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Magistrates (Warrington)

36. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): What progress has been made in appointing more people from the Warrington, North constituency to the magistracy in Warrington. [32370]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): There is no shortage of magistrates on the Warrington Bench; neither is there a shortage of magistrates from the Warrington, North constituency. However, there has been a slight decline in the number of magistrates from Warrington, North, from 59 per cent. of the total in 1997 to 57 per cent. now.

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The local advisory committee is finding it harder to encourage people to put themselves forward to be magistrates in the Warrington area than in other areas of Cheshire. It has been working closely with the council and the press in an effort to encourage more people in the area to put themselves forward. Any help my hon. Friend can give will be warmly welcomed.

Helen Jones: The problem in my constituency is recruitment from the poorer areas, which suffer the most crime. Is it not vital to the administration of justice for such areas to have representation on the Bench? Will the Minister consider running pilot projects to encourage people from those areas to apply, and also to help them with the interviewing process—or to establish why they do not get through the process when they do apply?

Mr. Wills: The Department is deeply sensitive to those important points. We will shortly launch a national recruitment strategy that will take them all into account. I look forward to working with colleagues on these matters, and to making progress.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I note that it is as difficult to find people with low incomes who are prepared to serve as magistrates in Warrington as it is to find such people elsewhere. It is very important for us to have a representative lay magistracy. Is the Department considering paying magistrates a reasonable sum, in Warrington and elsewhere, and appointing them for a period of, say, 10 years, which would not be renewable?

Mr. Wills: Of course we must take account of financial loss when recruiting magistrates, and we do take it seriously, but there is no pressing evidence that potential magistrates are being deterred by financial hardship. There is nevertheless a great deal of concern about the issue, and we are looking into it. If it became apparent that there was a real, widespread problem, we would of course consider what research was needed to get to the bottom of it and what action should subsequently be taken.

Obviously we shall look at all possible options for increasing diversity on the bench, in the context of our national recruitment strategy; but I fear that the hon. Gentleman's proposed option of fixed terms may not be our first port of call.

Courthouse, Colchester

37. Bob Russell (Colchester): When he expects work to start on building the new courthouse at Colchester. [32371]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): It is planned that the work should start in early to mid-2004.

Bob Russell: There is grave concern about the possibility that the introduction of the private finance initiative will cause the company involved to be more interested in profit than in the prestige of the building.

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Can the Minister assure us that the PFI courthouse will be a building of which we can be proud, rather than just a profit generator for the company running it?

Mr. Wills: As the hon. Gentleman's rhetoric suggests, he is well aware of the truth. The idea is to produce a new courthouse for Colchester, and a number of new courthouses throughout the country. No new courthouses have been built since 1992. The Department is currently supporting the building of 12 new courthouses, and I think that that is something of which we can all be proud.

As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, the start of work on his courthouse will depend on the completion of the outline business case and, critically in the context of his question, on a demonstration on the basis of the public sector comparator that the project represents value for money. That is the key: value for money.

Criminal Courts (Reorganisation)

38. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): What estimates his Department has made of the costs of the proposals by Lord Justice Auld for reorganisation of the criminal courts in England and Wales; and if he will make a statement. [32373]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): Estimates of costs will be made in the light of decisions that will be taken following the consultation on the report of Lord Justice Auld, which ended on 31 January. As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, these decisions have not yet been taken and the Government will announce their conclusions by way of a White Paper in the spring.

Mr. O'Brien: I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the patent confusion that exists, as we know from information found in a pub off St. James's park, what is driving the Government's response to the Auld report? Is it cost savings or the interests of justice?

Mr. Wills: As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, our response to the Auld review is driven by our manifesto commitments and the results of the very wide consultation that we have just finished.


The President of the Council was asked—

Royal Prerogative

43. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): What consideration he is giving to bringing the operation of the royal prerogative under parliamentary scrutiny. [32380]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The royal prerogative is usually exercised by Ministers or on their advice. Ministers are accountable to Parliament for their decisions, but I am always open to constructive ideas on strengthening scrutiny.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am rather disappointed with my right hon. Friend's reply. Given his reforming zeal to

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make the Executive accountable to Parliament, I had hoped that, at the very least, the absolute power of kings, transferred to the absolute power of Ministers, would finally be brought to public account. Will my right hon. Friend bring forward proposals to ensure that every decision taken under the royal prerogative by the Prime Minister or any other Minister is openly and immediately reported to the House, open to debate and open to a vote before it can be taken to its completion? That would be a start in ensuring that democracy in Britain really works and that the Executive are accountable to the elected representatives of the people.

Mr. Cook: I am sorry that my hon. Friend is disappointed. I thought that I had crafted an open and welcoming answer on which my hon. Friend could build. I repeat that Ministers are accountable to this place. There can be no question of the Prime Minister or any other Minister of the Crown acting under the royal prerogative in a way that is unacceptable to the House of Commons. They would be very quickly brought to book by the House, and rightly so.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Is the Leader of the House aware of the growing concern about the use of the royal prerogative by Ministers, particularly the Prime Minister? In view of almost daily revelations about lobbying, favours and cash for coronets, will the Leader of the House consider the introduction of an ethical Question Time so that we can look at the moral ethics of Ministers when they use the royal prerogative?

Mr. Cook: I am not sure quite how that supplementary arises from the matter in hand. We had extended discussions on party funding in the last Parliament. It was, after all, this Government who introduced legislation to make sure that party funding is transparent, open and accountable and can be received only by those in Britain. We are pleased with what we have done to clean up the act of party funding. It is a matter of great regret that Conservative Members did nothing about it in their 18 years of power.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): The Prime Minister's considerable powers rest largely on the royal prerogative. Why does he refuse to appear before the Select Committee on Public Administration to account for the decisions that he takes under those prerogative powers? I ask my right hon. Friend to intercede with the Prime Minister, ask him to break with precedent and come before the Public Administration Committee, where we will give him a gentle ride.

Mr. Cook: I am greatly encouraged by my hon. Friend's reference to a gentle ride. I am sure that we can build on that for the future in his relations with the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, there is a clearly established precedent. No Prime Minister has ever appeared before any Select Committee, and it is difficult to see where it would stop once the Prime Minister had appeared before any one Select Committee. However, I remind my hon. Friend that the Prime Minister comes here every week for Question Time. Indeed, he has a better record of attendance at Question Time than either of his two predecessors.

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