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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.
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:
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 statementsin understandable, clear Englishfrom Yvette Cooper and from the White Paper, Justice for All.
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 languagethat is, geiriogrwyddwhich, for the benefit of Hansard, when translated means "guff".
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.
So the people appointed to the councils by the Lord Chancellorthey will not be elected; there is no democratic element in the processwill 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" approachas 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 downnot with the kind of bile that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, was referring to, but pin them down neverthelessas to what they mean.
If the genuine intent is to allow magistrates to retain a power of decision-makingas was originally promised to themwe 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:
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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