allow the business of magistrates courts to be conducted at any place in England and Wales that the Lord Chancellor directs. That could lead to greater use of local non-court buildings where appropriate.
The benefits include improved customer service—the new agency will be easier for the public and court users to communicate with and understand—and improved liaison in the criminal justice system, with closer and more coherent liaison between the courts, user groups and justice agencies at national and local levels. Unification will help to provide a framework for the setting and monitoring of national standards to enable best practice to be shared and standards in poorly performing areas to be raised. We must not lose sight of the benefits of unification in our discussions.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome tabled amendment No. 1, which would require the Lord Chancellor to ensure that the system supporting the business of the courts is ''accessible'', as well as efficient and effective. He rightly predicted that I take the view that that amendment is unnecessary. The general duty that the Bill imposes on the Lord Chancellor clearly includes access to the courts:
''to ensure that there is an efficient and effective system to support the carrying on of the business of the courts, and that appropriate services are provided for those courts''
I was saddened by the extreme comments by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, who described the ''mania for modernisation'' as a disease. The hon. Members for Witney and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) made me feel a bit better because they tempered the Conservative party's official Opposition view with more moderate comments.
I share my hon. Friend the Minister's concern about the rejection of modernisation. We should consider accessibility for people with disabilities, audio loops and the separation of witnesses from the accused in waiting areas in modern courtrooms. I hope that all parties in the House would support such modernisation.
My hon. Friend is right. Access is an important aspect of our court buildings, but we are doing more than that. Flicking through the ''Court Service Annual Report and Accounts 2001–02''—as I often do—I spotted the successful introduction of money claim online, which uses new technology in court activities; for example, e-mail applications have been piloted at Preston county court. My hon. Friend also alluded to other new ways of working in the courts system. A lot of work is taking place on access, which proves that the amendment is redundant. In particular, work to support victims, witnesses, families, children and professional legal advisers is
currently going on. It is all about harnessing new technology.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford pointed out that accessibility had not been missed out of the Bill. The changes that have been made to clause 30(2) on the places, dates and times of sitting make it clear that the Government readily accept the notion that the Lord Chancellor must consider accessibility. When they look at clause 30(2), hon. Members must acknowledge that we have responded to the debate in another place.
We could have a long debate about whether other objectives should be inserted before or after ''efficient and effective''. Many of those objectives would be perfectly laudable. Should we include ''fairness'', ''timeliness'', ''high quality'', ''openness'', ''responsiveness'' and possibly even ''modernised''? We must focus on the broad notions of efficiency and effectiveness, which is why I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will withdraw the amendment.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath did not elaborate on the full glory of amendment No. 6, which suggests that the annual report, the idea of which we have accepted, should contain a detailed analysis of the operation of the Bill, especially the question of the accessibility of courts to court users. The provision for an annual report under clause 1 would ensure that the public and Parliament received information about the operation of the new organisation. The annual report will include information about the agency's performance, as well as corporate information about the agency itself. For the first time it will present performance information about magistrates courts and the Crown court in a single annual document that will be available for public and parliamentary scrutiny. We believe that to extend coverage of the report to other provisions of the Bill would be complex, and not necessarily related to the unified administration of the court.
I am sure that such an annual report would, by necessity, have to touch on many of those issues, because it will be about the operations of the unified court system. It would be perverse to accept the amendment, given that it relates not to the operations of the new administration but to the Bill as it is currently framed. That includes provisions about the Official Solicitor for Northern Ireland and the process of periodical payments—matters that we will come to later. It is not appropriate to have a report that simply reflects the legislative vehicle through which a number of changes are being introduced.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West asked why we should focus exclusively on accessibility when there are other issues such as efficiency and effectiveness that the annual report should cover, too. It is slightly strange to start a list of particular issues that an annual report should cover.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome spoke to amendment No. 109, which would require the Lord Chancellor to consult court users on the accessibility of all courts in preparing the annual report. We believe that it is illogical to link consultation with court users to the preparation of an annual report. Consultation with court users is something that should take place constantly, and should not start and finish in relation to a particular publication.
Court users will have a say through the new courts boards, and they will have a great input in how courts are run locally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston suggested. Apparently, engagement with the local community is voluntary at the moment, both for the MCCs and the Court Service. We believe that many issues dealt with by the courts administration, such as location of services and court facilities, are of great concern to court users and to the community as a whole. That is why we are creating community-focused courts boards with real influence on the way in which the courts are run.
I do not know if the Minister realises that the citizens advice bureaux have been in touch with a number of us to say that their concern is that the interests of people such as victims and witnesses are not properly recognised in current court user groups. My worry—which I know the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome shares—is that the annual report will simply replicate what has already happened, and the interests of victims and witnesses will not be sufficiently recognised. That is what the citizens advice bureaux say has happened over the past few years.
I must respond to that point. Citizens advice bureaux throughout the country do a phenomenally important job, and I hope that they will have the opportunity to contribute, not just to the consultation processes, but possibly to the running, and to the discussions that take place with courts boards, given that their composition as set out in schedule 1 is fairly broad. There is scope for the appointment of a variety of people—with various skills and feelings on those matters—to the courts boards.
So that we can understand the matter from the cases that we have dealt with, let us consider the closure of Ellesmere Port court prison. When that occurred, objections were lodged by all parties, including the local authority, the police, the citizens advice bureau, local solicitors and the local representatives of the Law Society. Those were powerful voices, but they were ignored under the present arrangements.
Is my hon. Friend saying that now those voices would be listened to, and account would be taken of their knowledge of the circumstances before closures were determined?
As I took on my new role, one of the things that struck me about the piloting of some of the Bill through its previous stages was the fact that the current draft includes the widespread ability to consult
at several levels. We will have a unified national courts administration, but the courts boards process and focus will be outward-looking and more community-orientated. Many of the groups to which my hon. Friend referred will have a much greater sense that they are included in that aspect of the criminal justice system.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath spoke to amendment No. 31. He wants the Lord Chancellor to take into account the views of the magistrates in the local justice area before making any changes. The amendment would stop closure of a court building if the magistrates in the area believed that it needed to remain open in the interests of local justice. The amendment is unworkable and would not be in the interests of local justice or of those who use the courts.
The effect of the amendment in respect of the closure of court buildings would be perverse. We recognise that court closures can be an important issue to court users and members of the local community. Clause 5 deals with courts boards, which would include magistrates and representatives of the local community, who will be involved in the development of plans for their area, including proposals to open, close or relocate courthouses in the context of the area's overall business plan. Any proposals to close courthouses will continue to be subject to wide consultation with interested groups in the local community, including the local magistracy.
The amendment would allow the local magistrates to stop the closure of a court building, be it Crown court, county court or magistrates court, if they believed that retaining it was in the interests of their perception of local justice. What if magistrates were to block the closure of a court building that was particularly old, inaccessible and lacked facilities, and regarded even by Conservative Members as requiring modernisation? Keeping such a court building would prevent us from building a new court in a nearby town that might be more accessible to users of the old building. Would that decision be in the interests of all court users?
What if the agency wanted to close a county court building and rehouse civil and family work in a modern magistrates court building in the same town? Even with the support of the local courts board and civil and family court user groups, the local magistracy could prevent those plans from going ahead. In allowing local magistrates to block court closures in their areas, the amendment would confuse lines of accountability, certainly to Parliament. One of the criticisms of the current system, which has been made many times and repeated this morning, is that the Lord Chancellor is not accountable for decisions about the closure of magistrates courts. The amendment would make magistrates, who have no accountability to the public and certainly none to the House, responsible for fundamental decisions about the court estate.
What the Minister has just said is nonsense, in view of the answers constantly given by his precedessors. Whenever hon. Members have protested about magistrates courts closures, Ministers have constantly repeated that it is nothing
to do with them and that it is all up to the local magistrates courts committee. The Government are now saying that the change that we suggest would confuse parliamentary responsibility and take it away, when for the past six years the hon. Gentleman's predecessors in office have been denying responsibility.
The amendment would ensure that the local justices, who know the needs of local justice far better than any bureaucrat or Minister, had the final say. That is what local justice should be all about.
The hon. Gentleman is mischaracterising the statements made by my predecessors. There has never been a denial of the right to appeal on such matters. Indeed, I understand that in recent times—for example, in respect of Grays magistrates court and elsewhere—Ministers took the view that they should not accept the decisions of the magistrates courts committees, and have been able to respond to local views. That kind of accountability and response to public views would not be possible under the terms of the amendment, given that the magistrates would have the final say on such matters. It is a rather strange, but perhaps unsurprising, amendment for his party to have tabled.
I do not deny that decisions on the court estate are not easy. Indeed, they can be difficult. It is important, however, that decisions are made properly, and the views of both court users and local communities are taken into account. We must balance the need for locally delivered services with the need to improve their quality within the available resources.
I was interested to hear that the new Conservative party policy is to consider reopening former magistrates courts. That is obviously a new policy statement, which has no doubt been fully costed and discussed with the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It might be worth hon. Members cross-examining their Treasury team to find out whether millions of pounds have been assigned to that, and what would be the effect on public expenditure.
We believe that the creation of a unified court administration will help to create a more efficient, effective system of justice in this country. On that basis, I invite the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome to withdraw his amendment.
We have had a useful and illuminating debate on this group of amendments, although I have my doubts about whether the Minister's reply was entirely strategic. We may expand a little further on that subject later.
With amendment No. 109, the difficulty is that it is in the Department's interests to ensure that what it does is road-tested against the experiences of court users throughout the country. The Minister says that that happens all the time, and he does not want to restrict it by tying it to the production of an annual report. So be it. That is fine and would satisfy the requirements of my amendment. However, the amendment would also ensure that when the annual report is published we would have an opportunity to test the performance of the Department against the principles to which it claims to aspire. That is important. The Minister says that the courts boards
will fulfil that function, but we have yet to debate how those will operate and the extent of their functions under the Bill.
I remind the Minister that courts boards will be established on the basis of the current magistrates courts committee areas, which are coterminous with those of police authorities. The latter range from areas recognisable as counties to what is recognisable, in most terms, as a region. The police authority for London covers the whole of the Metropolitan police area, which is huge. The Greater Manchester police authority covers an enormous area.
Even in my locale, the Avon and Somerset police authority extends over many lay bench areas. It would be hard to find two individuals who represent the lay magistrates and are considered to have an understanding of the entire area. The Minister will not be surprised to learn that the requirements, character and traditions of inner-city Bristol are slightly different from those of Exmoor. It is an enormous responsibility for courts boards to be asked to articulate the views of many vastly different communities.
To find out how effective the Department has been in doing what it is intended to do, something much closer to the ground is needed—something that relates to the people who use particular courts.
That brings me to the major amendment, No. 1. Most hon. Members have understood that there is a balance to be struck between efficiency, effectiveness and accessibility in terms of locality and so on. Those of us with experience of local government know that people have to wrestle with such matters constantly in many spheres. For example, anyone who has run an education authority in a rural shire knows that one has to work out whether it is better to maintain and improve a small, rural, Victorian school or to find an alternative—a new, purpose-built school that covers several villages and can provide for a wider population. Such a balance has to be struck and it is right for this Department to do so too.
That is why I am disappointed by what the Minister said. Including accessibility in the general duty ensures that that test must be applied to every decision. The debate has concentrated on court closures, but it could equally have concentrated on the other aspects of the Department's work. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston mentioned listings, which are crucial, and the hon. Member for Witney mentioned batch processing, which is also crucial. If magistrates courts have to churn through a vast number of similar cases, they will inevitably be held further away than is appropriate to the needs of a dispersed population because of the listings process, not because of where the courthouse happens to be. That is the key matter, which we want the Minister to consider.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman who, as always, articulates the case with great care. Does he, too, deplore the recent trend, even under the current system and after all the closures, for all the traffic cases in an area to be moved to one place, which makes it even less convenient for victims and
witnesses? We want that trend to be reversed and to return to local justice, the original concept of which was founded on lay magistrates as volunteers taking responsibility for justice in the area they knew and understood.
I accept that. It was the point that I was making.
I am going to say something nice about the Department. Immediately before the changeover I detected a difference in attitude: the Minister's predecessor, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) was beginning to take a different view about court closures and in the past few months several did not go ahead as expected. I hope that that played no part in her departure from the Department. A more user-friendly attitude seemed to be developing.
The Minister prayed in aid that he had a jolly nice Department, which was interested in ensuring accessibility and he rashly mentioned IT systems. That is a subject that the Department would do well to keep away from until things settle down. The Minister hopes the Bill will become an Act that will govern Ministers' thoughts and activities for many years to come, as there are not many Courts Bills and not all Lord Chancellors are the same—some are saints, and some are far from saints. We had a little brush with history on Tuesday, when I mentioned the Lord Chancellor in 1075, who was called Baldrick and did not last very long. He was removed from office before the end of that year. I have no knowledge of the record of Baldrick as Lord Chancellor, but I have recollections of the behaviour of more recent Lord Chancellors, and not all of them acted in the same way in the exercise of their duties. Some of them had cunning plans and others did not.
To place a general duty on the Lord Chancellor, which the Minister accepts the principle of because he thinks that it is something that will always be taken into account and which does not in any way remove the existing general duty to operate efficient and effective systems, is a simple and sensible way forward and the Minister should consider it. He says that the amendment is unnecessary because of clause 30. I have already said that clause 30 is fine; the Minister and the Department have already accepted an amendment to it. He said that he readily accepted that amendment, but I remind him gently that it was so readily accepted that it went to a Division in another place and was won by 90 votes to 89. Therefore, it was not quite as readily accepted as he likes to portray. It was won by a single vote, nevertheless it was won, and he has accepted the amendment and it is his shield against attack, despite it having been thrust upon him. The trouble is that the amendment deals only with one specific area of the Lord Chancellor's responsibilities, not the others.
Many hon. Members have said that local justice, in all its aspects, is an important concept, which is not at the heart of the Bill in its present form.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in the general duty, the reference to ''efficient and effective'' applies not simply to the Lord Chancellor in his duties towards the state, but in his duties in their entirety, including his duties to the clients of the court, whether they be victims or witnesses? That principle is embodied in a wide range of legislation: general duties mean not just duties to the courtroom, but to the whole service.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I believe that the problem that he has had throughout our proceedings is that he agrees with me, but is not allowed expressly to say so. He has agreed with many of the principles that I have attempted to set out.
The problem is that the words in the Bill as currently drafted are capable of different interpretations. If a general duty is expressed in terms of an efficient and effective system, it could be argued that an efficient and effective system would be to have one enormous court in London and to require everyone to attend it. As far as the state is concerned, that would be remarkably efficient and effective. None of the lawyers would have to leave the court; they could all have chambers encircling the court, and would never have to walk more than 10 yd to go to the court. For everyone except the victims, witnesses and defendants it would be a marvellous way of doing things. However, that would not comply with what I imagine to be local justice.
That is exactly my point. The hon. Gentleman presumes that the general duty is towards the Government or the state, but it is not. The Bill imposes a general duty on the Lord Chancellor towards all of the users of the court, whether they be policemen, magistrates or court committees. The duty is a general one.
I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman can pursue that argument very far. If he does, I shall require the Lord Chancellor to have a system that is effective and efficient as far as I am concerned, which would be a courthouse in Witham Friary in Somerset. I shall challenge the Government, because they have failed in their general duty to provide me with an efficient court system. I do not believe that I will succeed in judicial review on that basis, or that I will even start a judicial review on that basis, because the court would interpret it as being a duty to the general good in utilitarian terms, which does not necessarily apply to the individuals who will be badly served by the consequence.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that accessibility is important not only in the efficient running of the courts and in minimising the number of cases that have to be put back because of the non-attendance of witnesses and defendants, but in avoiding the stress and inconvenience experienced by witnesses and defendants who attend but whose cases are put back time and again? That is an important element in the argument about accessibility.
I am confused. The hon. Gentleman needs to take two points into account. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston alluded to the nature of accessibility, which I believe has a much wider scope than the hon. Gentleman is considering. Clause 30 now requires the Lord Chancellor to
''have regard to the need to ensure that court-houses are accessible to persons resident in each local justice area'',
which shoots his fox. If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about including accessibility as part of the general duty, why is he not also concerned about fairness? Why should there not also be a fair court system? Why would he exclude that? Does he understand the point about lists continuing perhaps virtuously and inexhaustibly?
The administration of justice and the performance of a court are quite different from the systems that provide for conducting the business of the court. Requirements for fairness are already laid down in the Human Rights Act 1998, quite apart from individual statutes, so fairness is covered. The matter in question is the mechanics of providing for that judicial system. I repeat that the balance between efficiency, effectiveness and accessibility is crucial to the role of the Lord Chancellor, or whoever takes on the role in future.
As I said, local justice as a concept is not to be dismissed. I hesitate to quote the great charter, but there is an element of locality in justice administered by one's peers. One's peers are not remote and unaware of the circumstances or the way of life of the person before the court. For those reasons, the amendment is crucial. The Minister has not accepted it today, but I predict that he will do so at some later stage in the Bill's proceedings because he will not have his Bill without the word in it.
As I said to his colleagues in other Departments, it is foolish to spend much time resisting the inevitable when it will not prevent the Department from carrying out its sensible duties. He says that he sympathises with the concept, if not the reality, of my amendment. Any sensible Minister who was thinking simply or strategically would simply and strategically tell his officials, ''We will have to do something about this. Let's get it right before Report.'' I invite him to get it right before Report, because we will divide on the matter on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
I want to raise an issue with my hon. Friend, of which I have given him prior notice. It was not right to comment on it during our discussions on the amendments. I refer to the streamlining of the court system. Lord Justice Auld rightly said that the magistrates court, the Crown court and the Court of Appeal criminal division should be a seamless service. Has consideration been given to the inclusion or the placing of the divisional court in that criminal jurisdiction? It exercises large jurisdiction over the
magistrates in its criminal capacity. Given that there is to be streamlining, was the divisional court left alone for a reason? If not, will my hon. Friend consider my proposal?
Although we have had a difference of view across the Committee about the amendments, we welcome the fact that—not least in relation to clause 30 to which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred—the Government have taken on the chin some of the defeats that my noble Friend, Baroness Anelay of St. Johns, who led for my party in another place with the support of many Liberal Democrats, inflicted on the Government. It is important to consider the Bill in its present form, having been improved in the other place.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's predictions about the amendments and that we are bound to return to such matters on Report. I do not believe that the Government will get their Bill without improvements being made, not least to clause 1. I want to flag up our worry about the way in which the Minister's Department will carry out its general duties. Over the past few years since the Government came to power, Conservative Members have observed a move by stealth to downgrade the role of the lay magistracy. We are seeing a greater use of stipendiaries. We will be watching the Department carefully. After the shambolic reshuffle and the disastrous creation of the Department, which was not a good start, we need to be suspicious. I hope that Labour Back Benchers will be equally suspicious if they support, as I do, the role of the lay magistracy.
When I looked at the membership of the Committee, it came as no surprise to see that one of the great champions of the lay magistracy from the Labour Back Benchers, the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), was not part of it. The Minister would have had a more difficult time had he been appointed to the Committee. On many occasions, the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire has joined Conservative Members and Liberal Democrats in attacking the previous Lord Chancellor's Department for its actions.
We welcome the Minister to his post and we hope that, despite moving the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) away from the Department, he will carry on with the hon. Lady's welcome display of independence, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said. I think that she was moved sideways into another Department because she was beginning to think for herself too much and resist attacks on the lay magistracy. I hope that members of the Committee, including Labour Back Benchers, will watch carefully to see how the Department carries out its general duties.
First, the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) will recall that on Second Reading I referred to the family division and its absence from the proposals. Co-location between the family division and magistrates courts or even county courts is crucial and should be considered in the context of the efficient and effective use of court buildings. In particular, smaller courts that deal with
relatively few cases in rural areas can make all the difference to cost effectiveness.
Secondly, I welcome the Government's acceptance of the amendment on the annual report and the fact that that will not be reversed.
Thirdly, we have heard a lot of nonsense about a supreme court in recent weeks with people suggesting that it is a wholly American term that we have imported to discuss the future of the House of Lords. That is not so. It is a term that is basic to English and Welsh law, but I wonder whether there is a satisfactory definition of supreme court in other statutes. I have always understood it to be the High Court and Court of Appeal as a whole. The clause appears to change the definition, although I am not sure whether it is a change or clarification, and we need to know whether there is a satisfactory definition of what we in this country mean by supreme court before we try to amend it and call it something else.
It is important not to neglect the central aspects of the clause when discussing whether it should stand part of the Bill. It places on the Lord Chancellor a duty of securing the efficient and effective administration of the courts in England and Wales. It also requires him to present a report to Parliament on the new agency within 18 months of its establishment and annually thereafter. This clause acts as the means by which unification of the administration of all courts in England and Wales, except for the House of Lords, can be undertaken. That was the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West, particularly in respect of the divisional court of the Queen's bench division, which has some criminal jurisdiction and is the only court that tends to sit regularly. I am assured that it will be part of the unified administration and I hope that that answers my hon. Friend's point.
In reply to the point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, the family court and civil branches will be included in the unified courts administration. We have identified around 70 opportunities to house county courts in magistrates courts, which may be helpful in widening local access to civil justice.
In practice, the Lord Chancellor will establish a new executive agency for the day-to-day running of the courts. The agency will replace the Court Service, the magistrates courts committees and the Greater London Magistrates Courts Authority.
The Lord Chancellor is currently required to publish and lay before Parliament an annual report on the business of the Supreme Court and the county courts, namely the Court Service annual report. The clause extends that requirement to all the business of the unified court system for which the Lord Chancellor will be responsible. It is a means of holding the agency, via the Lord Chancellor, accountable to Parliament for its performance.
under the Bill, although he obviously knows what he is talking about. Will it come under the jurisdiction of the courts boards? It is not specifically included in clause 5(4) and I am surprised that if it comes within the unified structure it is excluded.
A number of important issues have been usefully raised and it might be helpful if I write to hon. Members.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.