HC Deb 31 January 1994 vol 236 cc614-5
36. Mr. Barry Jones

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department if he will make a statement concerning the consultations he has been engaged in relating to the Police and Magistrates Courts Bill [Lords].

Mr. John M. Taylor

Since the publication of the White Paper two years ago, 11 consultative documents have followed. The reforms have also regularly been discussed by the Magistrates Courts Consultative Council. The Lord Chancellor has taken careful note of respondents' comments.

Mr. Jones

The consultations were cosmetic; the papers stand virtually unaltered. Does the Minister agree that the proposed reforms give the Lord Chancellor swingeing new powers over the justices' clerks, and ultimately, therefore, over the courts themselves? Does he accept that the proposals in the Bill turn back the practice and tradition of many years, and that there are no friends for this Bill? The hon. Gentleman should think again.

Mr. Taylor

I must make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that these proposals leave the accountability of justices' clerks where it has always been: to the local magistrates courts committees, which comprise local magistrates and will be locally administered.

In some senses, the White Paper is not a very original document—almost all these proposals are already in operation somewhere in England or Wales, with no signs of adverse effects: rather the reverse. They are in place because local people have chosen to put them in place.

Mr. Boateng

The Minister refers to the local magistrates courts committees. He is well aware that the measure before the other place proposes that the chairmen of those committees should in turn be appointed by the Lord Chancellor. He also knows very well that all parties in the other place, and every Bench up and down the country, have expressed widespread opposition to the proposal, and that the Lord Chief Justice has described it as "chilling".

Will the Minister undertake to ensure that the Lord Chancellor thinks again about this measure, just as his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has had to think again about his?

Mr. Taylor

The Lord Chancellor's mind is open, as was said by the noble Earl Fevers in the debate in another place. The Lord Chief Justice participated in that debate and did indeed use the word "chilling"; but he made it clear that he supports a great deal of the Bill. The proposal that he called chilling is the one for a legal forum—a proposal that came originally from the justices' clerks themselves.

Mr. Maclennan

Does the Minister recognise that the decline in standards of public conduct referred to by the Public Accounts Committee appears to be afflicting his Department, which is introducing proposals that are universally regarded by our senior judiciary as resulting in the independence of the judiciary being tampered with by politicians? I refer most particularly to the proposals for justices' clerks. Will the Minister ensure that they are not 'brought before this House?

Mr. Taylor

I am sorry to have to say this twice, but the proposals render justices' clerks answerable to magistrates courts committees—that is where responsibility lies. If the hon. Gentleman claims that the White Paper and the Bill are so friendless, I can only repeat that all these proposals are, as far as I am aware, already in operation somewhere in England or Wales, because local people have chosen to put them there.