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Lord Bassam of Brighton: As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, we shall discuss this issue at a later stage. In order to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Jones, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, I should put on record that the role of the fines officer is to manage the collection of fines on behalf of the court through the fines collection scheme. Before a fine may be enforced through the scheme, the court must first make a collection order. I believe that much is clear.
I should like it to be further understood that judicial powers will not be usurped; neither will the power and validity of the court sentence be undermined. The court will continue to take the sentencing decision, but it will be for the fines officer to exercise the purely administrative function of applying any necessary enforcement measures. I hope that is clear. We can have further elucidation when we reach the relevant part of the Bill.
In respect of Amendment No. 13, I am confident that I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, on the point that he raised in the amendment. Obviously, the amendment would prevent the Lord Chancellor from contracting out the work of fines officers. We are grateful to the noble Lord for tabling the amendment, but we question whether it is necessary. An amendment to subsection (5) to prevent the Lord Chancellor contracting out the work of fines officers is, in our view, pointless. Clause 31(1)(a) clearly states that fines officers will be appointed by the Lord Chancellor. No mention is made of the Lord Chancellor being able to make arrangements
Therefore, the Lord Chancellor would not have the power or the authority to contract out the work. I gave that reassurance in earlier debate. I hope that that reassurance will enable the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I want to take up the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. His summary of the Government's position was far wide of the mark. I am sorry he made the summary in the way he did because it tries to sour the debate. We should today be concentrating on the practical steps that the Government are taking to implement important legislation which seeks to modernise and improve the working of our courts system. We should focus on the reality rather than on an imagined and unconscious attempt by the Government to undermine its proper operation.
I hope that there is no cynicism in the debate because we are trying to improve the way in which the court system works. We want it to be more accessible, understandable and available, enabling the publicthe consumersproperly to use it. I hope that we enter into a better spirit in discussing these important clauses and amendments.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: Is cost not the greatest reality? The Minister says that the Government have not costed the proposal. Surely the consumerthe taxpayeris concerned with cost. That is reality. I do not want to sound as though I am carping. But we are here to test the Government out on all the details of their legislation. We want to look at what appears to be a large loophole in the provisions of the Bill.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I shall return to the point. It is incorrect to say that we have not costed the proposal. However, any reasonable person would see that it is right and proper that some of the detail is worked out during the process of bringing forward legislation. We want to ensure that the new system is proper and effective in its running and organisation. That is why we have been necessarily cautious in saying that we want to work out the detail and introduce a pilot scheme.
One cannot be precise at every instance when estimating exactly the breadth of the cost, but we want to ensure that the resources are available in order that the courts work effectively and properly in everyone's interest.
Lord Jones: I rise with practicality in mind and in the best spirit. Does my noble friend categorically say that the fines officer shall not vary the fines imposed by the magistrates?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I make it clear to my noble friend that the fines officer does not vary the fines but that he will be able to vary the way in which they are collected. That is the point.
Lord Jones: My noble friend, with great courtesy, gave me the answer which I did not want. My question
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I thought that I was clear. The fines officer will not have the ability to vary the quantumthe totalityof the fine. However, he may well vary the way in which the fine is collected; in other words, the collection period.
Lord Goodhart: Having looked at paragraph 7 of Schedule 2, I am by no means certain that the Minister's answer to the noble Lord, Lord Jones, is correct. However, that matter can be left until our debate on Clause 31 and Schedule 2.
Amendment No. 11 was tabled for debate to take place on the assumption that no alteration was made in the powers of a fines officer under Clause 31 and Schedule 2.
I am grateful to the Minister for putting on record the fact that the fines officer can be appointed only under Clause 2(1) and not by virtue of an arrangement under subsection (4). That satisfies the doubt which prompted me to table Amendment No. 13 and I therefore beg leave to withdraw it.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 3 [Provision of accommodation]:
Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 14:
The noble Baroness said: The purpose of the amendment is to make it clear that the Lord Chancellor should not be left with the discretion as to whether he should,
If the requirement under the clause is simply that the Lord Chancellor may obtain the necessary budget and may spend it in the right way, we are leaving open the possibility that he may not choose to do so. That would seem objectionable. To echo a comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, I cannot imagine that any Lord Chancellor would not want to do so. Only an ill-advised Lord Chancellor would choose not to follow his duty in these respects.
Which Lord Chancellor would not want to make such provision? We allege no such thing against the current Lord Chancellor. Indeed, like the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, I am not attacking the personality of any Minister. I am looking at a Bill which will be in place for generations to come and may see many characters come and go. We want to be sure that they all behave in the right way by our justice system.
Would our amendment box in the Lord Chancellor if he wished to take specific action? No, it would not. He would retain flexibility because we have left in place the provision that the buildings and contents he should provide will be those he believes to be appropriate. We therefore leave him discretion on what he does; we say merely that it would plainly be daft if the Bill did not give him the absolute duty to provide the buildings and equipment.
Our amendment guarantees to the public that now and in future the Lord Chancellor will ensure that there is proper provision of the physical resources which support our judicial system. I beg to move.
Lord Renton: Amendment No. 14 is important. In order that justice may appear to be done, it must be carried out in circumstances which impress the people. That can occur only if the courts are properly maintained, are suitable and efficient places in which to work, and where necessary have the royal coat of arms. Therefore, the Lord Chancellor of the day should be under a strict obligation to spend public money on ensuring that the courts are properly maintained. That is why I hope that the Government will sympathise with the amendment moved by my noble friend.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept the amendment. If not, perhaps I may direct his attention to line 10 on page 3 of the Bill. There he will see, in relation to the establishment of court administration councils under Clause 4, that subsection (5) states:
Lord Bassam of Brighton: On the face of it, this seems an innocent and worthwhile amendment. I was sitting there thinking that I should concede. However, on reading my notes again, I have to reconsider that proposition.
It seems a sensible amendmentthe noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, put it in good termsbut my understanding of the impact is that it would place the Lord Chancellor under a duty, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, to provide court-houses and other accommodation. That is certainly the Lord Chancellor's intention and exactly what we want to do. But Clause 3(1) is modelled on Section 28 of the Courts Act 1971. I was not anywhere near government in 1971I was probably preparing for my A-levelsbut no doubt the draftsman considered that what he had drafted at that time was fit for purpose. The important point is that, as the clause is drafted, it empowers the Lord Chancellor to provide such accommodation. Changing the power to a duty would, I am advised, prevent the Lord Chancellor from entering into arrangements with other persons or bodies for the provision of accommodation as set out in Clause 3(2).
That would be the effect of the amendment. To give its impact some body, some life, I am advised that it would specifically prevent the Lord Chancellor from entering into arrangements with people such as the Deputy Prime Minister in respect of any property held by him. The effect of the amendment would be to impose a straitjacket and prevent the flexibility required under the original legislation to allow arrangements to be entered into for the use of properties held by other departments. That is the explanation.
We always pay great attention to suggestions for improving the quality of the wording and we shall certainly have another look at it. But the amendment could have an unfortunate and unintended consequence. We wish to ensure that courts are properly provided for, properly equipped, properly maintained, and so on. That is the intention, as it was in 1971 when the legislation on which the clause is modelled was originally drafted.
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