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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): Following the launch of the Community Legal Service in April, the number of Community Legal Service partnerships has increased from 70 to 143, and is continuing to grow. The 143 partnerships involve 270 local authorities and cover 66 per cent. of the population of England and Wales. The CLS partnerships are working--with other key elements of the Community Legal Service, which are also making good progress--to improve the way in which legal services are delivered.
Mr. McCabe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. I have a simple question: when can my constituents in Hall Green, and people in Birmingham generally, hope to realise some benefit from this promising Government initiative?
Mr. Lock: I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that, although his constituency is not yet in a CLS partnership area, the Legal Services Commission is in discussions with Birmingham city council and other potential local partners on the formation of a Birmingham CLS partnership. I very much hope that, with my hon. Friend's support, a partnership will be formed very soon.
Mr. Chapman: In the context of Community Legal Service partnerships, will my hon. Friend tell me what would happen if local authorities were to cut their funding to citizens advice bureaux, such as those in Bebington and Heswall in my constituency, whose work I greatly admire?
Mr. Lock: My hon. Friend is right. Citizens advice bureaux and other not-for-profit agencies provide not only high-quality legal services in important spheres such as employment and welfare benefits, but many other services that are needed by people on modest incomes or on benefits. We must be frank, however, and admit that for many years, citizens advice bureaux and other advice centres have had a precarious existence and been uncertain of the source of future funding. The formation of CLS partnerships, examination of different areas' priorities, and local authorities working with the Legal Services Commission should provide a framework to ensure much more secure funding in the future. Ultimately, however, funding decisions on not-for-profit agencies such as CABs rest with local authorities. Partnerships can influence, but local authorities will decide.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): But are the Government not seeking to impose on all local authorities, regardless of political control, an extra funding obligation without providing them with any more taxpayers' money? The Minister knows that I have raised this issue in a debate in Westminster Hall, but he may not know that since that debate, very many Labour-controlled and Liberal Democrat-controlled authorities have made the same protest as that made by Conservative-controlled authorities. Even Labour supporters are upset that they are
Mr. Lock: As I have explained before to the hon. Gentleman--obviously it needs explaining again--local authorities are under no obligation to participate in CLS partnerships. Although the Legal Services Commission is obliged to join in partnerships, local authorities are volunteers. Local authorities decide how they control the money to purchase legal services in their areas.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): The Government remain committed to the principle of the lay magistracy continuing to play a significant part in our system of justice. Sir Robin Auld is conducting a review of the criminal courts and has reached the provisional conclusion that the current jurisdiction of the lay magistracy should be preserved.
Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will she take this opportunity to confirm that the Government's view is that the lay magistracy is rooted in the communities from which it is drawn, that it is, and has been for centuries, an essential part of the English justice system, and that it is absolutely essential that the lay magistracy's role should not be downgraded by the current or any future Government?
Jane Kennedy: I think I answered that in the first part of my response, but I am happy to repeat my answer. Also, I believe that the lay magistracy now reflects a broader cross-section of society than before. The Department has achieved that by strenuous efforts, including advertising vacancies in minority newspapers and magazines. The magistrates also benefit from an extensive training programme. All those factors demonstrate the Government's continuing commitment to the magistrates and their future.
Mr. Taylor: I declare an interest, as a member of the Magistrates Association. May I draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister early-day motion 1097 in my name, which has been signed by 135 Members, of all parties? Does she agree with the sentiments in the motion, which expresses the congratulations of the signatories on the valuable role that magistrates play in delivering local justice in local communities? Would she care to lay to rest for ever the strong suspicion among magistrates that, in the Home Office at least, there is a secret agenda to transform the lay magistracy, to remove the role of JPs and to give us more of a European model?
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): I expect the regional Standing Committee to be established and I hope it will meet before the end of the Session.
Mr. Clark: Bearing in mind the wide-ranging performances within our regions--I know that mine, in the south-east, is doing good work--will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Committee will have a free hand to look into issues; particularly local economic regeneration issues, which are so important in a number of parts of the south-east?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend may recall that it is intended that the Committee will take business on a motion proposed by a Minister, but he is right to identify issues such as economic development in the regions as being among those that we anticipate the Committee will want to consider, along with issues such as transport strategies, tourism, sport and culture.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Will the President of the Council confirm that the Government do not see the Committee as in any way a substitute for genuine devolution to the regions? The Committee may be helpful in allowing Members of Parliament to assess what is going on in the regions, but given the lack of progress in accountable regional government and accountable democracy in the regions--as opposed to simply regionalising Government agencies--will she confirm the Government's intentions?
Mrs. Beckett: The Government have always made it plain that we recognise the importance of the development of regional strategies. The hon. Gentleman says--perhaps a little unfairly--that there has been a lack of progress. However, this Government set up the regional development agencies, which I understand the Conservative party proposes to abolish. The hon. Gentleman will know that representatives of local authorities work alongside people from the business community and the wider community. He will also know that there are many ideas floating around about how else regional strategies can be pursued, and how there could be other regional representation. However, he will also
Mrs. Beckett: No, it is not the response to the West Lothian question. We have long argued, as did the Conservatives in the days when they were in favour of devolution, that there is no need for a different settlement in this place, and that those who are returned as MPs to Westminster should operate as MPs in Westminster.
It is intended that 13 people will make up the core group of the Committee's membership, and, we hope, will build up expertise on regional affairs in general--but it would of course be possible for any Member who represents an English constituency to attend.