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Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): The Parliamentary Secretary kindly referred to the Select Committee. She described the Auld process, which involved widespread consultation during the inquiry and subsequently. However, when the Select Committee discussed the way in which the Lord Chancellor might exercise his powers under the Bill, we did not know that his replacement with a justice Minister in the Commons was under consideration. That has not been subject to the same consultation. Apart from all the other issues and the merits of such an action, the sort of consultation with the judiciary that the Parliamentary Secretary described appears not to have been undertaken.

Yvette Cooper: The right hon. Gentleman is interested in reading the papers and in the gossip and rumours that circulate. Clearly, such matters are for the Prime Minister, not me.

The proposals will allow a more flexible use of resources and accommodation, thus encouraging parts of the system to work together more effectively to respond to local needs. A unified court estate would, for example, allow the heavy work load of one courthouse to be shared with another, underused courthouse, thereby perhaps saving one from closure while reducing delays at the other. It would also ensure that decisions about the location of magistrates courts were taken with the location of Crown courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police in mind. It would allow more flexible operation, especially in areas on the boundaries between existing magistrates courts committees.

Unification in a single organisation will allow us to set a proper framework of national standards and to tackle poor performance in the courts. The latter is currently

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difficult in magistrates courts. For example, there are wide and unacceptable variations in fine enforcement between the independent magistrates courts committees, ranging from more than 80 per cent. in some areas to less than 40 per cent. in others. Government, Parliament or the local community can do little about poor performance in some areas under the current system.

Vera Baird (Redcar): Is not the problem exacerbated by the fact that compensation to victims of crime is levied under the same system as fines, but paid first? That means that, if instalments are not paid, many people bear the cost of the crimes of which they have been victims.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. and learned Friend is right that failure to enforce fines and compensation orders can have a significant impact on the victims of crime and on wider society because the credibility of the courts depends on enforcing decisions. We are considering methods of separating the ways in which the data are gathered. I shall happily discuss those issues further with my hon. and learned Friend, if she is interested.

The Bill also allows us to improve performance in the courts that the Court Service currently runs. The introduction of the courts boards will support more substantial decentralisation than exists in the Court Service. That will encourage local innovation and flexibility. It will also extend independent inspection, which currently applies only to magistrates courts, to other courts for the first time.

The Bill will give local communities a much greater voice in running their courts and should improve the focus of the courts' management on fulfilling court users' needs. There is currently no role for local people in decisions about their county court or their Crown court, and there is little role for them in magistrates courts. Magistrates courts committees consist predominantly of magistrates, and their make-up does not even reflect local magistrates, let alone the community as a whole. For example, half the population and 49 per cent. of magistrates are women, yet they comprise only 25 per cent. of magistrates courts committee members. It is right for the new courts boards to reflect the community more broadly.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): Does the Bill make any effort to explain the work of magistrates courts to the ordinary, law-abiding person, perhaps through an annual report to every elector? If so, could we also consider giving courts names that reflect their functions? "County court" and "Crown court" do not mean anything to most ordinary people. Could not we use names such as "regional court" and "local court" and thus let the public into the secret instead of confining the information to lawyers?

Yvette Cooper: The Bill includes some changes of name to make certain things more comprehensible. For example, instead of petty sessions areas, we shall have local justice areas, which is far more transparent to those of us who might have been slightly baffled the first time we heard of a petty sessions area. The Bill also

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modernises certain titles in the judiciary. It does not set out some of the proposals that my hon. Friend has made. I know that he has raised these issues before, and I shall be happy to consider them further, although I think it unlikely that such measures would be included in the legislation. However, we certainly need to look further at the way in which each of the courts boards relates to the local community that it needs to reflect, and to ensure that the courts as a whole respond to the needs of the community and communicate with it. Some of the measures relating to magistrates' recruitment that are being considered might be an area in which some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend could be picked up.

Mr. Allen: I thank my hon. Friend for her generosity in giving way a second time. Individual taxpayers probably pay several thousand pounds each to maintain the criminal justice system. Would my hon. Friend be open to either letters or amendments that would make it clear that those people were entitled to receive a report on something that they were paying for and that was being done in their name?

Yvette Cooper: I would certainly consider any letter that my hon. Friend chooses to send, or any further discussions on this issue that he wants to have.

The Bill establishes a new Executive agency, different from both the Court Service and the magistrates courts committees, to be headed by a chief executive; local areas will be managed by chief officers. The chief officers will work in co-operation and partnership with the local courts boards established by clause 4. The establishment of the local courts boards within an Executive agency is an unusual approach. It will provide an important way of balancing the need for a national framework and standards and the need to prevent duplication with the need for local, decentralised decision making and accountability. The Select Committee's report asked for clarification of the role of the boards, and we have already placed a statement of the principles that will form the basis of the agency's framework document in the Libraries of both Houses. That sets out some of the details of the partnership between the agency and the courts boards and how we expect that partnership to work.

Schedule 1 provides further details of the constitution and procedure of the courts boards. We are also still engaged in detailed discussions with many of those working in the magistrates courts service and the Court Service, as well as court users, to try to get right the exact nature of the work that the courts boards will do. I can tell my hon. Friend that I will set out an outline of some of the measures involved.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) rose—

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) rose—

Yvette Cooper: I will give way to my hon. Friend first.

Mrs. Dunwoody: May I ask my hon. Friend why it is necessary to set up an entire stand-alone agency? The history of agencies in this country is that not only are

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they very large but they grow consistently and are rarely tremendously responsible. Indeed, their whole structure is not usually responsible to the House of Commons.

Yvette Cooper: We already have an agency that runs the Crown courts, the county courts and the higher courts. In addition, we have 42 separate organisations that run the magistrates courts across the country. The Auld review concluded that that fragmentation into so many different organisations created all kinds of duplication and difficulty. Clearly, the new agency will be accountable to the House, via Ministers. Indeed, I think that there will be greater accountability to the House than under the current arrangements, under which, as hon. Members have said, when magistrates courts committees take decisions that the local community does not like or when they perform unacceptably, there is very little that the House can do to hold them to account. That is why it is right to bring the magistrates courts committees into a new agency that will incorporate both the Court Service and the separate magistrates courts committees. Equally, we need the local courts boards to have a voice in the local community and to allow the community to hold them to account for the local decisions that they make.

Mr. Horam: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, especially as I could not be present for the beginning of her speech.

Perhaps the Minister's new arrangements would help us in Bromley. We have a brand new magistrates court which is half empty most of the time, while across the road the Crown court is packed out. Ours is a practical problem. Would the Minister's proposals solve it?

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