I beg to move,
That this House has considered the closure of courts and tribunals services in England and Wales.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving me and the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) the opportunity to bring to the House this debate on the closure of courts and tribunal services in England and Wales. Given that it was my first pitch to the Committee, I was pretty chuffed to receive the good news.
In July, the Government announced a consultation on the proposed closure of 91 courts and tribunal services across England and Wales called. “Proposal on the provision of court and tribunal estate in England and Wales”, and it closes on 8 October. It forms part of the wider changes to the criminal justice system, which have not been debated in this Parliament.
Many Members have been in contact to say that, with the closure of courts, the way in which people access the justice system will be incredibly different. Given the introduction of new and not-so-new technology, and the fact that fewer people will attend the courtroom in person, we felt that a debate was necessary. I am therefore delighted that the Backbench Business Committee accepted a debate on these significant proposals, which will see some constituents across England and Wales travelling for more than an hour to reach a courtroom. Many Members believe that the changes to the estate of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service could lead to the complete transformation of the justice system as we know it.
I thank the Minister for his support and his speedy responses over the last few months. His continued support in person, on the telephone and in relation to exchanges of emails and letters has been incredibly helpful in allowing me to update my constituents. I know that that is true of other Members across the House, so I thank him.
On 23 June the Lord Chancellor gave a speech to the Legatum Institute on what a one nation justice policy would look like. He said that he wanted
“to make our justice system work better for victims; to deliver faster and fairer justice for all citizens…to make sure the laws we pass provide protection for the weakest… rescue young offenders, and those who may be on the path to offending, from a life of crime”.
He announced his intention to work with the judiciary to reform Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, and he wanted—I agree with this—to create a modern and efficient service. That will involve challenging decisions about the current system. One such decision relates to the courts and tribunals estate, and the consultation provides a superb opportunity for Members to make a reasoned and sensible case for the use of courts in their constituencies. I hope it will enable them to present clear evidence to the consultation. Pending the results of the consultation, we should begin a conversation now about the future use of the estate, and about how best to use it in the one nation terms outlined by the Secretary of State.
I understand the reasons behind the Secretary of State’s decision to hold a consultation. In his speech he recognised that a dangerous inequality lies at the heart of the current justice system, because it involves not one nation but two. The wealthy international class can settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice, but everyone else has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their lives.
The courts are trapped in “antiquated ways of working” that leave individuals at the mercy of grotesque inefficiencies and reinforce indefensible inequalities. Over the past few months I have spoken to a range of key stakeholders in my constituency, and it is clear that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service needs major reform to deliver value for money for taxpayers and fair treatment for all citizens.
Some children in my constituency have waited two years for sexual assault cases to be brought before the courts, and too many cases show that the system is failing the victims and those whom we are trying to rehabilitate. It is right to use this opportunity not just to look at reforming the Courts and Tribunals Service, but also to consider the processes and administration of the remaining courts.
The Courts and Tribunals Service currently operates from 460 courts and tribunals across England and Wales. The estate costs taxpayers around £0.5 billion each year and is underused. In my constituency, usage is well below the 50% capacity, and last year more than one third of courts and tribunals were empty for more than 50% of their available hearing time. As I discussed with Bath magistrates, there is no shortage of cases needing court time, and if more magistrates were provided, capacity could be increased.
Evidence is clear that hearing rooms in the estate are underused. In the financial year 2014-15, recorded national utilisation levels by jurisdiction were as follows: Crown Courts 71%; county courts 53%; magistrates courts 47%; and tribunal hearing rooms 71%. Although Bath has a relatively modern building, much of the national estate is ageing and requires extensive maintenance. The cost of keeping buildings in a fit state is unsustainable given the overall financial pressures placed on the Department. I therefore understand the need to reduce the outgoings of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and improve efficiency.
It will come as no surprise to hon. Members that today I will make the case for Bath magistrates court to stay open. The Government’s own report states that the court was built in 1989 and is in a good state of repair. It has five courtrooms, of which four are magistrates courtrooms. The court has separate waiting rooms for prosecution and defence witnesses, and video link facilities for witnesses to give evidence. It does not have a prison video link, but I wish to query the lack of a court hearing loop as stated in the consultation, as I understand that it does have one.
After speaking to a range of key parties, there is an opportunity to use the court building more effectively than in the past. If Bath courts are kept open following the consultation, I wish to ensure that our buildings and others around the UK are at the centre of the Government’s reforms to improve the criminal justice system, that they have the best technology and improve access to justice, and that they work effectively in the interests of the most vulnerable—the victims of crime and those in most desperate need of rehabilitation services.
I therefore welcome the fact that the Minister has noted that he would like to maintain access to justice, particularly in rural areas. I also welcome the fact that he wants to make the system fairer and faster, as the Government look to invest significantly in digital technology to enable more issues to be resolved without people needing to go to a court or tribunal building to access justice. This includes extending the use of video links to enable victims and witnesses to give evidence and participate in hearings remotely.
Of course, it is the staff who work in the courts and tribunals who experience the inefficiency every day. From visiting the courts in my constituency, I am baffled as to how they put up with the cumbersome IT processes that they have to go through and the archaic systems. On my visit to the courts in Bath a couple of weeks ago, I was interested to learn that many letters have to be sent out via first class mail, rather than via email. The voices of staff are the ones we need to listen to most when it comes to the reforms.
We need to make sure that prosecutions are brought more efficiently, that information is exchanged via email or conference call, rather than in a series of hearings, and that evidence is served in a timely and effective way. It is not just within the criminal courts that the case for reform is clear. Millions of people each day access our civil courts to reach custody agreements after divorce, contest their traffic offences or settle a dispute over intellectual property rights. Without our civil and family courts or our tribunal services, our contracts are unenforceable and individuals are left with no recourse when deprived of their rights.
As we look at reforms to the civil court estate, we ought also to be looking at maximising efficiency. If the estates are to be kept, we must address the reasons why the current system prevents people from filing their cases online, is often not in plain English, and adds stress owing to its complexity and bureaucratic nature. I am pleased that the Government have recognised that we need to question whether many of these formal hearings need to be heard at all in our current court and tribunal estate, and why we are not submitting more information online and using our estate in a much more efficient way
Like many Members, over the summer I consulted my constituents on the proposed closures and received hundreds of responses. I thank them and the legal professionals, charities and magistrates who sent me their views. One thing is clear: the vast majority know that the criminal justice estate needs reform. Many are clear that it is underutilised and that it needs to be better used to help service those most in need—the victims of crime and those who must be rehabilitated. So far, over 84% of the respondents to my consultation believe that Bath magistrates and county court should stay. However, very few have ever needed to access the services provided by the courts—probably something I should promote a little more. Those who do need the services provided are often the most vulnerable in society, and I think it is right to maintain local access to justice while providing for efficient use of the services provided in the courts and tribunals estate. This is something I will come on to a little later.
At this point it is important to set out the chronology of the relevant reforms to the criminal justice service and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service in order to set the scene for Members as we begin a wider debate on the reforms to the criminal justice estate. In March 2014, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and the Senior President of Tribunals announced details of a programme of reform of courts and tribunals. At the heart of this programme are the use of technology and the principle of proportionality. Modern technology could not only make the justice system more accessible, but reduce the costs of the whole system.
In January this year the president of the Queen’s bench division, the right hon. Sir Brian Leveson, published his “Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings”. In his report he focused on changes to procedure which can be achieved without the need for legislation, but which make better use of technology and other advances within the criminal justice service. All the recommendations were designed to streamline the way in which the business of the criminal courts is conducted, without losing sight of the interests of justice. Therefore, rather than tweak the current system, as has been done over the past 50 years, he tried to identify ways in which our current procedures can be adapted to make the best use of the skills, resources and IT systems available.
With the report published, it makes sense to review the estate in the context of wider reforms to the courts and tribunals service. In March this year my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), then Lord Chancellor, welcomed the Leveson report as a “detailed and valuable report”.
On the wider issue of changes being made to the courts and tribunals service as a whole, I am sure the House would be interested to receive a statement about the progress that the Minister is making in introducing the Leveson report’s recommendations. Given that the improvements to the IT provision, recommended by Brian Leveson, are fundamental to the proposed closure of the courts, it would be useful to understand what stage they have reached.
I would like to set out the debate on the wider consultation, explore how the criminal justice service must be reformed and give an opportunity for Members to explore the reasons why courts in their constituencies should remain open, be reformed, or, in an unlikely circumstance, be closed down, as the structure of the consultation permits.
The consultation sets out a number of key principles that the Government have considered to decide which courts would be included in the proposals. The first principle is ensuring access to justice. Within this section of the consultation, the first consideration is the assessment of the impact of possible closure on professional users, lay court users and tribunal users.
One argument that has been repeatedly raised is that the founding principle of magistrates courts is that justice is delivered by local people who understand the local area and understand where retribution is appropriate. Following the announcement of the consultation, I met magistrates from Bath on numerous occasions and they said that knowing the local community provided a huge benefit when delivering local justice. I am very concerned that this experienced provision of justice will be lost if cases are diverted to Bristol, where this thorough understanding of the nuances of Bath is likely to fall short. Indeed, if one is a part-time magistrate holding two or more roles, how is one able to deliver justice in Bristol as well as work simultaneously in Bath?
The second principle is taking into account journey time for users. I am pleased that the consultation notes that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service acknowledges that users should not have to make excessively long or difficult journeys to attend hearings. However, there is a limit to that and I am pleased that at the Justice Committee on 17 July the Lord Chancellor stated that he wanted to make sure that the time it will take for any citizen to travel to court remains less than an hour.
As a Bath resident, it is near impossible to get from Bath city centre to Bristol city centre within an hour by bus or car. If one is trying to get to Bristol court from any of the villages or small towns, this is simply near impossible. Regular trains do run between the cities. However, those attending court would face a walk of half an hour on arrival, which would pose a challenge to some—for example, the disabled.
I also worry that the cost of travel may lead some to not attend court, resulting in harsher penalties at a later date and the involvement of the police to force them to attend a hearing. Each of these steps places a further burden on local services and the taxpayer. It would be useful if the Minister updated the House on the Government’s proposals to provide financial support to the most vulnerable to get to and from the court.
The third principle is the alternative provision of criminal justice services in other locations. If Bath court is to close, I am already working with our council in Bath to discuss the use of our original courtroom, which was indeed a council chamber. As I have explained, there are public buildings in my constituency, as there are in the rest of England and Wales. I hope the Government will work with our councils and other public bodies to offer up facilities where security threats are low. The Government need to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of upgrading current facilities while investing in local civic buildings. Let us not forget that the equipment needs to be brought up to the standards set out by Leveson. We will therefore need financial help to achieve that.
The fourth principle is the need to take into account the needs of the users and, in particular, victims, witnesses and those who are vulnerable. I am pleased, therefore, that the Secretary of State said that the Ministry of Justice has looked at the types of work that the court does and the need to ensure that particularly sensitive people are not exposed to additional upheaval and unnecessary distress.
If the courts are to close and there is an increase in the distance that people have to travel to access the courts system, we need innovative solutions to improve access to justice. In the previous Parliament, some excellent work was undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on pop-up civil courts. These courts could open in village halls and community centres. The move would end the requirement for all defendants charged with low-level offences to attend a central court building. This would enable improved access to justice. For people who, for example, have committed a speeding offence, I imagine that having to attend so publicly could have an additional benefit of making them think twice about speeding in the future. Instead of having a public forced to come to the courts for this sort of offence, the public should see justice in their own communities rather than at a magistrates court.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong case for the court in Bath. On distance, does he accept that in London and other inner-city areas, although a court might seem very near, all sorts of travel issues, such as with bus routes and so on, might arise? In my constituency, for example, a consultation is under way over whether to close Lambeth county court on Cleaver Street. The closure of this court, which is centrally located on all transport networks, would make a huge difference, particularly to the poorest, who are likely to have great difficult getting to the court if there is a change of venue.
I agree. As the crow flies, the distance between Bath and Bristol might look like a 30-minute journey by car or bus, but when one factors in the congestion renowned in my constituency, it can be a problem. I know exactly the problems the hon. Lady mentions in Lambeth from my travels through her constituency. It can be particularly problematic for vulnerable people who cannot necessarily afford to access the courts system. In some instances, they might be left in a place that is slightly foreign to them without the money to get home. As I will discuss later, that adds additional costs to the overall system.
The idea of pop-up courts could be applied to a host of lesser offences, including minor criminal damage, failure to pay the television licence or being drunk and disorderly, which could ensure that the most vulnerable can access the courts effectively. The second key principle is value for money. I have largely covered that already, but no doubt Members will want to mention it later. The most interesting principle in the consultation is the third, about creating efficiency in the longer term. I agree with the Government that we need to reduce our reliance on buildings with poor facilities and remove from the estate buildings that are difficult and expensive either to improve or to upgrade. As I have said, however, the Bath courts are already large, having 12 courtrooms, a youth court and county court, and have excellent facilities for court users, staff and judiciary.
Here, then, is my pitch to the Government. Following conversations with magistrates, service users, charitable organisations and others in Bath, I would like to encourage the Government to back the creation of a new justice and rehabilitation service in Bath. I would like our court buildings transformed into a one-stop shop, providing a range of services that attendees might require and enabling all services within the criminal justice service to be accessed at source. That could involve drug and alcohol services, social care and children and witness support under one roof.
Someone in court because of actions resulting from alcohol abuse could leave the court and walk across the corridor to an alcohol rehabilitation charity. Someone struggling to cope with money who needs help from Citizens Advice could access such advice immediately, instead of having to leave the court estate. By getting the help immediately, offenders could rehabilitate quicker, while advice from a local organisation can be tailored to the local area. No doubt that would increase local support for the venture. The criminal justice system must aim to help prevent reoffending, and such ease of access would provide a way of doing that.
The Bath courts, like many others around the UK, have appropriate rooms that could be utilised in that way—these vacant rooms, after all, are the cause of the consultation. Offering rooms within the estate to local organisations and charities would take the pressure for funding these services off central and local government and the NHS. I know from experience that rents in Bath are extremely expensive, and that many charities essential to improving the lives of offenders would appreciate having such access to those who need their help and to facilities from which to operate.
It is also proposed that we move to an estate providing dedicated hearing centres and concentrate back-office functions where they can be carried out most efficiently. Bath magistrates court and county court already provide a range of different services. Without wishing to run before I can walk, I am pleased that the Government have recognised the need to invest in some of the buildings that need improvement, and I hope that following the consultation the Minister will open discussions with MPs as each case is assessed to ensure that plans deliver value for money. In addition, when it comes to the redistribution of the courts around England and Wales, it would be good to discuss the redistribution of local justice areas as well. It makes no sense that a resident living east of Chippenham has to go to Swindon, or that someone living closer to Bath has to go to Yeovil.
In summary, I hope I have made a strong case not only for reform of the courts and tribunals estate, but for better utilisation of the current estate to help create a one nation justice system. On Bath, I end by reminding Members of what was said in Select Committee on 17 July by the Lord Chancellor:
“when you announce a series of closures or economies it will always, always, always be the case that you find someone who will make a very good argument as to why in a particular circumstance a closure should not go ahead…I want to stress that when we make our announcement about closures, it is not the final word. If a strong case is made and, on the balance of judgment, it is worth keeping a court open, we will revisit any individual decision where we think we may have got it wrong.”
I hope I have made a very good case that the Bath court should stay open.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing the time for this excellent and timely debate on court closures. It is a pleasure to follow the well-informed and comprehensive speech by the hon. Member for Bath, and I assure him that I fully support his imaginative proposals for Bath.
The Ministry of Justice consultation on the proposals for future provision of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service talks about reforming the courts and tribunals system to bring quicker and fairer access to justice that reflects the way people use services today. I absolutely agree that this has to happen. It also talks about how many cases do not need face-to-face hearings and about the increasing use of new technology such as digital screens, video, telephone and online conferencing, which will drive change. The document says we can only provide better access to justice if we take difficult decisions to reduce the cost of buildings and reinvest the savings. It outlines the courts that will close in Greater Manchester, including Stockport, in order to achieve that.
I am sure the Minister will agree that it is vital to get this right. Court buildings, once closed, cannot easily be reopened. There are consultations and there are consultations! The best consultations give people full information that enables them to make a well-informed response from their own experience. My concern is that the consultation document, due to close on 8 October, does not contain sufficient information and costings to enable a proper response to be made.
A further concern is that this is one of three consultations, all of whose proposals might impact on the use of court buildings. The second consultation on the merger of the local justice areas in Greater Manchester has just finished, and although I appreciate that it is not directly about court buildings, the proposals could impact on their use. The problem is that the Government response to that consultation will not be known before the closing date of the consultation on court buildings.
There is also a third consultation, which has just started, about youth justice, which aims to cut reoffending. If successful, it will have an impact on the use of court buildings. There could also be changes to criminal proceedings. I have been interested in section 28 pilots of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 that enable pre-recorded cross-examination of the evidence of vulnerable child witnesses. I visited the recorder in Liverpool, one of the pilot areas, and he told me that this has led not only to a better experience for vulnerable child witnesses, but to shorter cross-examinations, thus freeing up court time. These pilots have not yet been evaluated, but if they were rolled out nationally, that would have an impact on the use of court buildings. I am sure Members would be interested in any information that the Minister could provide about when the evaluation of these pilots is likely to be concluded. Also, if as part of this roll-out, non-court buildings such as the St Mary’s sexual assault referral centre were to be used, that would also have an effect on the use of court buildings. Many vulnerable witnesses would welcome giving evidence in a non-court building.
Surely the consultation on proposed closures of court buildings should be done after all the relevant consultations and evaluation of the section 28 pilots have been completed. This feels like a very disconnected consultation process with piecemeal proposals, when we should be considering all the changes to the criminal justice system together. It seems to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast.
I am also concerned about delays in the bringing of cases to the Crown court in Manchester, and I should have liked to see wider proposals to tackle those delays. It cannot be right that traumatised child victims must wait for months to give their evidence. I urge the Minister to be bolder and more radical. At present, cases are sent to be tried at the Crown court because of the seriousness of the offences and, of course, the right of the defendant to be tried by a jury. Perhaps there is a case for holding some jury trials for some offences in courthouses that are currently used for magistrates’ cases and family hearings. I think that business case should be considered. The tackling of unacceptable delays in Crown court hearings would be greatly welcomed by witnesses, and it might meet the Minister’s aspiration—which I support—to provide quicker and fairer access to justice.
Let me turn to the proposals relating to Greater Manchester. The HMCTS’s consultation document provides only minimal information about the costs of the new arrangements, and the impact statement is very general. It talks about value for money, but there is very little available information about how that is being assessed. The only figures provided are for the overall operating costs of the courts that are being closed.
To get a better picture, I tabled some parliamentary questions about the operating costs of each court in Greater Manchester by type of expenditure in each of the last three years. However, I have not yet received an answer. May I ask the Minister to ensure that that information is made available before the closing date for responses to the consultation?
I asked what estimate the Justice Secretary had made of the capital and revenue costs of implementing his proposals for the future provision of HMCTS services in the north-west. I was told that I would not receive an answer until after the consultation had closed and all the responses had been analysed. I also asked what costs were paid by HMCTS for attendance, travel, loss of earnings, childcare and subsistence for all courts in Greater Manchester, and what estimate the Justice Secretary had made of the likely level of such costs if his proposals for future courts provision were implemented. I was again told that the information was not held centrally. How can it be that such information is not available for people to consider as part of the consultation? How can a proposals document be produced when the Ministry of Justice, by its own admission, does not keep those figures?
In response to my question, during the most recent Justice Question Time, about the use of non-court buildings, the Minister talked about the types of buildings, such as town halls, that could be used. I can certainly see that that is a possible solution—as I have said, not everyone likes attending a court—but no costs are attached in the consultation document.
Let me now turn specifically to the proposed closure of Stockport magistrates and county court, and the transfer of the workload to Manchester and Salford. Like the hon. Member for Bath, I am concerned about the impact of travelling times and the implications for local access to justice. I do not want travelling time to be a deterrent for witnesses. I found no evidence in the proposals of the conducting of any survey of people’s chosen modes of travel—bus, train, car or walking. Underlying the proposals is a presumption that the majority of people using the court in Stockport travel by car. I would argue that that is not the case: many vulnerable and disadvantaged people who use the courts travel by public transport.
The consultation document says that it takes 15 minutes to travel by train from Stockport to Manchester. That is unrealistic, as it does not include travelling time from home to Stockport station and on to the court. For example, the total journey time to Manchester from Heaton Mersey in my constituency is one hour and three minutes, and involves a train and two buses. The journey time from Brinnington is roughly one hour and four minutes, and also involves a train and two buses. It cannot be right that, on the basis of these proposals, an area with an identity that is distinct from that of Manchester and a population of 284,000 will be left without a court and access to the local justice system.
Stockport magistrates court houses a variety of court work in the same building. It houses adult and youth work, a family hearing centre, the county court and tribunals, as well as a highly effective problem-solving court which addresses the underlying problems that contribute to criminal behaviour. It is not clear that all those uses have been built into the model that the consultation document has used in its usage statistics. That needs to be clarified.
With regard to the youth court, the borough of Stockport has more children in care than any other area in Greater Manchester. Relocating that court to Manchester would have a significant impact on costs and on the efficiency of justice for a number of youth agencies and court users. The rationalisation of court services provided for in the proposals will mean that there will be family courts in the north and centre of the county but not in the south. That cannot be right.
It is proposed to close Macclesfield court and transfer its business to Crewe, but Stockport is within easier reach of the people of Macclesfield than Crewe. A better option would be to transfer the business of Macclesfield magistrates court, the county court and the family hearing centre to Stockport and retain the Stockport magistrates and county courts. There are good train and bus services between Stockport and Macclesfield, and the train journey from Crewe to Macclesfield takes double the time of the journey from Macclesfield to Stockport. Moving the Macclesfield court business to Stockport would provide local and accountable justice and value for money.
I cannot support the closure of the Stockport magistrates and county courts because I see no evidence that it will lead to better access to justice for my constituents; nor do I think that the financial case has been made. Local people with expertise and a wealth of knowledge of the criminal justice and family courts locally do not feel that the proposals provide the depth of information needed for them to give proper consideration to the proposals. They need to feel confident that the closure of the Stockport courthouse would lead to a better justice system for local people. The closure of the court would be a blow to Stockport, and I would really welcome an opportunity, along with the other Members representing constituencies in the Stockport borough, to meet the Minister to discuss these proposals and the alternatives before he makes his decision.
Order. It is obvious that a great many people wish to speak. However, we are not under huge time pressure this afternoon—the Benches are not overflowing—and I do not wish to impose a formal time limit. I therefore hope for the co-operation of Members, and if each speaks for between eight and nine minutes, everyone who wishes to speak will have the chance to do so. Eight minutes is a considerable amount of time in which to put a succinct argument; we do not always need to hear the same points being made over and over again. I am sure that we shall not hear that from Mr Andrew Bingham.
I shall endeavour to grant your wish, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on securing the debate on this important subject, which is a matter of great concern to my constituents and, I am sure, to those of all hon. Members. I am particularly pleased to follow the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), for reasons that will become apparent as I go through my speech.
I want to start by talking about the consultation document, and I am going to be very critical of it. I have witnessed many consultations in my 12 years as a borough councillor in the High Peak, and in my five years as a Member of Parliament, and I am sorry to say that I cannot remember seeing one as poorly written and riddled with errors and inaccuracies as this one. It contains basic mistakes regarding the High Peak magistrates court in Buxton. For example, it claims that it has no public lift, when in fact it has one. That is a basic error, and I shall talk about other such errors in the document later.
Many people take a dim view of consultations, which are often seen as window dressing, while the result of the process is inevitable. I am sorry to say that the mistakes that have been made in this consultation will only feed that view among the general public. I very much welcome the assurance from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), in his letter to me last month that this is a genuine exercise and that no final decisions will be made until the consultation is complete. I was pleased to see that, and I believe it.
I want to return to the content of the consultation. It is a slapdash piece of work, and I have to ask whether its author has actually been to Buxton and visited the court, or whether it is merely a regurgitation of a consultation undertaken about 10 years ago. Has someone simply dusted off that document, changed a few of the names and dates and decided that that would do? Whichever it is, it is not acceptable. At best it is inaccurate; at worst it is misleading. It has been pointed out to me by somebody with a far more qualified legal brain than mine that so great are the inaccuracies in this consultation that any decision based on it could be open to legal challenge, and I would hate to see that. I want to run through one or two of the inaccuracies.
The document says there is no public lift, but there is. In fairness, a letter was sent out subsequently saying, “This was an error and we are very sorry.” I got a copy of that letter, but many people I know did not; that is another mistake. The document states the Buxton court is not compliant with the Equality Act 2010. That is wrong; it is fully compliant with the disability legislation under that Act. The document states that there are two consultation rooms and that they are in poor condition. That is again wrong; there are three, and they are of a high standard because they were refurbished in 2010.
The document also claims that there is one waiting room available, thereby preventing the “desired segregation” of parties. Yet again, that is wrong. In 2010 the waiting areas were reorganised so now there is a separate entrance and room in the courthouse for witnesses, and the “desired segregation”, as it is termed, is therefore now in place; witnesses are segregated from defendants at all times and can be taken into the court without any communication with others waiting in the court waiting room.
I am sorry to labour this point, but the errors are multiple. The document claims that vulnerable witnesses have to use a waiting room across the road. There is a room across the road from the court; it is used for vulnerable witnesses giving evidence via video link. That has proved to be a valuable asset and is one not offered by all courts. It reassures vulnerable witnesses to know that they do not even have to enter the court building where, despite the segregation offered, they would fear bumping into the defendants. That gives huge reassurance to those who need it most.
The document goes on to talk about using Chesterfield as an alternative, claiming it is fully compliant with health and safety regulations. By omitting the fact that Buxton is also compliant, there is implication by omission, and yet again in my view that could be seen as misleading.
I will now turn to the proposals to use Chesterfield court as an alternative. Yet again, if someone had bothered to visit Buxton and do their homework they would realise that Chesterfield is just not practical. It may look a good solution on a map but in reality it does not work. The consultation talks about travel times from Buxton to Chesterfield. It completely ignores the fact that the court serves not just Buxton but the whole of the High Peak, including Glossop, which has a larger population than Buxton. Getting to Chesterfield from Glossop is just not practical by public transport. If someone had to get to Chesterfield court by public transport for 9.30 am, they would have to leave Glossop at 6.45am. We have heard talk about the journey time from Brinnington at one hour and four minutes; a move to Chesterfield would see 73% of my constituents facing a journey by public transport of over two hours. From that perspective, Brinnington is practically next door.
The hon. Member for Stockport talked about Macclesfield. As we both know, the transport links between the High Peak and Stockport are a lot better than those between High Peak and Chesterfield. If there are going to be closures in the High Peak, has any thought been given to sending people to Stockport? We have talked of Tameside, Macclesfield and Stockport closing. My geographical knowledge of the area is pretty good, and although I want High Peak retained, if there had to be just one site other than that, I would choose Stockport. It could feed Macclesfield, Tameside and High Peak because the transport links are a lot better. Has that not been looked at because Stockport happens to be in a different county or region from the High Peak—or could no one really be bothered?
Members will probably have got the impression by now that I am very unimpressed with the consultation and its contents. To compound the felony I wrote to Amanda Lowndes at Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service on 28 July and I have yet to receive a direct response to my points other than the generic apology regarding the public lift. I do not know why; I do not know whether it is an unwillingness to engage or embarrassment at such an appalling document.
I want to say at this point that this contrasts greatly with the response of the Minister, to whom I have spoken personally and who has responded to my letters. I applaud and thank him for that.
I understand the need to look at issues such as the cost to the public purse and whether we can do things differently, as has been eloquently described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath. The savings for the courts on the High Peak, however, are projected at about £46,000, but the moving to Chesterfield will incur extra costs elsewhere, such as the travelling costs of defendants and, indeed, the magistrates. Does a magistrate who is living and serving in High Peak really want to be going over to Chesterfield? Those who know the area will be aware that it gets a touch cold in the winter and we have quite a bit of snow, and people who try to drive from High Peak to Chesterfield in February sometimes do not have the best of chances. This move will discourage people from High Peak from becoming magistrates, and I would not like to see that. The magistrates do a great job and I support them in everything they do.
People will face additional travelling costs, leaving aside the inconvenience, but we also have to consider the costs for other organisations, such as the police. Officers of High Peak Borough Council have to go to court for various things and at the moment they have only to go across the road from the town hall. They can go across, do what they have to do and be back behind their desks fairly quickly. Moving the court to Chesterfield will mean that council officers will be taken out for at least half a day, if not more, and then we have to add on the travel costs and so on. Given the lack of feasible public transport between High Peak and Chesterfield, I can see money being spent on taxis to get people to and from the court. That would be an expensive and unacceptable outcome; I seem to remember someone from the other side of the House going on about people in taxis scuttling around cities—that came to my mind a long time ago.
I have had discussions with constituents who work in and around the courts about this matter, and there are other ways that savings can be made. Previous speakers have highlighted the people who work in and around this area. We should speak to them, because I am sure they can find ways. A lot of cases of Crown Prosecution Service inefficiency have come across my desk. I have known of cases adjourned a dozen times because they are not ready and of the double listing of cases. If we speak to the experts, they could find such savings without the court in Buxton necessarily having to close.
I could talk for much longer, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am mindful of your eight-minute ruling and so I will keep my remarks as succinct as I can. I wish to conclude by saying that High Peak is sandwiched between large towns and cities, and we get pulled one way and then the other, and we often used to be forgotten. As with everybody in this House, part of my responsibility is to represent my constituency, make sure that it is not forgotten and make sure that we get our fair share. The Minister should think long and hard about this decision. He should not base it on this woeful and sloppy piece of work masquerading as a consultation. He should look carefully at the submissions from people in High Peak, mine included. They will give him an accurate picture of High Peak, not the one put out in the consultation. If he is determined to reconfigure the court services in High Peak, I ask him to find a way of doing so that does not force my constituents into long unsustainable journeys. He should examine innovative ways of doing things, such as the pop-up courts. If we have to travel, he should make this realistic and do-able, but I urge him to find a way to preserve a court in High Peak, as that makes sense. If this consultation document had been properly researched and presented, it would have led one to that conclusion. Instead, it is a biased, inaccurate and lazy piece of work.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on his 100% record in securing Backbench Business Committee debates.
I want to focus my remarks on the proposed closure of Hartlepool magistrates court and county court, as I have a number of serious reservations about that. The first is that there is nothing lacking or missing from the magistrates facilities in Hartlepool. I understand that magistrates courts in other parts of England or Wales are earmarked for closure in part because they fail to comply with the Equality Act 2010 or are lacking in security. Hartlepool has a prison video link, separate waiting facilities for prosecution and defence witnesses, and interview rooms for confidential consultation. By contrast, the consultation itself concedes that if the proposed closure of Hartlepool’s courts goes ahead, a reconfiguration of the hearing space at Teesside magistrates courts will be required to accommodate a further waiting room and create a disabled access door. No figures are provided as to the costs of this work.
That brings me on to an additional point: the costs saved by the proposal. I understand that, as the hon. Gentleman has said, this consultation is being driven by a desire to reduce costs. The Minister has said that the courts estate costs about half a billion pounds a year. I would question how much will be saved if Hartlepool magistrates court is closed. There is a lack of transparency as to what will be saved. I understand that the court in Hartlepool has operating costs of about £345,000 a year. Does the Minister expect to save all or part of that figure? If it is the latter, how much does he expect to save?
I suspect that a large proportion of those operating costs will be staff expenditure. Eight members of staff work at the magistrates court and seven full-time members work at Hartlepool county court. Will they be made redundant as a result of the proposed closure? Unfortunately, Hartlepool still has a high unemployment problem, like the rest of the north-east. At double the national average, our level is the 40th highest among all constituencies.
Any redundancy in Hartlepool, especially that initiated by the state, does not help that unemployment problem, but if staff are not being made redundant will they be transferred to Middlesbrough, and how much does that save?
The building from which the magistrates and county courts operate is not freehold, so the Government will not be able to realise any value by selling it. According to the consultation, the Government’s wishes are:
“To maximise the capital receipts from surplus estate for reinvestment in HM Courts & Tribunals Service.”
That aim will not be met by closing Hartlepool magistrates courts, a leasehold property on a 99-year lease that currently has 60 years left to run. The building is owned by Hartlepool borough council. How much will it cost to break the lease? If the Minister is considering whole of Government efficiencies rather than a narrow, silo-based approach to achieving cuts for his own Department, what impact does that have? Does he realise that, by closing Hartlepool magistrates court, he is not saving the taxpayer anything, but is merely moving financial pressures to the local authority, which has already had cuts totalling 40% to its budget in recent years.
The criteria by which the courts will be closed seem opaque. I have asked a series of parliamentary questions on this matter. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), I asked about the cost per case across magistrates courts in England and Wales. That seemed to be a reasonable dashboard metric to evaluate relative efficiencies across different operating units. It is what business does all the time. However, the answer I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who is a genuinely lovely and decent man and whom I am proud to call my friend, stated:
“The information is not available centrally and can only be provided at disproportionate cost.”
If this metric is not being used, what is? How can relative performance and effectiveness across the estate be evaluated consistently?
I understand that one of the central considerations of this proposed closure is the utilisation of the estate. Those 91 courts are used, on average, a third of the time. What is the magic utilisation figure that makes some courts safe and others not? I have seen the Minister quoted as saying that a third of all courts and tribunals were empty for more than 50% of the time.
Hartlepool has a utilisation rate of 49%. In an answer to a parliamentary question that I received this morning, the Minister revealed that Hartlepool’s utilisation rate is actually higher than the England and Wales average. With the exception of Wakefield, Hartlepool has the highest utilisation of any court proposed for closure in the whole north-east. Will the Minister take that context into consideration when deciding which courts to close, or should Hartlepool resign itself to closure simply because it has missed, by 1 percentage point, the magic 50% utilisation rate?
The hon. Gentleman cites the lack of information. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) says that the Department has provided inaccurate information. Given that we are talking about unavailable information, inaccurate information and consultations where things are ignored, does he think that this is an example of the Ministry of Justice going rogue?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Given what is coming out in this debate, the Ministry of Justice needs to scrap this consultation and start again on the basis of meaningful and accurate information.
I have mentioned costs and utilisation rates, but my central concern is access to local justice for my constituents.
My hon. Friend mentions access to local justice. Does he share my concern about the impact that this could have on recruiting magistrates, who serve their communities and understand their local areas? Without a strategy for the magistracy, there could be detriment to the principle of local justice.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. My central focus is the victims, rather than the magistrates—with the greatest respect to those people who provide an invaluable public service.
The consultation on the proposed move to Teesside magistrates courts states that there are
“excellent road, rail and bus links.”
Whoever wrote that has a budding career in writing gags for a living, because that is just not the real experience. Public transport provision in Teesside is appalling. Somebody from Hartlepool who is required to be at Teesside magistrates court for an early morning hearing and has no access to a car will struggle to make it. Victims, who might understandably require a period of calm and reflection before enduring the stressful and arduous process of giving evidence, will be massively inconvenienced. Do the Government really want to make justice more stressful and inconvenient for innocent victims? Justice is not being served by making victims travel longer distances. The consultation says that at present 99% of those accessing Hartlepool magistrates court can be there by public transport within 60 minutes, even taking into account the appalling local public transport provision. The consultation states that after the proposed closure 91% will take between one and two hours. That fails the Government’s intention of ensuring that people will not have to face long journeys, and I hope the Minister will consider that.
Finally, I finish on a wider point that is perhaps not the direct concern of this debate and of the Minister but has implications for relatively small towns such as Hartlepool. We have endured the movement of local hospital services from Hartlepool to other areas. Retail units are moving from the high street and the shopping centre into other areas. There is a drift of services from places such as Hartlepool, but what does that mean for the future? Does it mean dormitory towns, at best, or, at worst, ghost towns in which there is no sense of community and where economic activity is stopped?
We have to think about this as widely as possible and, given the concerns, I hope that the Minister will think again and ensure that Hartlepool magistrates court remains open.
About 10 years ago, sitting on the Opposition Benches, I made my stammering first attempt to entertain the House with my thoughts in my maiden speech, in which I mentioned my belief in local facilities, particularly mentioning the magistrates court in Newbury, which was under threat. I spoke—I thought eloquently, although others probably did not—rather like the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) just did about the need to resist the sucking out of facilities from smaller communities to larger communities, which is a predominant theme. It is done in the name of efficiency, but it disadvantages people. In that context, with some dismay five years ago I had to fight a battle to defend Newbury court from closure. I am glad to say that that was successful, but, like groundhog day, it has come round again. The court is proposed for closure in this consultation and I and a great many organisations and individuals across west Berkshire have made submissions to it.
I believe that, like many others, the court has been deliberately run down to set it up for closure. The usage figure makes it look like a no-brainer, but a few years ago the court service advertised for a new prisoner escort contract and excluded Newbury court from the contract. Now, no case that has even a scintilla of a chance of the accused being given a custodial sentence can be heard in Newbury court. That is another reason for its reduced use, and we lost the Crown court some years ago. That is just one example of a rather badly run service. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money was spent on building a new custody suite at Newbury, which lies dormant because of those decisions.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, who is a courteous and decent man and has spent an enormous amount of time talking to me and no doubt others about this decision because he knows that it hurts our local communities. I urge him to consider the points made in response to the consultation. I represent an area with some very rural communities and I think of the victim of crime who has to make the difficult trip to court to give evidence as a witness. I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s assurances about trying to consider new technologies, and in some cases that might be better for individuals, but in others a traumatic experience will be made considerably worse by a long trip to somewhere such as Reading.
One of the problems in Corby and east Northamptonshire is that travelling by public transport from many of the villages is simply impossible. Are there similar concerns in my hon. Friend’s constituency? It costs £80,000 a year to run the court in Corby, but we may well end up spending more on transport for magistrates, witnesses, victims and everybody else.
I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s point, because communities in west Berkshire will have precisely the same problem.
The courts service is run according to very strict boundaries. One does not have to go more than a mile south of Newbury before one is in Hampshire, and any cases that are relevant to that part of the community, or indeed to east Wiltshire or south Oxfordshire, cannot be heard in Newbury. It seems crazy that we do not have a more flexible, cross-border system—we are talking about the border between Berkshire and Hampshire, not between Serbia and Hungary. We really ought to be smarter and more efficient by looking at cross-border solutions. If the mistake of closing Newbury court is made, I hope that it can at least be mothballed for a time while we look at the reorganisation of our courts service, and the same might go for other Members’ constituencies.
A journalist working on my local newspaper, the Newbury Weekly News, made the following point: “Surely as important as justice being done is justice being seen to be done.” One local journalist has made a speciality of reporting on court affairs in Newbury, and there is simply no way in which that can continue if cases relating to west Berkshire are to be heard in far-off Reading or Maidenhead. Local people will not see cases for crimes committed in their area being heard in their area.
On the point about local justice being seen to be done, a magistrate put it very succinctly to me—not wanting to sound like a character from “The League of Gentlemen”—when they said, “It is important in order to preserve the long-standing principles of local justice being administered by local people within that local area.” Does that neatly summarise what my hon. Friend is trying to express?
It really makes sense. There is a bypass around Newbury, which, as some hon. Members might remember, was quite controversial, and we also have Greenham Common and the Atomic Weapons Establishment. Magistrates, including the Prime Minister’s mother, developed a great expertise in dealing with those situations. I hope that we never have those problems again, but we do have issues relating to rural crime, and accidents and crimes on the M4, so local expertise and an understanding of the dynamic of the local area really help.
I understand that the low-hanging fruit in the Ministry of Justice has already been grabbed and that the Minister now has the difficult job of reaching higher. I believe in what the Government are doing and understand the difficulties when Members like me support what they are trying to do economically in general but whinge about the particulars. But in this case I really believe that it is wrong and unjustified, and I can make a very good case—I have done in my response to the consultation, so I will not detain the House with it now.
I have one final point to make. Two weeks ago a case was deferred in Newbury because there were not adequate procedures in place to hear it. It cannot be heard until January. Not only must justice be seen to be done, but justice delayed is justice denied. That is a principle we were all brought up with. I do not believe that this decision is right for Newbury. I believe that it really needs to be looked at again. I hope that the Minister will have the opportunity to make the same judgment when he looks at the consultation responses.
I want first to thank the Minister for the courtesy and quickness of his response to my first communication—there is another one on the way. I will not repeat what many Members have said, because we are all anxious to get on and there is not much time.
Magistrates in my area have expressed exactly the same concerns about local people serving local justice with their knowledge and expertise. There are serious concerns about the accuracy and quality of the communications in the consultation. In September 2014, the Department for Transport closed the transport direct planner tool used in the impact assessment to calculate travel times by car and public transport, and the methodology for calculations has not been publicised as part of the consultation. It is calculated that the 14-mile journey from St Helens court will take 45 minutes. That takes no account of peak times, delays, parking, or getting to the court in the city centre. There is no car park nearby. People have to travel within the town centre to get a train out to Liverpool and then walk across the city or get another mode of travel. The travel network is not described accurately in the documentation.
The consultation document states that the court was utilised at approximately 62% capacity, but that figure has been seriously challenged. The council is having difficulty getting time allocated to court cases due to the lack of capacity in the courts. There have been some very serious incidents that have bothered me. The youth offending service is required to attend the local youth court frequently. Some parents and carers are not able, capable or willing to attend with their child for a variety of reasons. The situation is likely to be exacerbated if cases are to be heard in Liverpool. When St Helens custody suite was recently closed temporarily while £1.7 million was being spent on remodelling it, young people had to go across to Merseyside. The youth offending service was called on even more because an appropriate adult had to be found for those children. It is likely that more warrants will need to be issued due to failures to attend. This could result in young people being arrested and possibly detained overnight in police custody. That will be evident on their criminal record and may impact on future bail applications.
Residents and other stakeholders will have to travel to and from Liverpool, at additional expense time. As I said, £1.7 million was spent on redeveloping the court, and it is still only just about finished. It is highly suitable for such cases, having more capacity. Even with the figure in the document of 62% usage, which we challenge, its capacity is larger than that of another court that is being kept open. Equally importantly, the courts that it is proposed stay open are within 5 miles of Liverpool city centre court. There are also Birkenhead and Bootle, which are 5 miles and 3.2 miles away. They both have direct rail links into the city centre, with journeys every eight minutes taking about three minutes, while we would not be able to get to Liverpool Crown court within an hour. There are very serious concerns about the quality of the information in the documentation.
The Justice Minister is being done an injustice. His courtesy has been exemplary in the responses to us. I urge him to look at the consultation document again to ensure that the information is accurate, and that justice can be seen to be done and and transparent for all.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) and the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing this Backbench business debate, and thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating the necessary time for it. The estate reform consultation impacts on my constituency. I want to say a few brief words further to my recent meeting with the Minister and his subsequent correspondence with me, for which I thank him.
I fully understand how important it is that the Ministry of Justice ensures value for money and efficiency and that it embraces new technology. Nevertheless, it is also important that true local justice is maintained and that decisions taken as a result of the current consultation are based on accurate facts and projections.
I want to make a general point on behalf of all those Members who represent rural or semi-rural constituencies: we need to consider very carefully the impact of court closures on those who rely on public transport. As a result of some of the proposed changes, not only would many journey times increase significantly, but defendants, victims and witnesses would, in certain instances, need to travel on the same bus and rail services. Clearly, that is of great concern when wishing to minimise further trauma to victims who have already been through difficult circumstances. We must also consider the potential false economy of asking people to travel further when it might increase the possibility of some court users arriving late or even failing to attend.
I have already set out in my consultation submission my specific arguments as to why the proposed transfer of magistrates court functions from Prestatyn to Llandudno may result not in savings but in the opposite. It would not add to today’s more general debate if I went into the precise details, but the key point is that, regardless of the consultation’s outcome, it is intended that the Prestatyn building should remain open to cater for civil, family and tribunal functions. Furthermore, the same building already has a magistrates court utilisation rate which, having been corrected and revised significantly upwards at my request, is at or around the national average. Bearing that in mind, I believe it could and should be converted into what would undoubtedly become a first-class criminal justice centre. That could be carried out inexpensively, and the resulting facility would boast a good overall utilisation rate. Such a facility would, of course, combine the functions of the existing Prestatyn magistrates court and those of nearby Rhyl county court, whose closure was announced in 2010.
It is my belief that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is best arranged to reflect crime statistics, in the interests of both local justice and efficiency, and I respectfully call on the Minister to reconsider the proposal to remove criminal courts from Denbighshire.
Having listened to the debate, I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on securing it with the support of others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright). The Minister will be familiar with what has been said because, to his credit, he sat with me and the vice-chair of the Scunthorpe bench and heard pretty much the same arguments from us. They are a familiar refrain on familiar issues.
Part of the problem is the quality of the consultation document. The hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and others have drawn attention to its narrowness. It focuses on closing facilities, rather than on developing justice. It is therefore understandable that we and our communities have reacted with concern, because we have not been presented with a broader consultation on the future direction of access to justice, which is an issue.
The information in the consultation is threadbare. It lacks detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool has pointed out that, although it appears to save money on buildings, proper scrutiny of the costs and the framework within which those buildings function would demonstrate that those savings are probably not there to be made. That is certainly the case in Scunthorpe.
I want quickly to rehearse the arguments that have already been made to the Minister, to whom I pay tribute for the way in which he has responded to concerns across the House with his usual diligence and engagement. He is firm and he tells us his views—I respect him for that—but I value the fact that he has gone out of his way to reiterate that this is a genuine consultation. The consultation must therefore take on board the concerns of our communities and of hon. Members.
There are issues about access. As many of us know from the geography of our areas, and as the hon. Member for High Peak mentioned, the situation looks very different from what is on the map to those who know our communities. For some the outlying areas of my community, it takes more than two and a quarter hours to access Grimsby court by public transport, and that does not include the brisk, 15-minute walk at the other end. It will take even longer for someone who is disabled or elderly, or has other constraints.
In Justice questions and in a meeting with me earlier this week, the Minister was at pains to say that we need to see the closures in the context of the digitalisation of the service. That is a helpful umbrella under which to place the closures, but it is important to examine digitalisation properly, because it is not a free hit. There are costs involved in putting in place not just infrastructure, such as for video conferencing, but support for people and businesses, so that they can be confident in how they present information during court processes. Access is a very important issue, but that part of the picture is largely invisible at the moment, because of the nature of the consultation. I respect the Government’s view that how we access justice is changing and ought to continue to change, but such change must be managed properly and appropriately so that it does not lead to any casualties.
I share the concern stated by many hon. Members that the closures result from a narrow consideration of the cost to the Ministry of Justice, rather than of the cost to the public purse. I am concerned that we might find police officers having to spend more time as taxi drivers, when I would prefer them to be out on the streets preventing crime in the community that they serve, so there are real problems about the narrowness of the approach. As other hon. Members have described in relation to their constituencies, Scunthorpe has a very integrated justice area. The courts are next to the police, the probation office, the drugs and alcohol service and a suite of solicitors, so everything is neatly contained for ease of access and all that stuff. I do not mean to say that things should not change, but I am very concerned that the closures may assist the Ministry of Justice’s narrow approach to its balance sheet, while in the end costing UK plc more money, which would be unwise and unfortunate.
I want to emphasise the important role that the magistracy plays within the broader local community. We need justice to be delivered not only locally, but by local people. The magistracy does that, and it also does a lot of important outreach work in the community, particularly with schools and young people. The Respect court in Scunthorpe, which is targeted at reducing youth offending, has been recognised as a beacon of good practice for elsewhere in the country and has made a real difference. It relies on magistrates, the police and others volunteering their time, but it works because we have some of the lowest reoffending rates for that cohort in the country. We cannot measure the value of the work done with schools in the community, but as someone who worked with young people all my life—until I had the dubious pleasure of ending up here—I feel that the sort of work done by the magistracy is important because it has a direct impact on preventing crime and reducing the level of crime in the community.
My final point is about equality and diversity. Humberside—I know that my comrade from Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) does not like that term, but let us use it for now—is the area with the largest ethnic minority population in the Humber region and in Lincolnshire. It seems unwise to create barriers, such as long distances and travel times, to that ethnic minority population not only accessing justice, but stepping forward to serve in the magistracy.
On our bench, there are two magistrates who are significantly visually impaired. They make a full contribution to the magistracy in Scunthorpe, but if it is transferred to Grimsby, that will have a direct impact on the ability of those magistrates to contribute.
I see that you are getting a little fidgety, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I will not test your fidgets any more.
It is a pleasure to be called in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) and the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing a debate on this important topic. I now know to ask my hon. Friend for his help if there are any debates that I am interested in securing, given his success rate before the Backbench Business Committee.
First, it is important to set out what I believe to be the purpose of a magistrates court. As a number of hon. Members have said, it is about the principle of local justice. The offences that irritate and affect local communities should be seen to be dealt with locally. We all accept that major crimes will come to trial further away, but there should be local justice for the more minor things and the things that irritate. Crucially, as has been said in one or two other speeches, there must be local decision makers—justices of the peace who live in the communities that they bring justice to. That provides a knowledge of the area and the impact of crimes that is important when dealing with more minor offences. It is different from the justice that is administered in respect of more major crimes at a Crown court, where the law and the penalties that have been provided by Parliament are the driver of what is done.
If the priority is local justice and local decision making, I accept the argument that has been made by the Minister and others that the important thing is not having a building that looks impressive or a bench that looks like something out of the 18th or 19th century. Having the facility of a court is the important thing.
I will focus on the proposals for Torquay magistrates court. As the document says, it is utilised 62% of the time, which is a higher rate than many of the other courts that are included in the consultation. Given the infrastructure in Devon, which was referred to in the earlier debate on steel, I am concerned about witnesses having to travel to court to give evidence and about the potential loss of cases that that could bring. Likewise, general users of the court will have to travel significant distances.
Although Newton Abbot and particularly Plymouth are accessible by car, the consultation document presents quite a different picture when it comes to public transport. If a witness needed to get to a case in Plymouth, it would take 1 hour and 50 minutes by bus or 1 hour and 10 minutes by train. From my local knowledge, I suggest that that is based on the timings working out well.
The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) spoke about the police becoming taxi drivers. There is a relatively busy custody suite at Torquay police station. At the moment, there is a bus to the court in the morning and if someone is arrested and detained to be put before the courts, they can quickly be taken a couple of minutes down the road. If the proposal goes ahead, the police will have to become a taxi service between Torquay and Plymouth so that the same people can be arraigned, given the lack of custody facilities at Newton Abbot. I am concerned about an additional demand being put on the police. Torquay magistrates court is also convenient for many of the support services that those who appear before the court benefit from.
I was concerned to read in the consultation that one team based in the court—the TurnAround integrated offender management team—has been given notice to quit its facilities on 31 December. When I heard that, I was grateful for the Minister’s genuine answer to my question last week, which was that no final decisions have been taken about the court. Like other Members, I am grateful for the way that he has engaged with Members who are concerned about this process in a genuine spirit of listening to concerns and alternatives, rather than the line of “a decision has not yet been taken, although it probably has” that we sometimes get in such consultations. I would be concerned if that notice had indicated pre-emption, but I take the Minister at his word, given the enthusiasm that he has shown for listening to our representations.
As the document states, there are issues with the current building, but no issues of dock security have been raised by the police. If Bruce Reynolds was arrested in Torquay today, he would not be arraigned at Torquay magistrates court but taken to a much more secure facility. On whether savings would be made, the consultation states that some enabling work might be required at Newton Abbot magistrates court if custody facilities are required. I suspect that a lot of the £106,000 saving that it is suggested would be made by closing Torquay magistrates court is related to the cost of the custody block. It would therefore disappear if we need to provide custody facilities at Newton Abbot to make up for closing them at Torquay.
If the Government decide that the building is at the end of the line, I hope for another positive indication that alternatives will be considered. Torquay town hall is nearby, and the local legal profession has pointed out that the county court already exists in a different location in Torquay and has more modern facilities. If the magistrates court is disposed of, could that help fund works at the county court to allow for a range of hearings and create a justice centre, rather than the current separation between magistrates court and county court? Many local people would be keen for the Government to consider that the issue lies purely with the building rather than with the service overall.
Torbay is the second largest urban conurbation in Devon. When Totnes magistrates court was closed after a previous consultation, it was argued that cases could go to Torquay. It would therefore be strange for Torquay magistrates court to be closed because cases can now go to Newton Abbot or Plymouth. I hope that the Minister will listen to the consultation and responses, and that a decision will be taken to help keep justice local in Torbay by ensuring that it has a magistrates court in which hearings can take place.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on securing this debate, as well as the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey). I am taken back five years to my first election to this place and the proposed closure of Goole and Selby magistrates courts, which affected my constituency. I was not as successful as the hon. Member for Bath in securing a debate in the main Chamber; I had to settle for Westminster Hall, so in that respect he is already doing a better job for his constituents than I managed to do for mine five years ago. Things have improved since, however.
It is also a pleasure to speak in another debate with my friend the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), who is also my friend. We have been a triumvirate of common sense in three debates this afternoon.
Lord no. We can do better than that, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Member for Scunthorpe, my constituency neighbour, talked about Scunthorpe court. I agree entirely with his comments, so I will not reiterate them all. He shared with the House the fine work of the court and I entirely concur, in particular with regard to the Respect programme. I have seen for myself magistrates and police officers giving up their own time, through the Respect court, to find a way to engage with young people in the system in a different way to try to help them avoid getting a criminal record. It works really well and they deserve praise.
Five years ago, we fought the closure of Goole magistrates court. When it closed, there was no saving grace other than that at least the county of the East Riding of Yorkshire, which I partly represent, had two other courts to replace it: Beverley magistrates court and Bridlington magistrates court. At the time, there was a suggestion that Goole had been chosen over Bridlington because of the private finance initiative contract at Bridlington. There is also a court in Hull, so at least there are three courts to replace that one.
If Scunthorpe magistrates court closes, however, not a single court will remain in the unitary authority of North Lincolnshire. That is a big rural area. It is a real concern to me that people will be expected to travel outside the county of North Lincolnshire to access justice. That cannot be right. For my constituents in particular, moving the court to Grimsby is really not—in any way, shape or form—offering local justice.
I represent the area called the Isle of Axholme, which is a very rural and disconnected part of our area, a considerable distance from Grimsby. Grimsby could be a world away in so many ways. Travelling from communities such as Fockerby or Garthorpe on the north of the Isle of Axholme by public transport to Grimsby is really just laughable. It would be interesting for anybody to actually attempt it—I do not think it has been attempted before. I did say recently to somebody from that area, “Have you ever tried to get to Grimsby?” Their first response was, “Why would I want to make that journey?” I explained all the very good reasons why they might want to get to Grimsby and their second more serious comment was, “Surely that’s not possible.” From the Isle of Axholme, Doncaster is actually a lot closer than Grimsby.
As we explained when we were fighting the closure of Goole magistrates court, from our area it would actually be quicker for people to get to King’s Cross magistrates court on public transport than it would be to get to Grimsby. I do not want to leave the Minister with the idea that transferring all our cases to King’s Cross would be a good idea—it certainly would not. Another concern that applied when we fought the closure of Goole is that if people are forced to use public transport, they could end up being on the same public transport as other parties to a case. That raises safety issues.
The Minister deserves a great deal of praise for the positive way in which he has engaged and communicated with me and other hon. Members on this issue. However, for a local authority such as North Lincolnshire Council not to be able to access a local court, to apply for orders and undertake the cases it needs to in its daily workings, will place a huge burden on it. It cannot be expected to make an 80-mile round trip to Grimsby every time it needs to get a court order. It would be a great loss for a local authority not to have a single court in its locality. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind. North Lincolnshire Council has proactively tried to engage, and has said that it is willing to pay for and accommodate a replacement service in its own building—in the civic centre or elsewhere. It will pay for it. It will cover the running costs. It has been open about that, so important is maintaining a court in our locality.
As I said, I need not go into all the arguments about Scunthorpe. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe put them across a lot better than I ever could. I thank the Minister. He has heard our pleas. I hope and believe this is a genuine consultation. Please consider the rurality of our area and the fact that it is a very, very long way to Grimsby. It is in a different local authority area and for a lot of my constituents it simply would not be an option. It is not nearby. We might as well send the court to Timbuktu for all the connection we have with that area—and please don’t do that either. I will end my comments there.
I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) for bringing this matter before the House, as well as other Members who have spoken: my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), the hon. Members for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) and for Newbury (Richard Benyon), my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer), the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies), my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and the hon. Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy).
I will not repeat what hon. Members have said as they have already expressed forensically and eloquently the concerns of their constituents. These debates are remarkable for showing that Members can be consensual, cross-party and precise in identifying problems, and no doubt the Minister will wish to address those raised today, although he might want to pay particular attention to the comments from the hon. Member for High Peak about the consultation being riddled with errors, slapdash and lazy. I know that the Minister, who has been praised by both sides for his care and concern in these matters, will be concerned to hear that. There is evidence to back it up as well.
It is not only hon. Members today, or indeed other hon. Members, who have raised concerns; the Conservative police and crime commissioner for Suffolk said about the proposals for his county:
“It is completely unacceptable. The people at the Ministry of Justice have got to understand Suffolk is a very big rural area and access to justice should not be the preserve of those who are well-off, privileged or the comfortable. The victims need to be at the centre of this. Not some accountant’s pen stuck in Whitehall. These people need to get in the real world.”
The slightly more circumspect chairman of the Shropshire branch of the Magistrates Association said about the Shropshire courts:
“In recent years five small courthouses have been closed in Shropshire market towns. Since these closures took place, the two remaining magistrates’ courts – one in Shrewsbury, one in Telford – have continued to provide an effective service for the whole county. The Association will wish to be convinced that that can continue with only a single magistrates’ court.”
I must bear in mind the spirit in which the hon. Member for Bath introduced this debate. His speech was all the better for being balanced and noting that closures and reorganisation should not always be resisted. I endorse that. Particularly at a time when public money is short, if savings can be made, they should be made, and of course we should look at usage and rationalise where there is chronic under-usage. There are inefficiencies and improvements to be made in the system, and no doubt the Minister will talk about the improvements that he wishes to see or which are happening in digital services. I would add one caveat, however: although technology improves all the time, too great a reliance on it can often lead to more delay than it cures.
We have some historic court buildings, and a certain nostalgia is felt towards many of the older sites and other buildings—going beyond the 19th century to the 18th century—but they are not always fit for purpose in the modern age and some have become obsolete. However, I do not wish to throw the baby out with the bathwater. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), when shadow Lord Chancellor in the run-up to the last election, talked, as some Members have today, about ways of rationalising the court estate. We have heard about pop-up courts, about using public buildings for judicial and non-judicial functions combined and even about using community buildings, but there is an important caveat: as hon. Members have said, we have to preserve and enhance local justice within communities through the constructive use of courts.
I fear, however, that the Government’s approach tends, sadly, towards mass culls of courts. I have been in this job for more than five years now, and I clearly remember the last major cull in 2010. Then there was a proposal to close 103 magistrates courts and 54 county courts. After the consultation, the closure of 93 magistrates courts and 49 county courts went ahead—in other words, about 90% of the original target. Members should perhaps not get their hopes up too much, but there could at least be a window of opportunity.
If the majority of the proposed closures go ahead, 40% of this country’s courts will close over not much more than five years. That suggests to me that this is more about making savings than about balancing decisions with service. The best way to illustrate that point is to look at the issue of travel times, with which some Members have dealt. I note in passing that during the last closure programme five years ago, Ministers were referring to public transport travel times, whereas now they refer principally to travel times by car. However, many court users will not have access to a car and will be entirely reliant on public transport.
Let me provide, with the help of the Law Society, one or two illustrations of what that will mean in respect of public transport times. I looked at the Courts Service in Wales. Holyhead magistrates court is due to close, and work will be transferred to Caernarfon criminal justice centre, but no public transport users will be able to reach it within an hour. It is the same with Dolgellau magistrates court, as users will be sent to Caernarfon criminal justice centre and none will be able to get there within an hour. Users of the Carmarthen civil, family, tribunal and probate hearing centre will move to a variety of courts, but even so, only 7% will be able to reach their new court within 60 minutes. I do not think that that is satisfactory. Another example, which several Members have mentioned, is that according to the Law Society and the Government’s own figures, closing Scunthorpe magistrates, county and family court would mean that not one user could reach the new court within one hour by public transport. That is not good enough.
What the Government should have done is carry out a pre-consultation to allow a much better-informed document to be produced. Should that sound overly bureaucratic, it is exactly what the Government are doing with their consultation on fixed fees for medical negligence cases. That proposal is out for consultation at the moment, allowing the Government to publish a document next month, I believe. I regard the proposal as completely misconceived, but at least I can hope for a sensible document to debate. If Members and the local justice system had had an opportunity to give their input, we would not have seen some of the howlers or some of the more far-fetched proposals that are in the report.
Let me exemplify the point by looking at the closure of Hammersmith county court. I do so not as special pleading, but because I have a particular knowledge of it. If Hammersmith county court closes, most users will be told to go to Wandsworth county court. For some of my constituents in the south part of the constituency, that will not be too troublesome, but it will be for those in other parts of it. I note particularly that Lambeth county court is also closing. Lambeth is where I spent most of my life when I was in legal practice. It was and is a very busy court. Southwark and Lambeth local authorities could probably keep it going permanently on the basis of housing cases alone. It is closing, however, and most users are likely to be referred to Wandsworth, so Wandsworth will have to be extended and money will need to be spent on building it up.
Another knock-on effect of the closure is that space will be freed up at Hammersmith county court and if Feltham magistrates court is closed, users will be sent to Hammersmith. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) intervened earlier in the debate, and I know that she has serious concerns about that. Feltham is a poor area and users of that magistrates court will no longer have the local justice to which they are accustomed. I use these cases as an example of what can happen in a built-up urban area, to show that there are many ramifications of these closures that might not always be apparent to a civil servant sitting in Whitehall. I am in no doubt, however, that problems in remote rural areas are in many cases worse.
We know what the negative effects are, or the potential negative effects. For instance, a very good briefing prepared for the debate by the Public and Commercial Services Union raises—not surprisingly—the issue of jobs. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us how many jobs he expects to be lost as a consequence of these reorganisations. The PCS also raises, on behalf of the family court unions, the issue of access to justice, the issue of accessibility, the issue of delay and the issue of additional costs, all of which have been raised by Members today.
However, it also concerns me that the positive effects of the closures, at least in financial terms, are often not realised. As I am sure the Minister knows, I am alluding to the answer that he gave me earlier in the week in relation to the courts that were closed in the previous round, which are still sitting on the Government estate without having been sold. It is costing nearly half a million pounds a year to keep them empty and mothballed. I am thinking especially of the courts at Knutsford and Alton, which account for £9,274 and £9,828 per month respectively. The total cost, currently, of the 13 courts that have been closed and are just sitting there—including the costs of rates, fuel and utilities, facilities management and security, and other property costs—is £478,146 a year. I do not think that that is a particularly good use of public money.
I ask the Minister to look specifically at the points made by the Magistrates Association, which asks him to ensure that there is access for vulnerable people, as well as security for staff and court users, parking facilities for staff and court users, space and resources for various agencies such as the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and the youth offending teams, childcare arrangements, secure wi-fi, and proper provision for upkeep and renovation costs. I think that without those assurances, the position would be even worse.
This is not the only issue that is currently affecting the magistracy and magistrates courts in particular, those being the bulk of the courts that are facing closure. Not unrelated, I suspect, to the decline in the number of courts is the fact that delays are increasing: it currently takes a week longer for cases to be completed than it did four years ago. Moreover, as a consequence of the disastrous court charge, magistrates are resigning every day and every week because they do not feel that they have the discretion and the ability to do their job properly. I know that that issue is to be debated soon in the other place.
In its briefing, the PCS says:
“We are concerned that the justice system is in danger of becoming so divorced from the people who require access to it, that it can no longer be considered to be true justice.”
I suspect that that resonates with a number of Members who have to explain or justify to their constituents the fact that something that has been taken for granted for centuries in this country—local justice which can be seen and heard in local communities—is now fading fast.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) and, indeed, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing a very important debate about a very important subject, and also on managing to secure so many speakers on what is—save for the half-hour Adjournment debate that will follow—the last debate before the conference recess.
I am not sure whether congratulations are in order in the case of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has just said that he still does not know whether he will continue in his job as a shadow Justice Minister. I wish him well in the decision-making process that will take place at another level, but I hope that he will know once the conference recess is over, and, for his sake, I hope that it is sooner rather than later.
A number of serious points have been raised by Members on both sides, and they have been put forward in an articulate and passionate manner. I pay tribute to all those Members for the way in which they spoke up for their constituents, and I hope to be able to address many of their points. There were several recurring themes, and I shall address each subject, but I shall make reference to individuals when appropriate as well.
There is one point I want to take up at the outset. Several Members talked about errors in the consultation document, and for that I make an apology. To the extent that there are errors, I apologise. I want to make it clear that this is a three-month consultation, and some colleagues have already written to me. Others should please do so, and I will seek to put the record straight wherever possible. This is not an excuse—it is inexcusable to have errors when we are making such important decisions—but there have been 91 separate proposals for the 91 courts, and in an age in which we still operate with human beings, I hope that some allowance can be made for human error.
The court reform programme has the full support of the judiciary. It is a programme that seeks to bring the courts and the tribunal service in Britain into the 21st century. We want to create a court system that better serves the public and other users, as well as making better use of the taxpayer’s money, which helps to pay for it. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath and the hon. Member for Hartlepool spoke knowledgably in the debate. My hon. Friend made a balanced speech, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith said. He spoke about Sir Brian Leveson’s proposals. Sir Brian makes a compelling case, and I agree entirely with his proposals. We wish to see them put in place as soon as possible.
For the record, I am proud to say that the hon. Member for Hartlepool is a friend. He made that point, and I am proud to make it as well. I hope that my saying that will serve to show that while the public might see our disagreements in the Chamber or on their television screens, there is no reason why there cannot be good friendships across the political divide.
The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) spoke about the justice areas. I must point out to her that the Ministry of Justice does not get involved in that issue. It is a matter for magistrates, and the consultation to which she referred is really a matter for them and not for me.
My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) raised a number of points, and I take on board what he said. I will look into the fact that he has not received a reply to his letter. I am concerned about that, and I will ensure that he now gets a prompt reply.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), whom I saw yesterday, talked about local issues and local justice, and I will say more about that later.
The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) and I have corresponded, and she has indicated that our correspondence will continue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) made a short contribution, in which he sought an assurance that this will be a genuine consultation. I can give him that assurance.
The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) also spoke in the debate, and it was good to hear again what he had told me less than 24 hours ago, in a meeting room over coffee.
I want to make it absolutely clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) that I am open to other options, and I shall say more about that later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) also mentioned local justice, a matter to which I shall return.
One of the strongest recurring themes in the debate was access to justice. Of course there will always be cases that need to go to court, and the court buildings will be there for the cases that need to be heard there. In the 21st century, however, we need to look again at the way everything operates, and that of course means looking at the digital and technological age. It is out there, whether we are shopping, doing our banking, renewing our passport or our driving licence, or doing a whole lot of other activities, and there is no reason why the realm of justice should not consider technology as well. That, to be fair, has been acknowledged by Members across the political divide.
We must also recognise that one third of the court estate is used for less than 50% of the time available. We have to consider ways of making better use of the courts so that taxpayers’ money goes that much further.
Crucially, we also need to consider what access to justice means in the 21st century. For many, it means proximity. They believe—in the way people have believed for decades and, indeed, centuries—that there should be a court nearby to which people can go and show their physical presence in a building that we call a court, but the reality is that we have already started a judicial process whereby people deal with cases without going to court.
A substantial number of magistrates court cases are already being dealt with by post, particularly low level traffic offences, speeding, avoiding payment of the TV licence and the like. We propose that they move online, to be dealt with even more efficiently. We have successfully trialled the process, and soon people will not only plead guilty or otherwise online but will be able to pay their fines online from the comfort of their sitting rooms on a Saturday evening. They will be able pick up their phone and plead guilty and pay their fine. They cannot do that now. Access to justice can be from our sitting rooms.
The technology can be used in other ways, too, such as video-conferencing. Colleagues have talked about people travelling to courts. We do not envisage people travelling to courts as often as they do now. With the introduction of video-conferencing, victims, witnesses and others will be able to give evidence from places near to where they live, rather than having to travel to courts. In Wales, for example, a videoconferencing facility in a community centre is available for people to use if they do not wish to go further away to a court.
Going to court is a stressful experience for anyone, particularly victims and witnesses, and especially if they are vulnerable. Rather than go into an austere-looking building with sombre-looking people in a court room, it would be much better for those people to go to a more comfortable room close by that has been adapted for video-conferencing facilities.
Medway magistrates court has been connected to every police station in the county that has a custody suite. If somebody is arrested and kept overnight in a police cell, the police and the defendant do not have to go to court the following day and the video-conferencing facilities do the work that would otherwise have required people to be physically being present in court. We intend to extend the practice in Kent.
Many prisons already have video-conferencing facilities. All here will agree that it is eminently sensible that we do not have the scenario, which we had everywhere until very recently and we still have daily in many prisons, where prisoners are transported from the prisons to the courts, with all the security, travel, costs and so on involved. We are going to have a system that can dispense with the costs, the travel, the hassle and the inconvenience —it will be a lot cheaper.
We already have, albeit not to the extent we would like, a system whereby lawyers do not go to court and hang around for a considerable time before appearing for 10 or 15 minutes before a judge. Both sets of lawyers and a judge can agree a time and have a conference call. The lawyers stay in their offices or their chambers, and the judge stays in his or her office in the courtroom, and in 10 or 15 minutes they resolve the issue, which otherwise would have meant lawyers going to court, with all the time, stress, inconvenience and cost involved. All of that is now dispensed with. Clearly, there will be a reduction in travel times. This system will be speedier and more efficient, and it will certainly be of great assistance to those of a vulnerable disposition.
We have to recognise that the public expectation has changed—I referred to that earlier—particularly among the young. They expect that they should be able to do things online, and that is increasing. We have a duty to recognise how the world is changing and how the new generation is operating. It would be wrong for us in Parliament not to recognise that the systems for which we are responsible should adapt to the way the world is operating.
We must also recognise that the state of some court buildings is not fit for the 21st century. Some are simply not fit for purpose, some are listed and some are not compliant with the provisions of the Equality Act 2010, particularly regarding facilities for disabled people. We have courts that do not have proper facilities for prisoners to arrive and be taken in a secure fashion to a cell or a room. We have courts that do not have proper facilities to keep victims and witnesses separate. The hon. Member for Hartlepool asked what criteria we had used. We may not have used the criteria for some of the questions that he raised, but I hope that by illustrating the inadequacies of some of our courts we will have gone some way towards showing some of the practical considerations we have taken into account, as well as utilisation, of course. I spoke yesterday to a Member who contributed to this debate, along with a magistrate from his constituency. The magistrate, who was lobbying to keep his court, actually referred to some buildings as “Dickensian”.
Let me be very clear: although the current court building is up for consideration for closure, I am very much open to suggestions about other buildings, such as town halls or civic buildings. For example, where a court is utilised at the moment for one, two or three days a week, there is no reason why there cannot be court proceedings in a town hall or civic building for two days a week. Council leaders have approached me saying that they would be open to their council chamber being used as a court. Sadly, in the case of the one particularly strong representation that was made to me there are no nearby courts proposed for closure, but this person asked me to bear him in mind in case circumstances change.
I want to make it clear that, right now, we are paying for buildings seven days a week, 24 hours a day, when they are actually being utilised for a fraction of that time. The modern world says that we should move on and rent premises elsewhere.
The Minister is very eloquent about his vision for the justice system of the future. I absolutely agree with every single word he says about 21st century justice and looking at alternatives, but the problem is that I cannot relate that to the consultation document before me. I cannot see how his vision is met within the proposals for the closure of courts in Greater Manchester. What we are seeing is something that is too embedded in court closures, rather than that vision across the county.
We have set out our arguments in the consultation document to the extent that there are other submissions that can be made. I have made it clear, and I will make it clear again, that Members can write to me. This was not a rushed consultation over a four-week period or anything like that. This was a 12-week consultation. Many Members have written to me, seeking clarifications. I have responded as promptly and as efficiently as I can. The consultation started on 16 July, so I made it absolutely clear to my office that any Member who wanted to see me in the two weeks before the conference recess should be able to do so, and I am happy to say that I have managed to achieve that. Incidentally, the hon. Lady mentioned that she had asked three questions. They have been replied to and published. One of them requires quite a bit of time to get the information, but I have undertaken to write to her. My replies might be in her office, or she might not have got round to seeing them.
There is a vision, but I invite colleagues to write in with other suggestions. I am mindful of the fact that I must give a couple of minutes to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath, who proposed the motion, but in the minute I have left I will talk about technology.
We have already started to spend a budget of some £130 million to ensure that we have a first-rate digitalised system. Furthermore, we have a world class legal system. These reforms will ensure that we maintain it. I have seen many Members, and I look forward to seeing any more who still wish to see me. Some might even want to see me for a second time, and I am happy to do that. I am certainly open to more correspondence.
I want to say a huge thank you to the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue. I thank, too, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) for helping to sponsor this debate and hon. Members for delaying their departure to their constituencies for at least a couple of hours. I wish to express particular thanks to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), for his support over the past few months in addressing some of the concerns of our constituents. He has eloquently described his vision for a 21st century court system. I hope that all Members’ views will be taken into consideration when the Ministry of Justice is making its final decision as per the consultation.
Finally, let me refer to Bath. By the end of the process, the Minister will no doubt be sick and tired of hearing about Bath’s courts. We have a real opportunity to use our facilities there if they are kept for justice and rehabilitation purposes. For far too long, members of the community have been let down by our criminal justice service. I hope that, following this debate, we can use the facilities better to aid them and their rehabilitation back into society and ensure that witnesses, victims and the most vulnerable get the services they need.
Once again, I thank the House for convening for this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the closure of courts and tribunals services in England and Wales.