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Magistrates Courts

Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

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What recent representations she has received on the distances witnesses have to travel to reach magistrates courts in north Yorkshire. [107458]

None recently, but I know that North Yorkshire county council has lodged an appeal against recent decisions by the North Yorkshire magistrates courts committee. I have not yet received all the representations and have not yet considered the appeal.

Is the hon. Lady aware that since her Government have been in power more than 200 magistrates courts have closed, which has led, particularly in north Yorkshire, to witnesses having to travel long distances in a sparsely populated area with limited public transport between villages and the places where magistrates courts meet? Could members of her Department turn their attention to facilitating travel arrangements for witnesses, enabling them to get to court, and to do so on time?

The hon. Lady's figures are incorrect. It is certainly the case that there were magistrates courts closures under the previous Administration as well as this one. Those closures vary from year to year—last year, there were seven magistrates courts closures, but in 1996, the last year of the Conservative Government, there were 21 court closures, including rural court closures in Hornsea, Howden, Market Weighton, Cheadle, Biddulph, Kidsgrove, Bedale, Easingwold, Leyburn, Ingleton, Thursk, Colwyn Bay, Llangollen, another Welsh place that I cannot pronounce, East Dereham and elsewhere. I could go on—[HON. MEMBERS: "Go on!"]

The hon. Lady ought to check her facts before making such points. However, she is right that there is a serious issue about ensuring that victims and witnesses can travel to court. Magistrates courts committees need to take account both of other facilities for victims and witnesses, including facilities available in the courthouse, and resources. This year, north Yorkshire will get 23 per cent. more in cash terms for magistrates courts committees compared with last year. Under Conservative plans, they would receive a 20 per cent. cut.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the private finance initiative bid by the North Yorkshire magistrates courts committee to build six new courts to serve the people of the York and Selby area? In view of the large travelling distances between parts of Selby and York, will she take due account of the strong local feeling that, if the bid is approved, at least one of the courts should be based in Selby?

I know that my hon. Friend has strong views on that issue, which he has raised with me before. He will be aware that it is the responsibility of the North Yorkshire magistrates courts committee to determine the location of the proposed new court houses. Clearly, if any appeal is made to Ministers, I will certainly meet my hon. Friend and consider all the issues that he wants to raise.