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Lord Phillips of Sudbury: As the noble Baroness referred directly to one of my points, perhaps she will allow me to say—as indeed Lord Justice Auld says—that the decision on closures is driven by the budgetary arrangements that come from central government. It is a myth to say that the closures are ordered by the MCCs. Closures are entirely a consequence of funding cuts and the formula adopted, which, for example, maintains that if one has a new central court system one is not charged any of the interest of the capital cost of building, thus putting the existing estate at a disadvantage. I therefore hope that she will reconsider the point.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: We must beg to differ. We have crossed swords on the matter before and I refer the noble Lord to the answers that I gave previously. One benefit of the new administrative structure is that we could make better use of the court estate right across the piece. We would hope that in so doing, some of the court closures currently being mooted may be avoided, because those courts could be

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used by the county court, Crown Court or otherwise. That is one of the huge benefits in the change of model. That would also give a greater and stronger voice to magistrates' courts at the national level.

Under the amendments, for example, instead of giving magistrates' courts a clear voice on the national criminal justice board through a unified agency, all the courts would be divided into 42 local bodies. I understand that that is what noble Lords on the Opposition Benches advocate. Making better use of resources—in particular, the court estate, which I mentioned—is a real benefit.

The amendment would damage our ability to do so, reinforce organisational barriers and prevent us reaping the full benefit that we seek. That is especially important in the Crown Court, where it is often necessary to transfer work, and therefore resources, at short notice because of convenience to witnesses, security, or getting a jury without prejudice in high-profile murder and sex cases, for example. That is needed to deliver high levels of performance, which means a better level of service across the board, providing a platform for other reforms in the criminal justice system and in family and civil justice, for which a unified administration is crucial.

For example, 43—or another number that may be chosen—separate organisations acting independently could hinder the early development of business centre capability for civil business. The current 218 county courts operate 218 back offices in isolation. The Courts and Tribunals Modernisation Programme (CTMP) is intended to remedy that by directing much of the most basic administrative work straight to business centres. The new agency will aid that process, contributing to increased efficiency in county courts.

The amendments also undermine the benefits that I mentioned for staff and court users. There are problems at present with MCCs. Although of course we applaud the good work that they do, it would be futile not to acknowledge that there are difficulties. The Lord Chancellor's present relationship with them makes it difficult for him. For example, difficulties that arise in individual magistrates' court disputes between local magistrates, justices' clerks or JCEs can be resolved only by the MCC. Under unified administration, the Lord Chancellor will be able to set standard procedures for dealing with magistrates' complaints about the administration that are agreed with the Magistrates' Association, and to ensure that they are resolved.

Many of the amendment's provisions are similar to those elsewhere in statute where particular public functions have been given to multiple local bodies—for example, local probation boards—but they simply would not fit with what we need to cure the problems that have been identified in the area.

Several noble Lords mentioned the magistrates' courts committees as being representative. I hear what they say about that, but at present they are not as representative as they could be. Magistrates' courts committees are 75 per cent male and 25 per cent female. They are 96 per cent white; 0.5 per cent black;

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1.5 per cent Asian and 1.5 per cent described as "other". Many magistrates' courts committees are 100 per cent white and 90 per cent male.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. How will the Bill affect the issue that she is now discussing?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: In terms of our ability to set standards, make recommendations and how composition can be decided.

I simply address the issue raised by Members of the Committee when they say that the magistrates' courts committees are at the moment representative. We say, "Yes, but not as representative as perhaps they could be". This is an issue which the magistrates' courts committees themselves seek actively to address across the country, and quite rightly so.

I refer to the other problems that arise. It is very easy to think that everything at the moment is perfect; regrettably, it is not. Sir Robin Auld highlighted the fact that magistrates' courts committees had no budgetary control over their affairs; they simply bid each year to the maximum permitted by the Treasury. The arrangements for their accounting between themselves and the local authority, or authorities in whose areas they fall, are unsatisfactory. In addition, they are not subject to the satisfactory regime of audit. There is little detailed examination of the MCCs' financial affairs by the external auditor appointed by the Audit Commission to scrutinise local government expenditure or by the LCD's internal auditors.

The inspectorate highlighted that practices vary considerably from one MCC to another, for example, in the format of case file sheets, legal aid applications and information technology systems. The MCSI report of 2001–02 found that 11 out 12 MCCs inspected were still not good at ensuring that systems to manage performance were in place. That had been highlighted in two previous MCSI reports and in 2001–02 the inspection report showed that only half of the MCCs inspected had appropriate monitoring procedures in place for fines and fees collected. Again, that was reflected in the two previous MCSI reports.

Inspectors have some concerns about the leadership and direction provided by MCCs with only three out of 12 inspected being judged as providing clear leadership. Even where structures to manage performance in case administration had been put in place, inspectors found few examples where data were used to identify the factors contributing to poor performance. The MCSI also noted that in a quarter of MCCs inspected there was no clear link between the objective set in the strategic plan and the financial planning processes being undertaken.

Therefore, we cannot pretend that all is rosy in the garden. There is much work to do. The MCC structure restricts the implementation of national initiatives. Many MCCs do not have scheduling protocols that conform to the national listing protocols published by the trials issues group in 1999. Inspectors encountered several senior MCC officials who had never heard of

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that document, despite reference to it in many individual reports and the last MCSI annual report. MCSI found nine out of the 12 MCCs inspected needed to improve scheduling in order to deploy resources effectively and needed to follow national guidance.

It is well recognised that magistrates' courts handle 95 per cent of criminal business, yet there are inconsistencies in performance that cannot be explained by the complexity of the cases. A third of MCCs inspected had poor or declining case throughput performance and the associated long waiting times for witnesses and defendants.

There is wonderful practice in some MCCs and less wonderful practice in others. What we want is a system which is nationally of good quality so that the quality of the justice and the efficiency of the procedure to which people are subject are not dependent on the area in which they live but are influenced by the local flavour and commitment of the people who operate the system.

We hope that the structure that we propose addresses many of those issues. That litany of what can be improved in the MCCs does not mean that we do not value the extraordinarily good work that is done by the majority. However, if this was a report, we would have to say, "Could do better". The Bill is a means to deliver that improvement.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: It does not sound as though the Lord Chancellor's Department has done terribly well, having listened to the litany to which the noble Baroness referred a moment ago. It is a question of devolution in the end. Do we believe in local initiatives, priorities and decision making or, to use some of her words, do we want nationally the same thing, no inconsistencies, and national standards? Do we want to centralise, so that everything is the same throughout the country? It is a matter of approach.

I have always been a devolutionist. I always believe that there is more confidence if decisions are taken locally by local people. In the same way in which I always mistrusted socialism, I have also mistrusted the centralisation of power and the decisions in Whitehall or wherever, among the heads of nationalised industries, that they know best for everyone throughout the country. I have always been against that, and in the clause the Government are going along those lines. Auld is clearly a centraliser. His report says nothing about local councils of any sort. I do not think that they are even implicit in what he says. He talks about local managers, who will take decisions locally. He is not involving local magistrates or anyone of that sort.

The noble Baroness should not think that we are simply talking about magistrates. Of course we appreciate that the council or board proposed in the amendment will deal with Crown courts and county courts, as well as magistrates' courts. However, I see nothing wrong in magistrates being concerned in the administration of the Crown courts and county courts, as opposed to the Lord Chancellor's appointees, who

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may come from a locality but know nothing about any court at all, and are merely there because their names have gone forward. Magistrates are at least involved in the criminal justice system, and are more qualified than anyone else among the lay public to sit on such boards.

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