Column 258behind the provision that the amendment seeks to alter is economy--it has nothing to do with the fair discharge of justice by magistrates. I am fond of the Lord Chancellor--he is a splendid man, but he came to politics having cut his teeth on other jobs, and he is finding it exceedingly difficult to deal with pressure from his Treasury colleagues. That is why we are faced with this abusive measure.
I hope that the amendment will be accepted. The Government would have done well to withdraw their proposals, so as not to need to bother with compromises of the kind ingeniously invented by the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). In the absence of Government willingness to think again, the amendment should certainly have our support.
Sir Roger Moate : I speak more to expose the dilemma in which I and, I suspect, other hon. Members find ourselves than to offer a solution. My hon. Friend the Minister will not be surprised that I am totally sceptical about the Government's proposals, but I do not believe that the Opposition's solution of more strategic boards is attractive.
Perhaps some of us are to blame for the fact that we do not have before us proposals which would allow us to secure greater control for the House over undesirable streamlining of the voluntary system of local justice. I am sceptical about enforced amalgamations because they progressively undermine the precious concept of local justice. The smaller the courts and court committees, and the more local the magistrates, the better that system of justice works.
I fear that compulsory amalgamations will inevitably lead to compulsory closure of a large number of magistrates courts throughout the country. Anyone who has doubts about that should reflect on the words of my hon. Friend the Minister who spoke of the system of management which flows directly from the Lord Chancellor and controls the money right through the committees and down to the courts. Ultimately that power of management will bring pressure to close a large number of local magistrates courts. That is what it is about. 9.45 pm
The Government have been quite clear : there will be many amalgamations. We in Kent have nothing to fear because, according to the map that I have seen, there is no proposition to disturb the magistrates court committee in my county. Kent is a large county with a large committee. We have already seen the power that the Department and the Treasury have brought to bear on those committees by way of cash limitations, and that has resulted in the closure of local magistrates courts.
When there was a proposal for such a closure in my constituency there was no support from anywhere to resist it. That was a highly efficient small court doing a first-class job, but the power of money led to its closure. In many constituencies the consequence of what we are debating will be the closure of local courts. On the ground of efficiency one could probably just about justify that, but in the interests of justice I do not think that it can be justified. I say "just about" because I do not believe that we are really talking about large sums. The Minister cited a figure of £350 million, but 95 per cent. of cases which come to
Column 259court are dealt with by the unpaid magistracy. I suspect that that is the best bargain justice anywhere in the world. We get tremendous value for that £350 million.
When challenged, the Minister did not produce examples of wastage. Perhaps, quite rightly and circumspectly, he did not want to refer to individual cases, but if there were wholesale wastage he would have been able to tell us about it. I do not think that there is such waste. Therefore, forcing amalgamations and, ultimately, forcing the closure of local courthouses will not bring enormous economic gain to the country.
Mr. Stephen : Is my hon. Friend suggesting that we live in a world in which the resources available for the administration of justice are unlimited and that there may never be a strong argument for the amalgamation of magistrates courts in the national interest and over which the Lord Chancellor needs statutory power ?
Sir Roger Moate : There is no evidence to suggest that that is necessary. If there is evidence of wastage and inefficiency and proof that we need such statutory powers, let us hear it. It is easy to develop theories about management, but the taking of powers should be justified and I have not seen any justification. When a court closure is proposed in my hon. Friend's constituency he might say, "I protest, I want to prevent this."
Sir Roger Moate : I suggest that my hon. Friend would have a legitimate local interest and would go to the rather large regional committee which is quite remote fromhis area. But he will be told, "I am sorry but we have cash limits imposed by our new, highly efficient chief executive who is operating the cash limits imposed by the Treasury."
I do not say that that is necessarily wrong, but I wish that the House could have the power to resist that trend and to help my hon. Friend and other hon. Members when they experience the undesirable closure of courthouses. It has started and it will continue. The Government are seeking to take a further power to undermine the sort of local justice which means a great deal to hon. Members and to local magistrates who serve unpaid and do sterling work.
I fear what we are doing : I think that we have got it wrong and I hope that there will be future opportunities to try to redress that. I do not think that the Opposition amendment helps us particularly in that respect, butI hope that we shall be able to find other opportunities in future to try to correct this error.
Mr. Boateng : There was nothing in the world to stop the hon. Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) from tabling his own amendments if he was so dissatisfiedwith ours. Perhaps the fact that he did not is an indication of his interest in these matters, but I am disappointed that we have not had the opportunity to consider his amendments.
I hope that the last two speeches had a soporific and desensitising effect on the Minister, who was becoming a little carried away earlier, and that he will answer the case that we have put in a rational way. What aspect of the current proposals for outer London involving a strategic management board makes such arrangements unsuitable
Column 260for the rest of the country ? They would deal with the two critical issues with which the Le Vay report was concerned--greater efficiency and better management.
The Lord Chancellor now has the power to ensure that the inspectorate is brought to bear on improving efficiency. He has the power to control the budget of the magistrates courts committee, to demand management information statistics and to call for reports on a whole range of issues. What further power does he seek ? Why does he seek it ? We still have not had answers to those questions. We are not satisfied with the Minister's response. He throws up his hands in shock and horror, but he should not be surprised that we are not satisfied : that is one thing which ought not to surprise someone of his experience. He knows how things work. Oppositions tend not to be satisfied by Ministers' responses, and in this instance we have every reason not to be satisfied. The Minister's objections to these modest amendments are bunkum, and he knows it. We want to hear more, but in the interests of the House we shall not push the matter to a Division.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made : No. 72, new schedule-- Continuing Functions of Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District in Relation to Pensions etc. of Court Staff--
1. In this Schedule
"court staff" has the same meaning as in section 59 of the 1979 Act,
"the inner London magistrates' courts committee" has the same meaning as in section [ Pensions etc. of justices' chief executive, justices' clerks and staff in inner London area ] of this Act, "the Receiver" means the Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District, and
"responsible authority" has the same meaning as in section 55 of the 1979 Act.
2. The Receiver shall pay out of the metropolitan police fund any superannuation benefits payable in respect of justices' clerks and other officers employed by the committee of magistrates or the inner London magistrates' courts committee under any enactment or instrument applied to those clerks or other officers by regulations having effect in accordance with section 15(9) of the Superannuation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1967, other than benefits payable by the London Residuary Body, and any superannuation contributions and other payments for which the inner London magistrates' courts committee may be liable as their employer under any such enactment or instrument.
3. Nothing in paragraph 2 above shall require the Receiver to incur any expenditure or make any payment which would cause the net cost to him in any year of the matters mentioned in paragraph 4 below to exceed the amount which, in relation to that year, is for the time being determined by the Lord Chancellor under paragraph 5(b) below. 4. The Lord Chancellor may out of money provided by Parliament pay to the Receiver grants towards the net cost to the Receiver in any year
(a) of the Receiver's functions under paragraph 2 above, and (b) of the Receiver's functions corresponding to those of responsible authorities under regulations made, or having effect as if made, under section 7 of the Superannuation Act 1972 with respect to court staff.
5. The amount of any grant under paragraph 4 above towards the net cost to the Receiver in any year of the matters mentioned in that paragraph shall not exceed 80 per cent of whichever of the following is the less, namely
(a) that net cost, and
(b) the amount which, in relation to that year, is for the time being determined for the purposes of this paragraph by the Lord Chancellor.
6. In subsections (5), (6) and (7) of section 59 of the 1979 Act (grants by Lord Chancellor to responsible authorities)
Column 261(a) references to that section include references to this Schedule, and
(b) references to the matters mentioned in subsection (1) of that section include references to the matters mentioned in paragraph 4 above.'-- [Mr. John M. Taylor.]
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
Amendments made : No. 77, in page 33, line 27, at end insert (bb) a county borough council,'.
No. 78, in page 33, line 34, at end insert
(12) Until 1st April 1996, the definition of "unitary authority" in subsection (10) above shall have effect with the omission of paragraph (bb).'-- [Mr. John M. Taylor.]
We will be dividing the House on this amendment very shortly. It goes to the heart of our debates, dealing with a question that remains unaddressed by the Government--the independence of the judiciary, and the basis on which justices' clerks will be able and required to carry out their functions. Those functions, which lie at the heart of our justice system, are threatened by the Government's failure to produce an adequate safeguard for their independence. The amendment seeks to make it clear in statute that there must be a guarantee of independence in relation to the three separate and important functions that a justices' clerk is called on to perform--the discharge of statutory duties, the giving of advice to the magistracy and the handling of individual cases. Those three essential elements must be protected. They were identified by the Lord Chief Justice and by a former Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, Lord Ackner, in the other place.
Those elements are threatened by a Government who, while introducing legislation that superimposes the powers of the Treasury on those of justices and their clerks, subordinate the interests of justice to those of the market and a Treasury determined to claw back the deficit created by the Government. As it stands, the legislation fails to preserve the necessary independence. There is nothing more important than that, and we shall return to the matter on Third Reading. There is nothing more important than the independence of the judiciary, and the independence of the justices' clerks in the context of the administration of justice.
We are not satisfied with the clause as it stands, we seek to strengthen it, and we shall divide the House in order to do so.
Mr. John M. Taylor : The amendment is interesting ; it is called "or". The Opposition desire to put into clause 72, between the word "peace" and the word "in", the simple word "or". The very essence is or. The amendment sounds innocuous-- [Hon. Members :-- "He has not grasped it."] Yes, I have grasped it. It sounds innocuous, but I realise that it is not as disingenuous or innocent as it appears ; actually, it is rather sinister.
Clause 72 deals with the independence of the justices' clerks and staff in relation to legal functions. As drafted, it specifies two important areas in which the justices' clerks are protected in the independence of their legal function. One, set out in subsection (2), consists of a catalogue of functions deriving from the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980. I shall not weary the House with that catalogue.
Column 263The other area of work in which the justices' clerks enjoy independence in their legal functions is in
"giving advice to justices of the peace in an individual case". If the word "or" were inserted the provision would read : "When exercising the functions specified in subsection (2) below or giving advice to justices of the peace or in an individual case". We should then have made an extra category that is legally independent, and in which nothing can be said. The justices' clerk would have an inviolate aura round him and could not be instructed in any way.
In other words, we should have given legal independence and the ability to be clear of any instruction, in matters concerning the use of the car park- -that is, legal independence concerning the use of the car park, and concerning security and accommodation arrangements, the stocking of the library and the location of the waste paper basket. The amendment is misguided and, with its single word "or", it is a wrecking amendment. I reject it.
Mr. Boateng : The location of the waste paper basket is one thing that the Minister should know, because that is where he should put his whole rotten Bill. Upon that basis, and upon the basis of his woefully inadequate grasp of the amendment, we shall divide the House.
Question put, That the amendment be made :
The House divided : Ayes 258, Noes 291.
Division No. 285] [9.58 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F.
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Corston, Ms Jean
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Donohoe, Brian H.
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Eagle, Ms Angela
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Foster, Don (Bath)