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Lord Goodhart: I am happy to support the amendments, particularly Amendment No. 27.
The clause seems almost to be offensive to court administration councils. Subsection (1) requires councils to provide the Lord Chancellor with recommendations about his duties in the area in which the council is established. Under subsection (2), the Lord Chancellor must give due consideration to those recommendations. Clearly, the Lord Chancellor is not required to give due considerationindeed, any considerationto recommendations that go outside the area for which the council is established. Nevertheless, a court administration council may, on occasion, wish to do so. The recommendations that it makes may be sensible and helpful, and, in those circumstances, the Lord Chancellor may wish to consider them, whether or not he is under an obligation to do so.
It seems pointless and, as I said, virtually offensive to the councils to include the extraordinarily negative subsection (3), which more or less tells them that they should not itch to interfere in matters that they do not understand.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: When the Minister replies on Amendment No. 26, I would like her to confirm that Clause 5(2) would mean that, in considering recommendations, the Lord Chancellor could have regard only to the efficiency and effectiveness of the court system. That is how his duty is defined under Clause 1(1). If a recommendation were made that related primarily to the quality of justice, what would be the obligations on the Lord Chancellor?
Lord Mackay of Clashfern: It has just occurred to me that one of the areas that the Lord Chancellor will have to have in mind is the distribution of money for the purpose of supporting the various justice services in the councils' areas. The present Lord Chancellor may have some new way of doing it, but it has often been done by reference to a formula of reasonably general application. I could see an area council having some views on such a formula, which would be of general application throughout England and Wales. They might, for example, think that population was not sufficiently weighted in the formula or that sparsity of population was not taken into account sufficiently.
Those are general considerations. Although their effect on a particular area is important, they are not specifically related only to one area. Such considerations would possibly be cut out by Clause 5(3). I see nothing to prevent the Lord Chancellor from ignoring any recommendation that does not relate specifically to the area for which a particular council has responsibility. Subsection (2), taken along with subsection (1), would give him that power. Therefore, I wonder whether subsection (3) might be unnecessary. It might prove a needless obstacle to proper consideration of, for example, a funding formula.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I hope to assuage some concerns raised by Members of the Committee. The Government believe that the interpretation that can be given to the way in which area councils will work will deal with many of the issues. I take on board the comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. However, there is always an argument that any formula has an impact on the local area. As it impacts upon the local area, that council can make representations to say, "The effect upon us of the formula is as follows". That
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does the Minister mean that the word "specifically" is superfluous? What is the meaning of "specifically" in the light of what she has just said?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: It means specific to that area. The point is that issues will impact on local areas in a different way. Therefore, the local area is entitled to say, "The formula applies to us in the following way. The results of that are aberrant for the following reasonsnamely, A, B and C". Those are issues which the Lord Chancellor would be obliged to take into account if recommendations were made concerning them.
Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: In the examples that the Minister has given, the councils may want to compare the effect of the formula on some other areas. Surely, they should be allowed to comment on the effect on another area if it relates to what is happening in their area.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I understand the point and shall respond as clearly as I can. The Bill, as drafted, deals with his difficulty. As Members of the Committee know, the areas will be specified by orderas referred to in Clause 4(2)and can, if appropriate, be changed by an amending order.
The interpretation that we give the current phrasing is this: the recommendation about the size or shape of their area would be included under the current clauses because they would relate to the administration of the courts in their area. To take the example given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, they would be entitled to say, "The courts within our area are adversely affected because of the following issues.
All Members of the Committee have said that they want the councils to concentrate on their local area and give advice to the Lord Chancellor about what should happen in it. Perhaps I may take the phraseology of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser. That would enable, for example, a council in the North West to make recommendations which may impinge on a council in the South West. Those views may be interesting but, as the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, saidvery cogently, if I may respectfully say sothey may conflict diametrically with the recommendations made by their own council. Doubtless, they might say that it was unreasonable for the Lord Chancellor to give inordinate weight to a council which was not seized of the particular nature and problems of that area. Therefore, we have tried to phrase the provision in a way that will enable a council to make recommendations about any issue that may impact on its area, but not to give recommendations which may impinge upon another council's area which, itself, will be making recommendations.
Furthermore, in shaping guidance we must look at what guidance and training would need to be given to councils to include the need to work co-operativelyfor example, competing or working with neighbouring areas. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, will know that very good support is given within the Court Service from one area to another, with members of the judiciary and others helping to cope with the ebbs and flows of work. The co-operation has been successful; that is something we believe will come out of a unified administration. We do not believe that that will be the difficulty that Members of the Committee indicated.
We do not believe that we are beingin the words of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhartinsulting. That was not our intention in the way that matters have been phrased.
I turn now, in sequence, to Amendment No. 26. The reason that the wording "due consideration" was chosen was because it was considered stronger than "due regard" or "in regard to". The Government are by no means wedded one to the other; we want the strongest term. We thought that the term we alighted upon was the stronger. If Members disagree, we shall listen to alternative views. However, there is not much of an issue between us. If we are persuaded that the wording suggested by noble Lords opposite is to be preferred, that will not be a difficulty. I invite noble Lords not to move the amendment. I have not heard very much argument to support "have regard to" as being stronger. If it is, I am more than happy to accept
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I repeat what I said in speaking to my amendment. It was genuinely a probing amendment to obtain a flavour of the intent behind the Government's drafting. I am happy that the Minister has made it clear that the Government intend there to be a strong onus upon the Lord Chancellor. That is the kind of commitment we were seeking. I shall not move the amendment today.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I am grateful. Furthermore, I am happy to attend a meeting as indicated by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. If there are further issues that she and other noble Lords feel appropriate, I shall be happy to listen. Our intent is to make the wording firm, not weak.
I turn now to Amendment No. 27 which appears to have excited a little anxiety, particularly on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I should like to explain in further detail the intention behind subsection (3). Its purpose is to focus the councils on local services. It would exclude from their remit those aspects of administrative work which might be managed functionally, on a national or regional basis. National services would include the proposed business centres dealing with "back office" administration, which are central to our plans to modernise the civil and family courts. These will perform much of the routine administrative work currently being performed at individual court buildings.
The idea of dealing with administrative work at business centres or "back offices" which may support several hearing centres or provide services to the whole country is not new to the Court Service. The County Court Bulk Centre has recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and the Immigration Appellate Authorities are soon to open their second centre following the success of the Loughborough Support Centre.
As part of its modernisation plans, the Court Service intends to establish a number of these centres with each one employing up to 500 people and supporting approximately 50 to 55 courts. They are therefore likely to cover the area of more than one court administration council. At this stage, locations have not been determined for these centres. Strong service level agreements will be established between each centre and the courts from which it receives work.
We also intend to explore increased online services, building on the success of the Court Service's money claims online scheme, with which I know many Members of the Committee will be familiar. This might include, for example, an electronic service relating to housing claims. This could possibly include work currently conducted through the magistrates' courts, but would include only routine administrative work.
Managing the business in this way will release time and resources to manage things that need a local basis, such as customer service and hearings. This is not
Clearly, councils will have an interest in the way that business centres function because the local courts in their area will be customers of those centres. However, we envisage that this relationship will be managed by a service-level agreement. It would certainly be open to a local council to make recommendations about that agreement. We want to avoid having national or regional services managed in the interests of one of the areas that they serve and not in the interests of all users.
We want the court administration councils to focus very much on local services. We believe that subsection (3) provides this.
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