HC Deb 19 December 2000 vol 360 cc196-8
28. Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

If she will make a statement about the future of the lay magistracy. [141591]

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

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) and the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) on 14 November.

The Government have recently published a report—indeed, on Thursday—on results of research into the role of the lay and professional magistracy. I reiterate that we are committed to a continuing role for both types of judiciary in the criminal courts. Each brings a different approach and a different range of experience to the court. Making effective use of that experience can only be to the benefit of the community. The report is very interesting, Mr. Speaker. If you have a spare moment this Christmas, you might like to get a copy and read it. I commend it to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Flight

The report, "The judiciary in the magistrates' courts", to which the Parliamentary Secretary refers, in many ways contrasts and contradicts the Auld report, which has broadly recommended a professional magistracy. The judicial report finds overwhelmingly in favour of a continuing lay magistracy. Will the Parliamentary Secretary confirm that the Government have already accepted the essence of "Judiciary in the Magistrates Courts", which the Home Office commissioned?

Jane Kennedy

I hesitate to contradict the hon. Gentleman, but Lord Justice Auld's report and its detailed conclusions have not yet been published. It would be premature to comment on his review before it has been completed. However, we have reached the provisional conclusion that the current jurisdiction of lay magistrates should be preserved for cases carrying a penalty of up to six months' imprisonment. It is important to note the research report's conclusion that to abolish or greatly diminish the role of the lay magistracy would not be widely understood or supported in the community.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Could I persuade my hon. Friend that, if it is working, it should not be fixed? Does she agree that it is not good for the morale of voluntary magistrates, of whom there are many thousands throughout the country, for rumours about switching to stipendiaries constantly to emerge from London? Will she knock those rumours on the head, pay tribute to hard-working magistrates and kindly consider receiving from me in the not too distant future a deputation on those matters?

Jane Kennedy

I am always willing to receive a deputation and representations from my right hon. Friend. I have sought to do my level best to allay the fears of lay magistrates, which are based on wrong and misleading press reports of the Government's intentions. In a recent speech to the Magistrates Association, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor said: The promotion of volunteering is an objective of Government policy. Lay magistrates are volunteers par excellence. They represent local community involvement in the justice system. We welcome their hard work, and long may it continue.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

The Minister, with her usual approach of sweet reasonableness, suggests that the Government are supporting lay magistrates, but I am sorry to have to put it to her that the facts directly contradict that.

The Minister talks of coverage in the national press. Thanks to the very hard work of my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), has it not been made clear recently in the national press that her Department is telling magistrates courts that they will have to close because of costs imposed on them as a result of the suggestion under the Human Rights Act 1998 that those wearing handcuffs cannot be seen in public areas because it might be thought to offend against article 3 of the convention, prohibiting inhuman treatment or torture, which of itself is an insult to magistrates courts?

The costs of converting magistrates courts would be too high, so the Government will be closing rural magistrates courts in Oswestry and elsewhere.

The Government's sweet, honeyed tones are undermined by the facts of what they are doing. Will she reject what officials are currently saying and make it clear that there is no question of inhuman treatment or torture in magistrates courts and that the costs of conversion do not mean that every rural magistrates court has to close?

Jane Kennedy

As this is the season of good will, I shall not respond to the tone in which the hon. Gentleman asked his question. I do not seek to sugar a bitter pill. I am genuine when I extol the role that the lay magistracy plays in the administration of criminal justice. I do not expect magistrates courts closures to result directly from the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998. Many smaller or remote magistrates courts lack suitable facilities for holding defendants in custody. It is essential that the magistrates courts committees carry out their part in making sure that the courts and services that they provide are modern and that the courts are fit for their purpose.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

I have this morning tabled an early-day motion signed by 175 hon. Members who represent all parts of the political and geographical spectrum. It celebrates the work, commitment, dedication and expertise of the 30,000 lay magistrates who deliver justice in local communities. Will my hon. Friend reassure the House that she and others will resist any Home Office attempt to subvert and subordinate the role of lay magistrates in a way that would lead to their control and supervision by retitled stipendiary magistrates? Such a move would be most vigorously opposed, not least by members of the Magistrates Association such as myself.

Jane Kennedy

The role of stipendiary magistrates courts—or district judges (magistrates courts) as we now call them—is important. They play a vital role in supporting lay magistrates benches throughout the country. We could not manage without their important contribution to the work of the criminal courts.

I welcome the early-day motion that my hon. Friend has tabled. In other circumstances, I might have been persuaded to sign it myself.