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Lord Renton: I apologise for interrupting but this is an important matter. Will those officers have any statutory obligations among their duties?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: There will be guidance about how those officers will work, which will be developed. I cannot say that that guidance will be prepared before the Bill leaves the House but we could make further clarificatory statements in light of the partial consultation.

Those Members of the Committee who had the advantage of reading the letter and seeing the consultation that I outlined on page 4 will see that local consultation will be a key part of the overall consultation process. The process starts in earnest with a series of one-day discussion groups that the Lord Chancellor's Department has arranged across the country. Those groups will explore what a unified administration means and the administration in their part of the country, and representatives of courts users, the local magistracy—including MCC members—the judiciary and court staff will be invited to attend. The groups will consider issues such as how an appropriate local focus can be achieved on the councils. All of that consultation will go on but the

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guidance that we will provide and its detail will await the outcome of those broad consultations. Our intent is to get it right so that it works.

I respectfully say that we will get it right only if we listen to local people, local agencies, local magistrates and local judges to find out from them what is right for them as opposed to what is right for us—those of us sitting in Whitehall or elsewhere.

Lord Goodhart: Does the Minister appreciate that the matter that concerns both Opposition parties is that the role of the court administration councils in the Bill is extremely weak? That is a matter of deep concern. We are told that the role of the court administration councils would be much more significant than it appears in the Bill and that they will be involved through partnership with the local chief officer in the way in which the administration of justice is carried out in their area. However, unless there is something in the Bill that explains that—one cannot explain it without reference to the courts agency—we will end up in the current position; that is, that the role that the Government intend the court administration councils to play is quite different from that given to them by statute.

10 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I hear what the noble Lord says about the anxieties and about the need for clarity. An issue arises as to how we deal with that without, if I may respectfully say so, burdening the statute, which puts in place a rigid system that we would find difficult to use flexibly in the way that different local needs would demand.

I understand the Committee's concern on this matter. We are anxious to see what, if anything, can be done to ensure that whatever guidance and so on is produced gives voice to that concern. Therefore, I reiterate what I said earlier: we shall listen carefully to everything said during the Committee stage about this and other issues to see how we can assuage the concerns that are genuinely held by a number of Members of the Committee.

In practice, we shall have to deduce how the partnership will work. But the partnership will be created not by regulation but through the proper management of the organisation, its aims and objectives, its vision and its values and the training that it provides for staff.

We have already made clear that the court estate is a key area in which the Lord Chancellor will welcome recommendations from the council. He will, as required by Clause 5, give them due consideration. I believe that the amendment goes no further than that.

The agency framework document is the established means of setting out the agency's governance arrangements. It is a methodology that has proved its value in relation to the 127 other agencies that currently exist. There is no reason to believe that it will not be equally efficacious on this occasion.

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As I said, I understand the Committee's concern to know more about the new agency at this stage. I have undertaken to make available further information as soon as possible. However, it is essential that the new organisation is developed with the involvement of our stakeholders—for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, I say in parenthesis that those are all the people to whom I referred in my answer earlier—and anyone else who has a genuine interest in the courts and therefore a stake in the administration of them. Those conversations will be most important.

We have developed a series of events which are taking place between January and April to discuss these outstanding issues with the various parties. Those events will help us to develop a clearer picture of how the agency will be organised locally and nationally. I cannot emphasise how important—

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She has emphasised several times, in writing and in the House, that the Government are out to listen during the consultation period. What would happen if the consultees told the Government that they wanted the type of changes made to the Bill that are in this series of amendments?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: As mentioned earlier, in deciding what we wish to achieve we have to take on board the recommendations made by Lord Justice Auld. Therefore, if, for example, the consultees said, "Actually, we want no change. We don't want a merging of the administration of the courts in the way that everyone has defined as being the best for the people of this country", it is unlikely that that would sway the Government to reject Lord Justice Auld's recommendations and to reject the comments made to us by many people who have to operate the system and who say that the system is crying out for unification.

However, we shall of course take into account decisions concerning how the local areas should be managed, what size the councils should be, whether there should be consultative groups, what the structure should be, what the function should be and whether there should be a variation for urban, rural, semi-urban, semi-rural or suburban areas. We wish to have a unified system which for the first time deals not only with magistrates' courts—as important as they undoubtedly are—but brings the magistracy and the magistrates' courts into the wider family. In that way, the criminal, family and civil courts will work together in union for the benefit of the people of their area. That will give us locally delivered solutions for local people. We do not have that local element in the way we would aspire to have it right the way across the board. This is our opportunity to do that, and we shall do that by listening.

10 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: When the noble Baroness admonishes me I feel like a recalcitrant pupil in the primary class. She explained much of the wording contained in the principles, as I would expect of her. However, I hope she does not think me cheeky if I ask

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her a specific question, which is related to the amendment. Let us suppose that there is a dispute between the local area manager after he has been consulting at the table with the courts administration council about the opening, closing or relocation of court houses. What happens then?

The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, relied upon Clause 5. However, as my noble friend Lord Goodhart pointed out, the only power which the court administration council has on the face of the Bill in this area is to provide the Lord Chancellor with recommendations about how he should discharge his general duty in relation to various matters. What happens if there is a specific clash?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: We hope to fashion an appeals structure so that everyone within that system knows what happens if there is a clash between any two parties. That is essential. At present there is not a proper dispute resolution procedure. In normal circumstances the chief officers and councils will work in partnership. None the less, provision needs to be made for the situation described by the noble Lord: a difference of opinion between the local chief officer and the council on key issues. In those exceptional circumstances the issue will be referred to the chief executive for resolution. Important issues that cannot be resolved in that way will be a matter for the Lord Chancellor, who must give due consideration to the recommendation of the council.

We hope that we shall have a greater degree of clarity than there is at present as to what happens when there is a dispute. Unfortunately, at present when there is a dispute it is difficult to get resolution. We believe that this new structure will be able to solve a number of the problems with which magistrates and magistrates' courts committees currently struggle but which are difficult to deal with because there are not the necessary instruments to resolve them. We hope modestly to present them with a cure to those problems by the new structure.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: The noble Baroness is as charming as ever and has shown that she is prepared to listen. We are not surprised at that but are grateful for it. She has shown that she recognises the validity of many of the concerns which we on this side of the Committee have tried to express. I wonder whether she would take another opportunity to demonstrate the same willingness to listen and to express an understanding of our concern. She said that she wants the magistrates to join the whole judicial family. I do not recognise that they feel excluded from that family at present. After all, they deal with 93 per cent of all criminal cases. They sit in the Crown Court to advise recorders and, I believe, Crown Court judges too, upon matters of sentencing. They are made much of, very properly, by visiting red judges. I do not think that they feel excluded.

One of the reasons they feel valued and esteemed is that under our present system they are accorded a substantial measure of self-government under the magistrates' courts committees. What will happen

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now? We know that those committees are going and we know that the courts agency will appoint its local managers and that they will be answerable to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and will receive directions from him. What bugs some of us is that the Government have indicated some form of court advisory council involvement in the appointment of local managers. The arrangements then go on to say that this may not be practicable for initial appointments. Yet it is the initial appointments that will have quite disproportionate influence on the developing culture of these arrangements. Will the Minister think about how to overcome that matter?

The provisions of the Bill, which set up the CACs, might come into force before the provisions for the local managers. That would enable the CACs to express an opinion on who should be appointed as an area manager, and have that opinion taken seriously into consideration. Perhaps the Minister will think about that important aspect of these arrangements.

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