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Clause 7 - The commission of the peace for England and Wales

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 1st July 2003.

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

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

In a spirit of inquiry, I should like to ask this reforming Government and the reforming Department for Constitutional Affairs why the commission of the peace continues to be issued under the Great Seal. Of course I understand the need for justices of the peace; they have a time-honoured role and title, and I have no wish to remove it. However, what precisely is the purpose of something that no one in the outside world understands—a commission of the peace being issued under the Great Seal? I would have thought that the Department might have addressed that issue, as we are doing away with all sorts of things here, there and everywhere.

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

I shall be interested to hear how the Minister responds to that. Conservative Members are absolutely delighted that for once the Government have left something alone and are not making a change. As the hon. Gentleman points out, there is the title ''justice of the peace'', and such historic titles have, in many cases, lasted for hundreds of years, because they mean something. Justices of the peace, who have an important title, will be delighted to know that there is a commission of the peace.

Looking back at the history of this country, I understand that the origin of that title is that justices of the peace the length and breadth of the country were intended to ensure that there was peace, not lawlessness, in their local communities. That is why the commission of the peace has that name—and it is issued under the Great Seal because the Great Seal represents the Crown. We want to ensure that we have a peaceful kingdom.

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

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I should say that I certainly understand the history of the matter, and the need to retain justices of the peace. I just wonder what precisely the hon. Gentleman believes that the commission of the peace issued under the Great Seal is.

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

We shall hear whether the Minister has anything to add to the explanation that I have given, but I thought that I had just explained my understanding of why the commission of the peace has that name: it was intended to ensure peaceful communities. We Conservative Members are very much in favour of keeping historic titles, and we are

delighted that on this occasion the Government have chosen to do so.

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

Good morning, Mr. Illsley.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is right to point out that we are retaining the commission of the peace. However, I hate to disabuse hon. Members of the idea that we are avoiding our modernising obligations, but in fact there is a change to the commission of the peace. Currently, there are separate commissions for different areas across England and Wales, and the clause creates a single unified commission, which will extend to cover the whole of England and Wales.

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

I am told that the commission of the peace is the authority traditionally issued by Her Majesty that empowers magistrates to act as such. It has existed since 1326—[Interruption]—roughly when the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) entered political life. The provision is consequential on the abolition of separate local commission areas and on the introduction of the national jurisdiction that the Bill will give to magistrates.

I have looked into why we need to continue with the concept of the commission of the peace. It is the traditional source of magistrates' judicial authority; also, there may be a legal issue with whether the power to bind over is dependent to some extend on the notion of the commission of the peace. Much research has been done on the subject in our Department, and we felt that at this stage, it would be best to preserve the concept of the commission of the peace—hence the provisions in clause 7, which I hope will now stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.