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Human Rights Act

28. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): What assessment he has made of the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 on the operation of the court system in England and Wales. [146209]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): The courts are responding very well to the requirements of the Human Rights Act. In a majority of cases, human rights points are being raised alongside other arguments in cases that would have come before the courts in any event. Court work loads have been stable since 2 October.

Sir Sydney Chapman: Does the Minister accept that the implementation of the various articles of the European

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convention on human rights incorporated into British law will have a devilish impact on the whole legal system in our country? Did he assess the impact before the Human Rights Act was introduced? If so, what estimate did the Government make of the extra cost that would fall on the courts?

Mr. Lock: Promoting a culture of respect for human rights and responsibilities throughout society and enabling British citizens to exercise the same human rights in British courts as those that they can exercise in any part of the European Union is not something that I would describe as "devilish".

I was asked whether there is chaos. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no chaos. In fact, the average length of a hearing was shorter in November 2000 than in November 1999. He also asks about the provision that has been made for additional costs. We plan to spend an extra £21 million on running the courts this year--4.7 per cent. more than the existing provision. We also plan to spend up to an extra £39 million in legal aid payments--a possible addition of 2.3 per cent. It is far too early to say whether those additional provisions will be required. At present, court work loads are stable and the time taken to hear cases is decreasing, so perhaps the predictions of chaos were a little exaggerated.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): My hon. Friend refers to a £39 million provision for the legal aid budget. In the light of the debate on legal aid in Committee last week, to what extent does he think that that budget is protected against all future contingencies?

Mr. Lock: My hon. Friend raises an important point, because £39 million extra in the legal aid budget to protect our human rights are one thing, but I understand that the Conservative party's proposals are to take £525 million out of civil legal aid, which would completely remove the ability of people in this country to exercise their civil rights. That proposal would certainly provide no money at all, for example, for the victims of domestic violence who want to get injunctions to prevent them from being repeatedly abused. It clearly shows the value that the Conservative party places on the human rights of such people.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): May I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the Human Rights Act is being used as an excuse to close many rural magistrates courts, including the one in Lampeter? Will he comment on the case of a defendant last week who got up at 4.30 in the morning, walked 60 miles to a court case in Aberystwyth and arrived at 4.30 in the afternoon? The magistrates took pity on him and he was discharged. Had the court at Lampeter still been open, he could have gone 15 miles up the road and attended the local magistrates court. How can we deal with human rights when we are forcing defendants to walk 60 miles in rural areas?

Mr. Lock: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman's constituents are fit enough to walk that far. Decisions on whether individual magistrates courts are to close are matters for individual magistrates courts committees. I would not expect any magistrates courts closures to arise directly as a result of the Human Rights Act. That is a smokescreen. Other issues are involved and the quality of

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court houses, including their facilities for disabled access, is also important. I am sure that he would want to ensure that every court house has proper access for disabled people.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does the Minister recognise that people throughout the country will regard his answers as astonishingly complacent? On the case raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and other matters that have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), campaigners in the Borders and mid-Wales recognise that licensees have to travel 74 miles on a round trip for a five-minute hearing because of court closures such as the one at Machynlleth. It is unacceptable for the Minister to wash his hands of the problem and say that it is all a matter for magistrates courts committees, as he and his colleagues have repeatedly done. This mismanaged, bungled introduction of the Human Rights Act has taken place at vast cost. We no longer have local justice in rural areas, and that is the Government's fault. The Minister cannot escape responsibility.

Mr. Lock: Is not it interesting that the framework under which these decisions are rightly taken locally was not passed by this Government, but by the previous one? It was their decision to allow magistrates courts committees to take such decisions, and they must be taken locally. [Interruption.] If Conservatives Members do not like it, they can complain from a sedentary position, but it was their legislation. We believe that these decisions should be taken locally, and they have nothing whatever to do with the Human Rights Act.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): If the Tories are against this human rights thing, should not they be happy that people cannot get to court on time?

Mr. Lock: I often wonder why we have copious briefings from civil servants when, as always, my hon. Friend makes the point far more effectively and succinctly.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): The Minister's Department is currently considering various appeals against the unwarranted closures of magistrates courts, particularly in Devon and Cornwall. Despite the fact that no appeal decisions have been taken by the Minister, magistrates courts committees have usurped his function and gone ahead and closed those courts, thus undermining not only him but the lay magistrates who strongly believe that the courts should stay open. Will he immediately order the reopening of the closed courts?

Mr. Lock: I understand the hon. Gentleman's passion on such matters, but where cases are allocated and which courts sit on which days are not decisions for me or for my colleagues as Ministers in the Lord Chancellor's Department. They are decisions for local magistrates courts committees. I understand his point about the position in Devon and Cornwall, but he will appreciate that no decision has yet been made. It would be inappropriate for me to pre-empt it by making an announcement this afternoon.

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Lay Magistracy

29. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): If he will make a statement about the future of the lay magistracy. [146210]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation--if I may call it that--to the Opposition Front Bench as junior health spokesman.

As for the question, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) and the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) on 14 November 2000, and to my reply to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) on 19 December--they are nothing if not persistent. My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor gave evidence before the Home Affairs Select Committee last Tuesday and said that he had a very high regard for members of the lay magistracy. They give their time for no reward, reflect the community that they serve and typify the quite remarkable lay involvement in this country's system of justice, and our justice system is better for it.

Mr. Swayne: The Minister is kind, but does she agree that the lay magistracy affords a welcome measure of common sense to the criminal justice system? What thought has she given to increasing the number of lay magistrates at the expense of stipendiary magistrates? She will, of course, recall that the perverse decision in Abergavenny last summer was taken by a stipendiary magistrate sitting alone.

Jane Kennedy: The number of district judges and magistrates who serve are determined by statute. We constantly seek new recruits to the lay magistracy. It is testament to the Government's efforts to increase civic involvement in our justice system that the number of magistrates has been increasing. Indeed, gender and ethnic balance have also improved.


The President of the Council was asked--

People's Peers

41. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): How many application packs were sent out to aspiring people's peers; and how many were returned (a) complete and (b) incomplete. [146222]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): I understand that about 13,000 packs were sent out in response to expressions of interest. Some 3,141 nominations were received by 17 November, of which about 300 arrived via the internet. I understand that only two were deliberately incomplete, and that some other people omitted details by oversight, which the Commission has followed up with the nominees.

Mr. Prentice: Those are fascinating figures--30,000 putative people's peers and 3,141 people who actually

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replied. Of that number, only eight "outstanding individuals"--in the words of the Appointments Commission--will be selected in the next eight weeks and given ermine. Is it not the case those eight so-called people's peers can never be representative of Britain? We are creating a legislative joke. Is it not possible, even at this late stage, to join forces with the Liberal Democrats and some Conservative Members to create a legislature that is fit for the 21st century so that we do not persist with this Gormenghast creation?

Mr. Tipping: Those are fascinating comments. I am delighted to hear calls from Pendle--of all places--to work in co-operation with the Liberal Democrats. It has really changed up there.

I know that my hon. Friend is a contender for parliamentarian of the year, but I must gently correct his figures: 13,000 people applied for packs. I am not confident that there will be eight nominees--that is yet to be decided--but I am confident that the new procedure will create an Upper House that is more balanced and representative of the community in which we live.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): If the system is so good and there are so many applicants, why do we not simply select all the people to serve in the other place and get rid of the lot who are there right now--or would that reduce the income of the Labour party?

Mr. Tipping: The hon. Gentleman needs to remember that 29 per cent. of Members of the Upper House are from the Labour party. He should reflect on his party's record because other people have not forgotten it.

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