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Human Rights Convention

26. Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): What discussions she has had with the First Minister and the Home Office regarding the workings of the European convention on human rights. [130593]

27. Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth): What discussions she has had with the First Minister and the Home Office regarding the workings of the European convention on human rights. [130594]

The Advocate-General: I have regular discussions with colleagues in the Home Office and with Scottish Executive Ministers on various matters, including those relating to the European convention on human rights.

Mr. Morgan: The Scottish Parliament has more reason than most to know about the costs and legislative implications of the ECHR. What assessment has the hon. and learned Lady made of the additional costs that will fall on Scotland from 3 October?

The Advocate-General: It is not for me to cost those matters, but I can give the hon. Gentleman the following comfort. The assessment carried out reveals that most cases will arise from cases currently before the courts, rather than from individual new cases. However, substantial training has been undertaken on both sides of the border and that has, in itself, resulted in additional costs. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that overall it is important that the European convention on human rights be brought into effect and that the costs are commensurate with that.

Ms Cunningham : I have listened with interest to the Advocate-General's response. Welcome though the incorporation of the human rights convention is, she must accept that it has been costly already in Scotland. I understand that the Home Office has recently been given a grant of £60 million over three years to deal with what happens after 3 October. Scotland has had money starting from last year, but will the Minister make representations to the Government to ensure that finance is reconsidered, especially for Scotland, after 3 October, when even more challenges are likely to be forthcoming?

The Advocate-General: I am sure that the hon. Lady would understand, if she read the Scotland Act 1998, that my function is not that of the Secretary of State. I am the legal officer, and my job is legal. Any submissions about financial costs, if they are to be made, are to be made by the Secretary of State.


The Parliamentary Secretary was asked--

Stipendiary Magistrates

29. Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): What estimate she has made of the proportion of

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(a) summary-only and (b) either-way cases heard by stipendiary magistrates in each of the last three years; and if she will make a statement. [130596]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): Unfortunately, these figures are not collected centrally. However, results from an ad hoc survey of magistrates courts committees throughout the country suggest that about 10 per cent. of either-way cases and slightly less than 10 per cent. of summary cases were heard by stipendiary magistrates in each of the past three years.

My right honourable and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has said on numerous occasions that the future of the lay magistracy is secure. The Government are committed to the principle of the lay magistracy continuing to play a significant part in our system of justice.

Mr. Taylor: I thank the Minister for those figures. As a life member of the Magistrates Association, I welcome the reassurance about the future of lay benches. However, does she acknowledge the fears of many of my 30,000 magisterial colleagues that there exists a civil service agenda secreted in a Selborne house cellar that envisages a European model of a fully professional judiciary? Is there not a real risk, following the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No.2) Bill, that there will be many more one-person judgments by stipendiary magistrates, which could lead too often to the charge of legal arbitrariness and state authoritarianism?

Jane Kennedy: I can reassure my hon. Friend that there are no such sinister cellars in Selborne house. On the contrary, there is an excellent staff restaurant at that level, which I would invite him to visit.

In all seriousness, I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is nothing in the mode of trial Bill that suggests or requires a more extensive use of stipendiary magistrates. It is important to understand their role. They hear cases that are expected to continue for more than one day. That helps the court over the difficulty of constituting a bench of three lay members who are able to sit for two, three or more consecutive days. Stipendiary magistrates give support to lay benches.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I do not wish to intrude on the private grief caused by the attack of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) on the sinister cellars in Selborne house, but will there be a proper survey following this Question Time into the work that is done by stipendiary magistrates? Will the hon. Lady confirm that, despite the support that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have for the lay magistracy, she recognises that stipendiary magistrates have an important part to play? Might the Government change their mind about the role of stipendiaries under the Football (Disorder) Bill, which is being considered in another place? As she knows, the Opposition certainly wish stipendiaries to have a greater role in the context of that legislation.

Jane Kennedy: I sought to reassure the House that there were no such sinister cellars. I clearly have not achieved my objective. A joint Lord Chancellor's Department and Home Office research project is being

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undertaken to assess whether the current balance between the use of lay magistrates and stipendiaries is correct, and whether each set of magistrates is deployed in the most effective way. A report on that is due in September. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the review of the criminal courts that is being conducted by Lord Justice Auld. We await his conclusions with interest.

McKenzie Friends

30. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): What representations he has received regarding the numbers of McKenzie friends attending legal proceedings (a) in court and (b) in chambers. [130598]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): Since my previous reply on 25 January this year to the hon. Gentleman, I have not received any representations about McKenzie friends.

Mr. Ruffley: Will the Minister explain to the House how it can possibly be in the interests of British justice for litigants in person to be increasingly deprived of McKenzie friends in court proceedings?

Mr. Lock: I do not accept the premise of the question. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that McKenzie friends are increasingly being denied access to courts. Judges have developed common law rules so that litigants in person are permitted a McKenzie friend in proceedings in open court and in most proceedings in chambers, unless the court is satisfied that justice and fairness do not require that.

I trust that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the nature of private proceedings in chambers, where confidential matters are frequently disclosed, means that anyone who is in those chambers and who seeks to play a professional part must be under a regulated system. McKenzie friends are entirely outside that. That is why the judges, in exercising their discretion to control what happens in their courts, have perfectly properly put that caveat on the role of McKenzie friends.

Public Trust Office

31. Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): If she will make a statement on the review of the Public Trust Office. [130599]

36. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): If she will make a statement on the operation of the Public Trust Office. [130607]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): The Lord Chancellor announced his plans for the future operation of the Public Trust Office on 11 April 2000. We are consulting all interested parties on the programme of reform set out in "Making Changes: the Future of the Public Trust Office". A number of steps have already been taken to improve the current performance of the Public Trust Office. A new

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customer services division has been created, a new senior management team has been put in place, and we anticipate a much-improved service to clients.

Mr. Colman: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and for the work that she has done over the past six months in particular, since I have been involved, to bring together the unions, the management, the clients, the patients and the receivers to deliver a much better service at no increased cost to the clients or the receivers. Will she join me in congratulating Nick Smedley and the management for the open days that they are holding for receivers? I attended one today and saw that many receivers strongly support the changes. Will my hon. Friend ensure that in the distribution of assets below £10,000, those are not under any circumstances handed over to nursing or care home managers? Concern has been expressed to me that "granny farming" could result if care home managers were in receipt of those moneys.

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful for the interest that my hon. Friend takes in the work of the Public Trust Office. He raises an important point. Each case is reviewed individually by a senior case worker in the Public Trust Office, who will check that, among other things, all accounts are accurate and up to date, and that the case file and visitors' reports, if there are any, demonstrate that the receiver is taking an active interest in the patient's welfare, and that no concerns have been raised by third parties--for example, the nursing home or social services.

We are notifying the client, the receiver and family members of our intention to transfer the assets in advance. Where there is a family dispute or a risk of fraudulent activity, the capital will not be distributed. I cannot give my hon. Friend an absolute guarantee that we will not distribute the capital to nursing homes--clearly, that would be done on a case-by-case basis--but it is worth mentioning that that is proving extremely popular with receivers dealing with the Public Trust Office, not because they intend to misappropriate the funds, but because they are often caring for loved ones and do not like the interference of the state in their work.

Mr. Barnes: I am pleased to hear of the improvements that are taking place; they certainly seem to be needed. I am pursuing a case on behalf of a constituent, the mother of a disabled boy, who is gravely dissatisfied with the investment programme undertaken by the trust in connection with his settlement. Has not the Public Trust Office been a highly incompetent organisation up till now? That is illustrated by the fact that it only recently obtained computers. I know that computers are not the answer to all the problems in the universe, but assistance in that regard and the other improvements that have been mentioned may help to ensure that the situation that I described does not occur again.

Jane Kennedy: I am aware of my hon. Friend's constituent's case. The Public Trust Office needs to be overhauled to deliver a better service to clients, but a great deal of good work has been done in the past and we do not want to introduce change for change's sake. At each stage we are consulting the users--the receivers and, in many cases, clients--to ensure that the service that we deliver is appropriate to the needs of the clients whom we seek to serve.

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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that in July 1999 the Public Accounts Committee concluded that the Public Trust Office was failing properly to protect the financial interests of people suffering from mental incapacity, and, furthermore, in the light of the reform proposals to which the Parliamentary Secretary referred, what improvement has she so far detected in the training of staff?

Jane Kennedy: At the outset we had to suspend some of the training programmes because of the enormous pressure that we were placing on the staff. It is recognised that the Public Trust Office is in the midst of a major and complex programme of change, so I was happy to be able to announce to the staff some two months ago that we were reinstating and improving the training programme. As I think that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, the total programme of change cannot be successfully implemented without the requisite skills, which often are not available in the civil service, so, on occasions, we shall seek the support of external consultants to take the work forward.

I associate myself with the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) in commending the work of Nick Smedley, the director of the programme of change in the Public Trust Office.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I welcome the review, but I draw my hon. Friend's attention to concerns which were brought to my attention at my surgery on Saturday about annual administrative costs for those in the lowest income band. Relatives of pensioners whose total income is used to pay for private and residential homes simply do not have the annual £180 minimum administrative charge. Will my hon. Friend consider that issue closely?

Jane Kennedy: Nursing home fees are a matter for the Department of Health, but I am conscious of the concerns expressed about the imposition of fees. The Treasury has agreed to changes to the mental health fee system and we plan to introduce new fees in the autumn which should meet some of my hon. Friend's concerns.

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