We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Clause 6 - Abolition of magistrates'

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 26th June 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It has been suggested that the transition from the magistrates courts committees to the new structure might benefit from using some of the experience of those who at present sit on magistrates courts committees in an effective way. History supports that view, but I say that with some trepidation, because I do not necessarily want the same bodies to be transferred from one area of responsibility to another if they do not merit it.

I recall that when the Police Act 1996 was passed, I was the chairman of the Avon and Somerset police authority. I then found myself elected as chairman of the newly constructed police authority for Avon and Somerset, which was a completely different beast. The number of members was cut from 35 to 17; it had new independent members and a vastly different structure. It was of enormous benefit that a few people appeared on both sides of the transition, because they had the experience of what had happened previously, knew the tricks of the trade, had a relationship with the chief constable and were able to contribute effectively.

I suspect that the same may be true under the Bill, although we are talking about moving from an executive to a non-executive function. The courts boards may well benefit from the experience of those who have served on magistrates courts committees. I put it to the Minister that that is something to be considered when appointing the courts boards, not to avoid having new blood—I approve of new blood being brought into such organisations—but because some continuity is occasionally helpful.

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

I share the hon. Gentleman's views. Whenever a new system is created, some expertise from the past is assuredly helpful. I regret that the Government's response to Sir Robin Auld's report on magistrates courts committees was to decide that they had to abolish the old and bring in something completely new. As a matter of general principle I have always believed in the maxim, ''If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'' I am not convinced that something as quintessentially English as magistrates courts committees need wholesale reform.

Much of what was in the Auld report said that there were some differences in the ways in which magistrates courts committees did things because they were left to devise their own procedures and forms of implementing legislation and Government policy.

As we have already said, and as the hon. Gentleman pointed out this morning, the reason why that tended to work was that there are vast differences between different parts of the UK. The die has long since been cast, so I shall not challenge the entire basis of the Bill at this late stage—but I did not want the clause dealing with the abolition of those bodies to pass without at least placing on the record our recognition of the huge amount of work that has been done successfully in the past by members of the magistrates courts committees.

I am not sure that we will find that by creating a new kind of bureaucratic monster, the Government are addressing some of the problems that Sir Robin Auld referred to in respect of the shortage of funding, accounting arrangements and gaps in coverage that were found during inspections. I have a feeling that the same sort of failings will apply to the new system. Just because we want administrative consistency, we should not tear up something that was quintessentially English and replace it with a new bureaucracy—but that is my personal expression of regret. I want to place on record the view of the Conservative party that we must pay tribute to the hard work done by lay magistrates who give up their time to be magistrates and to sit on magistrates courts committees. It is

important that that work should be recognised publicly.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 4:00 pm, 26th June 2003

As the Committee is aware, given that the Lord Chancellor is taking responsibility for the administration of all courts in England and Wales other than the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords for the time being, the clause abolishes the current arrangements for the administration of magistrates courts, known as magistrates courts committees. Those and the Court Service will be replaced by an executive agency of the Lord Chancellor's Department. The clause abolishes magistrates courts committees, of which the Greater London Magistrates Court Authority is one—that is mentioned in the Bill. That means that England and Wales will no longer need to be divided geographically into different MCC areas.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath needed to voice his dislike of the abolition of the MCCs. As a result of the Auld review, the Government came to the conclusion—even in my short time as a Minister with responsibility for the Court Service, it has occurred to me, while thinking through potential improvements to the system—that to have such a rigid and fragmented service with barriers between each MCC area inhibits change. Labour Members may call that modernisation, but I would not want to put off Conservative Members by using that term.

At present, a justices' chief executive acts as the full-time chief officer employed by each magistrates courts committee. As the committees will be abolished, there will no longer be a function for justices' chief executives, so that post will be abolished as well. On behalf of the Government, I pay tribute to all who have undertaken the role of justices' chief executive. Over the years, they have provided immense service to the administration of justice. They will continue to work in the justice system, although the title and role of the post will change and evolve.

As a result of the clause, many provisions of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997 will no longer be operative. In order to keep the statute book in good order, we have re-enacted the remaining operative provisions, with the necessary modifications, where appropriate. We have done so to ensure that all relevant provisions can be easily located in one place.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome reasonably raised the matter of using experience gained from magistrates courts committees. That is a fair point. The courts boards will need a great deal of local expertise in order to get up and running. We have got to keep the show on the road and ensure continuity of business. Although the task will change, there will still be a local role. The Government need to consider thoroughly at a national level how to make sure that we keep some home-grown expertise and bring it into the new administration as it evolves.

I hope that the clause is self-explanatory and stands part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.