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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): I recently visited the hon. Gentleman's constituency and saw the magistrates court at the town hall for myself. I accept that present conditions are unsatisfactory and require improvement. A bid has been made to my Department for improvements, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to support it.
Thanks to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer's superb management of the economy, the Lord Chancellor's Department is able to commission £70 million of improvements and new court buildings in each of the next three years. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to welcome that as we approach the season of good will.
Mr. Russell: The closure of many magistrates courts was based on the argument that centralised courts would be provided with the most modern facilities. Although I welcome the Minister's answer, it does not tally with the information that I have received from the north Essex magistrates bench, which has received information from the Essex magistrates courts committee. Will the Minister therefore convene a meeting of the local magistrates, the Essex magistrates courts committee and Colchester borough council, so that we can flush out exactly what is going on? I hope that what the Minister said is correct. If it is, we can get on with building the new courthouse.
Mr. Lock: I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman was not able to welcome the very substantial investment that we have made. He asked what was going on, so I inform him that the revenue allocation for magistrates courts in Essex is rising from £7.4 million this year to £8.5 million next year, which is an increase considerably above the rate of inflation. The bid that the magistrates courts committee has put in for new premises in Colchester is being assessed, and I expect that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to make an announcement about it before too long. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will just have to wait a little.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): Does my hon. Friend agree that an issue that arises from the financing of court cases in Colchester and elsewhere is the recoverability of conditional fee insurance, which urgently needs to be dealt with by the insurance industry?
Mr. Lock: As always, I admire my hon. Friend's ingenuity for linking issues. He is right. The Government's policy is that the premium paid for cover against the risk of having to pay legal costs should be recoverable from the
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The Minister has managed to find money to build a new courthouse in Colchester, but does he think that that helps in the administration of justice while we still have cases such as that of Stephen Downing, in which the Crown Prosecution Service last week said that it had not been notified of the case until 4.30 pm the day before? Will the Minister look into that and report back to the House?
Mr. Lock: I pay tribute to the way in which the hon. Gentleman has raised his constituent's case and has diligently pursued the matter over a considerable period. The case is a matter for the Attorney-General, and I understand that my noble and learned Friend has spoken to the hon. Gentleman and is looking into the serious questions that he raises. I am sure that he will get back to the hon. Gentleman before too long.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): The Children Act sub-committee of the Advisory Board on Family Law has produced a report on parental contact in cases in which there is domestic violence. The Lord Chancellor and the president of the family division in the High Court are considering what further action may be necessary.
Ms Keeble: Is my hon. Friend aware of a serious case in my constituency in which a woman was threatened with prison for contempt of court because she had refused her violent ex-husband access to her child? Will my hon. Friend consider introducing legislation along the lines of the best practice guidelines set out by the Children Act sub-committee, first, so that the whole House can properly debate important issues of access and parents' roles in relation to their children and, secondly, to ensure that children throughout the country are given equal protection? Despite the best practice guidelines, no safety net was immediately available to my constituent.
Jane Kennedy: I am aware of the representations that my hon. Friend has made and of the case to which she refers. I remind her that my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is not persuaded at this time that legislation is necessary to protect children from domestic violence during contact with a non-resident parent. Those are extremely difficult matters and the enforcement of contact orders is particularly sensitive. Deliberate refusal to obey any court order is, of course, a contempt of court and can be punished with a fine or imprisonment, but such punishment may not be appropriate, and the courts have to make extremely difficult decisions, taking into account all the circumstances of each case.
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): The Government have been widely condemned for refusing to impose legal constraints on child carers who smack children. When the consultation on that matter has been completed, will it be the subject of open debate and a free vote in the House, or will the Government continue simply to be guided by their own opinion polls?
Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman catches me slightly off guard on a policy issue that is not my responsibility. The consultation period has ended, and the Lord Chancellor is now directly consulting the president of the family division to determine what guidance and best advice to give to the courts for dealing with those difficult and extremely sensitive cases.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): I have personally endorsed the revised good practice guide on courthouse closure issued by the Central Council of Magistrates Courts Committees. That should be issued to all magistrates courts committees shortly. The Government encourage courts committees to follow the practices and advice in that document.
Mr. Heath: I hope that the guidance will include a reference to the importance of local magistrates courts in rural areas. The effect of consolidating magistrates courts committees into large areas to conform with police authority areas is that those committees are now very remote from many of the rural areas that they serve. Will the Minister guarantee, for instance, that Frome magistrates court will still be open in five years?
Jane Kennedy: It would be wrong of me to give any such guarantee. I may not be in my current position in five years' time--who knows? The guidance to which I referred includes the factors to be taken into consideration when reviewing accommodation needs. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government continue to believe that it is for local magistrates courts committees, which are drawn from magistrates who are local, who know the area and who are able to determine what is best for that area, to organise their resources and their courts.
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): It will, of course, be for the House to decide whether it wishes to adopt electronic voting, but the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons has received representations on the matter, and has decided to stage an exhibition on the means of electronic voting. [Laughter.] This will take place in the Upper Waiting Hall in the week beginning Monday 19 March.
Fiona Mactaggart: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Despite the raucous laughter of Opposition Members, I think that an exhibition might be a good means by which Members can educate themselves about the ways in which electronic voting could enable us to waste less time in this place. May I urge my right hon. Friend to do more than stage an exhibition and to ascertain whether she can take action?
Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is right to say that there are different means by which votes could be recorded electronically. As it was fairly clear from the reaction to the initial report from the Modernisation Committee that members had some doubts and reservations about the different possibilities available, I think that it is important for hon. Members to have the opportunity to take a look and to judge for themselves.
Mr. Bercow: The exhibition sounds a truly ghastly prospect. Notwithstanding what was said by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), does the right hon. Lady accept that the traditional method of voting in the Division Lobbies provides Members with invaluable opportunities informally to approach Ministers and shadow Ministers, to confer with their parliamentary colleagues, to rally support for their chosen causes and, on the extraordinarily rare occasions when he turns up in the House, perhaps even to buttonhole the Prime Minister? Does the right hon. Lady agree that, for those four reasons, she should stand for tradition and resist the Maoist revolutionaries on the Government Back Benches?
Mrs. Beckett: Let me gently remind the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is here for Prime Minister's Question Time more often than his predecessor as a result of the way in which it is now arranged. I have some sympathy with the basic point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the benefits of Members being able to mix in the Lobby when a Division is called. It is my understanding--I was not a member of the Modernisation Committee at the time--that one of the things that caused problems when the House considered electronic voting initially was that some hon. Members were under the impression that it would not be possible to combine electronic means of registering votes with the opportunity to mix that takes place in the Lobby. That is not the case, and that is the premise on which the
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Do Labour Back Benchers not realise that by proposing electronic voting they are cutting their own throats? If they want to have so little contact with other parliamentarians that they do not even wish to go into the Division Lobbies to vote in person, why do they not do us all a favour and stop standing for election, to make way for people who want to do a job of work in the House?
Mrs. Beckett: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, who is, of course, a serious parliamentarian, doing his job does not seem to include having the capacity to listen. As I pointed out to the House, it is perfectly possible to introduce electronic means of recording votes, without losing the principle. I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and with my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell- Savours). There is no reason why the two should not be combined. It was not the Government but the all-party Modernisation Committee that made the proposal in the first place, before I was a member of the Committee.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Although one should be very careful who one's allies are in this place, may I ask my right hon. Friend what is wrong with our present system of voting? Is she aware that although opinion on the Labour Benches is bound to be divided, many of us take the view that we should continue with the system that has been used for many years?
Mrs. Beckett: It is interesting to hear my hon. Friend's views. If a proposal to introduce an electronic method of voting is introduced, it will be for the House as a whole to take a view. It will be a House matter and there will be a free vote.
Mr. Leigh: And here is another. The disadvantage of electronic voting is that Ministers will be able to nip in, tap a button and nip out again. The advantage of the present system is that they have to shuffle through the Lobby for 10 or 15 minutes. I know that it is an awful bore for Ministers to have to listen to the peasantry--that is, Back Benchers--but occasionally the mandarins get it wrong and the peasants get it right.