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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): The Court of Appeal civil division has sat on the Wales and Chester circuit since 1999, holding sittings at Cardiff and Swansea. The Master of the Rolls attaches importance to the court's sitting in Wales, and has now committed it to termly sittings, subject to suitable appeals being available for hearing. In recent years, the Court of Appeal criminal division has also been convened in Cardiff.
Will the Minister urge his Department to ensure that the Employment Appeals Tribunal also sits in Wales occasionally? In two cases last year, appellants wished to speak Welsh but were not allowed to do so, because the appeals were being heard in London. That is surely wrong in principle.
Mr. Wills: We will consider that point carefully. We attach considerable importance to the use of the Welsh language in courts, and the court service is committed to treating the English and Welsh languages on an equal basis in the administration of justice in Wales. Most forms, leaflets, reports and other documents are now produced bilingually, which I hope gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): CAFCASS is already subject to independent inspection by the magistrates courts service inspectorate. The MCSI undertakes a systematic programme of inspection visits covering all areas of CAFCASS. That includes a review of CAFCASS headquarters, which is due to commence this week.
Mr. Syms: It is a pity that the Minister is not going to proceed with an independent review. The service seems to be in a mess. There is the long-running dispute involving guardians ad litem, the service is over budget, and the chief executive has been suspended. There is much concern in legal circles. How does the Minister think the current situation, which is pretty poor, can be remedied?
Ms Winterton: As I said, an independent inspection of CAFCASS is under way. That is part of the operation of the service. The MCSI made a preliminary report to Ministers in September, and it will publish its first formal report in the spring. The latter report will be laid before Parliament and deal with any problems that have arisen. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as he may already be aware, some of the difficulties arising from the guardians dispute are being dealt with in consultation. Additionally, I am having weekly meetings with the chairman of CAFCASS and receiving regular reports from him.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Is my hon. Friend aware that there are more unallocated cases for children's guardians in Wales than ever before? Can she assure me that new guardians will be appointed so that vulnerable children are not left in limbo and waiting lists are not allowed to increase any further?
Ms Winterton: I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I know that she has concerns about that issue which she has expressed previously. The latest information from CAFCASS shows that the current case load in Wales is 741 cases, that it allocated 16 new cases last week, and that 16 cases are outstanding. However, it can be quite difficult to compare that situation with the previous one because figures were not kept centrally. Nevertheless, I assure my hon. Friend that if self-employed guardians are not taking on cases, employed guardians will be taken on to fill the gaps.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): The Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General are considering Sir Robin Auld's recommendations and consulting on them. Among my functions in that process, I am conducting a series of roadshows across the country[Interruption.] I am indeed, and I hope that the hon. Members who are making so much noise will give us the benefit of some of their views on the subject.
Mr. Wills: I am sorry that some Opposition Members do not wish to consider contributing to this important process. However, everyone else who has a central interest in the criminal justice system and members of the public will be attending the roadshows, and Ministers and officials will be listening very carefully to their views. I am sorry that we shall not have the benefit of the views of some Opposition Members.
Mr. Osborne: I thank the Minister for that answer and look forward to the roadshow rolling up in my constituency. He will be aware that chapter 4 of the Auld report deals with the role of the lay magistracy and is critical of some aspects of what it calls the locality of justicethe overly local orientation of lay magistrates. Is not one of the precise strengths of the lay magistracy the fact that lay magistrates are locally involved in justice? Rather than centralising criminal justice, should we not be decentralising it and perhaps reopening magistrates courts such as the one in Knutsford in my constituency?
Mr. Wills: The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Government's great commitment to the lay magistracy and indeed to the concept of local justice. However, he will also be aware that local justice is a rather complicated concept, and that local justice in rural areas is quite different from local justice in a great metropolitan area. We have to be quite sure that we have a criminal justice system that delivers for everyone who needs it to deliver for them, as it has not been doing. Although local justice is part of such a system, it is very important that we have a court service that delivers effectively and does not allow undue delays for witnesses and victims. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will support us in our modernisation of that service.
Mr. Lidington: Have not the Minister's words just let the cat out of the bag? Whatever the performances at his travelling circus going round the country, the Government have already made it clear in hints, briefings and words today that they are critical of what they term the over-local nature of magistrates justice, that they want to subject magistrates to special training before they sit in the proposed second-tier courts and that they will press ahead with closing many magistrates courts entirely. The Government's real agenda is to create a centrally
Mr. Wills: I think that before he asks a question or, indeed, makes a speech in this place, the hon. Gentleman might be better advised to do a little bit of research and read what Ministers have actually said. We have made it quite clear that our commitment to the lay magistracy is unassailable[Interruption.] Yes, it is unassailable. We are committed to consulting. What he regards as circuses are regarded by those who have visited the roadshows as an extremely valuable exercise in consultationsomething that his party signally failed ever to do when they were in government.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): On 6 November the Minister told the House that the Government wanted wide debate on the Auld report. The report, as he knows, includes proposals for judicial appointments by the Lord Chancellor in respect of the proposed unified criminal courts, with the inevitable substantial magistrates courts closures and serious potential damage to local justice, despite what the Minister just said. Does he deny thataccording to a memorandum by a senior civil servant discovered in the Adam and Eve pub by St. James's parkthe Government, before the consultation period has ended, have in preparation a draft Bill of no less than 400 clauses to deal with those and all the other matters referred to and included in the Auld report? Does he deny that the unified court system is ranked second in priority for the Bill and does he accept that unless the draft Bill is made available to the public before the consultation period ends on 31 January 2002 the subsequent few weeks of consultation will be a sham? Will he be good enough to let me have a copy of the draft Bill now?
Mr. Wills: Unlike the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), the hon. Gentleman has obviously done some research, but I am sorry that it was not of better quality. We are conducting the process properly, not through documents left in pubs, but through a full-blooded process of consultation. We have made it clear that the consultation will continue until 31 January 2002 and we will publish a White Paper in the spring. At that point, we will be happy to discuss all our proposals with the hon. Gentleman.