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The Advocate-General was asked--


24. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What advice she has given to the Government about devolution issues since her appointment. [104951]

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): There is a long-standing convention, followed by successive Governments, that neither the substance of Law Officers' advice nor the fact that they have been consulted is disclosed outside Government. I see no reason for departing from that convention.

Mr. Bercow: I thank the Advocate-General for that reply, which was spectacularly uninformative even by the standards of the Government. Has the hon. and learned Lady advised the Government on the impact of European Union law on the Cubie report--specifically in so far as it relates to Scottish students studying at English universities? If the answer is that she has proffered advice to her right hon. and hon. Friends, can she explain to the House the basis in law for the UK Government's assertion that the leaked proposals of the Scottish Executive for the reform of tuition fees cannot apply to Scottish students studying at English universities?

The Advocate-General: I regret that I obviously did not make my last answer plain. The words "tim'rous beastie" leap to mind. All this Scots stuff! The existence and substance of Law Officer advice is not, by long-standing parliamentary convention adopted by all parts of the House, disclosed outside Government. The Advocate-General is here not as an adviser to Opposition Members but to the UK Government. I see no reason to depart from that long-standing convention.

Mrs. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): I will try to be helpful to my hon. and learned Friend. Is it not the case that what characterises the

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devolution settlement is the partnership between the two Parliaments? Can she confirm that she is in regular contact with her colleagues in the Scottish Executive?

The Advocate-General: I am, of course, in regular contact with my Law Officers from the Scottish Executive. I regret to say that, as is normal, I cannot advise hon. Members of the substance.

Mr. Bercow: Then what is the point of questions?

The Advocate-General: If I may, with your permission, Madam Speaker, take that sedentary intervention, the point of my being here is to answer questions that are properly phrased. If I get any properly phrased questions, I shall be delighted to answer them.

Mr. Grieve: I have never thought of the hon. and learned Lady as a "wee . . . tim'rous beastie", but may I make a simple inquiry? She will be aware of this afternoon's exchanges on European law, which is presumably within her remit in respect of advising the Government. Can we take it, therefore, that we shall hear from them shortly as to what European law issues would prevent the Scottish Executive, if they so wished, from funding Scottish students under the Scottish funding system at English universities?

The Advocate-General: Perhaps I should explain to the hon. Gentleman that under the Scotland Act 1998 I have certain statutory duties to consider Bills introduced by the Scottish Parliament and to advise on whether they are within its legislative competence. There is no Bill of any kind on that subject for me to consider. When there is I shall consider it, as I consider any other Bills that are introduced.


The Parliamentary Secretary was asked--

Community Legal Service

30. Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): How many contracts for the new Community Legal Service have been awarded in Rotherham to (a) solicitors' firms and (b) voluntary advice agencies. [104958]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): Sixteen contracts, which started on 1 January 2000, to do civil advice and assistance and representation in family and immigration cases have been let to solicitors working in the Rotherham area. A further 11 have been let to solicitors in the Dearne valley area. A contract has been let to Mexborough citizens advice bureau for a full-time debt case worker and support costs.

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Mr. Healey: I thank my hon. Friend for that information, but is he aware that there is a lack of contracted provision in some legal categories? Can he explain what steps he taking to close that gap and confirm whether there is scope for fresh bids from other firms for that work?

Mr. Lock: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the House's attention to that matter. There is a deficit in the Rotherham area of firms that are available to do social welfare law and there remains scope for additional contracts to be let to solicitors' firms there, although naturally--in accordance with the contracting scheme that the Government are operating--any firm would have to show competence to get a contract by passing the preliminary audit of the Legal Aid Board's franchise requirements.

Courts Access (Sussex)

31. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): If he will make a statement on his policy in respect of access to courts within Sussex. [104959]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): Government policy is that the administration of magistrates courts is best conducted locally. Decisions concerning the location and number of magistrates courts in its area are for the relevant courts committee to determine. With regard to Crown and county courts, the Court Service is required to monitor and review the viability of its court network. There are no current changes planned in respect of accessibility to the Crown or county court network in Sussex.

Mr. Baker: Does the Minister agree that in terms of justice courts have to be local and accessible? In the light of the proposed merger of magistrates court functions in east and west sussex, can she guarantee that she will be unwilling to agree to any closure of magistrates courts there as a consequence of bringing the administration together?

Jane Kennedy: It is for the new merged magistrates courts committee to decide how best to deploy its resources, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall always support changes that lead to the provision of a better and more efficient service for court users.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Has the Minister given a full and honest answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker)? She said that decisions in respect of magistrates courts should be taken locally, but is she not incorrect? That decision has been influenced by the amount of money available and that money is advanced by the Government through the Lord Chancellor's Department. The problems of Sussex are reflected in many other parts of the country--not least Cheshire, and Macclesfield in particular.

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman knows that magistrates courts committees have to manage their budgets within the resources available to them. Those committees are made up of local magistrates drawn from local magistrates benches. Most of the magistrates courts that have closed so far have been ones that the committees

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no longer felt able to justify, either because substandard facilities would have to be replaced or because they were satellite courts--local council chambers that were severely lacking in necessary facilities, for example.

Madam Speaker: The Minister has now widened the question somewhat. Mr. Burnett, I will allow you to put a question in that case.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I am extremely grateful to you, Madam Speaker.

I would remind the Minister and the House of what the Minister just said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), to the effect that justice should be done and seen to be done locally. Will she please explain that to the magistrates courts committee of Devon and Cornwall, which is now discussing a proposal to close 13 magistrates courts in those counties?

Jane Kennedy: I am aware of the proposals announced last week. I am also aware of the local response to them. All such decisions when considered by magistrates courts committees locally will be subject to the right of appeal. Those appeals, if they are lodged in the cases of the courts to which the hon. Gentleman refers, will come to my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor. At that point it will be appropriate for me to comment on the detail.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): In Sussex, just as in Cheshire, I suspect, there is no geographical representation on the magistrates courts committees that are apparently charged with these decisions. That means that those of us who feel very strongly that local justice is best available locally are in some difficulty when we are told that a non-elected committee is taking major decisions that affect the location of courts. I hope that my hon. Friend will bear that in mind.

Jane Kennedy: We do listen very carefully in the Department to the case that is presented when appeals come forward. All the points that are made by local representation, by the paying authority and by hon. Members, are listened to very carefully, and consideration is given in the greatest detail to the case that is made.

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