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17. Annabelle Ewing (Perth): What devolution issues have been raised since 8 April. [113341]

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): Again, I refer the hon. Lady to the reply that I gave some moments ago to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael).

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Annabelle Ewing : What difference does the Advocate-General believe her office has made in furthering the interests of the Scottish legal system and, indeed, the Scottish people, during the last couple of months?

The Advocate-General: It is important that the devolution settlement works well in legal terms. As the hon. Lady knows, one of my statutory functions is to look at Scottish Parliament legislation and deal with challenges to the acts of Scottish Ministers. I do so with the interests of the UK Government in mind, but it is in the interests of the UK Government, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people that the legal boundaries are properly dealt with. I try to do that as best I can.


The Parliamentary Secretary was asked—

Legal Advice (Debt)

19. Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden): What steps the Lord Chancellor is taking to increase the availability of legal advice on debt. [114232]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): Assisting vulnerable individuals and families on debt issues is one of the key priorities for the community legal service. Through the work of more than 200 community legal service partnerships and with the support of initiatives such as the partnership innovation budget and the Legal Services Commission's methods of delivery pilots, we are devising new ways of delivering front-line debt advice services to local communities.

Siobhain McDonagh: I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. Does she agree that some of the most intractable problems that hon. Members meet at our advice surgeries relate to debt owed by severely disadvantaged people? Such debt is often multiple and is owed by people who not only have limited incomes, but do not have the access to mainstream credit facilities that many of us enjoy. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a serious role for organisations that form part of the legal service partnerships, such as the Wandsworth and Merton law centre and the Merton money advice service, to which I often refer people? Those bodies need to be well known and easily accessible, and people need to have confidence in them. Only too often, people's response to debt problems is to stick their heads in the sand and not deal with them. What are the Government doing to involve such organisations in improving the services that are provided?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that issue. In particular, I wish to praise the work of the Wandsworth and Merton law centre, not least because of the presence of Bob Nightingale, who chairs the Law Centres Federation.

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My Department produced a pamphlet with the Law Centres Federation that highlighted not only debt problems but the fact that people who have such problems may also face housing and social security problems—a spiral of decline that can lead to social exclusion. The way of getting out of that is to ensure that good legal services are available. Through the community legal service partnerships, we want to work with organisations such as law centres and others to ensure that we improve the availability of that advice.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that in the last Parliament, the Government legislated to establish the principle of the levy of interest in cases of late payment of commercial debt and that, periodically, large numbers of citizens in this country fall into debt precisely because of late payment by Government agencies of benefits or other entitlements, does the hon. Lady concede that, in principle, there is a compelling case for establishing, as a matter of course, that when the Government have erred and are late in paying people their dues, they should pay them not merely the sum, but interest on top of it?

Ms Winterton: That matter has been looked into not only by this Government but by previous Governments. I rather think that responsibility for it lies with the Department of Trade and Industry, but I shall certainly ensure that the hon. Gentleman's comments are passed on.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): Law centres and citizens advice bureaux play a vital role in assisting people who get into debt and face financial exclusion, yet for the first quarter of this year, I spent much of my time fending off the possible closure of my two law centres. Only with the assistance of the Association of London Government were we able to pull those centres back from the brink. Even so, the Association of London Government does not have sufficient funds to ensure that the whole of London has adequate financial advice services.

Has my hon. Friend discussed with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister whether the "futurebuilders" programme offers us an opportunity to resource voluntary organisations and law centres in providing financial advice and debt counselling across London and the country as a whole?

Ms Winterton: I am aware of the work that my hon. Friend has put in on behalf of her local law centres, which she has raised with me before. Overall, contract funding for law centres from the Legal Services Commission has risen. She makes an important point about "futurebuilders". Some £125 million is available over the next three years to assist the voluntary and community sector in improving service delivery. Most of that money is for capital expenditure, but in view of my hon. Friend's comments I shall consider whether there are ways in which we can assist law centres, and let her know the outcome.

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Magistrates Courts

20. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): When he next expects to meet representatives of the magistracy to discuss recent court closures. [114233]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): Magistrates courts closures are a matter for local magistrates courts committees. Where there are appeals, I am always happy to meet representatives of the local magistracy before taking any decision. I have received no requests to meet magistrates about courts that have already closed.

Mr. Bellingham : A few years ago, there were active magistrates courts in my constituency at Fakenham and Hunstanton, but they are now being concentrated in King's Lynn. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important for local justice to be seen to be done, and that for that to happen courts need to be close to the community? Surely, at a time when there is a need to restrain and control the increasing numbers of hooligans who are terrorising communities, there should be no further closures of magistrates courts.

Yvette Cooper: As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is for local magistrates courts committees to take decisions about the courts estate. They have always done so, under previous Governments and under this Government. In the last year of his party's Government, there were 21 court closures; last year, there were six. It is right that magistrates courts committees should take decisions on the basis of a wide range of issues, including not only geographical access, but disability access, the availability of appropriate facilities for victims, and the state of the courtrooms.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Is it not the case that there is a continuing shrinkage not only of the number of local courts, but of the number of lay magistrates to serve in them? Several schemes for the closure of local magistrates courts are in abeyance, awaiting the outcome of the Courts Bill that is passing through Parliament. If the Government are successful in getting that Bill through Parliament, will the Minister give an undertaking that she will make it Government policy to maintain local, and particularly rural, magistrates courts; and will she give instructions to that effect to Her Majesty's inspectorate of courts administration, which is established by the Bill, so that it can inspect for locality and ease of access for those who need to use the courts?

Yvette Cooper: It is important that decisions about local courts be taken in local areas. It is important not only to weigh up local needs, but to consider the facilities that are available for victims and other factors. As the hon. Gentleman will know, under the current arrangements appeals come to Ministers, and I recently overturned a decision to close Kingston courtrooms. I will always take decisions on the merits of the case. For example, unified administration offers the opportunity for the Court Service and magistrates courts to work

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together, which may increase the viability of courthouses in certain areas that are able to share facilities, but do not do so.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): The Magistrates Association, of which I am a member, welcomes the recent Government amendment to the Courts Bill, which will require direct consultation with local benches on court reorganisation and other matters. Does the Minister believe that that will slow the steady flow of courthouse closures; and can she update the House on the continuing struggle between her Department and the abolitionist Home Office, which seems to dream of low-cost courthouses in remote regional locations that are utterly detached from the communities that they serve?

Yvette Cooper: In fact, I can update my hon. Friend on the fact that the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office have been working together on proposals around community justice centres, which are outlined in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. It is important that local communities feel that they have a strong stake in the local criminal justice system and the courts in their area. He is right that we have tabled an amendment to the Courts Bill to require consultation with magistrates. I am aware from discussing the small number of appeals that have come to me about magistrates courts closures that the local bench often makes representations, even though the magistrates courts committee and the committee of magistrates in that area have, in theory, made the decision.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): The Parliamentary Secretary speaks about working together. Does she accept that that has resulted in a staggering 96 magistrates courts closures throughout England and Wales since 1997, with more expected? Home Office statistics reveal that public confidence in the manner in which we deal with the criminal justice system has plummeted under the Government. Against the clear backdrop of threat to local justice under the Lord Chancellor's regime as more and more magistrates courts, many in rural areas, are shut, how does the Parliamentary Secretary propose to shore up faltering confidence in the system?

Yvette Cooper: Frankly, the hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. He should consider history. I know that he enjoys discrediting the history of Conservative Governments, but his previous party—[Hon. Members: "What?"] That was a Freudian slip. In the last year his party was in government, three times as many courts closed as under this Government last year. Rural court closures in the last year of the Tory Government included Hornsea, Howden, Market Weighton, Cheadle, Biddulph, Kidsgrove and so on. Between 1993 and 1996—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Yvette Cooper: There were 34 appeals against—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say to the Parliamentary Secretary that when I stand, the lady sits. It is as simple as that.

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