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Mr. Alison : The commissioners' assets are considerably in excess of pension liabilities relating to service to date of active and retired clergy. Clergy pensions are, of course, non contributory. The Lambeth report made certain recommendations to safeguard, in particular, the provision
Column 613for liabilities in respect of the future service of existing and future clergy. Those recommendations are being actively pursued.
Mr. Corbyn : Can the right hon. Gentleman give us a guarantee about what the Church Commissioners will do to protect the pensions of those who are employed by the Church at present, because his answer did not do that? Does he accept that the Church Commissioners have gambled away £800 million of their money on inappropriate and daft property speculation, including the Ashford shopping development, which does not even have planning permission, and the Lutterworth development, which is the subject of separate concern? Does not he think that it is time to set up a pension fund so that the pensions of employees and clergy of the Church Commissioners can be guaranteed for the future? Should not the funds be invested ethically, sensibly and suitably, rather than being threatened by property speculation?
Mr. Alison : The hon. Gentleman has used a pejorative term in talking of gambling away the Church Commissioners' assets. I heard no complaints about the gambling away of assets when they increased by £800 million between 1986 and 1989. I have already explained to the hon. Gentleman that the underlying assets are more than sufficient to meet the existing and prospective pension liabilities of clergy who are in post, still active or who have retired. The Lambeth group report, which we are actively pursuing, simply asked us to set up a segregated fund into which contributions could be safely segregated. But there is no underlying threat to prospective or existing pensioners.
35. Mr. Barnes : To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what representations he has received concerning the eligibility for legal aid in the past three months ; and if he will make a statement.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. John M. Taylor) : I have had 47 letters from Members of Parliament concerning various aspects of financial eligibility for legal aid, some of them relating to individual cases.
Mr. Barnes : Last year, about 14 million people became no longer eligible for legal aid. In his autumn statement, the Chancellor announced the largest cuts in legal aid in more than 40 years. Is not it a charter for the wealthy, the powerful, the bully boys, the unscrupulous and the exploiters, not to mention the drug industry? Could not at least the £58 million underspend last year, because of those problems, be used to move in a different direction?
Mr. Taylor : Far from being confined to a small group of participants, civil legal aid is available to 48 per cent. of households. Criminal legal aid has no upper limit if the court thinks that the interests of justice are served by grant of legal aid. There must be some disciplines in legal aid, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that ours is probably the most generous legal aid system in the world. He has the word of the Labour spokesman in the House of Lords, as well as mine, on that.
Mr. John Marshall : Will my hon. Friend confirm that legal aid has risen tenfold since 1979? Does he accept, however, that many of us are concerned at the ease with which some defendants in City fraud trials secure legal aid? Those individuals, such as Mr. Roger Levitt, seem to live in substantial homes yet qualify for legal aid. Are they not salting away their assets and then being defended at vast expense to the tax payer?
Mr. Taylor : My hon. Friend returns to that point with his usual cogency. Although I have some sympathy with the general principle that he presents, he will understand that I cannot comment on individual cases. There is no upper financial limit on criminaal legal aid. Legal aid will be granted for criminal proceedings if the court thinks that it is in the interests of justice to do so.
36. Mr. Barry Jones : To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department if he will make a statement concerning the consultations he has been engaged in relating to the Police and Magistrates Courts Bill [Lords].
Mr. John M. Taylor : Since the publication of the White Paper two years ago, 11 consultative documents have followed. The reforms have also regularly been discussed by the Magistrates Courts Consultative Council. The Lord Chancellor has taken careful note of respondents' comments.
Mr. Jones : The consultations were cosmetic ; the papers stand virtually unaltered. Does the Minister agree that the proposed reforms give the Lord Chancellor swingeing new powers over the justices' clerks, and ultimately, therefore, over the courts themselves? Does he accept that the proposals in the Bill turn back the practice and tradition of many years, and that there are no friends for this Bill? The hon. Gentleman should think again.
Mr. Taylor : I must make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that these proposals leave the accountability of justices' clerks where it has always been : to the local magistrates courts committees, which comprise local magistrates and will be locally administered. In some senses, the White Paper is not a very original document--almost all these proposals are already in operation somewhere in England or Wales, with no signs of adverse effects : rather the reverse. They are in place because local people have chosen to put them in place.
Mr. Boateng : The Minister refers to the local magistrates courts committees. He is well aware that the measure before the other place proposes that the chairmen of those committees should in turn be appointed by the Lord Chancellor. He also knows very well that all parties in the other place, and every Bench up and down the country, have expressed widespread opposition to the proposal, and that the Lord Chief Justice has described it as "chilling".
Will the Minister undertake to ensure that the Lord Chancellor thinks again about this measure, just as his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has had to think again about his?
Column 615place. The Lord Chief Justice participated in that debate and did indeed use the word "chilling" ; but he made it clear that he supports a great deal of the Bill. The proposal that he called chilling is the one for a legal forum--a proposal that came originally from the justices' clerks themselves.
Mr. Maclennan : Does the Minister recognise that the decline in standards of public conduct referred to by the Public Accounts Committee appears to be afflicting his Department, which is introducing proposals that are universally regarded by our senior judiciary as resulting in the independence of the judiciary being tampered with by politicians? I refer most particularly to the proposals for justices' clerks. Will the Minister ensure that they are not brought before this House?
Mr. Taylor : I am sorry to have to say this twice, but the proposals render justices' clerks answerable to magistrates courts committees--that is where responsibility lies. If the hon. Gentleman claims that the White Paper and the Bill are so friendless, I can only repeat that all these proposals are, as far as I am aware, already in operation somewhere in England or Wales, because local people have chosen to put them there.
Mr. John M. Taylor : The Government have no plans for the election of magistrates or judges, and do not consider that elections would provide a suitable basis for appointment or be compatible with the principle of judicial independence.
Mr. Skinner : Can there be another country in the world like our aristocratic society, with all the incestuousness of freemason-type judges looking after number one? It is like a family circle ; they put their friends in as the next in line. Surely, if the Government want to deal with the Roger Levitts and the Ernest Saunders of this world, and with all those other City crooks who are part of the Tory fraternity, the best thing to do is to ensure that the judges are elected. If the Government believe in a classless society, let them put it into practice.
Mr. Taylor : It is not the purpose of judges to be representative of the community. They are selected for their ability, legal expertise and personal qualities, including the quality of having the ability to relate to people from all walks of life.
Sir Anthony Grant : While wholly rejecting all the tomfoolery about electing magistrates, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he is aware that not everybody is wholly happy with the method of appointing magistrates? Is he aware that a large and increasing number of people are anxious and have the time, the ability and the experience to serve on the bench but are rejected on the ground of age? Many people do not want to be tried by young oiks of some sort but by people with experience. Can my hon. Friend assure the House that there is no question of the disease of ageism spreading to the appointment of magistrates?
Column 616magistrates are appointed from among those who offer themselves for service and the age limit was not set by the Lord Chancellor but by the House.
Mr. John M. Taylor : An increasing number of magistrates courts committees have already appointed a single head of service, in some cases called a chief justices' clerk. I am aware of no such committee returning to its previous management structure.
Mrs. Campbell : Does the Minister agree with the chairman of the Cambridgeshire magistrates courts committee, Mr. Alex Cook, who has said that the appointment of chief justices' clerks will be an expensive addition to the management tier and that existing justices' clerks will lose status, authority and independence?
Mr. Taylor : I do not think that I should answer for people's dignities from the Dispatch Box, if that be the line of the inquiry. However, I wish to ensure from the Dispatch Box that the Lord Chancellor and I can be properly accountable to Parliament for the expenditure of £350 million per annum. The appointment or emergence of a chief justices' clerk is not to create a new tier of management but is, rather, the emergence of the head of an existing tier of management who is accountable to the local magistrates court committee. That is the way it should be.
Mr. Sims : I understand why my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor may wish to alter the structure and administration of magistrates courts, but does he not appreciate that if he puts in charge of local administration people whom he calls chief justices' clerks, the individual justices' clerks in the local courts will feel that they are losing their authority and, in particular, their independence to give legal advice to magistrates? If the task of a chief justices' clerk is simply to be, as it were, a chief executive, why not call him that?
Mr. Taylor : The Lord Chancellor has never regarded the actuality of the name as crucial, although it has clearly emerged as the preferred name. The chief justices' clerk will not have any say in the advice given in court by an individual justices' clerk. That advice will remain trenchantly independent, and the legislation will say so.
39. Mrs. Golding : To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what assessment he has made of whether courts are taking sufficient steps to shield children while they are giving evidence in court.
Mr. John M. Taylor : The use of live television links for witnesses up to the age of 17 in criminal cases involving violent or sexual offences received overwhelming support. A further research project is evaluating the use of pre-recorded interviews with child witnesses. In family proceedings, screens can be used at the court's discretion. In conjunction with the Children Act 1989 Advisory Committee, I shall be keeping the position under review.
Mrs. Golding : May I bring to the Minister's attention the recent case of a 12-year-old girl who described her experience in court as the worst day of her life? She was promised screens to protect her, but discovered when she got to court that she had one small screen by the witness box. The judge called her to the centre of the court so that the accused could see her and shout at her, and her home address was given to the court so that the man accused of abducting her could visit her when he was released from the mental hospital. Does the Minister describe that as protecting children in our courts? What does he propose to do about it?
Mr. Taylor : I have not yet responded to the hon. Lady's remarks about an individual case, but I am certainly prepared to look sympathetically at that case. I know that, as the vice-chairman of the all- party group on children, the hon. Lady will make sure that these things are watched very closely. I expect that she approves of the fact that a
Column 618child liaison officer has been appointed in each of the 47 courts that have television link equipment. It is planned to make similar appointments in all Crown court centres, and, as I am sure the hon. Lady agrees, the sooner the better.
Mr. Hawkins : Does my hon. Friend agree that the continued extension of child video link equipment in courts ought to be welcomed by all hon. Members. Is he aware of the fact that this matter continues to cause great concern to everyone involved in the legal profession, including the members of the Bar Council committees, on some of which I sit?
Mr. Taylor : I welcome my hon. Friend's remarks. I should like to draw the attention of the House to the second annual report of the Children Act Advisory Committee, which was published in December 1993 and raises a number of issues concerning the safeguarding of the welfare of child witnesses--issues which will have the support of all of us.
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