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Magistrates Courts

Volume 205: debated on Monday 9 March 1992

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Kirkhope.]

8.14 pm

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State is here to respond to what I think is an important debate about the proposed closure of magistrates courts. I am delighted also that the anxiety of the House to reach this important item of business had brought its affairs to a conclusion rather earlier than expected. I hope that that is some compensation for any inconvenience that this early debate might cause.

There is a proposal to close the Faversham magistrates court. It has a history dating back to a Royal Charter of 1361. It is a local institution, much valued by the local community, local solicitors and local justices. It is almost certainly the best value courthouse in Kent. The saving from closure would be £17,000 per annum plus, perhaps, some of the clerks' time and other incidental costs. There are no capital or repair costs as the court is in accommodation rented from the borough council. It is very fine accommodation. The court room was modernised 10 years ago and there is a holding room, a retiring room, private facilities for justices, interview rooms for solicitors and waiting rooms. The court sits most days of most weeks. It is the very embodiment of what we in England think of as local justice, coupled with occasional visits not from local people, but from well-known outsiders such as Terry Wogan, who appeared on one occasion with great publicity. It is outstandingly good value for money.

As I will explain, we have gained a six-months reprieve, and I and others intend to use that time to get the Faversham decision reversed. If we are accused of being parochial, I plead guilty, but I think that we will have co-defendants throughout the land because hundreds of local courthouses are at risk. I have the document from the Kent magistrates courts committee outlining the scale of the threat to Kent. The same threat exists for other counties and districts throughout England—all arising from the need to meet the new funding formula introduced by the Home Office.

The Kent proposals are described as measures for consideration and are designed to meet a possible deficit of £682,000 by the end of a five-year transitional period. The proposal is to close Margate and Ramsgate courts or to amalgamate them, closing one courthouse. Either Ashford or Folkestone would be closed. In Medway, Dartford arid Gravesham, the benches would be amalgamated and one courthouse closed. In Canterbury, Faversham and Sittingbourne, the closure of Faversham is assumed and there is consideration of the closure of Sheerness. 1 n Maidstone, there is consideration of the amalgamation of the benches and the closure of West Mailing and Tonbridge. In west Kent, there is consideration of the closure of the Tunbridge Wells office and courthouse and the amalgamation of both benches.

Those are proposals and options and there will, of course, be much resistance. Some will undoubtedly be saved, but we should be quite clear that many will be lost and there will be a question mark against the future of all of them for many years to come. That is the picture in Kent, where under the formula it is a losing county by a forecast amount of £682,000.

Other counties and districts are similarly at risk. The list shows more than 30 losing areas. East Sussex loses 20 per cent. of its budget—£860,000; Bedfordshire loses £405,000; Cheshire £809,000; Cornwall £318,000; Hereford and Worcester £722,000—and I could continue. Hundreds of local courts will close unless the formula is modified. I hope that other right hon. and hon. Members will note the prospective losses in income to their counties and districts, translate them into the effect that they will have on local court houses, and make their concerns known to my right hon. Friend the Minister.

I appreciate the helpful and courteous way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister responded to the representations that I and a number of my hon. Friends representing Kent constituencies made, once the scale of the threat became clear. My right hon. Friend also set out in a written answer on 6 February the policy guidelines for the closure of magistrates courts and said that he would, within those guidelines, take a robust but sympathetic view of any closure proposals that came before him.

That answer was, as one would expect of the Home Office, skilfully worded, but I take comfort from my right hon. Friend's commitment to the principle of a quality local service for communities. I also infer a commitment even to smaller local courthouses—except where buildings are old and unsuitable, lacking facilities, and are costly to maintain or repair. I deduce also from my right hon. Friend's reply that court committees should not assume that arguments of so-called efficiency should inevitably lead to the closure of small courthouses.

A significant problem is that a proposal to close a court house will not be referred to the Minister responsible unless the local paying authority—in our case, Kent county council—decides to appeal against the decision. In the case of Faversham, I was shocked when, after a series of discussions and representations, the county council felt that it could not enter an objection.

For some historic reason that is not clear to me, the local paying authority contributes 20 per cent. to the cost of running magistrates courts. I hope that the Home Office or the Lord Chancellor's Department will seriously consider abandoning that system, particularly in the light of the reorganisation of court administration, and that which is certain to take place in local government.

I see no logical reason why we should persist with a system whereby local authorities pay 20 per cent. towards the maintenance and running of magistrates courts. If it were discontinued, we might enter into a simpler and more efficient arrangement. Meanwhile, it is even more indefensible that county councils and other paying authorities should have the right to determine whether or not there is to be an appeal.

On 1 April, responsibility for magistrates courts will be transferred from the Home Office to the Lord Chancellor's Department, when a new junior Minister will be appointed. We do not know who he or she will be. I do not wish that post upon my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, but we know for certain that the person appointed will be a Conservative Member of Parliament.

Incidentally, my remarks are addressed as much to my right hon. Friend as to the Lord Chancellor, their successors, and those working in Departments who interpret the policy and wishes of our Ministers and of the legislation.

I request that all closures should henceforth be referred to the Lord Chancellor, and that the necesary amendments to legislation should be promptly introduced after the general election. Only in that way can local views be heard. Under the present system, the question whether an appeal will be made is arbitrarily determined by the county council. If it does not choose that course—perhaps for reasonable, internal, and possibly financial reasons—local opinion, local councillors, and local justices have no right to be heard. That cannot be fair and proper.

On this occasion, I am supported only by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed), who is in his place, though I suspect that I have the support also of others of my hon. Friends who represent Kent constituencies. I do not doubt that in the coming months, as the proposal's true implications begin to be understood, we will be joined by right hon. and hon. Members representing constituencies throughout England.

The only way that we can achieve a fair hearing is if the system is changed. I am convinced that we need to re-examine the way that the new, cash-limit funding formula operates. I suspect that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends will press for that to happen. As soon as the new Ministers are known, I and my hon. Friends will seek a meeting with the Lord Chancellor to discuss the issue. Any help that my right hon. Friend the Minister can give now or then will be greatly valued.

There is no objection to cash limits. Even those who are responsible for administration reacted constructively to that concept. There has already been a healthy response to the financing arrangements, but there are objections to the use of a formula that produces wide swings in funding. What is the logic of a system that, for example, takes £680,000 from Kent and gives nearly £1 million to Avon? Is it suggested that Avon is not bringing enough prosecutions because it does not have the court facilities? I think not. Why take money from another county? It could be argued that it is inefficient, but why bestow a gift on another part of the United Kingdom simply because it is not performing its proper duties? The whole system is fundamentally flawed and ought to be reviewed.

One of the formula's main components is the number of prosecutions, but that is not something that courts can control. Magistrates cannot determine the number of prosecutions that are brought. Kent crime figures, I am sad to say, are on the increase—but for some reason the number of prosecutions brought in the county is significantly below that of our neighbours. If Kent's ratio of defendants per 1,000 population rose over the next year to equal the average for the south-east, under the formula its funding would increase significantly—but by then many of Kent's courthouses might have closed.

The Home Office accepts that the accuracy of all such data should be verified by external auditors, but surely that work should be undertaken before courthouses are closed and staff are made redundant. We want the formula examined now, before it is too late.

The argument is about the distribution of resources, not cuts. Kent's figure for 1992–93 will be nearly £7 million, or 19 per cent. higher than 1990–91. The argument is not against building modern courthouses and closing inefficient courthouses. It is a powerful argument for a more sensitive and more intelligent application of funding that helps to maintain local justice and the local magistracy wherever we possibly and sensibly can.

That judgment must take into account all costs to public funds, as was mentioned in my right hon. Friend's written answer. It must take into account also the time and expenses incurred by the general public in travelling to courthouses that might be a great distance away, and the cost to the legal aid fund of solicitors who will be required to travel to distant courts because a local facility has been lost. In Faversham's case, it is estimated that additional legal aid costs alone would probably outweigh the supposed saving achieved by closing that court.

We have gained a six-month reprieve for Faversham, thanks to the open-mindedness of the magistrates committee in responding to the many representations it has received, and to the work done by Mr. John Gorham —an ex-political opponent of mine, who is chairman of the local bench. That demonstrates that ours is an all-party effort that has no political angle. It is due also to the work of many others—but no thanks to Kent county council, whose response greatly disappointed me.

I make no bones about it. I want to use this reprieve, and the Faversham proposal, as a lever to protect our Kent network of local courts, and to change the cash-limits formula. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that the Lord Chancellor receives that message, and that there is a general understanding in Whitehall of the need to respond to all the Members of Parliament who are defending our system of local justice, and who will continue to do so in the coming months.

8.29 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) on the temperate and moderate way in which he has raised an important subject. He has talked about Kent, but, as he has pointed out, the problem extends to other parts of the country. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for the courtesy and helpfulness with which he received us on 22 January to discuss these matters.

I shall not repeat the arguments that have already been advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham. Let me simply say that I largely agree not only with his general comments, but with the specific proposals that he has put to our right hon. Friend. For instance, he mentioned the courthouse in my constituency.

The debate is timely; only this afternoon, I heard from my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport that the new international station was to be built in the centre of Ashford, serving both Network SouthEast and the channel tunnel trains. It will bring many benefits not only to the community of Ashford, but to east Kent, east Sussex and that part of England generally. I am delighted, because I have been fighting for such a development for a long time; inevitably, however, it will mean more criminals trying to smuggle in drugs or people, or simply involving themselves in general criminal activities.

That, coupled with the opening of the channel tunnel next autumn, will place a heavy burden on the law enforcement agencies in my constituency, my hon. Friend's constituency and the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), where the tunnel is situated. It is therefore important that facilities are provided locally for cases to be tried.

Let me now strike a positive note, which I hope will appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister. When the proposals were mooted, a committee was set up in Ashford, under the chairmanship of Mr. Barnes: he has done extremely well, concentrating on the greater utilisation of the Ashford court and the need to improve its cash flow, and to ensure that it is properly used and housed in a modern, purpose-built courthouse sited alongside the police station. That is a good way of ensuring that the courthouse will stay open and will, as it were, pay its way.

I thoroughly applaud all the efforts that are being made. We want to see the maximum utilisation of space, and those in charge of courthouses with surplus space that is not being used properly should bear that in mind. I also hope that we can remove the swords of Damocles that are hanging over courthouses not only in Kent but elsewhere. I mention Kent particularly because it is a fast-growing region which contains the channel tunnel and involves a number of other activities that will inevitably increase the load.

Some people—not many—have said that this is part of the Government's cuts. I have tried to disabuse them, but even law firms in my constituency have been trying to make political points on the subject. I consider that attitude to be thoroughly unjustified, but it exists, and I have a slight feeling that it is tied up with the way in which we are funding legal aid. Perhaps I have a nasty suspicious mind.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister will give careful consideration to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and me. Certainly, none of us wants inefficient, under-utilised courthouses, with no consideration given to ways in which staff and buildings could be better used. Equally, none of us wants local justice to become no longer local: we do not want defendants, witnesses, solicitors and clerks to have to travel long distances for the sake of some formula that may or may not be working properly.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to give us some assurances, and will join me in paying tribute to the very good work that is being done by most of our courts, particularly those in Kent.

8.34 pm

This debate is important for justice in Kent. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) both on his good fortune in securing it, and on the powerful way in which he set out his case. He did the same when, in January, he discussed the issue with me, along with our hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed), whom I am pleased to see in the Chamber.

I was extremely pleased to hear both my hon. Friends comment on the fact that overall expenditure on the magistrates courts is currently being expanded. Figures show that, in real terms—taking inflation into account —we are spending half as much again as we were spending in 1979. The service is in extremely good condition, and is growing—as was demonstrated by the published public expenditure programme announced in the autumn by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Having said that, I must make one thing clear: I am as wedded to the concept of local justice as are my hon. Friends. My constituency is, in some respects, not dissimilar to theirs, and I too want the provision of good access to local justice. That is not to say that every courthouse in the country is in a state of grace—some are pretty run-down—or that every courthouse is necessarily particularly well utilised or well run. In such a large service, it would be amazing if that were the case. I stress, however, that we seek to introduce efficiencies within increasing public expenditure, while at the same time taking into account the pressing need for local justice and the traditions of such justice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham would like to turn the present system inside out and start again. Perhaps he is right—and I shall make sure that tomorrow my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor receives a copy of the report of our debate. My hon. Friend is saying that the present system is inadequate because it does not provide sufficient access for local people who wish to make known their views about proposed courthouse closures—unless the paying authority, in this case Kent county council, chooses to apply to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for a review of the decision.

That is the position under the current law. My hon. Friend, in effect, wants new legislation, because considerable changes in statute law would be needed to bring about the circumstances that he considers desirable. I shall bring that to the attention of the Lord Chancellor, as he will assume responsibility for the magistrates courts from 1 April. Only tonight, I attended the farewell party—or wake—of the Home Office division that is to be transferred, with no fee, to administer the service in the Lord Chancellor's Department from 1 April. It has given very good public service.

I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend. I wish merely to say that even I could draft a very simple amendment to the present legislation to ensure that others had the right to generate an appeal.

Certainly, C2 division—that is what it is called; that is my contribution to open government tonight—could do it just like that, but a Bill would be needed. Indeed, such a Bill will have to be presented to the House in due course to make other changes to the service, consistent with the proposals in the White Paper published a few days ago by the Lord Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. That cannot be too far away; the Bill must come down the track fairly quickly after the next general election. Such a development will certainly give my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham an opportunity to make his points in the next year or two—I cannot anticipate future Gracious Speeches.

At present, decisions about whether courthouses should remain open—like most other decisions affecting the courts service—are primarily local decisions made by magistrates courts committees, in conjunction with their paying authorities. In our view, it is right for such decisions to continue to be made locally: only in that way can proper attention be paid to the full range of issues.

That, I think, is where my hon. Friend sees a fault. He envisages full consideration of issues locally, but notes that, if local people's views are not taken into account and no appeal is made to the Home Secretary, they will have no right of appeal. I sense that he feels that there is an injustice in the way in which local justice is administered, and I understand what he has said. At the moment, only as a matter of last resort, if agreement cannot be reached between a court committee and its paying authority, would the matter be passed to the Home Secretary or, after 1 April, to my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor.

Those procedures are part of a separate process for determining court accommodation under the Justices of the Peace Act 1979—not such an ancient statute. Under the provisions of that Act, magistrates courts' accommodation is a matter for the committee to determine, in consultation with the paying authority which meets 20 per cent. of the overall costs, the balance being met by Government grant.

The paying authority's input—both the 20 per cent. contribution towards the running costs and the consultative role that it carries out with the court committee to take account of local interests—is very much part of the system. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham, in his radical and reforming speech, said that that should also be done away with and that, as I understand it, there should be 100 per cent. Government funding.

I will have to draw those two substantial matters to the attention of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor—first, the unfettered right of appeal to a Secretary of State by people who do not like the local decision, and, secondly, that, not satisfied with cash limits, we should move to 100 per cent. funding of magistrates courts. However, I might have misunderstood my hon. Friend.

I do not think that my right hon. Friend has misunderstood, but I do not wish to appear as radical as he suggests. If, as seems likely from the Welsh precedent, we are to move to unitary authorities within a local government structure, we will have to rethink the paying authority and who will determine such matters. During that rethink, it seems logical that we should reconsider the sort of matter that we are discussing.

I hope that my hon. Friend realised that I was speaking in tease marks when I used the word "radical".

The third matter that I must draw to the attention of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor is the subject that my hon. Friend has just brought to the attention of the House—the local government reorganisations, which will be introduced on a rolling basis, should local communities so decide. I do not know what the situation is in Kent, but already in that part of my constituency which used to be in Berkshire people are looking forward to the reintroduction of Berkshire. Many of my constituents write to me from Abingdon on Thames, Berkshire, rather than Oxfordshire.

During the next few years, there will be all sorts of fundamental changes. There may well be unitary authorities. I cannot pre-empt the decision of the Local Government Commission, which will look into applications from local people perhaps to introduce different tiers or single-tier authorities. However, my hon. Friend is right as that will have considerable implications for the administration of local justice. Also, it will have considerable implications for the administation of the police service, which we will also have to consider. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham has the assent of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford, and he is right to draw the attention of the House to the fact that we must consider the matter in the round.

Tonight, the plate is full with three separate ingredients for possible future reforms in the way in which we look after the magistrates courts service. The speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham was extremely valuable in drawing attention to some of the problems which may come before it during the next few years, especially if there is legislation.

While there may be amalgamations and a few closures —there have been only a few recently—in the five-year period from 1991–92 to 1995–96, 28 new courthouses have been opened or are being built, providing 185 new court rooms. Perhaps that is the other side of the coin which I need to put before the House. Many of those new courthouses and court rooms will have the most up-to-date facilities. While a period of change and of challenge is before us, there will also be a period of considerable growth.

I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend in the House on such issues, when they will undoubtedly be handled from the Dispatch Box by that entirely new being to whom he referred, a junior Minister representing the Lord Chancellor's Department in this place.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Nine o'clock.