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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I wish to say straight away to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that, to the extent that every department is responsible for the allocation of funds given to it by the Treasury, I, together with any other member of any government that has ever existed, live in the shadow of the Treasury. I frankly acknowledge that I have never heard of a department that would not say that, if it were given more money, it could put it to exceptionally good use. I reassure the noble Lord that, if my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer were minded to give the Lord Chancellor's Department much more money, we could put it to very good use.
However, within our current budget, we can make access to justice a reality for the people of this country. We are in communication with the Civil Justice Council (CJC). A meeting is planned for later this month. Ms Vicki Chapman, who chairs the CJC sub-committee on access to justice, will hold a meeting with our officials.
I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, says about these matters. But, with respect, what my noble friends Lord Borrie and Lord Clinton-Davis said is right to the extent that the amendments are not necessary. Amendment No. 144 would make it a statutory requirement that the Lord Chancellor have regard to the need, when prescribing fees, to recover only the recurring running costs of the courts. A statutory provision that excluded judicial salaries and accommodation costs from the current running costs would be an undesirable fetter on the Lord Chancellor's powers in exercising his ministerial responsibility to set appropriate fees. It would be to understate the true cost of the service. It would require a significant proportion
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: If I remember rightly, the provision is the result of an amendment moved by the noble Lord and successfully carried in this House. The Bill has not finished its passage. That may not be the way in which it reappears in due course.
Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, the noble Baroness should not use the opportunity of this exchange to respond to the House after it has reached a decision. I acknowledge that the Government were defeated, but does the noble Baroness really wish to respond by saying that the provision will probably be overturned in another place? Surely we are due a little more courtesy than that.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I do not intend to be discourteous. I am responding to the amendment proposed by noble Lords. I have been asked to argue why it is said that the amendments mooted by the noble Lords should not carry sway in your Lordships' House. I intend to develop the issue. Noble Lords will know that it was in the government formed by noble Lords opposite that, in 1992, the then Lord Chancellor agreed that it was anomalous that judicial salaries should not be included. It was under that administration that the introduction of accruals accounting across government brought in capital charges for property reflecting the true cost of the service. Again, in 1992, under another administration, accommodation costs were included. All the measures that the noble Lord now says are unjust were introduced by his own party's government. We have made those comments and argued those points in relation to the fees during debates in this House on the other amendments urged by Members opposite.
I would be the last person to seek in any way to dishonour or to be discourteous to this House. But, when asking me to respond, the noble Lord used the words "in the light of" other amendments. I never wish to mislead the House as to the Government's view or position. Let it not be said that we believe that the current situation will necessarily be to the long-term benefit of the citizens of this country.
I am trying to be fair and open with the noble Lord, as I hope that I have always been, so that he better understands the arguments that I put, and so that he can put them in the proper context. It would be wrong of me not to make plain our position; otherwise, I daresay that the noble Lord might subsequently be surprised. I would hate for him to be so surprised as a result of my failure to indicate how the Government are currently minded to act. That is the context in which I make those comments.
I have also made plain that, subject to subsidies to protect access to justice, the Government's policy is to recover, through fees, the cost of civil court services, including judicial salaries and accommodation costs. The approach is based on the general principle that it is reasonable to expect parties that can pay to do so. I reiterate the point made by my noble friend Lord Borrie. We are talking about people who have the means to pay, and who should properly pay, to meet the costs of that part of the civil justice system that they are using to resolve their dispute. The policy of recovering most of the costs of the courts through fees ensures the best targeting of what are, after all, scarce public resources that come from the taxpayer's pocket. They are public expenditure decisions for the Government.
In due course, I will invite the noble Lords to withdraw their amendment. But, as the noble Lord has asked me to answer the issue more fully, it is only right and proper for me to do so. Noble Lords will know that the Government have a very proud record of protecting and promoting access to justice. It is one of the Government's overarching concerns.
On 19th November 1998, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor outlined to Parliament nine principlesthey can be found in Hansard at col. WA175. They include the following: fees should not prevent access to justice, and protection must be provided for litigants of modest means.
In protecting access to justice last year200102the taxpayer paid in agreed subsidies some £60 million in fees out of the total cost of civil business of £402 million. There was £40 million for legally aided litigants; £17 million for exemption from fees for those on means-tested benefits and for remission for those not receiving benefit but who suffer financial hardship; and £5.8 million subsidy towards certain family law applicationsfor example, adoption and domestic violence.
As long ago as 1997, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor extended the exemption criteria to include income support based on jobseeker's allowance, family credit and disability working allowance. In 1999, that was updated to include recipients of working families' tax credit and disabled person's tax credit at the same level. It has been further revised to reflect the introduction of the new working and child tax credits and the pension credit from April and October respectively. By the end of this year, over five million people will be eligible for automatic exemption from court fees.
We think that the balance is about right. The Government have shown their commitment to ensuring that citizens can have access and enforce their rights or have their obligations determined by an independent tribunal by enshrining in the domestic Human Rights Act 1998 the European Convention on Human Rights. Last year200102the Government provided funds of £1,717 million in civil and criminal legal aid. The total cost of running the criminal and civil courts was approximately £1.1 billion. In fairness to the taxpayer, there is no reason why court users who can pay should not pay for the cost of the civil court service that they use. Those sums should properly be resorted to.
The civil courts are not being underfunded. As everywhere, budgets are tight, but they have been set to protect frontline services. Some £95 million of IT investment is planned for the next three years. The number of sitting days has increased annually over the past five years. There is sufficient judicial capacity to support continued reduction in waiting times. Noble Lords will know that two orders passed through the House relating to increases in the number of judges. Ninety-three per cent of administrative work is disposed of within five days. Staff numbers have fallen by 2 per cent since 1999 as a direct result of computerisation. The Court Service is the most successful public sector organisation in terms of the Charter Mark awardit has 86 awards, and 100 are being assessed as we speak.
Transferring the cost to the taxpayer would not automatically secure more resources but would have to share priorities in the allocation of scarce public resources. There are expenditure decisions for government. I hope that I have demonstrated that we have taken those decisions responsibly, and will continue to take them responsibly, to ensure that there is genuine access to justice for the people of our country.
Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her comprehensive response to an amendment that is limited to ensuring that court fees seek to recover only the recurrent running costs of the courts. I am grateful to the Minister for setting out so clearly whether her department is mortgaged to the Treasury. Sir Hayden will be pleased to read afterwards how his words have been placed so clearly in context. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that.