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24. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): On how many occasions she has been requested to give advice on the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998 in Scotland; and if she will make a statement. 
The Advocate-General for Scotland Dr. Lynda Clark): When requested, I give advice, as a United Kingdom Law Officer, on a variety of matters including questions concerning the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998.
Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to the Advocate-General for repeating her answer to my question of one month ago. Will she now tell me how many times she has been requested to give legal advice, what the cost of such advice has been on such occasions and what the total cost of implementing the Human Rights Act in Scotland has been?
The Advocate-General: Duplication--we call it corroboration in Scotland--is a doctrine with which the hon. Lady may be familiar. It is a long-standing tradition that Law Officers do not advise about the questions that they have been asked--one which Law Officers on both sides of the House recognise.
I am not going to answer the hon. Lady's question because of that general convention, which Administrations of all complexions have followed for many years, and from which I see no reason to depart on this occasion. So far as the cost is concerned, my salary is a matter of public record; hon. Members can look it up.
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that, in terms of human rights in Scotland, the Disability Rights Commission will always have an important part to play? It is one of the finest achievements of the Government. Will she remember that hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland are delighted that this United Kingdom Parliament delivered that measure?
The Advocate-General: With some assistance from my right hon. Friend, the convention on human rights has been delivered in Scotland. It is an important step that individual citizens can now exercise their rights and have their rights guaranteed by the domestic courts of this country, which is a much cheaper and quicker alternative than going to Strasbourg.
The Advocate-General: Certainly. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to listen, I will tell him--at length, if Mr. Speaker permits. Under the Scotland Act 1998, I have a number of functions. I inherited the advisory functions of the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor-General. I advise the United Kingdom Government about a range of matters on not only Scots law but European law, including the European convention on human rights. I also sit on a number of Cabinet Committees. I have a statutory role under section 33 of the 1998 Act of considering Scottish Parliament legislation, and--
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): If the human rights point raises a devolution issue, it must be intimated to me and I have powers to intervene. I am also kept informed about the general impact of the Human Rights Act, including important court cases. With reference to the question from the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), it is because of the devolution aspects that I have a role in relation to human rights.
Mr. Stewart: Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the advantage of the Human Rights Act is that it makes justice more accessible for ordinary people by fast-tracking access to the United Kingdom courts, avoiding the cost and the delays involved in going to Strasbourg? How long does it take to raise a case now?
The Advocate-General: A human rights case can be raised with great speed in the domestic courts in Scotland. Depending on the situation, it could be raised and dealt with by the court within a few days. The appeal process has shown that human rights issues can be taken through the entire process, all the way to the Privy Council, within months, which is a vast improvement on the previous situation, whereby individual citizens sometimes had to wait years before a court considered their claim.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): The private finance initiative is used to procure new magistrates courts throughout England and Wales. I am happy to make a statement on the subject.
Projects for 13 magistrates courts committees are in various stages of procurement. The first of the new courts to come into use under this funding route will open later this year at Kidderminster, Hereford and Worcester.
Mr. Luff: The Minister will know how glad I am that the Government continued with the construction of new magistrates courts under PFI that was started by the previous Government. Would not it be wrong, however, to sacrifice smaller, rural magistrates courts such as
Jane Kennedy: I am happy to pay tribute to the representations that the hon. Gentleman made during the consultation on the original closure programme introduced by the magistrates courts committee in Hereford and Worcester, and I acknowledge that, as the Worcester court has become inoperable because the police no longer use it, Evesham is now one of the courts that is used for the excess work. I understand that the committee intends shortly to hold consultations on proposals for courthouse closures, but as no decisions have yet been made, I cannot comment on any such proposals.
Jane Kennedy: I absolutely concur with the point that my hon. Friend is making about security. PFIs are indeed being used for a range of purposes, and not only new build, important though that is. For example, once such initiative is providing refurbished courthouses at Redditch.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Parliamentary Secretary talks about the use of private finance in magistrates courts, but has she considered the figures revealed this morning in one of the national newspapers by the distinguished legal correspondent, Joshua Rozenberg, that show that in Greater London fines worth more than £92 million remained uncollected last year alone? Does she not recognise that judges and magistrates are increasingly concerned that the mismanagement and incompetence of her noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has led to a collapse in confidence in collecting fines and in other non-custodial penalties? On the day the Prime Minister finally dared to call a general election, which he will lose, should not the Parliamentary Secretary recognise that the Lord Chancellor must acknowledge that he is the weakest link and say goodbye?
Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman may not know that successive Governments have considered that fine enforcement would be more effective if such work were transferred from the police to the magistrates courts committees, which can give it a higher priority. However, this Government have delivered that modernisation to the magistrates courts committees. That is a measure of our confidence in their ability to handle that work. He and his party propose to take £525 million out of the justice system, so it is rich for him to lecture us on modernisation and improvements in the service.
Mr. Chapman: Is it not important that that representational approach reflects the ethnic, social and political mix of the community? Is it not vital to focus on making the bench more equitable? Will the Minister consider, for example, shortening the hours of commitment, so that the bench is more accessible to working people? Will she also consider improving the image of the bench, which is not as good as it should be?
Jane Kennedy: I will, of course, take careful note of all the points that my hon. Friend raises. The Lord Chancellor was one of the first Lord Chancellors to consider that political balance may not be an appropriate way to measure social balance on benches, and that was the result of the landslide at the last general election.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Does the hon. Lady accept that whatever has gone wrong in her Department, we all know that it was not her fault? So magnificent has been her stewardship that we know that this is the last time we shall see her before she rockets to greater heights, in the shadow Cabinet. Does she agree that what matters most is that such people, who perform an incredibly important job in the community, are seen to be truly effective, and that anything that takes our eye off that ball would be a great mistake?
Jane Kennedy: As my hon. Friend says, the magistracy includes hairdressers. Being a magistrate is not an easy task, and I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to magistrates for the important work that they do.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): Will the Minister comment on her Department's success in recruiting people from the ethnic minority community to the magistrates bench? What sort of gender balance has been achieved from within that community?
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): The Minister uttered some fine words, but in many parts of the country they are meaningless. Because of the magistrates courts closures under the Government, a number of people from wider social backgrounds have been forced to leave the lay magistracy. The Government have commissioned an inquiry into the cost-effectiveness of the lay magistracy. Auld has reported. Will the Minister tell us what the Government's policies are for the future of the lay magistracy and whether it has a future at all under the Government?
Jane Kennedy: On every occasion that such points are made to me, I demonstrate not only in fine words but with examples how we are working hard to promote the magistracy, and to improve and modernise the service that magistrates give their communities. It is Opposition Members who question that commitment who cause magistrates to have doubts. I strongly recommend that the hon. Gentleman consider the words of his hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey(Mr. Hughes), who, during proceedings on the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill, said that he had far more confidence in a judge and jury than in a bench of magistrates. Had we passed that Bill, it would have been living testament to the Government's commitment to the magistracy.