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Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I hesitate to intervene but I observed that the Leader of the House talked of "lightly brushing aside". My noble friend Lord Henley asked a serious question and the Leader of the House said that it was a matter for the Prime Minister whom he asked to 10 Downing Street. Does the Leader of the House agree with me that the Prime Minister is in 10 Downing Street because the British electorate put him there? It is therefore a matter of some interest if the Prime Minister, as representative of all parties and as Prime Minister of this country, asks somebody to Downing Street who has openly advocated the taking of drugs. Does the Leader of the House think that that is setting a good example?

Lord Richard: My Lords, that question was somewhat ponderous, if I may say so to the Leader of the Opposition. If the best the Opposition can do--

Noble Lords: Answer!

Lord Richard: I shall answer in my own way. If the best the Opposition can do is to complain about the guest list at a reception at 10 Downing Street when I have been dealing with the serious appointment of someone to look at the question of drugs throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, I am not surprised that the electorate took the view it did last May.

Magistrates' Courts

3.21 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, magistrates and magistrates' courts are critical to our criminal justice system. There are now over 30,000 lay magistrates, and 90 stipendiary or professional magistrates, divided between the metropolitan stipendiary bench serving Inner London and the provincial bench, that is, the rest of the country. The magistracy deals with about 97 per cent. of criminal offences prosecuted in England and Wales. It also has important family and local licensing jurisdictions. That is why it is vital that they are supported by policies which look to the next century--not back to the 19th century.

Arrangements for the management and funding of magistrates' courts were enacted by Parliament in 1949. The previous government brought forward proposals

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designed to clarify and improve the accountability of the magistrates' courts system, through Part IV of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994. A statutory responsibility was put on local magistrates' courts committees (MCCs) for the efficient and effective administration of the courts in their areas. It established the role of a justices' chief executive as chief administrative officer responsible to each MCC. It also provided new powers for the Lord Chancellor, including one to initiate proposals for amalgamating MCC areas and implementing them where, after consultation, he considers that an amalgamation would be likely to lead to an overall increase in the efficiency of the administration of the courts in the area.

I am committed to making these arrangements serve modern needs in support of both lay and professional magistrates alike. The hard work and dedication to justice of the lay magistracy are undoubted. We have no plans for a replacement of the lay magistracy with stipendiary magistrates. My aim is to deploy the resources of the lay and the stipendiary magistracy to best effect.

Our objectives are: to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the magistrates' courts; and to reduce delay in the time taken for cases to be taken through those courts and so honour our manifesto commitment. My announcement today will help achieve those objectives through improved co-ordination and communication between the different agencies working in the criminal justice system, so as to improve the management of the system as a whole; better distribution and use of the public resources the Government commit to the magistrates' courts as an integral part of the processes for delivering justice; and better and more flexible deployment of professional judicial resources.

The provisions of the 1994 Act have yet to be implemented in a way which achieves significant improvement in the organisation and management of the magistrates' courts throughout England and Wales. We need to create a modern structure which provides the right local management within a national framework. We will continue to look afresh across the structures, processes and objectives of the whole criminal justice system. That process is not yet complete and it may produce still more radical options. But there is work that needs to be started now, and much that can be achieved using the powers we already have.

There are today 96 MCCs in England and Wales. They cover very different geographical areas, in many cases unrelated to the areas covered by other agencies involved in the criminal justice system, and serving widely differing numbers of magistrates, staff and court buildings. As Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of the Magistrates' Courts Service states in her annual report for 1996-97, which has today been lodged in the Library of the House:

    "In several of our 1996/97 inspection reports, we concluded that small MCC areas were managing their affairs competently within the grant allocated to them. However, without detracting from their achievement, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the existence of so many small organisational units is not in the best interest of a

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    well-functioning Service nation-wide. In our view, overall improvement will only be achieved through a structure with fewer MCCs which are comparable in terms of workload and resources".

In the Government's view, there needs to be fewer, and larger, MCC areas, providing a more consistent basis for the administration and management of the courts, and a much greater alignment with the local government areas served by other agencies in the justice system--for example, the Crown Prosecution Service and police authorities--wherever that is appropriate. This requires a substantial programme of amalgamations of MCC areas.

Such an outcome is likely to lead to an overall increase in efficiency, both for the management of the courts themselves and for the wider criminal justice system. A greater coincidence of boundaries between the agencies should lead to administrative benefits, including the implementation of consistent and coherent policies throughout the area; for example, in fast-tracking particular types of case, which depends on effective co-operation between the various criminal justice agencies. I have been struck in government by the extent to which delivery in practice of objectives on which everyone is agreed in principle depends on effective co-operation among a large number of different agencies. Immediately after the general election, my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to work up proposals for dividing the CPS into 42 areas to match existing police authority areas. She did so and those proposals were announced in a Written Answer in another place on 21st May 1997. So 42 CPS areas; 43 police forces; and 96 separate, independent administrative units in the magistrates' courts system. I am not trying to establish administrative symmetry for its own sake. But I have to ask whether 96 separate administrative units in the magistrates' courts are really necessary.

I want to make it plain that this is not about losing local courts. It is about being open-minded about the best way of providing administrative support to them. I am not planning mindlessly to sweep away tradition; I am striving for a justice system at least as good as any in the world. There is much that is good about our current arrangements, not least the involvement of intelligent, committed volunteers as magistrates. What I want to do is to build on the high quality which is already there, to secure the best possible service for the British people. I am committed to local justice. Many decisions, for example about providing court-houses to match need, will properly remain to be taken at local level. But justice delivered locally is not the same as justice organised locally. Local management, in my clear view, requires a national framework.

The voluntary amalgamations which have occurred to date have shown the benefits which can be achieved. They have included: a fresh approach to the organisation of the MCC, with a reduction in the number of sub-committees, and the establishment of clear levels of delegation to officers; better strategic planning in relation to use of magistrates, staff and buildings, with an estate of sufficient size and flexibility to render the task meaningful; better performance monitoring and the

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networking of performance initiatives; access to specialist staff which the individual committees could not previously have supported; and the ability to review and standardise staffing policies and bring about other administrative efficiencies through rationalisation of functions previously duplicated by staff within the individual committees.

Our policy is, therefore, to promote a reduction in the number of MCC areas, involving a greater alignment of the MCC areas with those areas served by the CPS and police. This provides a model which is the starting point for our consideration of MCC areas. I shall issue consultation papers proposing amalgamation of MCC areas with a view to being in a position to make an amalgamation order under Section 32 of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997 where that is justified.

Our first priority is to consider the position of the metropolitan MCCs, where currently there are the largest number of small MCCs and where we believe there is the greatest scope for the largest efficiency gains through pooling their resources. We shall start the necessary consultative process with a view to having new shadow MCCs up and running on 1st April 1998, with a second phase on 1st April 1999. In the shire counties there remain some parts of the country where MCC areas do not currently align with the police and CPS boundaries and, as appropriate, we shall bring forward proposals in relation to these MCCs.

Greater London provides its own problems. This is substantially because of the effects of the abolition of the GLC and successive changes to local government in that area. I have yet to receive and consider the interim review of the Outer London Strategic Management Body. However, the service cannot afford to await until 1999 before any consideration is given to the way forward for outer London. We are looking at the appropriate ways to organise magistrates' courts across the huge area of the metropolitan constabulary. If we are to achieve our national objectives in relation to the service in London as a whole, we shall need to propose changes which tie in with those being introduced by the CPS in the area.

I turn to the appointment and deployment of stipendiary magistrates. We have also been giving careful consideration to a better and more flexible use of the professional judicial resources available in the magistrates' courts. Stipendiary magistrates are, by statute, appointed either to London or to a particular commission area. They do not have a national jurisdiction. We will shortly, therefore, be consulting on the desirability of creating a single, unified stipendiary magistracy that would enhance the efficiency with which stipendiary magistrates could respond to changes in national workload patterns. Associated with this we shall consult upon the question whether the role that stipendiary magistrates now fulfil might be more accurately reflected in a change of judicial title; they are professional judges and the word "magistrate" is most naturally associated in the public mind with the lay magistracy.

We have been persuaded by representations, among others from the Magistrates' Association, that our policy should be to encourage greater separation within the

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senior management of the magistrates' courts, in particular between administrative and legal functions. Justices' clerks, and all those advising magistrates in individual cases, need to be able to concentrate upon this important function. Managing a modern magistrates' courts service is an administrative function. It requires dedicated administrators fully engaged on that task. In order to improve the status of those who provide legal advice to the magistrates, we shall be consulting on the proposal that, in future, court clerks should all be professionally qualified either as a barrister or solicitor. If it would help, we are prepared to consider a change of title to recognise their proper role in a modern magistrates' courts system. It is also our policy to ensure that dual appointments, where the same individual is both the justices' chief executive and justices' clerk with substantive legal responsibilities, will become really exceptional. Amalgamations will lead to MCC areas of a sufficient size to be able to support a stand-alone justices' chief executive and the appropriate number of justices clerks for their area.

I now turn to a matter consequential to my Statement thus far. I have today lodged in the Library of the House a copy of the Magistrates Courts Services Inspectorate's report on the review of the proposal to amalgamate Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull MCC. The chief inspector identifies the efficiency gains which could accrue from the rationalisation of the senior management structures in the area. She refers to the potential for new strategic thinking, reduced management overheads, sharing of initiatives, greater staff specialisation and better use of staff generally. She recommends that Ministers should actively pursue a reduction in the number of MCC areas and that a new national strategy be developed to contribute to the better functioning of the criminal justice system as a whole. She does not recommend that Ministers proceed with the particular compulsory amalgamation of these three MCCs at this time. I have broadly accepted her conclusions. I do not propose to proceed with the proposal to amalgamate the three MCCs of Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull, as this proposal is not wholly consistent with the strategy I have outlined.

Associated with these changes we shall be bringing forward other measures to improve the national framework. The department is currently reviewing the grant allocation formula. It is our intention to introduce a new formula for 1999-2000 which will be better able to meet needs while recognising performance, and will distribute the available resources more fairly. We shall be introducing a requirement upon MCCs in relation to the reports and plans they are to produce and the performance standards they are to maintain. Their operations will be supported by new information technology services currently being negotiated with suppliers. These will enable a more effective means of delivering information across the criminal justice system.

I shall shortly be issuing consultation papers proposing the amalgamation of the seven MCCs in the West Midlands area, and also the five MCCs in Merseyside. If these proposals are implemented, it will

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result in MCCs in those two areas with common boundaries with the police authorities and new CPS areas. I shall follow this up with further consultation papers as and when appropriate proposing further amalgamations where this might achieve the benefits I have described. I shall be writing to the chairmen of the relevant MCCs inviting them to submit proposals and indicating when, in the absence of their own proposals, we intend to launch our own consultation under Section 32(5) of the Act. I shall also shortly be issuing a consultation paper as I have described on unifying the metropolitan and provincial stipendiary benches.

With this announcement today, the Government are embarking upon a plan of action to improve the operation of the magistrates' courts. We are determined to create a modern structure, which will provide the right local management within a national framework. This will enable the courts to play their part in a properly co-ordinated criminal justice system, better able to deliver our promise to reduce delay throughout the system.

3.39 p.m.

Lord Kingsland: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for sharing with us in such a comprehensive and detailed way his future intentions towards the organisation of the magistracy. He will not mind my saying that many of the ideas that he has expressed today are ideas that the previous government had already developed or were in an advanced stage of developing. I hope that he will also forgive me for, at this stage, expressing my views on a preliminary basis because I have not had a great deal of time to consider in detail what the noble and learned Lord said.

I am particularly struck by his remarks about the distinction between justice locally delivered and justice locally organised. I agree with the noble and learned Lord that as far as the organisation of justice is concerned there is much to be said for larger areas of management. I cannot say that the reduction from 96 to 42 or 43 is necessarily the right figure, but as an order of magnitude it seems to me the sensible course.

However, it would not be true to say that there is no link between the organisation of justice on the one hand and the delivery of justice locally on the other because MCCs are responsible for providing finance for local benches; for providing training for local JPs; and for administering local courts. There are nearly 500 magistrates' courts. How can we be sure that in 10 years' time there will still be 500 such courts? One can only deliver justice locally if one has the buildings in which to deliver it locally. How can we be sure that those buildings are properly staffed and have a lay magistracy there to deliver justice?

I would like to be reassured by the noble and learned Lord that in exercising their discretion the MCCs will make sure that the principle of locally delivered justice is very high on their agenda; otherwise it will be an inevitable inclination of those who manage the MCCs to centralise the delivery of justice below. Locally

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delivered justice is one of the finest principles of our constitution. It must be guaranteed. As the Lord Chancellor organises the new MCCs under Section 32 of the 1997 Act, I hope that he will consider providing the necessary safeguards.

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