Skip to main content

Constitutional Affairs

Volume 456: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2007

The Minister of State was asked—

Juries

My Department does not collect data on the age and gender composition of juries for monitoring purposes. Random selection from the electoral register should mean that the composition of juries is broadly representative of the general population.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does she, however, share my concern that many younger people might be being disadvantaged in this respect, perhaps by virtue of the fact that they move more frequently or are not on the electoral register? What is her Department doing in general terms to increase the awareness and involvement of young people in the jury system, perhaps in relation to citizenship awareness in schools and other projects of that nature?

My hon. Friend makes an important point in marrying the random selection of juries and registration on the electoral register—a subject that is close to my heart. He will know that my Department has done a great deal of work to encourage electoral registration, as has the Electoral Commission. However, young people are more likely to move more frequently than others. When the Department publishes its report on diversity in the jury system in England and Wales shortly, I hope that we can examine that aspect of the report in more detail.

May I reassure the Minister that, in the almost 15 years that I have been a Member of Parliament representing a Lancashire constituency, I have not received one letter of complaint from anyone who felt that they were being denied the opportunity to serve on a jury? Will she give the House an assurance that the random nature of jury selection will remain, and that it will not be artificially skewed one way or another?

I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that the random nature of jury selection will remain. As he will know, we have now extended the jury pool, which means that Members of Parliament should also now have the opportunity to serve on juries.

My hon. Friend will be aware that this is about getting the right balance, whether in regard to gender or age. Will she also ensure that that same balance is struck in regard to the selection of magistrates?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, whose policy area covers magistrates, is aware of the diversity needed in the magistrates court, as is the Magistrates Association, of which I have been a member for some time.

Carter Review

22. What representations she has received from solicitors and barristers following publication of the conclusions of the Carter review. (112042)

The hon. Gentleman asks about responses to the Carter review published in July 2006. We had 1,595 responses from solicitors and 469 from barristers, as well as much input from the various meetings that I had around the country, which were mostly attended by practitioners.

Quite a few legal aid practitioners in my constituency have written to me saying that they are worried about the Government’s proposals, which they have called “cost-cutting and damaging”. Those are experienced people who have been doing such work for a long time. Is the Minister saying that their assessment of the likely effect of the proposals is wrong, or is she suggesting that they are merely protecting their fee income?

Clearly, the legal aid fund is not underfunded; it is the best funded in the world by a significant margin. When we move, as we will in October 2007, to fixed fees for crime—which perhaps the hon. Gentleman is talking about—we would expect efficiencies to be driven so that, ultimately, solicitors will be more profitably able than now to do their business and to serve more people. There will be challenges between then and now, and I understand that those will be seriously problematic for some solicitors. I hope that we can support them to overcome those, as there is a good future for those who can do so.

As we are discussing fee income, I should perhaps mention that I am a solicitor. If at all possible, will my hon. and learned Friend consider the question of experts’ fees? I have tabled some questions on the issue, and legal aid expenditure on experts’ fees has increased far more quickly than expenditure on solicitors’ and barristers’ fees over the past five years. Will she get a detailed breakdown of that expenditure, and take steps to restrict such expenditure?

My hon. Friend has tabled such questions, and he is right about those increases. We are considering experts’ fees. If I can supply the information that he seeks, I shall do so.

Will the Minister consider the evidence that the Constitutional Affairs Committee is hearing week by week, from not just barristers and solicitors but judges and others, including representations from the president of the family division, about the likely impact on the availability of family law practitioners? Is she ready to make alterations to the timing and content of the proposals in the light of some of that evidence?

I am, of course, taking note of the evidence, and looking forward to an opportunity to deal with it, either personally or through the Lord Chancellor, in due course. We do, of course, listen carefully to what the president of the family division says. He is talking about deferring, but there is urgency none the less to introduce such fees. It was notable that Lord Justice Thomas was strongly in favour of our proposals, so perhaps a balanced approach was taken.

Has my hon. and learned Friend specifically considered whether advice deserts might emerge following the introduction of scale fees and contracts in relation to family law? Is she reviewing that possibility as a result of the change in practice this autumn?

No, I would not expect the emergence of any advice desert; I would prefer to call them historically bare-ish patches, which are now being pretty well watered with Legal Services Commission money and are basking in the mild sunshine of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, with green shoots coming through, if not bushes and trees. But enough of that metaphor. We are re-consulting on the levels of family fees, and I hope and expect that we will publish that re-consultation soon. I hope that that will ensure that family practitioners benefit from the efficiencies that all the Carter reforms will drive, and that the service given to the public will be improved.

The expression “parallel universes” comes to mind. Is the Minister aware that in a recent survey 99 per cent. of civil legal aid solicitors said that fixed fees would make their work unviable, while a staggering 82 per cent. of family lawyers said that they might withdraw completely from legal aid work? Surely that is why dozens of charities ranging from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Mind to Shelter and the Refugee Council have warned that the plans will leave vulnerable people unrepresented. When it comes to protecting such people and standing up for them, who should we listen to, Ministers who appear ever more complacent or world-class charities which spend all their lives helping the vulnerable?

There are Ministers here who spend their lifetimes helping the vulnerable in cases of all kinds.

The opportunities that the proposals offer the not-for-profit and for-profit sectors are extremely significant. I entirely accept that the transition is not easy for all people to see their way through, but I am sure that when it comes it will be advantageous and more vulnerable people will be better advised than they are now.

The effect of the Carter proposals is that there will be fewer suppliers. Whether there are patches or deserts, the fact remains that there will be less access to justice. The Law Society and the Bar Council have made representations, and hundreds of Members of Parliament have signed an early-day motion opposing this measure. Will the Minister listen to what is being said by all concerned, and delay implementation of these ridiculous reforms?

I am not sure what ridiculous reforms are being referred to, but if there are any ridiculous reforms to be deferred I will defer ridiculous reforms. What I do not accept is that fewer firms will mean less supply. On the contrary, if that is the outcome in some areas it will be because the volume of fixed-fees cases means that more people are being better represented. Fewer supplies do not necessarily mean poorer supply, although the effects will vary from area to area. As I have said repeatedly, we will consult locally in order to reach the right conclusion for the local market and—this is overwhelmingly important—for local people.

The Minister will know that since the Government announced their response to the Carter reforms and since the two debates in Westminster Hall in which the Minister spoke—after which her words were scrutinised very carefully—there has been no less concern among both the voluntary sector and the professionals that the new reforms will reduce access to justice in rural and urban Britain alike. Given the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the fact that a Select Committee is examining the evidence now, will the Minister at least do the public and their representatives the courtesy of saying that she will not implement anything until the Select Committee has reported and the House has had a chance to debate its report?

It is not the case that there is “no less concern” than there was. Universally—and that includes the early-day motion that the hon. Gentleman signed—the changes that we have made since Carter have been welcomed. The early-day motion welcomes the changes, and they are good in pace-of-change terms. We have waited to make cuts, and we are not making cuts that were expected to be made very soon under the Carter proposals. I do not know when the Constitutional Affairs Committee will report, but the first fixed fees come into force in October 2007 and I imagine that it will report before that.

Voting Age

I have received nine letters about the issue in the last six months. The matter has been raised with me by students and young people on an informal basis during engagements and visits that I have undertaken during that time.

In the Scottish parliamentary elections in May, 130,000 people in Scotland will be old enough to marry, to join the Army and even to become company directors, but will be deemed too young to be given a vote on who should govern them. When will the Minister recommend action to correct that injustice and give Scotland’s young people a voice at the ballot box?

This issue divides us in a cross-party sense. I have a good deal of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s argument for voting rights at 16, but I know that many Members feel very differently about it.

This morning I was at Greenford high school in Ealing discussing this very topic with students on their citizens’ jury. They were divided 50:50 on it. I think that before we could implement such a measure we would need more than a 50 per cent. enthusiasm rate from the people to whom we would be extending the franchise.

My hon. Friend says that she is sympathetic, but what has happened to the old-fashioned virtue of leadership? Why does she not put forward a radical idea for once and say, “We will legislate”—as the Isle of Man did in advance of its general election, at which people voted at 16 years of age? The last time I flew over the Isle of Man it was still there; it had not sunk, and it has a better democracy than we have. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

I am interested to hear my hon. Friend, who I always think of as one of the fathers of democracy in this House, suggest that the Isle of Man’s democracy is better than ours. I am disappointed that he takes that view. However, we have to listen to all views, and I have conducted surveys in my constituency—I spoke about the young people I met this morning—and I have to say to my hon. Friend that young people are not as enthusiastic as he or I might be about this subject. We must have further discussions with them before we move forward. My hon. Friend talks about leadership, and in that context we should also talk about the fragility of democracy and the importance of democracy in this country. One way to ensure that we continue to have a proper debate is by ensuring that the democracy of the country is upheld.

There is not much point in lowering the voting age unless we can convince young people who have already reached the age of 18 to vote. Why does the Minister think that there is massive apathy among young people? Is it because young people believe that the main political parties are driven by focus groups and spin, rather than principle?

I speak to young people throughout the country—and to others about the views of young people—and the idea that young people are apathetic about politics is nonsense. They take a keen interest in many of the important political issues of the day. They might not, however, like some of what they see on television with regard to how the political process works, and I have sympathy with them on that. Members of this House must work very hard in engaging with young people on the issues that are important to them and in finding ways in which they can express their opinions and get them heard. In my constituency, the London borough of Lewisham has an elected young mayor who has a budget from the council which is used to involve young people between the ages of 11 and 17 in the electoral process. We might want to extend that example to elsewhere in the country.

Some 15 months ago, my local radio station carried out an opinion poll on this issue, and more than 90 per cent. of those who responded were in favour of reducing the voting age. Would doing that not make a major contribution not only to citizenship, but to Britishness?

It is important that we have a debate on this matter. Having talked to young people around the country, I can say that they are particularly keen on the citizenship classes that now take place in schools thanks to this Government, and they feel that that is one of the ways in which they can develop their own political ideas. There are a variety of ways in which we can continue to involve young people in the political process both locally and nationally, but I am sure that the debate on whether we reduce the voting age to 16 will continue for some time to come.

Does the Minister not agree that there is a wider dimension to this issue, particularly at a time when the Government are suggesting raising the school leaving age to 18, which is to do with what adulthood really means? As she knows, some of those who suggest that the voting age should be 16 also suggest that buying tobacco and alcohol, and even starring in a porn film, should be possible at the age of 16. Does she not agree that all the evidence—and we should look at the evidence—from the Isle of Man shows that only half the young people there bothered to register to vote, and that the Electoral Commission seems to suggest in its report that overall turnout at elections would fall if we made this change?

The hon. Gentleman makes some valid points about the issues associated with reducing the voting age to 16, such as whether young people would participate, but I do not accept that reducing the voting age to 16 would automatically mean that a much smaller number of people would take part in elections; in fact, it might be a way to get young people further engaged. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 reduced the candidacy age from 21 to 18, and we can look to that example to see whether we can properly involve more young people in the democratic process by electing them at local—and, indeed, parliamentary —level.

David Kelly

24. If she will make a statement on the actions of the Oxfordshire coroner in August 2003 in respect of the death of David Kelly. (112044)

The Oxfordshire coroner briefly resumed the inquest into the death of Dr. David Kelly on 14 August 2003 to admit post mortem evidence. He then adjourned the inquest, in accordance with the provisions of section 17(a) of the Coroners Act 1988, having been informed by the Lord Chancellor that Dr. Kelly’s death was likely to be adequately investigated by the Hutton inquiry.

I thank the Minister for her reply. She will know my view that the coroner acted in a most peculiar way and contrary to the 1988 Act in resuming the inquiry after Lord Hutton had been appointed. In a letter that I received from Lord Hutton last week, he tells me that he had “no knowledge” of the inquest being reconvened, and no knowledge of the meeting with her officials, which she was aware of, that took place at the Oxfordshire coroner’s request, in August 2003. Is this not an extraordinary situation, and does the Minister not agree that it would be helpful if the Oxfordshire coroner agreed to a meeting with the Minister and me, at which we could discuss these matters in more detail? It is clear that there are a great many loose ends.

I do not agree that the coroner acted in a most peculiar way. I have looked into this issue with great care and in great detail, and I do not think it necessarily odd that Lord Hutton had no knowledge of, or information about, the meeting that the coroner held with officials from the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I know that the hon. Gentleman remains suspicious and thinks that something underhand has gone on regarding the meeting between the Oxfordshire coroner and officials from the Lord Chancellor’s Department, but I do not think that that is the case. I have so far been unable to reassure the hon. Gentleman through very detailed letters and parliamentary answers, but perhaps he should meet the officials who were involved in that meeting, who I am sure can reassure him of its propriety. Obviously, I cannot offer a meeting with the Oxfordshire coroner, who is an independent judicial official.