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4 Feb 2003 : Column 138—continued

Salisbury Magistrates Court

20. Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): When the Lord Chancellor will announce his decision on the future of Salisbury magistrates court. [95365]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): In the next month, we expect to announce which major capital projects will begin next year.

Mr. Key : That is very tantalising. May I congratulate the Minister on the strong working relationship between her Department, its officials and the Wiltshire magistrates court committee?

Can the hon. Lady confirm that she does not dissent from the decision of the local magistrates court committee that Salisbury is the right place for the magistrates court? Does she understand that the lack of a decision causes great damage to public perceptions of local justice? It is more than two years since we expected a decision on the courthouse. The situation is also unfair to the accused, who have to be bussed around Wiltshire to find a courthouse that meets the modern conditions necessary for magistrates courts.

Yvette Cooper: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns about court facilities in Salisbury and I agree that the Salisbury courthouse is not satisfactory. As he will be aware, there are proposals to build a new courthouse which will, for the first time, bring together magistrates, Crown and county courts. The proposal to draw all those different court facilities together is excellent. We have given the Salisbury project extensive consideration. As I have informed the hon. Gentleman privately, it was not felt appropriate to take forward private finance initiative funding given the size and nature of the project, so we are now considering it in the context of the Department's capital projects. I can assure him that the Department take the matter extremely seriously and that the Salisbury project is certainly one of those that are being given the most important consideration at present.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Is not the prolonged delay in Salisbury a symptom of the stasis approaching paralysis in decision making in the Lord Chancellor's Department, caused by the conflict between exhortation and resource allocation and the impending unnecessary centralisation under the Courts Bill? Is it not the case that people in Wiltshire will be amazed that while they have to wait for the Lord Chancellor to make a decision on that essential project,

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he has time to make ex cathedra statements about things that do not concern him and negotiate a £2 million pension scheme for himself?

Yvette Cooper: What a lot of nonsense. The hon. Gentleman is usually worthy of rather better questions than that, which he knows is rather ridiculous. The interesting issue with the Salisbury proposal is that it is about drawing together the different kinds of courts. That is exactly what a unified administration is about. It is about being able to bring together Crown and county courts and magistrates court facilities in a single building where possible, and in a single organisation. That has huge benefits for people who use the courts right across the country.

EU Accession States

21. Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): What support the Lord Chancellor's Department is offering to strengthen human rights and encourage the judicial system in EU accession states. [95366]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): The Lord Chancellor's Department is involved in a series of different projects with the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Malta, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania and Estonia. We regard providing assistance to the European Union accession states to help improve their judicial systems and strengthen human rights as an important part of our international relations work.

Mr. Connarty : I thank the Minister for that reply. As a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I have visited most of those accession states and had discussions about the plight of the Roma people, many of whom are still living in conditions that would not be acceptable in Victorian Britain. That is one of the reasons why the Body Shop gave its human rights award to the Roma people of Sofia in Bulgaria to try to get them rights to basic housing. An elected Romanian politician told me, "You can solve the problem of the Roma people—when we come into Europe, we will send them to you." Is the Minister worried that some politicians in those countries think that that is the solution to the problem?

Yvette Cooper: I know that my hon. Friend has been very active in that area and has a lot of expertise in the issue. I can assure him that the United Kingdom Government take very seriously issues involving discrimination against minorities and are active in a series of projects with regard to the Roma people. I will write to him on his specific points to let him know about the extensive work that is being done to support the Roma people and to prevent discrimination not just in Bulgaria but across eastern Europe.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Although the Department's work to help new democracies is important and extremely valuable, is it not a bit difficult for us to preach to new democracies about the separation of the legislature and the judiciary while we continue to use our second Chamber as a supreme court of law, rather than having a separate supreme court?

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Is it not also difficult to preach the adherence to international conventions while the Prime Minister drops hints about not remaining in the European convention on human rights?

Yvette Cooper: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his role on the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department, which is also strongly welcomed by our Department.

The constitutional arrangements in Parliament and in Britain are extremely complex. In fact, the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform recognised the complex issues involving the judiciary and said that they were worthy of a separate report. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Government have always strongly supported the ECHR. In fact, this Government incorporated the ECHR into the Human Rights Act 1998. We will continue to support it, unlike the Conservative party, which has said that it wants to withdraw effectively and unilaterally from the ECHR.

Office for the Supervision of Solicitors

22. Andy Burnham (Leigh): What recent assessment the Lord Chancellor's Department has made of the effectiveness of the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors. [95367]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): My Department receives monthly statistics from the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors, which details the progress that is being made with regard to the handling of complaints. We are not satisfied that the OSS is currently working as effectively as it should. There is some evidence of improvement, and we continue to work closely with the OSS to ensure that it continues to move towards acceptable standards overall.

Andy Burnham : I thank the Minister for that reply, and I agree in part, as my casework suggests that self-regulation is not working. Many of my constituents have been left disappointed by what they see as a weak and bureaucratic system. Does my hon. Friend agree that in the law, perhaps more than any other area, we need a tough and effective voice for the consumer? Will she consider opening discussions with the Law Society about toughening up the OSS and, in particular, whether it needs to have greater fine-making powers?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to express concern, which, as I said, is shared by the Lord Chancellor and my Department. We want an arrangement under which self-regulation can work and that is why we are anxious to make sure that we incorporate as many proposals as possible to make sure that it does. We have seen some improvement as a result and we are expecting a further progress report from the legal services ombudsman in March. Until then, we will continue to monitor the situation closely, and we expect the OSS's efforts to be sustained and increased.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I agree with the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) that the OSS is simply failing many of our constituents who have already been failed by receiving poor-quality advice.

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They experience excessive delays in getting any kind of decision from the OSS, which, in many cases, turns out to be a toothless tiger. The time for talking to the OSS and reviewing its performance is over. Let us have some action and a regulator who can take action on our constituents' behalf.

Ms Winterton: As I have said, my Department is concerned about this matter. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the ideal situation would be one in which self-regulation works. I can only reiterate that we are keeping a very close eye on the matter, and we are not unaware of the comments that have been made. We are expecting further reports in March. Obviously, if there is not an improvement, different action will be taken.

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