HC Deb 29 October 1997 vol 299 cc901-14 3.30 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the organisation of magistrates courts. My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor is making a similar statement in another place.

Magistrates and magistrates courts are critical to our criminal justice system. There are now more than 30,000 lay magistrates, and 90 stipendiary or professional magistrates, divided between the metropolitan stipendiary bench, serving inner London, and the provincial bench, serving the rest of England and Wales. The magistracy deals with about 97 per cent. of criminal offences prosecuted in England and Wales. It also has important family and local licensing jurisdictions. That is why it is vital that they are supported by policies that look to the next century—not back to the 19th century.

Arrangements for the management and funding of magistrates courts were enacted by Parliament in 1949. The previous Government brought forward proposals designed to clarify and improve the accountability of the magistrates courts system, through part IV of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994. A statutory responsibility was put on local magistrates courts committees, comprising magistrates selected by their colleagues, for the efficient and effective administration of the courts in their areas. It established the role of a justices chief executive as chief administrative officer responsible to each MCC. It also provided new powers for the Lord Chancellor, including one to initiate proposals for amalgamating MCC areas and implementing them where, after consultation, he considers that an amalgamation would be likely to lead to an overall increase in the efficiency of the administration of the courts in the area.

My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor is committed to making these arrangements serve modern needs in support of both lay and professional magistrates alike. The hard work and dedication to justice of the lay magistracy is undoubted. We have no plans for a replacement of the lay magistracy with stipendiary magistrates. Our aim is to deploy the resources of the lay and the stipendiary magistracy to best effect.

Our objectives therefore are, first, to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the magistrates courts and, secondly, to reduce delay in the time taken for cases to be taken through those courts, and thereby honour our manifesto commitment. My right hon. and noble Friend's announcement today will help achieve these objectives through improved co-ordination and communication between the different agencies working in the criminal justice system, so as to improve the management of the system as a whole; better distribution and use of the public resources that the Government commit to the magistrates courts as an integral part of the processes for delivering justice; and better and more flexible deployment of professional judicial resources.

The provisions of the 1994 Act have yet to be implemented in a way that achieves significant improvement in the organisation and management of the magistrates courts throughout England and Wales. For too long we have been driving with the brakes on. We need to create a modern structure, which provides the right local management within a national framework. We will continue to look afresh across the structures, processes and objectives of the criminal justice system. That process is not yet complete and it may produce still more radical options. But there is work that needs to be started now, and much can be achieved using the powers we already have.

There are 96 MCCs in England and Wales. They cover very different geographical areas, in many instances unrelated to the areas covered by other agencies involved in the criminal justice system and serving widely differing numbers of magistrates, staff and court buildings. As Her Majesty's chief inspector of the magistrates courts service states in her annual report for 1996–97, which has today been lodged in the Library: In several of our 1996/97 inspection reports, we concluded that small MCC areas were managing their affairs competently within the grant allocated to them. However, without detracting from their achievement, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the existence of so many small organisational units is not in the best interest of a well-functioning Service nation-wide. In our view, overall improvement will only be achieved through a structure with fewer MCCs which are comparable in terms of workload and resources. In the Government's view, there need to be fewer, and larger, MCC areas, providing a more consistent basis for the administration and management of the courts, and a much greater alignment with the local government areas served by other agencies in the criminal justice system—for example, the Crown Prosecution Service and police authorities—wherever that is appropriate. That requires a substantial programme of amalgamations of MCC areas.

Such an outcome is likely to lead to an overall increase in efficiency, both for the management of the courts themselves and for the wider criminal justice system. A greater coincidence of boundaries between the agencies should lead to administrative benefits, including the implementation of consistent and coherent policies throughout the area, for example, in fast-tracking particular types of case, which depends on effective co-operation between the various criminal justice agencies.

I have been struck in government by the extent to which delivery of objectives on which everyone is agreed in principle depends on effective co-operation among a large number of different agencies. Immediately after the general election, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to work out proposals for dividing the CPS into 42 areas to match existing police authority areas. She did so, and those proposals were announced in a written answer on 21 May 1997. Therefore, we have 42 CPS areas, 43 police forces and 96 separate independent administrative units in the magistrates courts system. I am not trying to establish administrative symmetry for its own sake, but I have to ask whether 96 separate administrative units in the magistrates courts are really necessary.

I want to make it plain that this is not about losing local courts. It is about being open-minded about the best way of providing administrative support to them. We are not planning mindlessly to sweep away tradition; we are striving for a justice system at least as good as any in the world. There is much that is good about our current arrangements, not least the involvement of intelligent, committed volunteers as magistrates. What we want to do is build on the high quality which is already there, to secure the best possible service for the British people.

We are committed to local justice. Many decisions, for example about providing courthouses to match need, will properly remain to be taken at local level, but justice delivered locally is not the same as justice organised locally. In my clear view, local management requires a national framework.

The voluntary amalgamations that have occurred to date have shown the benefits that can be achieved. They include a fresh approach to the organisation of MCCs, with a reduction in the number of sub-committees and the establishment of clear levels of delegation to officers; better strategic planning in relation to the use of magistrates, staff and buildings, with an estate of sufficient size and flexibility to make the task mean something; better performance monitoring and the networking of performance initiatives; access to specialist staff, which the individual committees could not previously have supported; and the ability to review and standardise staffing policies and bring about other administrative efficiencies through rationalisation of functions previously duplicated by staff within the individual committees.

Our policy, therefore, is to promote a reduction in the number of MCC areas, which will involve a greater alignment of the MCC areas with those areas served by the Crown Prosecution Service and by the police. That provides a model and is the starting point for our consideration of MCC areas. My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor will issue consultation papers on the amalgamation of MCC areas with a view to being in a position to make an amalgamation order under section 32 of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997 where that is justified.

Our first priority is to consider the position of the metropolitan MCCs, which currently include the largest number of small MCCs. We believe that the greatest scope for the largest efficiency gains lies in pooling their resources. We shall start the necessary consultative process with a view to having new shadow MCCs up and running on 1 April 1998, with a second phase on 1 April 1999.

In the shire counties, there remain some parts of the country where MCC areas do not align with the police and CPS boundaries, and, as appropriate, we shall introduce proposals on those MCCs.

Greater London provides its own problems, substantially because of the effects of the abolition of the Greater London council and successive changes to local government in that area. The Lord Chancellor has yet to receive and consider the interim review of the outer London strategic management body. However, the service cannot afford to wait until 1999 before any consideration is given to the way forward for outer London. We are examining appropriate ways to organise magistrates courts across the huge area of the metropolitan constabulary. If we are to achieve our national objectives for the service in London as a whole, we shall need to propose changes that tie in with those being introduced by the CPS in the area.

We have also been giving careful consideration to a better and more flexible use of the professional judicial resources available in the magistrates courts. Stipendiary magistrates are, by statute, appointed either to London or to a particular commission area: they do not have a national jurisdiction. We shall consult shortly on the desirability of creating a single, unified stipendiary bench that would enhance the efficiency with which stipendiary magistrates could respond to changes in national work load patterns. We shall also consult on whether the role that stipendiary magistrates now fulfil could be more accurately reflected in a change of judicial title: they are, after all, professional judges, and the word "magistrate" is most naturally associated in the public's mind with the lay magistracy.

We have been persuaded by representations from, among others, the Magistrates Association that our policy should be to encourage greater separation within the senior management of the magistrates courts, in particular between their administrative and legal functions. Justices clerks and all those advising magistrates in individual cases need to be able to concentrate on this important function.

Managing a modern magistrates courts service is an administrative function which requires dedicated administrators fully engaged on that task. To improve the status of those who provide legal advice to magistrates, we shall consult on the proposal that, in future, court clerks should be professionally qualified either as a barrister or as a solicitor. If it would help, we are prepared to consider a change of title to recognise their proper role in a modern magistrates courts system.

It is also our policy to ensure that dual appointments, where the same individual is both the justices chief executive and justices clerk with substantive legal responsibilities, will become exceptional. In any event, amalgamations will lead to MCC areas of a sufficient size to support a stand-alone justices chief executive and the appropriate number of justices clerks for the area.

Let me now deal with matters that are consequential to what I have said so far. Today, I lodged in the Library of the House a copy of the magistrates courts service inspectorate's report on the review of the proposal to amalgamate Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull magistrates courts committees. The chief inspector identifies the efficiency gains that could accrue from the rationalisation of the senior management structures in the area. She refers to the potential for new strategic thinking, reduced management overheads, sharing of initiatives, greater staff specialisation and better use of staff generally. She recommends that Ministers should actively pursue a reduction in the number of MCC areas, and that a new national strategy be developed to contribute to the better functioning of the criminal justice system as a whole. She does not recommend that Ministers proceed with the particular compulsory amalgamation of the three MCCs at this time. My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has broadly accepted her conclusions. He does not intend to proceed with the proposal to amalgamate the three MCCs of Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull, as that proposal is not wholly consistent with the strategy that I have outlined so far.

Associated with those changes will be other measures that we shall introduce to improve the national framework. The Department is currently reviewing the grant allocation formula; we intend to introduce a new formula for 1999–2000, which will be better able to meet needs while recognising performance, and which will distribute the available resources more fairly. We shall introduce a requirement for MCCs in relation to the reports and plans that they are to produce and the performance standards that they are to maintain. Their operations will be supported by new information technology services currently being negotiated with suppliers, which will provide a more effective means of delivering information across the criminal justice system.

My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor will shortly be issuing consultation papers proposing the amalgamation of the seven MCCs in the west midlands area, and the five MCCs in Merseyside. If those proposals are implemented, they will result in MCCs in those two areas with common boundaries with the police authorities and new CPS areas. We will follow that up with further consultation papers as and when appropriate, proposing further amalgamations when that might achieve the benefits that I have described. I shall write to the chairmen of the relevant MCCs inviting them to submit proposals and indicating when, in the absence of their proposals, we intend to launch our own consultation under section 32(5) of the Act. As I have said, we shall also issue a consultation paper shortly on unifying the metropolitan and provincial stipendiary benches.

With today's announcement, the Government are embarking on a plan of action to improve the operation of the magistrates courts. We are determined to create a modern structure that will provide the right local management within a national framework. That will enable the courts to play their part in a properly co-ordinated criminal justice system, better able to deliver our promise to reduce delay throughout the system.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I have no quarrel with the broad objectives set out in the statement. I take this opportunity to salute the work of the voluntary lay magistracy, which deals with the vast majority of criminal cases.

To marry the boundaries of police, CPS and MCC areas must be sensible. Does the Minister accept, however, that magistrates courts represent local provision of justice? Can he assure the House that his plans will not lead to the closing of a huge number of magistrates courts, particularly in rural areas, and the distancing of courts from the local communities that they serve? Can he tell us today precisely how many courts he expects to be closed following the announcements?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is no need to change the title "stipendiary magistrate", which is a clear and easily understandable term? I urge him, however, to consider appointing more such magistrates, especially if they are to have jurisdiction right across England and Wales.

I suspect that there is a drawer in the Government Chief Whip's office marked "Statements that we do not need to make, but which will be required when we need to delay the business of the House". Was not the real purpose of making this largely uncontroversial statement today to allow the Prime Minister to sneak out of the Chamber so that he could avoid coming face to face with my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who is about to take his seat—having won a memorable by-election victory over the Prime Minister's personally chosen candidate, despite two well-publicised visits by the right hon. Gentleman to the constituency during the by-election campaign?

If the Minister genuinely wanted to make a statement touching on his Department today, why did he not make one to the House about his proposals to reform legal aid—which have far-reaching social and legal consequences for the people of this country—rather than wasting 15 or 16 minutes drawing out a largely uncontroversial set of words about magistrates courts?

Mr. Hoon

It is always difficult for the Government to get it right for the Opposition. Had we chosen to deal with the matter by way of a written question, tucked away in some obscure page of Hansard, no doubt the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Gamier) would have been leaping to his feet complaining that we were not making a statement. We have made a statement and given hon. Members the opportunity to ask questions of the Government on this important matter relating to the delivery of local justice.

The hon. and learned Member will know that 97 per cent. of all criminal cases begin and end in magistrates courts, so he must be aware of the importance of the proposals. He says that he has no quarrel with the Government's broader objectives and I am grateful for his support, but it is important that he emphasises to Back-Bench Conservative Members that court closures are not a necessary consequence of the proposals. Whether courts should close is primarily a matter for local magistrates courts committees. They take that decision. It is determined at local level and it is important that it stays at local level.

The hon. and learned Gentleman knows as well as I do that the only role that the Lord Chancellor has in this matter is to determine an appeal, in the event of one being made—that is the limit of the Lord Chancellor's jurisdiction. It is important that, instead of trying to make a few cheap local headlines, the hon. and learned Gentleman reflects the generality of the law in this sector.

I was disappointed that the hon. and learned Gentleman did not recognise the need to change the title of stipendiary magistrate. We are determined to consult on the matter. The term "stipendiary magistrate" is not well recognised; it is not recognised as being a judicial office. It is important that we try to bring up to date the titles that we give to people, particularly where they deal with as important a matter as criminal jurisdiction.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my hon. Friend aware that he should be careful about amalgamating magistrates courts in his constituency, in mine and in other parts of Britain because amalgamation and making things bigger does not always work? Invariably, it is the opposite. To find out that that is true, we have to look only at the changing of the national health service in the 1970s under the Government of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), at the local authority reorganisation and, latterly, at the closing of tribunal areas that are controlled by the Benefits Agency, which has resulted in a massive backlog of people wanting to be represented in those places.

However my hon. Friend deals with the matter, he has to bear in mind the fact that, although, as he says, magistrates decide whether courts remain open, they need money and that if there is a shortage of money, those courts will undoubtedly close. Labour Members represent many rural areas now, as a party needs to in order to achieve a majority in the House of Commons. Remember, there is a vast difference between the anonymity of a city and the villages and small towns represented by Labour Members.

Mr. Hoon

I have always been most grateful for the thoughtful and well-considered advice that my hon. Friend has tendered to me over many years. I assure him that the proposals for the amalgamation of magistrates courts committees will not have the slightest effect in his constituency in Derbyshire and in my constituency in Nottinghamshire because, in those areas, there is already consistency between the magistrates courts committee, the police authority area and the CPS. We are trying to introduce that best practice, already operating in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, throughout the rest of the country.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

Magistrates dispense justice in the community, and that should be done and be seen to be done in the community. We are concerned that there are likely to be closures of magistrates courts, especially in rural areas. What criteria are considered by the Government when an appeal is lodged against closure?

Mr. Hoon

May I make it clear that, as I have already said, decisions on courthouse closures are primarily matters for local magistrates courts committees. The hon. Gentleman rightly emphasises the importance of justice being done and being seen to be done in the community. However, he is in some difficulty in arguing that such decisions should be taken anywhere else. If he came to me and said that he would not like a particular court to be closed on appeal to the Lord Chancellor, he would be saying that central Government should interfere in those local decisions. It is only when a local decision to close a court is made that the matter ends up on the Lord Chancellor's desk. In those circumstances, we are guaranteeing local justice.

I appreciate that there are appeals to the Lord Chancellor, but there are no specific criteria and each appeal has to be dealt with on its merits, which will depend on the grounds of the appeal. I can give the hon. Gentleman some of the considerations that will be taken into account. They are, in particular, the provision of modern facilities, facilities for the disabled, security arrangements in relation to violent offenders, and separate waiting areas for defendants and witnesses. There is also the question of delays. How can we ensure the provision of courtrooms that are best suited to enable cases to be listed in a manner that will achieve the Government's aim of reducing delays in the criminal justice system? We must take account of necessary renovations to bring the courthouse in question up to a modern standard. We also recognise the distance that people will have to travel, the cost of that travel and the time that is taken to complete the return journey. Such a range of factors is taken into account.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. As is clear to the House, many hon. Members wish to put questions. If I am to attempt to call even two thirds of them, I must have brief questions and, especially, brief answers.

Mr. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

What advantages does my hon. Friend see in the redrawing of the boundaries? He said that he was not simply redrawing them for administrative tidiness. What benefits will arise by having the boundaries of the Crown Prosecution Service coincide with the magistrates courts area and police authority boundaries?

Mr. Hoon

The primary aim is to secure maximum co-operation between the different parts of the criminal justice system, leading to a reduction in the number of participants in consultation and in the amount of paperwork to be circulated, and to a more effective presentation of the concerns of magistrates courts. If we are to achieve our manifesto commitment to fast-track justice, we must ensure that the different agencies involved in the criminal justice system work consistently and coherently together. The proposals will achieve that.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in the composition of the magistrates bench, while it is important to try to ensure a broad spectrum of occupation and background, the political views of applicants for the magistracy should be ignored? In that context, does he understand the dismay that has been caused by his right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor who told the Magistrates Association that, all things being equal, if there were an imbalance he would choose Labour voters for magistrates?

Mr. Hoon

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that it is important for the magistracy to reflect the local community. It was for that reason that his Government began to ask magistrates about their political allegiance. That was to try to ensure the consistent reflection of the needs of a local community. All that the Lord Chancellor said in the speech to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman refers is that it is important in reflecting the balance of a local community to have a balance in the political views of the magistracy. However, that information was first collected by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's Government.

Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)

I welcome the proposals outlined today, particularly for the amalgamation of MCC areas, the administrative benefits of which I am sure we can all see, but will my hon. Friend say a little more about how he expects those changes to reduce delays in the system, with particular reference to the new IT services that he mentioned?

Mr. Hoon

Reducing delays in the criminal justice system is a centrepiece of the Government's policy and it was a centrepiece of our manifesto. It is crucial that, in trying to reduce delay, we ensure that the various agencies work together. IT strategy is part of that. For the moment, unfortunately, Britain has a considerable number of fully computerised systems—something like 95 of the 96 MCCs have computer systems—but there are five different systems, they are aging and, due to a lack of standardisation in their design, they cannot easily support links between magistrates courts and other organisations in the criminal justice system. That is why we have proposed that there should be a new national standard information system service, which will provide information systems to support all MCCs in England and Wales and facilitate electronic linking and, hence, a speedier flow of information between magistrates courts and other organisations in the criminal justice system. By doing that, we will speed up the system of justice.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

The hon. Gentleman has rightly said that the Government are seeking to reduce delay and they have said that they will halve the time taken to bring what are often called fast-track cases to court, but have the Government yet identified the length of time that particular types of cases currently take to come to court so that we may know in future whether they have managed to halve it?

Mr. Hoon

I am surprised that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has not spent more time studying the Government's manifesto which sets out that the average time taken to bring a case before the courts is some four and a half months. We strongly believe that it is crucial that we reduce that average time.

Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester)

For the 17 years before I arrived in this place I was a serving magistrate, and I believe that the office of justice of the peace is one of the oldest offices in the land, dating back to the 14th century. This afternoon, my hon. Friend has told us that 97 per cent. of all cases are dealt with in the magistrates court. Will my hon. Friend give us an assurance today that that will continue and that there is no intention to reduce the number of lay magistrates, replacing them with stipendiaries?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is right to say that I said that some 97 per cent. of all cases begin and end in the magistrates court. There are some 30,000 lay magistrates in Britain. In contrast, there are 90 stipendiary magistrates. Whether there should be additional stipendiary magistrates is clearly a matter for the particular MCC, which must seek the Lord Chancellor's approval before such a decision is taken. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that there is no current policy to replace those 30,000 volunteers, who provide their expertise generally free of charge to the system, with stipendiary magistrates.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

It is true that the Lord Chancellor cannot close a court on his own initiative, but he has the statutory power to merge MCC areas. As the Parliamentary Secretary has said, the number is now down from about 105 to 96. What is the hon. Gentleman's ultimate target? What would he like to get the figure down to?

While I am on my feet, I should like to say that I share the appreciation of magistrates, and I note with some satisfaction that Solihull will not amalgamate with Birmingham and Coventry.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful for that question and for the hon. Gentleman's support, such as it was. The target was set out clearly in my statement; it is to achieve consistency with the police authority areas and the revised CPS areas, in order to ensure that we have a consistent administrative system for the courts throughout the country.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

I welcome my hon. Friend's support for continuing the system of lay magistrates and his view that the bench should represent all sections of the community. Does he accept, however, that such broad representation is not always the case? What plans does he have to encourage a wider cross-section of people to apply to become magistrates? Will he also consider having discussions with employers to make them more sympathetic to requests from their employees for time off to perform that vital public duty?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. It is indeed important that as many people as possible apply for the important position of magistrate. Sadly, I suspect that too often the message is rather like light from a distant star, in that many people are deterred from applying because they believe that they will not be selected and approved. In many parts of the country, however, MCCs are crying out for suitable volunteers. We have encouraged those committees to place advertisements in newspapers to try to find as many people as possible who are willing to undertake those important responsibilities in our communities.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Minister look at the economies of scale that may be appropriate in urban conurbations, but which have quite a different result in rural constituencies such as mine? There is already concern among magistrates in the small towns of Cullompton, Tiverton and Honiton in my constituency. In the Cullompton magistrates court, we already take the overspill from the city of Exeter. Will he ensure that the guidelines reflect the need for geographic spread, not least because police officers attached to local police stations will incur the loss of much greater parts of their day in travelling further distances?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Lady has very precisely expressed the importance of local decision making. Decisions taken in a rural area by a magistrates courts committee selected from that area will be different from decisions taken in a more urban area by the magistrates courts committee there, which is why it is so important that those decisions remain locally based. Committees in rural areas are able to reflect considerations and circumstances that are very different from those in more urban ones.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Rothwell)

The logic of my hon. Friend's statement is that he will eventually be looking to form a West Yorkshire MCC. Will the current committee or a West Yorkshire committee decide on closures? Will he be giving any guidance to the committees that will be formed on the criteria that they should apply? I am concerned about the future of local courts. There are many local magistrates who do a good job who would be very reluctant to travel the distance to a larger court in a larger place.

Mr. Hoon

I hope that—after hearing the statement, which will be communicated to all magistrates courts committees—the reaction of areas that currently are not consistent with police authority areas and CPS areas will be to introduce proposals to achieve such consistency. I hope also that we can achieve many of the statement's objectives without resorting to the powers that are available in statute to the Lord Chancellor. If it is necessary, however, we will use the powers that are available under current law.

I hope that, as we use those powers, we will provide the consistency that will offer comfort not only to my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Mr. Gunnell) but to hon. Members from across the country.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The Minister is surely aware that, although decisions relating to closure of magistrates courts are taken locally, allocation of resources very often can have a very heavy influence on the decisions that are taken. Will he take it from me that, although the magistrates court in Macclesfield requires quite a lot of improvement—in fact, we require additional facilities—there is overwhelming support for the court to continue there? Does he appreciate the unique nature—as expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning)—of the problems facing many rural areas?

Mr. Hoon

I said in my statement that the Department is currently reviewing the grant allocation formula and that we intend to introduce a new formula for 1999–2000, which we believe will be better able to meet the needs while recognising performance and which will distribute available resources more fairly. It is clear that that must take account of the very different circumstances in rural areas as opposed to urban areas.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

Does my hon. Friend recognise that, given the importance of the changes he is introducing and the speed with which they are being introduced, there would be considerable merit in having a moratorium on closures, particularly because financial issues often drive the closure argument? Such a moratorium could remain in place until the funding has been reviewed and these important changes are brought about.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that efficiency must not simply be a transfer of costs from one Government body to another or from one Government body to other parts of society? Does he recognise that it may be less costly for magistrates but more expensive for the Crown Prosecution Service and the police? The Government need to see that the issues are addressed in the round and accept that judicial efficiency is not necessarily monetary efficiency.

Mr. Hoon

I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern, but I repeat that it is not for the Government or the Lord Chancellor's Department to announce a moratorium on court closures. The decision on closures is taken by the local magistrates courts committee. In judging appeals on these matters, it is important that we take account of the wider cost picture. My hon. Friend is right to say that it would be absurd if, in the interest of a short-term saving over a particular courthouse, the rest of the Government were faced with larger costs. I accept that point entirely.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

The hon. Gentleman will know—because I have told him—of the great anger in Ripon at the proposal to close Ripon magistrates court and to transfer its functions to Harrogate. That will be a blow to the regeneration of the city centre, it will make justice less accessible in a wide rural area and it represents a transfer of costs from the public to the private purse. When the appeal comes to the Lord Chancellor, will the hon. Gentleman ensure that it is examined in the context of the regeneration of Ripon and the rural area and ensure that a wide and careful scrutiny is made of the proposals put to him?

Mr. Hoon

The right hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in drawing the attention of the Lord Chancellor's Department to the court in his area. I suspect that he holds the record for the number of letters written about any court. I have no doubt that there will be plenty of Conservative Members, and possibly some Labour Members, who will want to emulate his activities. I can only repeat that when considering an appeal carefully, it is necessary to take into account a wide variety of factors. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will take into account the factors that he has mentioned.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

My hon. Friend will know that, in the county palatine of Lancashire, certain matters affecting the magistracy, such as the appointment of magistrates, are dealt with by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and not the Lord Chancellor's Department. Are there any aspects in the issues that he has announced today that will require consultation by that Department at the same time as his own Department?

Mr. Hoon

Not that I am aware of.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

Is the Minister aware of the deep disappointment in Bromsgrove at the decision to close our magistrates court? Can he confirm that when I took a delegation to see him, he told us that if my local district council was willing to offer a subsidy to keep the court open, he would consider the matter? Will he confirm that, like me, he has received no notification of that offer from Bromsgrove district council?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Lady has also been assiduous in making clear her concerns about Bromsgrove magistrates court, although she has not written quite as many letters as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). I agree with her point willingly.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole)

I welcome the Minister's statement about improved efficiency, but I want to return to the loss of rural courthouses, which has been raised by several other hon. Members. In my constituency, the rural courthouses were closed by the previous Government. They have already gone, so the conversion of Conservative Members to the cause that we have supported for some years can best be described, charitably, as welcome hypocrisy.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the major problems with the effectiveness and efficiency of the magistracy is the lack of volunteers and that it is the processes and procedures used that deter many people from coming forward? We have deeply unrepresentative benches with many members of the community and many groups being excluded. An open and accountable selection process would lead to more people volunteering and more confidence in the system and people would no longer feel that getting on the bench depended on what society or secret club one belonged to.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his observations. I dealt with a similar question a few minutes ago, and I repeat that sometimes the message takes a long time to get through. He has set out accurately the concerns of many people at the way in which magistrates are selected. I hope to reassure him that considerable efforts are being made to encourage applications to the magistracy and to ensure that the system is as open and transparent as it can be.

If my hon. Friend has any particular concerns, I should be grateful if he would write to me about them. I will pursue them vigorously.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Does the Minister recall meeting me a few weeks ago to discuss the proposed closure of the court in my constituency? He subsequently upheld that closure, leaving my constituency, which is 100 miles long from north to south, with one magistrates court. That is not access to justice.

May I also ask the hon. Gentleman why his statement did not contain a single word about access to justice and upholding the standard of justice?

Mr. Hoon

My recollection is that I referred consistently to access to justice, but if that is not the case I assure the hon. Member that running throughout the Government's proposals for reforming the legal system is a commitment to access to justice. It is vital that that remains the case.

The hon. Gentleman's constituents have access to other courts not necessarily within the boundaries of his constituency, so his point about there being just one courthouse in a particular constituency does not paint the entire picture. I repeat that questions about whether a particular court should remain open or be closed are determined primarily at the local level.

Mr. David Lock (Wyre Forest)

Although I welcome my hon. Friend's statement, may I raise with him the position of justices chief executives who are also justices clerks? Does he agree that the administration of the courts that handle 31 out of 32 of all criminal justice cases should not be left to people who spend the majority of their day in court, but should be the responsibility of accessible and full-time administrators? That would ensure that justice is speedily done.

Mr. Hoon

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The role of the justices chief executives, as head of the service, is essential in providing a clear line of command between the magistrates courts committee and its staff, and in directing the implementation of the MCC's plans and objectives. The justices clerk's role is as a legal adviser to the magistrates. Successful management requires a clearly delineated role for justices clerks and the justices chief executives. Dual appointments inevitably risk a degree of compromise in that matter, with consequential complaints about the lack of impartiality.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you. We shall now move on.

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