HC Deb 17 July 2001 vol 372 cc146-8
31. Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

If he will make a statement on the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 on the future of magistrates courts. [2610]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, implementation of the Act is at an early stage. It came into effect only in October last year. It would therefore be premature to draw any firm conclusions now. However, magistrates courts committees have provided data for the period between October 2000 to March 2001. That shows the Human Rights Act has had no significant impact on the work load of the courts or the infrastructure required.

Mr. Paterson

I welcome the Minister to his new post, and I hope that he will not emulate the inept complacency of his predecessor, who flatly refused to take on board the imminent catastrophe that faced magistrates courts after Human Rights Act was passed. In Oswestry, £350,000 of taxpayers' money was spent on modernising the magistrates court over five years. Now, £197,450 will have to be spent to make it comply with the Human Rights Act, which deems it an infringement of human dignity to be seen in any public part of the court in handcuffs. Does the Minister agree that if central Government cause a problem, they should provide the funds to solve it?

Mr. Wills

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words of welcome. I am afraid that I have to disagree with almost everything else that he said. Briefly—

Mr. Paterson

Tell me what is wrong, then.

Mr. Wills

I will, if I may, tell the hon. Gentleman precisely what he said that was wrong. First, he was wrong about my distinguished predecessor, in whose footsteps I am very proud to follow. Secondly, there is no imminent catastrophe—

Mr. Paterson

There is!

Mr. Wills

If the hon. Gentleman really wants to be reassured—

Mr. Paterson

Come to Shropshire.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) must calm down.

Mr. Wills

Mr. Speaker, I am trying extremely hard to bring some comfort to the hon. Gentleman, but he is obviously determined to get over-excited about this. I accept his kind invitation: I would be delighted to come to Shropshire, because I would be able to explain to him in situ—he obviously does not want to listen to me here—that there is no imminent catastrophe as a result of the Human Rights Act. There is no evidence of such a catastrophe and, on the Labour Benches, we believe in proceeding on the basis of evidence.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

I welcome both the new Ministers to their appointments and I congratulate the Minister of State. Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), on her promotion. I would also like to pay tribute to the former Member for Wyre Forest, who was a conscientious and knowledgeable Minister.

The Government commissioned Bristol university to produce a report entitled "The Judiciary in the Magistrates Courts", which was published in December last year. For what purpose did the Government commission that research? Do the Government have proposals for the lay magistracy and, if so, what are they?

Mr. Wills

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and for those—by contrast with those of the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson)—about my predecessors. He will be aware, with his distinguished background in the law, that we are awaiting publication of the Auld report. It would be premature to say too much until my colleagues and I have read it, as it may well have implications for the future of the lay magistracy. We have made it very clear, as has Lord Justice Auld, that we see a valuable role for the lay magistracy, and we expect that to continue.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I do not know what happened in Shropshire, but in the adjacent county of Cheshire there was a very welcome and sophisticated programme of training for magistrates before the introduction of the Human Rights Act. May I seek my hon. Friend's assurance that that training will also be available to newly appointed magistrates? It would take additional time and resources, and would need to be like that provided for existing magistrates.

Mr. Wills

My hon. Friend is quite right—he so often is. The catastrophe that the hon. Member for North Shropshire is so keen to predict has been avoided because we have prepared extremely carefully and made sure that everyone involved got proper training. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to provide whatever training is necessary.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

May I add my congratulations to the two new Ministers on their appointments? The Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), has been promoted from being a Parliamentary Private Secretary, and the other Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), was previously our Minister for patriotism. I am not sure whether he regards his change of role as a promotion or not. In any event, we welcome him to his Department.

The closure of magistrates courts in every county is something for which the hon. Gentleman and his Government have to take responsibility. It is not good enough for him to say, as his predecessors did, "It is up to local magistrates courts committees." He must recognise that the courts are closing, precisely as my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) said, because they are being told that they cannot afford the cost of the modifications resulting from the Human Rights Act. Courts round the country have to be modified and, because the Government will not pay for the modifications, those courts will close. Such closure is the denial of local justice by stealth. Will the Minister address that problem which his Government have created?

Mr. Wills

Again, I suppose that I should be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome. I should add that he will continue to hear from me on national identity.

Clearly, the hon. Gentleman has some difficulty understanding how the system operates and I look forward to educating him a little more about how it works over Question Times to come. Of course, as the hon Gentleman knows extremely well, the provision of justice through magistrates courts is a matter for local magistrates courts committees. I am glad that he mentioned money, because we are proud of our record in funding the modernisation of the court service. We are proud of what we have done to ensure that magistrates courts deliver the system of justice to which the public are entitled.

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that, in the past four years, we have increased by 12.8 per cent. the money available to magistrates courts to modernise. He keeps referring to the closure of magistrates courts. Of course some magistrates courts committees will decide that, in the interests of an efficient, effective and secure system of justice, some magistrates courts will close. That is inevitable and we make no apology for it. What matters is the service that the public receive and we shall ensure that they get the service that they deserve.