Mr. Richards: I believe that my right hon. Friend was referring to any school governing body that might try to have a budget deficit. In that case, my right hon. Friend would clearly look to the local education authority, with regard to its local management of schools scheme, to ensure that those schools were funded properly.
22. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the right hon. Member for Selby, representing the Church Commissioners, what financial provision is being made in the current year to equip churches, abbeys and cathedrals with public toilets.
Mr. Michael Alison (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): None. This is not the responsibility of the Church Commissioners. The parochial church councils of parish churches and the administrative bodies of cathedrals have sole executive and financial responsibility in these
Column 555matters, subject to any statutory consents that they may require to carry out work affecting the historic character of a building.
Mr. Greenway: Will my right hon. Friend assist incumbents who are paid by the Church Commissioners with the placement of public toilets in churches, bringing them into line with cathedrals, as many people want and as should happen as we enter the 21st century? I know of one church which, for two years, has tried to get the faculty to use money left to it to put in the public loo that people want and need. It has not so far been able to achieve that. Will my right hon. Friend put a bomb under the archdeacons who are so slow in getting things going?
Mr. Alison: My hon. Friend will agree that a bomb might be slightly counter-productive. He is concerned about public toilets in parish churches. He is probably aware that most parish churches have a toilet in the vestry for the use of the incumbent. It would have to be a parish in which relationships between the congregation and the incumbent had fallen to an exceptionally low level if members of the public were barred from using the facilities available in the vestry. I shall, however, draw my hon. Friend's anxieties to the attention of the relevant archdeacons.
Mr. Simon Hughes: On a slightly broader point, which arises from the question, do the Church Commissioners have responsibility for ensuring that churches, abbeys and cathedrals are generally accessible to all members of the public, including those with disabilities? If not, could they see that as a generally useful responsibility?
Mr. Alison: We have some onerous responsibilities, as the hon. Gentleman knows, especially in property and finance, but we do not have direct responsibility for the matter about which he is concerned. For cathedrals, it comes within the ambit of the administrative bodies and for parish churches, especially large and popular ones, within the scope of responsibilities of the parochial church councils.
23. Mr. Flynn: To ask the right hon. Member for Selby, representing the Church Commissioners, what new proposals he has to improve the ethical accountability of the investments made by the commissioners.
Mr. Alison: The commissioners have always managed their investments within ethical guidelines. Specific rules were developed when equity investment was begun in 1948 and those rules continue to be monitored and reviewed. I am arranging for a leaflet setting out our ethical policy to be sent to the hon. Gentleman so that he may study it slightly more fully.
Mr. Flynn: Why have the Church Commissioners invested £1.75 million in GEC, Britain's second-largest arms manufacturer, which exports weapons of war to many foreign dictators? Recalling the words that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword, will the
Column 556right hon. Gentleman explain to the House how profiteering from the sale of arms assists the work of the prince of peace?
Mr. Alison: The hon. Gentleman will note, when he gets the little leaflet that I shall be sending to him, that we do not invest in companies whose principal business is armaments. I do not think that it could be alleged that GEC's principal business is that of armaments. As it is, investments relating to armaments, alcohol, gambling and tobacco, from which we are excluded on ethical grounds, already result in the disbarring of the Church Commissioners from about 12 per cent. of potential investments in the stock exchange, which has a serious effect on the potential flow of funds for clergy stipends and retirement pensioners.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. John M. Taylor): Proposals for a fundamental restructuring of the legal aid scheme in England and Wales will be the subject of a Green Paper later in the spring.
Mr. Hawkins: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he confirm that the Lord Chancellor is proceeding with the consultation on "Legal Aid for the Apparently Wealthy" so that my constituents will not be outraged in future by very wealthy people benefiting from our legal aid system? Will he also confirm that, as part of the same review, he is looking very carefully at proposals for franchising, which will improve quality control of the legal aid system to benefit those who are using it properly?
Mr. Taylor: Consultation on "Legal Aid for the Apparently Wealthy" has closed and we are assessing the results. I thank my hon. Friend for his forward-looking remarks about franchising and quality assurance. We are talking about quality assurance--ultimately--for the consumer and we are heartened by the number of solicitors applying.
Mr. Boateng: Does the Minister agree with the National Consumer Council that fear of costs is one of the biggest barriers to justice? If he does, how does he justify the fact that, even as we speak, his officials are actively considering increases for county court and High Court costs per day, making them some £200 in the county court and £500 in the High Court? How does that assist the ordinary litigant, the person of modest or medium means, who wants to bring an action before those courts? Is it not another example of the Government's denial of justice to those who most need it?
Mr. Taylor: I think that fear of costs is a deterrent to those who would go to law. That is not a novelty, but it may be as intense now as it ever has been. The county court fees to which the hon. Gentleman referred are visited rather irregularly for the purpose of review.
Column 557It is some time since some of those fees were looked at, but the broad objective is that, as far as possible, the operation of courts should be self-financing, lest otherwise the taxpayer pays for other people's cases.
25. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department if he will review the law on legal aid contributions by plaintiffs where defendants cannot be found to be served with papers or orders in proceedings.
Mr. Hughes: Before I respond to that, may I tell the Minister how grateful were all the people who went to see him and his colleague the Lord Chancellor on Wednesday evening to ask for legal aid for the relatives of the Marchioness--
Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is out of order. I am sure that it is very apt that the Lord Chancellor's Department should be paid such compliments, but they must be paid in writing, and not at Question Time.
Mr. Hughes: On the question in hand, will the Minister look again at a policy which says that the plaintiff may be assisted to get an order--in this case, against a person who had been violent and who was obliged by the order to leave the former matrimonial home--and then, because the defendant cannot be found and the order cannot be served, be required to pay for a proceeding that becomes effectively null and void? That cannot be in the interests of justice and it must be something which the Minister accepts needs to be reviewed, not just in a single case but in the interests of prospectively hundreds or thousands of litigants who would otherwise be put off seeking action to protect themselves and their own security.
Mr. Taylor: I may be aware of the individual case concerned. In a case where emergency legal aid is granted in the belief that the applicant qualifies, and the applicant subsequently proves not to, the applicant must pay. As for the hon. Gentleman's irregular remarks, I heard them and I took them kindly.
Mrs. Lait: I thank my hon. Friend for that information. However, does he acknowledge that victims often find it helpful to be able to read a transcript and that they may need to read one in order to bring a civil case in respect of which, as my hon.
Column 558Friend is aware, original transcripts are not provided through legal aid? How can we ensure that those victims have access to justice?
Mr. Taylor: If it were not such a serious subject, I would have to say that there is no such thing as a free transcript. Where no existing transcript is available, a legally aided person may receive assistance in meeting the cost of transcription. That is the best that I can do at the moment. If my hon. Friend would like to return to the charge, I want to be as helpful in that part of victim support as I possibly can be.
Mr. Gerrard: Does the Minister accept that there is a problem in that transcripts often do not exist and will be made only when one of the barristers concerned in a case requests one? Therefore, the costs could be substantial. Does the Minister also accept that a victim, and particularly the relative of a murdered victim, may have a legitimate reason for wishing to have access to a transcript, but at the moment would find that transcript prohibitively expensive?
Mr. Taylor: I am not going to say that it is not quite expensive to have transcripts. It is very labour intensive to produce all the words spoken in a court. The best advice that I can give to the hon. Gentleman this afternoon is to say that people do not need to acquire whole transcripts. They can concentrate on that part of the evidence that is material to their complaint.
Mr. John M. Taylor: Magistrates courts are provided by local authorities for the use of the Magistrates Courts Committee. Closure decisions are for the MCC, although the paying authority may appeal to the Lord Chancellor against a proposed closure. That is the only situation in which we are informed of a closure or involved in any way.
Mr. Ainger: The Lord Chancellor's Department will be well aware that, over the past 10 years, there has been a significant number of magistrates courts closures, particularly in rural areas. That has coincided with significant reductions in public transport. Does the Minister share my concern that people living in rural areas, particularly in rural Wales, are now finding it extremely difficult to meet court times of 10 am using public transport? That is causing serious problems. Those people who have to pay fines at magistrates courts are also experiencing serious problems. Does the Minister accept that it is now time to start a moratorium on magistrates court closures in rural areas?
Mr. Taylor: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that he must advance and develop those arguments in his own local area where there are, in fact, no proposed closures. The only body competent to propose a closure is the magistrates themselves through their committee. The only body competent to oppose a closure is the county council. Only if they are at odds does the Lord
Column 559Chancellor have any role. The hon. Gentleman should be lobbying his local magistrates and local county councillors.
Mr. McLoughlin: Can my hon. Friend assure me that the Lord Chancellor and his Department will consider carefully the question of rural services and the availability of courts when such proposals come before them? May I say that I am not too worried about people who must pay fines in magistrates courts, as the simple answer is that they should not get convicted in the first place?
Mr. Taylor: I take very much to heart what my hon. Friend says. The issues are weighed carefully, and I shall make sure that that continues. I might say also that we do open new courts as well as attend occasionally upon the closures of old ones.
Mr. John M. Taylor: I informed the hon. Member in January that we were considering whether a comprehensive review of the law of limitation should be undertaken. The Lord Chancellor has now decided to invite the Law Commission to undertake such a review.
Mr. Hinchliffe: Does the Minister understand the concerns of a significant number of people whose lives have been ruined by childhood abuse--often sexual--over their inability to take action through the courts because of the existing limitation legislation? Does he realise that, by tomorrow, it will be exactly one year since he gave me an assurance in the House during Question Time that the review would be completed by the end of last year? Does he realise why it is that a number of people who have been directly affected feel that the Government are conspiring to prevent them from getting to court with their cases?
Mr. Taylor: I understand those concerns. Piecemeal reform in that part of the law has had its day, and we need a comprehensive review. The Lord Chancellor has called for such a review to take place as soon as possible.
Mr. Mitchell: Given that the vicious curtailment in the coverage of legal aid and the inherent problems in dealing with that were pointed out last week by the National Audit Office and by the Public Accounts Committee, whose Chairman said that solicitors tend to "regard the citizen's right to legal aid as their own right to a blank cheque",
would it not be sensible, save more money and bring justice to the great majority of our people if we established a public defender service to deal with criminal cases and if we financed a proper network of
Column 560law centres to deal with civil cases? Would that not bring the power of the courts of justice to the great mass of people in a way that we are not doing now?
Mr. Taylor: I am very much in favour--as, I think, is the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng)--of involving within the legal aid system citizens advice bureaux and law centres. That is a very good idea. I am no more sanguine than the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) about abuse of the green form scheme. We need the tightest possible controls to ensure that the system, which is intended to help people have access to justice, is used properly. With regard to a public defender system, it is my experience that one of the best operations in the legal aid system is the courts' duty solicitor scheme, which seems to work well in practice. The idea of a public defender service has been canvassed from time to time, and the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the idea was canvassed in New Zealand, but rejected.
Mr. Alex Carlile: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the interests of justice--with particular regard to defendants--would be best served by having independent solicitors and independent barristers as defenders, as they would be practitioners serving no interest other than those of their client and the courts?
Mr. Taylor: I feel sure that we shall get to know those views, but the Lord Chancellor has a wider duty than to the legal professions. We shall look with the greatest possible care at the way in which legal aid is funded, and we shall ensure that the interests of the litigant and the defendant are foremost.
Mr. Hughes: That is a disgrace. May I ask the Minister in all seriousness, to think again? It is unacceptable, not just to people in Wales but to those throughout the UK, that probably the greatest Welsh parliamentarian this century is not being officially recognised 50 years after his death. I ask the Minister not to give such a short and ill- considered response, but to take the idea away, think about it and consider whether it might not bring even his side some benefit.
Mr. Jones: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it was not an ill- considered response. I acknowledge that Lloyd George was a great parliamentarian, albeit only a Liberal, but many others have an equal or greater
Column 561claim. The Government have no plans to introduce additional permanent bank holidays in any part of the United Kingdom because of the cost and disruption to business.
Column 562Mr. Barry Jones: What a great disgrace. Ministers should tackle the problem urgently. Is the Minister aware that, in my constituency, 1,500 unemployed people are either under the age of 25 or have been out of work for more than one year? What policy changes will he introduce? What hope will he give to those of our people who are unemployed?
Mr. Gwilym Jones: I do not need to introduce any new policies because we already have the right policies, as has been shown as recently as in the Cambridge Econometric Theory survey of last week, which predicted that Wales would be the fastest-growing part of the United Kingdom economy during 1995. The hon. Gentleman ought to wake up to the real world.
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