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Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, I greatly regret that Hansard will not contain the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, pronounced the word. However, I feel that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has put his finger on something important. It has been echoed throughout the debate; namely, the whole question of resources.
The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, have referred to the shadow of the Chancellor of the Exchequer overhanging the debate. There is little point in having fundamental reform of criminal justice if there are not the resources to accompany that reform.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, will know from his experience in reforming civil justice that there was a debate in 1999 in which both he and I participated. We stressed how important it was that the information technology improvements promised at that time should be forthcoming. I was sad to see the noble and learned Lord's successor as head of civil justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Master of the Rolls, giving a warning earlier this year that without a multi-million pound cash injection for new technology the reforms begun three years ago without IT back-up will not work. That is a very serious situation. It is a cause for concern that we are now embarked on a fundamental reform of civil justice again without the necessary resources being earmarked.
If only there was some way in which we could assist the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. When I held a number of posts in government, I recall that the successive Permanent Secretaries adjudicated on my efficiency as a Secretary of State on the basis of the extent to which I was able to obtain resources from the Treasury. I am sure that that must now be in the pages of history, but if it is still a fact, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor accept from the House its solid support for his determination to ensure the necessary resources?
I have here the very creditable report of Lord Justice Auld. Sadly, it does not look as earmarked as it should be, but this is one I borrowed earlier; my earmarked copy is at home. It consists of 686 pages. Like the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, I pay tribute to what is now a reference work on criminal justice. As the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, said, it is an immensely valuable document.
The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said that the criminal justice system is not working as well as it should. In all the speeches made in the debate there has been strong support of the need for reform. But before I go into the detail of some of the proposals, perhaps I may echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, who said that the lay magistracy should be "cherished and not spurned", and my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden stressed its importance. In a particularly moving account, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, paid tribute to his late father's service to the community. I pay tribute from these Benches to the marvellous work carried out by generations of lay magistrates. They have served our communities well, often at great expense and inconvenience to themselves unpaid servants giving a lifetime of service. I join my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith in paying tribute to them.
As against that inherently local service, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, pointed out, we are presented with an enormous degree of centralisation. Clause 1 states very clearly that the general duty on the Lord Chancellor is to produce an efficient and effective system. There are some concerns about that. The noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, referred to the power given to the Lord Chancellor under Clause 2(4). I agree that it appears to be a very wide clause and I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, can give some reassurance as to the extent of that power.
My noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden said that we were faced with something that is a little bit of a muddle with ample scope for rationalisation, but noble Lords on all sides of the House believe that in the Bill there is an unjustified emphasis on centralisation. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor started the debate by saying clearly and resoundingly that this is not a centralising measure. I hope that he will forgive us if we put that to the test in Committee. As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith inquired, what has happened between the Auld report, the Government's White Paper, Justice for All, and the Bill? Each of those documents represents a different stage in the journey. How have we ended up where we are today?
The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, expressed concern about centralisation and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, stressed on several occasions the importance of local responsibility. But we are now faced with the abolition of magistrates' courts committees and their replacement by court administration councils. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, will be remembered for his phrase that it is a "cackhanded approach".
CACscourt administration councilswill have no executive authority. That is to lie with another agency which, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, pointed out, is not mentioned in the Bill. As my noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns said, may we please have the framework documents in order that we may adjudicate on exactly what the powers of this agency will be?
My noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden said that we are turning magistrates' clerks into civil servants and he instanced the fact that, as civil servants, officials will be given financial targets against which their performance will be judged. That gives rise to all kinds of worries and concerns.
As to the supplemental list, I join my noble friend Lady Seccombe in asking why abolish it? We have two distinguished members of the supplemental list in the House. My noble friend Lady Seccombe was too modest to mention that she joins the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, as a member of the supplemental list, a roll of honour which they thoroughly deserve.
A number of noble Lords referred to the issue of court closures, which is a cause of considerable concern. Since 1997, 96 magistrates' courthouses have closed in England and Wales, whereas only 14 have opened. What effect that will have is an area of concern. The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, quite rightly referred to the situation in Powys with the PPP. I do not know to what extent the Welsh Assembly or the Secretary of State for Wales have been consulted. I hope that we shall hear more about that in a few moments time.
As to fines, there is general support for the proposals of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, it cannot be right that the recovery rate in urban areas is 34 per cent and in rural areas 89 per cent. Those are telling statistics on fines enforcement. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said that we must address poor performance, and he has very strong support in that respect.
But giving fines officers powers to increase fines, as my noble friend Lady Seccombe said, is a cause for worry. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said that we should not worry, but the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, pointed out that there are considerable worries about the power in Schedule 2, Part 2, paragraph 9(4) at page 61 of the Bill. All these issues will have to be considered later.
As the right reverend Prelate pointed out, it is the poor and vulnerable members of society and the community who suffer from the inefficient administration of justice. I join with him in the tribute he paid to citizens advice bureaux; I am proud to be president of my local CAB. I was a little worried that the right reverend Prelate felt that Surrey was God-fearing whereas Bedford was not. Perhaps he should issue a personal statement on that. The noble Lord, Lord Lea, pointed out the dangers of the least cost option, with which I strongly agree.
The most powerful speech came from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. As a mere modest solicitor, perhaps I may pay tribute to him. His unique position in being able to address this Chamber on these issues is greatly to our advantage. We were very concerned to hear his comments on Clause 87, which he described in
The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, went quite Shakespearian. I join him in worrying about the Henry VIII clauses and about seeking reform of an approach dating back to the time of Henry II; namely, the circuits.
Questions were raised about what will happen to the Duchy of Lancaster. Speaking as a former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I am very worried about the statement in paragraph 51 on page 13 of the Explanatory Notes that the current responsibilities of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will be transferred to the Lord Chancellor. We need a response on that point. Previous Chancellors of the Duchy of Lancaster whom I have consulted seemed completely unaware of this massive change in what were our responsibilities. I hope that we can hear more on the subject.
I turn finally to Clauses 92 and 93 dealing with periodical paymentswhich I think have caught a few people by surprise. I never criticise the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for finding a primary legislative opportunity of introducing such provisions. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, pointed out, in its present form with provision for variation this will provide serious problems for insurers. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, welcomed structured settlements, as many of us do, but there is a danger under the present provisions, if enacted by statutory instrumentnamely, a reviewthat no cases will ever close. Perhaps, as Senior Partner in a firm of solicitors, Beachcroft Wansbroughs, I should welcome this provision. The thought of no case ever being able to close is a prospect which lawyers might support, but which no sensible lawyers would want. We must not allow anxiety to return over the awards of damages through a threat of variation on either side. Perhaps the answer is to move in that direction only in the most exceptional cases and only after careful assessment of the impact on the insurance and financial sector.
We have instanced previously in this House the danger of retrospective legislation. The opening up of awards for review in the future must not be allowed to apply to any existing claims for which premiums have been collected and for which reserves have already been set. There is a danger of the shadow of uncertainty remaining over civil litigation for some time. While I welcome the opportunity for the courts to order structured settlements, there must be a finality to the process.
We have had an interesting debate. I now look forward to the response of the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland. We on this side of the Chamber await the Committee stage, when we shall seek to improve the Bill.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I say straightaway how much I welcome the opportunity to respond to whatas the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, saidhas been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. But as he indicated, there have been in excess of 34 questions. The noble Lord asked a further four. I have in front of me sufficient paper to do a creditable job but I shall not seek to answer each and every question now. However, just to reassure my officials, I should inform your Lordships that I do have an answer in full to each and every question that has been asked. I pay tribute to all those who have made such high-quality contributions. In this debate, we have heard the "gems" of the House. As I look round the Chamber, I think that we need to celebrate the fact that this evening the Lords have shown their worth.
I should also like to avail myself of this opportunity to do what my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has done on so many occasions; namely, to applaud the lay magistracy for the sterling work that its members do. That has been echoed by a number of speakers. There can have been no stronger advocate for the lay magistracy than the present Lord Chancellor, who, over the past five or six years, has made his support known and felt universally.
Typically, magistrates' courts are community courts, and the Government have demonstrated their faith in the lay magistracy by doubling magistrates' sentencing powers in the Criminal Justice Bill. The 30,000 magistrates represent one of the most significant commitments to volunteering in this country and they have this Government's every confidence.
It has been a pleasure to listen to the Bill being welcomed on all sides of the House. I thank in particular the right reverend Prelate for giving us his blessing in this regard; and it was sweet indeed to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Acknerfor whom we have great respectgive it his rare and much treasured endorsement. I for one shall savour that for a long time to come.
As my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor reminded us in his opening remarks, reform of the criminal justice system is key to achieving the balance of rights and responsibilities that were at the heart of this year's gracious Speech. The Government have committed themselves to a long-term strategy of reform and modernisation of the criminal justice system. Although we have achieved a great deal already in this directionI thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for his compliments in that regardwe
The tenor of the debate was well summed up by the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, when he spoke of his optimism. I do not think that that optimism is misplaced. This is a carefully crafted Bill. The stakeholders have been fully engaged. I thank again the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, for his compliments on the care with which officials have kept the judiciary informed.
We have had extensive consultation with the magistracy and with all those who are engaged in the delivery of justice. It must be stressed that the Government are not blindly following an agenda of modernisation. In the Bill, we are preserving carefully that which exists and has been proven to work well. But at the same time, we are improving on those areas which no longer work as effectively as they should. The provisions in the Bill are the result of an independent evidence-based assessment of what is needed for thoroughgoing and systematic improvement of the courts. It finds its basis in pragmatism and good sense, and many of its proposed changes are entirely demand led. The Bill modernises the courts system in such a way that it better serves the systemmembers of the public, victim or defendantin order that we can remain rightfully proud of our traditions of criminal justice.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, with his usual acuity, went straight to the detail of the provision. I shall answer his points in similar detail in due course, although not this evening; but many of the provisions upon which he alighted are re-enactments of provisions which are already in being. I hope that in due course the noble and learned Lord will be comforted to know that, for instance, the provision in Clause 29 is currently set out in Section 53A of the Justices of the Peace Act. In many cases we are not doing much that is new; we are reintroducing that which has already been found to work well.
I appreciate that tonight we have concentrated, rightly, on the changes to the structure of magistrates' courts committees. But that is not the only change. We are also doing something very new. For the first time, we are giving an element of local accountability to county courts and Crown Courts. We are asking for work to be done in partnership so that local needs can be better met. We should all be proud about that. It is important that we remember that this is not simply a reform of the administration of magistrates' courts.
The agencies are not creatures of primary legislationthe noble Lord, Lord Hunt of the Wirral, raised that issue. The Court Service, which administers the county court, the Crown Court and the higher courts, is not in primary legislation. Framework documents are placed before Parliament. We have already committed to working in partnership with stakeholders in its drafting. The agency will be accountable to Parliament, directly through the Ministers of the Lord Chancellor's Department, unlike magistrates' courts committees.
I agree with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, that the guidelines must be published as swiftly as possible. I cannot give the noble Baroness a date. I agree that the documents are important. My only caveat is that it is important that the stakeholders are involved in those documents so that what is produced is sound. We will undertake to ensure that they are published as soon as is reasonably practicable. When I have a date, I will apprise the noble Baroness of it.
The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor stated that the Courts Bill will be crucial in delivering modern, efficient courts that are free from unnecessary and avoidable delay, in touch with the communities they serve and responsive to the needs of their users. A new unified administration is the key building block in our strategy to overhaul the criminal justice system. It will simplify court structures. Instead of 43 separate administrative systems, we will have only one, ensuring greater uniformity and consistency. Unification provides the structure for greater integration of the criminal courts and will allow for easier implementation of the other important reforms in the Bill.
I wish to lay to rest some misconceptions that may be developing in noble Lords' minds. I will do so as quickly as possible. I reassure the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, that he correctly assessed the future position. It will be possible to allow a more efficient use of the courts estate through the unified administration. Sharing accommodation can lead to the provision of better facilities and services to customers and staff. We have already identified some hearing centres that will be saved from closure through unified administration, thus improving access to justice locally. Co-location of county courts in magistrates' court buildings already exists in some places; for example, in Rotherham, Kendal and Ashford. Altrincham County Court has recently moved into the improved accommodation in Trafford Magistrates' Court. We will be able to do that much more systematically.
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