HC Deb 01 February 1966 vol 723 cc1040-3

11.9 p.m.

Sir Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove the limit of three miles from residence in respect of subsistence allowances payable to magistrates under Section 8 of the Justices of the Peace Act, 1949. At various times I have raised questions which have appeared to me to come within this definition, and on this occasion I am again raising points which come within this term.

The basis of the present grant of subsistence allowance to magistrates, believe it or not, is the distance as the crow flies. Some 16,000 magistrates in the country are doing yeoman service and save the country £20 million or more a year, basing the calculation on the amount that is paid to stipendiary magistrates.

As I say, the allowance is based on a distance as the crow flies. If it had been the timing of a distance over which a crow walks, one might have been able to understand it. If one imagined a crow walking or riding down a crowded Piccadilly towards a court and then calculated how long it would take that crow to get from one end of the street to the other, one could understand the use of such a standard. To talk about magistrates who live within three miles from the court as the crow flies being able to go home and get back to the court within an hour or an hour and a half to enable them to carry on their duties is ludicrous and absurd.

I raised this matter last year, and the Magistrates' Associations has raised it time and again. Magistrates throughout the country have tried to point out that although they are prepared to give their valuable services voluntarily, it is nonsense that a magistrate who lives within three miles of a court should be refused subsistence allowance, while a fellow magistrate who lives three miles and one yard from the same court gets it in order that he may have a meal and return to his duties. Anyone with a realistic outlook ought to appreciate that that position should be remedied.

Perhaps I might give the House one or two examples to show what I mean. A magistrate who sits at a court in Kent wrote: I would like to state that less than one month ago three Examining Magistrates sat on what was stated to be the longest hearing in the history of the court which he named. The case concerned two motor dealers who were charged with stealing a number of motor cars and then converting them to their own use. There were seventy-five charges in all and sixty-two witnesses were heard. The hearing lasted seven days. Two of the Magistrates, including myself, live about one and a half miles from the court and the other magistrate lives nearer. It was impossible to get home for a meal and on each occasion it was necessary to purchase a lunch in a restaurant. Even the cup of tea which we had during an afternoon break had to be paid for. To a magistrate, who like myself, has only one income, the retirement pension, this does create considerable hardship. On normal days when the court is sitting I am unable to arrange to have my meal at home as one does not know how long one will be required to sit until the cases proceed. In my opinion the distance rule should be entirely abolished and all magistrates who sit for four hours or longer should be entitled to subsistence allowance, and if the Association can do anything to secure this I will be very grateful as I am sure that many other magistrates would be too. That is part of the letter which he wrote to the Magistrates' Association.

Another magistrate wrote to say that she was glad the matter was being raised in the House, and added: It is at once an absurdity, an indignity, and, for some, a hardship. I sit regularly at"— and she named the court. It takes me at least three-quarters of an hour to get there. Lunch at home is impossible. I am told (although I have not yet put it to the test) by our Clerk that I live just within the three miles. One day I sat and lunched with a pensioner J P …. (he is normally at)"— and she named the other court— and he told me how difficult it was for him to manage. He had claimed subsistence but had been unsuccessful. He was hurt and bewildered. I could quote many examples of that kind. It is not a question of magistrates asking for an allowance by way of charity. It is a question of a simple right which ought to be conceded to a person who is prepared to give his time to this important work. I have here the details of one person affected who attended as many as 500 cases in the juvenile courts, and we know that all of this work is done by unpaid magistrates. They do not ask for payment; what they ask for is a reasonable concession to those fellow-magistrates who are not living more than three miles from the court as the crow flies.

An absurd position arises when three magistrates sitting together in a court go, for example, to lunch together. They have to be back in time for the sitting of the court in the afternoon, otherwise there would be proper complaints. Two have subsistence allowances, because they live just beyond the three miles limit, and the third has to pay for his meal because he lives just within that distance.

I am sure the House will agree that that position cannot be tolerated any longer.

Mr. T. W. Jones (Merioneth)

I am one of them.

Sir B. Janner

My hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones) says that he is one of them. The position covers many people, but the amount involved is very, very small compared with the amount that is saved. I understand that when the matter was put to the authorities again recently by the Committee of Magistrates for Inner London it was told that the claim was not being put off indefinitely. I therefore appeal to the Minister that it is high time that the position was put right. In these days magistrates are asked to go to classes to learn their job and to become, in a sense, experts before they are allowed to handle cases themselves. They are called upon to deal with the increased amount of crime that is going on at present, and some of them sit until late in the evening. Most are doing their work in a highly commendable manner.

It has been recognised recently that the amounts allowed for subsistence before were not adequate to meet the case. The 10s. allowance for 4–8 hours has been increased to 12s. 6d., and the 17s. 6d. for 8–12 hours has been increased to 23s., and so on. The magistrates ask why the allowances should have been increased—although they were small enough before—before a similar allowance is paid to those magistrates who cannot go home to lunch because there is not time? This should have prior consideration.

I strongly appeal to the House to call upon the Government to reject the idea that the amount involved is likely to put the Government into difficulty. It will not put them into any difficulty. In very many cases magistrates who are entitled to the allowance now do not claim the allowance if they can get home, and many who cannot get home also do not claim it. If we want a proper cross-section of the public—capable of acting as magistrates, their credentials having been examined beforehand—to offer their services in the future we cannot treat them in the shabby way in which they are being treated at present.

I ask the House to be good enough to give me leave to introduce the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Barnett Janner, Mr. Shepherd, Mr. Hamling, Mr. Lubbock, Mr. Perry, Commander Pursey, Mr. Temple, Mr. Albert Roberts, Mr. Mapp, Mr. Maxwell, Mr. R. W. Brown, and Mr. George Craddock.