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Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 24:


The noble Lord said: We come back down to earth with a bump, from dealing with matters that are of immense historical and strategic importance, to a matter which is of intimate importance to local people around the country. Amendments Nos. 24 and 25 are simple, but important. The first seeks to ensure that when a court administration council makes a recommendation to the Lord Chancellor which might affect a local justice area, it will consult the people involved in that area before any recommendation is made. Indeed, I am sure that in her response the noble Baroness on the Front Bench opposite will confirm that that will be the case.

Amendment No. 25 is similarly directed, its purpose being to improve what I choose to call the "local ownership" of the courts and the Court Service. It would provide that, if a recommendation is made by a court administration council to the Lord Chancellor with which the Lord Chancellor then disagrees, there would be an opportunity for it to be sent back and reconsidered. The debate should continue until agreement on what is to take place is reached between both parties; that is, the court administration council and the Lord Chancellor.

At present the Bill is explicit and incomplete. It gives powers to the Lord Chancellor to appoint the court administration council, the chairmen, clerks and chief executives of the local bench, and to settle matters such as salaries and remuneration. In reality, these matters will be dealt with initially by the noble and learned Lord's department and ultimately by the executive agency. However, as the Bill is drafted, no way is provided for resolving a disagreement between a local court administration council and the Lord Chancellor. I submit in all seriousness that such means of resolution ought to be in place.

We have already debated at length the question of local ownership. I support entirely the proposal for a unified court administration and I believe that great improvements will be brought about. However, perhaps I may use the old cliche and say that the devil is in the detail. The difficulty I face, along with other Members of the Committee and, I suspect, the noble

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Baroness on the Front Bench opposite, is that we do not yet have the detail. I do not think that we shall be in a position to approve the legislation until we know how it is to work. I beg to move.

Lord Waddington: Perhaps I may I remind the Committee that the statement placed in the Library of the House on 4th December referred to "agency chief officers" managing local areas. Thus in Clause 5 the term "Lord Chancellor" means, in effect, the agency chief officer, it being to him or her that the court administration council would make its recommendations. I hope that I am right on the point, but I imagine that that will be the reality of the situation.

We know from our earlier debates and as a result of Clause 4(4) that there may be only one lay justice serving the council. Furthermore, at present we have no idea how big may be the area to be represented by a council. In those circumstances surely it would be quite unreasonable to expect one justice to be able to speak for all the Benches in the area. We should put in place a requirement for the council to consult all the chairmen and deputy chairmen affected. I therefore support the amendment.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: I rise with diffidence. There are those in the Chamber closer to the magistracy than I am. My claim is that my wife was a magistrate on Haringey Bench for many years. I have received a letter from Mrs Hilary Kirkham, who is the chairman of the Bench, drawing attention to some amendments supported by her and her colleagues, on which we may touch later.

I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, who has a wealth of experience and speaks with authority, but before hearing my noble friend the Minister speak I hesitate fully to support his intention. I cannot really believe that the Ministers and civil servants involved in drafting the Bill have not had due regard to what must be essential—at all stages to take along with them the people on the ground.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, whose experience I respect, rightly draws attention to the fact that there will be only one magistrate on what one might call the key body. It may be quality; it is at least a voice. I am certain that the way in which democracy works is that, if that is how my noble friend tells us it is to be, steps will be taken to ensure that whenever the one magistrate speaks, he or she will have taken fully into account observations received from colleagues.

These are early days. I imagine that some flexibility and discretion must be exercised by everyone at this stage. If my noble friend can assure me that she is well aware that people outside the House are concerned, watching and waiting for what I call kind words from her, that will satisfy me; I hope that it will satisfy them.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I support the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith. They approach the matter constructively in an

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attempt to improve consultation and conflict resolution. I am sure that the Government are at one with him on that.

I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was here last week when we discussed in detail the objections of the Magistrates' Association and the Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees to the Government's proposals for the setting up of CACs and the apparent—I emphasise that word—withdrawal of a local voice from those bodies. Members of the Committee who were here will know that there was much passion on all sides about the matter. As my noble friend carefully pointed out in his opening remarks, today we are considering ways in which we can try to make the Government's proposals work better, if we end up with them.

I should find it most helpful if the Minister could say that she would welcome a meeting with a representative from each of the Benches who took part in that passionate debate last week, because behind the passion is determination on all sides to ensure that the Government's objectives are not undermined, but that the local voice of magistrates remains. We heard the assurances that the Minister gave last night. If she can accept my request for a meeting, it may be helpful if it were to involve one representative each from the Official Opposition Benches, from the Liberal Democrat Benches and from the Cross-Benches. I know that the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, has had a great interest in the matter.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): I should be delighted to have the meeting the noble Baroness suggests. As I said last time we debated the Bill, Government and Opposition Members have the same intent and desire. I should be happy to have such a meeting so that we can consider how better to hone some of the provisions we have debated. That is a fine idea; I accept it without reservation.

I am happy to give my noble friend Lord Graham the reassurance that he seeks. As we have said, it is extremely important that the magistracy fully understand the nature of the changes and are fully involved and consulted.

The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, would require court administration councils to consult the chairmen and deputy chairmen of local justice areas affected by their recommendations before making those recommendations to the Lord Chancellor. I have said, but perhaps it is right that I repeat, that we are dealing not just with magistrates' courts but with county courts and the Crown Court. There will be circumstances in which it is entirely appropriate for the council to consult the representatives of the local magistracy—perhaps the chairman of local justice areas or maybe all local magistrates, depending on the nature of the recommendations. Equally, there will be times when the council's recommendations affect only the county courts or Crown Court, in which case it should involve others in the deliberations.

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The amendment is therefore too restrictive. This is one of the issues on which my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor will issue guidance to councils, as we discussed when the Committee last met on 28th January. I then gave a clear undertaking that we will give due consideration to how to ensure the correct parliamentary scrutiny of such guidance. But even that guidance will not seek to be unduly prescriptive. This is an issue on which we must afford the councils some discretion. As I said, we must bear in mind that each council will have at least one magistrate among its members—as my noble friend Lord Graham and others mentioned—who will be best able to advise the council on which issues will interest the local magistracy.

It would be inappropriate to bind the council to an unduly restrictive statutory process that is unfit for the purpose. The local chief officer will be under an obligation to involve the magistracy, just as the Court Service is obliged to do so under the terms of its framework document. Benches of magistrates associated with individual magistrates' courts will also still have influence over the operation of those courts. For example, they will continue to be consulted administratively on decisions to assign and replace justices' clerks. Benches and Bench chairmen must all feel that they have productive relationships with their clerks and administrators.

We want magistrates to have a say in how they should be involved in the agency's work. The answers may vary between areas, and it is right that the arrangements should do so, too. But we will explore whether it would be appropriate for the court administration councils to establish consultative arrangements with the magistrates in their area through, for example, a consultative panel. So we are open to looking at which vehicles we can use to deliver what noble Lords have indicated they would most like. I hope that, with that explanation, I can invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.


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