Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the purpose of this order is to abolish 19 courts boards across England and Wales. The order provides for abolition with no transfer of functions. Before addressing the order I will give some background on courts boards and their proposed abolition.
In 2010, the Government announced a review of all public bodies which aimed to increase transparency and accountability, cut out duplicated activity and discontinue unnecessary activities. In conducting reviews, departments were asked, first, to address the question of whether a body needed to exist at all. In the case of courts boards, the Ministry of Justice considered that the answer was no. This view reflected that of the previous Administration, who announced in March 2010 their intention to close courts boards. The abolition of courts boards was therefore listed in the Public Bodies Bill which received Royal Assent in December 2011.
Courts boards were established in 2003 with a remit relating to the Crown Court, county courts and magistrates’ courts. They do not manage or administer the courts themselves but advise HM Courts and Tribunals Service to improve its service. Courts boards were established partly because there was a fear that magistrates’ voices would be lost within a unified courts system. However, their role has diminished in recent years as other structures are now in place to ensure magistrates’ views are heard. Locally, there are strong relationships with magistrates’ Bench chairs and, nationally, views are represented by the Magistrates’ Association and the National Bench Chairmen’s Forum.
Another function of courts boards is to ensure that the voices of local community court users are heard. However, amalgamations within HM Courts and Tribunals Service areas have reduced courts boards areas from 42 to 19 in recent years, diminishing their ability to represent the whole community. While the Ministry of Justice fully recognises the need to respond to local needs, the Committee should recognise that it is not trying to recreate a like-for-like structure in place of what it is abolishing. One reason for reforming public bodies is to make necessary savings, and this could not be achieved by simply filling the gap with something similar, especially where functions are duplicated. Abolishing courts boards will save the public purse approximately £450,000 per year. Given their reduced role over recent years, retention cannot be justified in the current financial climate.
The proposal to abolish courts boards was included in a public consultation published in October 2011. Of the 23 responses received, seven were in favour of abolition, three were neutral and 13 were against. Arguments against abolition focused on concerns around the loss of a body to oversee Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service’s performance from a local perspective. As I will discuss, there are other ways in which these local voices can be heard. Those in favour of abolition agreed with the Government’s view that HMCTS is capable of addressing the gaps left by abolition. The department found no compelling argument within this consultation to change its proposal.
The order was laid on 31 January. Orders under the Public Bodies Act have a minimum 40-day scrutiny period, with a committee of either House able to extend this to 60 days by resolution if it feels it necessary. This order been scrutinised by several Select Committees within Parliament: in this House, the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee; in the other place, the Justice Select Committee; and, collectively, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. None of these triggered the optional 60-day extended scrutiny period.
The Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee reported on this order on 16 February, having requested supplementary information. The committee specifically asked the Minister to address several questions during the debate. On his behalf, I will now take these point by point. First, the report asked that the other avenues that could perform the same functions as courts boards should be more fully articulated, in order to support the assertion that courts boards’ functions are being duplicated. Courts board representatives can have their views heard through structures such as justice issue groups, area judicial fora, local criminal justice boards, victims and witnesses subgroups, and court user groups.
There are also strong local relationships between HMCTS and local magistrates’ Bench chairmen. Additionally to these groups, Section 21 of the of the Courts Act 2003 requires the Lord Chancellor to ascertain the views of magistrates on matters of relevance to them. This will of course continue after courts boards have been abolished. As for engagement with members of the public, courts already use a variety of methods to engage with their local communities, such as open days, open justice week, representation at local community meetings, customer satisfaction surveys and mock trials. These methods provide more direct engagement with local communities than courts boards do. Members of the community may also air their views through direct communication with their courts, writing to the relevant Ministers via their MPs or by responding to consultations.
I turn to the second point that the report requests be addressed specifically, that of giving reassurances about what provision will remain to monitor and influence how court services are tailored to the needs of the local areas. The Ministry of Justice remains committed to preserving the links between courts and local communities. Under the new agency framework, HMCTS regions will be encouraged to explore local options suitable to them, such as making more effective use of court user meetings, to engage the wider community in improving service delivery. This idea is already being developed in one HMCTS area and initial best practice has been circulated to other areas.
Furthermore, delivery directors and jurisdictional leads are working with the judiciary, stakeholders and other agencies to deliver a joined-up justice system that is responsive to the communities it serves. Further plans are being developed that will promote more direct engagement with communities. Neighbourhood justice panels are just one example of this. These panels will, through community volunteers, involve communities in finding restorative and reparative solutions to anti-social behaviour and low-level crime.
The department is also committed to increasing the transparency of the justice system in order to encourage better engagement with the public and enable citizens to hold services to account. This will, among other measures, allow for the release of various data with contextual information to promote public understanding of the justice system. This has already begun. For instance, earlier this year, the department published timeliness data for courts on the open justice system website, allowing users to see how their local court is performing.
The Ministry of Justice has taken on board the views of the Merits Committee and would like to thank it for its thorough reporting. Courts boards are an advisory non-departmental public body whose role has greatly diminished in recent years. Their functions can now be carried out in other ways. The Ministry of Justice remains committed to improving courts’ and tribunals’ performance and to listening to the local community. The department will continue to do this in the future, through the other means I have laid out today.
However, in the current financial climate, it is right that duplicated functions across government should be removed. As I said earlier, abolishing these boards will save around £450,000 per year. I therefore commend this order to the Committee and beg to move.
My Lords, again I thank the Minister and congratulate him on his very clear exposition of this order. I indicate at the outset that, as in the House of Commons, the Opposition do not in any sense oppose the proposals.
However, although the Minister has rightly referred to issues raised by the Merits Committee, it should be noted that, as well as raising individual issues, the committee expressed some concerns about how the whole process had taken place. In particular, in relation to the explanatory document, paragraph 13 of the Merits Committee report points out that both the Magistrates’ Association and the Law Society thought that the current system was better than nothing. The Government have made a judgment on that and I do not necessarily quibble with it. The Merits Committee came to this conclusion:
“On balance the low number of consultation responses would seem to support the Government’s view, that Courts Boards are not operating particularly effectively”.
However, it also pointed out that while the,
“Explanatory Document suggests that other existing avenues may perform the same function better”,
that would need to be articulated “more fully in debate”. Up to a point that has happened in another place and here today, but it did not happen unprompted. Similarly, on the impact assessment, the committee pointed out that,
“in order to demonstrate compliance with the statutory tests”—
“should, as a minimum, include in the ED a clear statement of the factors that have been included in their calculation of net savings”.
They have subsequently done that and, again, there is no issue over that. However, as the Merits Committee indicated, it would be better to have had that in place in the first instance.
The committee made a point about the reassurances over provision to monitor and influence how court services are tailored. Its conclusion was a modest rebuke to the Government, which said:
“In our consideration of future draft Public Bodies Orders, we will expect the Government to present a properly argued case that the tests in the 2011 Act have been satisfied, supported by objective evidence”.
I am sure that the Minister will wish to ensure that that is carried through in the event of any further orders coming from his department. I hope that the Government as a whole will take that point.
One or two issues remain outstanding, which relate partly to the answers that were given by the Minister, Mr Djanogly, in Monday’s debate in the House of Commons and those given by the noble Lord today. These refer to the other structures that are in place, such as justices’ issues groups and the Magistrates’ Association. As the Minister said on Monday, there are other bodies, which mean that,
“court users … can have their views heard through structures such as justices’ issues groups, area judicial forums, local criminal justice boards, victims and witnesses sub-groups, and court user groups”.—[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee, 23/4/12; col. 4.]
That raises the question of the number of bodies that might be involved and suggests rather a more fragmented approach to looking at the issues that arise in an individual area. It is striking that there is no mention of local authorities among those groups. I invite the Minister to consider whether it would be appropriate to encourage HMCTS to promote the involvement of local authorities, which are important partners in community safety and can make a significant contribution to dealing with the problems of crime and disorder, which manifest themselves locally and end up in the courts.
Useful experiments are taking place in different parts of the country in relation to some of these matters. For example, I am currently chairing a scrutiny panel in my own authority dealing with the mental health of offenders. In the course of that we have discovered that there are experiments about providing professionals at court who can assist those who might have mental health problems at a very early stage in proceedings. It is also something that the young offender teams are involved in, closely linked to the local authority services.
The point is that it will not be sufficient simply to have different groups of people relating to the HMCTS.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, I shall resume my suspended sentence—which is not an inappropriate term in the circumstances. I invite the Minister to explore a couple of aspects, in particular in relation to the role of local government.
First, it would be interesting to know whether the experiment that the noble Lord has referred to includes the relevant local authority, or authorities, in that area; and secondly, whether he would encourage the system to co-operate with any local authority scrutiny committee, because it would of course be open to a local authority to scrutinise what is happening in this area. Also, in relation to monitoring and reporting on what is happening—which can be done locally, and the local authority scrutiny committee may be a suitable vehicle for that—there is the question about whether the department itself would collate information, so that what is happening and what improvements might be made to the system can be seen nationally, rather than simply leaving it at the local level. That was the thrust of the implicit suggestion of the Merits Committee when it inquired as to that.
Finally, I note that some £450,000 will be saved by this process. It is not an inconsiderable amount of money but has to be seen in the light of the £1 billion shortfall in the anticipated savings from the abolition of public bodies of one kind or another. It will be interesting to see how much more is to come in various other regulations or orders that we will no doubt be considering. Not just in the context of this department, but generally, there seems to be a long way to go to meet the Government’s target of £2 billion of savings. However, as I said at the outset, we will not oppose the order and trust that, in the developing system, there will be an adequate exchange of information. There might for example be peer review and, in particular, there should be an annual report by the department or the agency on the progress that is being made.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for those comments and will deal with some of the points he has raised. Starting at the very end, when he talked about the savings that are necessary, he is right—£450,000 is a relatively small amount in the great scheme of things and we will continue to have to look across all departments and the whole of government for further savings to try to get the deficit down and, ultimately, to start reducing the debt that we inherited. The noble Lord knows that full well, and all parts of the Government will continue to do that. However, at this stage, discussing this particular order, he would not expect me to go any further.
I am grateful that he made clear that the Opposition do not oppose these proposals. It would be very odd if they did since they intended to do exactly this and announced it in the Budget in 2010. He then went on to talk about the various concerns that the Merits Committee had had and alleged that it had issued us with a modest rebuke. I appreciate that it was a modest rebuke, which we will take on the chin, but it could have given us a much more severe rebuke—it was open to it to insist on a 60-day period rather than a 40-day period. It is open to the Merits Committee to do even more than that. It is a very effective committee and one that we all, quite rightly, live in fear of and whose considerations we take very carefully. That is why I can give an assurance on behalf of the department that future Explanatory Memorandums will be clearer, with the financial impact fully laid out and the assessment against the various tests fully spelt out. We will make sure that that is the case. There are four further orders due from the MoJ in due course and we will try to make sure that we comply with the wishes of the Merits Committee.
The noble Lord then raised questions about my opening remarks and those of my colleague, Mr Djanogly, in another place, suggesting a fragmented approach and asking about bringing local authorities into consultation on these matters. As an old local authority hand—one with more experience than many people in this area—he is right to talk about local authorities, and we shall certainly look at how we can work with them and involve them. He suggested making use of their scrutiny committees and there are various ways in which we can look at that. Courts and the wider criminal justice system certainly try to work hard and liaise with local authorities and local authority groups, and they will look at how they can improve that in due course.
The noble Lord asked whether we will publish data nationally. Under the transparency agenda we are publishing data on a national basis in relation to the courts programme so that the public can see local and national performance directly. If the noble Lord would like further details about that and how to access it, I am more than happy to write to him in due course.
I hope that has dealt with the noble Lord’s points. If it has, I beg to move.