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Lord Jones: Within these amendments is the core of the belief that our courts should be rooted in the locality. Any mooted central control in these debates has been cast as negative and unwelcome. Ministers disagree and give assurances. Reform and value for money there must be and, perhaps occasionally, even court closures. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor must surely be in leadership in this.

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My anxiety is that as a consequence of necessary reforms our local magistrates, their courts and their structures are cast down. That is what I fear. I fear that something highly valuable and very precious will be lost in the consideration of new legislation. My noble friend Lady Scotland is leaning over backwards to do the right thing and to assuage our concerns. I want to emphasise that magistrates give so much, but I note that many are standing down. Recruitment is becoming more difficult, particularly of younger magistrates whom we now need.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, for succinctly expressing his support for the amendments. He referred to the Magistrates' Association, to court closures and to the organisation Justice. Magistrates are volunteers. They serve with distinction and often for decades. They become expert, wise, mature and capable of dispensing good local justice. My judgment is that they might lose confidence if they see any significant loss of the current local grounding of the organisations within which they now serve. The ultimate and decisive powers should remain in the locality. That was the cry from the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, during his impassioned remarks today.

The magistrates are local and accountable. The blunt fact is that the system of the magistrates' courts as described is successful. They are working. It is a British phenomenon and it has emerged slowly. It should not be humbled or dismantled. My noble friend the Minister is not intent on premeditated mischief and she will always listen and respond to widespread concerns throughout England and Wales.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Jones. We live perhaps 10 miles apart in north-east Wales and it may be that our confidence in the magistracy depends on the locality from which we come. I strongly suspect that the magistrates of north-east Wales are replicated all over England and Wales and are all of the same quality.

It is interesting to see how the Government have reached this position. The Auld report made no recommendation. The report at page 294, paragraph 73, having recommended the abolition of the Courts Service and the magistrates' courts committees, stated:

    "It would be for others to determine the most practical way to link administratively and geographically the three Criminal Court divisions that I propose and the civil and family courts".

We are concerned with two divisions and not three. The issue next surfaced in the House of Commons on 9th July 2002 when Yvette Cooper said:

    "It is important that decisions about courthouses and the provision of services at the local level be taken as far as possible at the local level, by the people who have the experience and the knowledge of local circumstances".

She is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Lord Chancellor's Department and she refers to "decisions". She went on:

    "That should continue. It is part of the current system that it is a matter for magistrates courts committees in the first instance to make decisions about court venues and where services should be provided. We need to retain such local decision-making. It is also important that rural decisions are taken into account.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/7/02; col. 736.]

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In the White Paper, Justice for All, published in that same month, the proposal was for unification of the courts administration as we know it within the single agency. It was said that the key was the proposal to establish local management boards, which would continue to provide a role for magistrates in the strategic management of their courts but which would also bring on board the local judiciary and members drawn from the wider community. Nothing could be more straightforward than those two statements—in understandable, clear English—from Yvette Cooper and from the White Paper, Justice for All.

But then the English began to get turgid and difficult to follow. A written statement was laid in the Library on 4th December, which stated:

    "Court Administration Councils will work in partnership with local chief officers. They will make a non executive contribution to the development of local strategy for delivering high performance and securing value for money within the national policy and performance framework".

Writing on 9th January to the Constitution Committee, as it appears in its third report, the Lord Chancellor said:

    "Court administration councils will ensure that local people have a real say in the running of courts in their area. They will make a non-executive contribution to the development of local strategy for delivering high performance and will work in partnership with local chief officers to do this.

The Lord Chancellor continued:

    "The new agency will not be centralised. It will be responsive to local needs through a network of empowered local managers and accountable through the community-focused Court Administration Councils. These bodies will bring together representatives of the local community and the judiciary, lay and professional, with real influence on the administration of the courts. Where decisions are best made locally they will be".

That is jargon. I know that the Minister objected to the word "guff" when I used it in a previous Committee meeting, so perhaps I may put it in my own language—that is, geiriogrwydd—which, for the benefit of Hansard, when translated means "guff".

We need to pin down precisely what the role of these councils is to be. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, wrote to us all and tried to set out what was to be the role. She stated:

    "the Court Administration Councils will approve the area's strategic plan—this will include the area's estate strategy (including any proposals to open or close courthouses); its staffing structures and recruitment and retention strategy; and spending priorities for the year, including any major local projects".

Let us pause there for a moment. The councils are to approve these matters. What if they do not approve them? Suppose a council is in conflict with someone who is administering the courts as part of the agency; suppose there is a difference between them, and the councils do not approve. What happens then? We do not learn that from this document.

The letter continues:

    "Throughout the year, Councils will receive regular performance reports and will propose remedial action, where necessary".

Suppose that the proposals are not accepted or carried out. What happens then?

    "At the end of the year, Councils will contribute to their area's annual report".

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What does that mean? What are they to contribute? A rundown of what has happened during the year?

    "Local managers will be accountable to them as well as to the national agency if they fail to deliver the plans that they have agreed with them".

How are local managers to be accountable? Will the councils have the power of hiring and firing them or anyone employed in the agency? I very much doubt it. I very much doubt that the councils will have any redress except a right of access, as the letter states, to the national chief executive about any issue, including managerial performance.

So the people appointed to the councils by the Lord Chancellor—they will not be elected; there is no democratic element in the process—will be there, flapping on the sidelines, without any power to take decisions. How can we go from what Yvette Cooper said in another place about the need to retain local decision-making to the position now encapsulated in the Bill? And why is it expressed in such involved language, which in effect conceals the lack of power that the councils will have? It may be accidental. I cannot imagine the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor or the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, ever writing in this kind of style.

There is a further passage that I think is rather nice. The agencies are to take a "holistic" approach—as though we are talking about aromatherapy! That is not the language of government Ministers, yet that is what is appearing. In the course of our debates in Committee, we must get through all that and pin the Government down—not with the kind of bile that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, was referring to, but pin them down nevertheless—as to what they mean.

If the genuine intent is to allow magistrates to retain a power of decision-making—as was originally promised to them—we shall avoid at future stages of the Bill divisions which may well lead to all kinds of conflicts between ourselves and another place. That is one way to proceed. But it would be much better for the Government to explain in clear, simple language, as Yvette Cooper did on 9th July last year, what the councils are about.

Lord Waddington: Surely, by now, the Minister must be aware that there is a feeling of betrayal over the proposal that advisory bodies should take the place of magistrates' courts committees. The wording in the White Paper is absolutely plain. I am afraid that I must repeat it yet again:

    "We expect managers of Courts to be accountable to new local management boards. We expect decision-making to be de-centralised to the local management boards".

Nothing will persuade this Committee that an advisory council is anything like a board which has managerial responsibilities. There is a clear case for any new bodies having responsibility for all the courts. We know that. But these bodies should be there to manage, not merely to advise. They should be there to ensure an efficient and effective system to support the carrying on of the business of the courts.

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I simply do not understand how the noble Baroness can stand at the Dispatch Box and say with a straight face that the undertaking given in the White Paper is being honoured. No one in his right mind can argue that an advisory council is the same as a management board. What we are hearing today is an attempt to justify a complete reversal of policy by the Government and an attempt to justify a Bill which by no means honours the undertakings given in the White Paper and the undertakings given to the magistracy. No wonder people are cross.

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