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Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I support both amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith. I well understand why some Members of the Committee may have gone slightly wide of the wording of the amendments. They may have an early draft of groupings that took them further into the Bill. That may well have caused the problems.

As my noble friend Lord Waddington, and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, have just said, the amendments relate exactly to the crucial point of what the Government are saying when they consult on the number of the councils. If we do not know the number, we do not know how we can advise on how the rest of the Bill should be drafted.

I was intrigued to note in the report on the Bill by the Select Committee on the Constitution that, in response to questions about the number of areas, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor echoed, but did not quite copy, the answer from last summer quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. The noble and learned Lord said:

building blocks again—

    "for the new structure, though a specific link to them in statute would be restrictive".

It looks like our old friend inflexibility again. He went on:

    "if other criminal justice agencies were to change their area structure, the courts would not be able to adapt quickly".

We shall have a full opportunity to discuss that on later amendments, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has said. However, that accusation cannot be levelled at Amendment No. 16, which merely says that there should be a minimum of 25. That gives the Government the opportunity to put clearly on the record the terms on which they have consulted so far. Have they proposed any particular minimum or maximum? In what context are people responding? Can we be assured that we shall have a truly local structure? We do not currently have that assurance. The Government should have consulted first and brought the results to this House.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I am in an interesting position. The purpose of the consultation process is to make sure that the local voice is heard and that no arbitrary decision is taken centrally about the number of councils that are necessary to meet the needs of the people of our country. If we did not believe in partnership or in listening to the people who operate the system and to the evidence, it would have been possible to pick a number out of the air and impose it. We thought that would be a fundamentally flawed approach.

The court administration council areas will set the structure for the councils and the new agency with which the councils will work in partnership. It is essential that we choose the right areas so that they are

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at the right level to have local cohesion and to operate as viable management units for all the courts' business in the magistrates' court, the Crown Court and the county court.

There was extensive consultation on the framework and the need for a unified administration. That came from Lord Justice Auld's report and a number of other sources. There is a lot of support for the principle that unified administration will bring many worthwhile benefits.

We are open in principle to the setting of a minimum number of court administration council areas. We do not intend, as some may suspect, to establish as few as possible to water down their influence in some way. However, we need to consider carefully the level at which that minimum should be set so that it does not create an undue restriction. We are not willing to make a cock-shy of it to satisfy everyone immediately. We want to get this right.

The clause already requires that the area structure be set by order, which will give an opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny before the area structure is set. The area structure for the councils and the new agency is one of the issues that we intend to consult on, as all those who have spoken know. We know that the areas will differ one from another. We do not believe that one size fits all. What may be right for Wales may not be right for the North West. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that Wales is as precious to us as is England. We would not give up an inch of it. We want a proper balance. We want the right size to meet the needs of each area. That is what we must do.

We have also set minimum standards. There have been comments about the provision for only one magistrate. We are not prescribing that there should be only one magistrate on each council. We are setting that as an irreducible minimum. We shall talk about those issues in due course.

These consultations are taking place across the country, starting this month. The first consultation is on 30th January and they will continue through to April. These events will help us to develop a clearer picture of what the area structure should be and what might be appropriate as a minimum number of council areas. I therefore invite the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, to withdraw Amendment No. 16.

On Amendment No. 17, the noble Lord is right that the police authority areas are the basis for the criminal justice system structure. However, as the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, is aware, the criminal justice areas are not exactly the same as the police authority areas. The Metropolitan Police and the City of London Police areas are treated as one. I presume that the noble Lord's intention is to create a link to the 42 criminal justice areas, not to the 43 police authority areas. I shall reply on that basis.

If the court administration councils are to make an effective contribution, their areas should set the structure for the new agency, with which the councils will work in partnership. It is essential that we choose the right areas so that they are the right level to have local cohesion and to operate as a viable management

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unit for all the courts' business in the magistrates' court, the Crown Court and the county court. On a number of occasions in our discussions there has been a proper concentration on the magistrates' courts, but almost no mention that we are also including the civil and Crown Courts in the new administrative procedure. That is a very important point, because some of our practical gains will come from that unification.

The new structure needs to enable us to improve the services to local community and court users and to operate effectively at the level of the 42 criminal justice system areas, as well as within the business network of the civil and family jurisdictions. We intend to ensure that the court administration councils can make an effective contribution to local strategy, to provide for day-to-day operational decisions to be taken locally wherever possible, to reduce the currently wide variation in performance across the country, to ensure that the public receive consistent standards of service from all courts in all jurisdictions, and to support the judiciary and the magistracy at all levels. If Members of the Committee, looking at the whole country, are already able to say that we should have 27, 31, 42 or 43 councils, then I can only respectfully say that they are in a far better position than I am.

We intend to get this right, not for ourselves but for those who use our courts day in and day out. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, is right. The rearrangement into the new areas has brought benefits, which is why we say that it is a building block. We will not injudiciously throw away that which has worked unless and until we discover that there is a better arrangement. We can discover that only by having intense conversations with all the parties across the country who are best able to advise on the best structure. Perhaps 25 is the right minimum number. Perhaps it is 35 or 40. I simply cannot give the Committee that assurance now. Neither am I willing to sacrifice the benefits that will come from that consultative process, as that is how we will ensure sound management for the future.

We are examining the issue as profoundly and thoroughly as we can. Members of the Committee have said that they would like more detail today, and I would love to be able to give them that detail today. However, I give the Committee this assurance. As and when the consultation results come through, we will make that information available to the House as speedily as possible and the House will have an opportunity to discuss it.

I understand the Committee's anxiety about the threat of enhancing centralisation. As I said, however, that is not our intent. I understand, too, the anxieties expressed by the Magistrates' Association and others about the nature of their function. When we come to debate that issue, I shall seek to address those fears. I say now that our intent does not differ; we differ only on how the intent is carried out. The Government share the Committee's desire to ensure that the local nature of service delivery not only continues but is improved and enhanced.

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7 p.m.

Lord Waddington: If the areas are going to differ in size, does it not follow that it might be appropriate to have differently composed court administration councils depending on whether they looked after the interests of a large area or a small one? Will we not finish up with the same difficulty when we examine Clause 44? We are supposed to decide the composition of the councils, but we are entirely in the dark as to the number and shape of the areas. If there were a very large area, and therefore a council which had to cover a very large area, there would be a very strong case for a minimum of two, three, four or more JPs on the council, whereas there may be a case for a minimum of only one JP on a council looking after a more compact area.

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