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Mr. Boateng : No, we have heard more than enough from the hon. Lady. This is not the place for her strictures on the bomb or the family. We are concerned here with the administration of justice. Concerns have been expressed by no less a body than the Justices' Clerks Society, which has no political axe to grind. The Home Secretary cannot suggest that it is in the vanguard of revolution--a body subverted by the Labour party and used for our own political purposes. The society has a legitimate professional interest in the proper administration of justice.
That body and the Magistrates Association, a body of the utmost respectability, say on behalf of their members that they are concerned about the powers on amalgamation, and we look forward to some assurances from the Minister on that issue.
It is interesting to note the way in which the two parts of the Bill reflect the centralising and anti-democratic tendencies of the Conservative party. The Lord Chancellor will have power to amalgamate magistrates courts committees and petty sessional areas. Not only will there not be a local inquiry before that happens, but there will not even be an opportunity for magistrates courts committees to express a need or desire for amalgamation. It can be imposed willy-nilly.
How many magistrates courts committees are for the chop ? Concerns have been expressed on all sides by hon. Members who have a particular regard for the work carried out in their areas. My hon. Friends the Members for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones), for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham), for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) all reflected the concerns that have been expressed by me and by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield, (Mr. Blair) about this power. How many committees do the Government have in mind to be left at the end of the day ? Will there be 50 or 60, or fewer than that ? What criteria will be applied in choosing ? The Lord Chancellor will have power to issue directives. What criteria will he apply before issuing them ? Will they relate to the quality of justice or will there be a cost-cutting exercise ? Will there be a gradual and steady encroachment by the private sector on the administration of justice ?
The hon. Member for Faversham was wrong about that, because it is part of the hidden agenda. We are debating the privatisation of justice, and my hon. Friend the Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. O'Brien) rightly expressed the concern of his constituents and the Police Federation about that.
Those of us who have had anything to do with the administration of justice and policing appreciate the importance of the establishment of local priorities. I make no bones about declaring my interest as a practising barrister, and declaring that we need to preserve that local accountability. We must also preserve the judicial independence which ensures that the functions of the magistrates and the court clerks are not usurped by a centralising force that has the interests of the Treasury at heart. We want cast-iron guarantees on that. It would not be right to accept the palliative in clause 71, and it is not accepted by many of those who have good reason to know and to be concerned about the current state of morale among magistrates, their clerks and the communities they serve. They do not accept the assurances
Column 193that were given by the noble and learned Lord in the other place. We shall not accept them either when they are parroted tonight by the Parliamentary Secretary. We want an assurance in clear and unequivocal terms that the Parliamentary Secretary will be prepared to accept a strengthening of that provision, so that judicial independence--the integrity of the system--is preserved.
There is a favourite word--one of those buzz words or market words--that has been imported by the Tories into the administration of justice. It is the notion of a stakeholder. That is what they teach, and that is what will be peddled by the chief executive in his role envisaged by the Bill--the notion that they are stakeholders in the administration of justice.
They believe that the main stakeholder is the Treasury, the people who pay the bill, the Government Department responsible for the money. We do not accept that. We do not believe that Treasury considerations should predominate over the interests of justice. There is one stakeholder in the administration of justice : the citizen--each and every one of us. The citizens, together as a community, demand that the administration of justice be protected ; they demand that it be independent and secured.
We intend, in the course of our opposition to the measure tonight and in the weeks that lie ahead in Committee, to make sure that the administration of justice is secured, its independence is maintained, and its integrity upheld.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. John M. Taylor) : My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), in an excellent speech, asked me two questions and I will answer him. My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims), who has kept me so scrupulously posted regarding the anxieties of outer London magistrates, asked me a question and I will answer him. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) was as robust and listenable as ever, as indeed was my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton- Brown) and I shall pass on what he said about policing in Gloucestershire.
My hon. Friends representing police interests as well as their constituents did so most effectively and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) got the point entirely about devolved powers and the local plan. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I are grateful to all those and others, too. My hon Friend the Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) recorded his strongly held views about magistrates. I assure him that I am a keen student of the final Adjournment debate of the last Parliament when he discussed these issues in the context of his local magistrates court.
My hon. Friend was right to say that 94 per cent. of criminal justice in Britain is dispensed by magistrates. Frankly, it is the jewel in the crown of the British judicial system. That we should have 94 per cent. of criminal justice dispensed by a peer group on a voluntary basis is a miracle. Nobody writing a written constitution would dream of presuming that, and we often forget to say thank you to our magistrates who provide that service.
Column 194The Bill confirms control of magistrates' administrative function where it should be : in the local magistrates courts committee. Any attempt to represent the proposals otherwise is fanciful. Anyone who does so cannot have read the Bill. In those terms, I reject the main drift of the comments of the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng).
We have heard a wide range of views from all parts of the House about the Bill. I shall not attempt to respond to every point. We shall have further opportunity to consider the Bill in detail, but I want to reply to some of the most important points raised. I shall address first the points made on the parts of the Bill containing the provisions affecting the police. It has been suggested that the Bill will centralise control over the police. The opposite is true. The Bill gives greater responsibility to local police authorities and their local police forces. The Bill abolishes central Government controls over manpower numbers and all but the largest items of capital expenditure. It gives greater freedom to chief constables to manage the resources available to meet local needs. The Bill makes clear the way in which the chief constable will be held to account by the local police authority, and the way in which the local police authority must account to local people for the quality of the service that the force provides.
It has also been suggested that the proposals in the Bill are unnecessary or irrelevant to fighting crime, or that they are damaging to the police service. That is also untrue. The Bill will ensure that we have the right statutory framework for effective and efficient policing.
The key changes in the Bill are essential if we want to have the best possible police service in the 21st century. It will create strong, independent local police authorities ; greater freedom for chief constables to manage their forces ; a clear framework for setting priorities and measuring performance ; a new funding system and a strong inspectorate ; and it will pave the way for better personnel management and discipline procedures--for a start.
Mr. Taylor : Gladly. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Scottish part of the Bill. The Scottish provisions mainly cover issues that are dealt with on a Great Britain basis, such as rank structure and conditions of service. Therefore, it is appropriate for them to be included in a Great Britain Bill. [Interruption.] I must press on because time is limited, as I am sure hon. Members will understand.
The changes proposed will result in a police service which is better able to respond to what the public want because it is better organised and better run. By making accountability clearer, local people will be better able to see how well their local police are performing and whether they are meeting the needs of local communities. The Bill will help police forces to focus their efforts more effectively on those things that are of greatest public
Column 195concern. Together with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, the Bill represents the most significant assault upon crime by any Government for many years.
It has been claimed that there was no consultation before the Bill was introduced. That simply is not the case. There was a full and open public debate about the future of the police service for more than a year before the Bill was introduced. The issues that the Bill addresses go back several years before that.
Mr. Taylor : I have been telling the hon. Gentleman all that. Furthermore, the Bill improves structures, the career of policemen and accountability, and it makes for greater clarification, more local contact and more transparency. That is just a few of the things that it does.
Another suggestion tonight has been that national and local objectives together with local policing plans will interfere with operational independence. But let me reassure the House that nothing in the Bill compromises the operational independence of the chief constable. Clause 5 reproduces the provisions of the 1964 Act, which states that the force
"shall be under the direction and control of the chief constable". The Bill increases his responsibility for running the force. Central controls over manpower numbers are abolished and clause 10 makes it clear that all civilian staff who work in support of the force are also to be under his direction and control.
Police authorities and the Home Secretary have always influenced policing. It is essential for the accountability of the police service that they should. It would be absurd to argue that a chief constable should not have regard to the publicly expressed opinions of his police authority and the Home Secretary. The Bill will make clear, open and public the way in which the chief constable will be held to account. The principles of greater openness and effective accountability are as important here as they are in any other part of the public sector.
The procedures for the selection of independent members of police authorities have been ridiculed in some quarters. However, it is now widely accepted that there should be a substantial independent presence in local police authorities. That will ensure that there is an opportunity for people from all walks of life to make a contribution. It will allow people with relevant skills or expertise to serve, without first requiring them to be local councillors or to sit on the magistrates bench. We need a procedure that allows them to be appointed, while ensuring that they are independent and not subject to any form of political patronage, whether from central or local government. That is what the Bill's selection procedures will achieve.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) asked what sort of people will be appointed to police authorities. We expect the authorities to appoint people from all walks of life who have valuable skills.
The Home Secretary will remain the Metropolitan police authority, safeguarding the national interest in the Met's work, and fully accountable to Parliament. For the Met, as explained in the White Paper, we are establishing
Column 196a new and non-political body, outside the Home Office, to help the Home Secretary and Londoners to get the best from the reforms in London.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge also asked whether there should be a quota of councillors or other members on the Metropolitan police committee. It will be an advisory body, with 12 members selected for their individual skills and ability to help the Home Secretary to hold the commissioner to account--not as representatives of any particular organisation or group.
On the subject of chief constables, we fully appreciate the need to ensure that there are safeguards to prevent any police authority from acting capriciously. Those safeguards are likely to include a requirement for it to be clear at the outset whether the expectation is renewal, non-renewal or open competition--and a requirement to make it clear at the outset on what grounds decisions about renewal will be taken. The details of the new arrangements are currently under discussion with the Association of Chief Police Officers. In due course any regulations will be subject to consultation in the Police Advisory Board.
It has been suggested that there is no need to change procedures if there are no plans for police force amalgamation. It is important to realise that the Bill will lay the basis of policing for many years to come. It is sensible to allow for the possibility that in future it may be in the interests of police efficiency or effectiveness to alter existing police force boundaries. That is the purpose of the new procedures in the Bill.
The existing procedures are cumbersome and involve unnecessary delay and expense, which would be detrimental to the quality of policing. The experience of the 1960s shows that, under existing procedures, changes can take two or three years to implement. The new procedures in the Bill provide a full opportunity for any proposals for change to be considered, interested parties to raise objections and any proposals to be subject to approval by Parliament. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) asked what are the Government's intentions for the police authority in Northern Ireland. The Bill's Northern Ireland provisions make no change to the role of the police authority. In late March, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland published a consultation paper that set out views on the improvements necessary to clarify roles, responsibilities and lines of accountability within the structure of policing within Northern Ireland. Responses are invited by 31 May. We would not expect to bring forward provisions on that issue in this Bill.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann asked why police discipline in Northern Ireland is not included in the Bill. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State published a consultation paper on police discipline procedures and is considering the responses. Future legislation will be necessary to implement any changes and we would not expect to include such provisions in the Bill.
Part IV contains provisions relating to the magistrates courts service in England and Wales.
Mr. Maclennan : In respect of part II, which deals with Scotland, the Minister has sought to justify a United Kingdom Bill on the grounds that it deals with matters such as ranks on a United Kingdom basis. But the whole of part II amends Scottish legislation, the Police (Scotland) Act
Column 1971967. Does he realise that he is acting in a matter that will be widely regarded as unconstitutional and inappropriate in Scotland ?
Mr. Taylor : I have seldom been rebuked with that degree of vehemence. I referred to the Scottish issues earlier, by request. A number of hon. Members expressed concern at the provision in clause 62 which enables the Lord Chancellor to initiate the amalgamation of magistrates courts committee areas. The White Paper, "A New Framework for Local Justice", announced the Government's intention of reducing the number of magistrates courts committees to achieve the right balance between operational needs and maintaining the local nature of the service. It was quickly apparent that many committees found it difficult to plan their future in the light of it, because they did not, and could not, know whether they were to remain as they were or be amalgamated.
Later, in 1992, on the basis of criteria for the appropriate minimum size for a committee area--criteria on which negotiations took place--the Lord Chancellor invited committees to make proposals on how the reduction in the number of separate areas could be effected. On the basis of those recommendations, he reached a number of conclusions on where the amalgamations might take place.
The Lord Chancellor has made it clear that amalgamation of magistrates courts committee areas would be contemplated only if it was in the best interests of the service. That is reflected on the face of the Bill in clause 62(4). However, he has made it equally clear that he would not require amalgamation if the improvement in service that would flow from it could be achieved in other ways. The magistrates courts in outer London have been keen to explore that option. Their representative--the outer London action group--has met my officials on a number of occasions and has developed proposals, which have not yet been seen or discussed.
Mr. Taylor : The White Paper, which the hon. Gentleman will have read, anticipated that the number of magistrates courts committees would come down from the present 105 to something in the order of 50 to 60-- [Interruption.] It is in the White Paper. It has been out for two years. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has read it. The progress of and approach to those discussions have attracted the approval of the outer London action group. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that those discussions have been sensitive. I did not wish to debate them before the courts in outer London had knowledge of them. The Lord Chancellor and I are confident that we are well on course to provide for outer London a scheme that should deliver the benefits of a larger administrative base without the amalgamation of committee areas. I shall report further developments to the House as the Bill progresses, and especially to my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst.
Column 19866. Will he now tell the House whether the provisions in that clause make it more or less likely that rural magistrates courts will close ?
Mr. Taylor : Any decision about closure of a magistrates court--this may come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman--is made locally by the magistrates courts committee. The Lord Chancellor has no locus in it.
Part IV contains provisions to bring up to date the administrative structure of the magistrates courts service. Such reform is well overdue. The reforms will better enable the service to deal with the challenge that it faces now and in the future without losing its essential nature as a local service in which the key management decisions are taken locally by local magistrates themselves. In that way, I believe that the magistrates courts, which have a long and proud history of public service, will continue that service in a secure and well-managed way.
The Bill--both the parts that deal with the police and those that deal with the magistrates courts--has a unified theme. Its purpose is to improve the management and organisation of the public services that play a key part in the fight against crime, so that they can provide the public with a better service. Together with the provisions in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, it represents the most significant assault on crime by any Government for many years. I commend it to the House.
Question put , That the Bill be now read a Second time : The House divided : Ayes 290, Noes 247.
Division No. 219] [10 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Beresford, Sir Paul
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Body, Sir Richard
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Deva, Nirj Joseph
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Durant, Sir Anthony
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Evans, Roger (Monmouth)