Howard caves in over legal changes after Lords protests

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The Independent Online
THE MOST controversial proposals in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill were withdrawn yesterday by the Government in a humiliating U-turn to rescue the measure from defeat in the House of Lords.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, announced dramatic reversals in policy following devastasting criticism of the Bill on its second reading in the Lords.

The Home Secretary abandoned plans that he select chairmen of new police authorities - they will be chosen by the other members of police committees as at present. He also removed a limit of 16 members for the new authorities, which would have left some councils without representatives. These can be enlarged by the Home Secretary but the independent members approved by him will be limited to a third and will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

The Lord Chancellor abandoned the imposition of performance-related pay and fixed-term contracts for justices' clerks, who provide legal advice to magistrates. He also ditched plans that he would approve the renewal and terms of contracts for justices' clerks and approve the chairmen of magistrates' courts committees.

It amounted to a victory for three former Home Secretaries: Lord Whitelaw, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff and Lord Carr; and Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, who accused the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor of seeking dictatorial powers over the police and judicial system.

The extent of the climb-down surprised even some of the critics of the Bill, one of John Major's showpiece measures on law and order. Senior Tory MPs were blaming Kenneth Clarke, Mr Howard's predecessor, for much of the policy debacle.

Mr Howard said: 'These changes will put the independence of police authorities beyond doubt. The Bill has never sought to centralise control over the police, nor to threaten the independence of police authorities, but there is obviously a need to remove this fear.'

Tony Blair, Labour spokesman on home affairs, welcomed the changes but said they did not go far enough - the Home Secretary would retain power to direct police policy and set objectives.

Lord Mackay said he was responding to representations by the Magistrates' Association, the Justices' Clerks' Society and other professional groups. He said the Government remained committed to a locally managed magistrates' courts service and to the protection of their judicial independence.

Paul Boateng, Labour spokesman on legal affairs, said Labour would seek to force the Lord Chancellor to abandon plans to enforce the amalgamation of magistrates' court committee areas, and the appointment of chief justices' clerks, instead of chief executives, which the magistrates wanted.

Senior Tory peers, including Lord Whitelaw, have indicated that their objections have been met, making it more likely the Bill will arrive in the Commons by the summer without forcing ministers into further big retreats.

Inside Parliament, page 6

Leading article, page 19