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Court Closures (Yorkshire)

Volume 513: debated on Wednesday 7 July 2010

Thank you, Mr Benton, for allowing me my first Westminster Hall debate on an issue that is of particular importance to my constituents in Goole.

Before I go any further, I just want to say that I understand many of the pressures on Her Majesty’s Courts Service, particularly given the fact that in the last three years of the previous Government, magistrates services received a 7.5% funding cut in the—[Interruption.]

As I was saying, Mr Benton, there was a 7.5% cut in magistrates budgets, which occurred for each of the three years before the general election. There is also a massive backlog in refurbishment and capital projects, which built up in HMCS in the previous few years. In Goole, that backlog stands at £80,000. I could make some comments about the fact that it was a shame that in the run-up to the general election, when Labour Ministers were heading to my constituency with all sorts of blank cheques, they did not offer a blank cheque on court services.

I want to confine most of my comments this afternoon to the proposal to deal with the court at Goole. As I have made clear to the Speaker’s Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) will, with your permission, Mr Benton, take some of my allotted time to speak about the closures in Selby. There is a proposal to close the county court in Goole and to merge the local justice areas, but that proposal is less controversial, and indeed it is something that the magistrates in the Goole area do not oppose.

There are a number of reasons why the magistrates service in Goole should continue. Those reasons relate to the efficiency of the court, which was shown by a review just 10 years ago, and to the cost implications for my constituents in the Goole area if the court should close. Goole magistrates court is administered within the Humber and South Yorkshire region, which consists of the courts in the East Riding of Yorkshire, northern Lincolnshire and south Yorkshire. There is evidence that the throughput of work at Goole is the second most efficient in the Humber and South Yorkshire grouping of magistrates courts. There is a very low ineffective trial rate at Goole, and trials at Goole are listed much more quickly than in larger courts. The proposal is to move the work from Goole to a much larger court at Beverley. Breaches of court orders can be dealt with very quickly at Goole. My own personal view—and what I hoped was the view of the new Government—is that bigger is not always better when it comes to the delivery of services.

The courts building at Goole is fully compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which is made clear in the consultation document about the proposed closure. There is a peppercorn rent for the facilities in Goole, and there is a 125-year lease for the building that will not expire until 2130, so there will be no problems in relation to those running costs in the next few years. There is also a modern prison and vulnerable witness link in place, and the court building itself is situated right next to the police station, with adjoining access to modern and recently refurbished cells.

The utilisation rate in the two courts at Goole would be at 80% but for the fact that a number of meetings and other hearings are held in court two. That utilisation rate compares with what we are told in the consultation document is a relatively low utilisation rate of the courts at Beverley. I would like an assurance from the Minister that the court at Goole is not being closed simply to solve that under-utilisation problem.

Of course, there is also a huge issue relating to localism. As a coalition, we are committed to a localism agenda and I am increasingly concerned that, if we should lose the court in Goole along with the magistrates court in Selby, we will effectively be left with a justice “black hole” in our part of the country. Our court in Goole deals with a number of family matters, which are best dealt with locally. As I said a few moments ago, the courthouse in Goole is situated next to the local police station, which itself was recently renovated at a cost of £2 million. The cells at the police station were also recently refurbished, at a substantial cost to the local police authority.

A review was undertaken of the court services in the East Riding of Yorkshire about 10 years ago. At that time, our county lost the magistrates courts at Howden, Pocklington, Brough, Driffield and Withernsea. We were left with the court in Beverley—anyone who knows the geography of the East Riding of Yorkshire, as I hope hon. Members do, will know that Beverley is roughly in the centre of the East Riding—and courts at the two extremes of the East Riding. One is in the east at Bridlington and the other is in Goole, in the western part of the East Riding. Of course, we also have the magistrates court in the large city of Hull.

Little has changed in Goole or indeed in much of the East Riding since that review was undertaken, except that we have had an influx of immigration from eastern Europe, which—I must be careful with my wording—has presented the courts with certain issues. I would suggest that that actually strengthens the case in favour of retaining our court in Goole. After the review 10 years ago, the rural parts of the East Riding were left with courts at Beverley, Bridlington and Goole. The arguments that are being used to close the court at Goole now are exactly the same arguments that could be used in relation to the court at Bridlington, although there are no proposals to change what is happening there—and I am not suggesting that we should save the court at Goole and sacrifice the court at Bridlington. There is a strong case to keep both courts.

The consultation document makes it very clear that the court in Goole is administered from Beverley and that legal advisers travel from Beverley to attend the court in Goole. The same administrative unit also covers the magistrates courts in Beverley and Bridlington. We in the Goole area are therefore a little confused as to why the area is being treated differently from Bridlington, which is 22.5 miles away from Beverley, compared to Goole, which is 28 miles away from Beverley.

If the closure of the court at Goole goes ahead, there will be massive cost issues. Goole is one of the most deprived areas in the East Riding, and on certain measures it is among the 10 most deprived areas in England. A high proportion of our residents are on low incomes or in receipt of benefits, so I have a huge concern about the transport costs involved in getting to Goole from Beverley if the closure goes ahead. There are not just the costs of witnesses to consider, but the costs of family members who may wish to go and support people in court.

There are no direct buses to Beverley from Goole. To get to Beverley from Goole, someone would have to take a public bus to Hull, in the process almost going past the magistrates court in Hull, before changing bus to continue the journey up to Beverley. That journey would be close to 40 miles in total, so the distance of 28 miles that was quoted in the consultation document only applies to those who have access to a vehicle. There is a train service from Goole to Beverley but, equally bizarrely, the train service, too, passes through Hull before going on to Beverley. The cost of a return train journey is £11.90 and travelling by bus from Goole to Beverley would take a minimum of 1 hour and 25 minutes, involving the change in Hull that I have just mentioned, so there would be huge costs for anybody who wants to travel to Beverley from Goole via public transport. Furthermore, Beverley has some of the highest parking charges in the East Riding for anybody who wished to drive there.

We must also consider the historical value of the court building at Goole. We are trying to build up awareness of the history and heritage of the town. The court building is a late Victorian building, and one of the oldest buildings in Goole. Although its historical value may not be much of an argument in the rationalisation of HMCS, its closure would have a huge impact on the regeneration of Goole. The building is particularly beautiful, and we are concerned about what would happen to it should we lose the court.

I would like the Minister to tell us whether we can have a full breakdown of the running costs in 2009-10 of the court at Goole. Some broad figures are given in the consultation document, none of which tell us a great deal. I want to know how those running costs were quantified and how they compare with the running costs of the court at Bridlington. Can the Minister also give us an assessment of the likely costs for justices of the peace and witnesses to travel to Beverley, and say what consideration has been given to diversifying work at Goole? I am not in favour of someone being against something unless they have other solutions. Has any work been undertaken on bringing other services into the court at Goole, such as the tribunal service?

The new coalition Government have made a commitment to localism. I hope that in the 10 minutes in which I have spoken, I have made a strong case for why we in the Goole area, on the edge of the East Riding, deserve to be treated a little differently in the closure programme. The East Riding is the biggest unitary authority in the country and the decisions made 10 years ago were made for very sensible reasons: to maintain one service in the centre and two on the extremes either side of the East Riding. With your permission, Mr Benton, I shall hand over to my hon. Friend and colleague the Member for Selby and Ainsty, who will no doubt wish to speak about the issues affecting Selby.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) for securing this Westminster Hall debate. Although I understand that the consultation is ongoing, I would like to use this opportunity to put forward a case for retaining Selby magistrates court.

Both Selby and Goole magistrates courts are in vital positions, and the closure of either or both presents a real risk of what my hon. Friend referred to as a justice black hole in our local area. If Selby magistrates court is closed, the nearest courthouse for my constituents is York, which will involve defendants and witnesses leaving the constituency to travel there. For my constituents in the southern district of Selby and Ainsty, that is a particularly long journey. It is incredibly inconvenient to get to York using public transport, and it would be almost impossible to arrive on time for an early morning hearing. From the south of my constituency—below the M62—there is no direct access to buses or trains to York and constituents would instead have to go via Selby or Leeds to travel to York magistrates court.

The Magistrates Association has specified that everyone should be able to reach their local magistrates court within an hour. For people in the south of my constituency, that will not be possible if the court in Selby is closed. I have been informed by the area director of Her Majesty’s Courts Service in north and west Yorkshire that no HMCS staff are currently based at Selby magistrates court, and that it is now seen as a satellite court. However, it would be preferable for court staff to travel from York to work, rather than to expect, hope and assume that witnesses and defendants, particularly those from the south of my constituency, will make the extra journey to York magistrates court.

The rolling monthly average percentage of courtroom utilisation in Selby magistrates court was 60.6% in the financial year 2009-10, which is just below the national average of 64%. Courtroom utilisation is defined as the time a courtroom is used, against the hours that it is available for use. Given that the usage of Selby magistrates court is aligned with the national average, it does not make much sense that it is closed instead of other magistrates courts, such as those in Blandford, Bournemouth, Poole, Weymouth and Wimborne in Dorset. The overall reduction in work load in those courts led to a utilisation rate in Dorset in 2009-10 of just 38.8%, which is almost half that of Selby. The situation is similar in Lincolnshire; there are courts in Boston, Grantham, Lincoln, Skegness, and Spalding, and courtroom utilisation is just 37.2%.

Over the past 18 months, Selby magistrates court has actually transferred certain motoring and trading standards cases to, among other places, Northallerton magistrates court. Those courts were under threat of closure because of lack of work. Selby came under the threat of closure in 2003, but—as is the case now—the proposal came up against strong opposition from the Selby bench, and a casting vote at the North Yorkshire magistrates court committee decided the matter.

Is the Minister aware that after securing the future of Selby magistrates court in 2003, substantial improvement and remedial work was carried out on the courthouse, which cost the taxpayer around £821,000? It was reopened in 2008 following that refurbishment. The overhaul included facilities for the disabled, which are not provided in York. Selby is therefore the designated court for York’s disabled population. We also have vulnerable witness capabilities at Selby, such as a specialist court for hearing domestic violence cases, and the technology to view CCTV evidence and to use video links for vulnerable witnesses. None of those facilities is provided at York magistrates court.

By bringing York’s services up to the same standard as those in Selby the Minister would be creating more expense for the taxpayer. It is estimated that an investment of £170,000 would be needed to provide the facilities required under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and which are currently available at Selby. The dock in court two at York would also need refurbishment if the decision to close Selby went ahead.

There is a case for retaining Selby magistrates court in light of the £821,000 recently spent and the special facilities it offers. I fully appreciate the dire financial legacy that the previous Government have left behind and the need to make cost savings, but I would find it difficult to justify closure of a service that has recently cost the taxpayer almost £1 million. Selling off the whole building would not realise anywhere near that sum. I urge the Minister to take those points into account during his consultation.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) for contributing to the debate. I compliment them on the quality and sincerity of their defence of their local courts.

I shall set out the Government’s position on the court reform proposals, and provide some details about the courts that currently sit in Goole and Selby. I shall also explain the reasoning behind the inclusion of those courts on the list of possible closures.

In my new role, I have taken the opportunity to visit courts and meet the staff, professional judiciary and magistrates who work hard to deliver justice in communities throughout England and Wales. I have been very impressed by all that I have seen so far. It is evident that courts are run by a dedicated partnership of Her Majesty’s Courts Service staff and judiciary, and I am personally committed to continuing to support their contribution to justice.

What has also been clear in my first few weeks in office is the country’s economic position, and the immediate need to take action to address the structural deficit. Following the emergency Budget, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor outlined our plans to consult on the closure of a number of courts, as well as to seek wider views on how court services could be modernised. That is one strand of the Ministry of Justice’s plans to look critically and holistically at how we deliver justice, and to think about how we continue to deliver those critical services in the future. We have also announced plans to consider sentencing and legal aid.

The decision to consult on the closure of courts was not taken lightly or in isolation. We know we cannot deliver the quality of facilities the public rightly expect and deserve, because we are working out of too many courts. Our low utilisation rate—only 65% across England and Wales—shows that we do not need the number of courts we currently have. Recent improvements in transport and communication links mean that people can travel further in less time if they need to. More can be done to access justice online and via the telephone, which reduces the circumstances in which a visit to court would be necessary.

We need some fresh thinking about the wider issue of access to local justice. We need to consider whether past ideas about needing a court in every town are relevant today or whether—as with almost every other aspect of modern life—things can be done differently, and innovation and technology can be embraced to meet the needs of modern society and ensure better access to justice.

We are already doing a lot to improve the service experienced by witnesses, defendants and other court users. We have increased access to online and telephone services. Currently 70% of money claims, and the vast majority of possession actions are issued centrally via electronic channels. People can pay fines online for driving infringements, or for not paying their TV licence on time. They can also pay off debts or court fees online using a wide variety of methods. We are improving the availability of information provided on the web and over the telephone from dedicated information centres. That will allow front-line staff to focus on people who need to see a judge. We are increasing the use of video link technology between prisons and courts, and piloting video links between police stations and courts.

Whenever possible, we need to support people to explore a variety of dispute resolution routes for family and civil cases. Such routes are better for those involved in cases that can be mediated, as they can avoid unpleasant prolonged and expensive litigation. Such a situation is also better for the courts because it should reduce court time and overall costs.

We are exploring how local communities can support those charged with a minor offence before their criminality escalates. We are working closely with local support agencies and networks to ensure that appropriate help is available for people with multiple underlying problems that drive their offending behaviour.

The court reform consultation seeks views on the proposed closure of 103 magistrates courts and 54 county courts that are underused and have inadequate facilities. It began on 23 June and will run until 15 September. All responses will be fully considered before decisions are made. The consultation will set out a sustainable arrangement of court services across England and Wales to meet the needs of local communities and will allow us to deliver services in the most efficient way. The proposals would achieve savings of £15.3 million a year in running costs and enable us to avoid a maintenance backlog costing £21.5 million. A further assessment will be necessary of the savings that could be achieved and the value that could be released from disposal of the properties. However, I appreciate that those are generalities.

My hon. Friends asked about the two magistrates courts in their constituencies. I have listened to what they have said and will continue to listen to what they and others say during the consultation. The Lord Chancellor’s decision on whether to close Goole and Selby magistrates courts will not be easy; nor will his decisions on the other courts listed in the consultation. Each decision is balanced against several factors, including utilisation, maintenance costs and proximity to other courts. My hon. Friends’ points are valid, but we have to look at each court’s work load in the context of local justice across each area.

Goole magistrates court has a low utilisation rate, as it sits for less than a third of the available time. It sits in a local criminal justice board area whose overall utilisation rate is low, which we consider does not deliver value for money to taxpayers. Given that we know that there is so little demand for a magistrates court in Goole, I find the argument for investing considerable public spending there on backlog maintenance work of around £80,000 difficult to make, especially as Beverley, where the work would move, is only 28 miles away and has ample capacity to take on the additional work.

With regard to the point my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole made about distance, we consider a one-hour journey by public transport acceptable for travel to court. Not many people are frequent users of magistrates courts. I assure him that we do not propose closing the court in Goole only because of the performance of the court in Beverley, but we must look at utilisation over the whole area.

My hon. Friend asked why we do not close Bridlington magistrates court. The decision was taken by local management and took into account a range of aspects to ensure sufficient capacity in the area, based on the total number of courtrooms in each court.

On the point about people being within an hour’s journey of the court, the figures I mentioned indicate that it would take at least an hour and 25 minutes to travel by bus from Goole to Beverley, including a change in Hull because there is no direct bus. Incidentally, there is a direct bus service between Bridlington and Beverley, although I do not suggest the closure of Bridlington. The figure of one hour and 25 minutes is a minimum, and the journey time is more likely to be one hour and 39 minutes.

My hon. Friend makes a fair and relevant point, which he should submit for consideration in the consultation. The original reason for the location of many courts is that they were intended to be half an hour’s horse ride away from population centres. We thought that a one-hour journey by public transport was probably more in tune with modern thinking. I assure him that we will do our best to provide him with information on running costs and the other statistics he requested. Again, he should advise us in his response to the consultation of any statistics he has.

As Goole is the only magistrates court in the local justice area of Goole and Howdenshire, we propose that the three LJAs should merge to create a single entity for east Yorkshire, covering the whole of the East Riding. Relatively few magistrates sit at the three benches we propose to combine—only 95 in total. Combining the three will provide a pool large enough to facilitate a more efficient listing of work and reduce the amount of administrative work involved. There will also be advantages for magistrates, allowing them more flexibility in sittings and a wider variety of work.

Although Selby magistrates court has good facilities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty said, it too is underused, sitting only around 60% of the time available. Like Goole, it sits in a local criminal justice board area that has a low overall utilisation rate. Selby benefits from being located only 15 miles from York, which is capable of absorbing the work from Selby and has good transport links to all parts of west and north Yorkshire, although I believe my hon. Friend questioned that in his earlier remarks. His point was that people in the south of his constituency did not have such good access. I encourage him to make that point in the consultation. I was aware of the refurbishment of the Selby magistrates court, but I believe that there is currently a backlog of maintenance work to the value of about £100,000.

Selby and York local justice areas already have joint panels, so merging the two would simply formalise that arrangement and reap the administrative benefits. I understand that the closure of courts in several communities will concern hon. Members and some of their constituents. I welcome views on the proposal, and they will be taken into account before decisions are made. However, I want to make it clear that I believe that operating out of around 530 court houses is unsustainable and does not offer the taxpayer value for money. I reiterate the point that we need to think more widely than bricks and mortar when considering access to justice; we need to embrace in the justice sector many of the technological advances that we take for granted in our work and social lives.

Another point I will address in the time remaining is the impact the proposals will have on local justice. That important point was picked up in different ways by both my hon. Friends. My answer is that there absolutely will not be an impact on local justice. The Government remain committed to a system in which justice is done and seen to be done in the communities affected by crime. The quality of justice matters equally. It is not assured simply by having a court building in each small town, as populations are more mobile and use more sophisticated communications than ever before. The speed with which cases are decided, the facilities we provide to meet the needs of all court users and the respect for the quality of our justice system must be as important, if not more important, than locality. The involvement of communities in the justice system is absolutely key to that, both as magistrates and assistants. With more than 95% of criminal cases heard by magistrates, there is no doubt about the scale of community involvement in justice. I will continue to support magistrates as the bedrock of our justice system. I have held meetings with magistrates’ associations and individual magistrates, and will continue to do so to prove the Government’s support for the magistracy.

HMCS provided £21,000 of funding in 2009-10 for magistrates in the community scheme run by the Magistrates Association. On community engagement, HMCS works with magistrates and other justice agencies to host regular open days that provide local communities with insight on how justice agencies work together to serve the community, staging mock trials to encourage understanding of the justice system.

We want people to resolve civil disputes more quickly and effectively. County courts, of course, are involved in the proposals as well. Justice does not take place only in court; uncontested money and property disputes can be resolved through our online services, Money Claims Online and Property Claims Online. We are exploring ways of increasing the use of alternative dispute resolution when it can provide more effective and satisfactory solutions than a day in court.

The time is right to take a fresh look at the provision of court services to meet the challenging and changing needs of the justice agencies and society. Work loads are falling in the magistrates courts and court time has been saved by magistrates and court staff working together with increased efficiency. An example is the success of “Criminal justice: simple, speedy, summary”, which speeds up the time from charge to disposal and drastically reduces the need for adjournment. We are developing better ways of delivering justice and will continue to improve them.