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House of Lords

Monday, 7th February 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Court Closures

Lord Phillips of Sudbury asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, when consideration is being given to closure of a court, they will require an estimate to be made of the extra travel costs and time to its users of having to attend a more distant alternative.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, the noble Lord's Question suggests that the Government take court closure decisions. That is not true of magistrates' court closures, which I believe are the noble Lord's principal concern. Magistrates' court premises are not government property; they are provided by local authorities. Decisions as to whether to close them are taken locally by the relevant Magistrates' Courts Committee (the MCC), not the Government. The role of the Lord Chancellor is only that the local paying authorities have a right of appeal to him against closure. Travel considerations are important factors, among others, that are taken into account in the local decision as to whether to close.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, although the noble and learned Lord has stated the arrangements, does he agree that none the less it is very much in the interests of justice in this country that magistrates' courts are where people need them? If the noble and learned Lord cannot at present take much of a hand in decisions as to closure, will he consider exerting his influence in future in view of the importance of magistrates' courts?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, not every magistrates' court deserves a preservation society. Most of the magistrates' court closures in recent years took place because their facilities were substandard or because they were satellite courts, for example parts of local council chambers which lacked essential facilities: secure accommodation; waiting areas for victims and witnesses away from defendants; consultation rooms; and access for the disabled. There was insufficient local demand for some courts. Some courts lacked reasonable staff accommodation or were unsound for structural reasons which were uneconomic to rectify. There is a huge variety of distinct reasons for closure.

Viscount Tenby: My Lords, can the Lord Chancellor tell the House what progress, if any, is being made in consultations between his department and the Magistrates' Association in issuing national guidelines

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to assist those members of magistrates' courts committees who have the difficult and delicate task of coming to a decision on whether or not a court should close?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, comprehensive guidance has been issued by the Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees. That guidance addresses all the factors that competent MCCs will address when considering closures. I have endorsed that guidance. Typically, in deciding appeals against closures I consider: the quality of existing courthouses and the facilities that they offer; the level of work currently handled; accessibility for all court users; and the extra distance that some users may have to travel to attend court and the time taken to complete the relevant return journey.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, will my noble and learned friend tell the House the number of appeals, and their percentage, against closure of magistrates' courts that have come before him and been allowed since he became Lord Chancellor?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, since becoming Lord Chancellor in May 1997 there have been 48 appeals against the closure of magistrates' courts. Most closure decisions taken by MCCs reflect a well-judged assessment of the needs of their areas. Therefore, most appeals fail but four have succeeded. I respect, but do not rubber-stamp, local decisions. By contrast, only two appeals were allowed in the five years between 1992 and 1st May 1997.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord provide some information about the future of Horseferry Road Magistrates' Court, bearing in mind that it is a purpose-built court and that Marlborough Street, which is part of South Westminster Bench, has already been closed?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, that is a detailed question to which I prefer to reply in writing, if I may.

Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, in considering any proposals for the closure of Crown Courts in north and mid-Wales and Cheshire, for which the noble and learned Lord is responsible, will he bear in mind the frequent exchange of cases between courts in those areas, the very sound partnership which has existed there for many decades and, in that context, the continuing value of the Wales and Chester circuit?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I am well aware of all those considerations. Currently, there are no proposals to close any Crown Court centre.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that one way to stem the closure of magistrates' courts is to provide them with far more work by reducing the number of cases that go to the Crown Court for trial?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, from one standpoint the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill to

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which my noble friend refers underscores the confidence of government in the quality of justice provided by magistrates.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord explain the Government's thinking on access to services for rural dwellers? I believe that the Government encourage the health service and GPs to use premises such as village halls, which may not be perfect, for surgeries. However, perfect accommodation seems paramount in the legal service. When 75 per cent of parishes still do not have a daily bus service, a local service must surely count for more than the perfection of the accommodation.

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, such considerations are taken into account. The typical distance and travelling time being set by MCCs are within 20 miles of population centres and one hour's travelling time for the majority of the population. However, noble Lords will wish due weight to be given to the need to have modern courts with modern facilities, with secure arrangements for witnesses and victims and access for the disabled.

Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty

2.43 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What position they take on the amendment of the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty in the light of revived proposals in the United States for an anti-missile defence system.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the Government continue to value the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and wish to see it preserved. The United Kingdom is not, however, a party to the treaty. The question of any amendments to it is a matter for the United States and Russia. We hope that the discussions now in progress between those countries will ultimately reach a successful conclusion.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, first, does the Minister agree that the United Kingdom is inevitably involved because of the pursuit of the upgrading of early warning systems in particular in Yorkshire at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill?

Secondly, does the noble Baroness agree that a national anti-missile defence system for the United States or any other member of NATO has the most profound implications for the cohesion of NATO, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty which remains one of the few pillars of arms control in the world? Will she agree, therefore, that there should be a major debate on this crucial issue within NATO and, if possible,

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separately with Russia after the elections, to ensure that we do not worsen the present instability in the world?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness's anxiety. However, she will know that we are not directly involved at present. America has not made a decision to proceed with the matter, and we have to await its consideration of the issue. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is a matter of real importance to us all. We continue to talk to America and Russia about the stance they take in relation to that matter. It is a matter for the Americans and Russians. We shall, of course, play our supportive part.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, does the Minister agree that if the whole purpose of anti-ballistic missile defences is to make the world, or even America, safer, it would be highly counter-productive to alarm Russia into retarding or reducing its arms control programme? Does the noble Baroness know of anyone who can explain that simple truth to the hawks in Congress?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the Russians and Americans are well aware of the delicacy of these issues. Our American partners are clear that they wish to continue to uphold the treaty. They are in negotiations with the Russians to see whether some amendment to that treaty can be made. Your Lordships will know that the treaty has been amended on two occasions without difficulty. We are hopeful that this could be a third such occasion, should it prove necessary.

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