Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Lay Magistracy

30. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): What her policy is on maintaining the lay magistracy. [155200]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): I refer the hon. Gentleman to my reply to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) on 6 March 2001, Official Report, column 210W.

Mr. Fabricant: Hardly. After all the closures of magistrates courts that we have witnessed up and down the land, including my own--which had lasted for 600 years until this Government came into power--what assurance can the Minister give lay magistrates that they will not be replaced by stipendiary magistrates?

Jane Kennedy: I simply offer the same assurance that I have given on many occasions in the House. The Government recognise the valuable role and service that the lay magistracy offers to society. Their civic responsibilities are very wide. We admire the work that they do and we are confident that they will continue to do that work long after the hon. Gentleman has retired.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): As a member of the Magistrates Association, I am delighted to hear the Minister again spell out her robust support for the lay magistracy. Nevertheless, there remain concerns which I hope she will be able to lay to rest about the

3 Apr 2001 : Column 175

delays in the publication of the Auld report. Are those delays linked to the views of the Home Office, which is thought to be less charitable and positive about the lay magistracy? It is thought that the Home Office may have a secret agenda to do what the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) has articulated.

Jane Kennedy: I would seek to reassure my hon. Friend by saying that Lord Justice Auld is currently drafting his final report, which will be published as soon as it is available. It would be premature to comment on the review before it has been completed, but Lord Justice Auld published a resume of his early findings last year in which he foresaw a continuing role for the lay magistracy.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): As a result of court closures in Devon and Cornwall, there have unfortunately been a number of resignations from the lay magistracy. I hope that the Minister agrees that we need a representative lay magistracy. It is much to be regretted that a young mother in my constituency has had to resign as a lay magistrate because she is unable to afford three hours per day travelling to the court in Plymouth. Are any steps being taken by the Government to assist magistrates, witnesses and other court users to get to the large city courts, now that the Government have closed so many magistrates courts in our local rural towns?

Jane Kennedy: There are more than 30,000 magistrates across England and Wales. I am sorry to hear of the resignation of the lady whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, as it is always to be regretted when a magistrate feels that they cannot continue their service. However, the recruitment of lay magistrates is a matter for the local lay magistrates to determine and they review their recruitment requirements regularly. Clearly they will follow carefully the representations that the hon. Gentleman has made and I will look into the case that he has mentioned.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Following the closure of two magistrates courts in my area, lay magistrates have told me of the difficulty that they will have travelling one hour to court and one hour from court. Will the Minister make an assessment of the Government's policies on maintaining the lay magistracy? Will she review the assessment of those policies if they can be demonstrated to have an adverse effect on the reach, accountability and scope of magistrates?

Jane Kennedy: Obviously I will give that undertaking and I will continue to keep the recruitment and retention of magistrates under review. I was pleased to see the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues at our meeting on 19 March to discuss the local proposals that the magistrates courts committee is considering. All representations have been carefully noted and the committee locally will continue to consider responses to the consultation exercise as it proceeds. The committee will be responsible for maintaining recruitment and retention of benches locally.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Having heard today of the closure of courts in the west country, in Staffordshire--from my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant)--and in Wales, does the

3 Apr 2001 : Column 176

Minister recognise that although she comes to the Dispatch Box month after month, smiling sweetly and talking fine words about keeping the magistrates going, there is friendly fire from her hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor), who has mentioned the Home Office's not very well hidden agenda to undermine the lay magistracy? Are not the Government imposing huge costs--as we warned--as a result of the Human Rights Act 1998? The Act states that prisoners cannot be seen handcuffed because that is somehow inhumane and somehow equates to torture. Is not that undermining magistrates courts and causing them to close? The Minister's fine words are incapable of being believed.

Jane Kennedy: My fine words and sweet smile, as the hon. Gentleman describes them, contrast with the fine rant that he brings to the Chamber. The Government's policy is that the magistrates courts are best managed locally by the magistrates courts committee under the provisions of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997.

County Courts

31. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): If he will make a statement on the planned closure of county courts in England. [155201]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): The court service operates 220 county courts at present. We anticipate that the consultation process as a result of the managing the civil courts programme will result in a substantial increase in the number of locations at which county courts can serve their local communities.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for his reply and I am encouraged by its the content. Can he assure the House that in assessing responses to the consultation paper on modernising the civil courts, he will make it clear that the local delivery of justice and not cost will be the overriding objective?

Mr. Lock: I have just explained that we are planning to deliver county court services in an increased number of locations. The hon. Gentleman must understand that, on the principle of full cost recovery, it is the court users who pay for the cost of running the system. It would not be fair to those users to operate courts in locations where there is not sufficient demand. We will take every care to meet local demand as we expand the number of hearing centres where county courts are able to sit, but finance will have to be a consideration.


The President of the Council was asked--

University Visitor Jurisdiction

42. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): If she will make a statement on her role in respect of the jurisdiction of visitor in respect of certain universities. [155215]

3 Apr 2001 : Column 177

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): I act, on the Queen's behalf, as visitor of 17 universities and colleges. I receive petitions mainly from students and former students with complaints or grievances who have exhausted the institutions' complaint or appeal procedures.

Mr. Bercow: The right hon. Lady says that she has responsibility for inspection, regulation and dispute settlement in respect of no fewer than 17 universities, which thankfully is five more than come under the aegis of the accident-prone Lord Chancellor. How many has she visited, how many have sought her agreement to changes in their constitutions and how many disputes has she been asked to settle? In respect of that last question, where conciliation is required, may I offer a helping hand?

Mrs. Beckett: I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman off hand how many of the institutions I have visited. I doubt whether it is all that many. I cannot tell him from memory how many have sought changes to their constitutions, as there are frequent changes, but I can certainly write to him about that.

Last year, we dealt with 21 disputes. So far this year, there have been about a dozen.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his offer of mediation. I strongly support alternative dispute resolution methods. We are authorising cases under the pilot mediation scheme and are hopeful that some students will take that course rather than going straight to the formality of the present procedures.


The President of the Council was asked--

Parliamentary Data and Video Network

44. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): If she will bring forward proposals to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons to improve hon. Members' access to the PDVN system. [155217]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): The Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons is indeed keeping the use of information technology by hon. Members under review. The Information Committee also has an important role in that respect.

Mr. Fabricant: Does the Minister accept that it is important in the 21st century for Members of Parliament to be able to access their e-mails and the internet not only within the Parliamentary Estate but remotely, from their homes and constituencies? I congratulate members of the Parliamentary Communications Directorate on the work that they do, but does the Minister accept that people trying to access the House of Commons facilities remotely are finding it difficult because of the limits of the technical resources that are available? Many people feel

3 Apr 2001 : Column 178

that that is because of a restricted budget. What can the hon. Gentleman do to ensure that we have a 21st-century internet and e-mail system for a 21st-century Parliament?

Mr. Tipping: I agree that the employees of the Parliamentary Communications Directorate work hard and do an excellent job. I also agree that it is important that all Members of Parliament, whether at Westminster, at home or in their constituency, should have equality of access, which is not the case at present. Budget is an issue, but so is change management. I hope that steps will be taken in the not too distant future to make changes that will be for the benefit of all hon. Members and, more particularly, their constituents.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): May I, on this rare occasion, endorse the words of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant)--especially in relation to the staff of PCD, who do a tremendous job? My hon. Friend will be aware that many of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman may be addressed if the House adopts the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body report. Will he put on his other hat, and find time for an urgent debate on that before Easter?

Mr. Tipping: My hon. Friend is quite right that the SSRB report makes very interesting reading. It puts great weight on the consideration of information technology. I will put on my other hat and remind my hon. Friend that this matter is for the House to decide, but I also point out that there are a great many demands on time in the House. I am conscious of the fact that the issue is real and pressing; I note what he says.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): The hon. Gentleman has surely noticed that the programme to which we were working--with a general election to be held on 3 May--has changed. We have a whole extra month to fill up, so the excuse that we could not find enough time to deal with the SSRB report has disappeared. Will the hon. Gentleman please agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) that we now have time? When are we going to get this done?

Mr. Tipping: I am grateful for the interest that the hon. Gentleman takes in such matters. He has pursued the issue hard both in the Chamber and outside. I do not dispute the need for change.

I know nothing about timetables for general elections--3 May or any other date--but I know that a great deal of business has to come before the House. This is one issue; I hope that we shall be able to address it in the not too distant future.

Next Section

IndexHome Page