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Address In Reply To Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Volume 387: debated on Wednesday 9 November 1977

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2.51 p.m.

Debate resumed on the Motion moved on Thursday last by Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede—namely, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:

"Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."

My Lords, in yesterday's debate the House concentrated on economic affairs, and today we turn principally to home affairs. They are, of course, not separable. Many of the things I would have liked to do in my own Department, for instance, have for reasons of economy had to be shelved for the time being—like making legal aid more readily available to a wider segment of the population. However, bearing in mind that we have had to weather the worst recession the world has seen for over 40 years, we have not done badly, as, on the whole, yesterday's debate indicated. We now stand on the threshold of substantial improvement in the real standard of life of our people, provided that there is restraint in the year ahead. Now, even the most committed doomwatcher is less likely to cable his editor, as it is said was once done, with the words:

"Almost impossible to exaggerate the gravity of the situation here, but I will do my best".
My Lords, my own Ministerial task is to safeguard the impartial administration of justice and to endeavour to see that the machinery of that part for which I am responsible is run as efficiently as possible. I have over the past 12 months frequently expressed my concern at the serious effect of the ever-increasing growth in the volume of cases coming before the courts, and in particular the Crown Court. Strenuous efforts have been made to speed up trials and enlarge the capacity of the Crown Court to cope with its crushing caseload, and in 1976 the number of cases actually dealt with rose by 8 per cent. Despite these efforts, the number of cases awaiting trial has risen from about 8,000 in 1974 to no less than 16,000 in September of this year.

Delays, and potential injustice resulting from delays, are the inescapable consequences of this backlog. However, waiting times between the date of committal for trial and the trial itself vary in different parts of the country. For example, they average nine weeks in the Midland and Oxford and the Western Circuits but 29 weeks in London, where the worst problems arise. Those in custody in London are likely to have to wait, on average, 15 weeks before their trial. Those are average figures. In particular cases defendants may wait much longer, and may at the end of the day be acquitted or dealt with other than by way of a custodial sentence. There is some evidence that the alarming rate of increase in cases coming forward may be diminishing, but the fact is that between 1972 and 1976 the number rose by more than one-third.

This mounting tide has called for all such action from Her Majesty's Government as your Lordships' House and another place have so far been willing to accept and the other place to find money for. I hope that some help at least may come from the Criminal Law Act which we passed this year and which removed from the jurisdiction of the Crown Court a number of classes of case, in particular motoring offences. As a result, it is estimated that some 4,000 to 5,000 cases a year will be tried instead by magistrates. I continue to plan new courts, to recommend Her Majesty to appoint more circuit judges and recorders, and to foster every effort towards streamlining procedures. The High Court Bench has already increased from 31 High Court judges in 1947 to 73 now, with 284 circuit judges, some 350 recorders and a considerable number of lawyers sitting part-time as deputy circuit judges.

As for the situation in the London courts, I have approved a series of measures to spread the load outwards from the most burdened, more central court centres to others which are less heavily pressed. The areas from which cases are committed to Crown Courts within Greater London have also been adjusted. In addition, within the next 12 months, we hope to carry on a crash programme to provide 25 new courtrooms in London.

I have mentioned that cases are taking longer to try. Indeed, as the noble and learned Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, has said, trials are "getting unhealthily longer". There are no conclusive explanations of this. The noble and learned Lord Chief Justice has suggested that it has much to do with the ready availability of legal aid and the lack of a financial incentive to shorten the length of trials. That is no doubt something the legal profession will wish to consider. Of course, complaints of verbosity on the part of counsel are not new. There was the famous occasion when counsel apologised to Chief Justice Cockburn for taking so much time, and the Chief Justice thundered: "Time? You have exhausted time and encroached upon eternity!"

The basic cause of our troubles is the increase in crime and, unhappily, in violent crime. This we must not condone, whether it consists of vicious attacks on females or on those rendering service to the public, like policemen, bus drivers, taxi drivers or licensees. Courts at all levels are rightly taking an increasingly serious view of these offences. For instance, offenders convicted of rape are almost invariably sentenced to a long period in custody. In 1976, over 90 per cent. of offenders aged 21 and over who were convicted of rape or attempted rape were sentenced to immediate imprisonment. Over 90 per cent. of offenders aged between 17 and 21 were sentenced either to imprisonment or to borstal. Many of these were in fact convicted only of attempted rape. Over half the prison sentences imposed were for a period of over three years, and nearly 20 per cent. were for over five years.

Other violent offences vary more in their gravity according to the particular circumstances than does rape, which is in itself a very grave crime. However, courts do impose severe sentences on violent offenders and do recognise the public concern about violent crime. For instance, in 1976 85 per cent. of adult offenders who were convicted of robbery were sentenced to immediate imprisonment, and nearly 70 per cent. of offenders aged between 17 and 21 were sentenced either to imprisonment or to borstal training.

The Criminal Law Act itself strengthened the powers of the courts by increasing certain maximum penalties, including the new maximum of life imprisonment for attempting to cause ex- plosions with intent to endanger life or property and a penalty of five years' imprisonment for the new offence of bomb hoaxing. Heavy increases in maximum summary fines for offences such as possessing an offensive weapon at a public meeting, common and aggravated assault and obstructing a police officer are all now in force. So we have not sat idly by.

The Criminal Law Act also made a number of changes designed to assist the courts in dealing with juveniles. For instance, it enabled a court in one area to enforce an attendance centre order made in another area. Courts can now make attendance centre orders in respect of young offenders who commit offences at some distances from their homes. The implications for football hooliganism and the kind of rowdyism which often occurs at seaside and other resorts are obvious. Some money had already been made available to provide more attendance centres and part of the additional resources for law and order which were mentioned in the Chancellor's Budget speech will also be used for this purpose.

The various pressures on the courts generally are under continuous intensive study in my Department, in the Home Office and elsewhere. At present there are two Royal Commissions: that under Lord Pearson on civil liability, the other under Sir Henry Benson on legal services generally. A third is being set up on criminal procedure. On the civil side I have set up a Working Party of experts under Mr. Justice Cantley to report on current procedures in personal injury cases. Indeed, I doubt whether the administration of justice has ever been under so much critical scrutiny and so much study. The same is to some extent happening in other countries with similar social and legal systems to ours, as I discovered this autumn in the Conference of Ministers of Justice of the Commonwealth, in Canada. Among all of them was the same anxiety about increasing crime, the same searching for explanations and for remedies. In the USA the crime scene in some of the great cities is alarming.

In these countries, as in ours, there is an awareness that the administration of justice is not just a matter of crime statistics, judges and courts. It must be seen as part of the broader picture of the home environment. As I ventured to say in the House this time last year:
"If an atmosphere of decay and hopelessness in a community persists, particularly in our inner cities, then the consequential damage that is done to disadvantaged families and their children, who have no option but to live there, is bound to have effect in terms of crime, and especially adolescent crime … family ties and the old disciplines of the family and the community are vanishing in the face of squalor and disruption. There are significant relationships between crime and social deprivation".—[Official Report, 30/11/76; col. 138].
It is therefore good to note in the Queen's Speech that a Bill will be introduced to renew and revive the inner urban areas. It will give local authorities greater powers to help those who live and work there, by means of direct financial assistance to industry to help with the conversion and improvement of old industrial premises, to give 100 per cent. grants in London to clear derelict land, and to subsidise rents and aid the preparation of sites.

The conditions in some of the inner urban areas have been aggravated by the considerable influx of immigrants into some of them. Full and disturbing advantage has been taken of these circumstances by the National Front, and I was glad to note the observation of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place that,
"The menace of the National Front is to all Parties and the methods of those who oppose the National Front by violence are equally unacceptable".
There is a growing need to foster harmony between all people living in these islands and to do so by beginning
"from the principle that all men and women, whatever their colour, who are citizens in this country, should have equal rights under the law".
In this legal field I greatly hope that Parliament will find time in this Session for a Bill to implement a European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism, which I think will help greatly in regard to matters raised earlier today; and also for a Bill to reorganise the higher courts in Northern Ireland which would help to deal with cases there.

I now turn to the field of law reform. The late Lord Buck master once said:
"Law and legal procedure have always been a mystery to the uninitiated, a snare to the unwary, a red rag to the unhappy man possessed of reforming zeal".
There has been no lack of reforming zeal around in recent years. And it has not been the monopoly of the present Government. During the last Session a number of important measures of law reform received Royal Assent, several of them initiated in this House, like the Patents Act. Further proposals for reform continue to flow from the Law Commission, to which we owe a great debt of gratitude. Of most immediate interest is the Report on Matrimonial Proceedings in Magistrates' Courts. This tackles the fundamental problem about matrimonial proceedings which was raised by the Finer Report on One-Parent Families. This is that we have at present two different systems of matrimonial law with overlapping jurisdictions; one in the magistrates' courts and the other in the county courts and High Court.

Finer concluded that the system administered by the magistrates' courts was archaic and in urgent need of reform. The Government intend to introduce legislation which will implement the Law Commission's recommendations as to how this can be done. I am glad to say—and I note the support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham—that the Opposition have helpfully agreed to the proposed Bill being taken in the Second Reading Committee in another place. This will much increase its chances of passing in this crowded Session.

Turning from the activities of the Law Commission to that other valuable body, the Law Reform Committee, I am very glad to have received the Committee's 21st Report, which completes their work on limitation of actions. After consultation with the Law Commission, I have now asked the Law Reform Committee to consider the law relating to the making and revocation of wills, and, secondly, the statutory and other powers and rights of trustees and personal representatives. I continue to receive considerable correspondence about the state of the law on wills, which gave rise to the alleged famous occasion when a great probate action in regard to a very large and wealthy estate was unexpectedly settled on the first morning. As counsel for the respective parties left the court, one said to the other: "What a shame to see a fine estate being frittered away among the beneficiaries!" No doubt it is a wholly apocryphal story and any such squalid thought would never enter counsel's mind.

In the field of administrative law, two modest but, I think, useful measures of reform are being made. The first provides for a right of appeal on a point of law from the Supplementary Benefit Appeal Tribunals to the High Court. Secondly, I hope that before long nearly all the important Law Commission's recommendations on remedies in adminintrative law will be implemented by amendments to Rules of Court.

I turn now briefly to devolution, which forms one of the major items in the Government's legislative programme this Session. Two separate Bills, providing for directly-elected Assemblies in Scotland and Wales, were read a first time in another place last Friday. We, as a Government, are firmly committed to placing both Bills on the Statute Book. As your Lordships will know, these measures are of major constitutional importance and inevitably they are complex. They have been developed over a long period and after considerable consultation, reflection and thought. We have looked carefully at the points which were made on the original Scotland and Wales Bill and, as a result, I was able to announce to your Lordships in July that further changes would be made. These are now incorporated in the Bills.

One of the objectives has been to simplify and clarify the provisions wherever possible and to provide more certainly and clearly for the exercise of devolved responsibilities. The Bills dispense with a number of detailed provisions, leaving the Assemblies freer to decide the way in which they conduct their business. We have also dispensed with some of the detailed controls on the actions of the devolved administrations. But as an essential safeguard, the Government will have and retain general reserve powers to protect matters which are not to be devolved: for example, defence, trade, the economy, energy and industrial relations.

The Scotland Bill includes provision for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to be the final court of reference in legal proceedings about the vires of Scottish Assembly Acts. The Judicial Committee will also, as before, undertake pre-Assent scrutiny of Scottish Assembly Bills on references by the Secretary of State.

The Assemblies will be financed by block funds. Although it is not provided for in the Bills, we hope to devise a system whereby we should avoid annual negotiation by developing a formula which will apply to the funds over several years. As I made clear in July, the Government have been unable to identify any satisfactory form of revenue-raising power for the Assemblies. But we will consider any proposals for supplementary tax powers from the new administrations provided they are prepared to meet the costs.

When the Scotland and Wales Bill was discussed in another place last Session, the Government announced their intention to hold referendums in Scotland and Wales after enactment, on the question whether the Act should be put into effect. To do so before enactment would be to ask people to vote on what would be an imprecise and uncertain question. Provisions for the referendums, which are to be advisory to Parliament, are included in both Bills.

The Government believe that by the substantial devolution of powers we propose for the new Assemblies, the people in Scotland and Wales can—within the union—be given a much greater democratic participation in making their own choices on matters which are primarily of concern to themselves. Our unity need not, and should not, depend on enforcing conformity from the centre. We believe that such a reform will strengthen, not weaken, the United Kingdom, whose unity remains essential for the happiness and prosperity of all the peoples living within its shores.