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Rural Magistrates Courts

32. Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): If she will make a statement on future prospects for rural magistrates courts. [130601]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): The hon. Gentleman asked similar questions on 9 November 1999, and this year, on 25 January, 18 April and 27 June. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that he is still waiting for an answer, but, as I said on each occasion, the Government's policy is that magistrates courts are best managed locally by magistrates courts committees under the provisions of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. Decisions concerning the future of magistrates courts in an MCC area, whether rural or urban, are for the committee to determine, but I am always grateful for the hon. Gentleman's attendance at our Question Time.

Mr. Paterson: When I meet the chairman of Shropshire's magistrates courts on Thursday, may I give

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him a clear reassurance from the Minister that, should Shropshire's magistrates desire to keep all their magistrates courts, the Government will not push them into a policy of centralisation, as has happened in Hereford, where there is now only one court?

Jane Kennedy: As I have just said, the organisation of the courts in Shropshire will be for the local magistrates courts committee, so when the hon. Gentleman meets the chairman he might like to point out just how committed the Government are to modernising the service provided by magistrates courts committees. The public have a right to expect well-equipped and secure court rooms. The hon. Gentleman might also like to tell the chairman that we are spending £16 million this year on magistrates courts improvements. He might also like to suggest how he would arrive at the programme of cuts that the Conservative party would introduce if it were ever returned to power.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): The closure of rural magistrates courts leads to the denial of justice for many people. Furthermore, it undermines the morale of the lay magistracy. For how long will the Government persist in their policy of imposing 3 per cent. per annum cuts on magistrates courts committees throughout the country?

Jane Kennedy: The comprehensive spending review renewed the requirement for efficiency gains for a further three-year period. I reject the proposition that there are cuts of 3 per cent. year on year. That is not the case. If we consider courthouse closures in recent years, most magistrates courts that have closed so far are those that committees no longer felt able to justify because they lacked the necessary facilities. It is absolutely essential to provide courts that are modern and fit for their purpose.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): The slight hazard with that is that, if membership of a magistrates courts committee is not balanced in relation to a specific rural area, there will be some inclination to believe that the decision has not been totally independent and is therefore not unavoidable. I presume that my hon. Friend will examine the composition of magistrates courts committees.

Jane Kennedy: I shall certainly do that, as I have done on previous occasions when my hon. Friend has raised the matter. I undertake to do it again.


The President of the Council was asked--

Media Access

40. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): What further proposals she will bring forward to improve access to Parliament for the media. [130611]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The Modernisation Committee and the Administration Committee have worked together to remove restrictions on

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the use of tape recorders in the Gallery, end the ban on interviews in Members' offices and ease the restrictions on photography. In addition, there are now facilities close to the Chamber for interviews with hon. Members, as well as several more minor changes.

Helen Jackson: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the House is best served not by the frothy, gossipy media reporting that often occurs, but by proper coverage of our serious debates not only in the Chamber but in Committee and in Westminster Hall? In the next Session, will she consider the way in which we can enhance facilities close to Westminster Hall and on the Committee Corridors?

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that hon. Members from all parties sometimes resent the fact that the more serious--and in many ways more interesting--part of our work gets the least coverage. I certainly undertake further to consider what we can do to extend coverage of, for example, Committees and Westminster Hall. I know that the Modernisation Committee wishes to do that.

I hope that my hon. Friend knows that we are reviewing the operations in Westminster Hall and that, as part of that review, we have received information from the BBC regional unit about how useful it finds those debates and the great use that it makes of them on regional television.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Will the President of the Council confirm that the prospects for further enhancing facilities for the media will be realised when Portcullis House is occupied later this year? Does the right hon. Lady find it as astonishing as Members of other Parliaments do that it will be possible for each Member of Parliament to have his or her own private office only when Portcullis House is occupied?

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is right. I am grateful to him for drawing attention to the media facilities that will be available in Portcullis House. He is also right to draw attention to the fact that the new building will make it possible for every hon. Member to have an office for the first time. Many people find it astonishing that that has not been the case hitherto. It is a pity that the provision of accommodation does not feature more in the coverage of Portcullis House.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked--

Visitor Facilities

42. Angela Smith (Basildon): What matters relating to facilities for visitors were discussed at the Commission's last meeting. [130613]

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (on behalf of the House of Commons Commission): A decision to include plans for a visitors centre was taken by the Commission during recent consideration of the next three-year rolling programme of expenditure.

Angela Smith: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer. It is one of the most welcome answers that I have

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received as a Member of Parliament. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on personally pursuing the matter. Flushed with success on the issue, there is another that I wish to raise with him. I shall do that later in the year.

Mr. Kirkwood: Let me return the compliment. The hon. Lady's intelligent and persistent use of oral and written questions on the subject--[Interruption.] Hon. Members may groan, but the hon. Lady's questioning helped to persuade the Commission of the urgent need for visitor facilities to be established in this place as soon as possible.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Would the hon. Gentleman consider increasing dining facilities for hon. Members so that they could invite more than three guests, especially to Portcullis House? Could the three-guest limit for each Member of Parliament be increased?

Mr. Kirkwood: That is an absolutely fair point. The Catering Committee will be able to reconsider the rules because more dining facilities will be available to hon. Member when Portcullis House is commissioned, which we hope will happen in the autumn. Hon. Members may be able to take more guests into the accommodation provided by the Catering Committee, but, strictly speaking, that is a matter for the Committee.

Madam Speaker: It is.

The President of the Council was asked--

Written Answers

43. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): If she will make it her policy to allow the tabling and publication of early-day motions and the publication of written answers during parliamentary Adjournments. [130614]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): No. This matter has been raised frequently--not least by my hon. Friend--but it has considerable implications on time and resources.

Mr. Barnes: That is a very disappointing reply. I hope to table an early-day motion today in an attempt to assist Moorside Mining at Eckington, which is in my constituency, to survive into the future. I would not be able to do that if something similar happened next week or at any time in the next three months. Given that we shall be away for three months, I shall not have the opportunity to table parliamentary questions that will receive an answer. That seems to me to be a minimum requirement in a period when we are Members without Parliament, not Members of Parliament.

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend asks about early-day motions as well as written answers. Of course I understand the concern that he expresses, but it is not reasonable, for example, to expect the staff of the House to be available for 52 weeks a year, and Madam Speaker would have a role in adjudicating whether the questions could be accepted. The matter has been considered

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repeatedly over the years, but it has further implications than are sometimes realised on the use of resources and on the pressure on Members of all kinds.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Is the Leader of the House aware that the fashion for Ministers to issue holding answers is increasing and that even simple factual questions take many weeks to answer? I am still waiting for an answer from the Health Secretary to a simple question about hospital waiting times that goes back to 17 March. If that answer does not appear before the end of this week and the question is then answered at the end of October, I will have awaited more than five months for the answer to a simple question. Could not those questions that have been outstanding for a long time be answered during the recess?

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but the experience of the Scottish Parliament, which began to take questions in the recess, was that far more holding answers, even than the norm, were generated for reasons that I suppose are fairly obvious. Certainly, I share his view that it is disappointing if factual questions cannot be answered reasonably speedily, but long experience of tabling such questions suggests to me that sometimes what may seem a simple question to the Member tabling it requires a lot of work and causes complication in the Department. However, I will certainly draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.

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