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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): The Lord Chancellor has approved public consultation on the proposal to close the Crown court at Knutsford. The group manager responsible for the court began consultation on 10 April, and it will run for four weeks. Once all responses have been received, consideration will be given to whether a formal case for closure should be presented to the Lord Chancellor. The results of the consultation will need to be weighed, along with the opportunity costs and benefits associated with all the available options.
Mr. Osborne: I thank the Minister for his answer. In the light of the Westminster Hall debate and our meeting, he will know of the strength of opinion in eastern and mid-Cheshire about the proposed closure of the courtand we have not even produced the petition yet. I thank him for the courtesy with which he has treated the representations of local people. Will he repeat on the Floor of the House what he intimated to me in private: that he will try very hard to maintain the public character of the courthouse, if the Crown court does indeed leave Knutsford?
Mr. Wills: I am of course happy to do that. As I have said, unfortunately, courts sometimes have to close, and that has always been the case. When important historic buildings such as Knutsford Crown court have to close, the court service will always try to preserve their public character. However, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the service has a public duty to ensure that whatever it does represents good value for money for the taxpayer, and that will be a consideration in this case. Of course, we will always look creatively and imaginatively at preserving public buildings of great historic merit.
Mr. Wills: My hon. Friend's point is well taken. We understand it and we also understand the particular problems in Cheshire. We have to balance a series of complicated factors, including travel timesespecially for victims and witnesses. We must also be conscious of the fact that, in this case, the cost of maintaining the courthouse to the appropriate standard is some £5 million. As a matter of good public policy, we must question whether that expense can be justified.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): Ninety-six per cent. of all criminal cases begin and end in magistrates courts, which says a vast amount about their importance to the system. Fewer than 1 per cent. of magistrates' decisions are appealed, which says much about the quality of their decision making. We remain, as I have already said, fully committed to maintaining the lay magistracy and our system of community justice as a cornerstone of our criminal justice system.
Vera Baird: I do not want to swap too many statistics with my hon. Friend, but 73 per cent. of not-guilty pleas in the magistrates courts result in a conviction, compared to 57 per cent. in the Crown court. That must be a cause of concern, however one looks at it, and an obstacle to any real redistribution of business between the two courts. Is my hon. Friend aware that practitioners thinkand historically have thoughtthat magistrates over-convict because of their lack of legal skills to deal with legal points and admissibility? Does he agree that while preserving a lay element in criminal trials is vital, the way forward is to limit the role of magistrates to that of fact-finders only, just like the more successful jurors?
Mr. Wills: My hon. and learned Friend has a distinguished background in the law and obviously takes pride in her profession. I do not wish to go into the details of the statistics, but the two court systems try different cases and, therefore, one would not expect exactly the same outcomes. I should also reassure the House, for those who are not already aware of the fact, that magistrates are always advised by fully legally qualified justices' clerks. Therefore, I am slightly surprised that my hon. and learned Friend seems to imagine that no legal expertise is applied in magistrates courts. Magistrates also receive full training before they sit in court and regularly receive refresher training. As I have saidand shall repeat, because it is so importantthe Government are wholly committed to the future of the lay magistracy as a cornerstone of our system of justice.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): The Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons is currently considering the proposals set out in the memorandum by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House last December. I am convinced that changing the pattern of the summer recess would help to ensure better scrutiny of the Government.
Mr. Burns: Over the past decade or so, the number of hon. Members with children of school or pre-school age has greatly increased. Those Members much appreciate the efforts that have been made to dovetail parliamentary recesses with the school holidays. When the Minister considers implementing the changes proposed for the summer recess next year, will he fully bear in mind the school holidays proposed, both in England and Scotland, before reaching any decision? Easter is a moveable feast each year, so will he also ensure that he does not repeat the problems of last year, when the recess began as the school holidays were about to end?
Mr. Twigg: I am delighted to agree with the hon. Gentleman. One of the purposes of the modernisation and reform programme is to ensure that the House becomes a more family friendly institution, in recognition of the increased number of Members with children of school or pre-school age and of the need to attract more of them from England and Scotland as well as from Wales and Northern Ireland. I am delighted to have the hon. Gentleman's support, and when the proposals are taken forward by the Modernisation Committee I hope that we can ensure that we have a summer recess that coincides much more closely with school summer holidays throughout the United Kingdom.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): My hon. Friend states one objective, but will he confirm that the main objective of any change to recesses and the way in which the House sits in the parliamentary year is to enable the House to legislate better and Members of Parliament to do their job better in their constituencies, because there are two aspects to the jobat Westminster and in the constituency?
Mr. Twigg: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I see no contradiction between having a more family friendly Parliament and one that also enables greater effective scrutiny of legislation and the accountability of Government. My hon. Friend has served with distinction on the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons. The specific proposal in the memorandum of the Leader of the House would enable us to continue to have the same length of recess over the summer period but would involve the House reconvening
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): I intend to bring Standing Order changes before the House in the near future to implement the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee. These will strengthen our system of scrutiny by providing for a more transparent and independent system of nomination to Select Committees and by increasing the resources and specialist staff available to them. In the meantime, I warmly welcome the decision last week by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to appear twice a year before the Liaison Committee, which will be the first time any Prime Minister has appeared before a Select Committee in modern times.
Martin Linton: Does my right hon. Friend hope to submit the new proposals in time for the new Scrutiny Committees, if agreed, to give pre-legislative scrutiny to draft Bills in the next Session? Will he consider including in the objectives of the proposed Scrutiny Committees not only taking evidence from Ministers but scrutinising the agendas of European Council meetings in advance?
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend wrote to the Modernisation Committee with the helpful proposal that we might add to the core tasks of the Scrutiny Committees the requirement to make sure that they remain abreast of the scrutiny of European directives and legislation. The point has force and we will consider whether to amend the core tasks accordingly before we debate this in the House.
On draft legislation, it is of course open to Select Committees to carry out their scrutiny under their present powers. I hope that before the House comes to the end of the Session we will have had the opportunity to introduce some draft legislation and that Select Committees will wish to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny. The earlier we can get Parliament in on the act of the preparation of legislation, the better the prospects are for Parliament to shape that legislation.
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): Does the Leader of the House recognise that members of the Liaison Committee warmly welcome most of the proposals from the Modernisation Committee? On their behalf, I express their delight at the remarkable announcement from the Prime Minister that he will face two full public sessions of questioning before the Liaison Committee each year.
Will the Leader of the House accept that the Chairmen collectively are equally sincere when they say that they are genuinely worried and concerned that the proposed 33 per cent. increase in the size of the Committees could prejudice and damage their effectiveness? Before my right hon. Friend brings his proposals before the House, will he have look at the issue again?
Mr. Cook: First, may I welcome what my right hon. Friend says about the decision of the Prime Minister to appear before his Committee? It is absolutely right that the Prime Minister should appear before the Liaison Committee, which contains the Chairs of all the Select and Scrutiny Committees and can thus carry out scrutiny of any issue within the office of the Prime Minister.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the size of Committees. We considered that carefully in the Modernisation Committee and came to the conclusion that it was not right that Members who want to take part in that scrutiny process should be debarred from doing so because of the present size of the Select Committee. Although I understand the anxieties of some members of the Committee as to the importance of retaining cohesion, I am myself the Chair of a Select Committeethe Modernisation Committeewhich has 15 members and succeeded in reaching a unanimous report. It can be done.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider that point? It does not matter how big the Select Committees aresome Members will always want to be on them. Surely, what is crucial is the effectiveness of the Select Committees and maintaining good and regular attendance of their 11, nine, or whatever, members. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore think carefully before putting the current proposal before the House?
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman makes with strength a point about which he obviously feels powerfully. I shall have an opportunity to discuss the matter with the Liaison Committee when I visit it next week, and I hope that on that occasion we can understand each other and see whether there is a way forward.
I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that there are already two Select Committees of 17 members and that they have traditionally been of that size[Interruption.] I think that I am hearing what I am about to say to the House. Those two Committees have traditionally operated through a Sub-Committee system. If Select Committees are to face up to all the matters and core tasks that we set out, more of them will have to set up Sub-Committees and may welcome a larger size in order to do so.