Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Jones: The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, emphasised the centralisation of powers and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, has shrewdly underscored the problems of rural areas. With local justice in mind, I first pay tribute to the work of countless magistrates throughout the nation.

The system of local justice is well proven. There is an army of voluntary citizens of repute and integrity—not least in Wales. In my 31 years in another place, I never once received a complaint about magistrates' courts in all my always voluminous mailbag. Magistrates are invaluable. They are known, tried and tested. They are successful, experienced and co-operative. They represent a very British tradition.

I am concerned about the loss of magistrates' courts in Wales, in her rural areas. Court closures in rural areas pose real problems, especially for those who are not comfortably off. No one can any longer be sure of the reliability of the rural bus services. A bus fare for a long distance can mount up to a king's ransom. Even in the urban area with which I am familiar in north-east Wales, real difficulties are faced by those who must place their trust in a bus service to get to a distant magistrates' court. For instance, to travel one-way by taxi from urban Deeside to the magistrates' courts at Mold—the county seat—might cost more than 6. That is a large amount for some and particularly for someone without a regular income who may face a fine at the magistrates' court. We have closed enough magistrates' courts. Rural Wales should take no more closures, and there should be no more closures in urban areas of Wales.

Lord Waddington: It is with some diffidence that I rise so early in the Committee stage, but there is a general point to be made that has a bearing on all the amendments that have been tabled to what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, described as a centralising measure.

Before we impose any new duties on the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, as the Bill and the proposed amendments would do, we should pause to consider the powers and duties that the noble and learned Lord already has and the great increase in those powers in recent years. I hope that we will receive some assurance that further changes in the responsibilities of the noble and learned Lord's department are not in the offing, with further powers to be conferred on the department. The answer to that question will cover my response to many of the proposals in the Bill and to many of the amendments.

20 Jan 2003 : Column 504

The responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor's Department have been greatly expanded in recent years. Responsibility for the magistrates' courts, for instance, was transferred to the Lord Chancellor's Department from the Home Office in 1992 by The Transfer of Functions (Magistrates' Courts and Family Law) Order. In 2001, there was a greater extension of the powers of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. According to The Civil Service Year Book, the Lord Chancellor is also responsible for,

    "a number of constitutional policy matters, transferred from the Home Office in June 2001. These include Royal, church and hereditary matters and policy on fundamental marriage law, same-sex issues and transsexual people".

It goes on:

    "The Lord Chancellor is the Privy Counsellor primarily concerned with the affairs of the Crown Dependencies of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man and is the channel of communication between the insular authorities and the Crown and the UK Government".

That is of interest to me. According to paragraph 839 of volume 6 of Halsbury's Statutes, the Home Secretary is the Minister responsible. I certainly thought that I was responsible when I was Home Secretary. If that change has come about, it has done so recently and must be noted.

The entry in The Civil Service Year Book goes on to say that the Lord Chancellor has,

    "oversight of a wide programme of Government civil legislation and reform in such fields as human rights, freedom of information, data protection, family law, property law, defamation and legal aid and House of Lords Reform".

It cannot be doubted that there has been a considerable accretion to the powers of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in recent years. We must ask ourselves whether that is a desirable state of affairs.

Once, the Lord Chancellor's Department was a small department, staffed by lawyers. Now, it has a budget of nearly 3 billion and a staff of 12,000. Small wonder that a new House of Commons Select Committee is to be set up to oversee the work of the Lord Chancellor's Department. I read that the department is to have a new name: it is to be the Department for Justice, Rights and the Constitution. Is it not well on the way to becoming an all-powerful Ministry of Justice? Is that what we want? Is that the way that we are going? If so, we should be aware of it.

Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 4 may be seen as useful, but they should be seen against the background of a department under the leadership of a Lord Chancellor bent on increasing his empire. How can the Bill be read in a different way, when the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is putting civil servants in charge of the magistrates' courts, rather than locally accountable magistrates' courts committees? That is not done to ensure the best local service possible but in the belief that more control by the department will yield cuts in costs. Anyone who doubts that should study the interview reported in the Daily Telegraph on 15th April last year. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor referred to,

    "vast opportunities for economies of scale".

20 Jan 2003 : Column 505

Secondly, the Bill puts courts administration councils, which are advisory bodies, in the place of the magistrates' courts committees, which have real powers, are truly accountable and have ensured that magistrates' courts have performed at least as efficiently—more efficiently, many may say—as have the Crown Courts. The Bill takes from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster powers to appoint magistrates in Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. Only two years ago, a similar proposal was put out to consultation; it received minimal support and had to be withdrawn by the Government. That proposal was made in the interests of uniformity for uniformity's sake. Goodness me, why would the Government reintroduce a proposal that was almost universally condemned only two years ago, unless it is because of the determination of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to concentrate more and more powers in his own hands?

I hope that everybody who will take part in the Committee stage will not just consider the wording of amendments but will ask themselves some serious questions about whether this is, in fact, an exercise in concentrating more powers in the hands of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and his department, as we move inexorably towards a Ministry of Justice.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Goodhart: I must take issue with what the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, has just said. I recognise that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has become the member of the Government responsible for oversight of the constitution. However, critical as I am, from time to time, of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor—we will certainly be critical of many parts of the Bill—I would slightly prefer that the constitution should be in his hands than in those of the Home Secretary. We need not go into that question to any great extent when considering this Bill.

I agreed with everything said by my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury, by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, and by the noble Lord, Lord Jones. The Bill loses sight of the importance of the principle of justice. As the House's Constitution Committee said, the Bill raises constitutional issues. It is unfortunate that we begin with Clause 1(1) referring to an efficient and effective system for the carrying on of business. The Bill is about justice. It is essential that not only should there be an efficient and effective system, but, as my noble friend's amendment points out, that it should be fair and should further the rule of law. That is why I am keen to support the amendment. Its significance may be largely symbolic, but symbols are sometimes very powerful instruments. I should feel much happier about this Bill if at the beginning it states that it is concerned with justice and not just with administration of the court system.

20 Jan 2003 : Column 506

Lord Borrie: I want to address my remarks to one or two of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. I fully agreed with earlier points made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, regarding the relationship between the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department. I believe that the early 1990s transfer of power and the supervision of magistrates' courts from the Home Office to the Lord Chancellor's Department was not before time. Since the Beeching report of 1970, it has been exceedingly appropriate that the Home Office, with its huge range of responsibilities, including those for the police and the prosecution service, should not also be responsible for the administration of the courts. A start was made in the 1970s and 1980s towards the Lord Chancellor's Department having overall supervision of all courts, not just the superior courts. Taking the responsibility for magistrates' courts from the Home Office seemed to me to be highly appropriate, not before time, and certainly should not be questioned today. Probably, the Minister was pleased by the extremes of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, when he spoke in terms of the accretion of power to the Lord Chancellor—making it sound as though it was personal—and suggesting that in this Bill the accretion of power is going much too far.

I accept that there is plenty of room for argument during the course of debating the amendments and raising the issues of how the administration should be run, the management of magistrates' courts, and so forth. However, it would be inappropriate to examine this Bill against a background of feeling that there is an accretion of power which is wholly undesirable when, to my mind, it is logical and sensible that there should be one government department concerned with the administration of the courts as a whole.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page