Column 687Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Timothy Kirkhope and
Mr. Bowen Wells.
Question accordingly negatived.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you received a request from a Transport Minister to make a statement to the House because I understand that No. 10 has now admitted that there has been direct ministerial involvement in today's strike ? It would be helpful if the House were to be told that.
-- .--(1) The Lord Chancellor may by order make, with respect to any matters mentioned in subsection (2), such incidental, consequential, transitional or supplemental provision as he thinks necessary or expedient in consequence of any of the provisions of this Act. (2) The matters are
(a) the functions or areas of jurisdiction of any justice of the peace, stipendiary magistrate, magistrates' court or keeper of the rolls for a commission area (within the meaning of the Justices of the Peace Act 1979) ; and
(b) commission areas, petty sessions areas and areas to which magistrates' courts committees relate.
(3) The Lord Chancellor may by order alter, in such manner as appears to him expedient in connection with the alteration in any local government area made by this Act, any of
(a) the commission areas in Wales specified in section 1 of the Act of 1979,
(b) the areas in Wales which constitute petty sessions areas under section 4 of that Act, or
(c) the areas in Wales to which magistrates' courts committees relate under section 19 of that Act.
(4) Any order under this section may, in particular
(a) make provision with respect to the costs and expenses of any persons with respect to whom provision is made by the order ; (b) apply (with or without modifications) or amend or repeal or revoke (with or without savings) any provision of an Act passed before this Act or in the same Session, or an instrument made under such an Act before 1st April 1996.
(5) Subsections (7) and (9) of section 54 apply in relation to this section as they apply in relation to that section.'.-- [Mr. Gwilym Jones.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Jones : We have tabled the amendments at this late stage because we wish to take account of the provisions of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill currently being considered in Committee. The amendments make provision in respect of the Lord Chancellor and of functions in connection with magistrates courts, justices of the peace and so on. The Bill currently provides for these in clauses 54(4) and (5) together with schedule 2(10).
In addition, the amendments remove subsections (4) and (5) from clause 54, provide a separate clause in respect of the Lord Chancellor and his functions, expand the provisions in schedule 2 and make consequential amendments to clauses 56, 57, 62 and 65.
Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) : I am amazed that the Minister can introduce a disgraceful new clause so glibly. The new clause exposes the muddle in which the Government find themselves over various pieces of legislation and the incompetence of Ministers who cannot think through the implications of their proposals. The Minister has given no reason for allowing the Lord Chancellor to take the very wide powers contained in the new clause.
The Minister said that the new clause is meant to take into account the provisions of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, but the Committee considering that Bill, on which I am leading for the Opposition, has not yet reached the part of the Bill that deals with magistrates courts. As drafted, that Bill is a good deal more limited and does not need the wide and sweeping powers that the Minister wishes to introduce into this Bill.
We need an explanation from the Minister because the new clause provides much greater powers than those provided in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill. The widest of those powers enables the Government, or the Lord Chancellor, to revoke primary legislation by order. That cannot be right. It certainly cannot be right for the Minister to propose such a new clause without offering an explanation or seeking to justify the Government's approach.
In the short time since the new clause was tabled, it has received considerable criticism and caused questions to be asked about the Government's motives and intentions. The Minister has not explained those motives and intentions and has provided no justification for suggesting such wide-ranging powers. The suspicion is that the Government are trying to take powers by the back door under this Bill which would not be provided under the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill. It will certainly be a matter for considerable comment when the Committee reassembles to consider that Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), who speaks for the Opposition on matters concerning the Lord Chancellor's Department, will raise several issues at that point.
The Government are seeking to reorganise magistrates courts' functions in Wales without consultation. Even clause 62 of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, which is the relevant piece of legislation, allows for consultation, so one has to ask what is happening. Is the Lord Chancellor going to climb down over clause 62 of that Bill, which would mean that powers have to be inserted into this Bill in order to enable the Government to make the desired changes ?
New Clause 13(4)(b) provides the power to revoke primary legislation by order. We can pray against an order
Column 689and force a debate in the House, but an order cannot be amended, so the power over primary legislation that is being given to Ministers in the new clause is most unusual and peculiar and certainly requires some explanation by the Minister.
The Government are impaled on their own timetable for local government reform. An attempt has been made to railroad through the measures in Wales and, even on the basis of the slightly slower timetable to which the Government are now committed, there is still not adequate time to deal properly with all the issues.
Let us consider the magistrates courts areas that the Government are proposing. The Government propose three magistrates courts committee areas to replace the four that we now have. The proposed areas form some pretty odd clusters. It is proposed to merge South Glamorgan with what are referred to as the Glamorgan
valleys--basically, Rhondda, Pontypridd and Cynon valley. That area is not quite the old East Glamorgan as outlined in the legislation when local government was last reformed. Once again, the Government are in a muddle. I do not in any case believe that it is sensible to make such an amalgamation. The communities of South Glamorgan and those in a part of what is now Mid Glamorgan have their own characteristics and interests, and I have no doubt that my hon. Friends will wish to say something about the specific concerns of their areas. Bridgend is currently part of Mid Glamorgan, but the Government propose to bolt it on to West Glamorgan. There is no rhyme or reason in that proposal, but they intend to go ahead. Ministers will be given powers without being required to offer consultation. Why are the Government proceeding in this way ?
Merthyr and Caerphilly are being put with Gwent. In view of the borders now being discussed, it might be that the Caerphilly and Rhymney valley area should be put with Gwent for the sake of some functions, such as policing. If so, there should be an element of coterminosity with the magistrates courts areas. I can understand the arguments for that, but not in relation to Merthyr. However, the Minister has not even tried to outline the logic of the Government's thinking.
The Government are impaled on their own timetable because they have to make changes to ensure that the magistrates courts' areas are designated. If they are not, there will be no county council to which they can be accountable or to provide the necessary funds. The problem needs to be sorted out within the designated time scale, but, in case the Minister is not aware of this, I must point to him that, as long ago as April 1993, senior officials in the Lord Chancellor's Department were told during visits to south Wales that there was an urgent need to get the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill and the Local Government (Wales) Bill sorted out so that they can complement each other. But last-minute amendments and new clauses are now being introduced on the Floor of the House while the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill is still in Committee. Will amendments be tabled to that Bill in the next couple of weeks or, indeed, on Report, or are the inconsistencies between the two Bills to remain ? It is proof of gross incompetence that the two Bills have not been considered together.
Column 690I also understand that the question of who is the keeper of the rolls and lord lieutenant are yet to be sorted out. In any event, they need to be sorted out in such a way as to represent the interests of the local communities involved. Local people and officials of the various courts are attempting to find a sensible solution to the problem. There is no need to place in the hands of Ministers the draconian and wide-ranging powers proposed in the new clause.
Mr. Alex Carlile : I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in these matters in his capacity as a Front-Bench spokesman for Labour. Is he aware that magistrates and magistrates' clerks in rural mid Wales are frustrated because they do not believe that the Lord Chancellor's Department appreciates the size of rural mid Wales ? They feel that they are being forced into amalgamation which may mean that the administration of magistrates courts is difficult to envisage in future. I have received from magistrates many objections to what is being proposed.
Mr. Michael : I am aware of those concerns in rural areas. There is a sense of unity right across Wales on that subject. It is felt generally that the Lord Chancellor's Department does not understand or care and does not want to listen to the views of those involved in the very important task of delivering justice at local level. Criticisms have been made by magistrates through their associations and by many of them individually. Criticisms have been made by magistrates' clerks who have experience of dealing with that administration. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) is absolutely right. He voices the concerns of his area, but, in fact, every hon. Member who represents a Welsh constituency, whether rural or city or valley could stand up and make that point. I certainly accept it as being an accurate description of the problem in many parts of Wales.
Mr. Jonathan Evans : I wish to restrain the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) from agreeing too much with the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery because part of Powys is in the area that I represent. In the past three weeks, representatives of the Powys magistrates court committee have met the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department specifically to discuss the needs of rural Wales and they were very pleased by the reception that they received. They said to me that there was a clear understanding of the problems in mid-Wales and they were given various reassurances.
Mr. Michael : I understand the hon. Gentleman's need to try to make the Government whom he supports look reasonable and to suggest that they are listening. If there were reasonableness and listening, there would be no need for the new clause. The hon. Gentleman must be listening to some strange sources, because that is certainly not what I hear from people around the country as they express their concerns. The hon. Gentleman, having made his point, has now lost interest. We need to know from the Minister why those powers are required. Is it right that, in a Bill dealing with Welsh local government, power should be given to the Lord Chancellor to change primary legislation by order, rather than through a proper process ? Is it right, when a Bill
Column 691dealing with magistrates courts is on its way through the House and still has to be dealt with in Committee, that such powers should be sought during the Report stage of a Bill not dealing with magistrates courts issues ? Is it right that Ministers should fail so clearly to get their act together and that they should seek powers to enable them to sort out the muddle without listening to the voices of those who deal with justice, those who live in the areas affected, those who are magistrates and those who deal with the administration of justice ?
There has also been considerable criticism of clause 62 of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill because it is felt that there has not been adequate provision for consultation. Yet here we have something in an entirely different Bill which does not even allow for the extent of consultation allowed in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill. There is considerable concern that the Government's wish to reduce from 105 to between 50 and 60 the number of magistrates courts committees is being driven forward without regard to the interests of those areas that will be affected. Justice in a magistrates courts context is a local issue and a local matter. The commitment of magistrates in giving their time voluntarily to exercise judicial responsibilities in their local communities is not being respected by the Government. That has led to enormous ill feeling. The feelings of those volunteers should not be disregarded in this way.
I cannot see any justification for the Government's seeking the powers in the new clause and I certainly cannot see the justification for their disregarding the proper processes not only of consultation but of legislation in this way. The Minister should recognise the constitutional impropriety of the new clause, withdraw it and let any amendments be made in a considered way in the Committee considering the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill. That would give Welsh Members an opportunity, during the Report stage of that Bill, to consider any provisions relating to Wales in the context of what is happening to magistrates courts generally and to deal with the matter in a more responsible and considered way. This is not the way in which to deal with such important issues. I hope that the Minister will withdraw the new clause and accept the points and criticism that I have made.
Perhaps the new clause and amendments have not been drafted by the Welsh Office but have been thrust on an unwilling Minister. I should be happy to hear the Minister say that, and say that, on reflection, he is willing to take them back and see whether he can get more sense out of the Lord Chancellor's Department than his light-weight introduction to the new clause suggested he has been given so far. Certainly, Opposition Members need a lot more answers before we can feel anything but uneasy about the proposition before us.
Mr. Rowlands : I am sorry to have to comment in this way about the Under-Secretary of State for Wales because, in Committee, we appreciated the patience with which he sought to explain the Government's position on various issues, even when the case was weak, but, in this case, the way in which he introduced the new clause was an insult to the House. We watched him. He had half a page of an explanation which he read out head down and which, clearly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) said, did not come from the
Column 692Welsh Office. He did not explain the origins of the new clause and he did not give us reasons for it or go through it and explain it to us.
In introducing any new clause, it is a Minister's responsibility to explain why one subsection says this and why another subsection says that. I hope that in his winding-up speech he will produce a slightly longer explanation and interpretation of the new clause.
We have just heard a tirade in the winding-up speech of the Secretary of State about centralising tendencies. I can think of no more centralising language than that written into the new clause. In the opening paragraph, it states that the Lord Chancellor may by order make various changes, as he thinks necessary, in certain "matters". Those "matters" include the functions of a justice of the peace--not only the areas of jurisdiction, but the functions. What are the functions ? Why in the Local Government (Wales) Bill [ Lords ] is there a provision for the Lord Chancellor to be able to alter and change the functions of a justice of the peace ? I understand that the Lord Chancellor may need power to try to change the areas and to make them coterminous.
The Justices of the Peace Act 1979--I went to the Library earlier when I saw the new clause--refers, of course, to the counties. The magistrates committees are county based and the Justices of the Peace Act incorporates the counties. I understand the necessity to change that legislation when one is doing away with counties or altering the boundaries. But will the Under-Secretary explain, before we approve the clause, why the Lord Chancellor will need the power to alter, as he may think necessary or expedient, the functions of a justice of the peace in a Bill on the reorganisation of Welsh local government ?
Secondly, I turn to what I thought was the purpose of the clause. Subsection (3) states :
"The Lord Chancellor may by order alter, in such a manner as appears to him expedient in connection with the alteration in any local government area . . . any of the commission areas in Wales specified in section 1 of the Act of 1979."
That provision gives the Lord Chancellor power to change the areas or to relate them to changes in local government reorganisation in Wales. The reason why we are so profoundly concerned--my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth made the valid point--is that the clause includes no provision for consultation in any shape or form. Perhaps that consultation provision is in another Bill. My hon. Friend is an expert on the Bill and he may tell us why a consultation process has to occur.
The reason why I shall not support the power suggested in the new clause is that I do not believe that the Lord Chancellor understands or knows about the geographical problems and the areas of the communities that he serves. If he were aware of those problems, he would not have produced the proposals with regard to the reorganisation of magistrates courts committees. The proposals conflict with the changes at local level proposed in the Bill. It is suggested that Merthyr should be included in Gwent.
Mr. Jonathan Evans : From my discussions with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, I understand that the map that was produced, which has led to the comments made by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), contains indicative, not specific, proposals.
Column 693The indications given to the delegation that I took to the Lord Chancellor's Department were that the Department currently does not have a specific view on the new areas.
Mr. Rowlands : I am willing to accept the word "indicative". The proposals are indeed indicative of the Lord Chancellor's knowledge and understanding of the communities that we represent. They show how little he knows. It is clear that he has no understanding of geography or community. If he had such an understanding, he would not have produced his indicative map which proposes that Merthyr be included in Gwent.
As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) will be aware, I supported with elan some of the changes made by the Government in Committee. It is clear that changes in local government boundaries place Merthyr in the Mid Glamorgan preserved county area. They do not carry it across into Gwent.
The proposals come from the Lord Chancellor. In new clause 13, the Lord Chancellor wants to take power by order to alter and amend areas and boundaries. If that is indicative of what the Lord Chancellor understands about the geography of our communities, the last thing that we should do is give him such sweeping powers in the knowledge that his Department is, by its nature, a very central Department which does not understand such matters.
Mr. Michael : My hon. Friend asked me about the difference between this Bill and the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill with regard to consultation. In clause 62 of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill there is a requirement that, before making an order in exercising his powers, the Lord Chancellor shall consult
"(a) the magistrates for each of the existing magistrates' courts committee areas to which the order relates,
(b) the magistrates' courts committees to which the proposal relates, and
(c) every interested authority."
What is being sought in this Bill seems to override that. If the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) is correct and what we have are not even proposals for consultation, but just an indicative first stab based on nothing very substantial, goodness knows what we can depend on in terms of consultation.
Mr. Rowlands : My hon. Friend underlines the point forcefully. When the Minister replies to the debate, he should tell us why new clause 13 does not contain a form of words equivalent to that in clause 62 of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill when the Lord Chancellor exercises the powers that we are being asked to give him. It is very difficult for us to relate the new clause to another Bill that is still in Committee and which has yet to return to the Floor of the House to be approved by the House. If a consultation process exists in one Bill, it should surely exist in the context of the powers that the Lord Chancellor is seeking in the new clause. That difficulty underlines the Minister's total failure to explain the new clause to us properly.
The Minister must tell us why the new clause does not contain a provision for consultation such as that in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill. He must also tell us
Column 694why the Lord Chancellor is taking power in a Welsh local government Bill to affect the functions of a justice of the peace.
I am uneasy about the proposal because the other thing that is behind all this is the mooted huge rationalisation with regard to the local benches. From Tudor times, the development of the concept of the justices of the peace has been based on local justice. With the limited powers available to them, a group of local justices would be able to administer justice in communities of which they were members. Community is basic to the concept of a justice of the peace. I believe that in many cases, the local benches will be merged. They will be rolled up into one large bench. For example, the local commission of peace currently administered through Pontlottyn may eventually end up in Cardiff. That is the other agenda. The concept of a local bench will be removed. The bench at Pontlottyn is currently manned by people who perform amazingly valiant service to the local community. They have a real understanding and feeling of the nature of the problems of the community. In many cases, they handle the issues with great sensitivity. I do not want those benches to be rolled up and to serve from Cardiff.
Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower) : While I largely agree with my hon. Friend, does he accept that magistrates increasingly face threats of intimidation when they sit on local cases in their areas ? Some provision must be made to ensure that that intimidation does not undermine justice in that community.
Mr. Rowlands : I have not come across such sad symptoms too often, although I can think of a particular incident in my own community. I am not talking about a sympathetic bench. In many cases, we want a bench to be firm and strong in its attitudes in respect of some of the anti-social behaviour that sadly occurs in some of our communities by an increasing minority. However, when people come before local benches, in Pontlottyn or Merthyr, that bench should be manned by people who understand and know that community and--as is almost entirely the case in our area--who live within that community. Behind the proposals in the Bill, the other rationalisation that will be driven through is that with regard to the merger of the benches. We would lose the essential local community character of a magistrates court which I thought was the very reason why we have a system of local justices of the peace.
Mr. Michael : I agree whole-heartedly with the basic principle that my hon. Friend is enunciating. I suggest to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) that the problem should be dealt with not by merging benches or creating great anonymous areas, but through the provision which already exists by which, where appropriate, a case can be heard by a bench outside the area concerned. My hon. Friend the Member for Gower was right to highlight the problem, but that can be dealt with already under the existing arrangements.
We should not approve the new clause until the Minister has explained the nature of subsection (2)(a) and why we