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The Advocate-General was asked—

Devolution Issues

26. Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin): What devolution issues have been raised in the last month under the Scotland Act 1998. [32357]

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): Since 1 January 2002, 19 devolution issue cases have been intimated to me. They all raised points under article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which protects the right to a fair trial.

Mr. Galloway: But has not the Advocate-General considered the extraordinary story of the Scottish police showering Anthony Gauci, the key prosecution witness in the Lockerbie trial, with hunting, shooting and fishing holidays, five-star holidays—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must stop the hon. Gentleman. That matter is sub judice. Under the sub judice rules, the Advocate-General should not respond to that question.

European Court of Justice Cases

27. Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): If she will make a statement about recent European Court of Justice cases which have had an impact upon Scots law. [32359]

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): The European Court of Justice hears a large number of cases every year raising issues of Community law. Because Community law has a binding effect on the laws of member states, depending on the particular facts and circumstances of the case, any such judgments can have an impact on Scots law.

Mr. Tynan: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that comprehensive answer. She will be aware that in Hamilton, South the European Court of Justice is an important and topical subject. How many cases have emanated from Scotland and how many times has she appeared in the European Court of Justice?

The Advocate-General: Very few cases from Scotland have gone to the European Court of Justice. The most recent such case is that of Booker Aquaculture, which concerned a reference from the Court of Session that asked the ECJ for a preliminary ruling on whether the right of property, as recognised by Community law, required that compensation be paid to farmers whose fish had to be destroyed under measures imposed by a Council directive for the control of diseases. Although some of

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those cases and rulings are highly technical, my hon. Friend is right to think that they are important for his constituents.

I have not yet had the opportunity to appear in the ECJ. I have rights of audience and I hope that a suitable case will arise.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): What criteria does the Advocate-General use for intervention in the Court of Session? She will be aware that in a recent case, the court was moved to criticise the fact that she had neither appeared nor been represented, although she had said that the case involved a matter of some importance in the context of her responsibilities. Precisely what criteria does she use in determining whether she should intervene?

The Advocate-General: In the case to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman refers, one of the judges took a view with which I would beg to differ. The case concerned an interpretation of a United Kingdom statute. The law in Scotland was perfectly plain according to three judges, and the law in England and Wales was perfectly plain according to the House of Lords.

In every case, I have to make a decision on what added value I can give as Advocate-General. I also have to decide whether it would be useful to use public money to extend a case as a result of my intervention. Every case turns on its own merits. I can advise the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I gave detailed consideration to this case before making a decision on intervention. As it happens, I intimated that I wished to consider intervention when I still had time to consider the case. [Interruption.] Such matters are complex—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Sometimes complex matters can be brief.

Drugs Misuse

28. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Pursuant to her oral statement of 15 January, Official Report, column 143, by what means she has sought to clarify the position on the laws on the misuse of drugs in England and Wales. [32360]

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): In my reply to the hon. Lady last month, I was referring to the devolution issue case of Robert McIntosh, in which I appeared personally before the Privy Council last year. Brief it was not; it took a couple of days at least. The case concerned statutory assumptions as to the source of property, and the compatibility of those assumptions with human rights. The case was relevant to the law of England and Wales, because their legislation makes similar assumptions, which, at the same time, was subject to legal proceedings domestically—the Rezvi and Benjafield cases—and, in the European Court of Human Rights, the Phillips case. I am pleased to report that the Privy Council agreed that the Scottish legislation was compatible with human rights. That was a case in which I determined that it would be helpful to intervene.

Miss McIntosh: As far as I know, Robert McIntosh is no relation of mine. To what extent can the

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Advocate-General assure the House that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 will continue to be interpreted in the way that it should be in England, Wales and Scotland? What discussions has she had with her opposite number who represents England and Wales in that regard? What added value does she believe that she brings to this process?

The Advocate-General: The McIntosh case helped to clarify the law, particularly when the Privy Council overruled the decision of the Appeal Court in Scotland, which reached a different decision from that in the Benjafield case, for example. I am aware and concerned when similar cases to those in Scotland arise in England and Wales, and I shall take a great interest in Scottish cases to ensure that we reach a satisfactory end result.


The Parliamentary Secretary was asked—

Monmouth County Court

33. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): If he will make a statement on the proposed closure of Monmouth county court. [32365]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): The Lord Chancellor has authorised the closure of Monmouth county court with effect from l April 2002. His decision followed a public consultation process and a detailed evaluation by the court service of the work load, facilities and services provided by courts in that area. Arrangements have been made for weekly hearings to take place in High Trees, a building in Chepstow owned by Monmouthshire county council, which is also used by the magistrates court.

Mr. Edwards: There is great disappointment at the decision to close Monmouth county court, but there is also an acknowledgement that the current facilities in the shire hall are inadequate, and that there is no access for people with disabilities. Given that it is hoped that the shire hall will have a major refurbishment, will my hon. Friend consider returning the county court to that site, if it is in a decent state of repair, so that we can return the administration of justice to Monmouth after centuries of the fine administration of justice there?

Mr. Wills: I can certainly give my hon. Friend some reassurance on that matter. I understand his intense concern, and that of his constituents, and I pay tribute to his campaigning on the matter. Unfortunately, we have not been able to arrange for hearings to be held in Monmouth in the same way that they have been arranged for Chepstow, because, at the moment, we cannot find a suitable venue in Monmouth that fulfils the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—which comes into force in 2004—and that meets the security needs of the judges. Should that situation change and a suitable venue be found, of course we shall review the situation.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): With regard to the closure of Monmouth county court and the Government's policy on court closure across the land, will the Minister bear it in mind that these decisions are

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sometimes based on figures that suggest a saving, whereas the outcome turns out to be far more expensive, as was the case in Derbyshire, where the Lord Chancellor closed a number of magistrates courts and the cost is now substantially greater?

Mr. Wills: I should be happy to see any detailed figures that the hon. Gentleman would care to provide me with. He is well aware, however, that the closure of magistrates courts is a matter for the magistrates courts committees, which make such decisions in accordance with the needs of their local area, but if he would like to write to me and provide me with more details, I should be happy to consider anything he sends me.

Family Visitor Visas

34. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): If she will make a statement on appeals against refusals of visit visas to family members of UK residents. [32366]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): This Government reinstated the right of appeal against refusals of visitor visas to family members of UK residents on 2 October 2000. In the 14 months since the introduction of the appeal right, the Immigration Appellate Authority received 4,975 appeals, 53 per cent. of which were successful at the adjudicator stage. The review report on the operation of the family visitor appeals scheme will be published shortly.

Fiona Mactaggart: I thank the Minister for that reply. The high success rate for appellants in oral hearings—more than 70 per cent. in certain months—suggests that bad initial decisions were taken. What plans does she have to involve adjudicators in preparing information for entry clearance officers to improve the quality of first-stage decisions, so that families need not suffer the distress and expense of appealing against such decisions?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The review process will examine how the system works from start to finish, and I can assure her that we are working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to establish the role that entry clearance officers should play and whether improvements can be made. We should also examine the information provided to applicants on first going to entry clearance posts and the advice to them on what information they should provide for those initial decisions.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): Will the Minister take account of the fact that figures published last October, when the Government last made an announcement on the matter, showed a variation in successful appeals? In November 2000, 18 per cent. were successful, but 45 per cent. were successful in July 2001. Will she be good enough to explain how that can happen, and does not such variation demonstrate the need for greater coherence in the way that such decisions are taken and the criteria given to courts to enable them to reach sensible decisions?

Ms Winterton: The whole point of what we are doing is to review the system and all such factors will be taken into account. For example, we are examining the differing

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success rates of paper and oral appeals. We are looking at the process from start to finish, and as the Home Secretary said last week, the results will be announced shortly. They will take into account the various factors that I have outlined and the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): In constituencies such as Aberdeen, the full range of family members visit surgeries to discuss such matters, and in that respect I have noticed a difference. A relative who is affluent and owns property in their own country will probably be granted a visa first time, but it is very difficult for someone from an impoverished background to secure a visa, even on appeal. My experience therefore suggests a problem. It is far harder for those from poorer backgrounds to visit this country—they are often automatically rejected because they have no home to return to. Are the Government looking into that issue, and can such discrimination be eliminated from the visa system and the appeals system?

Ms Winterton: The review will examine the way in which the system works and all aspects of it. Of course, legal help is available for people from poorer backgrounds to enable them to challenge initial decisions. None the less, I take on board my hon. Friend's point and I shall liaise with colleagues in other Departments to see whether anything can be done, perhaps through further research into the matter.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Does the Minister agree that legal help is not always applicable, because the folk concerned cannot get in touch with a particular legal adviser and must chase around from one adviser to another? There is also the reverse problem, which affects people in this country who require visas to visit relatives in other countries. A constituent of mine has a scholarship to go to Africa in March, but is still waiting for a visa. Every time we contacted the authorities, we were told, "We will sort it out as soon as we can and when everything is complete." However, they told us as long ago as last November that everything was indeed complete. Nevertheless, there is still no visa.

Ms Winterton: If the hon. Gentleman writes to me about the case he has raised, I will certainly look into it.

Legal assistance can be channelled through the applicant's sponsor, which should make it easier for the applicant to gain access to such assistance. The sponsor's circumstances as well as those of the applicant will be taken into account.

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