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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): New IT systems and services are being developed both for magistrates courts and county courts. The Libra system will link together all magistrates courts and allow links into other criminal justice agencies. On 15 January, I published a consultation paper on the development of IT in the civil courts, which I trust the hon. Member has read. I look forward to his response.
Mr. Thomas: I thank the Minister for that invitation to read his document. I shall read it assiduously because his Department's proposals for rural courthouses in my constituency are very poor indeed. The proposal to close two or three courthouses in Ceredigion is at least being fought by the local county council. It has made an interesting suggestion on the use of IT to support rural courthouses: a main courthouse for the county, with satellite courthouses linked by IT systems. Will the Minister welcome that? Will he also give an assurance that financial considerations will not stand in the way of such additional and innovative solutions, which may deliver justice to rural areas? Finally, following his consultation paper, will he tell us what guidance he is
Mr. Lock: The purpose of magistrates courts is to deliver justice. I am sure that local justice is an important consideration, whether in the hon. Gentleman's constituency or in any part of the United Kingdom. I am grateful to the county council for its co-operation and for taking advantage of the opportunities presented by IT. That is precisely what the consultation paper is all about, as he will see when he gets around to reading it. I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, who will consider the appeal in due course, will consider those matters seriously. I am grateful for all the work that has gone into ensuring that a large measure of local justice is still delivered in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Will the Minister tell us what access and technology will be available for the rural courts that have closed under his Government's stewardship, especially those in Bakewell, Ashbourne and Matlock? That means that there is no local justice in West Derbyshire.
Mr. Lock: The hon. Gentleman is concerned about the closure of magistrates courts, but such decisions are taken by local magistrates courts committees under legislation passed by the previous Conservative Government. As for the county courts, the strategy in the "Modernising the Civil Courts" Green Paper is aimed at increasing the number of places at which hearings can take place to increase the availability of local justice, not to close courts. The strategy is to develop local justice, not to restrict it.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a statement, but it might take me a little time, as we have been extremely busy in improving access to justice in Macclesfield.
The Cheshire community legal service partnership, which covers the Macclesfield area, has been formed to improve access to legal information and advice throughout the county. In Cheshire, the first phase of the project to have a single, national, standard computer system in magistrates courts was delivered in February 2001. A private finance initiative project is in the pipeline. In the county courts in Macclesfield--as elsewhere in England and Wales--the court service is examining how best to use modern technology to improve and increase access outside the traditional court environment.
Mr. Winterton: As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) flattered the Minister, may I do the same and thank her for that extremely helpful reply? However, she knows that if justice is to be effective,it needs to be local. She talks about a private finance
Jane Kennedy: The details of the project are still being considered. It would be wrong to give a commitment at this stage to proposals before I have been able to consider them. However, I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's comments, as I will to the representations that I know that he will make in future.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): Data provided by the magistrates courts committees in the period October to December last year show that there has been no significant impact so far on the operation of the magistrates courts as a result of the Human Rights Act.
Mr. Paterson: What an absurd reply! Five years ago, £350,000 was spent modernising the old school buildings in Oswestry. The court now faces a bill of £197,450 to make it compliant with the Human Rights Act. Every time I ask the Minister where the money should come from, she says that it is down to the magistrates courts committee. That is rubbish. The cost is being forced on local magistrates by central Government. Will she explain why the Government will not stump up the money?
Jane Kennedy: Many smaller or remote magistrates courts lack suitable facilities. The standard of accommodation and facilities provided in a court is only one of a number of factors that magistrates courts committees consider. The Human Rights Act has had very little bearing on those considerations. Setting aside the hon. Gentleman's pre-election hysteria, the answer to his question is simple and straightforward: the prophets of doom who predicted that the implementation of the Human Rights Act would bring chaos to the courts have been proved wrong. That is due to two years of careful preparation by the Government and the courts. The smooth incorporation of the European convention on human rights into United Kingdom law in the form of the Human Rights Act 1998 has been a major achievement of the Government and it is one of which I am very proud.
Mr. Paddy Tipping): Not at present. The Procedure Committee has considered the matter many times. I am pleased to say that Mr. Speaker has responded to the recommendations in its most recent report by extending the deadline for tabling oral questions to 6.30 pm on a trial basis.
Mr. Bercow: I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's characteristically mellifluous and soothing reply. Given the worrying growth of government by remote control and the new extended deadline of 6.30 pm for the tabling of oral questions, will he comprehensively rubbish the idea of tabling questions by e-mail and agree instead that Members who wish to table questions can reasonably be expected to continue to bestir themselves to plod along the corridors of the Palace of Westminster until they reach the Table Office to do so?
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Why do we not do away with the tabling of questions and take a leaf out of the book of the Canadian House of Commons, where questioners are chosen exclusively by the Speaker? The debate is spontaneous, the whole Ministry is present and it stops the planted question. In addition, Ministers from the other place should attend this House to answer questions, and vice versa. It is nonsense for Ministers to come here and pretend that they know the answers when they do not. Ministers should answer for themselves. If Gus Macdonald is made a Cabinet Minister, I want him answering questions here.
Mr. Tipping: I must confess that I am surprised that my hon. Friend knows anything about planted questions, because he is a man of integrity and comes up with his questions himself. My right hon. Friend in the Lords, whom my hon. Friend mentioned, is already a Minister. There were abuses in the past, but the present system of tabling questions in person seems to protect the House from any abuse.