Courts Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Can the hon. Gentleman help us, as I am not quite following his argument? Is he saying that we should go down to a unit that is small enough for there to be a commonality in terms of the policing problems? Even in the borough of Ellesmere Port and Neston, which is approximately seven eighths of my constituency there is a huge polarisation between difficult estates, where there is huge disadvantage, and some of the richest parts of Cheshire, where even the good folk of Surrey, Heath would struggle to afford the houses.

Mr. Heath: I do not disagree one bit with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. One obviously cannot get to the stage at which every street has its own police force—that is nonsense. I think that his constituency falls in the area of the Cheshire constabulary, and I hope that he accepts that it is reasonably small and reasonably homogenous. If the hon. Gentleman were a few miles up the road, he would come into the Merseyside police area, where some of the problems may be more similar to those that some of his constituents face daily. However, he would find that those problems would be very different from some of the problems of the outlying areas of the Merseyside police. I am not trying to prescribe lots of lines on maps, because that is quite impossible. I am content with the distance that the Government have already come in saying that when the courts boards are established they will be on the basis of the police authority areas.

I use my area simply as an illustration. Even though Somerset has areas of deprivation and of empty landscape, such as Exmoor, each part is more like other parts of Somerset than it is like the centre of Bristol. Similarly, the centre of Bristol is more like the urban areas of what used to be Avon than any part of Somerset. Although I do not put it forward as being the answer, I could see a case for having an area covering Somerset and an area covering the county formerly known as Avon.

3 pm

There is an argument in London for a courts board area to be smaller than the area of the metropolis. That will be a matter for debate and for the Government to take a view on at some later stage. I certainly do not want courts boards to cross boundaries. That would be unhelpful; inherent in the Government's proposals is the view they should not cross boundaries. Where possible, the courts board area should follow the boundary of a police authority area, a probation service area or whatever. There will

Column Number: 041

be a case, which some of us will argue strenuously, for having courts board areas that are smaller constituent parts of a large police authority area. I am trying to allow for that in my amendment. It is an argument that I commend to the Minister.

Mr. Leslie: Under amendment (a), the Lord Chancellor would have to have regard to the desirability of specifying areas for courts boards that are either the same as or fall entirely within the criminal justice areas. He would therefore have to consider whether there should be several courts board areas within a single criminal justice area.

Earlier this year, the former Lord Chancellor's Department held a series of discussion groups up and down the country to discuss the area structure of the new organisation. I think that I sent a copy of the report of those discussion groups to hon. Members last week. The stakeholders, who included magistrates, judges and representatives of those who use the courts, concluded that the criminal justice service areas were roughly at the right level at present, although particular consideration needed to be given to London. Clearly, we must take those views into account. No firm or final decisions have been made.

Our problem with amendment (a) is that we feel that clause 4 already affords sufficient flexibility to get the area structures right. As well as considering having 42 areas, we will consider the needs of local communities. It is difficult to see why we should consider only whether courts board areas would fit within a criminal justice area. Why should we not also consider whether police areas should be combined to form a courts board area? Lord Thomas of Gresford proposed that for Wales and Chester. I presume that that mirrored a proposal on the court circuit, with which hon. Members may be familiar. That would be prevented if there were the level of restriction suggested in the amendment.

The discussion groups were helpful. We will look with interest at the views relating to London. The amendment is not appropriate. We should not have that telescopic, microcosmic approach to the criminal justice service areas. We should be able to take a sensible and rational approach, depending on the area and reacting to some of the consultation that will have taken place.

Mr. Heath: I am perfectly happy with the Minister's approach, but how can it be equally sensible and rational to have an area the size of Gwent or Dyfed-Powys and an area the size of the Metropolitan police area or the City of London?

Mr. Leslie: It may have escaped the Committee, but I did not design the layout of the United Kingdom, and cannot be held responsible for the nature of communities throughout the country. Some areas require a certain level of focus; perhaps urban areas need a different approach from more rural parts of the country. As parliamentarians, we have a duty to reflect that fact.

Amendment No. 9 is interesting. I have already spoken about some of the changes that we have accepted to clause 4. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) is pushing it a little with the

Column Number: 042

amendment. I was interested that he said he supported both his amendment and that tabled by the Liberal Democrats. It would be contradictory to insist that courts boards must fit the police board areas but state at the same time that it might be possible to divide them up, as suggested under amendment (a). On reflection, he might not wish to support amendment (a) if he is standing by amendment No. 9.

Amendment No. 9 is too restrictive. It would mean that courts board areas could be altered only in the event of a police authority area changing, and only in a way that preserved co-terminosity with the police authority area. The criminal justice areas will be the building blocks of the courts board areas, and I assure the Committee that thought will be given to their formation.

The amendment would tie the courts boards structure to any future changes to the police areas too rigidly. Under the amendment, only the needs of police authority business would be taken into account, not the business of the courts. It would not allow us to take into account the needs and nature of local communities, as we have in relation to the civil and family business of the court. Why should civil and family court activity fit around police authority business?

While criminal court activities will obviously be a priority for the courts boards, they will look at other issues. The amendment would prevent the merger of two courts board areas, or the creation of two smaller areas, even if such changes were supported by both the boards, unless similar changes were made to the police authority area. It would prevent the alteration of the courts boards' names, unless the police authority area were changed.

Clause 4 ensures that the Lord Chancellor must consult any affected courts boards before making an order to alter their areas. That will ensure proper consultation and parliamentary scrutiny of any changes to the areas. I invite hon. Members not to press amendment No. 9 and amendment (a) to a Division.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 20, in

    clause 4, page 3, line 29, leave out from 'Chancellor' to second 'the' in line 34 and insert

    'must have regard to the desirability of specifying areas which are the same as—

    (a) the police areas listed in Schedule 1 to the Police Act 1996 (c.16) (division of England and Wales, except London, into police areas), and

    (b) the area consisting of '.—[Mr. Leslie.]

Clause 4, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1

Constitution and procedure of courts boards

Mr. Leslie: I beg to move amendment No. 24, in

    schedule 1, page 60, line 9, leave out 'who are assigned' and insert

    ', each of whom is assigned'.

Column Number: 043

This amendment makes drafting changes to an amendment made on Report in another place. The effect of the amendment tabled by Lord Phillips of Sudbury was to increase the minimum number of magistrates on each courts board from one to two. I shall explain why we resisted that in the Lords. In short, we wanted the Bill to set out a framework, so that that the constitution of courts boards could vary between local areas. The regional discussion groups, to which I referred earlier, have unanimously agreed that one size does not fit all.

We have listened to magistrates' concerns that a minimum of one magistrate would not be sufficient, and we shall not try to defeat an amendment that increases the minimum number of magistrates to two. However, we want to amend the amendment that was accepted in another place. It would require all magistrates appointed to a courts board to be assigned to the same local justice area. Courts boards are likely to cover areas that include more than one local justice area. Amendment No. 24 therefore clarifies that each magistrate member should be assigned to one of the local justice areas that are in whole or part covered by the relevant courts board area, hence the better turn of phrase,

    ''each of whom is assigned''.

I hope that that necessary drafting change does not in any way change the spirit of what we accepted in another place.

Mr. Hawkins: We are very pleased that the defeat inflicted on the Government by the combined forces of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in another place has been accepted. The Minister referred to the amendment tabled by Lord Phillips of Sudbury, which was supported by my noble Friend Baroness Anelay of St. Johns. Lord Goodhart neatly encapsulated the reason why we felt it vital to have two magistrates—two lay justices. He pointed out what could happen if a single magistrate were the appointee under the original proposals:

    ''If there were only one magistrate on the board, he might be ill or have some unavoidable other commitment. There could therefore be a meeting of the courts board at which no magistrate would be present. That would be absolutely wrong.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 May 2003; Vol. 647, c. 1198.]

The belief of Lord Phillips and my noble Friend Baroness Anelay was that it was essential to have at least two lay magistrates—there could be more.

We have no difficulty with the Government's further clarification in their amendment, and I am delighted that Ministers have written to my noble Friend Baroness Anelay and I; no doubt they have written to others, too. We accept the principle of the Government amendment. Lord Filkin wrote in a letter to my noble Friend on 19 June that the Government simply want to tidy up the drafting. The Government amendment achieves that, and we welcome the fact that, as a result of the work by those in another place, we have improved the Bill. That is a good example of how this House and another place work together.

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 26 June 2003