HC Deb 03 December 1951 vol 494 cc2149-60

Order for Second Reading read.

9.28 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Lionel Heald)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

As on the two previous occasions on which the Bill has been before the House it has been possible to spend respectively five minutes and nought minutes upon it, perhaps I may be allowed to start again this evening.

I explained on the last occasion that the parents of the Bill were the late Government, but, in view of the unfortunate accident which has prevented them from attending the Christening of the child, we are very glad to act as its sponsors, and that gives a practical example of that continuity in government which we are always glad to apply when we are able to do so and are not prevented by any party differences. We are particularly glad to do so in this case because during the last Parliament hon. Members of the Opposition on a number of occasions agreed with statements made from the Government benches as to the desirability of remedying certain anomalies and grievances which existed.

The main point of the Bill is to raise the salaries of the county court judges and the magistrates, and the provisions made for this purpose fulfil quite literally the pledge which was given by the Lord Chancellor in the late Government on 18th July last. Other provisions in the Bill were also approved by the late Government after full consideration and consultation with all concerned. Some of them relate to Scotland, and I shall be able to deal with these a little later, if necessary in detail.

The facts I have mentioned with regard to agreement do not, of course, alter the fact that it is the right and the duty of the House to scrutinise the Bill with care, and we shall take due account of any criticisms or suggestions which may be made during the debate. I stress the importance of the fact that there is no question here of any party issue.

In the first instance, it is most desirable that in dealing with questions of the administration of justice, we should not have any party differences. Those of us who have had the privilege—my right hon. and learned predecessor will agree with me about this—of going to international gatherings and meeting those who are concerned with the law in other countries, know very well what a tremendous respect they have for our whole system of justice and what an admiration they have for those who conduct it.

Secondly, I am particularly glad that this should be a non-party matter, because it is the first matter for which I have had the responsibility as a Law Officer. I like to believe that it is possible for Law Officers to avoid violent party conflict of any kind in their work, and I am quite sure that I shall have the help of my hon. and right hon. and learned predecessors on the other side of the House in preserving everything which is to do with my office from any political considerations so far as that can possibly be done. That will certainly be my endeavour, and I shall try to carry it out.

I ask the House now to look for a moment at the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 provides for an increase in the expenditure on the salaries of county court judges and magistrates. The present salary in each case is £2,000, apart from the chief magistrate, who is a special case and who can be left out for comparative purposes. Those salaries of £2,000 were fixed by the Statutory Salaries Act, 1937, and, in fact, the county court judges and the magistrates have had the same salaries since 1875.

So far as county court judges are concerned, it appears at first sight, from a casual glance at the Bill, that their salaries are being raised by £800 a year as compared with £500 for the magistrates. That is not the true position, because since 1947 county court judges have been sitting as Divorce Commissioners and have been paid extra for that purpose. The payments that they receive for this purpose amount, on the average, to approximately £300 per year per judge.

I say "on the average" because the extra remuneration which is earned by the county court judges differs very widely in different parts of the country. In fact, the system works rather unfairly. Through no avoidable cause, in some parts of the country the judges are able, when there is work to be done, to do work of a much more extensive character, and in other cases there is very little of it. In fact, the figures have. ranged from over £1,000 to under £50. The average for 1950 was £330.

It was therefore decided by the last Government, and the result is, that this remuneration in respect of the divorce jurisdiction should be compounded at £300 per annum per judge. Therefore, for the purpose of comparison, the starting point for the county court judges was £2,300. Consequently, so far as the cost to the taxpayer is concerned, the extra amount which is to be paid to magistrates as a whole is the same as that paid to county court judges as a whole. From their starting points now they are receiving £500 a year for each.

There is, however, a repercussion from this which I ought to make plain at once which gives some ground for grievance on that score as regards the magistrates because, hitherto, as the salaries have been the same, so therefore, the pensions have also been the same. But now, as the salary of county court judges is going up to £2,300 plus £500 and will be £2,800, therefore the pension will be based on £2,800 as against £2,500 in the case of the magistrates. I mention that in order to make clear to hon. Members who are interested, as I know hon. Members on both sides are, that it is fully present to the mind of the Government.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

In using the word "magistrate," does the hon. and learned Gentleman include all stipendiary magistrates, including those in the provinces?

The Attorney-General

I am coming to that in a moment. In the first place, it will be found that they are dealt with in the case of London magistrates and in consequential provisions in regard to the others in the other subsections. The first point is quite obviously a broader one, why should there be any increase at all? It was indicated that some hon. Members might be going to question that. I want to make it clear that we are taking a perfectly firm and determined line about this matter. We say that the county court judges and magistrates have been underpaid for many years past—

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

So have the engineers.

The Attorney-General

—and an increase in their salaries was long overdue. If that is disputed, it raises a very simple and clear issue, which the House must itself decide. I am bound to say that I think a great deal of hot air has been blown off about this kind of thing at one time or another—

Mr. Smith

Especially by the legal profession.

The Attorney-General

The difference is that we are paid for it and perhaps others are not. There is even talk, I have read in one or two of the newspapers, about these increases being an incentive to inflation. One newspaper talked about "triggering off a new inflationary spiral." I do not know how one can trigger off a spiral, but I hope the House will not take that kind of thing very seriously. After all, if one is serious and fair about this matter one recognises that these men have been at the back of the queue all the time. They have been running after the bus of inflation and certainly have not been driving it. They have had no increase at all since 1937.

I am sure that some of those who criticise this proposal, without having thought about it very much, ought to pause a moment and reflect what is the position of the other people in the same sort of region of salaries—the Civil Service, as a result of the Chorley Report. These comparable salaries have all been raised very substantially. The London County Council, not one of the terrible Tory, capitalist, organisations, have raised their salaries on this level even more, considerably more, than is now proposed. The same happened to such people as justices' clerks and registrars and, in addition, the general salary rate has gone up as well. Even Members of Parliament have got more than they did get.

As for the other argument, that the increase would stimulate demands for wage increases and cause ill-feeling, I do not think hon. Members will be very serious about that; at least I hope not. I do not believe that is a proper reflection of the view of the ordinary man-in-the-street. He is not really jealous of other people because they have a little more than he has—at least most of them are not, there are people who have not the same high motives as others, but, on the whole, I think people are quite sensible about that kind of thing. We shall certainly have the courage to say plainly what we believe to be right, without any fear of consequent unpopularity or loss of votes.

We shall do well to take into account the statements and pledges given by the late Government, as expressed by the Lord Chancellor after very careful investigation and consideration and remember that he said that under present conditions the task of finding suitable men for these posts was causing him increasing anxiety. That is the Lord Chancellor in the late Government. I am authorised by my noble and learned Friend to say that he entirely agrees with that view, and would like the House to endorse what was said by his predecessor.

I ask the House also to remember the very difficult and responsible kind of work that these men have to do, and the absolute necessity that they should never for one moment relax. If they once slack off during their day's work they may be doing somebody some real damage. They do a very great deal of work without any assistance from counsel. I have no doubt there are some hon. Members who think that they do it much better without the assistance of counsel, but that is not the view of those who have experience in these matters.

They require tremendous patience, concentration and a great deal of knowledge of human nature as well. They have to investigate cases with very little information. In many cases county court judges do not even have any books with them and try to do their best without them. It does require men with a considerable knowledge of the law to do that.

I would pay a tribute to these men who do that job and would fairly acknowledge that they have done it very well indeed for years. I wish to make it clear that I am speaking of them bracketed together, the county court judges and the magistrates. I do so advisedly, because in the past they have been drawn from the same sort of level at the Bar and no change in their status is to be implied from these proposals. As I have already said, the existing facts as regards their annual remuneration create a different basis upon which the £500 increase operates, and as regards their pensions that does have an effect of differentiation. If it were not for the pension I doubt if they would raise any objection to the present proposal, or that they could legitimately do so. But, undoubtedly, with regard to the pension they have something to say.

It might not be much difference in actual cash by the time they have the different pension. There may not be much in it after taxation, but it does upset them, I know, from the point of view of prestige and their natural pride in their work. I fully recognise that and I wish it could be avoided. All I can say is that it is an arrangement which was arrived at only after long and anxious consideration. There is this to be said about it that a bird in the hand is worth two in this case, because if we were to start to try to re-open the whole matter there is a strong chance that one would lose the Bill altogether, and it would be a question of whether we could get it again.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

May I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman a question? Does he see any prospect of some provision being made for a very learned and skilful class of persons without whose services the judges might not be as efficient as they are, namely, the judges' clerks, who deserve some provision being made for them?

The Attorney-General

That is a matter I will look into, but at the present moment that is not in the Bill, and I must deal with the contents of the Bill.

I want to make it perfectly clear that no change of status is intended to be made by the Bill. There is a change in the pension rate, but all that I can say is that I have no authority to give any kind of undertaking with regard to the matter. There may be no opportunity in the near future for reviewing it, but, as I have stated categorically, it is not intended, by this Bill, to effect any alterations in status, and I should not personally be willing in future to argue that it should have that effect.

I would ask the House to accept the position that the Government have made the statement that they would not say that at any future time it may not be done, and that the point should not be raised now. I think that all hon. Members interested will take the same view and bear witness to the fact that what we are doing today is not intended to, and must not be regarded as, creating a precedent for the future. That is as far as I can go, and I will not be a party to arguing in future that the acceptance of this Bill today is making any permanent alteration in the status.

So much for the main part of Clause 1. It is, I might mention, retrospective, and perhaps it is one of the few examples of retrospective legislation that many people have been prepared to support. There are also other provisions in this Clause. Subsection (3) deals with the retrospective arrangement, and subsections (4) and (5) allow directions to be given by the Secretary of State to have the effect of increasing the salaries of stipendiary magistrates to put them on the same basis, while subsection (5) also allows a corresponding increase for the Chairman or Deputy-Chairman of the Quarter Sessions of the County of London.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

Did I understand the hon. and learned Gentleman to say that stipendiary magistrates in the provinces will be brought up to the same standard as Metropolitan magistrates?

The Attorney-General

I do not think I said that. It would allow a direction by the Secretary of State, under Section 32 of the Justices of the Peace Act, 1949, to increase the salaries of stipendiaries so as to have the same effect. There are, I think, 15 magistrates involved, and their salaries range from £1,400 to £2,000. The proposal is that they would run from £2,000 to £2,500. Subsection (5) deals with the Chairman and Deputy-Chairman of the Quarter Sessions of the County of London, in consultation with the London County Council. Subsection (6) gives the date of effect of this provision.

Clause 2 deals with the Lords Commissioners of the Justiciary in Scotland, and it is a provision simply designed to remove an anomaly which has existed for many years. They are forbidden to receive any allowances for travelling expenses, which, of course, judges in England have had for many years. The matter was last considered in 1887, and it is intended now to put them on the same basis as English judges.

Clause 3 is another remedial provision dealing with the salaries of the sheriffs-substitute and providing for the payment of travelling expenses. They have had them in some cases, and this Bill now covers all cases. Clause 4 deals with Northern Ireland, and here it is proposed to raise the salaries of judges of the High Court of Justice from £3,000 to £3,500, which is the salary received by the Lord Justice of Appeal. It has been considered that the judges ought not to receive less than the Lord Justice, who only receives £3,500. The salary of the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland remains unaffected.

Subsection (2) makes provision for the payment of circuit expenses to the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland which has so far been left out. Clause 5 is simply a provision which rectifies an omission in the existing law. When a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary is subsequently appointed to another judicial office, it is necessary to make provision for that case. In fact, it has recently arisen in the case of Lord MacDermott who became the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.

Those are the provisions of the Bill, and, as I have told the House, they are all provisions which were carefully considered and examined and approved by the last Government, and we ask the House to honour the pledge given by the members of that Government.

9.51 p.m.

Sir Frank Soskice (Sheffield, Neepsend)

It is now nine minutes to 10 o'clock and it would, perhaps, be rather optimistic to hope that we should get the debate on this Bill completed by 10 o'clock, as a number of hon. Members will no doubt wish to make contributions to it. So far as I am concerned, I would simply say, in the first place, that I am glad to have the opportunity of replying to my successor following his moving of what, as he has himself stated, is the first Bill for which he has had personal responsibility.

I am glad to have that opportunity, and I would express myself in very cordial agreement with him when he says that in so far as the administration of justice is concerned, his office, the office which I held before him, is one which cannot involve party issues. The administration of justice must be wholly apart from any party differences.

This Bill, as has been pointed out by the hon. and learned Gentleman, is one designed to carry out the purposes of the late Government. Those purposes were expressed by the Lord Chancellor in the late Government, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said, in a speech made in another place on 18th July this year. The purposes of the Bill have been explained by the hon. and learned Gentleman, and I do not think I would very usefully occupy the time of the House if I again repeated what he said.

Speaking for myself from this side of the House, I want simply to say that we did, as the hon. and learned Gentleman has said, very carefully consider these matters. So far as England is concerned, the main changes—though not the only changes—are the alterations in the salaries paid to county court judges and to metropolitan and stipendiary magistrates. In so far as stipendiary magistrates are concerned, the provision enables changes to be made rather than makes the changes.

We took the view after very careful consideration—and I am speaking for my colleagues—that it would be fair to make these changes having regard to various circumstances. One circum- stance, of course, was the change in the value of money. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman pointed out, these salaries have not been changed since 1937, and, of course, circumstances have changed very considerably since then.

But another circumstance which I would like to put before the House, and in particular bring to the notice of hon. Gentlemen who might desire to question the increases is that great and increasing responsibility has been put upon the shoulders of county court judges and metropolitan and stipendiary magistrates, and the tendency all the time is for that responsibility to be increased as time goes on.

The county court judges and magistrates, I think the whole House will agree, have upon their shoulders a task which is perhaps more difficult than that which devolves upon any other branch of the judiciary. They are directly in touch with the people day in and day out they have to concern themselves at first hand with the extremely perplexing difficulties which agitate the lives of the ordinary men and women in the street.

I am quite certain everybody will agree it is greatly to their credit that they have discharged their responsibilities without criticism. In this country we have come to take it for granted that day in and day out the county court judges and the police court magistrates will carry out their duties in the highest traditions that we expect from our courts. That is a most difficult and most responsible task, and public confidence in the administration of justice in our country and indeed its unsurpassed reputation throughout the world depend upon the wisdom and discretion in particular of the county court judges and the police court magistrates.

These circumstances, and the circumstance to which I have previously referred, namely the change in the value of money and the fact that their salaries have not been altered, led us to the view it would be right and proper and fair to them that their salary position should now come under consideration. We gave it very anxious consideration, desirous of doing justice both to them and to other persons in similar salary brackets and we came to the conclusion that the increases which the Bill at present before the House embodies were fair and reasonable provisions.

Mr. Hector Hughes

My right hon. and learned Friend is talking about various salaried people who contribute to the administration of justice in this country. Will he tell me why, when he was considering this question, he did not take into account that very class to which I have just referred—the judges' clerks who are making a great contribution to the administration of justice in this country.

Mr. Scholefield Allen (Crewe)

And county court judges.

Mr. Hughes

I am not talking about county court judges and I do not want any interruption from my hon. and learned Friend.

Sir F. Soskice

So far as I am concerned, I recognise to the full the value of the services of the judges' clerks. There is plenty of time; they can be considered at a later date.

Mr. Hughes

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend why they should be considered at a later date? Their salaries are very much less than the salaries of judges and their need is greater than the need of judges.

Sir F. Soskice

We must deal with one problem at a time. At the moment we are considering the salaries of county court judges, police court magistrates and others. No doubt other salaried groups should come under review in due course, but I am simply concerning myself at the moment with this Bill, and I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) will follow me in that at any rate. The position of the judges' clerks also, of course, requires the full and careful consideration which I hope the House will give to this Bill.

It is for those reasons, concerning what I hope I may say are the main provisions of this Bill, that I certainly welcome the Bill, and I hope the House will give it a Second Reading when it has carefully considered its provisions and the implications of those provisions. The Bill, as the Attorney-General has pointed out, does not deal exclusively with England or with county court judges and police court magistrates. There are other provisions perhaps of less fundamental character in the later Clauses of the Bill. The purposes of those have been explained by the Attorney-General, and no doubt the House will wish to give the same consideration to those later provisions as well.

In particular, the Bill is not concerned exclusively with England. It deals with Northern Ireland, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Wheatley), will no doubt wish to point out at a later stage, if he is fortunate enough to be called, the changes it makes in respect of the Scottish judiciary. I hope the House will give that careful consideration.

It being Ten o'clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed Tomorrow.