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Clause 4 - Establishment of courts boards

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 26th June 2003.

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Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 2:45 pm, 26th June 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 19, in

clause 4, page 3, line 17, leave out 'Subject to subsection (7),'.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 9, in

clause 4, page 3, line 21, at end insert

'if a police authority area changes, but may not change the coterminosity of a court board area with a police authority area.'.

Government amendment No. 20, in

clause 4, page 3, line 29, leave out from 'Chancellor' to second 'the' in line 34 and insert

'must have regard to the desirability of specifying areas which are the same as—

(a) the police areas listed in Schedule 1 to the Police Act 1996 (c.16) (division of England and Wales, except London, into police areas), and

(b) the area consisting of '.

And amendment (a) to the proposed amendment,

after ''the same as'' insert

', or fall entirely within,'.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I shall speak to amendments Nos. 19 and 20 first. Others will speak to their amendments, and I want to hear the debate before I respond to them. I think that would be the most appropriate way to proceed.

Amendments Nos. 19 and 20 make drafting changes to an amendment made on Third Reading in another place. That amendment required the Lord Chancellor, when specifying the courts boards areas, to have regard to the desirability and coterminosity with the 42 criminal justice areas. The areas are based on the current police authority areas. There was a great deal of debate about that point and there may well be in Committee. We agree that the criminal justice areas are one of the factors that should be taken into account when deciding how the courts boards should be organised.

However, there are other factors, such as an effective fit with other agencies in the civil and family jurisdictions, the need and the nature of local

communities to be considered in the shape of those courts boards and the volume of work load in each area, the distribution of courthouses and even the shape of Government offices and region boundaries. If those factors are changed, there must be scope to alter the courts boards areas accordingly in consultation with the boards affected. The amendment in another place affords sufficient flexibility to take those factors into account. We therefore propose only minor drafting changes to that amendment to make sure that the degree of flexibility is retained, along the lines of the proceedings in another place.

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

We are delighted that the Government accepted that what was put forward by my noble Friend Baroness Anelay of St Johns and supported by the Liberal Democrats and others was an improvement to the Bill. It was one of the most important debates in another place. It is a good example of how the Committees in another place and here work to improve what the Government initially put forward.

Amendment No. 9 is intended to reinforce my noble Friend's victory in another place by adding some extra words to subsection (4), so that if a police authority area were to change the Lord Chancellor could make an order altering an area, but could not change the coterminosity of a court board area with a police authority area. I hope that even if the Minister cannot accept amendment No. 9 today, he understands the spirit of it. We are simply seeking to back up with an extra safeguard the change made in another place, which the Government have now accepted. We may want to return to that matter on Report, if the Government cannot accept our amendment today.

I am entirely sympathetic to Liberal Democrat amendment (a) to Government amendment No. 20. Indeed, if the amendments had not been starred, I might have wanted to add my name and the names of my hon. Friends to that of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, who tabled it. That amendment would reinforce the principle on which my noble Friends in another place, and those of the hon. Gentleman, were working. I genuinely congratulate the Government on their wisdom in accepting the underlying philosophy of our putting forward coterminosity between police areas and those of the new courts boards. I do not have a problem with the Government doing a little bit of tidying and redrafting of what we achieved in another place, but it would be even better if they accepted both Liberal Democrat amendment (a) and our amendment No. 9. I shall listen with interest to the Minister's response to those two amendments.

We are grateful to the Government for accepting their defeat with good grace, and for accepting the principle behind what we put forward in another place.

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

This is an important matter in terms of the courts boards proposed by the Government. Most commentators outside this place feel that there is a need to ensure a sense of locality in the courts boards, so that they are not so large as to be divorced from the proper concerns and interests of the people they purport to represent. There is clearly a strong argument for coterminosity with the other functions

of the justice system. That argument has been used in recent years to bring the present magistrates courts committee structure into line with the police authority areas, which were established under the Police Act 1996.

I can understand that argument. Indeed, I recall that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), speaking on Second Reading, questioned

''why 42 was the chosen number.''

Somebody sotto voce said, ''Because it is the answer to the world, the universe and everything.'' The recorded sedentary intervention in the Official Report is mine:

''It is the number of police authorities,''—[Official Report, 9 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 461.]

which is rather more mundane and boring. But it is true. It is important that there should be no fewer than 42 police authority areas under the clause in terms of the courts boards. I can envisage a strong argument for there being more, provided that those do not cross the borders of the police authority areas. That is the purpose of amendment (a) to Government amendment No. 20.

I mentioned in the debate this morning that some police authority areas are large. The largest is in the Metropolis—the Metropolitan police area—which is treated as being connected in this instance with the City of London police. Of course, it is connected geographically, but not in constabulary structure. That area is equivalent to 15 normal sized constabulary areas. I daresay, although I am no expert on London, that Committee members would feel that the structures of their constituencies are very different from each other. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) feel that the areas that they represent not only have different problems with policing and maintenance of law and order, but are different from, say, Soho, the east end or Harrow. Those areas are vastly different in terms of community interests and structures. Similarly, there are hugely disparate areas even in the police authority areas outside the metropolis, such as the Greater Manchester police area, the West Midlands police area and the Thames Valley police area. St. Pauls in Bristol, in the Avon and Somerset constabulary area, is very different from somewhere up on the Quantocks. There is therefore an argument for courts boards areas that more relevantly follow the community boundaries that they represent. For the sake of convenience and ''operational efficiency'' many police authority areas have coupled together shire counties, metropolitan districts, and so on, into rather ungainly apparatus.

There is an argument that we have espoused on many occasions for reducing the unit of accountability in relation to policy on policing, sentencing and prosecution, courts, the probation service and all the accessory functions of state, to something that people can relate to. For the police, that will very often be the basic command unit. I am concerned that the presumption of coterminousity with police authority

areas that is in the scope of the Bill works against that principle, if it were to be espoused in the future. For London, I should like to see areas, perhaps the size of a borough or something similar, where people can really have a say in the way that courts are administered, police functions are carried out, and local prosecutions are mounted, so that they connect to the citizen in a way which I suspect people would find it difficult to relate to now.

My argument in the amendment is not that we should invent small areas just for the purpose of inventing small areas—that would be nonsense.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

Can the hon. Gentleman help us, as I am not quite following his argument? Is he saying that we should go down to a unit that is small enough for there to be a commonality in terms of the policing problems? Even in the borough of Ellesmere Port and Neston, which is approximately seven eighths of my constituency there is a huge polarisation between difficult estates, where there is huge disadvantage, and some of the richest parts of Cheshire, where even the good folk of Surrey, Heath would struggle to afford the houses.

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

I do not disagree one bit with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. One obviously cannot get to the stage at which every street has its own police force—that is nonsense. I think that his constituency falls in the area of the Cheshire constabulary, and I hope that he accepts that it is reasonably small and reasonably homogenous. If the hon. Gentleman were a few miles up the road, he would come into the Merseyside police area, where some of the problems may be more similar to those that some of his constituents face daily. However, he would find that those problems would be very different from some of the problems of the outlying areas of the Merseyside police. I am not trying to prescribe lots of lines on maps, because that is quite impossible. I am content with the distance that the Government have already come in saying that when the courts boards are established they will be on the basis of the police authority areas.

I use my area simply as an illustration. Even though Somerset has areas of deprivation and of empty landscape, such as Exmoor, each part is more like other parts of Somerset than it is like the centre of Bristol. Similarly, the centre of Bristol is more like the urban areas of what used to be Avon than any part of Somerset. Although I do not put it forward as being the answer, I could see a case for having an area covering Somerset and an area covering the county formerly known as Avon.

There is an argument in London for a courts board area to be smaller than the area of the metropolis. That will be a matter for debate and for the Government to take a view on at some later stage. I certainly do not want courts boards to cross boundaries. That would be unhelpful; inherent in the Government's proposals is the view they should not cross boundaries. Where possible, the courts board area should follow the boundary of a police authority area, a probation service area or whatever. There will

be a case, which some of us will argue strenuously, for having courts board areas that are smaller constituent parts of a large police authority area. I am trying to allow for that in my amendment. It is an argument that I commend to the Minister.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 3:00 pm, 26th June 2003

Under amendment (a), the Lord Chancellor would have to have regard to the desirability of specifying areas for courts boards that are either the same as or fall entirely within the criminal justice areas. He would therefore have to consider whether there should be several courts board areas within a single criminal justice area.

Earlier this year, the former Lord Chancellor's Department held a series of discussion groups up and down the country to discuss the area structure of the new organisation. I think that I sent a copy of the report of those discussion groups to hon. Members last week. The stakeholders, who included magistrates, judges and representatives of those who use the courts, concluded that the criminal justice service areas were roughly at the right level at present, although particular consideration needed to be given to London. Clearly, we must take those views into account. No firm or final decisions have been made.

Our problem with amendment (a) is that we feel that clause 4 already affords sufficient flexibility to get the area structures right. As well as considering having 42 areas, we will consider the needs of local communities. It is difficult to see why we should consider only whether courts board areas would fit within a criminal justice area. Why should we not also consider whether police areas should be combined to form a courts board area? Lord Thomas of Gresford proposed that for Wales and Chester. I presume that that mirrored a proposal on the court circuit, with which hon. Members may be familiar. That would be prevented if there were the level of restriction suggested in the amendment.

The discussion groups were helpful. We will look with interest at the views relating to London. The amendment is not appropriate. We should not have that telescopic, microcosmic approach to the criminal justice service areas. We should be able to take a sensible and rational approach, depending on the area and reacting to some of the consultation that will have taken place.

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

I am perfectly happy with the Minister's approach, but how can it be equally sensible and rational to have an area the size of Gwent or Dyfed-Powys and an area the size of the Metropolitan police area or the City of London?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

It may have escaped the Committee, but I did not design the layout of the United Kingdom, and cannot be held responsible for the nature of communities throughout the country. Some areas require a certain level of focus; perhaps urban areas need a different approach from more rural parts of the country. As parliamentarians, we have a duty to reflect that fact.

Amendment No. 9 is interesting. I have already spoken about some of the changes that we have accepted to clause 4. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) is pushing it a little with the

amendment. I was interested that he said he supported both his amendment and that tabled by the Liberal Democrats. It would be contradictory to insist that courts boards must fit the police board areas but state at the same time that it might be possible to divide them up, as suggested under amendment (a). On reflection, he might not wish to support amendment (a) if he is standing by amendment No. 9.

Amendment No. 9 is too restrictive. It would mean that courts board areas could be altered only in the event of a police authority area changing, and only in a way that preserved co-terminosity with the police authority area. The criminal justice areas will be the building blocks of the courts board areas, and I assure the Committee that thought will be given to their formation.

The amendment would tie the courts boards structure to any future changes to the police areas too rigidly. Under the amendment, only the needs of police authority business would be taken into account, not the business of the courts. It would not allow us to take into account the needs and nature of local communities, as we have in relation to the civil and family business of the court. Why should civil and family court activity fit around police authority business?

While criminal court activities will obviously be a priority for the courts boards, they will look at other issues. The amendment would prevent the merger of two courts board areas, or the creation of two smaller areas, even if such changes were supported by both the boards, unless similar changes were made to the police authority area. It would prevent the alteration of the courts boards' names, unless the police authority area were changed.

Clause 4 ensures that the Lord Chancellor must consult any affected courts boards before making an order to alter their areas. That will ensure proper consultation and parliamentary scrutiny of any changes to the areas. I invite hon. Members not to press amendment No. 9 and amendment (a) to a Division.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 20, in

clause 4, page 3, line 29, leave out from 'Chancellor' to second 'the' in line 34 and insert

'must have regard to the desirability of specifying areas which are the same as—

(a) the police areas listed in Schedule 1 to the Police Act 1996 (c.16) (division of England and Wales, except London, into police areas), and

(b) the area consisting of '.—[Mr. Leslie.]

Clause 4, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.