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11 Mar 2003 : Column 150—continued

ADVOCATE-GENERAL

The Advocate-General was asked—

Human Rights

15. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): How many human rights matters have been referred to her in the last four weeks. [101092]

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The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): Since 4 February, I have received intimation of 36 devolution issue minutes, all of which concerned human rights matters.

Mr. Dalyell : Is thought being given to the delicate human rights problems that would surround any influx of asylum seekers from Iraq, of whom some might be henchpersons of Saddam Hussein?

The Advocate-General: The Government always give serious thought to human rights issues. That is why we introduced the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government are dealing with the position.

Devolution

16. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What devolution issues she has advised on since 4 February. [101093]

The Advocate-General: Since 4 February, I have examined devolution issues on a wide variety of topics including: challenges by life prisoners to fixing the punishment part of life licence hearings; the criminal liability of corporate bodies; pre-trial delay and whether the requirement on the defence to disclose that it plans to raise sexual history evidence breaches the accused's right to a fair trial.

Miss McIntosh : The hon. and learned Lady knows that partnership law remains a reserved matter. Does she realise that during the passage of the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill through the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Executive tabled amendment No. 169, which would interfere with partnership law? Should not she tell the Scottish Executive not to interfere, and to allow this House to continue to enjoy its reserved powers over partnership law?

The Advocate-General: Without specific notice of the amendment to which the hon. Lady refers, I cannot give her a chapter-and-verse answer. In general, the question whether a partnership issue is reserved or devolved depends on the way in which it is introduced. The Scottish Parliament can table any amendment that it wishes. However, I ultimately have four weeks in which to consider the Bill and decide whether it is within competence. I am entitled to take a view about the matter at that stage.

Human Rights

17. Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute): What human rights issues she has dealt with since 4 February. [101094]

The Advocate-General: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago to the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh).

Mr. Reid : Does the Advocate General know that, during the investigation into the incident at Dunoon pier, about which I asked her four weeks ago, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has interviewed only three passengers and eye-witnesses? Given that there were 28 passengers and also eye-witnesses on the pier,

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will the hon. and learned Lady advise the agency that it should publicise the inquiry and contact details so that more witnesses can have the opportunity to give evidence? That would protect ferry passengers' rights.

The Advocate-General: My parliamentary and statutory duties do not cover such matters. General policy issues on such a subject are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. It is up to the agency to observe its duties. It might become a devolution issue if anyone is dissatisfied and wants to challenge the way in which the agency does that.

SCOTLAND

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy White Paper

7. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): If she will make a statement on the impact on Scotland of implementing targets in the Energy White Paper. [101101]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): There are both reserved and devolved responsibilities relevant to the delivery of the objectives set out in the White Paper "Our energy future—creating a low carbon economy". The White Paper acknowledges the continuing need for co-operation between the Government and the Scottish Executive to address the energy challenges that we face.

Malcolm Bruce : Given that Scotland lost out to Denmark on the technology for wind development, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that Scotland takes the opportunity presented by the White Paper in order to become a world leader in new technology for wave power, wind power and biomass? What is she doing to ensure also that Scotland's economy benefits from the export of renewable energy to the rest of the United Kingdom, and that the host communities have a direct stake in that?

Mrs. McGuire: I trust that the hon. Gentleman and his party will make their own contribution to the White Paper consultation.

There have been significant developments in wind technology recently. My hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) has welcomed a potential new project in his area, and I think that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) will have welcomed the Vestas project in Campbeltown.

LORD CHANCELLOR'S DEPARTMENT

The Parliamentary Secretary was asked—

Court Service

18. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): If she will make a statement on the efficiency of the Court Service. [101887]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): The Court Service annual report sets out full details of Court Service performance and audited accounts. The Court Service has demonstrated steady improvement in a series of areas, including reductions in delays in both civil and criminal cases.

Mr. Bercow : That soothing bromide of a reply really does not meet the needs of the case. Does the hon. Lady not understand and accept that one of the real inefficiencies in the Government's changes to the Court Service in rural areas is the fact that witnesses and defendants must sometimes travel long distances, very inconveniently, as a result of the closure of more than 200 magistrates courts since the Government took office? Does she not recognise that the closures have dramatically undermined the whole principle of local justice?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman should withhold some of his righteous indignation. Decisions about magistrates courts are, in fact, made by local magistrates courts committees. They take account of a wide range of factors, including witness facilities in the local courts, access to justice and the use of courtrooms.

The number of courtroom closures has fluctuated from one year to another. Last year there were six; during the last year of the Tory Government, there were 21.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important, in the interests of justice, for those who provide our court service to liaise effectively with the police, local authorities, social services and others? What is her Department doing to ensure that a dialogue takes place between the agencies responsible for delivering justice to the many victims in our communities?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right about the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness that can arise from a lack of communication between the different criminal justice agencies. That is why I strongly support the establishment of the criminal justice boards, in which the Court Service and magistrates courts will play a central role—in particular, in reducing the number of ineffective trials.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Is not the key area for reform of the Court Service that of judicial appointments? Has the hon. Lady had an opportunity to read today's recommendation by Sir Iain Glidewell in his report to the Bar Council? He says that the Lord Chancellor's position is politically unacceptable. That recommendation builds on the recommendation of Sir Colin Campbell, who asked for a wide-ranging debate, and a debate in the other place on Friday which, nemine contra, suggested that the Lord Chancellor's salary should be reduced. Is it not time for us to debate the Lord Chancellor's position, his role in judicial appointments and, indeed, a wide range of other subjects?

Yvette Cooper: As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Lord Chancellor has done much to increase the

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openness and transparency of the appointments system. That includes the appointment of Colin Campbell to examine the overall position. We will of course consider the Glidewell report when it is published.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): I am a member of the Magistrates Association, and last week, at the Coalville courthouse, I had a meeting with the clerk, the chairman and senior members of that bench. They advised me of major blunders by the Court Service in calculating the £385 million in Government grant for 2003–04 that is distributed to magistrates courts committees. Is it true that there is no intention to correct those mistakes, which are depriving poorly funded magistrates courts committees such as Leicestershire's of several hundred thousand pounds? Can the Minister look again at this wrongful distribution and remedy this injustice?

Yvette Cooper: I shall certainly look at the position in Leicestershire. It is true that a new formula has been introduced this year to establish a far fairer system for distributing resources across the country. Some magistrates courts committees have been treated unfairly in the past, and have not received their fair allocation. We have also made it clear that it will take time to move towards a fair allocation and an improved system. That process is under way, and I shall certainly happily look again at the case that my hon. Friend raises.


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