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Standing Committee Debates
Courts Bill [Lords]

Courts Bill [Lords]

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Standing Committee D

Tuesday 8 July 2003

(Morning)

[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Courts Bill [Lords]

9.30 am

Clause 58

Inspectors of court administration etc.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I beg to move amendment No. 28, in

    clause 58, page 27, line 18, at end insert

    ', subject to the requirement that the total cost to the taxpayer of the entire inspectorate shall never exceed £2.4 million.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 66, in

    clause 59, page 27, line 36, after 'services', insert 'including information technology services,'.

Amendment No. 67, in

    clause 59, page 28, line 8, after 'court', insert

    ', save the High Court,'.

Amendment No. 68, in

    clause 60, page 28, line 21, at end insert

    'which shall highlight best practice and catalogue inefficiences.'.

Mr. Hawkins: I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien, as I welcome members of the Committee back to our proceedings after a short break. Amendment No. 28 would be an important cost control measure. Even if it does not find favour with the Minister, it might do with Treasury mandarins, but I shall wait to hear what the hon. Gentleman says about that. The reason why we want a requirement that the total cost to the taxpayer of the new inspectorate should not exceed £2.4 million is to concentrate minds. Conservative Members are always worried about the growth of new bureaucracies that take on a life of their own and cost the British taxpayer increasing amounts.

We want the Bill to state that the total cost would not be allowed to exceed that figure, which relates to the compliance cost assessment that the Government have produced. Before extra recruitments were made to the new inspectorate, or expansion was planned, there would have to be savings to compensate for that expansion. Our argument can be shortly stated: we consider that a cap on expenditure is worth while not only at the outset but for the future, so that the new apparatus does not mushroom out of all proportion to its value.

Amendments Nos. 66, 67 and 68 would have a slightly different effect. Although amendment No. 66 relates to clause 59, it is appropriate to consider it now. It is important that the inspectorate can report on IT services, which will constitute an important part of its work. The IT projects associated with our courts and our legal system have an unhappy history. I do not want to embarrass the Government any more than

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they are already embarrassed about their IT problems, but it is especially important to ensure that it is part of the duty of the inspectors to report on IT.

As for amendment No. 67 to clause 59, we have suggested that there should be an exception to subsection (3)(a), so that the Lord Chancellor could not add the High Court to the list. That is an important separate category and it would be inappropriate for it to be subject to the powers of the Lord Chancellor under the clause—although it is perfectly acceptable for subsection (2)(a), (b) and (c) to cover the Crown court, the county courts and the magistrates courts. I am always worried about giving further powers to the Lord Chancellor or his successor in title. It would open things up far too much, and the Bill ought to be clear about the Lord Chancellor's powers.

I hope that the Government will accept amendment No. 68. It applies to clause 60, but it is appropriately grouped here with the others. If they cannot accept its wording, I hope that a Government amendment will be tabled to a similar effect. It should be clearly stated in the Bill that the annual report, when it is produced, should highlight not only best practice but the inefficiencies that are found when the inspectorate makes its inspection. Those inefficiencies should be catalogued. The amendment would be a helpful additional clarification of the functions of the chief inspector and the contents of his annual report.

It is all too easy to have annual reports that only tell the good side and do not identify the flaws. Too often in Parliament an august body such as the Public Accounts Committee has had to undertake a separate investigation to find the inefficiencies in an organisation. If it were clearly written in the Bill that the annual report shall not merely be a report to the Lord Chancellor that those of us in Parliament who are scrutinising the work of the new inspectorate can read, but will have to identify best practice and catalogue inefficiencies, that would be useful. Our amendments cover separate points, but the matters involved are important. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): I welcome you to the Chair this morning, Mr. O'Brien, and I will be brief. I share the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) about amendment No. 28. Having a fixed maximum sum outlined in the Bill is not an appropriate way of dealing with the concern that has been expressed, but we are right to worry about such matters. Will the Minister confirm the current actual cost of the magistrates courts service inspectorate and say how it has grown during the past few years? I should be interested to know what sort of total cost we are talking about. Will payment be on the same basis as for the magistrates courts service inspectorate? Will it simply be an expansion of the current body into something covering the range of courts?

As for amendment No. 66, it is right to highlight IT services, but I am not sure whether it is appropriate to specify them in the Bill. I should welcome an assurance from the Minister that IT seems to be in order in the sector. I cannot agree with the suggestion in

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amendment No. 67 that the High Court be excluded, because it is sensible to extend the powers to all courts.

Finally, with regard to amendment No. 68, there is a real tendency for annual reports to be anodyne, and it seems sensible for the Bill to require the report to cover best practice and highlight the bad things as well as the good things, thereby cataloguing the inefficiencies. Even if he does not want an amendment to that effect, I should welcome the Minister's assurances that the report will contain something of substance, which will help guide the service and improve it in future.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Good morning, Mr. O'Brien. This series of four amendments helps to give an overview of the fact that we are creating a new court inspectorate for a new unified courts administration. Specific questions have been asked, but it seems that in general, the Committee has broadly accepted the need to have a strong inspectorate principle overseeing an important aspect of public life.

Amendment No. 28 would place a permanent cash limit—£2.4 million, I think—on the expenditure earmarked for the inspectorate. The long-term effect of that would be gradually to restrict the number of inspections that could be undertaken, which would restrict the work that inspectors could do. The Government feel that putting a cash bar on the budget of the new inspectorate would be inappropriate, and a bad approach to legislation.

I suspect that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath wanted to bring out issues relating to the total cost. He felt that there should be a cap or some downward pressure on the inspectorate. I am not as concerned as he is that somehow the inspectorate's expenditure will run amok and out of control. The magistrates courts services inspectorate does a good job for a fair sum of money, and we envisage it bringing largely the same processes and professionalism to the new unified courts administration as it has brought to its work as it is currently defined.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) asked about the current budget. It is about £2 million. We envisage extending that to cover the other court services, which could cost about £400,000 extra per annum, but that is obviously not a fixed figure, and it could be more or less. It is not appropriate to have inspections determined on a cash-limited basis. Inspections are vital to auditing and cross-referencing to find out whether a court a service is doing a good job, and providing good value for money and an efficient and effective system. We should give all power to the inspectorate's elbow and make sure that it has the resources and the tools necessary to do a quality job. I would not want to see a legislative bar on its budget increased, not least because the Government need the capability to respond to the inspectorate's requests, and to any changes that are needed to ensure that it can do its job thoroughly.

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Amendment No. 66 would impose a duty on the inspectors to inspect and report on the system and services that support the courts, and in particular on information technology services, which would be explicitly included in the Bill. The amendment is not necessary. Information technology and similar services are already implicitly part of the provisions, and I can confirm that the ''services'' provided for the courts include, among other things, scrutiny of information technology, security and catering. It is our intention that services such as IT should be subject to inspection, and that will be part of the inspectors' duties. There is no need for a statutory obligation singling that aspect out.

Amendment No. 67 would prevent the Lord Chancellor from extending the inspectorate's remit to include the High Court. When the hon. Member for Surrey Heath advocated the amendment, he said that he felt the current situation was inappropriate. He did not explain his logic or rationale, but suggested that he was suspicious that the unworthy influence of the Lord Chancellor was somehow creeping over the judiciary. I assure him that that is not the case. With the inspectorate, we want to make sure that all courts services provide an efficient and effective system. There is no justifiable reason to exclude the High Court in particular, not least because the amendment did not exclude the Court of Appeal. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting we remove one aspect of the court system but leave others in, but there is no reason to do that.

We want a unified court administration and a reflective system of inspection that can examine all aspects of court activity, track the passage of cases through the system, investigate where delays are occurring and report on that to Parliament.

 
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