HC Deb 12 December 1973 vol 866 cc408-9
21. Mr. Ronald King Murray

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland whether, following his rejection of his White Paper on Justices of the Peace and Justices" Courts, Command Paper No. 5241, he will now publish a new White Paper outlining his latest proposals.

The Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture, Scottish Office (Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith)

Our revised proposals on summary justice, which take the form of a strengthened sheriff court assuming responsibility for all summary criminal business, were announced in reply to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison) on 18th October—[Vol. 861, c. 306–7.] I do not consider that a further White Paper is necessary but any representations on the revised proposals will be carefully considered.

Mr. Murray

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many people in Scotland feel that there is a proper place for a lay element in the lower courts and that these people welcomed the original White Paper? If, as now appears, the White Paper is totally dead, before it is given a decent burial will the hon. Gentleman accept that Parliament deserves a clear statement on the Government's proposals before they are embodied in a Bill or, failing that, at least a full debate on them?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am well aware of the feelings on this matter. Last Friday I had a meeting with certain local authority representatives in order to hear their views. Two matters must be borne in mind. Our changed proposals were made after representations had been made to us on the White Paper. After further consideration, our reaction to those representations was to bring forward the new proposals. It is unfair to criticise the Government for reacting to opinions expressed to us. Secondly, the new proposals are fairly straightforward. They introduce a much greater degree of simplicity into the structure of summary criminal courts. The indications that we have so far show that the understanding of that structure is not running into difficulties. As legislation is needed for the new courts in 1975, I think that it is best to proceed to legislation.

Mr. Lawson

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that if he cares to ask hon. Members we can readily give him plenty of evidence to show that the professional magistrate—the sheriff or sheriff substitute—is not all that reliable, not always without prejudice, and not always better than the layman? Will he see to it that we have a proper opportunity to discuss what the Government intend to propose?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his views on what happens in the courts. There will be an opportunity for the House to discuss this when our proposals come forward. Obviously that will be the proper time to look at it.