HC Deb 05 July 1994 vol 246 cc251-61

43A.—(1) There shall be established for the purposes of this section a strategic management board consisting of the following members—

  1. (a) one member chosen from amongst themselves by the elected members from the magistrates' courts committees for the outer London Boroughs,
  2. (b) one representative chosen by itself of the London Boroughs Association, and
  3. (c) one representative chosen by itself of the Association of London Authorities.
(2) The chairman of the board shall be chosen from amongst themselves by its members. (3) The board may discharge its duties through such agents and sub-committees as it may see fit to appoint, whether or not those agents or the members of those sub-committees are members of the board. (4) It shall be the duty of the board—
  1. (a) to keep under consideration the strategic management of the outer London area as a whole by overseeing the management of the magistrates' courts by the magistrates' courts committees within the outer London area,
  2. (b) to give advice and submit recommendations to any magistrates' courts committee within the outer London area concerning its use of resources and funds,
  3. 252
  4. (c) to give advice and submit regular reports to the Lord Chancellor concerning the use of resources and funds by each of the magistrates' courts committees within the outer London area,
  5. (d) to give advice and submit regular reports to the Lord Chancellor concerning the allocation of grants by him to the magistrates' courts committees within the outer London area, and
  6. (e) to submit reports to the Lord Chancellor concerning the discharge of his duty under section 63(4) of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994 in so far as the discharge of that duty is relevant to the outer London area.".'.—[Mr. Boateng.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss also amendment No. 6, in clause 63, page 32, line 30, at end insert 'about the making of an order under subsection (3) above and for the purposes of receiving from such magistrates, magistrates' courts committees and interested authorities proposals for the establishment of a strategic management board for the area to which the order relates comprising one representative from each existing magistrates' courts committee within the area to which the order relates. (5A) Where the Lord Chancellor receives proposals under subsection (5) above an order shall not be made under subsection (3) above for the area for which proposals have been received until three years has elapsed since the establishment of such a board and the Lord Chancellor is satisfied that—

  1. (a) the criterion specified in subsection (4) above has been fulfilled, and
  2. (b) that the making of such an order would be more likely to fulfil the criterion specified in subsection (4) above than the continued operation of the strategic management board for the area to which the order relates.
(5B) For the purposes of subsection (5A) above it shall be the duty of a strategic management board—
  1. (a) to keep under consideration the strategic management of the area to which the proposals relate by overseeing the management of the magistrates' courts by the magistrates' courts committees within that area;
  2. (b) to give advice and to submit recommendations to any magistrates' courts committee within that area concerning its use of resources and funds;
  3. (c) to give advice and to submit regular reports to the Lord Chancellor concerning the use of resources and funds by the magistrates' courts committees within that area;
  4. (d) to give advice and submit regular reports to the Lord Chancellor concerning the allocation of grants by him to the magistrates' courts committees within that area; and
  5. (e) to submit reports to the Lord Chancellor concerning the discharge of his duty under subsection (4) above.
(5C) A strategic management board may discharge its duties through such agents and sub-committees as it may see fit to appoint, whether or not those agents or the members of those sub-committees are members of that strategic management board.'.

Mr. Boateng

In Committee, the Minister chose to describe the magistrates and their courts, in a phrase which was as disingenuous from his lips as it was hackneyed, as the jewel in the crown of our criminal justice system. If that is the case—and we would not demur from that assessment—why do the Minister and the Government seek to replace the context of that jewel with a base metal? Why do they want, where they do not seek to cast away the jewel altogether, to replace it with a paste imitation?

When one examines the context in which we tabled the amendments and the new clause, one sees that it is designed to give the Lord Chancellor the power to ride roughshod over the needs and concerns of local justices and local communities affected by his decisions— decisions made in Whitehall, not on the ground where justice matters and where there is a wide cross-section of society which is the consumer of legal services. People care desperately about the independence of their local magistrates courts and their clerks, and the need to present local and accountable services to local communities.

Why do the Government persist in refusing to accept the obvious fact that they have not satisfied the House and the wider community which is concerned about our deliberations that there is a need for clause 63, which our amendments and new clause would address and improve? In Committee, we asked the Minister time and time again about the rationale for the amalgamations that he and his Government propose with regard to magistrates courts committees: how had they arrived at the figure of between 50 and 60, and on what basis had it been determined that it was necessary to amalgamate the magistrates courts committees? The answer that we received was none. We were not told where the waste was; there was no quantification of the waste.

We were not given any indication at all—let alone specific examples—of where the magistrates courts committees and their justices and clerks, and the administration of them, were falling down on the job. No explanation was forthcoming as to why clause 63 was necessary, save that—this is what was said—to date, no magistrates courts had come forward of their own volition with any proposals for the amalgamation of magistrates courts committees, and that that must mean that there is a need for reform and a change in the law. That does not follow.

The Minister has not satisfied the Committee, the House, the profession and local communities about the rationale for Government policy in this area, save one matter that is clear to all: the propelling influence behind all that the Minister does which subordinates the interests of justice and the interests of local communities. The one propelling concern is not that of the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Lord Chief Justice, the justices themselves, their clerks and the local communities but that of the Treasury.

The Minister can search among his notes for an example, as he will tonight. We wait to see whether any missive is passed down to someone who might do the Minister a service in order to establish an example—all we want is one example—of some waste, some inefficiency, or something which needs to be addressed by this draconian power. I cannot say that we will be satisfied, but at least we will have a response.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

The hon. Gentleman will recall that a contrast was drawn in Committee between the small number of police authorities, through which efficient and effective police service is delivered, and the relatively extremely large number of magistrates courts areas. The implied question was why we needed so many magistrates courts areas. Would the hon. Gentleman care to explain why we need so many?

Mr. Boateng

It should not have escaped the attention of the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) that there is a distinction to be made between police officers and justices of the peace. They have complementary but different roles. The onus is not on the Opposition to explain why there should be the same number of magistrates courts committees now as has been the case: it is on the Government to justify the measure that they have introduced. The hon. Gentleman should be more diligent in asking the Minister to explain the basis on which the decision to bring about the amalgamations has been made. The Minister has been asked time and time again. Apart from saying, "Well, they have not brought forward any proposals themselves," he has given us no response.

We had the argument in Committee and there is no point in rehearsing it here. By force of numbers, we lost. So we went away and reflected and we have come up with another proposal on Report. It is a modest proposal. It is far too modest for the taste of many of us, but we hope that if we make modest proposals there will be more chance of their being accepted by an all-too-modest Minister. That was our hope. We shall see what his response is.

We propose in new clause 10 and amendment No. 6 that the Lord Chancellor should be required, before he imposes an, amalgamation, to allow the magistrates courts committees and the justices of the peace to make their own proposals. I cannot believe that there are many supporters among Conservative Members for imposed amalgamations of magistrates courts committees, because Conservative Members recognise—the hon. Member for Shoreham may be an exception—that there is strong local feeling about the committees. People feel that justices of the peace do rather a good job and have strong local ties. We are saying that the Government should give those justices of the peace, magistrates courts committees and the justices' clerks for whom they are responsible a chance to make their own proposals.

The Government should provide an opportunity to see whether the strategic management boards that we propose in the new clause and amendment, work and deliver the goods. Give them a chance. Give them three years. If they do not bring about the necessary changes where changes are necessary in terms of practice or economies of scale that might be possible through amalgamation of specific magistrates courts committees, other proposals could be considered. It is possible to see how the sharing of computer and other facilities might bring positive advantages to the consumer, and we are all for that. If the strategic management boards are capable of delivering the goods, there will be no need to enforce the amalgamation.

Mr. Stephen

May I renew the challenge that I made to the hon. Gentleman in Committee? Will he commit any future Labour Lord Chancellor, in the unlikely event that he and his hon. Friends ever again formed the Government and if the clause had been accepted without amendment, to repeal the clause and leave a Labour Lord Chancellor powerless to order any amalgamations if no voluntary proposals had been made by magistrates?

Mr. Boateng

My response to that challenge is that no one should be under any illusion about the fact that an incoming Labour Government will carry out a root-and-branch reform of the Lord Chancellor's Department with a view to replacing it with a Minister of Justice and altering fundamentally the role of the Lord Chancellor. Let me make that absolutely clear. That is my response to the hon. Member for Shoreham and I do not intend to give way to him again. Let our policy be understood once and for all. He must understand—

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

The rabbit is out of the hat.

9.30 pm
Mr. Boateng

The rabbit was let out of the hat in Committee. In fact, it was not even confined to a hat. The rabbit has been running amok for many years. That reform is part and parcel of our policy and, make no bones about it, we intend to implement it. When we do, we will have debates in the House in which the person responsible for legislation will answer questions from the few Conservative Members who will be left on the Opposition Benches. We will be only too happy to do something that the Lord Chancellor currently does not do—answer to this House, under your chairmanship, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Although we do not have the Lord Chancellor, we have got his valet and I will deal with him tonight.

We want to know from the Minister the basis upon which these propositions are brought forward. We want to know the basis upon which he opposes our modest proposal, which does no more than provide a statutory basis for what already exists in outer London. It proposes that the draconian powers that the Lord Chancellor seeks to draw unto himself in relation to the amalgamation of magistrates courts committees should be frozen until such time as it has been established that that which works in outer London, is seen to work and is seen to have the support of the Lord Chancellor's Department, is given an equal opportunity to work elsewhere in the jurisdiction.

Why should those magistrates courts committees in the constituencies of Conservative Members and of my hon. Friends face forced amalgamation without the opportunity to come forward with the same proposals as their outer London colleagues enjoy?

The Government have done that for outer London, so they can do it for the rest of the country and put it on a statutory basis. It is on that basis that we press our modest proposals. We wait, if not with bated breath, for a response from the Minister.

Mr. John M. Taylor

On behalf of the Lord Chancellor, my hon. Friends and valets everywhere, I should like to respond to the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng).

First, I must sound a salutary note to the House, one which we cannot escape or deny. When the now famous Le Vay scrutiny of the magistrates service reported in 1989, I am afraid that it said this of the service: There is no coherent management structure for the service. It is impossible to locate clear management responsibility or accountability anywhere in the structure. I am talking about the administrative side of the service, not about the judicial side—the extremely valuable role that magistrates play in our judicial system.

That lack of management, accountability and control is not a matter of no consequence; it is a matter of £350 million of taxpayers' money per annum. If anything goes wrong with that expenditure, or if it is thought not to be used wisely, there is no point in my getting up in this House or the Lord Chancellor getting up in another place to say, "I am sorry, but we have got no powers over this money. All we do is write out a cheque. We cannot cope with it if anything goes wrong." That is patently entirely unsatisfactory.

Mr. Boateng

Will the Minister give one example of something that has gone wrong? Will he identify one instance—

Mr. Taylor


Mr. Boateng

Good. Will he identify one instance of the misappropriation or the misplacing of funds by a magistrates courts committee or its justices' clerk?

Mr. Taylor

I am very careful of the sub judice rules, and I have duties of care when matters are not concluded. I had better write to the hon. Gentleman, when I will tell him the jurisdiction and what we think.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Put it on the record.

Mr. Taylor

No, I shall not put it on the record now. There are times when it is imprudent to do so. I am describing the example, but I will not specify it. I give my word as a Member of this honourable House that I am aware of such a case, and I ask the House to take my word for it.

Sir Roger Moate (Faversham)

My hon. Friend is suggesting that, because £350 million of taxpayers' money is at stake, we must have something called a coherent management structure. Some of us might be a bit sceptical about the benefits of introducing coherent management structures. Is it not the case that, through the cash limits exercised through his Department, my hon. Friend has absolute control over that expenditure? He does not need to amalgamate committees or have major reforms to impose strict financial discipline over the whole structure at present.

Mr. Taylor

My hon. Friend rightly refers to the formula—which, incidentally, is under review. But we are talking about accountability in the service for the administrative functions, as distinct from the judicial functions. At the moment, there is none. We need line management from the magistrates courts committees, which are the ultimate authority in the matter, through the justices' chief executive to the rest of staff on administrative matters. I shall not yield on that. It is clearly necessary, and my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and I are impotent to answer to the House on any criticisms of those areas.

Mr. Maclennan

The difficulty which some of us have had in accepting what the hon. Gentleman and the Lord Chancellor say is that they are drawing a distinction between the administrative function of the Lord Chancellor and the judicial function as though that were quite simply and easily done, and saying that by making changes in the administrative structure, one does not impinge upon the judicial function. That is plainly not true, and it is not a defensible distinction in those terms.

Mr. Taylor

I invite the hon. Gentleman to revisit clause 72, where the areas which are legally protected as independent are clearly set out. We shall come to those on a later amendment. The £350 million will not go away, and there is an accountability to Parliament and to the Public Accounts Committee. [Interruption.] The silent ones have asked me to move on, and it may be for the convenience of House if I do. [Laughter.] I know who is in charge around here.

In the context of outer London, I want to tell the House about a letter which was received from Mr. Graham Chamberlain, the chairman of the outer London magistrates courts action group. A consultation was set up between the Department and the outer London group to achieve an outer London solution. The letter, sent in the middle of May, said: Dear Lord Chancellor, I am delighted to confirm to you personally that the Outer London Magistrates Courts Service has been unanimous in our acceptance of the proposals you sent to us at the beginning of May. Not only did the 20 MCCs accept, but also the 20 Justices' Clerks, the Greater London Association of Magisterial Officers, supported by AMO, nationally"— and he might have included the local authority associations as well. The letter continued: Finally, may I thank you my Lord Chancellor for your patience and understanding during the past eight months. Your faith, which we shared, that we could achieve a mutual agreed solution, has been rewarded. That is the position in outer London. The system is non-statutory, and that is its virtue. It is flexible and capable of review, and all sides wish to look at it in the context of review.

To try to transmit the system to the provinces beyond outer London is frankly barmy. If there was to be a strategic management body, there would have to be one representative from each magistrates courts committee on it. If two provincial magistrates courts committee areas wished to come together, the amendment would force them to have a strategic management board with two members—one from each area. It is mad, and I do not know who drew the plan up.

Mr. Maclennan

The House is impatient to conclude the debate, but I am conscious that when amalgamations start to roll individual hon. Members will be the first to cry out—and as many Members on the Government Benches as on the Opposition Benches will be raising objections about the use of the powers that the Lord Chancellor is taking.

The Minister places great reliance on what happened in outer London. That is how he should proceed if he wishes to bring about change—using existing powers. If changes are self-evidently needed, the Minister does not need draconian powers to force them through against the wishes of magistrates' authorities. He said that there had been no amalgamations during the present Lord Chancellor's tenure or even some time before that.

Mr. John M. Taylor

There have been no voluntary amalgamations in the 45 years since the powers were brought in.

Mr. Maclennan

I am not aware either that there has been any great pressure from the present Lord Chancellor or his Conservative predecessors to bring about amalgamations. That certainly has not been ventilated in this Chamber as a matter of high importance in the past. Had there been such a debate, we might have listened with much greater sympathy to arguments in favour of the draconian and unaccountable powers that the Lord Chancellor seeks to take upon himself.

The truth is that the noble and learned Lord and his office are a singular anomaly. He presides over a judicial system as the senior judge of the realm, and sits in the Cabinet as a political figure whose shots are called in many cases by the Treasury. We all know that the driving force behind the provision that the amendment seeks to alter is economy—it has nothing to do with the fair discharge of justice by magistrates. I am fond of the Lord Chancellor—he is a splendid man, but he came to politics having cut his teeth on other jobs, and he is finding it exceedingly difficult to deal with pressure from his Treasury colleagues. That is why we are faced with this abusive measure.

I hope that the amendment will be accepted. The Government would have done well to withdraw their proposals, so as not to need to bother with compromises of the kind ingeniously invented by the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). In the absence of Government willingness to think again, the amendment should certainly have our support.

Sir Roger Moate

I speak more to expose the dilemma in which I and, I suspect, other hon. Members find ourselves than to offer a solution. My hon. Friend the Minister will not be surprised that I am totally sceptical about the Government's proposals, but I do not believe that the Opposition's solution of more strategic boards is attractive.

Perhaps some of us are to blame for the fact that we do not have before us proposals which would allow us to secure greater control for the House over undesirable streamlining of the voluntary system of local justice. I am sceptical about enforced amalgamations because they progressively undermine the precious concept of local justice. The smaller the courts and court committees, and the more local the magistrates, the better that system of justice works.

I fear that compulsory amalgamations will inevitably lead to compulsory closure of a large number of magistrates courts throughout the country. Anyone who has doubts about that should reflect on the words of my hon. Friend the Minister who spoke of the system of management which flows directly from the Lord Chancellor and controls the money right through the committees and down to the courts. Ultimately that power of management will bring pressure to close a large number of local magistrates courts. That is what it is about.

9.45 pm

The Government have been quite clear: there will be many amalgamations. We in Kent have nothing to fear because, according to the map that I have seen, there is no proposition to disturb the magistrates court committee in my county. Kent is a large county with a large committee. We have already seen the power that the Department and the Treasury have brought to bear on those committees by way of cash limitations, and that has resulted in the closure of local magistrates courts.

When there was a proposal for such a closure in my constituency there was no support from anywhere to resist it. That was a highly efficient small court doing a first-class job, but the power of money led to its closure. In many constituencies the consequence of what we are debating will be the closure of local courts. On the ground of efficiency one could probably just about justify that, but in the interests of justice I do not think that it can be justified. I say "just about" because I do not believe that we are really talking about large sums. The Minister cited a figure of £350 million, but 95 per cent. of cases which come to court are dealt with by the unpaid magistracy. I suspect that that is the best bargain justice anywhere in the world. We get tremendous value for that £350 million.

When challenged, the Minister did not produce examples of wastage. Perhaps, quite rightly and circumspectly, he did not want to refer to individual cases, but if there were wholesale wastage he would have been able to tell us about it. I do not think that there is such waste. Therefore, forcing amalgamations and, ultimately, forcing the closure of local courthouses will not bring enormous economic gain to the country.

Mr. Stephen

Is my hon. Friend suggesting that we live in a world in which the resources available for the administration of justice are unlimited and that there may never be a strong argument for the amalgamation of magistrates courts in the national interest and over which the Lord Chancellor needs statutory power?

Sir Roger Moate

There is no evidence to suggest that that is necessary. If there is evidence of wastage and inefficiency and proof that we need such statutory powers, let us hear it. It is easy to develop theories about management, but the taking of powers should be justified and I have not seen any justification. When a court closure is proposed in my hon. Friend's constituency he might say, "I protest, I want to prevent this."

Mr. Stephen

We should always look at the national interest.

Sir Roger Moate

I suggest that my hon. Friend would have a legitimate local interest and would go to the rather large regional committee which is quite remote from his area. But he will be told, "I am sorry but we have cash limits imposed by our new, highly efficient chief executive who is operating the cash limits imposed by the Treasury."

I do not say that that is necessarily wrong, but I wish that the House could have the power to resist that trend and to help my hon. Friend and other hon. Members when they experience the undesirable closure of courthouses. It has started and it will continue. The Government are seeking to take a further power to undermine the sort of local justice which means a great deal to hon. Members and to local magistrates who serve unpaid and do sterling work.

I fear what we are doing: I think that we have got it wrong and I hope that there will be future opportunities to try to redress that. I do not think that the Opposition amendment helps us particularly in that respect, burl hope that we shall be able to find other opportunities in future to try to correct this error.

Mr. Boateng

There was nothing in the world to stop the hon. Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) from tabling his own amendments if he was so dissatisfied with ours. Perhaps the fact that he did not is an indication of his interest in these matters, but I am disappointed that we have not had the opportunity to consider his amendments.

I hope that the last two speeches had a soporific and desensitising effect on the Minister, who was becoming a little carried away earlier, and that he will answer the case that we have put in a rational way. What aspect of the current proposals for outer London involving a strategic management board makes such arrangements unsuitable for the rest of the country? They would deal with the two critical issues with which the Le Vay report was concerned—greater efficiency and better management.

The Lord Chancellor now has the power to ensure that the inspectorate is brought to bear on improving efficiency. He has the power to control the budget of the magistrates courts committee, to demand management information statistics and to call for reports on a whole range of issues. What further power does he seek? Why does he seek it? We still have not had answers to those questions.

We are not satisfied with the Minister's response. He throws up his hands in shock and horror, but he should not be surprised that we are not satisfied: that is one thing which ought not to surprise someone of his experience. He knows how things work. Oppositions tend not to be satisfied by Ministers' responses, and in this instance we have every reason not to be satisfied. The Minister's objections to these modest amendments are bunkum, and he knows it. We want to hear more, but in the interests of he House we shall not push the matter to a Division.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 72, new schedule—Continuing Functions of Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District in Relation to Pensions etc. of Court Staff

1. In this Schedule— court staff' has the same meaning as in section 59 of the 1979 Act, the inner London magistrates' courts committee" has the same meaning as in section [Pensions etc. of justices' chief executive, justices' clerks and staff in inner London area] of this Act, the Receiver" means the Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District, and responsible authority" has the same meaning as in section 55 of the 1979 Act. 2. The Receiver shall pay out of the metropolitan police fund any superannuation benefits payable in respect of justices' clerks and other officers employed by the committee of magistrates or the inner London magistrates' courts committee under any enactment or instrument applied to those clerks or other officers by regulations having effect in accordance with section 15(9) of the Superannuation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1967, other than benefits payable by the London Residuary Body, and any superannuation contributions and other payments for which the inner London magistrates' courts committee may be liable as their employer under any such enactment or instrument. 3. Nothing in paragraph 2 above shall require the Receiver to incur any expenditure or make any payment which would cause the net cost to him in any year of the matters mentioned in paragraph 4 below to exceed the amount which, in relation to that year, is for the time being determined by the Lord Chancellor under paragraph 5(b) below. 4. The Lord Chancellor may out of money provided by Parliament pay to the Receiver grants towards the net cost to the Receiver in any year—

  1. (a) of the Receiver's functions under paragraph 2 above, and
  2. (b) of the Receiver's functions corresponding to those of responsible authorities under regulations made, or having effect as if made, under section 7 of the Superannuation Act 1972 with respect to court staff.
5. The amount of any grant under paragraph 4 above towards the net cost to the Receiver in any year of the matters mentioned in that paragraph shall not exceed 80 per cent of whichever of the following is the less, namely—
  1. (a) that net cost, and
  2. (b) the amount which, in relation to that year, is for the time being determined for the purposes of this paragraph by the Lord Chancellor.
6. In subsections (5), (6) and (7) of section 59 of the 1979 Act (grants by Lord Chancellor to responsible authorities)—
  1. (a) references to that section include references to this Schedule, and
  2. (b) references to the matters mentioned in subsection (1) of that section include references to the matters mentioned in paragraph 4 above.'—[Mr. John M. Taylor.]

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

Forward to