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North Liverpool Community Justice Centre

Volume 569: debated on Tuesday 29 October 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.

When the North Liverpool community justice centre was opened in 2005, it was designed to be an innovative court and community resource, learning from the Red Hook community justice centre in New York. The centre serves the deprived area of north Liverpool, including Kirkdale, Anfield, Everton and County. The area has strong communities that face severe challenges, and there are many vulnerable people. Half the children in Kirkdale live in poverty. Male life expectancy is 72, which is 13 years less than in Kensington and Chelsea; women’s life expectancy is 76, which is 14 years less than in Kensington and Chelsea.

North Liverpool community justice centre has pioneered new approaches to offending. Restorative justice, conditional cautions and judicial oversight are distinguishing features of the centre’s work. They enable the court to consider individual circumstances, to relate crimes to those who have suffered from them and to consider the impact on the community. Key criminal justice agencies, including the police, probation, Crown Prosecution Service and youth offending teams, are co-located in the centre.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

Thank you, Mr Streeter. The co-location of key criminal justice agencies in the centre—the police, probation, Crown Prosecution Service and youth offending teams—is an important part of its approach, but there is more. Crucial support services—dealing with, for example, drugs, debt, financial problems generally, victim and witness support and antisocial behaviour—all working together are critical, as is vital family support. It is a uniquely holistic service.

The centre has been privileged to be served by two outstanding judges with their colleagues—his honour Judge Fletcher, and from December 2012, Judge Clancy. The writing has been on the wall for some time, before the Government’s hasty consultation on closure, which took place in six rushed weeks over the summer recess. The answer to my parliamentary question about the issue on 9 September showed that the centre’s fate was sealed, and the Government have now announced that it is to close.

The reasoning on which the closure is based fails in two fundamental respects. The Government’s key argument is that the cost of the centre does not justify its continuation. First, the Government’s claim that it has failed to address crime successfully is deeply flawed. Crime rates in north Liverpool, which is the area covered by the centre, fell by 7.2% between 2005 and 2010—much more than elsewhere in Liverpool, and much more than elsewhere across the country. It must be remembered that the centre hears a high proportion of serious crimes. Some 88.1% of cases involve violence against the person, while the national average for cases of that sort is 47.8%. That makes its success even more notable. Its important work in addressing antisocial behaviour—a demand of the local community to address that—is simply ignored in the assessment. That work is vital to the community, yet it does not feature in the judgment on the centre’s future.

Secondly, and inexplicably, there has been no assessment of the centre’s key aim of conducting preventive work and supporting the community through its inter-agency approach. That failure is incomprehensible, as prevention of crime and supporting the community was a major objective of the centre from the very beginning. Its outstanding work on victim and witness support has resulted in, for example, a 90% to 100% successful conviction rate in cases of domestic violence. However, that outstanding work has been ignored, and I understand that with the centre’s closure, the person who has been doing that work—someone who has received national awards for their success—will cease doing it.

As we would normally expect, my hon. Friend is making a very powerful argument on her constituents’ behalf. However, the justice centre also serves constituents in my constituency, and the closure proves the point that the Government understand the cost of everything, but the value of nothing. The Merseyside police and crime commissioner, Jane Kennedy, has described the proposals as “unnecessary vandalism”, and she has suggested that such a cut would make the job of our police force

“more difficult as the reforming work with prolific offenders will lose its focus”.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we will see reoffending rates rising because of the decision?

I agree with my hon. Friend. He makes very important points, and his comments have also been made by the mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson.

The centre conducts excellent work with young people in schools—it has been involved with 18 schools in the local area—and it works with colleges such as Rotunda college, helping to build the confidence of young people, yet that work is disregarded. Innovative links with mental health services make it a specialist centre, yet that work is simply cast aside. Many offenders suffer mental health problems that need to be addressed. The centre has been doing valuable work in that regard, yet even that is not worthy of assessment. Excellent rehabilitation projects such as the Turnaround project, supporting women, are considered to be unimportant. When I visited that project, I realised how important it was and how much those participating in the project valued it.

The crucial work of the citizens advice bureau, giving vital practical support to vulnerable adults and the community as a whole, is not considered worthy of consideration. The CAB is situated in the centre, and I understand that it will close when the work of the centre comes to an end. That will be a grave loss for the whole community; yet again, it has not been considered.

The failure to assess a key part of the centre’s remit is unacceptable. The Government even have the gall to criticise the centre for reducing its community involvement. That is hardly surprising when the Government themselves have cut funding so much that the community engagement team have been disbanded. The manager left last year and has not been replaced; the deputy is on long-term sick leave; and in the past three months the centre manager and district manager have gone.

What is to happen to these vital services? What assurance can the Minister give me? The North Liverpool community justice centre provides an important facility for the people of north Liverpool. It has a dedicated staff, committed to the local community. Its budget was cut dramatically, from £1.8 million a year in 2005 to £1.3 million a year in 2012, and a further £300,000 reduction was planned.

According to the people I represent, the centre has made a real difference to their lives. Yes, the centre is primarily about the court and reducing offending and it has achieved that, but it is also about working with the local community in this very deprived area, building links and developing community strengths, and people in the community value that. However, the assessment on which the decision to close is based ignores that vital preventive community work and dismisses the significant reduction in crime in the area.

Once again, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, and she is very generous about giving way. Does she agree with me that the decision to make the announcement on the cusp of the parliamentary recess has meant that the ability to scrutinise the decision fully has not been afforded to local agencies and people who want to keep the centre open?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. The consultation was carried out during the parliamentary recess. It was rushed. Many people did not have the opportunity to make a response, and many people did not realise that it was in fact taking place. It seems a very curious time in which to carry out a consultation on something as serious as this.

I am convinced that the decision is based on financial considerations, taking advantage of the break in the centre’s lease. We are told that the work will transfer to another court. Will that indeed be the case? What will fill the gap in terms of reducing crime, undertaking vital preventive work and supporting this resilient but deprived community? I hope that the Minister today can provide the answers.

It is a pleasure that for my first speech in the Palace of Westminster as a newly appointed Justice Minister, I am serving under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on securing this very important debate on the North Liverpool community justice centre. In her speech, she made a number of comments, and I hope that by the time I have finished my speech, I will have allayed some of the concerns that she and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) have expressed.

The decision to close the centre was an important one, based on the hard truth that the local drop in work load and the high cost of running what is a single courtroom centre have made it untenable. Following the public consultation on the centre’s future, I announced in a written ministerial statement last week the decision to close the centre. Currently, it is planned that the last sitting day will be Friday 28 March 2014. To keep the centre running would cost almost £1 million a year, and there is no evidence that that would be money well spent in terms of the results that it achieves compared with other courts.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did not take the decision to close the centre lightly. He did so after a detailed analysis of the centre’s work and of all the points raised in the consultation responses. The consultation did not identify any single operational or efficiency reason why the centre should not close.

I stress that we are committed to continuing to provide court users in north Liverpool with effective access to justice, while seeking ways to do so at a lower cost and alongside our efforts to improve the efficiency of the justice system as a whole. In transferring the majority of the centre’s work load to Sefton magistrates court, we have been clear that the principles of the centre will be maintained and at a court that has modern facilities and a reputation for innovation.

The North Liverpool community justice centre was established in 2005 as a court and community resource, with criminal justice agencies co-located with other third sector services in a dedicated building. The centre serves an area with a population of about 60,000 people in the north end of the city of Liverpool. The original intention was to provide an intensive approach to the crimes affecting the community at a very local level for both adult and youth cases. When it was launched in 2005, the centre’s objectives included the provision of community justice in a deprived area of Merseyside and, through that, a material reduction in reoffending levels through the adoption of innovative approaches to the handling of offenders and very close cross-agency working with both public and third sector organisations.

There is no doubt that the centre rapidly built a good reputation, both locally and internationally, for developing a new approach to court-based problem solving for offenders. However, following an evaluation published in 2012, it is equally clear that the success of the centre in terms of results was at best mixed. There was no empirical evidence to show that the centre was any more successful at reducing reoffending levels than a mainstream magistrates court.

As a result, and given the financial climate, the then ministerial team questioned the value for taxpayers’ money that the centre provided and concluded that it should continue as a court for up to two years, but with a view to increasing its work load and remit. That was vital when the centre’s own catchment area work load was falling significantly, in line with that of other magistrates courts. The increase in work load has been achieved only to a limited extent, with the transfer of mental health cases from a wider catchment area to the centre. As a result, the number of cases heard at the centre has increased during the past six months. For the 12-month period to March of this year, the centre’s courtroom utilisation rate stood at 55%. Between April and July of this year, that increased to an average of 71% through the hearing of mental health cases. However, despite that increase, the actual work load in volume terms remains relatively low.

According to “Doing justice locally: the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre”, a report published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, on page 97:

“As a result of these innovations”—

of the centre—

“our assessment is that criminal justice is speedier, fairer, more efficient, more community oriented, more holistic than the traditional court model”.

Does the Minister agree?

As I shall come on to say, Sefton magistrates court offers a number of the services that are provided at the centre. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside referred to various co-located agencies, and I assure her that Sefton magistrates court has probation services, a citizens advice bureau and victim and witness support services, among others. The services that are being provided are to be relocated 1.8 miles away to another centre, which will provide the same level of service. I will refer later to the extent that any difference is required.

As I was saying, despite the increase in utilisation, the work load in volume terms remains relatively low and would continue to be so as a single courtroom site. For example, since April the centre has dealt with an average of 168 cases a month, which compares unfavourably with Sefton magistrates court, where the majority of cases will go. Over the same period, Sefton dealt with 467 cases a month. Due to the limited cell capacity at the centre, it is not feasible to transfer in any more custody work to increase utilisation.

A key driver in the decision to close the centre was the fact that there are real limitations to the volume of cases it can deal with as a single courtroom site, and it is three times more expensive than other courts. Furthermore, it is not more successful at reducing reoffending than cheaper courts, so it simply cannot be seen to represent good value for money.

The Minister claims that the centre is not more successful, but that is not the information that has been provided to us—I will get the report and dig the relevant section out. The Deputy Prime Minister, who talked about prisons being “colleges of crime”, and the Prime Minister, who talked about a “rehabilitation revolution”, should have been looking at the centre as a model to take to other areas. What will it cost the Exchequer to send the prolific reoffenders that the centre deals with properly back to prison, because they will no longer be benefiting from the innovative approaches of the North Liverpool justice centre?

The hon. Gentleman wants hypothetical answers for the future, but I am not delving into the realms of the future. I will, however, look at the facts as they are—as we have them—and if he disagrees with them, I am happy to give him the sources of my information. I repeat that the services provided at the centre will not be affected in any way—they will only be at a different location, some two miles away, nothing more.

I would like to make a little progress, but I am happy to give way to the hon. Lady a little later.

The outcome of the consultation is to proceed with plans for closure of the centre, but the consultation response identified two areas in which the original proposals should be revised: youth and educational welfare cases. We have listened to those views and revised the proposal accordingly. Youth and education welfare cases will now be dealt with by the Liverpool youth court and the Liverpool and Knowsley magistrates court, respectively. Again, they are around two miles away—no more.

The points about work load and courtroom utilisation, plus the high running costs of the centre, were set out in the initial consultation document and in the consultation response document published last week. Moreover, the criminal justice agencies have reduced the number of people based at the centre, in line with the decrease in work and to meet their changing operational needs. For example, the Crown Prosecution Service has reduced its presence significantly and is now supporting the centre’s cases in the same way as it would in a mainstream court, as opposed to providing dedicated prosecutors and service levels, as it did previously.

As announced last week, the proposal to transfer the work from the centre to the nearby Sefton magistrates court will now proceed. Sefton has excellent modern facilities and good transport links. It has earned its own reputation for innovation, including a dedicated problem-solving court, and because of its efficient processes it was the first model court—subsequently, beacon office—in what was then known as Her Majesty’s Courts Service. Indeed, Sefton magistrates court’s problem-solving approach is built on the principles of the North Liverpool community justice centre, but is achieved at much lower cost. The principles and ethos of the centre will not be lost; they will be carried on at Sefton.

We have much for which to thank the centre. It pioneered a scheme to improve case management—to the centre’s credit, that scheme is now in place in all magistrates courts in England and Wales, reducing waiting times considerably, with the majority of cases completed within four weeks. The spirit of the North Liverpool community justice centre will move to Sefton, while allowing us to deliver cost savings of £630,000 per year.

The Minister is being generous with his first speech here; I wish it were on a happier subject. Four weeks is an impressive turnaround time. What assurances will he give that it will be maintained when those cases are transferred to a much larger court?

There is plenty of capacity at Sefton. It has five courts at the moment, and on any given day, two or three are being used. To the extent that more staff and the like are needed, provision for that has been taken on board. I am confident that the rate of processing cases will continue.

The Government published our consultation response on 22 October 2013. There were 18 responses. Five supported the proposal fully, three were neutral and 10 were opposed in some way to the closure of the centre, the choice of Sefton as the court to receive the centre’s work, or both.

The main issues recognised in support of closure were the financial benefit and the fact that the centre had moved away from its original community-focused role. Those opposed to closure focused on what they perceived as an adverse impact on the provision of justice within the north Liverpool community and raised concerns about youth and mental health cases at Sefton magistrates court. As I have said, we listened to those concerns and have acted accordingly.

Closure of the North Liverpool community justice centre will result in savings of £630,000 a year, whereas maintaining its operation would mean a continuation of costs of £930,000 a year, based on this year’s budget. The proposed savings outweigh any perceived benefits from continuing to operate the centre. That is particularly so given that I have been assured that the ethos and principles developed at the centre will live on at Sefton magistrates court, which itself has a reputation for innovative work, but will provide far greater value for money.

Can the Minister give me an absolute assurance that the level of community support, particularly witness and victim support and the critical advice offered by the citizens advice bureau, and the centre’s holistic inter-agency approach will be continued in precisely the same way in those specific areas of north Liverpool?

The hon. Lady asks a good question, but she must be mindful of the fact that even at the north Liverpool centre, some of the other agencies were decreasing the support that they were giving. That is not to say that that may continue at Sefton, but I assure her that as we speak, other co-located agencies are present there, which I hope will continue to deliver services. However, it would be wrong for me to give a promise based on the declining number of people at the original centre.

As set out fully in the consultation response document published last week, it seems clear to me that the case for change is made and the decision taken is the right one. In conclusion—

No, I have concluded. I am aware that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside has visited Sefton magistrates court, but I understand it was not recently. I suggest that she and her colleagues visit as soon as possible. I like to think that the concerns that they have expressed today will be eased when they see what is actually on offer.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.