HC Deb 14 December 1999 vol 341 cc140-2
34. Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

What plans she has to increase the total number of magistrates. [101252]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy)

My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor requires his local advisory committees to recommend for appointment sufficient magistrates to enable the courts to operate efficiently. The number of lay magistrates has increased by approximately 8.5 per cent. since 1988, to a total of 30,260 on 1 January 1999.

Mr. Waterson

I thank the Minister for that answer. However, does she accept that one of the consequences of the Government's proposals to abolish trial by jury is that, in most cases, the magistrate can make the ultimate decision about where a defendant has to face trial?

Does she further accept that that must mean extra pressure on lists in magistrates courts? The direct result of that must be a need to recruit more magistrates.

Jane Kennedy

There has of course been a recent recruitment drive, which resulted in a large number of applications, and some applicants are being appointed at the moment. Local and central recruitment initiatives are being undertaken.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

Is the Minister aware that a number of magistrates in Gravesham have said that they would leave the Bench if the Kent magistrates courts committee goes ahead with its proposal to close Gravesend magistrates court, and that their opposition to the proposal is shared by the local police, the citizens advice bureau, the local authorities and most of my constituents? Is she further aware that the committee has been criticised in a recent inspection report for its failure properly to consult on proposals for closure? Will she therefore make clear to the committee the importance of consulting the local community before going ahead with such plans?

Jane Kennedy

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Kent magistrates courts committee is responsible under statute for the efficient and effective running of the courts in its area. I expect it to respond constructively to the inspectorate's recommendations, and my officials are monitoring the situation in Kent. They and the inspectorate are offering support to the committee, and I have asked my officials to keep me closely informed of developments.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

On 25 November last, we debated in Committee an increase in the number of stipendiary magistrates and Members from all three parties emphasised the continuing importance of the lay magistracy. The Minister informed the Committee that research into the cost of the magistracy was to be commissioned by her Department. Has the tender for the research been accepted, and who has been accepted to conduct it? Will she confirm that no precipitate action will be taken in relation either to the lay or to the stipendiary magistracy without full consultation?

Jane Kennedy

The hon. Gentleman has asked me a number of questions and I shall write to him on the detail, but I understand that that detail is in the public arena. There is support from both sides of the House for the principle of the lay magistracy and the Government are committed to its continuing to play a significant part in the criminal justice system.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

While my hon. Friend's Department is not responsible for the appointment of magistrates in the county of Lancashire, does she think that enough is being done to ensure that magistrate appointments—not only in number, but in width and scope—are representative of the communities that magistrates serve? Representation should be as wide as in juries for trials.

Jane Kennedy

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that good point, which he made very well. He might like to know that although the Lancashire advisory committee has not yet established its recruitment needs for the coming year, its initial feeling is that there is a general shortage of applicants in Lancashire—in particular, of Labour supporters.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Does the Minister accept that not only the number of magistrates, but the number of court buildings is at issue? Under the Government's proposals, both in relation to the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill, it is likely that there will be far more magistrates courts trials. Does she accept that it may be essential for the Government to reconsider aspects of the closure of magistrates courts and give indications to local magistrates courts committees?

Will the Minister reconsider the undertaking that she gave to the Committee, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett)—that she would either write to me and to other members of the Committee with the details of whether the Government were reconsidering the compliance cost of the 1998 Act in the light of the likelihood of more magistrates courts trials taking place, or would put those details in the Library? I checked with the Library no more than 10 minutes ago and nothing has yet been placed there. The Minister gave her undertaking two weeks ago. I hope that she agrees that she should have written to us all by now.

Jane Kennedy

The answer is being prepared and will be delivered to members of the Committee. I apologise if I have kept them waiting, but I wanted to get the details right. The Government are committed to modernising the service provided by magistrates courts committees. We believe that it is a matter for local determination and that it is better for local magistrates courts committees to decide on the provision for the area. They have the best view of that as they are the local providers. This year we are spending £16 million on improvements to magistrates courts in addition to the on-going court building programme.