With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to announce the Government’s response to their consultation on Her Majesty’s Courts Service estate. Thank you for allowing me to release details of the courts covered in the statement to Members in advance.
This statement will be of interest to many hon. Members and to many hard-working members of HMCS staff. It will also be of interest to the judiciary, both to professional judges and the very many magistrates who give freely of their time to serve their communities. My announcements pave the way for a better, more efficient and more modern justice system that has more efficient courts, better facilities, and the faster conclusion of cases for the benefit of victims, witnesses, defendants, judges and the public at large.
The announcements complement the Department’s wider plans to help and encourage people to resolve their issues out of court, using simpler, more informal remedies such as mediation where appropriate; to overhaul case management procedures and get rid of wasteful layers of bureaucracy; to move forward with technological innovations such as video links, which have the potential to revolutionise the way in which justice is delivered in our country; and to involve communities much more closely in the justice system, particularly through problem solving and restorative justice approaches.
On 23 June, my right hon. and learned Friend, the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, made a written statement announcing consultations on proposals to close 103 magistrates courts and 54 county courts in England and Wales, and to merge some local justice areas. The consultation was clear that failures in the last decade to manage the Courts Service estate properly have led to a service that would be unsustainable at any time, let alone in the current financial circumstances.
It is unsustainable that in 2009-10, our 330 magistrates courts sat for less than two thirds of their available time and that courtrooms in our 219 county courts sat on average for only 180 days a year. It is unacceptable that dozens of buildings never intended, and not fit, for the requirements of a modern court system are still being used. It is undesirable in the current financial position that the taxpayer continues to fund buildings that offer outdated and inadequate facilities to victims and witnesses.
I am grateful for the many contributions to the consultation. I understand the strength of feeling that is has generated, and I have listened to the many points made by respondents. Much has been said by Members about travel times to court. I can reassure the House that our plans will only very slightly reduce the percentage of the population able to access their nearest court by public transport in under an hour, from just under 90% to 85%. I also remind the House that very few of us actually attend court more than once or twice in our lives, and even fewer use public transport to get there. It is simply not good use of taxpayers’ money to operate courts simply to shave minutes off a journey that many will never need to make.
Arguments were also made during the consultation about the potential erosion of local justice. I take that accusation extremely seriously, but the closures will not mean people losing access to local justice. In fact, I would suggest that they will mean quite the opposite—better local justice. They will mean the provision of a better, more efficient and more modern justice system with good facilities, efficient courts and the faster conclusion of cases for the benefit of victims, witnesses, defendants, judges and the public.
Having taken all those points into consideration, the Government have decided to close 93 magistrates courts and 49 county courts. Of those county courts, however, 10 will remain open for hearings under the control of other local county courts. We will also retain 10 magistrates courts and five county courts on which we consulted, and I will list them. Magistrates courts will be retained at Abergavenny, Harlow, Kettering, Newbury, Newton Abbot, Skipton, Spalding, Stroud, Waltham Forest and Worksop. County courts will be retained at Barnsley, Bury, Llangefni, the Mayor’s and City of London, and Skipton.
It is estimated that those measures will save £41.5 million during the spending review period, excluding closure costs, and bring in £38.5 million in receipts from the sale of assets. In addition, I expect substantial cost avoidance through avoided maintenance costs for closed courts and better targeting of resources for the Courts Service, as well as savings for the National Offender Management Service and the Crown Prosecution Service. Copies of all the relevant documents, and of the decisions on local justice area mergers and counter services, have been placed in the House Library.
This is the start of an important programme of reform for the Courts Service. I am determined to develop a proper, modern Courts Service and estate that does our communities proud. We are taking the difficult action on court closures that the last Government failed to take, so that we can raise the quality of the courts estate significantly across the board.
With that in mind, I can announce today that £22 million of capital will be reinvested to improve and modernise the courts to which work will be transferred. Within that are three particularly large projects: in London at Camberwell Green magistrates court, in Staffordshire at Newcastle-under-Lyme magistrates court and in Wales at Prestatyn magistrates court. There are also smaller schemes to make some receiving courts better. They include additional interview rooms and a secure dock at Huddersfield magistrates court and the conversion of rooms at Watford magistrates court to provide additional staff accommodation and security. In the next spending period, new courts will open in Chelmsford, Colchester and Westminster, and Woolwich Crown court will be extended. We will make further announcements on new court building schemes early in the new year.
We have, however, cancelled existing plans for a new magistrates court in Liverpool, because the scheme that was proposed is unaffordable, but I will investigate more affordable options to provide suitable accommodation for magistrates court work in Liverpool.
Our courts are failing fully to embrace technological advances that have the potential to revolutionise the way in which justice is delivered in our country. There is much that can be done. Court-to-prison video links provide a much more efficient way of doing things, but they are used in too few cases. In future, we want victims and witnesses, when appropriate, to be able to give evidence in trials by live video link from a more convenient location.
We will begin by testing the principle of police officers giving evidence in summary trials by live video link from the police station. We expect that that will save the police time and money and enable more officers to spend more time out on patrol. We intend to test the idea in London in January, and in at least one other area soon afterwards, with the first cases likely to be heard in that way before the end of March. If successful, that could pave the way for civilian and expert witnesses to give evidence from a police station or other, more convenient locations, rather than having to travel to court.
We also want to give communities a greater say in how justice is administered in their areas. Proposals for problem solving and restorative justice were included in my Department’s sentencing and rehabilitation Green Paper, published last week. We will consult on the use of neighbourhood justice panels to deal with low-level cases, empowering people to develop their own solutions to local problems and increasing community confidence.
In summary, this announcement forms an important part of my Department’s clear vision for a step change in our justice system—one that protects communities from crime and works for, rather than against, the most important people in the system: the victims and witnesses. I commend the statement to the House.
I am pleased to see the Minister at the Dispatch Box for this important statement on the delivery of justice in local communities. I thank him for a copy of his statement in advance.
We missed the Minister in the debate on legal aid in Westminster Hall this morning. Members from all parties spoke passionately in defence of their law centres and citizens advice bureaux, which, like local courts, are facing wholesale closure. He will be pleased to hear that his hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General did as well as the Minister would have done in carefully avoiding responding to the many points that were raised.
Launching the consultation on court closures in June this year, the Minister said:
“The Government is committed to supporting local justice, enabling justice to be done and seen to be done in our communities.”
I agree with that statement, but his statement today does not achieve that ambition. Perhaps a clue as to where the Government started to go wrong can be found in the next paragraph of the statement launching the consultation, which said that
“we increasingly use the internet and email to communicate…and we travel further…to do our weekly shop.”
Perhaps we do, but that misses two points. First, courts are not like Facebook or Tesco. They are an important part of many communities in the same way as people regard police stations and town halls.
Claimants and defendants, witnesses and victims will all be inconvenienced and, in many cases, disconcerted by the loss of the local criminal or civil court, or both, only to find them replaced with anonymous court centres many miles away. Secondly, not everyone has the mobility or resources to travel long distances to find justice, especially in rural or remote areas. My first question to the Minister is to ask him to produce the calculations that have been done to determine the time it will take and the distance that will be covered in travelling to the replacement courts. He says that only a minority of court users will be disadvantaged, but that is not the view of the Lord Chief Justice or of his own colleagues. Responding on behalf of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Justice Goldring noted that poor public transport meant it would be difficult for many people to
“arrive at court before 10am or return home after 4pm”.
Will the Minister look again at travel arrangements and the times of journeys to the remaining courts after the Department for Transport and council cuts have taken effect?
The Minister consulted on closing 103 magistrates courts and 54 county courts, 30% of the total in England and Wales. He said today that 90% of that number will close—some 142. That would give an annual saving, based on his previous figures, of about £13 million, which is not significant in the context of the wholesale cuts going on in other parts of his Department but is a sizeable proportion of the running costs of lower courts. Will all this simply be handed to the Chancellor in the compliant if not willing way the Lord Chancellor has taken to adopting in asset stripping his Department? Or will some be reinvested in the remaining courts estate to improve the service to the public that the Minister says he wishes to see and to cope with the increased traffic from the closed courts?
The Minister said that some capital will be reinvested in specific projects, but there is no allowance for the extra pressures on remaining courts. Is that not proof that this is no more than a crude cost-cutting exercise with none of the benefits that he half-heartedly claims? He also said in July that
“Providing access to justice does not necessarily mean providing a courthouse in every town or city.”
We would not disagree with that. Needs change and buildings wear out or prove unsuitable. It is right to seek economies while maintaining access and making the administration of justice more efficient. Although every closure decision is difficult, and many older courts have a historic and nostalgic importance, in government we were prepared to close less well-used or poorly functioning courts. We were endlessly criticised by the Minister for doing so, but the difference between our programme of review and his wholesale massacre of the local justice system is clear both from the quantity of closures proposed and the haste with which they will now proceed.
What is the Minister’s timetable for shutting the doors of those historic courts? Why has he not published the results of the consultation before today? What impact assessments have been done? Is he prepared to defend the debilitating effect that longer journey times and unfamiliar surroundings will have on the frailest in our society, who often attend courts as victims and witnesses? Many domestic violence courts and family courts will have to move or close. What arrangements has he made to ensure that they go to suitable locations?
Under the previous Tory Government between 1979 and 1997, courts closed at the rate of 25 a year and, under the previous Labour Government, that fell to 13 a year, but now the Minister is proposing to close almost 150 in this Government’s first year. To be fair, his colleagues have been as critical of the closure programme as Opposition Members, none more so than the Solicitor-General, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr Garnier), who told his local paper:
“I urge residents of Harborough and the surrounding locality to respond to the consultation…we need to organise and get the campaign rolling.”
The International Development Secretary was even more incensed about the proposed closure of Sutton Coldfield court. He told his local paper that the
“very strong arguments which successfully defeated the attempt to close Sutton Magistrates’ Court eight years ago will be just as strong, if not stronger”.
The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), criticised the Treasury. He said:
“The Ministry of Justice seem to have made serious errors with their figures…it’s not just us they’re after, but 102 other courts across the country. Yet I believe the fight is worth having—and that we can win.”
No critic was stronger than the former shadow Justice Minister, who is now Attorney-General. He said:
“It makes a mockery of British justice that this government is considering closing 21 magistrates courts, despite the serious problems of violent crime and anti-social behaviour we face.”
Conservative and Lib Dem Members have all sounded off in their local press and in the House, but as reported in the Evening Standard, this is an
“I back cuts - but Not In My Backyard”
policy. Opposition to the Minister’s policy is growing all over the Government Benches, including from those on the Front Bench. Opening the gates of the prisons and handing ballot papers to the few left inside looks positively—
Order. I trust that the shadow Minister is in his final sentence. He has taken almost as long responding to the statement as the statement itself took. Members must realise that this is not a debate. A response to a statement is a brief response and a series of questions. I hope that that is now clear for the future, because sight has been lost of it, and must be regained at once.
I am most grateful, Mr Speaker—you predicted absolutely correctly that I am coming immediately to the end of my response to the Minister’s statement.
This wholesale closure sums up the Government’s approach to cutting local services in this and every other area—“Let’s get on with the cuts and worry about the effects later.” This programme of closures amounts to a wholesale destruction of this foundation stone of much of British justice, and the Minister should be ashamed to bring it before the House.
In his rather concise statement—or perhaps it was not—the shadow Minister said that the savings are not particularly significant, and then immediately went on to accuse the Government of asset stripping. I do not see the consistency in that. However, the economic circumstances that Britain faces and the imperative of reducing the national debt pile amassed by the previous Government’s bout of carefree spending impacts on our proposals, which form part of the commitment of the Ministry of Justice to reducing spending by £2 billion.
Savings apart, I am convinced that the current court system is not efficient enough, that it should provide better value for money, that it should make better use of technology, and that it should provide a better service for court users. The hon. Gentleman accuses me of the wholesale closure of legal aid and CABs, and of the wholesale massacre of the Courts Service, but he must tell us where he would rationalise and save.
The Labour party manifesto said:
“To help protect frontline services, we will find greater savings in legal aid and the courts system”.
If the hon. Gentleman is to be credible, therefore, he must give us his view of how justice is to be delivered. If he would put more money into legal aid, would he take even more money out of the courts, or vice versa? Until he tells us how he would be prepared to spend the money, I am afraid that he will not get people’s trust on this matter. He seems to suggest that closing courts is bad in every case.
The hon. Gentleman asked for the financial workings, and I am pleased to say that the impact assessments have been published and are there for him to look at. The utilisation figures take into account the additional work and remaining courts that will come into existence. The timetable is that the first courts will start to close on 1 April next year, and I can confirm that travel arrangements will be organised on a local basis. It is important to make the point that during these reorganisation proposals, we have been considering not just closures but how we can best reorganise the remaining Courts Service. That includes looking at how people can best get to their local courts.
Delivering justice is about more than protecting bricks and mortar. The hon. Gentleman talks about it being like Facebook. In reality, courts are not like post offices either—they are not places that people go to every day of the week. Of equal importance is the quality of justice. It is important that people have use of a fit-for-purpose building that has good listing facilities and gets cases heard promptly. Proximity is important, but it is only one of a number of issues to be considered, and we have considered those issues carefully.
There is clearly a case for making savings where courts are close together or little used. However, why have Ministers taken relatively little account of the representations of the Lord Chief Justice, particularly on the Courts Service in what he described as vast rural areas, such as Alnwick and Tynedale in Northumberland and places elsewhere in the country? Will benches not find it necessary—at least sometimes—to go out to parts of their areas, possibly even to hear cases in places where they are still courthouses, given that they cannot be sold and are still public property?
My right hon. Friend is passionate about the Courts Service, as I know not least from my appearance before him and the Justice Committee. However, it is important to point out that the Lord Chief Justice’s response came from the foreword to a report of the senior presiding judge, and that the report did not represent a response on behalf of the entire judiciary. The senior presiding judge was collecting the remarks by various judges around the country. It needs to be seen in that context. Indeed, the report was given careful consideration, as were all the responses.
The Minister is well aware, not least from correspondence from me, that the data on which he based the Knowsley magistrates court decision were deeply flawed. He has not yet addressed that deeply flawed data. Why has he gone ahead with a proposal that he knows will not work? To make matters worse, why has he also decided that there will be no additional capacity in Liverpool by scrapping the capital investment programme? The Deputy Prime Minister refers to this as a progressive Government, but the past two days have proven that it is a wrecking-ball Government.
It is not the case that we have not reinvested. As I said in the statement, we are reinvesting in the remaining courts. The right hon. Gentleman asked about errors in the consultation data. There were 16 area consultation documents. A small number of errors were found, but none was considered to be material to the consultation. In one area—north Wales—even though we were advised that the errors did not affect the consultation, I personally decided that the consultation documents should be sent out again, and that was done. However, we do not maintain that the figures were put out in error—quite the opposite. On the whole, they were accurate.
On 16 November, one Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Justice told me in a parliamentary answer that it would be highly desirable if more work that was currently done by Crown courts were carried out by magistrates courts. He agreed that there was waste in the Crown courts. On the same day, the other Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Justice told me that following the closure of magistrates courts the same amount and the same type of work would be done by the other magistrates courts. Which is right?
It is true that in terms of capacity, Crown courts are almost bursting at the seams, which is why my hon. Friend will see that not a single Crown court is proposed for closure in the list. One of the great challenges that we face is to ensure that work that should more appropriately be carried out in magistrates courts does not go to the Crown court. Both the legal aid Green Paper and the sentencing and restorative justice Green Paper have provisions to encourage that.
I frankly do not understand the Minister’s decision on Salford magistrates court. Not only do we have the support of the Lord Chief Justice—who said that Salford city council’s alternative proposal should be supported and the court should remain open—but the city council would have met the maintenance backlog and the ongoing revenue costs for the court. There would have been no cost to the Department. I believe that this decision flies in the face of all logic. We have had a court in our city for 1,000 years, doing fantastic community justice work of the kind that the Minister has talked about. We have had a court for 1,000 years: it has taken this Government just six months to put an end to that.
The right hon. Lady came to see me with members of her local authorities, and she spoke strongly in support of her court—I recognise that—as did members of her visiting delegation. However, that court has a low utilisation rate, and a building and facilities that are not adequate. The court is going to be closed because of those factors, as well as its close proximity—about half a mile—to Manchester City magistrates court, which can import the work. I am afraid that it is that close—1,000 paces to one of the finest magistrates courts in England and Wales.
I wrote to the Minister at the time regarding the potential closure in Burton. People in South Derbyshire go there, and it takes much more than an hour to get to Derby. There is no way on God’s earth that we can get to Newcastle-under-Lyme, so would he be kind enough to arrange a meeting to look at our plan B in South Derbyshire, for a new civic centre that can take over such work?
My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) secured an Adjournment debate in July, and I think he accepted the need to make savings, but urged Ministers to consider the wider impacts. There is a high density of county courts in Staffordshire and west Mercia. Burton sat for 199 days in 2009-10, and there are no members of the judiciary based permanently at the court. Although facilities are adequate, closure would mean that Her Majesty’s Courts Service would not be liable for an additional investment of around £450,000. None the less, I would of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.
The maintenance figures used by the Minister to justify closures in Wales were wildly inaccurate. On the second attempt he got them wrong again, and on the third attempt they were wrong yet again. He is using fairytale figures to support his arguments. The closure of Pwllheli magistrates court—which was vehemently opposed by the Lord Chief Justice, the presiding judge and everybody who knows anything about that area of Wales—leaves my constituency with one court to serve a patch that measures 100 miles north-to-south and 100 miles across. Is that local justice?
Having considered the matter, we believe that local justice will be maintained in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The fact of the matter is that Pwllheli magistrates court has a very low utilisation rate—29% in 2009-100—offers limited facilities for victims and witnesses, and is only partially disability-compliant. The work undertaken at that court can be easily accommodated in the recently purpose-built Caernarfon criminal justice centre, which offers far superior facilities for all court users.
There will be great dismay at the closure of Ely and Wisbech magistrates courts in North East Cambridgeshire, particularly as the magistrates court in the constituency next door—the Minister’s own—is to be retained, as are county court hearings. There were factual errors in the consultation on Wisbech court, such as taking one-off costs as running costs. There were also omissions, such as ignoring the potential of transferring work from Ely to Wisbech to increase its utilisation rate, and underestimates of revenue, involving such elements as charging the police nothing for the use of the court building. In the light of that, will the Minister place in the Library the figures that were used after those errors were pointed out, so that we can see exactly what this decision was based on?
To say that this announcement is disappointing is an understatement. Justice will no longer be done in Rochdale, nor will it be seen to be done. If the Minister believes that victims, witnesses and the accused will travel mile upon mile for justice, he is sadly mistaken. Rochdale court has one of the highest utilisation rates in Greater Manchester, and some of the best possible facilities, including video links and secure rooms for witnesses. It has a fantastic bench and great staff, and it is completely fit for purpose. This decision will not affect people like the Minister, but it will affect people who live in Rochdale. Will he reconsider his decision?
No, I am afraid to say to the hon. Gentleman that the decision has been taken. Rochdale magistrates court is a busy court with a good utilisation rate, but it will close because of low utilisation across the Greater Manchester area. It is important to point out to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who are making related points that during the consultation we did not look at the individual courts in isolation. Yes, we looked at each court on its own, but we also looked at them in the context of other courts in that local justice area. That has sometimes meant that courts with high utilisation figures have still had to close because, in an area context, they are not efficient.
I would like to tell the Minister about my concerns for the people who live in rural Somerset. That includes my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath). The Government intend to close Bridgwater court and Frome court, which, as the Lord Chief Justice has recognised, will leave any number of people unable to reach a court inside one day’s travel by public transport. Will the Minister consider introducing a proper system for booking appointments, so that people can attend court at 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon? In that way, there might be some hope of their reaching the court in which they are intended to appear. Secondly, can he make certain—
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The court was used for only 23% of the available time in 2009-10, and the standard of accommodation falls far short of what is now expected by court users. However, consideration is to be given to those living in the north of the area having their cases heard at a more convenient court in the Avon and Somerset area.
The Minister has already announced that Barnsley county court will be retained, but can he confirm that he has accepted the view of most of the statutory agencies that the county court should be joined with the magistrates court? Is that merger going to take place?
The Minister is to be commended for coming to the House to make an oral statement on what was inevitably going to be a difficult announcement. Will he confirm that Harwich magistrates court was already earmarked for closure by the Labour Government? Can he also give me an assurance that Harwich will stay open until the new court facilities in Colchester have been constructed and are up and running?
The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), asked whether the Minister would share with the rest of us his calculations on travel times. I assume that he will also put his answer in the Library, and I would like him to confirm that. There will be considerable anger in the Cynon Valley about the decision to close the Aberdare courthouse, and I do not know where the Minister’s calculations on travel times have come from. I invite him to join me on a bus through the Cynon valley, to find out that from many of those areas it is impossible to reach Merthyr Tydfil within an hour.
I thank the Minister for listening to my constituents in Skipton and the Yorkshire dales. Will he pay tribute to the campaign run by the local newspaper, the Craven Herald, which explained the devastating impact that the closure of the court in Skipton would have had in this most rural part of England?
My hon. Friend spoke forcefully in an Adjournment debate and then met my officials and me. He made a persuasive case, and his local area made a persuasive case, and when we thought it about carefully we decided he was right that the court should stay open.
I am relieved that the robust campaign for Worksop magistrates court has eventually been listened to. To avoid ambiguity in the future, will the Minister confirm that the previous functions of Worksop county court will be run from Worksop magistrates court in the future?
I welcome the Minister’s statement. Will he confirm that millions of pounds are wasted each year by commuting prisoners to and from court, and that better use of technology could deal with PCMHs—plea and case management hearings—first appearances and mentions at the Crown court and the magistrates court?
I acknowledge and welcome the retention of the county court at Llangefni—and I congratulate the Minister on pronouncing it correctly. The Minister said that part of the exercise was to save money. Will he acknowledge the important economic impact of courts and legal services on towns across the United Kingdom, and was that taken into account during the review?
I declare an interest as a court duty solicitor. I welcome the reprieve of Waltham Forest magistrates court, which has particularly effective family and youth court provision. I urge my hon. Friend to develop opportunities with local authorities to accommodate appropriate youth court hearings, so that we can deliver effective localised justice.
Effective localised justice is an important part of the Green Paper that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State published last week, so I can say yes to that. As regards Waltham Forest, again, a delegation of Conservative and Labour Members came to see me and made a very persuasive case for that court.
Ammanford court in my constituency was recently refurbished at a cost of £59,000 to make it one of the most modern courts in west Wales. Is it not a colossal waste of public money to close that court now?
We have had to take some tough decisions; of that there is no doubt. As I said before, we are dealing with this on an area basis as much as on a court-by-court basis. That is an important point, because people have been able not only to assess how courts impact on an area overall, but to see how their own areas have been treated in comparison with other parts of the country. That, to me, has made this a very fair consultation.
My constituents will strongly welcome the decision to keep Harlow magistrates court. Ours is a growth town that provides value for money. Will the county court’s functions be transferred to the magistrates court or to Chelmsford? If they are transferred to Chelmsford, will consideration be given to people who have difficulty in travelling? Will a satellite county court be provided?
Goole magistrates court is provided by the local police authority at a peppercorn rent, and is connected with recently refurbished cells at the police station. Its closure will leave residents in the western part of the East Riding a considerable distance from local justice. Will the work at Goole be transferred to Hull, or will my constituents be expected to get on a bus, travel past the magistrates court in Hull, change buses and continue on a different bus to Beverley, as was suggested in the consultation?
The court at Goole is closing not least because of low utilisation, but when we looked at the responses to the consultation, we realised that the travel arrangements of people using public transport were different from those of people using private transport, and we think that it will be possible to use not only Beverley but Hull. That was one good outcome of the consultation.
My hon. Friend has confirmed that the work of Totnes magistrates court is to be relocated. I know he is aware that the building provides an useful facility for the coroner and those who assist him in his work, such as Victim Support, and also that the citizens advice bureau has worked extensively on a plan to share the court building. Can he assure us that this important local asset will be put to its best local use by those valuable organisations?
My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I hope that the answer is yes, and if I can be of assistance she should get in touch with me to that end. Courts will be empty, and there may be local authorities or other local agencies that could make use of them. Now that we have a final list of the courts that will close, that process can begin.
The Minister has announced the closure of Barry magistrates court. I believe that that decision was simply wrong. More than £1 million was spent on the court last year, it has extremely high utilisation rates and it is the only court in the county of Vale of Glamorgan. Will the Minister share with me the data on which he based the decision, and will he confirm his agreement to meet the chairman of the bench and me to discuss the matter?
The Minister says that his proposals will provide a better and more efficient justice system. Will he accompany me to the east end of Sheppey, and explain to residents there how justice will be improved now that they will be forced to travel to Canterbury or Medway—a journey that can take up to three hours on public transport, if public transport is available, which it is not after 6 pm?
May I ask the Minister to reflect not just on north Wales, as he has been asked to do, but on the huge tract of west Wales which will now be left without convenient access to a magistrates court, and, critically, without the public transport that would allow him to realise his dreams? There simply is not adequate public transport to take people from Ceredigion up to Aberystwyth. Will the Minister think again about the transport issues on which he and his officials have reflected?
We have considered transport very carefully, and we concluded that one hour on public transport was the right amount of time. Originally, a lot of those courts were instigated on the basis of half a day’s horse ride, but we thought one hour on public transport should be adequate.
There will be widespread concern about the closure of Harrow magistrates court, not least because it is fully utilised and we demonstrated in the consultation that it will cost money to close it rather than keeping it open. The alternative means transferring the work to areas that are impossible to reach by public transport, even in London. There will also be concern that the Minister refused to receive an all-party delegation from Harrow council and the bench, and I ask him to hear those people so they can put their arguments in person.
The Minister will be aware that documents on his website cite the travel time from Liskeard to Bodmin because it is proposed to close Liskeard magistrates court, but he does not seem to have taken into account the travel time from the rural parts of my constituency such as St Cleer and Kelly Bray. Can he confirm that he has taken into account that travelling time, and the availability of public transport?
What consideration was given to the fact that just two years ago the thick end of £1 million was spent on making Selby magistrates court Disability Discrimination Act-compliant? I fully understand that the Government inherited a financial mess, but if Selby magistrates court is now to be closed and sold off, the taxpayer will be facing a huge loss. My constituents will be keen to see the impact assessment on which that decision was based.
I am doubly disappointed, because the Minister did not give me prior notification of a court closure in my constituency. The closure of the court at Blandford means that residents of Dorset will have access to justice only on the coast. Residents in the expanding towns of Shaftesbury and Gillingham will not be able to get to Weymouth before 12 noon, and will have to leave by 2 o’clock in order to get back the same day. Will the Minister meet me and the lay magistracy to talk about this matter?
As I have said to other hon. Members, the consultation period has now finished, but I must point out that my hon. Friend’s local court was used for only 29% of the available time. I am sorry to hear that he had not received notice, and I will look into why that was the case.
The Minister will appreciate that I am extremely disappointed by the decision to close Woking magistrates court. As he saw in my submission and that of the bench, it has very high utilisation rates, a purpose-built court, fantastic disabled access and excellent youth witness provision. How does this decision fit with the criteria for the consultation, because many outside independent people, including judges, looked at it and did not think that Woking fitted those criteria?
My hon. Friend made a very cogent case for the retention of his court, and put the local case very strongly. I have to say that the judgment was finely balanced, but ultimately this decision was taken because the utilisation rate in the Surrey courts has been below 80%, and transferring work to Staines and Guildford magistrates courts will result in the rate increasing to 89%.
I disclose my former profession as a barrister. Tynedale in Northumberland has almost 1,000 square miles without a court. The consultation used poor-quality figures and they were badly applied. If they are wrong, does the Minister accept that the claim is capable of judicial review?
I, too, am deliriously happy today, and I thank the Minister for listening to the arguments that I and the people of Monmouthshire put forward to save Abergavenny court from closure. Will he assure us that consultations by this Government will continue to be proper exercises, and not just the shams that we have seen in the past 13 years?
I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. Clearly, things were not all bad in Wales. We wanted to do a full consultation, as the previous Government had been closing courts in dribs and drabs—a court here and a court there. One of them was operating as a pizza shop, and another had had the roof burned off for three years before we came in and closed it. This Government are consulting fully and putting forward a strategic plan across local areas where people can take a strategic view on a national basis.
I, too, remind the House of my former profession as a solicitor. I warmly welcome the Minister’s statement, particularly the welcome news that Bury county court will remain open. Will he confirm that that is not a temporary reprieve but a permanent decision? Also, I am slightly concerned that the decision to close Rochdale magistrates court will require a great deal of extra capacity at Bury magistrates court, especially as Rochdale already takes in the Heywood and Middleton benches. Has he taken that into account?
The state of the public finances notwithstanding, many people in Tamworth will be bitterly disappointed by the loss of both our county court and our magistrates court, which is the most utilised court in Staffordshire. What assurances can my hon. Friend give my constituents that the video-link technology between courts and police stations will be rolled out quickly so that our police will not spend all their time on the A38 to Burton, and that vulnerable people who will have to spend a day-long round trip going to Stafford county court will not have justice put beyond their means?
The court is closing because it has a sitting day allocation of only 76 days, and the work will transfer to Burton magistrates court. I can tell my hon. Friend that we will be pushing ahead with the additional use of technology, which we see as the future. As things stand, the Courts Service does not make adequate use of modern technology.
The Minister has already heard the genuine concerns about the closure of Burton county court. He said today that nobody should have to travel for more than an hour to get justice, but under these proposals my constituents will have to go to either Derby or Stafford. On public transport, that takes two hours and 23 minutes; on the train it takes an hour and 40 minutes. Will he meet me to ensure that my constituents will get access to the court in Derby rather than the one in Stafford?
I declare my interest as a barrister—in fact, I have appeared in a couple of these courts. The Minister mentioned how busy Northampton magistrates court is, and said that that had been factored into some of his decisions. Some of the hearings in magistrates courts are very short, and some magistrates courts are under-utilised, so can my hon. Friend confirm that because of the shortness and frequency of such hearings, they are particularly susceptible to the use of video link and other modern technology, and that savings could thus be made across the board?