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Sutton Courthouse

Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2003

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4 pm

I am delighted to have secured the time for this debate today, and I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it will be possible for my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) to catch your eye during the debate so that he may have the chance to contribute.

I understand that the Minister cannot, today, prejudge any decisions about courthouse closures. My intention is to expand on some of the points that I raised with the Minister in correspondence after our exchange during the most recent Lord Chancellor's Question Time. The Minister knows of my concern about the way in which the Greater London Magistrates' Courts Authority approached the fulfilment of its stated purpose, which is

to provide a better level of service to court users at the point of delivery—in the courtrooms and at the courthouses."
What has the GLMCA achieved in the two years since it was set up? It has increased its costs. What local magistrates used to do for free now requires a justices' chief executive, paid more than £120,000 a year, and a permanent staff of more than 100, costing approximately £5 million a year. It seems that the main output of the GLMCA is a strategic plan, which was published in December 2001. The plan proposes to improve the delivery of services by closing several of the local courts where those services are delivered.

I am not dogmatically opposed to closing courthouses, or to replacing them with new, purpose-built courthouses, but I believe that any such proposals must be grounded in well-substantiated evidence. For example, the strategic plan should have a clear analysis of what capacity is required, taking account of the wider requirements of other types of courts, such as their use by tribunals. The GLMCA seems to have had some discussions on the question of capacity with the Court Service, but has not carried out its own systematic appraisal. When challenged on that point, GLMCA officials offer nothing more than vague generalisations: they cannot give chapter and verse, or put forward detailed figures to back up the strategy.

The GLMCA's work load assumptions were independently reviewed by the Lord Chancellor's Department in a case arising from the appeal against the proposed closure of the courthouse in Kingston, and the Minister appears to have concluded that the GLMCA's view that the work could be absorbed at Wimbledon was suspect. If the figures for one court closure are open to challenge, the basis for closures and for building new courts elsewhere might also be found wanting, and a large amount of taxpayer's money could be spent on building new courts that are soon found to be too small to carry out the work required of them.

Can the Minister give an assurance that the assumptions made by the GLMCA are thoroughly verified by her Department before substantial amounts of public money are committed to such projects?

Even if the work load assumptions were correct, I would expect there to be a range of investment appraisals setting out how the requirements could be met. Such investment appraisals should be supported by other evidence and studies. For example, there should be a risk analysis examining factors such as what would happen if the planned work load increased, proposed building works were delayed, or receipts from the planned disposal of property were reduced. It seems, however, that the GLMCA has carried out no such risk assessments.

There is a history of Government projects in which risks have not been properly assessed and costs have overrun, and assets have consequently not been properly used and taxpayer's money has been wasted. There should be a business plan and an implementation plan, but the GLMCA has admitted that it has neither.

Moreover, to ensure that the proposals are robust, they should be subject to a cost-benefit analysis. That would examine the impact that the proposed changes would have on court users. For example, it would examine whether the closure of a court would have an impact on the cost and time spent by witnesses, victims, the police and others who have been led to expect that the changes will bring about an improvement in the service that they receive.

The proposals should all be focused on the service provided to the end-users of the courts, but it seems that, all too often, they have been framed solely for the convenience of the GLMCA. The GLMCA has been resolute in refusing to consider how the proposed changes, and the closure of courts in particular, will affect those who use the local courts. I find disturbing the approach that has been adopted so far.

I will now move on from the generalities of the GLMCA's strategy to examine proposals in the London borough of Sutton. I appreciate that the Minister will have to determine an appeal should a decision be taken to close the court. I will therefore avoid touching on issues that she might have to consider in that role. The proposal to close Sutton courthouse is based on the premises that it is underused and that the Croydon court has the capacity to take on the work currently done there.

Does the Minister agree that it is unreasonable to expect us not to see the figures on which the proposal is based? The GLMCA has been asked repeatedly by the chair of the Sutton bench, Mr. Tony Kerr, and the executive head of legal services at the London borough of Sutton, Fiona Ledden, for the figures on which it relies. To date, it has failed to produce those figures. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that the information is provided by the GLMCA and that those being consulted have an opportunity to comment before any decisions on the future of Sutton courthouse are taken? I find it impossible to view as proper a process that is meant as consultation but which does not provide such basic information to enable a realistic evaluation of the case for closure to be undertaken. Does the Minister agree that consultation can be effective only if all those involved are in possession of the full facts on which decisions are made?

In correspondence, I have tried to obtain from the GLMCA information about the advice that its members were given which led them to decide to press ahead to the statutory consultation stage on closure of Sutton courthouse. The GLMCA has refused to publish that information. On what basis is it refusing to provide an open and transparent process in which the public may scrutinise its decisions? Will the Minister ask the GLMCA to provide copies of the advice on which its decision to proceed with consultation on the closure were taken and make it available to Members and others?

It has been asked how meaningful the process is. I have been unable to find anyone in my constituency who supports the closure. It has been opposed by the magistrates at both Sutton and Croydon, by constituency MPs, by the London borough of Sutton, by the Metropolitan Police Authority, by the local witness support scheme, and by many court users and local residents. On what basis were all those views swept aside and the GLMCA convinced that its views alone were of any value? Why does it appear that the GLMCA feels able to ignore everyone else's views?

As the Minister has pointed out to me before, the GLMCA is responsible for running magistrates courts in London, and she has no power to intervene until or unless there is an appeal against a proposed closure. If the members of the authority are not accountable to her and to the Department for their decisions, to whom are they accountable? It seems that the majority of authority members are effectively self-selected, appointed by the authority itself, while others are appointed by the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone. There is no apparent need for the authority to take account of Government policy, and still less, and more importantly, of the views of local residents.

I have written to the Minister about other concerns and I look forward to receiving a response through correspondence in due course. The plans to close local courthouses are being taken by an unaccountable body, using inadequate and flawed information. There has been no genuine consultation. Above all, the closure of local courthouses, including the one in Sutton, lacks the compelling evidence necessary to give the public confidence that their law and the administration of local justice is in safe hands with the GLMCA. Nor will they have any confidence that it will achieve its stated purpose, which is to improve service delivery to court users at the point of delivery in the courtrooms and courthouses.

4.8pm

I welcome the opportunity for the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) for leaving me time to make a brief contribution. The Minister may be aware that I asked a question during Prime Minister's Question Time about the future of Sutton magistrates court. I expressed concern about the loss of a local court delivering justice locally. In his response the Prime Minister seemed to indicate that he felt that the Greater London Magistrates' Courts Authority was in effect a local organisation making a local decision.

That is not the case. Who is in the GLMCA? Do I meet its members in Woodcote road or Wallington high street on a Saturday morning? Do they approach me? Do I meet them when I am out canvassing? Have they ever approached me directly? The answer is no. I do not know who the GLMCA are. However, I know who my local magistrates are, because I meet them and have regular contact with them. It is clear that they are opposed to the proposal that the GLMCA may make, although I hope, of course, that it does not.

Since the exchange at Prime Minister's questions, I have written to the Prime Minister. I have the letter that I shall send him here. I finish it by posing three questions. First, does he accept the need for justice to be delivered in the manner that best suits the local community, and for justice to be administered by an organisation that is responsive to the needs and wishes of that community? The local magistrates court and local magistrates do that.

Secondly, are the Government committed to the principle that families who need to resort to the courts should be dealt with locally by maintaining the widest possible network of hearings centres? Clearly, that will not happen if Sutton magistrates court is closed. Croydon will be much less accessible, and many families will have enormous difficulty getting to and from the court.

Finally, I ask a specific question about an initiative at Sutton magistrates court that is helping to ensure that young offenders are dealt with according to statutory time limits. I understand that that is to be cancelled. How will removing those time limits help to process cases locally?

As my hon. Friend said, the Minister is not in a position to answer those questions, but I wanted to put them on the record. I hope that the Prime Minister will respond. I finish the letter by inviting him to come to Wallington to meet local residents and talk to magistrates, the local police, the local authority, Victim Support and a host of local organisations that want the court to be kept open. If the Prime Minister did so, he would have a clear picture of what the local community feels about the importance of Sutton magistrates court. I also extend that invitation to the Minister. I would welcome a visit from her, so that she could see for herself how important the court is to the local community. She has been very helpful on other cases, including the Kingston court. I hope that, if we have to proceed with an appeal, she will be willing to meet me, my hon. Friend, local magistrates and the local authority, so that she can hear our point of view.

I should like the Minister to confirm that, if the GLMCA decides to proceed with the closure, she will expect it to produce specific details as to why it wants to do so. We want to be able to examine in detail what it alleges are the reasons for the closure. Certainly, in relation to Kingston magistrates court, a number of the arguments that the GLMCA deployed for wanting to close the court did not bear examination. We want to know what reasons the GLMCA deploys, so that we can knock them down.

Our residents have made it clear that they want local justice delivered locally by local magistrates who understand the issues, are accessible to local people, are not remote and live in the community. I hope that, when decisions are taken about the court's future and when, potentially, an appeal is heard, the residents' wishes will be at the centre of any decision.

4.13pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate. I know that he feels strongly about this issue. He has raised it with other Ministers, as has the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). They have raised the proposal of the Greater London Magistrates' Courts Authority to close Sutton magistrates court and transfer the work to Croydon. As they both acknowledged, the Ministers in the Lord Chancellor's Department have to take decisions on appeals about the closures of magistrates courts, so there is a limit on what I can say in advance of any appeal on which I may have to decide. However, I shall try to respond as best I can to the points made by hon. Members, and I assure the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that I shall reply to his letter shortly.

As hon. Members are aware, magistrates courts are managed by locally based magistrates courts committees, as set out in the provisions of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. Each committee is statutorily responsible for the efficient and effective administration of the magistrates courts, including the provision of adequate accommodation. The GLMCA is responsible for Sutton magistrates court.

Decisions to close, retain or expand magistrates courts are the responsibility of the local MCCs after consultation with the local paying authority. The Government already encourage MCCs to extend their consultation processes wider than is set out in the legislation, and it is usual for MCCs to consult more widely than their paying authorities and for longer than the eight-week minimum period set out in Cabinet Office guidelines. We also expect them to consult a wide range of local stakeholders, including magistrates, staff, police, the probation service, the Crown Prosecution Service, MPs and other community groups. In the case of the proposal to close Sutton courthouse, the GLMCA confirmed that it consulted for three months from 4 December 2002 to 14 March 2003, and it has extended the consultation period until 16 May to allow time for any further representations.

Given that no formal determination has yet been made by the GLMCA, I cannot comment on specific issues relating to the proposed closure of Sutton magistrates court. If the GLMCA makes a formal determination to close the court and an appeal is lodged by the local paying authority within one month of receipt of notification, I will have to make a decision. If there is no appeal by the local paying authority, the Lord Chancellor's Department has no role. We will consider any appeal lodged with the Department on the merits of the case presented by each party once dialogue has ended between the GLMCA, the local paying authority and officials in my Department.

Hon. Members asked about the information that I should demand from the GLMCA. In every case, I am always keen to ensure that all sides have the fullest access to the information and representations put forward by the other side, so that they both have a chance to respond. That will ensure that the GLMCA can respond to points made during the paying authority's appeal, and that the paying authority and others, including magistrates and local MPs, are fully aware of the reasons put forward by the GLMCA and can respond further.

In all such cases, I have been keen to ensure that each interested party is satisfied that it has had the full opportunity to make its case to the Lord Chancellor's Department. I can assure the House that if an appeal and determination is made in the case of Sutton magistrates court, I will do so again.

Before we get to an appeal stage, will the Minister use her good office to encourage the GLMCA to pass on to the consultees all the relevant information that they have asked for but not yet obtained?

I am not aware of what information the GLMCA has or has not circulated, but I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman's concerns are passed on to the GLMCA. As he will know, because any proposed closure is a matter for the GLMCA rather than the Lord Chancellor's Department, it is the GLMCA's responsibility to ensure that proper consultation takes place. However, as I said, if an appeal process is entered into, I will do my best to ensure that all parties have access to the fullest possible information on which the decisions are based.

Magistrates courts committees need to take difficult decisions about their courthouses. They must take responsibility for the condition of the estate, lack of disabled access, poor facilities for witnesses and victims, old and decrepit courthouses, and unused courthouses. All those factors must be taken into account, which inevitably means that magistrates courts committees sometimes have to take decisions that will not be popular with the local community. They must also consider access and the views of the local community when taking their decisions.

The Minister is making a fair point: difficult decisions must be taken. The key point, however, is surely that those decisions must be grounded in clear evidence, which the GLMCA's strategic plan is not. Certainly, the evidence on which it is based has not been published. Surely Londoners deserve to have sight of the evidence so that they can form opinions about whether the GLMCA is delivering efficiency and effectiveness?

Again, as I said, I cannot comment on what evidence has and has not been produced, its status, or how convincing it is in advance of any appeal process. I am afraid, therefore, that I cannot engage with the hon. Gentleman on the details of the information submitted by the GLMCA, except to say that the authority has the responsibility to consult properly and to take decisions about the use of its courts.

Does the Minister believe that the GLMCA should consider, as part of its consultation process, the impact of the court closure on the number of magistrates willing to continue as magistrates?

Clearly, the GLMCA and every other magistrates courts committee must consider the impact of any of their decisions about courthouses on magistrates, staff and members of local communities, and on the distances that they must travel and facilities.

Hon. Members made broader points about the GLMCA, on which I will try to comment. I am not sure that I understood the point made by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, but I believe that the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that the committees that preceded the GLMCA were run by magistrates for free. There were magistrates courts committees and administrations for the separate courts throughout London, and different administrations came together to form the GLMCA. They all had their own budget allocations and administrations, so it would be inaccurate to say that before the GLMCA, they were magically run by magistrates with no administrative support. However, it may be that I slightly misunderstood the points that the hon. Gentleman made at the beginning of the debate.

I recognise the concerns that both hon. Members have expressed about whether magistrates courts committees entirely reflect the views of magistrates or the local community. I also recognise the concern that magistrates courts committees are not clearly accountable to the local community or to Parliament. I am aware of concerns about the current structure of the magistrates courts committees, which we considered in great detail when we developed the structure for the new unified administration of the courts, in which the magistrates courts service and the Court Service will be merged into a single organisation.

The aim is to make the services part of a single executive agency that is ultimately accountable through Ministers to Parliament, and to create local courts boards that include representatives from the wider community as well as magistrates. We are still holding a series of debates with stakeholders about how to do that so that we can ensure that local community views are taken into account.

We have also tabled an amendment to the Courts Bill to ensure that magistrates in particular are directly consulted, as there is concern that because magistrates courts committees exist, local magistrates on a particular bench or in a particular courthouse do not necessarily believe that they have been closely involved in particular decisions taken by the magistrates court committee. We tabled the amendment in order to clarify our intention that magistrates should be consulted on all sorts of decisions.

The hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam and for Carshalton and Wallington also asked about the decision on the Kingston courthouse. I decided to agree to the appeal on the courthouse and then, for several reasons, to overturn the decision to close the magistrates court. We were concerned that Wimbledon did not have the capacity for the work load to be moved there. Other considerations were the size of the population served by Kingston magistrates court, and the fact that it was located so near to other criminal justice agencies. As part of our approach to creating criminal justice boards and improving co-ordination across criminal justice agencies, co-location offers huge advantages.

I want to return to the point that the Minister was making, before she turned to Kingston, on the future reforms for making courts more accountable. Given the fact that there is now a clear policy intention to make those changes, does she agree that the strategic plan of the GLMCA should not proceed apace, but should wait until the new authority takes over and is able to take a look at it in the context of the new accountability framework?

The problem is that it will take two years to set up a unified administration. It is important that there is not a complete planning blight in the meantime. Decisions related to local circumstances, when progress needs to be made rapidly, should not be delayed for two years. That applies not only to London, but to areas throughout the country. Clearly, it is important that discussions are held with the Court Service about different estate implications, and the implications for county courts and the Crown court. Part of unified administration will be a unified estates strategy in every area, and we expect all those issues to be taken into account. I always ask whether those sorts of issues have been considered during the appeals process. However, it would be wrong to halt any development of or changes to estates simply because an overall administrative change is due.

The decisions to be made about the locations of courthouses and the distribution of work around London are not easy. The GLMCA must take responsibility for those decisions, and do its best to improve services for local communities, not just in the provision of magistrates courts, but in the work of the wider criminal justice system. When appeals come to Ministers, we try to ensure that every opportunity is given for those involved to make representations and give their views. Should we reach the point of determination to close, followed by an appeal, I would certainly consider all the detailed questions that the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam and for Carshalton and Wallington raise, and I should ensure that they were given the opportunity to make their points. The two hon. Gentlemen understand, and have acknowledged during today's debate, however, that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the detail of the issues involved at this stage. I hope that the situation is resolved and that, in the meantime, the hon. Gentlemen can have further discussions with the GMLCA.