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The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said that his suggestion that courthouse buildings might stay open but not be used might be far-fetched, and drew a parallel with railway lines that were theoretically open, but the service never publicised. However, with the last remaining courthouse in my constituency, the Government did precisely what he is worried about. Technically, the courthouse at Camberley remained a courthouse, but it was not used for some timemore than a year, I thinkbefore a closure decision was finally announced. What the hon. Gentleman suggested is already happening, so his example was not far-fetched at all. Our three amendments, taken together, will introduce a proper safeguard so that there are no more magistrates court closures than are absolutely necessary.
Amendment No. 50 would also ensure that there was a proper check on how the legislation is working. I have already said that there are good reasons not to trust the Government on such issues, and in the amendment I have sought to ensure that in future a proper analysis is made. This is a Government of constantly fiddled figures in every area, from health to education and from law and order to transport, so we need a completely independent analysis, unconnected with Her Majesty's Government, in the form of a report back to the Houseand, undoubtedly, the incoming Conservative Government after the next election will need to correct the errors.
We agree with the Liberal Democrats' amendment No. 55 on judicial salaries, although as it was tabled quite late, as were some of ours, we did not have the chance to add our names to it. I strongly agree with the views of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome both on judicial salaries and on heritage building costs. As he rightly says, even now, with increases in court costs well above inflation, imposing an enormous strain on practitioners and their clients, the civil courts in particular still have problems, and we are concerned about that.
It is always difficult to predict the future, but unless complete disasters arise as a result of the Bill, it seems unlikely that there will be another major piece of courts legislation for a few years at least, so we ought to take the opportunity offered by the Bill to ensure that issues such as the accessibility of courthouses and the independence of the judiciary and the lay magistracy are dealt with now. Although, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, in another place the Government were dragged kicking and screaming to agree to an amendment to clause 30, it would be far better for those crucial issues to be dealt with right at the beginning of what will become the Courts Act. Unless that happens, the legislation will be too weak to protect sufficiently the independence of one of the three pillars of our constitution.
There is common cause between the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and myself on a number of the issues. Our amendments, taken together, go somewhat wider than his and would be even more appropriate. I, like him, will now wait to see whether we hear the same tired old clichés from the Minister, or whether he will address the issues seriously.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): I apologise to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) because I was not in my place for the early part of his speech. Unfortunately, I was travelling on the west coast main line, which has not been at its most reliable today. I shall be brief and focus on new clause 4 and the speech of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins).
I provide one small example to illustrate my point. Obviously, I shall not mention any names because court cases may still be pending. A young man in my constituency, aged 15, is on an antisocial behaviour order. Strictly speaking, it is an interim ASBO. He is a one-child crime wave, which is the tabloid way of describing it. Frankly, he represents considerable and dangerous aggravation to people living in the area: people are intimidated and afraid. Because of this young man's activities, one block of flats may have to be pulled down.
This young man was put on an interim ASBO, but he breached it on five occasions and was taken back to the magistrates court, which then decided to release him, causing outrage to constituents living in the vicinity of where he lives and carries out his activities. His solicitor then took the case to the Crown Court and had the conditions of the ASBO, which included the stipulation that he should not drive a motorised vehicle, varied, with the result that, for some reason beyond my comprehension, the Crown Court decided to take that condition out altogether. It is in any case an offence for him to drive or take a vehicle without the owner's consent, but why the Crown Court should remove that condition is, as I said, totally beyond me. Subsequently, the young man committed further breaches and was taken to see a judge in chambers to discuss bail conditions. The judge decided that, because they were all public order offences, none of them should carry a custodial sentence. Now that young man is back out on the streets.
The local authority and the police had done much painstaking work in that case, and were utterly shattered by the way in which the courts dealt with it. Such cases are often seen as low-grade street crime and disorder. In fact, whole communities are literally locked into their houses because of such activities, particularly at night. They are not taken sufficiently seriously and I believe that that problem needs to be dealt with.
Mr. Beith: The members of the Committee will be glad that both Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers have taken seriously several points that the Committee drew to the attention of the House earlier, and that we are continuing to pursue them at this stage in the Bill's progress. The issue of judicial independence, referred to in new clauses 2 and 4, did not arise on Report, but it has occupied us since, especially in the light of the constitutional changes announced by the Government that are starting to take effect. I am persuaded that it would improve the Bill to have the duty to ensure judicial independence listed as one of the Lord Chancellor's duties in statute and the Bill provides the opportunity to do so.
I do not claim that the current occupant of the post of Lord Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, is not, in principle, in favour of judicial independence, but I am not convinced that he regards himself as having a uniquely important role in defending it, as his predecessor did. Indeed, over many years, many of his predecessors saw it as part of their constitutional duty as Lord Chancellor. For many of them, it justified the hybrid nature of the Lord Chancellor's role. They felt that as judge and head of the judiciary they were in a better position to defend judicial independence in Cabinet. I agree with the Government that that hybrid role is unsatisfactory in principle, even though many occupants of the position have made it work well in practice. I do not, therefore, oppose the Government's general line of reform, but we are in danger of losing the Lord Chancellor's unique role in Cabinet of standing up for the principle of judicial independence in certain political circumstances that have led Ministers in various Governments to attack judges or to create a sense of insecurity because they have been unhappy with judges' decisions.
The Lord Chancellor's frantic attempts to divest himself of his role to meet some timetable for abolishing the post altogether militate against ensuring that the important jobs that he now does remain provided for in the system in a way that does not dilute them or make them less significant. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned the fact that duties imposed on a Secretary of State are common to Secretaries of State generally, and can be reallocated
The Lord Chancellor is in such a desperate hurry to remove his role because he has been given a timetable to do so. The original timetable for abolishing the post of Lord Chancellor was between 6 pm and 10 pm on the Thursday that the changes were announced, until it became clear that that was impossible. By 10 pm, we had a Lord Chancellor in place who had to get his wig ready for the following morning's sitting of the House of Lords. It is not a necessary part of removing his role as a judge or as Speaker of the House of Lords that we should hastily remove his duty to ensure judicial independence. At times, the Lord Chancellor seems to be like a stripper with an early train to catch, removing items of clothingalmost literallyas quickly as possible to meet the timetable.