HL Deb 20 January 2003 vol 643 cc532-50

9.12 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 1.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 3: Page 1, line 10, after "services" insert "including information technology services

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 3, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 15. The purpose of these amendments is to make it clear that the appropriate services that should be provided for the effective work of the courts should include information technology services.

Lord Justice Auld, in Chapter 8, paragraph 93, of his review, made the point that: Modern information and communications technology could transform the ways in which each agency undertakes its separate function in the speed, reliability and efficiency with which data are processed and also in the manner of management of a prosecution from charge to disposal". At paragraph 94, he states:

"That parts of the system are still, in the first decade of the 21st century, effectively relying, on manual systems to support some of their key tasks is a public disgrace.

At Second Reading, I listened with great care to the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice. He said: Throughout England and Wales, courts are deprived of the technology which has been repeatedly promised and which should be at the heart of the civil justice reforms", to which he had referred in the main body of his speech. He went on to paint a picture which will concern us all. He said: Those courts are struggling to provide an adequate service, relying on the loyalty of the judiciary and the staff. Whether they will be able to continue to achieve that is open to question".—[Official Report, 9/12/02; col. 28.] Can the Minister therefore tell us where in the spending review of 2002 there is new money that is ring-fenced for the provision and development of IT in the civil justice system? I note that there is some new money on the criminal justice side, but even that seems to have been chopped. There is no money, it seems, for enabling applications, as they were called, despite the work undertaken on them.

The picture painted by a lawyer to me—I am very much the layman —was that a train set was going to be built without the engine or coaches. Is it not true that the current state of play is that even the criminal courts will be left with systems which are well past their sell-by date, such as CREST, and that there has been a scrabble to upgrade systems, such as XHIBIT, to do things they were never designed to do? That hardly smacks of efficient and effective guardianship of the system, which we are supposed to see in Clause 1, especially at a time when in the criminal justice system the Home Office legislation is adding to requirements for the use of IT systems; for example, in the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill which some Members of the Committee are suffering upstairs in Grand Committee. What consultations did the Lord Chancellor's Department have with the Home Office before clauses were inserted into the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill to extend the use of televisual links? What agreement has been reached about the resourcing of these?

What news does the Minister have of progress with Libra? I read the sorry story of this in the January edition of the Magistrate. Although I am no longer a magistrate, as a life member of the association I still receive the magazine. The Committee will be aware that Libra is an attempt by the Lord Chancellor's Department to develop case management and administration systems for England and Wales. Apparently, the LCD cancelled the contract with its suppliers, Fujitsu, citing cost and timetable delays in developing new computer software. Can the Minister confirm that software development is now running nine months behind schedule and that the cost of the project is soaring? Has the LCD found a new developer for this software? If so, what is now the timetable for roll-out?

What reason can the Minister give the Committee for having confidence that IT can provide the method by which the criminal and justice communities can work together effectively under the provisions of the Bill? I beg to move.

9.15 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

The amendment is unnecessary. IT services will be included in the term "services". A reasonable interpretation of "appropriate services" includes information technology, and it is certainly our intention to provide such services.

Let me make a general point before I go on to deal with specific points. From both the start of the Committee stage and at Second Reading my strong feeling has been that all noble Lords wish to see the same kind of improvement and development. Whatever comments I may make in Committee, I wish to assure noble Lords that everything that is said will be taken into account and fully considered before we come back on Report. To do otherwise would not do justice to the import that everyone involved in the Bill wishes to achieve. I want to assure the Committee that we have that very much in mind.

The SR2002 funding settlement has been committed to the roll-out of a modern IT infrastructure across all Crown Court centres; the rollout of the LCD led, cross-CJS XHIBIT initiative, which uses modern technology to share, in real time, court hearing information across all in the criminal justice service who need to make use of it—the evaluation of the first pilot has shown very significant benefits across the CJS by allowing all the many parties involved in hearings to work more effectively together; and the roll-out of a national standard case management application across all magistrates' courts.

The noble Baroness asked whether this spending will be ring fenced. I can give her no such assurance. We are trying to ensure that all needs are fully met. A modern IT infrastructure has been rolled-out, through Libra, to more than 80 per cent of magistrates' courts, and this is on target for completion this year; work, which will be complete this year, is underway on the roll-out of prison to court video links to 30 of the largest Crown Court centres; and more than 50 per cent of all money claims through the civil courts are already issued electronically. So the Internet-based money claim on-line service, which has had a positive reception from many groups—including, for example, the Consumers' Association—allows all aspects of a money claim to be carried out on-line, all the way through to the sending-in of bailiffs. Video links for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses are now installed and working in all Crown Court centres.

This is a very wide, comprehensive IT programme. We want to ensure that it is fit for purpose and that it responds to the new system that we hope will come into being as a result of the Courts Bill to make it more efficient and effective.

I know that reference has already been made to the use of the words "efficiency" and "effectiveness", but citizens of this country who go to the courts very much want to have an efficient and effective system that actually works. Those words are perfectly fine to describe the aspirations of what many individuals wish to see in terms of service provision.

Lord Renton

One always respects what the noble Baroness says, but we are dealing here with her description of "appropriate services". Is she prepared to say definitely that that would include information technology?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I have said that it will include information technology. We want to develop the most appropriate services to meet the modern needs of courts. The noble Lord will know, for instance, that in the commercial court we have used IT extensively. We shall need to continue to do so, and to explore the use of IT more and more if we are to keep pace with competitors in the international market.

Lord Renton

That is how I understood the noble Baroness's opening remarks.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

I am grateful to the Minister for her response, although I am somewhat disappointed with parts of it. I am grateful to her for saying that the Government will examine some or all of these matters seriously between Committee and Report. I shall certainly do so with regard to these amendments.

In response to my question about SR2002 with regard to ring-fenced money, the Minister said that no such assurance could be given because the Government wanted to ensure that all needs were met. I certainly wish to ensure that all needs are met. I believe that it can be done with ring-fenced money. The Minister did not answer my question in terms of directing me to where there is new money for this in the budget. Perhaps she will write to me on the matter between now and Report. She nods, and I am grateful to her for that.

I do not think that the Minister addressed all my questions on Libra. I shall read her replies carefully. Members of the Committee who have read the newspapers over the past months will have been concerned to see some of the loopholes in the provision of IT. My noble friend Lady Seccombe reminded me a moment ago of the issue at Peterborough court, where a case had to be adjourned to a magistrates' court where the IT was in place, whereas it was not in place in Peterborough court itself. There are indeed causes for concern over IT in a world in which—the Minister is right—we have to show ourselves to be leaders. The judicial system must have credibility. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 4 not moved.]

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 5: Page 1, line 18, at end insert— ( ) For the avoidance of doubt, the report in subsection (4) shall include a report on the operation of the courts agency,

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, with the leave of the Committee, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 6.

As I pointed out at Second Reading, one of the biggest problems with the Bill is that many important matters are not written into it. We are being asked to write a blank cheque for the Lord Chancellor to do as he or she pleases at some future date.

So, although I can give a welcome to the objectives set out in Clause 1—although I believe that they need to be improved upon, as was explained earlier—I believe that a great deal is left out of the Bill that needs to be included in it before we cart possibly judge whether or not it will achieve the laudable objectives set out by the Government.

The most obvious example of the missing link is the failure to provide information about the courts agency which the Lord Chancellor intends to establish to take over the work of both the court services and the magistrates' courts.

I was grateful to the Minister for the letter that she was kind enough to write to Members of the Committee over the Christmas period. It was a lengthy letter and she had obviously applied a great deal of care and attention, as had her officials, to addressing as many of the questions as possible at that stage. I note that a couple of questions of mine were completely and utterly ignored. I have no problem with that. It means, of course, that I now have the greater opportunity to tease them out at a later stage of the Bill on the Floor of the House—be that as it may.

The Minister said in her letter that the Government would, publish guidelines as swiftly as possible after consultation". The question we must ask is: will that be after the Bill has left this House? If the Minister can assure us that it will be before it leaves the House, that will be most welcome.

Amendment No. 5 simply requires an assurance from the Minister that the annual report will include a report on the operation of the courts agency. Without that, there will be no parliamentary scrutiny of the operation of the courts agency. Earlier this evening the Minister, in response to another group of amendments, indicated that the courts agency's operations would be within the operation of the report. So I hope that she can give us a straightforward assurance on those matters.

The new clause that I have set out in Amendment No. 6 tries to raise all the questions one might ask about how a courts agency will operate. I tried to fill the gaps that the Government have left and provided them with a clause listing as much as I can think of that a courts agency should do. The clause places a duty on the Lord Chancellor to set up a courts agency to cover the administration of all courts except the House of Lords. That reflects paragraph 1 of the note that the Government helpfully placed in the Library before Christmas. In the same vein, I have tried to follow through the Government's note to the House by paraphrasing or copying directly into the clause what they told us they would do. I hope that they find it acceptable.

So, from paragraph 5, I have copied the section on the chief executive, including in the clause that the Lord Chancellor can appoint a chief executive, and before doing so, consult those with the appropriate experience who may give him good advice. England and Wales will be divided up into areas managed by chief officers. They will work in partnership with the court administration councils, as set out in subsection (5). Subsection (6) states: Where there is a dispute over proposals to open, close or relocate court-houses, the issue shall be referred to the Lord Chancellor; and in resolving the dispute the Lord Chancellor shall have regard to the views of the court administration councils". That was pinched from paragraphs 21 to 23. I use the word "pinched" since the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, is in his place, and I am trying to keep to straightforward language after his earlier treatise on the impenetrability of some words used by the Government in their drafting. I hope that what I have done so far represents good sense and good practice. Subsection (7) provides the obvious: The Lord Chancellor shall by order publish guidelines setting out the good governance principles under which the courts agency shall operate". That was taken from paragraph 8 of the Government's document.

So, does the picture I have painted of the courts agency accord with what the Government think will happen? If not, what have I left out? Have I included something that they feel would not appropriately be the duty of the courts agency? If so, what is it?

I note that the letter the noble Baroness wrote to us over Christmas says that the new agency is non-statutory, and full details cannot be set out on the face of the statute. That is only because the Government have decided that is the case. Of course, I heed her words, so my amendment does not go into the detail of executive action or administration. What I have done, I hope, is set out wholly unobjectionable principles under which the Lord Chancellor and the courts agency shall act.

I do not see why any of this needs to wait until the Government have consulted on the detail of how the agency will operate. We could get the clause onto the face of the Bill now. If not, I look forward to a good explanation from the Minister so that we can consider the matter between Committee and Report. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart

Amendment No. 6 is extremely important, and we on these Benches strongly support it. At present, we have magistrates' courts committees, which are statutory bodies. It is proposed that the administration of the magistrates' courts should now be turned over to the Court Service, reincarnated as the courts agency, which will have no statutory existence. That seems entirely wrong. Without any statutory reference to the courts agency, we have only half the picture. For instance, we now have the court administration councils. What will they do? We are told that the court administration council will liaise closely with the chief officer for the area for which it has responsibility. That chief officer will be part of the courts agency.

We are told that the court administration council will be consulted about what is to be done within the strategic plan for that area, but nothing in the Bill tells us by whom it is to be consulted. It merely says that it will advise and make recommendations to the Lord Chancellor—not, of course, to the people to whom it actually will make the recommendations.

We have nothing like the full picture here. We cannot have the full picture unless we have some statutory establishment of the courts agency. I see no reason why this should not be done. It is entirely a decision for the Government. It is perfectly practicable, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has pointed out, to have a statutory authority for the operation of the courts agency. Without any statutory authority, we will end up with a situation as anomalous as having legislation for the collection of taxes that contains no reference to the Inland Revenue or legislation for the payment of benefits that contains no reference to the Benefits Agency.

If we are to have a Bill that properly provides for the administration of the courts, it should not simply pretend that the Lord Chancellor is doing it all on his own. We should give statutory recognition to the body that will be carrying out the duties that are nominally carried out by the Lord Chancellor. That body is the courts agency. For that reason, I very much hope that the Government will see their way to accepting the principle of the amendment, even if they do not accept the text of it.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith

I strongly support my noble friend on the Front Bench, particularly on Amendment No. 6. Last week in this Chamber we debated a report of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform dealing with the problem of Henry VIII clauses. I took the opportunity of that debate to introduce the problem of skeleton Bills, which have almost no substance but create the power to legislate by regulation.

In this instance, we do not even have a skeleton. We know that there is to be a courts agency, but we know nothing about it. It does not exist in the Bill as drafted. There is nothing to indicate what it is for, what it is to do or how it is to work. Last week I used the description, "flying blind with very few instruments". In this case we have no instruments at all. We know that there will be a situation, but we have no knowledge of what it will be. That is not in the best interests of the Government, of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor or of this House. We should not pass legislation with that sort of lacuna in it. That is why I am happy to support my noble friend.

The courts agency should be mentioned on the face of the Bill. There should be some basic outline of its purposes and functions and how it is to work.

I hope that the Minister will find it possible at least to say that she will consider the principles of the amendment and whether they should be included in the Bill If she wishes to take a totally negative view of it, we would have to take that as an indicator of the Government's view as to the possibility of changing the Bill. However, it would be far better that the Bill should be amended to a satisfactory form by agreement than that "amateurs" on Opposition Benches, who are not parliamentary draftsmen, should put clauses into the Bill that may not be perfectly satisfactory.

The Bill is well intentioned, and I accept the intention, but there is not sufficient detail for us to pass a valid judgment on its acceptability and whether it will work. For that reason, the amendment should be supported.

Lord Waddington

It is a pity that the amendment should be debated so late in the evening. There is obviously a great deal to think about on the question of whether an agency such as the courts agency should have a statutory foundation. I freely concede that plenty of agencies have no statutory foundation, but that does not mean to say that we should follow that precedent now.

With regard to the terms of the amendment, most people would agree that chief officers of the agency should be responsible for delivery of service in a particular area, with a duty to work closely with the courts administration councils. So much concern has been ex pressed about the abolition of the courts committees and the substitution of merely advisory bodies that there must be a case, in this particular instance, for having some statutory foundation for the courts agency that would put a particular responsibility on that agency to work closely with the courts administration councils. The Lord Chancellor should also have a statutory duty to pay regard to the courts administration councils, for precisely the same reason— because they are thought by so many people to be a poor substitute for the magistrates' courts committees, which actually had administrative responsibilities.

As the noble Baroness must already fully understand, there is real concern about the disappearance of the magistrates' courts committees. There is a real risk that a courts agency that is not accountable to a local courts committee will not have the local expertise and will not take advice from those who do.

The amendment is fully justified, although it may be said to be breaking new ground in giving some statutory foundation to the courts agency. It would allay the fears of so many people that public and local concerns will not always be taken into account by officials of an agency who may present themselves as being very remote, in the way in which the officials of magistrates' courts committees are not remote and clearly take account of local concerns.

Lord Borrie

Several of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, has helpfully made are covered by Clause 5. Court administration councils will provide recommendations to the Lord Chancellor in relation to the various courts in, the area for which the council is established". More importantly, from the noble Lord's point of view, the Lord Chancellor in discharging his duty must give due consideration to recommendations.

I do not have a very strong view on the amendment as such. However, this Bill does not seem very different from the many Bills we see which provide that, 'The Secretary of State shall do such and such", when in practice, as we all know, that means that, "The officials or executive agencies acting on behalf of the Secretary of State shall do such and such".

The Government have made it known that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor means to establish an executive courts agency. The duties which the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has set out seem to me very reasonable and clear. I should be surprised if we learn from my noble friend the Minister that it is intended that they should be something entirely different.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

In our earlier debate, I noted that the Minister said that the Bill was not a centralising measure but—I think I heard this right—an opportunity to get real local engagement in the administration of the magistrates' courts. Would that it were so.

I disagree with my noble friend Lord Waddington only to the extent that he says that the amendment breaks new ground. I do not think that it does; I think that it is more accurately described as restoring already broken ground. We had local administration, and still have, in the magistrates' courts committees.

Lord Waddington

All I was saying is that to give statutory foundations to such an agency may be breaking new ground.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

I accept that. However, the magistrates' courts committees which we currently have and which the Government find unsatisfactory do have statutory authority and backing. The courts agency is to be purely advisory. We do not know, and we are not told because it is to be non-statutory, anything about how it will work or who will be on it. As the Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees pointed out, that is a circular argument. Having decided that the courts agency is to be non-statutory, the Government then say, "Because it is non-statutory, we cannot include on the face of the Bill how it will work, what its composition will be, what its powers will be and so on". The answer to that is that it does not need to be non-statutory.

This may be regarded as heresy on my Front Bench, but still I shall say it. From time to time I have admired the present Government's commitment to transparency and to local devolvement of power. However, it is anything but transparent to treat the powers of the courts agency that they are about to create as non-statutory and to say, "Not even during the Bill's passage through Parliament shall we vouchsafe what its powers will be". As to local devolution of power, exactly the reverse is being achieved by getting rid of the magistrates' courts committees—which are locally based, locally empowered and locally legitimated—and replacing them with this shadowy substance.

I strongly support what my noble friend on the Front Bench has said in support of Amendment No. 6. I very much hope that the noble Baroness will at least undertake to consider the thrust of the argument. I do not think that anyone is saying that the wording is necessarily perfect, but it is a vehicle for a thought and a concept which seem to me to be entirely valid.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

In the debate on Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said that he had placed in the Library, a statement on the principles that will form the basis of the agencies framework document".—[Official Report, 9/12/02; col. 15.] One therefore turns to that document to see whether there is any clarity in it. Far from there being clarity, it is full of precisely the verbiage and jargon about which I was complaining earlier. One favourable view of all this guff is that it covers muddled thinking and indecision. An unfavourable view is that it conceals the Government's intention in regard to the question that we are discussing at the moment; that is, to what degree will the agency be accountable to local views and to local democracy in any way?

The statement of principles that I have before me states: Local areas will be managed by agency chief officers, responsible for the delivery of services in their area. They will work in partnership with the Court Administration Councils, which will bring magistrates, judges and representatives of the local community, and people with knowledge of the court system to the table, to ensure that the agency is focussed on its customers and is meeting local needs". What nonsense that is. What table? What customers? What is the relationship to be? I continue: We are clear about the key features the agency must have—clear lines of accountability for performance through ministers to Parliament; but with a strong local element—delegation to the frontline, local accountability and flexibility. We made a commitment in the White Paper to producing a blueprint in partnership with our stakeholders". Where did this language come from? I continue: That work on the detailed design has started, and involves staff drawn from the Court Service and the magistrates' courts, the judiciary and stakeholders from the magistrates' courts community". I have never heard of the magistrates' courts community in my life. I have heard of other communities but never that one. It suggests an idea of all the magistrates' courts clustering together to exchange views. That is just a load of nonsense.

In answer to my earlier question, the noble Baroness mentioned magistrates and the judiciary in connection with the term "stakeholders". But who are the stakeholders? I repeat that question. Can we please have a clear statement of what the agency is to do and how it is to work with local people and can we please have that placed upon the face of the Bill?

9.45 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

First, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, for not answering in my letter of December two of the issues that she raised. I must confess that I did not notice that we had left out anything. No discourtesy was intended. I am sure that we shall now trawl again to establish the lacunae and seek to plug them.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

I do not wish to impose further trawling on the Minister and her officials. I shall contact her office tomorrow to let her know which of my amendments already tabled cover those lacunae.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I am most grateful. We had hoped to be able to assist noble Lords by that letter and cover the points that had been raised.

I hope also that Members of the Committee will have received a copy of my letter dated 17th January in which I set out, with what I hoped was a degree of clarity, the reasons and need for change, how the proposals were developed, comments about the court administration councils and the alternatives that have been raised, the role of the magistracy in the justice system and consultation. I respectfully invite the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, to that letter in which I set out who the local stakeholders are and those who will be consulted.

Of course, I heard what the noble Lord said in his charming way about guff and nonsense. If I may respectfully say so, the document is neither guff nor nonsense. The provisions are serious stuff indeed for the people who will be subject to them. It is our hope and aspiration that those who will work with us in partnership, and who have worked with us in partnership, will see the fruits of their labour. It does not befit any of us in this Chamber to deride or decry that partnership. Partnership is what it means; that is, working together with the groups who come before the courts, citizens advice bureaux, all those who work in the courts and courts' users by whom I mean representative groups together with members of the judiciary, members of the magistracy, members of the legal profession and all of those who regularly use the courts. It is their view on which we have had the privilege to rely, to try to fashion something of utility for the citizens of our country. I would not describe it as guff.

I shall speak to the amendment with which we are seized this evening. Consistent with our intention to establish an executive agency to carry out the day-to-day running of the courts, the annual report of that agency will be laid before Parliament to satisfy the requirement in the clause. The annual report will give information about the business of all the courts, and will for the first time present performance information about the magistrates' courts and the Crown Court in a single annual report, available for public and parliamentary scrutiny. It will also include corporate information about the agency itself.

I shall reiterate the point to reassure the noble Baroness about our intentions. I hope that she will find that the amendment will not be necessary. The clause is in line with Section 1(12) of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, which currently requires the Lord Chancellor to report on the business of the courts, and under which the Court Service annual report is laid before Parliament.

I commend the comments made by my noble friend Lord Borrie. If I may respectfully say so, he was absolutely right in how he responded to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, in terms of Amendment No. 6, to which I shall move.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment. It captures accurately the arrangements that we intend to establish by administrative means. I do not object at all to her pinching them from our letters, which simply shows that we are of one mind. An executive agency will be headed by a chief executive, who will be accountable to the Lord Chancellor for the day-to-day running of the court administration. Local chief officers in each management area are I o work in partnership with the local court administration council. For the avoidance of doubt, when I say partnership I mean working together and listening to one another. There will be clear procedures for making decisions about the court estate, decisions that are so important to users of the courts, and published guidelines will set out the requirements of good governance.

We agree, therefore, with the spirit of the amendment, but we do not believe that the details are necessary, or appropriate in primary legislation. If, however, Members of the Committee require further reassurance, we will give further consideration as to how that might be provided. We would, for example, be happy to debate the arrangements for the new agency when they have been developed further, if parliamentary time allows.

Let me comment on each subsection in turn. First, I shall deal with the obligation to establish an agency. Executive agencies are not creatures of statute. We have 127 UK agencies, none of which is a creature of statute. For instance, National Savings, Wilton Park conference centre, the Debt Management Office and the Benefits Agency—an agency of some considerable size—are not based in statute. A statute-based agency would depart not in a small way, but very greatly from all common practice. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, was himself doubtless responsible for setting up many of those agencies. What he said about the fact that we will be departing from common practice was well said.

When such agencies act, there is in law no delegation because the official's act or decision is constitutionally that of a Minister—the Carltona doctrine, as it is known. That is why the duty to give clue consideration to the views of councils is imposed in Clause 5 on the Lord Chancellor, although in practice, as I have explained, councils will work, as other Members of the Committee said, with local civil servants.

The new agency will be headed by a chief executive—a civil servant—who will be accountable to the Lord Chancellor for the performance of the agency. The amendment requires that the Lord Chancellor consults with persons having appropriate knowledge of the work of the courts before appointing a chief executive. There are established procedures for the appointment of senior civil servants which include consultation with interested parties. The appointment will also be governed by the Civil Service Commissioners' Rules, which require that a commissioner sit on the selection panel.

The amendment requires that agency chief officers be appointed to manage the courts in local areas and that those chief officers should be under a duty to work in partnership with the court administration councils. Local chief officers will, under Carltona, be under the same obligation as the Lord Chancellor: to give due consideration to the recommendations of the councils. In practice, they will work in partnership with them but—

Lord Renton

I apologise for interrupting but this is an important matter. Will those officers have any statutory obligations among their duties?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

There will be guidance about how those officers will work, which will be developed. I cannot say that that guidance will be prepared before the Bill leaves the House but we could make further clarificatory statements in light of the partial consultation.

Those Members of the Committee who had the advantage of reading the letter and seeing the consultation that I outlined on page 4 will see that local consultation will be a key part of the overall consultation process. The process starts in earnest with a series of one-day discussion groups that the Lord Chancellor's Department has arranged across the country. Those groups will explore what a unified administration means and the administration in their part of the country, and representatives of courts users, the local magistracy—including MCC members—the judiciary and court staff will be invited to attend. The groups will consider issues such as how an appropriate local focus can be achieved on the councils. All of that consultation will go on but the guidance that we will provide and its detail will await the outcome of those broad consultations. Our intent is to get it right so that it works.

I respectfully say that we will get it right only if we listen to local people, local agencies, local magistrates and local judges to find out from them what is right for them as opposed to what is right for us—those of us sitting in Whitehall or elsewhere.

Lord Goodhart

Does the Minister appreciate that the matter that concerns both Opposition parties is that the role of the court administration councils in the Bill is extremely weak? That is a matter of deep concern. We are told that the role of the court administration councils would be much more significant than it appears in the Bill and that they will be involved through partnership with the local chief officer in the way in which the administration of justice is carried out in their area. However, unless there is something in the Bill that explains that—one cannot explain it without reference to the courts agency—we will end up in the current position; that is, that the role that the Government intend the court administration councils to play is quite different from that given to them by statute.

10 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I hear what the noble Lord says about the anxieties and about the need for clarity. An issue arises as to how we deal with that without, if I may respectfully say so, burdening the statute, which puts in place a rigid system that we would find difficult to use flexibly in the way that different local needs would demand.

I understand the Committee's concern on this matter. We are anxious to see what, if anything, can be done to ensure that whatever guidance and so on is produced gives voice to that concern. Therefore, I reiterate what I said earlier: we shall listen carefully to everything said during the Committee stage about this and other issues to see how we can assuage the concerns that are genuinely held by a number of Members of the Committee.

In practice, we shall have to deduce how the partnership will work. But the partnership will be created not by regulation but through the proper management of the organisation, its aims and objectives, its vision and its values and the training that it provides for staff.

We have already made clear that the court estate is a key area in which the Lord Chancellor will welcome recommendations from the council. He will, as required by Clause 5, give them due consideration. I believe that the amendment goes no further than that.

The agency framework document is the established means of setting out the agency's governance arrangements. It is a methodology that has proved its value in relation to the 127 other agencies that currently exist. There is no reason to believe that it will not be equally efficacious on this occasion.

As I said, I understand the Committee's concern to know more about the new agency at this stage. I have undertaken to make available further information as soon as possible. However, it is essential that the new organisation is developed with the involvement of our stakeholders—for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, I say in parenthesis that those are all the people to whom I referred in my answer earlier—and anyone else who has a genuine interest in the courts and therefore a stake in the administration of them. Those conversations will be most important.

We have developed a series of events which are taking place between January and April to discuss these outstanding issues with the various parties. Those events will help us to develop a clearer picture of how the agency will be organised locally and nationally. I cannot emphasise how important—

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She has emphasised several times, in writing and in the House, that the Government are out to listen during the consultation period. What would happen if the consultees told the Government that they wanted the type of changes made to the Bill that are in this series of amendments?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

As mentioned earlier, in deciding what we wish to achieve we have to take on board the recommendations made by Lord Justice Auld. Therefore, if, for example, the consultees said, "Actually, we want no change. We don't want a merging of the administration of the courts in the way that everyone has defined as being the best for the people of this country", it is unlikely that that would sway the Government to reject Lord Justice Auld's recommendations and to reject the comments made to us by many people who have to operate the system and who say that the system is crying out for unification.

However, we shall of course take into account decisions concerning how the local areas should be managed, what size the councils should be, whether there should be consultative groups, what the structure should be, what the function should be and whether there should be a variation for urban, rural, semi-urban, semi-rural or suburban areas. We wish to have a unified system which for the first time deals not only with magistrates' courts—as important as they undoubtedly are—but brings the magistracy and the magistrates' courts into the wider family. In that way, the criminal, family and civil courts will work together in union for the benefit of the people of their area. That will give us locally delivered solutions for local people. We do not have that local element in the way we would aspire to have it right the way across the board. This is our opportunity to do that, and we shall do that by listening.

10 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

When the noble Baroness admonishes me I feel like a recalcitrant pupil in the primary class. She explained much of the wording contained in the principles, as I would expect of her. However, I hope she does not think me cheeky if I ask her a specific question, which is related to the amendment. Let us suppose that there is a dispute between the local area manager after he has been consulting at the table with the courts administration council about the opening, closing or relocation of court houses. What happens then?

The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, relied upon Clause 5. However, as my noble friend Lord Goodhart pointed out, the only power which the court administration council has on the face of the Bill in this area is to provide the Lord Chancellor with recommendations about how he should discharge his general duty in relation to various matters. What happens if there is a specific clash?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

We hope to fashion an appeals structure so that everyone within that system knows what happens if there is a clash between any two parties. That is essential. At present there is not a proper dispute resolution procedure. In normal circumstances the chief officers and councils will work in partnership. None the less, provision needs to be made for the situation described by the noble Lord: a difference of opinion between the local chief officer and the council on key issues. In those exceptional circumstances the issue will be referred to the chief executive for resolution. Important issues that cannot be resolved in that way will be a matter for the Lord Chancellor, who must give due consideration to the recommendation of the council.

We hope that we shall have a greater degree of clarity than there is at present as to what happens when there is a dispute. Unfortunately, at present when there is a dispute it is difficult to get resolution. We believe that this new structure will be able to solve a number of the problems with which magistrates and magistrates' courts committees currently struggle but which are difficult to deal with because there are not the necessary instruments to resolve them. We hope modestly to present them with a cure to those problems by the new structure.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

The noble Baroness is as charming as ever and has shown that she is prepared to listen. We are not surprised at that but are grateful for it. She has shown that she recognises the validity of many of the concerns which we on this side of the Committee have tried to express. I wonder whether she would take another opportunity to demonstrate the same willingness to listen and to express an understanding of our concern. She said that she wants the magistrates to join the whole judicial family. I do not recognise that they feel excluded from that family at present. After all, they deal with 93 per cent of all criminal cases. They sit in the Crown Court to advise recorders and, I believe, Crown Court judges too, upon matters of sentencing. They are made much of, very properly, by visiting red judges. I do not think that they feel excluded.

One of the reasons they feel valued and esteemed is that under our present system they are accorded a substantial measure of self-government under the magistrates' courts committees. What will happen now? We know that those committees are going and we know that the courts agency will appoint its local managers and that they will be answerable to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and will receive directions from him. What bugs some of us is that the Government have indicated some form of court advisory council involvement in the appointment of local managers. The arrangements then go on to say that this may not be practicable for initial appointments. Yet it is the initial appointments that will have quite disproportionate influence on the developing culture of these arrangements. Will the Minister think about how to overcome that matter?

The provisions of the Bill, which set up the CACs, might come into force before the provisions for the local managers. That would enable the CACs to express an opinion on who should be appointed as an area manager, and have that opinion taken seriously into consideration. Perhaps the Minister will think about that important aspect of these arrangements.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I shall certainly think about that matter. It is because the magistrates have such a powerful voice in the magistrates' courts that we want that voice to be heard more widely. The noble and learned Lord will know that they are part of the system, not just for the criminal courts but also for the family and other jurisdictions. There are many problems that do not stop at the magistrates' court; they go on to be heard in county and Crown Courts. We need just as clearly to hear the magistrates' courts' voice in those courts because the magistrates deal with these issues on a day-to-day basis.

In order to have a joined-up system we have to encourage the whole of the judiciary, which includes the magistracy, to come together so that they can listen to one another and, it is to be hoped, speak with one voice at the local level. I absolutely agree with the noble and learned Lord that the magistrates should not feel locked out; but I must say to him most respectfully that I should like to lock them in a bit further.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. Because of the lateness of the hour perhaps the Committee will forgive me if I do not do proper justice to their contributions. I first put on the record that the Minister has satisfied me as regards Amendment No. 5. I shall not be returning to that matter.

The mainstay of the argument was on this crucial matter of the courts agency. I did bear very much in mind throughout the debate the point made by my noble friend Lord Waddington that of course it is the principal statutory foundation that really is at the core of the debate. At this stage it is clear that some Members of the Committee on this side and perhaps one or two on the other side occasionally too, have a difference of view on this matter of principle, given that we are moving into uncharted waters.

There is only one matter to which I shall refer at this late stage. The Minister has kindly said that she will look more carefully at the debate and the concerns expressed by noble Lords and whether further clarification may be achieved. I am not sure that we can overcome our difference of principle, in particular because I was concerned about the Minister's reference to the nature of consultation about guidelines.

The Minister's definition of "consultation" is interesting. It seemed to be that, having talked to everyone, if they said something with which the Government did not agree or which was not in the Auld report, they would not accept it. The noble Baroness said they would choose Auld. I remind the Minister that the Government have not taken everything from the Auld report and put it in this Bill or indeed in the Criminal Justice Bill.

I shall look carefully at her words today. I shall consult further with those who have advised me from the real world, perhaps outside this Chamber and I shall return with a more carefully reasoned amendment on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Lord Grocott

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at a quarter past ten o'clock.