HC Deb 30 January 2001 vol 362 cc165-8
28. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

What assessment he has made of the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 on the operation of the court system in England and Wales. [146209]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock)

The courts are responding very well to the requirements of the Human Rights Act. In a majority of cases, human rights points are being raised alongside other arguments in cases that would have come before the courts in any event. Court work loads have been stable since 2 October.

Sir Sydney Chapman

Does the Minister accept that the implementation of the various articles of the European convention on human rights incorporated into British law will have a devilish impact on the whole legal system in our country? Did he assess the impact before the Human Rights Act was introduced? If so, what estimate did the Government make of the extra cost that would fall on the courts?

Mr. Lock

Promoting a culture of respect for human rights and responsibilities throughout society and enabling British citizens to exercise the same human rights in British courts as those that they can exercise in any part of the European Union is not something that I would describe as "devilish".

I was asked whether there is chaos. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no chaos. In fact, the average length of a hearing was shorter in November 2000 than in November 1999. He also asks about the provision that has been made for additional costs. We plan to spend an extra £21 million on running the courts this year—4.7 per cent. more than the existing provision. We also plan to spend up to an extra £39 million in legal aid payments—a possible addition of 2.3 per cent. It is far too early to say whether those additional provisions will be required. At present, court work loads are stable and the time taken to hear cases is decreasing, so perhaps the predictions of chaos were a little exaggerated.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My hon. Friend refers to a £39 million provision for the legal aid budget. In the light of the debate on legal aid in Committee last week, to what extent does he think that that budget is protected against all future contingencies?

Mr. Lock

My hon. Friend raises an important point, because £39 million extra in the legal aid budget to protect our human rights are one thing, but I understand that the Conservative party's proposals are to take £525 million out of civil legal aid, which would completely remove the ability of people in this country to exercise their civil rights. That proposal would certainly provide no money at all, for example, for the victims of domestic violence who want to get injunctions to prevent them from being repeatedly abused. It clearly shows the value that the Conservative party places on the human rights of such people.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

May I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the Human Rights Act is being used as an excuse to close many rural magistrates courts, including the one in Lampeter? Will he comment on the case of a defendant last week who got up at 4.30 in the morning, walked 60 miles to a court case in Aberystwyth and arrived at 4.30 in the afternoon? The magistrates took pity on him and he was discharged. Had the court at Lampeter still been open, he could have gone 15 miles up the road and attended the local magistrates court. How can we deal with human rights when we are forcing defendants to walk 60 miles in rural areas?

Mr. Lock

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman's constituents are fit enough to walk that far. Decisions on whether individual magistrates courts are to close are matters for individual magistrates courts committees. I would not expect any magistrates courts closures to arise directly as a result of the Human Rights Act. That is a smokescreen. Other issues are involved and the quality of court houses, including their facilities for disabled access, is also important. I am sure that he would want to ensure that every court house has proper access for disabled people.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Does the Minister recognise that people throughout the country will regard his answers as astonishingly complacent? On the case raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and other matters that have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), campaigners in the Borders and mid-Wales recognise that licensees have to travel 74 miles on a round trip for a five-minute hearing because of court closures such as the one at Machynlleth. It is unacceptable for the Minister to wash his hands of the problem and say that it is all a matter for magistrates courts committees, as he and his colleagues have repeatedly done. This mismanaged, bungled introduction of the Human Rights Act has taken place at vast cost. We no longer have local justice in rural areas, and that is the Government's fault. The Minister cannot escape responsibility.

Mr. Lock

Is not it interesting that the framework under which these decisions are rightly taken locally was not passed by this Government, but by the previous one? It was their decision to allow magistrates courts committees to take such decisions, and they must be taken locally. [Interruption.] If Conservatives Members do not like it, they can complain from a sedentary position, but it was their legislation. We believe that these decisions should be taken locally, and they have nothing whatever to do with the Human Rights Act.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

If the Tories are against this human rights thing, should not they be happy that people cannot get to court on time?

Mr. Lock

I often wonder why we have copious briefings from civil servants when, as always, my hon. Friend makes the point far more effectively and succinctly.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

The Minister's Department is currently considering various appeals against the unwarranted closures of magistrates courts, particularly in Devon and Cornwall. Despite the fact that no appeal decisions have been taken by the Minister, magistrates courts committees have usurped his function and gone ahead and closed those courts, thus undermining not only him but the lay magistrates who strongly believe that the courts should stay open. Will he immediately order the reopening of the closed courts?

Mr. Lock

I understand the hon. Gentleman's passion on such matters, but where cases are allocated and which courts sit on which days are not decisions for me or for my colleagues as Ministers in the Lord Chancellor's Department. They are decisions for local magistrates courts committees. I understand his point about the position in Devon and Cornwall, but he will appreciate that no decision has yet been made. It would be inappropriate for me to pre-empt it by making an announcement this afternoon