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Lord Renton: One always respects what the noble Baroness says, but we are dealing here with her description of "appropriate services". Is she prepared to say definitely that that would include information technology?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I have said that it will include information technology. We want to develop the most appropriate services to meet the modern needs of courts. The noble Lord will know, for instance, that in the commercial court we have used IT extensively. We shall need to continue to do so, and to explore the use of IT more and more if we are to keep pace with competitors in the international market.

Lord Renton: That is how I understood the noble Baroness's opening remarks.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I am grateful to the Minister for her response, although I am somewhat disappointed with parts of it. I am grateful to her for saying that the Government will examine some or all of these matters seriously between Committee and Report. I shall certainly do so with regard to these amendments.

In response to my question about SR2002 with regard to ring-fenced money, the Minister said that no such assurance could be given because the Government wanted to ensure that all needs were met. I certainly wish to ensure that all needs are met. I believe that it can be done with ring-fenced money. The Minister did not answer my question in terms of directing me to where there is new money for this in the budget. Perhaps she will write to me on the matter between now and Report. She nods, and I am grateful to her for that.

I do not think that the Minister addressed all my questions on Libra. I shall read her replies carefully. Members of the Committee who have read the newspapers over the past months will have been concerned to see some of the loopholes in the provision of IT. My noble friend Lady Seccombe reminded me a moment ago of the issue at Peterborough court, where a case had to be adjourned to a magistrates' court where the IT was in place, whereas it was not in place in Peterborough court itself. There are indeed causes for

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concern over IT in a world in which—the Minister is right—we have to show ourselves to be leaders. The judicial system must have credibility. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 4 not moved.]

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 5:

    Page 1, line 18, at end insert—

"( ) For the avoidance of doubt, the report in subsection (4) shall include a report on the operation of the courts agency."

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, with the leave of the Committee, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 6.

As I pointed out at Second Reading, one of the biggest problems with the Bill is that many important matters are not written into it. We are being asked to write a blank cheque for the Lord Chancellor to do as he or she pleases at some future date.

So, although I can give a welcome to the objectives set out in Clause 1—although I believe that they need to be improved upon, as was explained earlier—I believe that a great deal is left out of the Bill that needs to be included in it before we can possibly judge whether or not it will achieve the laudable objectives set out by the Government.

The most obvious example of the missing link is the failure to provide information about the courts agency which the Lord Chancellor intends to establish to take over the work of both the court services and the magistrates' courts.

I was grateful to the Minister for the letter that she was kind enough to write to Members of the Committee over the Christmas period. It was a lengthy letter and she had obviously applied a great deal of care and attention, as had her officials, to addressing as many of the questions as possible at that stage. I note that a couple of questions of mine were completely and utterly ignored. I have no problem with that. It means, of course, that I now have the greater opportunity to tease them out at a later stage of the Bill on the Floor of the House—be that as it may.

The Minister said in her letter that the Government would,

    "publish guidelines as swiftly as possible after consultation".

The question we must ask is: will that be after the Bill has left this House? If the Minister can assure us that it will be before it leaves the House, that will be most welcome.

Amendment No. 5 simply requires an assurance from the Minister that the annual report will include a report on the operation of the courts agency. Without that, there will be no parliamentary scrutiny of the operation of the courts agency. Earlier this evening the Minister, in response to another group of amendments, indicated that the courts agency's operations would be within the operation of the report. So I hope that she can give us a straightforward assurance on those matters.

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The new clause that I have set out in Amendment No. 6 tries to raise all the questions one might ask about how a courts agency will operate. I tried to fill the gaps that the Government have left and provided them with a clause listing as much as I can think of that a courts agency should do. The clause places a duty on the Lord Chancellor to set up a courts agency to cover the administration of all courts except the House of Lords. That reflects paragraph 1 of the note that the Government helpfully placed in the Library before Christmas. In the same vein, I have tried to follow through the Government's note to the House by paraphrasing or copying directly into the clause what they told us they would do. I hope that they find it acceptable.

So, from paragraph 5, I have copied the section on the chief executive, including in the clause that the Lord Chancellor can appoint a chief executive, and before doing so, consult those with the appropriate experience who may give him good advice. England and Wales will be divided up into areas managed by chief officers. They will work in partnership with the court administration councils, as set out in subsection (5). Subsection (6) states:

    "Where there is a dispute over proposals to open, close or relocate court-houses, the issue shall be referred to the Lord Chancellor; and in resolving the dispute the Lord Chancellor shall have regard to the views of the court administration councils".

That was pinched from paragraphs 21 to 23. I use the word "pinched" since the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, is in his place, and I am trying to keep to straightforward language after his earlier treatise on the impenetrability of some words used by the Government in their drafting. I hope that what I have done so far represents good sense and good practice. Subsection (7) provides the obvious:

    "The Lord Chancellor shall by order publish guidelines setting out the good governance principles under which the courts agency shall operate".

That was taken from paragraph 8 of the Government's document.

So, does the picture I have painted of the courts agency accord with what the Government think will happen? If not, what have I left out? Have I included something that they feel would not appropriately be the duty of the courts agency? If so, what is it?

I note that the letter the noble Baroness wrote to us over Christmas says that the new agency is non-statutory, and full details cannot be set out on the face of the statute. That is only because the Government have decided that is the case. Of course, I heed her words, so my amendment does not go into the detail of executive action or administration. What I have done, I hope, is set out wholly unobjectionable principles under which the Lord Chancellor and the courts agency shall act.

I do not see why any of this needs to wait until the Government have consulted on the detail of how the agency will operate. We could get the clause onto the face of the Bill now. If not, I look forward to a good

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explanation from the Minister so that we can consider the matter between Committee and Report. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart: Amendment No. 6 is extremely important, and we on these Benches strongly support it. At present, we have magistrates' courts committees, which are statutory bodies. It is proposed that the administration of the magistrates' courts should now be turned over to the Court Service, reincarnated as the courts agency, which will have no statutory existence. That seems entirely wrong. Without any statutory reference to the courts agency, we have only half the picture. For instance, we now have the court administration councils. What will they do? We are told that the court administration council will liaise closely with the chief officer for the area for which it has responsibility. That chief officer will be part of the courts agency.

We are told that the court administration council will be consulted about what is to be done within the strategic plan for that area, but nothing in the Bill tells us by whom it is to be consulted. It merely says that it will advise and make recommendations to the Lord Chancellor—not, of course, to the people to whom it actually will make the recommendations.

We have nothing like the full picture here. We cannot have the full picture unless we have some statutory establishment of the courts agency. I see no reason why this should not be done. It is entirely a decision for the Government. It is perfectly practicable, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has pointed out, to have a statutory authority for the operation of the courts agency. Without any statutory authority, we will end up with a situation as anomalous as having legislation for the collection of taxes that contains no reference to the Inland Revenue or legislation for the payment of benefits that contains no reference to the Benefits Agency.

If we are to have a Bill that properly provides for the administration of the courts, it should not simply pretend that the Lord Chancellor is doing it all on his own. We should give statutory recognition to the body that will be carrying out the duties that are nominally carried out by the Lord Chancellor. That body is the courts agency. For that reason, I very much hope that the Government will see their way to accepting the principle of the amendment, even if they do not accept the text of it.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I strongly support my noble friend on the Front Bench, particularly on Amendment No. 6. Last week in this Chamber we debated a report of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform dealing with the problem of Henry VIII clauses. I took the opportunity of that debate to introduce the problem of skeleton Bills, which have almost no substance but create the power to legislate by regulation.

In this instance, we do not even have a skeleton. We know that there is to be a courts agency, but we know nothing about it. It does not exist in the Bill as drafted.

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There is nothing to indicate what it is for, what it is to do or how it is to work. Last week I used the description, "flying blind with very few instruments". In this case we have no instruments at all. We know that there will be a situation, but we have no knowledge of what it will be. That is not in the best interests of the Government, of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor or of this House. We should not pass legislation with that sort of lacuna in it. That is why I am happy to support my noble friend.

The courts agency should be mentioned on the face of the Bill. There should be some basic outline of its purposes and functions and how it is to work.

I hope that the Minister will find it possible at least to say that she will consider the principles of the amendment and whether they should be included in the Bill. If she wishes to take a totally negative view of it, we would have to take that as an indicator of the Government's view as to the possibility of changing the Bill. However, it would be far better that the Bill should be amended to a satisfactory form by agreement than that "amateurs" on Opposition Benches, who are not parliamentary draftsmen, should put clauses into the Bill that may not be perfectly satisfactory.

The Bill is well intentioned, and I accept the intention, but there is not sufficient detail for us to pass a valid judgment on its acceptability and whether it will work. For that reason, the amendment should be supported.

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