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Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I would appreciate your help with a situation that I believe is unprecedented since you and I entered the House 24 years ago. As you know, we have an Opposition day on Wednesday, two days from now, but the House has still not been informed of the subject for debate on that day. That means that it is entirely impossible for Back Benchers to seek your permission to speak in that debate or to prepare for it, and Ministers, and indeed shadow Ministers, do not know whether to be present on that day. That is outrageous. Just because the Opposition cannot get their act together, cannot decide on the subject, and appear to be in total disarray is no reason why the House should be disadvantaged. Would you, Mr. Speaker, as the protector of the interests of the House, particularly those of Back Benchers, take action to remedy this situation immediately?
Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the last few Opposition day debates the Opposition have received well and truly bloodied noses. Can you assure me that this is not an attempt on their part to ensure that Government Members cannot prepare for Opposition day debates in the future?
This is the Second Reading of the Courts Bill, which has already been well debated and discussed in another place. It forms an important part of a much wider, long-term programme to improve and modernise the criminal justice system, as set out in the White Paper "Justice for All". But more than that, the Bill aims to improve the entire justice system. It supports improvements in the civil and family courts as well as having particular measures to improve areas of the criminal courts where specific issues need to be addressed.
Given the other business of the day, it is perhaps unsurprising that attendance in the Chamber is thinning out. I applaud the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) for his restraint in awaiting the debate. I recognise that it will have been difficult for him to resist the temptation to join in the debate on Europe and matters euro, but I welcome his presence for discussions on the Courts Bill.
Nevertheless, the House overlooks the smooth running of the courts at its peril. Ultimately, the courts are a fundamental pillar of our democracy. They enable the delivery of justice and they underpin the rule of law. The running of the courts matters too because, ultimately, those members of the public who pass through the courts are those whose lives are troubled in some way or other. Be they distressed victims of crime, witnesses doing their civic duty, defendants at risk of losing their liberty, families battling over the custody of their children, claimants unable to resolve their dispute in any other way, those who end up in court need to be sure that justice will be done.
Such people depend on courts to deliver fair and effective justice, and they depend on courts that are free from unnecessary and avoidable delay, that are in touch with the communities that they serve and more responsive to the needs of their users. The Bill's purpose is to establish a modern, efficient court system, one fit for the 21st century.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The Bill sets out a key purpose of effectiveness and efficiency. It does not talk about accessibility. Is there a core necessity for courts to be accessible to the people who use them,
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I am not rushing to my hon. Friend's rescue, because she is well able to defend the measure herself, and will do so with great enthusiasm. On accessibility, however, I was convinced of the correctness of doing away with the magistrates courts committeeswhich is in clause 6partly by my painful experience in Thurrock, where people who were accountable to no one in my community decided to remove the local court to Basildon. I want to place on record my people's gratitude to the Minister, who intervened on our behalf and today confirmed that Thurrock's magistrates courts will endure. We appreciate that very much. It is a question of accessibility. The guys and women who run the magistrates courts committee
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. As a result of the appeal to Ministers, we overturned the decision of the Essex magistrates courts committee to close Grays magistrates court. It is important for hon. Members to recognise that although decisions always need to be taken about the court estate, including its modernisationas was the case under previous Administrationsit is important that there should be a local voice in those decisions. My hon. Friend is not the only Member to have raised concerns with me about the system of magistrates courts committees, where decisions are taken entirely by magistrates, not by those who speak for the local community involved. That is one of the issues that we address in the Bill.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way again so early on. On that point, surely the existing system ensures that the administration of justice remains local, whereas the new proposals in the Bill, which effectively bring magistrates into the same structure as the Crown and civil courts, remove the locality of justice, to all intents and purposes greatly increasing the centralised power over that justice from the centre.
Yvette Cooper: That is simply not true. I shall cover the matter in a bit more detail later, but, to give an example, a statement issued by the Magistrates Association's criminal justice system committee on 6 May says:
I want to put on record my thanks to the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department for its report on the Bill, which is published today. This is the first time that the Department has had a Select Committee to scrutinise our legislation, and it is an extremely helpful and welcome development. I shall try to address some of the points that it raised today, although we will obviously need to consider them. I am sure that we will have further discussions in Committee.
Let me begin with the measures to introduce a unified administration for the courts, which I believe to be the most important and significant in the Bill. Sir Robin Auld recommended in his independent "Review of the Criminal Courts of England and Wales" that the administration of all courts below the House of Lordsthe civil, family and criminal courtsshould be integrated into a new single organisation. The unification of the management of the courts has widespread support from the judiciary, the Bar, the Law Society, the Justices' Clerks Society and the Magistrates Association, among others. It will end the division between the 42 magistrates courts committees and the Court Service and address the duplication and inefficiency involved in having 43 separate organisations running the courts. Sir Robin described the current position as "unnecessary, inefficient and wasteful".