§ 3.27 p.m.
§ Lord Mishcon asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ What steps are being taken to remedy the shortages of staff in the magisterial service, particularly in the London area.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, while there is no shortage of justices' clerks, the Government are concerned that there is a shortage of court clerks. We hope that the outcome of the current pay review may help to attract candidates into the magisterial service.
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, I am glad that the House has been informed that there is a very critical situation in relation to court clerks generally in the magisterial service. Is the noble Earl aware that there is not only a shortage in establishment but there is some sort of deficiency in quality in the new recruitment? Is this not due to competitive salary offers both in the legal profession and in the Crown Prosecution Service? In those circumstances, does he agree that it is a very critical matter and that the whole question of terms and conditions of service of these people must be looked at if the situation is to be remedied?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. There is a shortage here which we would wish not to see. I understand that the joint negotiating committee which negotiates pay and conditions for magistrates' court staff is collecting information on recruitment and retention and will take this into account when considering the pay settlement which at the moment is being discussed. However, the noble Lord is correct that there are competitive forces at work.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, will the noble Earl not agree that the high quality of magistrates' clerks is vitally important to the administration of justice in our magistrates' courts? Indeed, with a lay magistracy it is frightfully important that the clerks are of the highest possible quality. If they have to be paid to be of that quality, surely we must take steps towards that end.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. It is perfectly true that the high quality of staff is essential. That will be taken into account.
§ Lord Mottistone
My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that the problem raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, applies not only to London but all over the country and to the country areas?
§ Lord Bottomley
My Lords, can the Minister tell the House why three admirable candidates, two of whom were nominated by myself over 12 months ago, have not been considered for membership of the magistrates' bench? In what way are magistrates appointed, and are candidates told in due course why they have not been selected?
My Lords, I am afraid that I am completely unable to answer that question. If the noble Lord will write to me I shall endeavour to ascertain what has happened.
§ Baroness Robson of Kiddington
My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that, as mentioned, the shortage of magisterial clerks does not exist only in London and that there is increasing pressure on magisterial courts to amalgamate in the counties of this country, resulting in defendants having to travel enormous distances to attend court in a climate where the rural transport services are diminishing?
My Lords, I realise that there are difficulties in that respect and obviously we are addressing our minds to ensure that those difficulties are as slender as possible. I should inform the House that the number of staff who are being trained as court clerks has increased recently from 64 to 140 a year, so more people are being trained.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the aggravations in London courts is the great delay in presenting prisoners at the commencement of the day? When he considers how to improve efficiency and the quality of running courts in London, will he seek to ensure that prison officers, the police, magistrates and others work more closely together to ensure that the courts start their day efficiently?
My Lords, that is slightly wide of the Question on the Order Paper, but I am sure that it will be considered.