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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The Government have made good progress on the reduction of ineffective trials in both magistrates and Crown courts. I can confirm that we are on course to meet the targets that have been set. Trials can fail to proceed for a whole host of reasons, but by improving trial management with closer attention to file readiness and witness attendance, we are seeing a greater proportion of cases completed effectively.
Dr. Lewis: Well, I wish I could be as satisfied as the Minister clearly is with his own performance. My understanding is that at least £41 million a year is wasted when witnesses and, even worse, defendants do not turn up on the day appointed. Is it not outrageous that the victims of crime and the police should have their time wasted when the accused do not bother to turn up on the appointed day? Have not the Government taken rather a long time to deal with that particular problem?
Mr. Leslie: It is certainly true that we can always do more to improve trial readiness on the day, but ineffective Crown court trials have fallen by more than a third since 2001. That is good progress and, quite frankly, I do not want to be lectured by the hon. Gentleman, whose party would cut 2,000 court staff and cut £100 million from the court budget, which would lead to more ineffective trials and more injustice. The hon. Gentleman should speak to his Front Benchers about their own plans.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie):
My Department has received various written representations regarding reform of the second Chamber both from hon. Members and the public. The Westminster Hall debate on 23 February examined the report entitled, "Breaking the Deadlock", authored by several right hon. and hon. Members.
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David Taylor: Bearing in mind the recent comments in the other place to the effect that it should have primacy over this House on some issues because we are temporary politicians who happen to have been elected, is it not high time that we completed the reform of the House of Lords along the lines of the report produced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and others? We need a high proportion of elected Members in a smaller second Chamber so that we can preserve and improve its deliberative, reviewing and scrutiny roles. In particular, we need to resolve the way in which we tackle legislative disputes between the two Houses in order to avoid the ping-pong paralysis that we saw last week.
Mr. Leslie: I certainly agree, to the extent that some in the other place made ridiculous comments about how we were just temporary Members of Parliament, whereas they were the more permanent guardians of our constitution. We in this House are accountable to our constituents, and that is why the Commons must always be supreme. Of course there are ways in which we could improve the legitimacy of the second Chamber; and we must return to that issue.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): The Minister has referred to the debate in Westminster Hall that he was not able to attend because he was on his honeymoon. I am tempted to ask whether he enjoyed that more than he would have enjoyed the debate. Has the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs looked at the proposals put forward and supported by many hon. Members? Do the Government accept, in the light of last week's discussions in both Houses about the primacy of the Commons, that the present hybrid composition of the House of Lords is entirely their creation? Is it not up to them, therefore, to change the composition of the other place if they do not like what they see?
Mr. Leslie: I shall pass the hon. Gentleman's congratulations on to my new wife, and I shall also give her a copy of the report. I am sure that she will be delighted to read it. As I said, there is a way to improve the legitimacy of the Second Chamber, but we must be careful to ensure that the whole of Parliament has clear lines of democratic accountability. That is especially true of this Chamber, which has to make the final decisions and which is where the buck must stop.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that the first imperative is to settle on a reformed second Chamber's specific role and powers? Would not any advisory function carry more weight, and be more respected, if the second Chamber were less able to engage in the sort of party and oppositional politics evident last week? That problem would be aggravated if we had an elected House of Lords.
It is true that the second Chamber has a legitimate revising and scrutinising role, but its Members must also respect the fact that this House must make the final decision. Ultimately, people need to know whom to credit when things go right, and whom
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to blame when things go wrong. Elected Members of Parliament must stand up in front of their constituentsand Opposition Members are about to find out the public's view of their proposals.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): In the ping pong between his wedding and Westminster Hall, I think that the Minister made the right decision. Does he agree that the House of Lords has had to take on much more of the work of looking at proposed laws now that this House is not given the time to do that job properly? Is he aware that, since the Queen's Speech, 29 groups of clauses and amendments have not been debated during Report stage in this House, and that 45 groups of amendments and 111 clauses and schedules have not been debated in Committee? Andrew Marr described the outcome of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill debates as a "victory for Parliament". Is not it vital that the powers of the other placegiven freely, with the agreement of this Housebe retained?
Mr. Leslie: I seem to recall that last night's debate on the Education Bill finished slightly early because some Opposition Members were not here to make their contributions. That is a matter for them, but the introduction of timetabling to Parliament has allowed us to cover much more business, and have much more rigorous debates on many more issues. I believe that we in the House of Commons should organise our business successfully and efficiently, and that is what we do. We are quite capable of coming to effective decisions on some key issues.
David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Although it was to be welcomed that more than 600 hereditary peers left the House of Lords in the last Parliament, does not my hon. Friend the Minister agree that it is unfortunate that we have not got rid of the remaining 92? No doubt the House of Lords could have an elected element, but a fully elected second Chamber does not fill me with enthusiasm. Does he agree that, whatever may be prescribed for it, that would be a direct rival to the House of Commons?
Mr. Leslie: I hear what my hon. Friend says. He emphasises that we in the House of Commons must make sure that we have the constitutional authority to make final decisions. However, that does not mean that we cannot have more legitimacy in the other place. We will return to this matter in our manifesto, so I urge him to watch this space.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): Recruitment levels for the magistracy have remained more or less constant for the past decade. The Government are determined to increase the numbers of magistrates to ensure that Benches reflect local communities. Through our national recruitment strategy, we are about to embark on an ambitious programme of targeted advertising campaigns.
Given that the Government are expecting people in other walks of life to work longer, is the Minister considering reviewing or changing the age-limit restriction on serving magistrates?
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Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I wonder whether my hon. Friend has considered paying a small attendance allowance to magistrates. At the moment, we all seem to be fishing from a limited, small pool of health quangos, local authorities and other organisations. Nearly all those other organisations are paying attendance allowances. An attendance allowance for magistrates may encourage more people to come forward.
Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend will know that there are loss of earnings allowances and subsistence allowances. We had a large conference with magistrates yesterday when we were able to discuss such issues, as well as the national strategy. We are keen to have as diverse a bench as possible, with more ethnic minority people and a younger profile for magistrates, which means localising our magistrates even more. We are taking those issues forward in the usual way.
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