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House of Lords

Thursday, 8th May 2003.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.

Royal Assent

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

European Parliament (Representation) Act,

National Minimum Wage (Enforcement Notices) Act,

Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act,

Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act,

Industrial Development (Financial Assistance) Act.

Courts Bill [HL]

11.6 a.m.

Report received.

Clause 1[The general duty]:

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal) moved Amendment No. 1:

    Page 2, line 3, leave out "business of the courts referred to in subsection (1)" and insert "way in which he has discharged his general duty in relation to the courts"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, moving an amendment in Committee on this point, asked me to assure the House that the annual report would cover more than just the business of the courts. This amendment underlines the assurance I gave in Committee that the operations of the new agency will be covered in the annual report.

The amendment provides that the Lord Chancellor must publish an annual report which covers the,

    "way in which he has discharged his general duty".

His general duty, as defined in Clause 1, requires him to,

    "ensure that there is an efficient and effective system to support the carrying on of the business"

of the courts,

    "and that appropriate services are provided for those courts".

I beg to move.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I thank the Minister for responding to the concerns I expressed in Committee. It is a helpful start. I hope the day goes on as usefully.

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My amendment in Committee referred to the manner in which the Lord Chancellor would discharge his duty. I was taken to task by the drafting wizard on my own Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who made it clear that the word "manner" was not felicitous. I was trying to find another word. The Government saved me that search by finding the right one. I support the amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 2:

    Page 2, line 3, at end insert—

"(5) The Lord Chancellor shall discharge his general duty in relation to the courts in accordance with an annual national strategic plan ("the national plan").
(6) The national plan must be approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament before the beginning of the year to which it relates.
(7) The national plan may be modified by the Lord Chancellor during the year to which it relates provided such modification is approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament prior to its being made.
(8) The Lord Chancellor shall discharge his general duty in relation to the courts in each of the areas specified under section 4(2) in accordance with an annual local strategic plan for each area ("a local plan").
(9) The Lord Chancellor shall submit a local plan to each area justice board established under section 4 containing his proposals for discharging his general duty in relation to the courts in that board's area.
(10) A local plan must be approved by the board to which it has been submitted before the beginning of the year to which it relates.
(11) The Lord Chancellor may modify a local plan during the year to which it relates provided such modification is approved by the board to which it has been submitted prior to its being made."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and I have agreed a large grouping of amendments so that we can debate the core issues underlying the Government's creation of a unified courts administration and its impact on the administration of the magistrates', Crown and county courts.

Amendments Nos. 2 to 17, 162 and 163 are mine and are supported by the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Phillips of Sudbury; the Government have put down Amendments Nos. 18, 20 and 24. Amendment No. 19 is my amendment to government Amendment No. 18 and Amendments Nos. 21, 22 and 25 are Liberal Democrat amendments to government amendments. I wholeheartedly support the Liberal Democrat amendments.

I apologise in advance for taking much longer than would be my normal custom in proposing the amendments. That is not simply because of the huge group of amendments but because we are here debating changes to a system of the administration of the magistrates' courts that has been settled for more than a generation. It is right that we put on record today, for both magistrates and the wider public, how we have arrived at the position we take now.

The objective of the opposition parties and the Cross Benches has been to try to overcome the objections to the Government's proposals in the Bill

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expressed across the Chamber in Committee, at cols. 1062 to 1072 and 1088 to 1118 of the Official Report, on 28th January. The sheer number of pages reflects the level of concern of Members of the Committee.

We have had to develop our position from that which we argued in Committee to take account of the views expressed in those debates and subsequently by the Magistrates' Association and the Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees. We had to accept that we did not command substantial support to carry forward our first position. I took particular note of the arguments made by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, and the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. I welcome the fact that, as ever, both noble Lords are in their places. They argued that any system created by the Bill must work as appropriately for Crown and county courts as for magistrates' courts.

Since then, the Government have been left in no doubt about the unpopularity of their original proposals among magistrates. Letters have flooded into the LCD from chairs of Benches in every quarter of the United Kingdom. I know because they were kind enough to copy those letters to me. The one point of agreement for the Government from the chairs of Benches and noble Lords is that the organisation of the courts should move forward to a unified courts administration.

Before the Easter Recess, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and I had a meeting with the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland. I thank her and her officials for the time they spent with us and the productive results of that meeting. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, was unfortunately unable to attend but has been kept in the loop throughout the process.

Over the recess, the Government then tabled a vast number of amendments covering the whole Bill. Those have generally improved the Bill—indeed, I am tempted to say out of all recognition. But there is still progress to be made. The amendments to Clauses 4 and 5 go some way to meeting our objections, but four significant objections remain. If they are addressed, then, and only then, can we accept the Government's new clauses.

Our objections to new clauses 4 and 5 are represented by the opposition amendments to government amendments today. Those four amendments are Amendment No. 19 in my name and Amendments Nos. 21, 22 and 25 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Phillips. I will of course leave the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Phillips, to put the case for their amendments in detail.

Amendment No. 19, in my name, refers to the importance of courts boards being coterminous with police forces. I have left a degree of flexibility in the amendment so that the number of courts boards may change if and when the number of police forces changes in the future. However, the principle remains constant. We debated it at length in Committee, so I shall not do so today. The amendment would ensure that courts boards are local in their extent and effect, which is vital to maintain the local nature of the delivery of justice

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that has proved so important to the success of the magistrates' courts system. That local involvement, influence and responsibility must continue into the unified courts administration.

I am also aware that my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern has some concerns about one part of the drafting of government amendments. I am delighted to see him in the Chamber today, and I am sure that he will put his case later.

Since our last debate on the matter, the Government have held their consultation exercise and completed it. They sent a letter on the results of that exercise to me and to other noble Lords who have taken part in the debates. It says:

    "There is also a clear message emerging that the 42 criminal justice areas should be the building block for the new organisation and that, at least initially, the number of Boards should follow suit, although the particular needs of London needed to be looked at closely".

Amendment No. 19 would achieve just that. As I am in such harmony with the results of the consultation, I have hopes that the Government will wish to accept my amendment. If they feel that it is not properly drafted, I will give them the opportunity to say so and promise to bring it back at Third Reading. I wait with bated breath.

I turn briefly to outline the purposes of the amendments to Clause 1, to put on record what we are trying to achieve. However, to save time I shall refer only to the points on which they differ from the government amendments.

Our amendments rename the dreaded CACs—the acronym infelicitously given by the Government—area justice boards. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, conjured up that name from the ether, and I give him credit for it. It is an appropriate name to convey the fact that we believe that the boards should be local and businesslike, with functions to match. I am pleased that the Government have abandoned that dreaded word "CAC" and given those bodies new life under the businesslike name "courts board", which is a definite improvement.

Our amendments would, in general, give Parliament the right to approve the national business plan; give the area justice boards the right to accept or reject the local business plan; allow the Lord Chancellor to submit a modified plan to both Parliament and the area justice board; give the area justice board the right to give or refuse consent to the appointment by the Lord Chancellor of the chief officer of the area; make the Lord Chancellor have regard to the need to ensure that the area justice boards were coterminous with police areas; and, if the Lord Chancellor specified a different area, require him to lay before Parliament a statement giving his reasons. The amendments would also ensure that there were two magistrates rather than one on the board and that appointments were made under the Nolan system. Finally, it would provide for the regulations that govern Clause 5 to be issued by order. That package provided a good basis for our discussion with the Government in the past month.

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Amendment No. 3, inserting a new Clause after Clause 1, is a retabling of an amendment from the Committee stage, so I shall not detain noble Lords long on it. The amendment would give a statutory basis to the courts agency that the Lord Chancellor intends to establish and set out clearly in the Bill the functions of the agency. Since I moved that amendment, and having had a meeting with the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, the Government have kindly sent me a written statement of the legal advice that they have received as to why they rejected my original amendment. I was not impressed in Committee simply to be told, "You can't have that because it has not been done before". That is not how we work. The Government have kindly gone much further than that and given full legal advice as to why it would be inappropriate in law to have two seats of power in a national administration—one in the Lord Chancellor's Department and one locally. I should be grateful if the Minister would put on record what that advice is, and put the advice in the Library for other noble Lords to consult.

We are now prepared not to press our amendments to Clause 1, or those consequential upon them, although we regret that. We accept government new Clauses 4 and 5, but only if our four remaining objections are addressed. Since Easter, the Magistrates' Association has carried out its own consultation and has published a detailed paper saying why it accepts all the government amendments. At the end of that paper, it says that it accepts our modest amendments to the government amendments. The Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees accepts our amendments to the government amendments, but it continues to have very grave concerns about the Government's position. I have received a few letters from chairs of benches so far; no doubt noble Lords and Members in another place will receive many more as the Bill progresses.

I believe that we can still make progress. Our amendments to the government amendments make that limited but practical and vital progress. I beg to move.

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