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Child Contact

29. Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): When he will conclude his review of child contact issues. [150765]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): The Government endorse the report of the Children Act sub-committee of the Lord Chancellor's advisory board on family law, entitled "Contact Between Children and Violent Parents". We agree with the sub-committee that primary legislation in this area would be premature, but note that the guidelines have nevertheless been partially incorporated in law following judgments by the Court of Appeal. The sub-committee will shortly produce a consultation paper on the equally sensitive issue of the facilitation and enforcement of contact orders. In all these areas, the Government consider the interests and welfare of the child to be paramount.

Ms Moran: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and I welcome the Court of Appeal's June judgment. However, is my hon. Friend aware that, in the past four months, there have been three cases in which contact orders have been granted although there has been clear evidence of abuse or violence to women and children, including one attempted murder and one child death--that of Daniella Hurst, who was found dead in her father's car after a child contact visit? Will my hon. Friend now act on the Children Act sub-committee's year-old recommendation that practice guidance on the subject be issued to all judges, so that we can avert further such tragedies?

Jane Kennedy: Yes, it is an appalling fact that children are often killed by their parents. The Government very much want to encourage consistency and good practice in contact when domestic violence is an issue. We shall work in partnership with the president of the family division to ensure the widest possible promulgation of the guidelines. The Children Act sub-committee and my officials are meeting on 15 March, when they will consider the duration and the best means of monitoring the effectiveness of the guidelines. We shall consider the need for amending legislation in the light of that monitoring.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What input to the review has been provided by police forces and particularly by their domestic violence co-ordinators, who have immense experience to contribute?

Jane Kennedy: They will have been among the groups that the Children Act sub-committee consulted in producing its guidance. Last year, that guidance was used by the High Court in determining appeals. The High Court's decision will now have been noted by judges dealing with those matters across the country.

Solicitors (Wales)

30. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): How many solicitor practices in Wales undertook publicly funded criminal defence work in 1997; and how many hold community legal service franchises. [150766]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): In 1997-98, the Legal Aid Board made payments for criminal proceedings to 539 solicitors' offices in Wales; 251 solicitors' offices in Wales hold the community legal service quality mark for diverse spheres of civil law. Some of those offices also have the quality mark for providing criminal law services.

Mr. Llwyd: I thank the Minister for that rather ingenious answer; he did not say how many firms have criminal franchises. May I tell him that, in my constituency, prior to 1997, almost every firm had at least one good criminal practitioner attached to it? Now, two firms have criminal franchises. How does that square with the Government's intention of ensuring access to justice for all?

Mr. Lock: There are 251 firms in Wales that are eligible to do criminal work. Moreover, the firms that have franchises received 91 per cent. of the payments that were made in 1997-98. We are confident that the services being provided by each of those firms are of a suitable quality. We must ensure not only a geographical spread of services, but that, whenever those very important services are provided, we and the defendant can be confident that they are of the right quality. That is the purpose of the quality mark. I would encourage any firms in the hon. Gentleman's constituency or elsewhere that have not yet applied for a quality mark to do so. If they do, they will be able to sign up to the very attractive new contracts that are now available.

Courthouse (Colchester)

32. Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): When his Department plans to announce the result of the bid for a new courthouse at Colchester. [150768]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): I commend the hon. Gentleman on his persistence in asking that question, and I can tell him that his waiting is now over. The Essex magistrates courts committee's bid for inclusion in the next phase of the Department's private finance initiative building programme has been successful. That scheme will include the provision of a new magistrates court to replace the existing unsatisfactory facilities at Colchester.

Mr. Russell: I am delighted that persistence has paid off. Could the Minister give some indication of when work will commence, and when the new courthouse will actually be open?

Mr. Lock: It is never enough, is it? I can tell the hon. Gentleman that representatives of the magistrates courts committee and the paying authorities will discuss the procurement process with my officials. The best estimate that I can give him now is that the buildings will be available for use in about four years. I am sure that, if there is a general election in the foreseeable future, he will welcome in the leaflets that he puts around the decision of the Labour Government to invest in his constituency,

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Auld Report

35. Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): When he expects the Auld report to be published. [150771]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): Sir Robin Auld expects to complete his review shortly.

Mr. Taylor: My hon. Friend will know that the continuing uncertainty and delays in the publication of the report is doing nothing for the morale and effectiveness of the lay magistracy, which has support on a grand scale across the political spectrum, as demonstrated by early-day motion 123. Will she confirm that her Department will fight vigorously against any attempt by the cold and clammy hands of Treasury and Home Office accountants to diminish and reduce the effectiveness of the lay magistracy in terms of its relationship to district judges, who many believe are likely to replace lay magistrates in many important respects?

Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend will be aware of the oft-stated support for the lay magistracy, both from my noble and learned Friend and from my ministerial colleagues and me. The topics that Sir Robin Auld is looking at are complex and interrelated and he has received more than 1,000 submissions to analyse. We need to wait until we have the full details of his analysis and the full proposals before we can comment further on the ideas that he may wish to share with us.


The President of the Council was asked--

Legislative Programming

42. Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford): What progress there has been on programming of legislation. [150778]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): Since the House agreed to the new Sessional Orders on 7 November 2000, most Government legislation in the Commons has been programmed. The process is experimental and the forms of programme motion and the resolutions of Programming Sub-Committees have varied according to circumstances.

Dr. Stoate: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. She will know that the programming of legislation has enabled hon. Members, particularly those of us who can commute from their constituencies, to be far more effective in combining the dual role of representing our constituents and calling the Executive to account. What plans does she have to extend the scheme, and can she suggest ways of making the parliamentary timetable even more efficient?

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is right to say that programming legislation, as was intended, enables hon. Members to use their time more efficiently to the benefit of their constituents. It is also one of the many ways in

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which we can gradually improve the transparency of the running of this place, which again will be of assistance to hon. Members in using their time effectively. As my hon. Friend said, it offers advantages to all hon. Members in that respect, but it also offers particular advantages to the Opposition, should they be wise enough to take them, because it enables them to have a real say in which debates are taken at what time.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): Is the President of the Council suggesting that she is wholly satisfied with the programming of legislation, or does she recognise the need to make some amendments? Does she not acknowledge that it is a little absurd for the House to have to decide a programme before we know which hon. Members will be on the Committee considering the legislation concerned? Does she not acknowledge that if the system is to be credible and acceptable to the House, Opposition parties must have a substantial say in determining which legislation should be programmed, and what the priorities and time allocation should be?

Mrs. Beckett: No, I do not accept that there are huge problems, although there is a need to look at particular issues and try to resolve any difficulties that arise. That is indeed under consideration. I do not accept--and I think that there is a genuine misunderstanding in the House about this--that some innate problem is caused by the Government publishing at the earliest possible opportunity, on Second Reading, the date at which, for the management of their overall business and the programme of legislation, the Government intend a Bill to finish consideration in Committee. Every Government have done that in precisely the same way; the framework is known to the House. To be perfectly blunt with the hon. Gentleman, the only potential losers are the Government. We have known all along--as every Government know what they have in mind--when we expect Bills to come out of Committee, but until now the information has never been shared with the rest of the House. Certainly we believe that there is room to create even more opportunity for input from hon. Members.

It may be that over time, if the present resolution of the House is carried over, all legislation will be programmed. Equally, we may find that that is not necessary and that will give us more flexibility and room for manoeuvre, but we have to have that fall-back position so that we can manage the business of the House effectively for the benefit of all hon. Members.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Does my right hon. Friend not have a scintilla of doubt about what she has just said? Does it not occur to her that in fact the deliberate programming of all legislation would not only be anti-democratic, but would do exactly the opposite of what she has declared? Back Benchers have the right to raise individual points on behalf of their constituents, but they are totally constrained by programming. Any suggestion that the Government somehow have the right to slot legislation through the House without proper consideration is not in the interests of either the electorate or the Labour party.

Mrs. Beckett: I am never without doubt about a range of issues, and I am always prepared to listen to other points of view, but my hon. Friend is a very experienced

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Member of Parliament and I know that she is perfectly well aware that to pretend that programming is a new invention by this Government is, frankly, rubbish. To my knowledge, the issue of programming, and the advantages that it can offer to the House, have been under discussion for 10 years at least. The matter was discussed by the Jopling Committee.

I accept my hon. Friend's point that it is perhaps a pity that the Government have found it necessary in this experiment to consider programming all legislation, but she knows as well as I do that that is because of the process that I have described as working to rule, which has led to the inefficient use of the House's time. If my hon. Friend subscribes to the notion that there were halcyon golden days in the past when it was open to Back Benchers to use the House's time as they chose, when Governments never had target dates for Committees and never made sure that such targets were stuck to, she is describing a process that has not been in place while she and I have been Members of this House.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): The new regime means that great swathes of legislation are going through the House with wholly inadequate scrutiny, and the new system of synchronised voting on Wednesdays is bringing the House into disrepute, but the Labour party does not seem to be getting into its collective bed any earlier than previously. Against that background, would it not be better to scrap the experiment and start again?

Mrs. Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that that is not the case. Swathes of legislation are not going through the House with inadequate scrutiny. Well prepared legislation is going through on a perfectly ordinary time scale--

Sir George Young indicated dissent.

Mrs. Beckett: It is no good the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head. If he looks at the pattern of dates for Bills coming out of Committee under previous Governments, he will find no change whatever--other than that this Government are starting to introduce legislation that requires less Government amendment than was the case under his Government.

As for the notion that the time allowed has been inadequate, I believe that it has been perfectly par for the course. On at least two occasions this Session, a Bill has been reported from Committee slightly before the due date originally set.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The right hon. Lady knows that the changes to Standing Orders were forced on the House by the dreaded Modernisation Committee--which she chairs--even though the Opposition published a minority report saying that they did not support the move. The experiment has been a shambles. It is no good the right hon. Lady saying that all is well: I give her examples at business questions every week of where the system is failing. I am sure that the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) is not alone in not understanding that the role of Members of Parliament of all parties is not to do their shopping in their constituencies during the week, but to be here in the House scrutinising legislation and holding the Executive to account.

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If the right hon. Lady is going to introduce proposals to improve the working of programme motions, will she confirm that she will have the courtesy to bring them to the Floor of the House for further deliberation by the whole House? In that way, at least the process can be a tad democratic.

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) seems to have forgotten that the current experiment was brought to the Floor of the House, and that the decision to implement it was made by the whole House. She said that the decision was forced on the House by the "dreaded Modernisation Committee", but she has either overlooked or forgotten the contents of the minority report that she keeps citing. That report did not say that programming was a bad thing, nor that it was damaging to democracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) alleged that programming somehow deprived Back Benchers of their rights, but the minority report did not say that either. It said that to programme all legislation was a substantial and major step which the Opposition could not support.

However, before either the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton or I served on it, the Modernisation Committee agreed unanimously that we should stick with the regime under which all major legislation was programmed. Opposition Members appear to be suffering from a collective failure of memory when they think that they have never supported the programming proposals. That is not the case: they have supported them.

I entirely agree--and have long argued, before the hon. Lady's time in her present post--that it is a pity that the Government have found it necessary to put in place a framework that allows us to programme all legislation. However, if the House deals with its business efficiently and well, and takes the time that is allowed for scrutinising legislation to do so, there is no reason why we should not see a better conduct of business without quite that degree of rigour.

As for the hon. Lady's remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate), I know that Conservative Members are worried about the much better attention paid by Labour Members to their constituencies, but that is their problem.

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