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Witness Allowance Act

32. Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West): If he will review the provisions of the witness allowance Act to ensure that those appearing as witnesses are not out of pocket. [41545]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): There is no single witness allowance Act. Allowances are set in various regulations and are paid to non-expert witnesses in both criminal and civil cases. Financial loss allowances, which are reviewed annually, are set payments whose size depends on the time that a witness spends at court. The current levels are calculated to ensure that those with average earnings or less should not be out of pocket. Travel and subsistence are paid separately.

Dr. Naysmith: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but wish to point out that being a witness can be both stressful and time consuming. People are also sometimes left out of pocket. When she reviews the payments, will she undertake to consider the other measures that could be taken to make the whole process a much less stressful experience, especially for those witnesses who are particularly vulnerable?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, about which we have been concerned. We have introduced a number of changes, such as video links and witness liaison officers. The Crown court in Bristol is already up and running with a witness support centre and it is using the new pager system, so that witnesses do not have to wait around court for hours on end. Such measures will particularly help vulnerable and intimidated witnesses.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): We know that we have a long-standing problem about providing proper support and facilities for witnesses and particularly in trying to ensure that the physical structure of the courts provides proper places for witnesses to go and to be supported. Will my hon. Friend say something about progress on that front?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. Such important facilities should be available, in particular for family cases. We are making progress in all courts to ensure that proper facilities are available, including witness support centres, and that there are also facilities for the separation of witnesses when that is necessary.

Queen's Counsel

33. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): If he will make a statement on progress with the Office of Fair Trading report with reference to the Queen's counsel system. [41546]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): The appointment of Queen's counsel is one of a number of issues relating to

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the legal profession raised in the OFT report that fall to my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor to consider. We will consult shortly on the issues raised.

Mr. Dismore: I remind my hon. Friend that the OFT report questioned


and concluded:

We do not have Queen's plumbers, Queen's electricians, or even Queen's metalworkers. How can there be any justification for the anti-competitive, price-rigging cartel which is the Queen's counsel system? My hon. Friend promised the consultation many months ago, but nothing has happened. It is about time we had some action to end that appalling practice.

Mr. Wills: As always, my hon. Friend states his views with great eloquence and force. As he is well aware, those matters raise complex issues of law, which have taken time to consider. We will make an announcement shortly about the process of consultation on action in respect of those matters.


34. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): What initiatives are being pursued to improve the rate of recruitment of judges to the High Court bench; and if he will make a statement. [41547]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is satisfied that he continues to be able to appoint practitioners and circuit judges of the highest quality to the High Court bench. The Government have decided to accept the Senior Salaries Review Body's recommendation that the salaries of High Court judges be increased by 8 per cent. over two years. That recognises the importance of maintaining the high quality of appointments to the High Court bench. The increase is in addition to a wide range of other initiatives, including the creation of a commission for judicial appointments.

Mr. Llwyd: I thank the Minister for that reply. There is an increasing body of opinion that many able candidates are not putting in for appointment at the present time because of the package available to those on the High Court bench. I appreciate that salary is not the only issue, but there is now a huge gulf between the earnings of senior silks and those of those on the High Court bench, which might in future undermine the quality of appointments made.

Mr. Wills: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but as he acknowledges salary has never been a factor deterring people from taking up an appointment to the High Court bench. Those who have refused appointment

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in the past three years have cited lifestyle and family reasons. Judges being appointed earlier in life—in their 40s—but having families rather later in life may provide reasons to decline the Lord Chancellor's offer. It has long been the case that those in practice at the senior Bar take a significant drop in income if they decide to undertake public service by going on to the High Court bench, but there is no shortage of candidates: 52 practitioners and seven circuit judges applied for appointment in 2000, and of those 25 were determined to be appointable.

Lord Chancellor

35. Vera Baird (Redcar): Whether the Lord Chancellor intends to continue sitting as a judge; and if he will make a statement. [41548]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): It is important to the Lord Chancellor's role as head of the judiciary that he should sit from time to time on appeals, as all previous Lord Chancellors have done. In deciding whether he is eligible to sit on an appeal, the Lord Chancellor is guided by the same principles as apply to all judges.

Vera Baird: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but since there are—rightly or wrongly—concerns, especially since the Human Rights Act 1998 was passed, about the Lord Chancellor's position as both a judge in the House of Lords and a senior Cabinet Minister, and since there is not a single woman in the House of Lords judiciary, would he not be praised far and wide if he announced that he would not sit again and appointed a women judge to fill the gap?

Ms Winterton: The Government believe strongly that the Lord Chancellor's combined role as head of the judiciary and a member of the Cabinet is important to maintaining the independence of the judiciary. As I am sure that my hon. Friend is well aware, the Lord Chancellor is hardly the retiring type, nor is it up to him to nominate his successor, but I am sure that he will make careful note of her application.

Criminal Sentencing

36. Ian Lucas (Wrexham): If he will make a statement on how judges and magistrates are trained in the comparative efficacy of criminal sentencing. [41550]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): Judicial training is the responsibility of the Judicial Studies Board, which is an independent and non-departmental public body that also supervises the training of magistrates.

All newly appointed recorders and deputy district judges are required to attend a residential induction course before they commence sitting, and to visit the probation service and a prison. Thereafter, every three years both judges and recorders attend residential continuation seminars, which cover both sentencing policy and practice. They also attend sentencing seminars, which are run by their presiding judges.

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Magistrates are trained by their legal advisers in their local courts, and they receive guidance on sentencing from the Magistrates Association.

Ian Lucas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply, but does he accept that magistrates, in particular, do not receive sufficient detailed information on the effectiveness of non-custodial sentences, which is perhaps reflected in the disproportionate number of custodial sentences handed down by magistrates courts? Will he therefore look into the matter further and try to increase the number of non-custodial sentences imposed by magistrates courts?

Mr. Wills: I can assure my hon. Friend that we are constantly looking at the best way to achieve efficacy in sentencing. He will be well aware of the recommendations of the Halliday report. They are still under consideration, and the Government will announce their decision shortly.

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