Thank you, Mr Williams, for presiding over my first appearance in a Westminster Hall debate. I hope that you will be gentle with this Westminster virgin.
I thank the Minister for giving up his valuable time to attend. He knows that I have attempted to make points on behalf of my constituents in Burton on a number of occasions; I am grateful for the opportunity to make my case today. I also thank the Minister for engaging in genuine consultation. Unfortunately, under the previous Government, we got used to consultations that were little more than an exercise in futility—tick-box exercises, rubber-stamping decisions that had already been made in an air-conditioned office in Whitehall, delivering a Minister’s grand master plan. There is genuine reassurance in knowing that we have a proper consultation, with discussion and debate, about the future judicial system. I have visited Burton county court and met the staff, who appreciate having the opportunity to make their case for Burton county court surviving.
The Minister understands that the proposed closure of Burton county court is of concern to my constituents in Burton and Uttoxeter—to those hard-working people employed in the justice system, to those who use the service, and to those who are worried about how the judicial system will operate in this brave new world.
It is important to recognise that savings across the public budget are urgently needed. The previous Government’s excesses and mismanagement have left the country, like many families and businesses in my constituency, facing difficult, tough decisions when it comes to paying for the essentials in life. This debate takes place in the context of those tough financial constraints.
My constituents are not stupid: they realise that the country is broke and that savings have to be made. It is understandable that the Courts Service should bear its share of that belt-tightening, but it is equally clear that that belt-tightening must be done in a manner that protects the interests of justice and, above all, access to justice. Although this debate relates to the proposed closure of Burton county court, it would be a mistake to consider the matter in isolation, rather than as part of a wider reorganisation programme.
Underestimating the role that the county court system plays in our society would be a fundamental mistake. The services offered by Burton county court, and county courts throughout the country, often deal with the most sensitive, painful and challenging elements of modern life; bankruptcy, divorce and family breakdown are all dealt with in our county courts. Those courts represent a direct link between our local communities and the justice system. We must understand fully the impacts that any closures will have on those communities before we proceed with any closures.
The previous Government’s disastrous post office closure programme showed us that proposals that might appear justified when considered in isolation can have a disproportionate effect when their cumulative impact in an area is considered. I fear that those mistakes could be repeated if the proposed closures in the county court system go ahead. That is why I am delighted to be able to urge the Minister to stop and reconsider the impacts.
Nationally, the reorganisation of the court system will mean that approximately 25% of county courts will close. Yet in Staffordshire, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) knows, Leek county court has already been lost, and it is proposed that two of the four remaining county courts should go, so the cut in my county will be 50%, which is double the amount expected elsewhere in the country. Both the county courts that are closing—Burton and Tamworth—are in the eastern part of the county. Closing both those courts simultaneously would be a double blow to the area, leaving residents in both east and south-east Staffordshire with long journeys to the nearest county court.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Is he aware that in Staffordshire more than 23,000 fines, with a value of more than £11 million, remain uncollected by the Courts Service? Residents of Staffordshire will therefore find it difficult to see why there should be the 50% cuts about which he reminded us.
I thank my hon. Friend for his insightful and useful intervention. It is important to consider the effectiveness and efficiency of the court system. As he says, such a backlog of unclaimed fines is unpalatable and uncomfortable for anybody running the court system. I will mention later the impact that the proposals for cuts will have on the future efficiency and effectiveness of the courts.
The proposal in the consultation document is that work from Burton will go to either Derby or Stafford, my hon. Friend’s constituency. The consultation paper states that Stafford county court is 26 miles away by car, by the shortest route, and that the journey takes 45 minutes by car. Even by car, that is no short journey, and the task of attending court will be much more difficult for the 24% of households in my constituency—almost a quarter of my constituents—that do not have access to a car or van and rely solely on public transport. Many of those households are among the most vulnerable in the area, comprising those on a low income, the elderly and people with disabilities. A third of the wards in my constituency that are covered by the county court are among the 20% most deprived wards in the country; that gives an indication of the kind of vulnerable people who are served by the court. That deprivation brings with it related problems of poverty and increased social and family breakdown—precisely the kind of problems dealt with by the county court.
According to the consultation paper, it takes two hours and 23 minutes to get from Burton to Stafford by bus—a journey well worth making, because Stafford is a wonderful place to visit—but the round trip takes the best part of a working day for anybody from my constituency who wishes to attend the county court in Stafford. It takes five hours to travel there and back, not taking into consideration waiting time or the time for the case to be heard. Even the train takes one hour and 40 minutes, with a change, at a cost of some £14.30 for a normal adult return fare. That is simply unaffordable for many on low incomes in my constituency.
It is important to remember that the journey times calculated are for a journey from the county court in Burton to the proposed alternative in Stafford. For the many people who do not live right next door to Burton county court, the journey will be significantly longer, because they will have to go into Burton town to get a train or bus to travel onwards.
As for constituents who live in areas such as Marchington, which is one of the larger villages in the middle of my constituency, or Rocester, the home of JCB, no combination of trains and buses can get them to Stafford county court in time for a 9 o’clock meeting. I accept that Derby county court is more convenient for some of my constituents than Stafford, and it may seem sensible in principle to say that cases will be transferred from Burton to Derby, but many people have doubts about whether that is likely to happen in practice, and what percentage of cases will be affected. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what he envisages happening, and how many cases he proposes to send to Derby, and how many to Stafford. That would provide a clearer picture of what we may expect.
Derby court falls outside the West Mercia and Staffordshire area court services. Derbyshire’s courts are subject to a separate review, and I would like an assurance from the Minister that the two reviews will be dovetailed together and considered as a whole. What guarantees can he give that if changes to the county court service in Derbyshire lead to more work being transferred from other courts in Derbyshire to Derby county court, Burton will not fall down the pecking order, with cases ultimately being transferred to Stafford, with the associated difficulties that I outlined?
The suggestion in the consultation paper that work could be transferred to Derby has so far done little to reassure my constituents. We must consider the consequences of the vastly increased travel times. I fear that they will result in people not bothering to attend. If witnesses are faced with five hours’ travel to give evidence for 20 minutes, they will simply not turn up, and that will further frustrate the court system, delay justice and waste even more money—taxpayers’ money. Surely, if the priority is to reduce inefficiency in the court system, our priority should be to tackle non-attendance in court and non-payment of fines, an issue to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford referred. That is a problem in the civil courts and in magistrates courts, and it should surely be at the top of our hit list. The problem will be made worse by increasing the inconvenience for witnesses who are called to give evidence.
My constituency has no court facilities whatever, and little public transport, so I can vouch for my hon. Friend’s points about witnesses’ inability to get to court, and the difficulties created for many of those constituents of mine who are called as witnesses.
I thank my hon. Friend for her important intervention. I mourned the passing of Leek county court; in a rural constituency such as hers, it is important to consider travel times and the sparsity of public transport. Not to do so would be to the detriment of justice and fairness in the system.
I am worried about the impact on the legal process. It is not difficult to understand that some witnesses will find it difficult if they are forced to travel to court on the same bus as the plaintiff, the defendant or the person against whom they will give evidence. It is not difficult to understand that witnesses may find that a harrowing and frightening experience, perhaps frightening enough to stop them giving evidence. Will the Minister assure me that he does not envisage everyone involved in a case being forced to travel on the same bus to give evidence?
In the consultation paper, the rationale for closing Burton county court seems to rest on two factors. The first is that the facilities have not been upgraded, and that is obviously due to the previous Government’s failure to invest properly in the Courts Service. I yield to no one in my belief that public spending must be brought under control to repair the damage that was done by that spendthrift Government, but it would be short-sighted, and would damage the justice system, if we closed the court to save the one-off capital cost required to bring it up to scratch. Imposing such a cut, which would significantly inconvenience many east Staffordshire court users, to save what would not even amount to a rounding-up error in the deficit reduction plan risks undermining confidence in the bigger picture of balancing the nation’s public finances.
The second reason suggested in the proposal is that Burton county court is not used efficiently. I have met the dedicated, committed and hard-working staff, and there is no doubt but that it is not used efficiently. It has a total of 178 sitting days before district and deputy district judges, but the problem could be easily overcome if we considered the overall effect of the closure of courts in Staffordshire, rather than considering the closure of Burton county court in isolation.
The consultation paper proposes the closure of two courts, the second being Tamworth county court; its work would be transferred to Stafford. Tamworth is 11 minutes from Burton by train, and the bus links between the two are fabulous. That closeness is recognised elsewhere in the Minister’s helpful consultation document, where it is proposed that Tamworth magistrates court be closed and its business transferred to Burton. Surely the answer is to follow that approach, and to transfer county court cases to Burton. That sensible approach would add an additional 60 sitting days, at least, to Burton county court, vastly improving its effectiveness and efficiency, and delivering much better value for money and access to the justice system.
Court users in Tamworth would benefit from the proposal, because they would have to travel only to Burton, rather than to Stafford, and the case load at Burton would rise to the necessary amount because of that increased work load. Furthermore, Staffordshire would bear its fair share of the burden of the reorganisation, losing one in four of its county courts—exactly the national average of 25%. I respectfully ask the Minister to reconsider the proposals, and to ensure that we have a strong civil court system in Staffordshire that offers access to justice for all, rich or poor. I ask him to ensure that Staffordshire shoulders its fair share of the pain, and to guarantee that my constituents will have fair and equal access to justice in the court system.
I welcome this debate to discuss our proposal to close the Burton upon Trent county court, subject to consultation. This might have been my hon. Friend’s first appearance in Westminster Hall, but it was certainly a good one, and he ably represented his constituents’ best interests.
Allow me, Mr Williams, to set out the Government’s position on our proposals to reform and rationalise the court estate. I will provide details of the reasoning behind including Burton upon Trent on the list of possible closures. I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to respond to the consultation that closes, as he will be aware, on 15 September. County courts across England and Wales have seen a real change in recent years because Her Majesty’s Courts Service has dramatically 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 pay off debts or court fees online, using a wide variety of methods. We are working to improve the availability of information on the web and over the telephone, using dedicated information centres with comprehensive details of all civil and family cases, so that fewer people will need to travel to court to ask a question.
We cannot continue to deliver the same level of service in the same way and ignore the changing needs of society. New technologies, which we are all confident about and use in our everyday lives, have not been sufficiently adapted for use in the courts, although they are essential to streamline our processes and improve services for the public. That is why, in addition to consulting on the courts estate, I am inviting members of the public, MPs, and others with an interest, to give me their ideas for improving and modernising the courts service.
HMCS is also looking at how to speed up the experience for court users in the county court by changing how the back offices work. We are establishing a series of large, multi-purpose, multi-skilled administrative centres, which will centralise claims and process work from all county courts, thereby freeing up front-line services and staff to focus on supporting more complex cases that need judicial intervention. That is not a new innovation; there has been an incremental move towards more centralised administrative centres for 30 years. The concept has been successfully tested in local business centres, and we plan to centralise civil work into two key locations in Salford and Haywards Heath, where civil claims will be administered until judicial intervention is necessary. We will also continue to support high-volume users in our bulk centre in Northampton.
Wherever court users can make use of a non-judicial intervention for family and civil cases, we must provide them with all the support and information that they need to explore a variety of dispute resolution routes. A large number of cases go to court, but in practice many people find the full court experience to be inconvenient, intimidating and expensive, as well as slow and unpleasant. That is neither necessary nor in the best interests of either party in the case. Providing options for alternative dispute resolutions, such as mediation conducted over the telephone, is often a better, and less stressful, option for people involved in court cases.
Where judicial involvement is required, we are exploring whether in future physical attendance at court is always a necessity. Can the use of telephone hearings be extended? Does video conferencing technology open new possibilities? In that context, let me point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) that fines are not dealt with by the county court. Fines are one area where we know that having a physical court does not result in higher payment rates. However, my hon. Friend’s point was well made, and I confirm that we have invested in making it easier to pay fines using methods such as telephone, internet and so on, in order to improve the rate of payment.
Since Lord Woolf’s civil justice reforms in 1996, the number of civil cases has declined by 20%. In order to meet future needs of customers in a faster, more efficient and affordable way, we are working closely with partners across the civil justice system, including Citizens Advice and the Legal Services Commission, to increase the provision of mediation and further improve court procedures. Furthermore, we will work closely with the judiciary to support work on procedural improvements.
Although cost is by no means my only concern, given the dire national economic situation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Burton acknowledged, we cannot forget the savings that would be delivered by this programme of closures. If all courts under consultation were to close, we would achieve savings in running costs of £15.3 million per year, as well as avoiding a backlog of £21.5 million in maintenance costs. A further assessment will be necessary on the level of savings that could be achieved and the potential value that could be released from the disposal of properties.
The closure of Burton county court would save around £106,000 in operating costs that would no longer have to be paid. Furthermore, we would not be liable for the additional investment of around £450,000 in maintenance backlog costs. I confirm to my hon. Friend that we are looking at the area as a whole, and we know that there is a high density of county courts in Staffordshire and West Mercia. As less work is dealt with in the courts, we will need fewer court buildings. We want to ensure that we have all the evidence available before making decisions about which courts provide us with the best service and should remain open. Therefore, I encourage all affected MPs to write in to the consultation with their views.
I thank the Minister for explaining much of the rationale behind his decision, but there will always be people who need to access the court system. Will the Minister explain what he believes would be a reasonable amount of travel time for accessing a county court? Has he done any work on the impact that increased travel time has on non-attendance at county court hearings?
We have considered that point, and we felt that a travel time of 60 minutes would be appropriate. I will come on to that point if I have time. In his earlier remarks, my hon. Friend said that attendance at court is a stressful experience, and he spoke about situations of bankruptcy, family breakdown and divorce. As traumatic as those things are, most people will not frequently get divorced or be declared bankrupt, so the comparison that he made with the closure of a local post office—something used by many people on a daily basis—was not accurate.
Having talked to some MPs during the programme of consultation, I am aware of the prevailing view that the principles on which we are consulting are right. Understandably, however, few MPs wish their own local court to close. The passion about this issue that I have seen from all MPs—not least my hon. Friend—is admirable and important to our constituents. Nevertheless, if we accept that we have to reduce the courts estate considerably for the good of the public, we must also accept that sometimes the court in our own constituency may be the most strategic one to close.
Some of the local county courts in Staffordshire and West Mercia have larger and better facilities that are multi-functional and can take a large proportion of the work in the area. As far as possible, we want to try and focus work in those courts. It is our responsibility to think about what is best for the whole of the area, and we believe that the five larger courts at Hereford, Stafford, Stoke-on-Trent, Telford and Worcester would offer the area a strong, efficient and effective civil court system.
There are 10 members of staff at Burton county court, and a total of 43 staff in all the county courts proposed for closure in the Staffordshire and West Mercia area. Once the Lord Chancellor has made his final decisions about whether and which courts to close, we will work closely with the trade unions to look at the impacts on staff.
No member of the judiciary is based at Burton county court, although two district judges sit a total of 127 days per year, with a further 51 days of deputy district judge sittings per year. That is marginally less than the standard we have set, but we must consider the area as a whole. Across Staffordshire and West Mercia, county courts are considerably underused, with an average utilisation rate of 61%. We know which courts offer the best long-term opportunities to continue to deliver a good-quality service in larger multi-functional facilities.
Burton courthouse is under the freehold ownership of HMCS and does not offer facilities to the standards that one would expect of a county court. For a start, it would not be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 unless significant maintenance work took place. Hearings and counter services at Burton county court will transfer to either Derby or Stafford county courts, depending on which is closer for the parties involved. Both Stafford and Derby county courts are purpose-built buildings with a high standard of accommodation and facilities for court users, judiciary and staff.
I would like to confirm what the Minister meant when he said that the decision about whether a court user has to go to Derby or Stafford county court would depend on the distance to be travelled. Is it correct to say that if Derby is closer, a person would not be forced to go to Stafford?
The distance would be different for various constituents. One court may be more appropriate than another because of what it does. Not all courts do the same things so we cannot generalise in that way. I appreciate the issues about distance and travel raised by my hon. Friend. He made his points well, and he should submit them to the consultation.