I beg to move,
That this House acknowledges the need for some underused courts and tribunals to close; notes the detrimental effect that too many court closures will have on access to justice for vulnerable families and individuals particularly in rural areas where public transport is less reliable; further notes with concern the effect these closures will have on the experienced and dedicated staff working in the 86 courts and tribunals; and calls on the Government to acknowledge the concerns of staff, magistrates and third sector organisations who highlighted numerous flaws in the consultation document, to think again on some of these closures and acknowledge the importance of access to local justice.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate. I requested such a debate, with the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and other Members from across the House, for a number of reasons: first, because of the scale of the court closure programme, with 86 courts and tribunals closing, compounded by the closures during the last Parliament, when 146 courts closed; secondly, because of the level of concern expressed by colleagues across the House about the implications of the closure programme for access to justice, and a number of flaws within the consultation process that provided the basis for the closure programme; and thirdly, because the closures were announced in a written ministerial statement on the last sitting day before the February recess. I feel strongly that both the scale of the closure programme and its implications mean that the announcement should have been made in the House, and that colleagues should have had the opportunity to raise issues on behalf of their constituents, and ask questions about the planned closures and their impact at the time that the announcement was made. I am pleased that we will have the opportunity to do so today.
Courts have a very wide range of different users. If we consider the hierarchy of Crown courts, county courts, magistrates courts, youth courts, family courts and tribunals, we can see that the people who need to access the courts include jurors, magistrates, victims and witnesses, families in the process of breaking up, a range of public sector staff—those working directly at the courts, but also those bringing cases and acting as witnesses—members of the judiciary, and individuals facing trial. It is easy to think of those accessing our courts primarily as suspected criminals, but our courts are in reality a vital public service, reaching a very wide range of people in their scope, and it is important that we remember that as we debate the closure programme.
If civic areas are to lose their courts as a result of this decision, does the hon. Lady agree that proper provision needs to be made, not least for video conferencing for people giving evidence? For example, local newspapers should be able to send a journalist on a particular day so that its readers cannot only be told where crimes take place, but hear about convictions, because justice must be seen to be done as much as actually done.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Although the court in my constituency will not close, it will take on the burden of the work of courts that are closing. On the Government’s own assessment, people will have to travel for over an hour to reach Willesden magistrates court. I think that is a barrier to justice.
My hon. Friend makes valid points about both the additional burden on courts that will have to absorb the workload of courts that are closing, and the very important issue of travel times, particularly for many vulnerable constituents. I will come on to talk about those things.
I do not have a court or tribunal in my constituency of Dulwich and West Norwood, but my constituents will be very much affected by the planned closure of Lambeth county court. Almost half the postcode areas covered by Lambeth county court fall within my constituency. I am grateful to the Minister for taking the time to meet me during the consultation process, and subsequently for taking part in a Westminster Hall debate about Lambeth county court, but despite that engagement, my concerns remain. In justifying the closures, the Minister refers a great deal to the modernisation of the justice system and the use of new technology, but there is great concern that the closure plans appear to put the cart before the horse—closing courts and tribunals without a clear plan for replacing the capacity that will be lost with new technology.
The Government should have brought to the House a comprehensive strategy for modernising our courts and tribunals to make them fit for the 21st century. We need a plan that sets out clearly what new technology can deliver for our justice system, the investment that must be made to deliver it and the savings that can be made in physical infrastructure as a consequence of the introduction of technology. But there is no such plan. What the Government have announced is a very significant closure programme with a promise that, after courts and tribunals have closed, pilots will take place and investment will be made to introduce new technology. This is a very risky way to treat our justice system.
Access to justice is a vital principle in the UK’s unwritten constitution. It was argued by Lord Bingham of Cornhill, when he was the senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, that access to justice is one of the eight sub-rules that make up the rule of law. He said:
“My fifth sub-rule is that means must be provided for resolving, without prohibitive cost or inordinate delay, bona fide civil disputes which the parties themselves are unable to resolve…What it does is to recognise the right of unimpeded access to a court as a basic right, protected by our own domestic law, and in my view comprised within the principle of the rule of law.”
He went on to explain that the common law right of access to justice is composed of three rights, one of which is the right of access to a court. Lord Justice Laws has said:
“Access to the courts is a constitutional right”.
In relation to the planned courts and tribunals closure programme, the Government argued that
“effective access to justice does not…necessarily mean providing physical access to a building or require us to have a purpose-built court or tribunal in every local area.”
My contention is that this statement can only possibly be valid if the Government demonstrate that access is provided in a fail-safe way by other means, and that they simply cannot do that without setting out a clear strategy for how it will be delivered.
The Minister has spoken about various things, some of which are indeed already happening in some locations, that may be possible—video links for witnesses to provide evidence, facilities for filing court papers online, making a plea by mobile phone—but there is no national standard and no plan for delivery. No assessment has been made of which court and tribunal services and facilities should be available to everyone in every area, which of these can reasonably be provided digitally and which should be provided in dedicated facilities. Although I do not think there is much disagreement about the kinds of things that might be done, it is impossible to make an assessment of the extent to which access to justice will be provided at an appropriate level with the help of digital technology until the Government lay out a comprehensive plan.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Does she agree that the whole point of a system of magistrates courts is that local people make decisions about local crimes? Fundamentally, without a proper plan, magistrates may be drawn from areas surrounding the surviving courts, while many communities will provide no magistrates whatsoever.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about the long tradition in this country involving the justice system and the locality it serves.
I will turn to some of the specific concerns that have been raised about the consequences of the closures. The first is the straightforward issue of physical access to a court building for those who need to attend court either for a court hearing or to instigate an administrative procedure, such as applying in person for a stay of eviction. The Government response to the consultation says:
“It will still be the case that…97% of citizens will be able to reach their required court within an hour by car.”
This statement is simply not true. The data on which the Government response is based relate to the travel time between court buildings, not the travel time from residents’ homes to what will now be their closest court. On the basis of these data, residents who currently live within an hour of an existing court may now have to travel a further hour beyond that court to access their nearest court. It is time for the Government to undertake and publish an analysis of the physical accessibility of courts in terms of the journey times faced by residents on a postcode basis, not from court to court, so that the impact of the closures plan can be properly understood and scrutinised.
The second problem with the travel time data is that they rely too much on the private car as a mode of transport. Only half of households on low incomes own a car. Many of my constituents who have to attend court in relation to issues such as housing evictions are on low incomes, and the same is true across the country. The response to the consultation does not consider in any detail the accessibility of courts and tribunals by public transport, or accessibility by bus, which is often the only mode of transport that residents on lower incomes can afford, even where faster routes are available. I have looked at the travel times that residents from parts of my constituency—for example, a victim of domestic violence—will experience after Lambeth county court closes and they have to travel to Wandsworth, where some of the services will be provided. Many of those residents will face a journey of at least an hour each way by bus, and in the worst-case scenario, a four-hour round trip. That is in London, which has the best public transport network of any city in the UK. Colleagues who represent rural constituencies tell me that in some cases the journey times that their constituents will face are such that it will not be possible to travel to court and back in a single day, further adding to the costs of accessing justice.
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point that will resonate with people in a lot of villages in my constituency. The Library document states that just 15% of people in my constituency will be able to reach court by public transport in one hour, and that is of great concern for those who have the trauma of having to give evidence after a crime has been committed against them.
The hon. Gentleman’s powerful point illustrates my argument.
The Law Society has raised serious concerns about the effects that longer, more expensive journey times will have on the justice system for jurors. They will be more likely to find justifiable reasons to postpone their jury service, and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service will have to pay additional costs to compensate them for additional travel costs. The changes will also affect witnesses, many of whom already require a good deal of persuasion and support to attend court, and vulnerable residents who are being taken to court in circumstances where life is already stressful. Such people might find it extremely difficult to make it to court and, as a consequence, to have a fair hearing, because they are not there in person to explain their circumstances.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point.
Resolution, which represents 6,500 family lawyers and other professionals who are committed to a non-adversarial approach to family law and the resolution of family disputes, says that the court closures will have a huge impact on the ability of families to access the justice system, and it emphasises that those who will be most affected are vulnerable people such as victims of domestic abuse. Requiring a victim of domestic abuse to travel further on public transport in order to apply for an injunction will increase risk and act as a further disincentive for people seeking protection, on top of the issues already presented by the lack of access to legal aid.
Let me highlight three examples from my constituency caseload that illustrate the vulnerability of many people who have to access the court system. The first is a man who came to this country as an asylum seeker having been a child soldier in Nigeria. He is doing his utmost to find work, and currently has a zero-hours contract. Sometimes his employer has work for him, and sometimes it does not. That is not within his control, but as a consequence he has a fluctuating income, which means that intermittently he has to apply for jobseeker’s allowance and housing benefit. Delays in processing his JSA claim sometimes mean that his housing benefit is frozen. That causes rent arrears, and at times he has been served with a notice seeking possession. None of that is his fault. He is a man with a traumatic past who is doing everything that he can to make the best of life, in a country that he had never imagined finding himself in. In my view, we should not be asking him to bear the additional expense and stress of having to travel long distances to access a court and engage in a difficult process that is not of his making.
Another constituent is recently widowed. Her husband was a social housing tenant, and for her to succeed to the tenancy, she needed to provide proof of his death. However, an administrative error with the death certificate caused a delay and meant that her landlord commenced eviction proceedings. She lives in the farthest flung part of my constituency in terms of access to a court. Is it right for her to face a four-hour round trip by bus to explain why the registrar made a mistake in recording her husband’s death?
The third case highlights some of the wider problems with a justice system that is already very stretched. This constituent is in his 80s. He suffered antisocial behaviour from his upstairs neighbour for many years, causing him and his wife great distress, and sometimes leading to him sleeping in his car to escape the noise. His council landlord did everything possible to gather evidence and commence eviction proceedings against the neighbour, but it took months for the case to come to court. When it did, the police failed to turn up to give evidence, and the case had to be adjourned. That situation would have been compounded even further by a longer journey time, or by moving proceedings to a court that did not have the capacity to absorb additional work.
Very often the circumstances that lead to someone attending court involve personal sadness, and many people who attend court are vulnerable. Fulfilling the obligation to make our justice system accessible must involve thinking about the considerable challenges that our most vulnerable residents face, and designing a system around those challenges, not around residents who have the most capacity.
The closure programme has the potential for significant hidden costs for the wider public sector, and those were not considered or scrutinised during the consultation process or in the Government’s response to it. The Law Society has highlighted the additional costs associated with prison and probation staff having to transport defendants for longer distances. Additional transportation costs may be incurred by the police, as increased numbers of people choose not to attend court and subsequently end up being transported there by the police. There will be increased costs for councils, as social workers and housing officers are forced to travel longer distances and spend more time away from their day-to-day duties to provide evidence in court.
There are already frustrations within the justice system. Many lawyers I have spoken to who work in London decry the experience of using the Central London county court since it moved to share premises with the Royal Courts of Justice. They describe a court that is so completely overwhelmed with the volume of work that it is beginning to resemble the chancery court in Dickens’s “Bleak House”, such is the lack of confidence that effective judgments will emerge from it. The Law Society and others have raised concerns about the impact of the closure programme on court staff, in a context where there are already frustrations about administrative problems and delays within the system. Such problems would be exacerbated if busy courts are closed and their workload transferred to other courts that are already operating at high capacity.
Many magistrates regard their work as a very local form of public service. There is a strong connection between the community they know and their role in ensuring justice for that community. There are serious concerns that having far fewer courts and requiring magistrates to travel long distances in order to serve will break this country’s strong tradition of a justice system that is rooted in the individual spatial communities it serves.
Concerns have also been raised with me about the sustainability of many duty solicitor schemes, which have already been stretched to the limit by cuts in legal aid and changes to the contract. Solicitors in my local area have said that many of them would be forced to give up duty solicitor work if they had to travel further to attend court, such is the marginal viability of the scheme already.
Finally, let me turn to the detail of the closure proposals and highlight just a few ways in which I believe the programme to be flawed. The proposed closure of Birmingham youth court would have a significant impact on young defendants, who would have to appear in an adult court, in breach of the Government’s statutory and international obligations. How was that proposal ever brought forward, and why were those issues not anticipated and addressed?
The proposal to close a brand-new, fit-for-purpose court in Rotherham, which contains a magistrates court, county court and family court, at a time, and in a town, in which child protection issues are at the forefront of everybody’s mind, is difficult to comprehend. In Bicester, the proposed closure of the court in a rural area with poor public transport services at a time when the local population is about to expand significantly, due to the Government’s designation of Bicester as a “garden town”, is simply short-termist.
In my local area, the closure of Lambeth county court remains deeply problematic. It is leased to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, with nine years left to run on the lease, and as such, there is no large capital sum to be derived from the sale of the site. The lawyers I have spoken to who use Lambeth county court say that it functions extremely well as a specialist housing court.
I appreciate that, as a consequence of the representations that I and others made during the consultation process, housing possession hearings will not now move six miles away to Wandsworth but to Camberwell, which is much closer. That is welcome news, but there remain concerns about the victims of domestic violence who will still have to travel to Wandsworth, and about how the move to Camberwell will actually work in practice. There is time, within the current lease, to make a proper plan for Lambeth: to work out the role new technology can play in making our justice system more accessible; to work out the physical space necessary to accommodate an efficient court; and to plan properly for the transition. There is no evidence in the closure programme that any detailed feasibility work has been undertaken to explore lower-cost ways of accommodating court services locally—for example, in other public buildings or community centres. Although such options are mentioned, they really should have been explored in detail before the closure programme was finalised.
The accessibility of our justice system and the way it treats our most vulnerable residents is a mark of our civilisation. Too many people across the country have raised concerns that the Government’s proposed closures will have an unacceptable impact on vulnerable people, present additional costs for other parts of the public sector which have not been properly accounted for, and make our justice system less accessible.
I fully accept that new technology may have a role to play in creating a justice system that is fit for purpose for the 21st century, as well as saving costs, but we have no plan from the Government as to how that will be achieved. I urge the Government to rethink their approach. I urge them to come back to the House with a plan that addresses the concerns that have been raised and that balances savings to be made from the physical court estate with investment in technology to mitigate the impact of these changes.
The impact on my constituency of the proposals to close courts across the country has been to identify the court in Buxton for closure. This is probably the third or fourth time I have spoken on this matter, in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall, since that decision. I heard what the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) said about timings, but I pay tribute to the Minister. He has been exemplary in his availability, transparency and consideration for individual Members. He met the hon. Lady and he met me on several occasions. There was a Westminster Hall debate, principally on the courthouse in Buxton. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) secured a similar debate, so we have all had a fair run at this.
I was strongly opposed to the closure of Buxton court. The alternative was to send everybody to Chesterfield, just because it happened to be in Derbyshire. For those Members who are not aware of the geography of Derbyshire and the High Peak, the clue is very much in the name of my constituency. Getting from Buxton to Chesterfield is not easy. Only a couple of weeks ago, the constituency had about six or seven inches of snow in a single day. It would have been practically impossible for people to get to Chesterfield—I got stuck in Bamford, which is not even as far as Chesterfield. I was very concerned about the proposals. I thought they were wrong and I said so at the time.
I will recount some of the details of the decision on Buxton, because it is important to consider this issue in context. The consultation document relating specifically to Buxton is, as I have said before, the worst consultation document I have seen in many a year, both as a Member of Parliament and as a member of my local council. It was riddled with errors, falsehoods and mistakes. There was much discussion about the document and, because I thought it was so woeful, I probably used some phraseology that Members probably ought not to use. After much discussion, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service admitted it had made some mistakes in the document, but it still pursued the same end-game and the decision has been made to close Buxton courthouse. I regret that decision, but it has been made and I do not think we can revisit it here today.
At the time, in discussions with the Minister and others on the Chesterfield issue, I looked for a compromise, politics being very much the art of compromise. I cannot welcome the decision to close Buxton court because I think it is wrong, but I will, reluctantly, accept it. The Minister listened to the points I made about the difficulties of commuting to Chesterfield. The decision was taken to keep the Stockport court open. The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) is not here, but, come 2020, she may well say that she saved Stockport court. She might even flag up my contribution to saving it. Although Stockport is in a different county, it is a lot easier to get to Stockport from High Peak, as it is to get there from Macclesfield, which faces a similar challenge.
It is very interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman’s tale. I accept what he says about the Minister, but my logical proposals for Durham, which would make travel a lot easier for my constituents, were completely dismissed and ignored. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has more power over the Minister than Opposition Members have.
My hon. Friend is making a very passionate speech. I just want to put on the record that decisions on changes, closures and keeping courts open have been made about courts represented by Members on all sides of the House. There has been no preferential treatment for Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) sits on the Labour Benches. I listened to her eagerly, as she said, and the proposals were changed. My hon. Friend will also be aware that the Stockport constituency is held by a Labour Member.
I argued against the closure of the Buxton court. It will be closed, so I was only partially successful.
The response to the consultation states:
“move the workload to Chesterfield justice centre and Stockport magistrates and county courts”.
My concern, which I want to flag up today, is how much work will be going to where. I do not want only the odd case going to Stockport just to placate one awkward Member of Parliament.
I want to raise the response to the proposals and the consultation. My judgment is coloured by my views about the way the consultation was carried out and by its content. Yet again, I think there is a hidden agenda and that the officials are letting the Minister down. The response document, which I have here, contains serious flaws. For example, nowhere in the response are the comments made by High Peak Borough Council. The council has 43 elected members from across the political spectrum and they discussed this issue. They made representations, but they have not been referred to anywhere in the official response to the consultation. It seems as though the officials did not like what the council said, so they did not put it in. They have either ignored it or treated it with disdain. This happens at a time when, across the political parties, we are seeking people to stand for public office in councils. Councillors go to meetings, make their opinions well known and then they are ignored. If we are not careful, this will increase the feeling of “What’s the point?” I am very, very disappointed by that. I may be a little cynical, but were councillors’ representations not mentioned because they did not fit in with what Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service wanted?
The decision has been made and it will be implemented. In the official documents, Buxton court is earmarked to close in the first tranche. It is therefore scheduled to take place as we speak today, between February and June this year. The argument was made that the court could not be moved to Stockport because it is in Cheshire and Buxton is in Derbyshire. After discussions, the Minister said the system could work across counties, which I can accept. However, I am told that for the work of a Derbyshire court to be sent out of county, further administrative action needs to take place. I urge the Minister to ensure that that action is taken. I do not stand here as member of the Minister’s fan club, but he is a decent chap and he has been very fair with me.
I am talking about public money. This whole debate is about public money. That is why I said we should keep Buxton open.
I am concerned that the Minister has been let down by his officials, because the consultation was flawed, or wrong, and the officials showed an arrogance and unwillingness to accept the mistakes they had made in the consultation. Now that we see that the response document is highly selective, I fear they are letting him down again. I doubt their motivation. The Courts Service has been given a decision it does not want, and now, from where I am sitting—I might be cynical, bordering on paranoid—it seems to be very tardy in implementing his decision. So long as the delay continues, given that the courts are due to close imminently, the work will have to go to Chesterfield, which is what the service wanted. That was their original intention, and the longer the delay continues, the harder it will be to implement his decision to send the work to Stockport. That is what I am concerned about.
Thanks to the Minister’s determination, contrary to what has been said by the Opposition, and thanks to his willingness to listen to hon. Members, including to me on this occasion, the decision to move work to Stockport was taken, and I applaud him for that. As I have said, we want it sent to Stockport; we do not want everything sent to Chesterfield. That is what we want, and that is what we should have, but from the outside looking in, it appears that the officials want it their own way.
I thank the Minister for being willing to assess alternative options—he has talked to my council in Southwark about such an alternative—but in criticising the officials, is the hon. Gentleman not questioning the Minister’s ability to oversee the Department?
No, not at all, because the Minister has done that by making this decision. The officials wanted Buxton closed and everything shipped to Chesterfield. I wanted Buxton open. Having listened to all sides of the argument—in the Chamber, in Westminster Hall and in private meetings—he came up with a compromise, so I think he has been very robust. I will not criticise him. I might be wrong—I hope to be proved wrong—but I think the officials wanted it a certain way, but they did not get it, and by tardiness they seem to be trying another way of getting it.
I commend the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood for bringing this debate the Chamber. The decision has been made and we have had these debates before, so this debate might be after the fact, but it is still a good debate to have. This is the Thursday before the Easter recess, yet attendance is good, so it is obviously an issue.
I ask the Minister for some assurances. Will he look at this issue, as a matter of urgency, to ensure that any further administrative work necessary to implement his decision to move the work—the vast majority of work, not just the odd case to make me, the people or the council happy—is done quickly, for the peace of mind of my constituents, as well as the magistrates, who, we must remember, perform a valuable public service for little recompense? I know for a fact that, if the work moved to Chesterfield, we might lose magistrates from the bench. Will he also make it clear to the officials that by “sending work to Stockport”, I mean the majority of work, not just a little bit? Finally, will he pay attention to the work of the officials? I hate to be critical but they seem to have a different agenda from the one that he and people elected to other bodies wanted. If he could give me those assurances, I would be very grateful.
Like the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for calling this debate. I also agree with him that this was a flawed consultation and decision, particularly in relation to Bridgend magistrates court and law courts, which house state-of-the-art court facilities in which the public purse has invested hundreds of thousands of pounds for repairs, modernisation and renovation. That is all to be thrown away.
Following the closure, the court’s civil, family and tribunal work will got to Port Talbot justice centre and the magistrates work to Cardiff and the Vale court. I hope that this local example will illustrate the appalling consequences of the Government’s irresponsible decision to close 86 courts and tribunals across England and Wales, as well as their total failure to understand the geography of Wales.
Indeed, no surprise.
Realistically in south Wales, one has to move north or south to the M4 before travelling east or west. Before reaching the M4, there are very few chances of moving east or west, so the movement of these courts will cause huge problems for people’s capacity to reach the new venues.
Does my hon. Friend also agree that the consultation and decisions, certainly in County Durham, assume that everyone has access to a private car and take no account of the time it will take to get to court—or the impossibility, in some case, of doing so—by public transport?
My hon. Friend makes the most valid of points. Yet again, the Government have failed to recognise the needs of the poor and the disadvantaged, particularly those who are victims or witnesses of crime, and their capacity to access the justice system.
By car, the journey from Bridgend to Cardiff can take an hour. Parking is a nightmare at many times of the day and is very expensive. Port Talbot justice centre is just under 15 miles away, but, depending on where someone lives in my constituency, it can take a minimum of 30 minutes to get there by car. For people on low incomes, who disproportionately depend on court and tribunal services, access to these sites will take longer and be more expensive. Car ownership in poor communities in Wales is particularly low: two thirds of those on working-age benefits do not have daily access to a car. I hope the Minister is listening to this. The majority of people travelling from Bridgend to Cardiff or Port Talbot to access legal services will therefore depend on expensive public transport links, but the timetables are a nightmare, especially if someone has to be in court by 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock and has childcare or caring commitments or a disability or if—God forbid—they miss the bus.
Or, indeed, if the bus doesn’t turn up.
The bus journey from rural areas in my constituency to Cardiff is indirect and can take over two hours, and that is before getting to the bus station in Cardiff, which is a considerable distance from the court. The need to travel such long distances on a regular basis will disrupt the work of local police, as well as of probation, rehabilitation and child protection officers. It will also inconvenience the many local groups that offer services to people involved in the court system, including witnesses. We ought to be thinking far more carefully about protecting and supporting witnesses accessing courts. It is one thing to say, “Well, I don’t mind inconveniencing defendants”—even though these are people who still have not been found guilty—but what about people attending court to support the criminal justice service? We have to make it easy for people to come forward as witnesses, not introduce an additional burden into their daily lives.
It will be expensive and administratively burdensome to transport defendants from custody in the brand-new, state-of-the-art police station at Bridewell in Bridgend. The police there will be spending hours transporting people up and down the M4, when they could have accessed the local court in Bridgend. Parc prison in Bridgend will have to transport prisoners up and down the M4, instead of taking the 10-minute journey into the centre of Bridgend. The transport costs will be ridiculous. The Ministry of Justice is transporting the costs from its own budget to another budget.
The integrity of the British justice system is at stake here. It has evolved over the centuries and has remained remarkably sensitive to the distinctive formulations and priorities of local communities. The close proximity of the magistrates system to people’s daily lives is at the root of the legitimacy and authority of the system. No attempt seems to have been made to ascertain whether the magistrates in Bridgend will continue to serve in their posts when closures go ahead. I have to tell the Minister that local magistrates contacted me to say that they do not think they will be able to carry on—because of health, work commitments and family issues. The additional travelling time and the additional commitment in hours of work is going to make it impossible for many of them to continue. I think that is a huge loss to the local community’s sense of engagement with the criminal justice system and the civil justice system. The quality of justice as administered and implemented in local communities is also threatened by the decision, because the additional caseloads at both Bridgend and Caerphilly will push Cardiff court’s capacity to the limit. The closure could lead to a heavy reliance on electronic communication.
I know some people view electronic communications as the way forward, but I would have to say again that they do not live in Wales. For people living in the Welsh valleys, broadband communication is a nightmare. I live on the coast in Porthcawl, and my Skype communication is frequently not good throughout the day; with 180° of sea in front of us, broadband communication is not at its best. These technologies are untested, unreliable and their use in court challenges the important principle of our justice system—the right to a fair trial and the right to face our accusers. Clear communication is integral to the smooth and upright administration of justice, and there is no substitute for face-to-face dialogue. Where it is desired, it should be the first option available to individuals entering court.
The Law Society of England and Wales has registered serious concerns about the use of video-link technology in magistrates court trials. Magistrates have voiced the concern that it will be difficult for the judge to maintain order in the court if defendants and witnesses are not present in person. There are also doubts about whether the broadband connection in Bridgend is of sufficient quality to sustain a video link. As I have said, the region suffers from notoriously poor broadband connectivity.
I fear that for some of my constituents, the cheapest and simplest option will be to plead guilty rather than face the difficulties of navigating the complexities of the local transport and electronic communication systems and the destruction to their daily lives and to their family lives and commitments. When witnessing a crime, many people will say, “I don’t know whether I want to come forward as a witness when it is going to mean additional time and cost burdens to me.”
The courts alone do not deliver justice. Orbiting courts are networks of organisations that provide integrated probation, rehabilitation and victim support services. Before the trial opens, they do the hard work of preparing people who are unfamiliar with the courts system to stand as witnesses or defendants. After the case has closed, they help to translate, implement rulings and monitor their impact within the community. The key to their success is local knowledge and the close working relationship they have with other service providers. Removing courts from communities will fragment and weaken these complex and closely knit networks, with serious implications for the quality of local justice and the cohesion and safety of local communities.
I have grave concerns about the serious impact of closure on my local solicitor firms. Many are based in my constituency because of the Bridgend law courts and the whole network of courts in Bridgend, and I fear that many will close, further reducing access to legal advice for many people living across my constituency. The town will lose many high-paid and skilled jobs, and the courts bring people from the surrounding area into the town. The closure will affect the retail and service sectors of the local economy and contribute to the degeneration of the town centre.
In short, the relocation of the court services and the subsequent breakdown in Bridgend’s legal infrastructure will destabilise the community and undermine local confidence in the justice system for a generation. The court closure decision reflects the priorities of a Department isolated in Westminster that fails to take into account the geographic and the social mix of Wales. With so little understanding of how local communities work, public trust in our legal and political institutions will be further eroded. I urge the Minister to reverse the decision on Bridgend. I am sure it is not too late. I hope he has been listening.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this debate. We have already heard powerful speeches on the subject. Let me say at once that I do not rise specifically to raise any constituency points, because the excellent magistrates court in Bromley continues in operation and is busy. I am concerned, however, as Chairman of the Justice Committee; the matter of closures has been raised in our discussions in this and the previous Parliament on a number of occasions. Although we are not dealing with a specific inquiry into the matter, it raises its head when we look at other important issues.
In fairness to the Minister, who I have always found to be a model of courtesy and openness in his dealings with me and the Select Committee, I must say that a balance has to be struck. Court closures have gone on through most of my life, first as a practising lawyer and then as a Member of Parliament. I cut my teeth as a young barrister going to courts in Essex villages, such as Castle Hedingham, Halstead and places of that kind, which sat perhaps once a month. They are now gone. I cannot say that at the end of the day the quality of justice was permanently and wholly undermined by those closures.
I am certain that that will be the case. The hon. Gentleman is right that there was a big review of courts and some court closures in the last Parliament. At that time, only a few years ago, the Government told us that the remaining courts were needed in the community. Nothing has changed. It is just the Government’s attitude that has changed; when it comes to local justice, nothing has changed at all.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, particularly in respect of rural areas. In fairness, though, there were court closure programmes under Labour Governments just as much as there were under Conservative Governments, so it is not an issue over which any one party can claim advantage. The hon. Gentleman made a very fair point about access to justice, but it is not the case that one particular party is more or less committed to it. The issue is how to balance what is largely a centrally funded service with local needs. That is what we need to deal with, and it has been raised as an issue in the Justice Committee.
It is fair to acknowledge that the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood was quite right when she referred to the comments of Lord Bingham of Cornhill. I have often thought that his book, “The Rule of Law”, should be made compulsory reading for Members of both Houses, not least because, although written by a distinguished lawyer, it is remarkably concise. It is worth bearing in mind that the common law doctrine of accessibility, to which the hon. Lady referred, grew up at a time when there were far fewer courts, distances between them were much greater, public transport was virtually non-existent and journeys took much longer. Everything has to be put into context; it is not a matter of absolutes; it is all about getting the balance right, as some hon. Members have said.
I repeat that there were court closures under Labour Governments, and the most recent set of closures occurred during the Parliament of 2010 to 2015. The Justice Committee was interested in the effect, because part of the argument has been the need at a time of pressure on the public finances to get maximum value for money. That is understandable, as is the fact that there has been a decline in the use of courts, particularly magistrates courts, because of the reduction in crime. I am told that use across the magistrates courts estate decreased by something in the order of 43% during that previous Parliament. That is not the whole picture, but it is fair to put it into the balance. I remember some magistrates courts being in poor condition—old, ill equipped and without the facilities to deal with the necessary separation of witnesses, victims and legal advisers, to which the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) referred. So not all closures are bad. There has to be a process of renewal and, sometimes, of consolidation.
I understand the point that the hon. Lady is making, but I will not go into individual cases, because that is not the job that the Select Committee has sought to take on.
In October 2015, following the 2010 to 2014 closure programme—the court estate reform programme, as it was described—during the previous Parliament, the Committee took evidence from Natalie Ceeney, chief executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service. We asked, in particular, what progress had been made—[Interruption.] I hope that that is not my clerk or someone ringing me up. I think it is worse when it happens in court, Madam Deputy Speaker. I can only apologise.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The honest truth is that it is worse anyway.
As I was saying, we wanted to know what progress had been made in the selling off of the courts that had been closed as part of the 2010 to 2014 programme. We were told that, as of 23 October last year, 10 court buildings remained unsold. It would be helpful if the Minister could update us. If courts are to be closed, it is important for them to be disposed of in a timely manner, given that one of the prime arguments for closures is the need to secure economies and value for money. There is certainly no virtue in continuing to spend money on mothballing unused buildings.
I agree with other Members that the issue of physical proximity and journey times is not unique to rural areas. When the last Labour Government were conducting court closure and amalgamation programmes in London, I made the point, as a London Assembly Member, that a journey in peak time from south-east London to, say, Wells Street—where a great deal of family court work was, at the time, being centralised—was likely to take an hour or an hour and a half, and that, if care or family cases were involved, that would impose an onerous and probably unfair burden on people who were in a difficult, perhaps vulnerable, state. Such issues do apply to urban areas as well.
The issue of longer travel times has been raised with the Committee, particularly in the context of our current inquiry into the role of the magistracy. There is a balance to be struck between the efficiency of the system and the localness of justice. Earlier this week we took evidence from the National Bench Chairmen’s Forum, which does what it says: it is the body representing the chairs of benches. The forum expressed concern about the issue. Interestingly, a representative of one of the benches in north Wales made exactly the same point as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) about the difficulty of getting mobile and other coverage in very rural areas. In fairness, it was not suggested that the problem was insuperable, but the point was made that if courts were to be amalgamated in such areas, it was important to get the technology right and in place first.
The magistrates expressed a fear—not only in oral evidence but in written evidence, which is available on the Committee’s website—that courts would inevitably be concentrated in more urban areas, that there would inevitably be a temptation for magistrates to be drawn from areas in the immediate proximity of the courts, and that rural areas would consequently be under-represented areas on the benches. I think that that is an important and legitimate point. It was also pointed out to us that larger benches—and some benches now contain up to 1,000 magistrates, or thereabouts—placed much greater burdens on the chairs of those benches. It was suggested that we should think about what support could be given to those chairing very large benches with considerable workloads in administrative matters that were not previously envisaged. Again, I do not think that the problem is insuperable, but we must ensure that that support is provided.
On the basis of the evidence that we heard, it is fair to say that members of the senior judiciary are much more positive about the opportunities that arise from the use of digital and other modern technology, and consider that it can alleviate some of the pressures that arise from court processes. On 23 February, the Lord Chief Justice gave evidence to us about digitisation in the courts service. He praised the approach taken by HM Courts and Tribunals in building its digital case system unit by unit rather than on a monolithic single contract—and I think it right to give praise where it is due—but he was also alert to the need to deal with digital exclusion.
The Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, while recognising that there was much value to be gained from the use of IT to overcome some of the access-to-court issues, also made the point—with which I think we would all agree—that the Government’s track record on IT projects was “not exactly shining”. Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, said that a digitised divorce service would provide real opportunities to reduce the burdens on people at a difficult time in their lives, but he was “disappointed” by the lack of progress so far. The Senior President of Tribunals, Sir Ernest Ryder, had “reservations” about the Department’s capacity to deliver the modernisation programme, and that is a point that I particularly wanted to make today.
I think it worries many of us that, while a number of fairly senior practitioners in the field say that they have no problem with the modernisation programme and— in some instances—accept the rationale for estates rationalisation, a greater move towards digitisation, the use of video conferencing and so on, there is doubt about whether either the Ministry of Justice or HM Courts and Tribunals Service has the necessary technical and professional capacity to deliver on those issues. That concerns me as much in relation to the estates disposal programme as in relation to the digitisation programme.
There is now a very good family law centre in east London, which is part of the combined family court that we now have at Canary Wharf. It opened in December 2014 and is working well, but its opening was delayed. It was apparent to us that the delay was partly due to the fact that the estate managers who were dealing with the project on behalf of the Government, in house, had spent the better part of a year pursuing a site in the Canary Wharf area that was never realistically going to be available at an acceptable rent or on acceptable terms. The commercial property operators with whom they were dealing were understandably running rings around them.
Government Departments and agencies often do not have the level of direct commercial expertise in tough, hard money negotiations that they need if they are to deliver the courts rationalisation, disposal and, subsequently, renewal programme. I hope that the Minister will tell us what is being done to strengthen the technical, managerial and professional expertise that is available to the Government. I hope he will also concede that the process need not be carried out in house, and that, in some circumstances, it is very proper to buy in specialist advice from the legal and property sector to ensure that the Government get the best possible deal and the changes are made in a timely manner.
The Magistrates Association and the judiciary have drawn our attention to the possibility of overcoming some of the pressures caused by a loss of local connection, which are of legitimate and genuine concern, by using satellite courts to hear cases that may require less security than those that are heard at a main magistrates court. It might be possible to use a public building, closer to the locality where the offence had been committed. I can think of circumstances in which it would not be too difficult to make use of, say, a town hall or a civic centre. Intelligent listing can be done now that more digital listing is being used, and it could be used in cases that were unlikely to have custody requirements or a large number of witnesses. In cases involving a summary-only offence and in which the witnesses were likely to be local, it should be possible, with sensible management and support for the bench, to get magistrates from that locality to hear the case. We ought to explore more ways of doing that.
We have also suggested to magistrates and to the bench forums that we should look at some of the existing learning in the local government world. Some of the issues that confront magistrates servicing rural petty sessional divisions are not dissimilar to those confronting district councillors in rural areas. Some local authorities have done significant work on online decision making and on finding ways of setting up delegated local area committees. Those would not be dissimilar to the satellite courts that I have mentioned. There is experience in other areas that the judicial world could learn from, and I urge the Minister to encourage his Department as well as those in the judiciary and the magistrates to take that on board. This applies to the legal profession as well. The Committee has received the representations that other Members have referred to, and there is scope for sensible co-working between lawyers on some of these issues.
I am grateful for your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, and, I hope, for your forgiveness. I hope that when the Minister replies to this important debate he will be able to respond to these points, which have struck a chord across the board among members of the Select Committee.
It is a pleasure to follow such thoughtful speeches from everyone, including the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). I should also like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing this debate.
Wakefield magistrates court is one of the 86 Courts and Tribunals Service hearing centres affected by this latest round of closures. That figure represents nearly one fifth of the total court estate and a cut of 20% to our access to local justice. Wakefield’s court is a vital community resource that provides access to justice for people in Wakefield, and its closure will undermine that access.
The closure is part of a series of changes to the justice system since 2010 which have been, shall we say, a little more stop-start. We have certainly seen a series of changes in the past month. The Justice Secretary has scrapped restrictions on the number of books that prisoners can have. He has also scrapped court charges of up to £1,200 for defendants who plead guilty. I welcome his latest U-turn to reverse the imposition of legal aid contracts in January, which would have harmed access to legal aid in my constituency and across the country. However, he did that only after 99 legal challenges and a judicial review. I shall say a bit more about legal aid later.
In September last year I launched a public petition opposing the closure of Wakefield court, and it has been signed by hundreds of people. The court closure is the latest threat to Wakefield city centre, because it comes alongside the announcement by the Post Office that Wakefield post office should be run as a franchise. That will affect the whole city centre, because if it closes and goes into W.H. Smith or one of our shopping centres, shoppers will no longer be drawn to the high street. That will have a huge knock-on effect on the city centre economy, as will the fact that we will no longer have police officers, council officers and lawyers from the court going into the city centre at lunchtime to buy a delicious sandwich from one of the many pasty, pie and sandwich shops that we are proud to have there.
There is cross-party concern about these closures. It is important that justice is not only done and seen to be done but that it is seen to be done locally. The closures will also result in more failed cases, as victims and witnesses will have to travel long distances to get to court. That will also waste police time, because officers will have to travel further to those courts. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend said, this is just passing on cuts. In this case, the cuts will be outsourced to the police service, because it is the police who will have to spend time travelling from Wakefield to Leeds accompanying defendants or to give evidence. In the case of the family courts, it will be council officers’ time that will be spent in that way. This is not a cost-neutral solution. If we are looking at whole-government accounting, it would be useful for the Justice Committee to carry out a whole-cost inquiry into this matter, to determine the whole-cost implications. It is unacceptable to make a cut in one place that has to be absorbed by other parts of the system.
Local justice will not be seen to be done if Wakefield court closes, because the local press will not turn up to report cases being heard in courts many miles away. This will have a real impact on the excellent work being done by the journalists on the Wakefield Express, who go along to the court diligently each week to report on what is happening locally. A local solicitor has told me that the consequences of the closure could be catastrophic for some of Wakefield’s law firms. Solicitors will go where the work is, and firms that do not have offices in Leeds have talked about the possibility of moving out of Wakefield. That would be yet another big on-cost to our city centre. Those firms cannot afford to be in a city where there is no court, because they cannot afford to pay regular expenses for their lawyers to travel to Leeds.
The Government cut funding for our justice system by £2.1 billion in the last Parliament, with a further £900 million of cuts to come by the end of this Parliament. Despite those cuts, Wakefield magistrates court has been performing to a high standard. The Government said in their own consultation document that the building was “well used” and, according to the Law Society, Wakefield court is a “busy court” operating at a higher capacity than the England and Wales average. For the year to date, our conviction rate for cases in Wakefield district and magistrates court is 87%, compared with the national target of 85%. It also has a very low overall attrition rate of just 10%, compared with the national attrition rate target of 15%. This is particularly important in regard to protecting the vulnerable.
A couple of weeks ago I met Mabs Hussain, the new district commander of Wakefield police. He is rightly proud of the work that Wakefield police are doing to achieve a very high conviction rate for domestic violence. That has certainly changed for the better since I was elected as the MP for Wakefield 10 years ago. I can remember asking for a specialist domestic violence court for Wakefield and being told by a court official, almost with a pat on my hand, that I did not really understand domestic violence and that the trouble with such allegations was that he would find the parties involved sitting holding hands outside the court. It is always nice to be told what I do and do not understand by court officials. I left him in no doubt about my understanding and suggested that he perhaps needed to understand a little more about domestic violence and abuse cases. We have worked hard on this, and the council has worked hard on its Safe at Home project for victims of domestic violence. We have a conviction rate of 81% compared with a national target of 75%, along with a very low attrition rate. Commander Hussain is rightly concerned about what the court closure would mean in this regard. Wakefield also has a very low average for the number of days from first hearing to trial: 65 days compared with 103 days nationally.
This is the second round of court closures in Wakefield since 2010. We had the closure of Pontefract magistrates court in 2013, and the work of that court and its staff have now transferred to Wakefield. The latest closure will mean that all parties—victims, defendants, witnesses and solicitors—will need to travel into Leeds, which will significantly increase their travel times. The Minister has said that 95% of citizens will still be able to reach their court by car, but we have already heard that the courts deal with the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. According to the Law Society, 47% of Wakefield court users will have to travel for more than an hour in each direction to reach a court by public transport. That will reduce access to justice.
I am concerned about the impact of longer, more expensive journeys on victims, witnesses, defendants and magistrates. Those living in Horbury and Ossett, or in villages such as Netherton or Middlestown, will have difficulty getting to Leeds by public transport on the sporadic bus services. What about the people who live in the old pit villages such as Hemsworth, Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford? They either go directly to Leeds or have to come into Wakefield on the irregular bus services, which often do not turn up, and change on to a train and then travel by foot, putting them at greater risk of bumping into the people whom they may be appearing against in court. I can tell the House from personal experience that that is not a comfortable place for a victim to be in. People on low incomes are also unable to claim back the travel expenses incurred when attending court. Some will never have been to Leeds in their lives, or perhaps only a few times. Such people do not have access to Google Maps on their smartphones and can easily get lost, and we heard earlier about the case of the man in his 80s who had to appear in court against his neighbour.
I want to give a concrete example from when I witnessed antisocial behaviour outside some school gates in Wakefield. I said to the lady that it happened to that I had seen it, she reported it to the police, and the case against this aggressive individual came up during the general election campaign. It was scheduled to be heard at 10 am, so I gave up my morning’s canvassing in the interest of local justice and seeing justice done. I sat in the victims room with the complainant, her husband and her neighbour, who had turned up in support—people often need one or two other people to support them. The defendant turned up with his solicitor and was then advised to plead guilty.
Until someone becomes a victim, it is hard to realise how important it is that witnesses and victims turn up. If they do not, the case will not proceed and the defendant gets away. That was brought home to me 20 years ago when I was the victim of assault. I stopped a large, rampaging group of girls who were kicking a young woman on a zebra crossing in north London and who went on to assault a tube worker and then me. It was only when I turned up at court that I realised how important it was that the victims were in that room that day when those girls pleaded guilty to the charge of affray. Nobody knows that until bad things happen to them, but it is important.
If people from my constituency have to drop their children at school at 8.50 am or 9 am, wait for the bus that comes at 9.15 am, get off the bus at quarter to 10, get a 10 am train into Leeds, arrive into Leeds at 10.15 am and walk to the court, it is probably 10.30 am and, if the case is listed for 10 am, it has already failed. This is really important for people in Wakefield. If the change has to happen, Wakefield cases should be listed in the afternoon to enable people to attend. The childcare issue, particularly for victims of domestic violence, cannot be overstated. Young people, victims of domestic abuse and all those who rely on public transport will be grievously affected. The Government are erecting hurdles for witnesses to overcome and that should not be the role of the justice system.
Legal professionals in Wakefield have told me how good our local court is at delivering local justice. There are concerns, such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend, about magistrates having no local knowledge or understanding—people who do not know about life and local circumstances in Wakefield and the surrounding villages. We will lose local decisions on local justice matters. The Government talk the talk about devolving power to communities, but their every action takes power away from local communities.
We have heard some creative examples of where court hearings could be held, but I am insistent that victims should feel comfortable and protected when they walk into court. Wakefield Council has a court chamber, and we have a county court building as well, where Bill Nighy did some filming a couple of months ago, which was an exciting day for our city—it certainly was for me. Such buildings could be used in specific cases.
On access to justice, the Lord Chief Justice stated two weeks ago:
“Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most”.
The Law Society describes access to justice as being
“on the verge of a crisis”.
Funding for civil cases has fallen by 62% since civil legal aid was cut. The closures will only serve to worsen that trend.
On the legal aid changes, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), is well aware of the case of Bobby and Christi Shepherd from my constituency, who died from carbon monoxide poisoning while on holiday in Corfu. Their parents, Neil Shepherd and Sharon Wood, were refused legal aid at first because lawyers are not usually required at inquests. I am eternally grateful to the Minister, who was able to work with us and the Legal Aid Agency to get the decision overturned after we petitioned the Prime Minister and secured a meeting with him.
There is another similar case. Zane Gbangbola died at his home in Chertsey during the floods in February 2014 and his father, Kye Gbangbola, was left paralysed from the waist down after a cardiac arrest. The parents believe that Zane may have been killed by cyanide gas that leaked from a former landfill site through the floodwater. Kye and his wife, Nicole Lawler, were told by the Legal Aid Agency that their request for legal aid had been rejected on the grounds that Zane’s inquest did not concern the public interest. I have discussed the matter with the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) and hope that the Legal Aid Agency will review the funding as a matter of the utmost urgency. I hope that the Minister will personally intervene once again so that the family can get justice and will not have to present their own case and examine witnesses, the father doing so from his wheelchair, at the inquest.
The Minister has suggested that those too far away to attend court could appear via video link. Wakefield court already has up-to-date technological facilities, including its own prison-to-court video service, which is important because the constituency has two prisons: Wakefield prison, which houses high-risk offenders, and New Hall women’s prison.
In evidence to the Public Accounts Committee last week, Natalie Ceeney, chief executive of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, said that she had negotiated with the Treasury during the spending review to ensure that proceeds from the sale of any court building can be reinvested in modernisation. However, the Ministry of Justice has yet to dispose of 15 closed courts from its 2010 closure programme, at a cost to the taxpayer of at least £40,000 a month to secure and maintain, with figures not available for three sites. The old Pontefract magistrates court has fallen into rack and ruin in the town centre, and I do not want the same to happen in Wakefield. We already have a derelict Crown court building, which the council had to compulsorily purchase and will have to spend money on to prevent it from falling down. Although the savings are made nationally, local people pick up the cost through antisocial behaviour and ensuring that derelict buildings are secure and properly maintained.
From the Secretary of State for Justice, we have had changes to legal aid, prison reform, which is welcome, and he has U-turned on a range of issues, but there have also been mistakes that have cost money. The legal aid contract is an example of an intervention in the market that threw an entire system up in the air, causing huge upset and concern for people and their livelihoods, only for it to be withdrawn at the last minute. What have been the costs to local solicitors and law firms across the country from bidding for contracts and winning them or not winning them? The Minister would do well to listen before making another costly and damaging error.
Wakefield is a city with great people and great transport connections from north to south, but not from east to west—
Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Lady, who is making some very important points, and the House appreciates that, but I hope that she will soon be drawing her remarks to a close, because a significant number of other people are waiting to speak.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), and I congratulate the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this important debate. I am pleased to speak in it, and I wish to speak up for the principle of local justice and the vital importance of the courthouse in Stockport for my constituents. I welcome last month’s decision by the Ministry of Justice to keep the Stockport courthouse open, particularly in the wake of my campaign with the Ministry of Justice and having had many productive conversations with the Minister.
As many hon. Members have said, a key principle of our justice system, one that underpins both the magistrates courts and Crown courts, is that justice should be delivered by one’s peers. By extension, that gives rise to the requirement for local justice to be administered by local people within the local area. Those principles have given rise to the patchwork of jurisdictions and local courts that make up the current structure of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. Those principles, under the current courts system, also give rise to the important practical benefits that help to deliver justice effectively. They provide a shorter distance to travel for the relevant parties in cases, including defendants, victims, and witnesses, many of whom are often accompanied by their families and friends to court, and for the magistrates, clerks and staff of the court. They also give rise to smaller benches having a local identity and a social or team aspect. Finally, the distribution of courts not only contributes to local communities, but serves as a catalyst to small micro-economies—we heard about the pies and pasties in Wakefield—and associated services, as well as to the legal professions that the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) mentioned.
Out of respect for those principles and practical benefits, I also opposed the proposed merger of the local justice area of Greater Manchester, which was considered in a public consultation by the Ministry of Justice at a similar time to the one on courthouses. I made the separate case to the Ministry that in the event of any changes to that local justice area, not all the business of any new merged LJA should be conducted in the Manchester city courts, but rather a significant proportion should still be conducted in courts across Greater Manchester, including that in Stockport.
I made the case some months ago to the Ministry of Justice to urge that Stockport’s court should remain open and retain at least a significant proportion of its current magistrates court and county court functions. Stockport court has 47 staff and was running at only 54% capacity in 2014, with annual running costs of £879,000. Please allow me to explain why I felt the way I did. The first reason was that those impacted by the proposed closure would be the court users, including victims and witnesses in the magistrates courts, and those involved in small claims, bankruptcy and evictions in the county court. All those are groups of vulnerable people who need the security and convenience of local services, at what is an already stressful time for them. The closure of Stockport courthouse could have severely restricted access to justice and may have ended up being a false economy by simply shifting the operating costs to other areas.
I am glad to hear my hon. Friend mention that Stockport court is not to be closed. That was particularly welcomed by members of our Committee, because it also houses a very successful problem-solving court, which has been recognised by the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor as one area where we could do much more to combine jurisdictions and get a much more effective use of judicial capacity and better outcomes.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He raises an important point about the innovative work being carried out in the Stockport courthouse building, and I am grateful to him for drawing that to the House’s attention. The closure of the court would have left the town without a court and would have meant that my constituents would have had to travel to Manchester in the quest for justice. That would not only have seen them incurring additional expense, but it would have had potentially negative impacts on vulnerable people, and disabled people in particular. Any such closure could also increase the amount of defendants not turning up for hearings, thus wasting the resources of the court and meaning that more arrest warrants would be issued, with consequential impacts on police resources.
Moreover, from a local economic perspective, if the closure had gone ahead in its proposed form, all cases would have been heard in Manchester and there would no longer have been a magistrates court between Chesterfield and Manchester. The Chesterfield and Stockport case was something my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) mentioned. In addition, the closure of the Stockport court would have had an impact on not only the employees of the courthouse, but local businesses, particularly those in the legal profession.
I understand that in the context of the wider pressures on public finances some savings have to be made somewhere, and I acknowledge that the Minister has a very unenviable task in the difficult decision he is facing. I also have sympathy for other local courts in surrounding areas, many of which can equally apply these same arguments. Other local communities have strong allegiances to their local courts, and I am particularly sorry to hear that the courts at Bury, Oldham and Trafford are earmarked for closure. However, I think there was a stronger case in Stockport’s favour, in particular, because it is one of the most heavily used courts in the area. The stated aim of the reforms to the HMCTS estate is to reduce surplus capacity by closing courts that are unused or underused, or that are simply unsuitable for the services that we now need to provide in them. During the 2014-15 financial year, Stockport magistrates court was utilised at approximately 54% of its capacity—that was the highest level of occupancy of any of the Greater Manchester courts. In addition, Stockport courthouse is a high-quality building, only recently having been refurbished in 2010. I therefore cannot see how the closure of Stockport magistrates court could reasonably have been deemed as a cost-saving exercise.
The Government announcement that Stockport court will now not be closed is good news for people living in Stockport and the surrounding areas, including my constituency. I made a submission to the Ministry of Justice as part of the consultation process, and also attended meetings with the Minister, along with my neighbouring MP, the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), to whom I pay particular tribute for the amount of work that she did, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson). I am pleased that we were able to take this cross-party approach and work co-operatively with one another. I am pleased that our arguments were listened to by the Government, in what I felt—I know others may disagree—was a genuine consultation exercise, particularly given the Minister’s intervention in that process.
In summary, I feel that Stockport courthouse should remain open, and I am pleased that my view has been vindicated. Such a decision is important in order to preserve the long-standing principle of local justice being administered by local people within the local area; to provide practical benefits for both the parties in legal cases and the court staff; and to ensure that the court can continue to contribute to the local community and economy. It is also important because the court currently provides a relatively high level of occupancy compared with that of many other courts in Greater Manchester and surrounding districts.
I further urge that the continued operation of Stockport courthouse be incorporated into whichever future model of local justice area structure for Greater Manchester the Ministry of Justice decides to pursue. Can the Minister shed any further light on that matter today? I also welcome the fact that, as part of this reform package, the Government are investing more than £700 million over the next four years to update the court and tribunal estate, installing modern IT systems and making the justice system more efficient and effective for modern users.
As I said earlier, I have sympathy for other local courts in surrounding areas and other areas around the country, and I am glad that many colleagues have been here today to stand up for their local courts. Perhaps somewhat cheekily, may I say that in a week characterised by a refreshingly open attitude on the part of the Government to showing their listening mode, I hope that the Minister will be able to hear some of the important pleas of other right hon. and hon. Members here this afternoon?
I certainly agree with the last remark made by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg), and I hope that the Minister is in listening mode as we pursue this. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on the way in which she opened this important debate and on securing it—I helped her, along with some other colleagues. We were denied the chance to have this debate in February, when the announcement about the courts was made on the last day by way of a written statement, so this is our first opportunity to do this.
I want to join the tributes that have been paid to the Minister who is not only a civil and decent man, but has been attentive to me and to the delegations that I have brought down from north Wales—delegations of solicitors and representatives from the citizens advice bureaux and other agencies. We speak with one voice on this, as it is an important issue that goes across the whole local community. I say those things of the Minister not just because he is a black belt in martial arts, but because he genuinely took the time to sit down with us and to go through the detail. Quite simply, the policy is wrong. The one-size-fits-all court closure programme is both crude and wrong, and it is against the principle of local justice, which is the cornerstone of the British justice system.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) said, the programme is also against the Government’s policy of localism. The Government talk localism, but they seem to be centralising everything. I am talking about not just the courts in north Wales, but the tax offices, which have been moved from one place to another to be centralised in Cardiff. It is completely wrong to talk devolution but to start delivering centralisation, and we need to hold the Government to account on that.
I want to concentrate on the decision to close Holyhead and Llangefni courts and to move the business to Caernarfon, which is a great distance way. That decision was made simply to save costs. As I said when I intervened on the Chair of the Justice Committee, in the last Parliament there was a comprehensive review in which I made exactly the same representations that I have made this time. Those representations were upheld then because they were seen by the Department to be right, and nothing has changed. We were in a recession at the time and there needed to be cost savings, but the areas were deemed to be valuable to serving local justice. I make that point again, because this is all about cost savings, and those who are losing out are the local people and the poorest in society.
True to his word, the Minister wrote to me—I am sure that he did the same to many Members—and asked that senior officials from Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunals Service meet me to discuss technical arrangements for local alternative provision. I can tell the Minister that that meeting will take place just after Easter, and I will put a constructive argument to them, but it will be the same argument that I put in the last Parliament and the same argument that I have put this time, because it has broad support and it is right for my area, which is a peripheral area of Wales that has seen lots of closures in principal Government services. We need, and deserve, to have functional courts in those areas, and I will argue for that.
Holyhead is the biggest town in my constituency. It is on the periphery of the area and it is a major ports town. It has one of the busiest ports in the United Kingdom. In the response to the court closure programme, it was confirmed that it was too difficult for court users in the area to make long journeys to a court. An alternative part-time court is being considered on Anglesey, but that is not good enough. Justice should be carried out not on an ad hoc part-time basis, but on a professional full-time basis.
The response goes on to say:
“Where attendance at a hearing is needed other civic or public buildings could be used for hearings”.
Again, there will be costs to adapt such buildings. I understand that the current buildings have been run down, but the maintenance that has been carried out on them over the years will be wasted if they are just left.
The Chair of the Justice Select Committee mentioned utilisation rates. The rate for the buildings in Holyhead and Llangefni is between 20% and 31%, which is a very low figure, but I am aware that cases have already been moved from those courts to the main court in Caernarfon. There has been this movement by stealth of business away from certain courts with a view to closing them down in the future. As I have said, that has happened to other services in my area over the past three to four years, although I do accept that there have been closures over many, many years. Again, we had a recent review, which the Select Committee considered, but here we are again. What is next? If we have part-time courts, it will only be a matter of time before they are closed.
Let me turn now to digital connections and virtual courts. I am not a Luddite; I understand the need to modernise, but if things can be done in a proper manner, then they should be. It is simply silly to suggest that these virtual courts will replace other courts right across the country when the digital infrastructure is not in place. We need a coherent plan. I have been working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to improve mobile communications. I do understand that many people have nimby tendencies and do not want masts in their area, but we can work on that. There are many Government buildings in those areas in which mobile communications could be sited, so we need to work together to adopt a coherent plan for the future. I will meet officials to make the case for the retention of court provision in my area.
I talked about closing by stealth and about our having a major port. Clearly, there are issues to do with border control. The detention cells have moved from Holyhead port to Caernarfon, which is a great distance to travel and means that police time is being wasted. Private provision is often used, which is very, very costly, so it makes sense to keep the courts. Those courts were put there in the first place because they were strategically important, and that remains the case today.
I hope that the Minister is listening, and that he will give the go-ahead and the flexibility to those officials whom I am meeting. If no alternative provision is practical—for technical or other reasons—those courts should be retained, which means that we will still have local justice in the periphery areas of north-west Wales. The people of my area deserve that. The court system is the cornerstone of British justice, and we need to retain it. The people of north Wales speak with one voice on this matter.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). I congratulate the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this debate. Given the impact of this decision on Torquay, I was pleased that, as a member of the Backbench Business Committee, I was able to vote for this debate.
It will come as no surprise to the Minister that I was obviously disappointed with the decision to close Torquay magistrates court. He will be aware that the court has provided local justice for many years. Concerns were raised by the police and many others about the closure. As was mentioned in the opening speech, we are talking about not just people answering charges who will need to go elsewhere, but witnesses, victims and all the others who are associated with the cases that are heard before a local magistrates court.
For me, a magistrates court has always been about local people sitting in judgment on local crimes—they might be matters that irritate local communities. In Crown courts, more emphasis is placed on the law overall, as the offences tend to require sentences with a greater focus on deterrence. The judge will also be more concerned that precedents are correctly followed in terms of sentencing people for the crimes that they have committed.
I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee. Last week, when we were examining the value-for-money issue in the criminal justice system, we considered the long-term plan for the courts estate. What brings that into focus in my constituency is the money that was spent over the past few years on Torquay magistrates court, not least the £111,000 spent last year on installing new windows. I accepted the argument that people did not wish to prejudge a closure decision, but it is quite clear that we should have a long-term plan. Where a court might be one selected for closure, it is obvious that there needs to be some restrictions on the amount of money being spent on it. The court is a welcome facility, but to see £600,000 spent on it in the years before it is due to close is almost a criminal waste of cash. Although I accept that Torquay magistrates court is a good facility, we do need to have a long-term asset plan for our courts estate to ensure that the investment that is to go into the wider network is targeted at those buildings in the best way possible. We do not want to find ourselves in a year or two’s time debating buildings, which had investment as part of this programme, being proposed for closure as part of another programme. For me, there is a wider decision to be made than that to do with bricks, mortar and buildings. We must consider what type of cases are heard and in areas such as Torbay, which will now be without a magistrates court, what type of offences can be dealt with in alternative settings and locations.
For many offences tried in magistrates courts the prospect of custody is next to nil, short of the person treating the court with contempt, so I would like to see a long-term strategy for how to work with local authorities, particularly those with suitable buildings—council chambers or committee meetings rooms—that could be used for hearings in which there is no prospect of custody. That could be cases such as those who fail to pay for a TV licence. It would be far more sensible for those people not to make a long journey. The same argument might apply to cases that have been irritating to a local community but where there is no prospect of custody. Such cases would benefit from being heard in that community rather than being shipped away.
There is an allied discussion to be had about what we send to courts. I remember from my time in charge of finance at a local authority that council tax is one of the few debts that is still enforced through the threat of imprisonment. I accept that it is almost unheard of for someone to be committed to prison for not paying their council tax, but the collection of that tax still goes through a magistrates court whereas every other debt that might be owed to a local authority, apart from business rates, will be collected via the county court system. I remember that we had to have two teams, one pursuing someone for a debt they owed on our commercial refuse collection service, for example, and the other pursuing them through the magistrates court for the collection of business rates.
The situation is obviously different when people wilfully set out to defraud the system. When they put a lie on a form or claim that they live on their own when they do not, that is clearly a matter of fraud that should be dealt with in the criminal courts. I urge the Government, in reforming our court process, to consider what type of cases are ending up in magistrates courts, particularly as regards the enforcement of council tax, which might be better dealt with in a county courts setting. In Torquay, that would mean people going to Torquay county court rather than setting off to a magistrates court to have an argument about a debt that, fundamentally, they have been unable to pay.
There is a need to focus on a long-term plan. I know that the Public Accounts Committee will shortly produce a report following our examination of the National Audit Office report into value for money in the criminal justice service. We need to consider the plan for the long-term future of our courts and the strategy for ensuring that some cases can still be decided locally. We need a commitment to that, not just an allusion to it, and a firm plan for areas where there will no longer be courts and where there is no alternative building in the vicinity.
We must also consider the magistracy. The news that Torquay magistrates court would disappear prompted a number of people who have sat on the bench for a long time to consider whether they would wish to travel to Plymouth to hear the large number of cases that will take place there. I would also be concerned, as I mentioned in an intervention earlier, that we might rapidly find that our magistrates are all drawn from areas in which courts survive, rather than being people from across the area, able to reflect the impact on the communities concerned.
On a slightly related point, we must also consider how we call people for jury service. Although Crown court cases are not held in Torbay, if we are reducing the number of potential Crown court locations, we could also be restricting the areas from which we can sensibly draw jurors. We must ensure that we have a balance. The jury is meant to reflect the people as a whole, and although we cannot do that on every jury, people should have an equal chance of being called up for jury service. They should not find that because they happen to live close to the sole Crown court their chances are higher, whereas those who live some distance away are not likely to be called at all because of the practicalities. It would be interesting to consider that in a long-term plan for our Courts Service.
Although it is disappointing to reflect on the closure of Torquay magistrates court, I hope that some of my points about planning for the long term will be taken up to ensure that large amounts of money are not spent on courts months before their proposed closure, and to ensure that we consider what goes before our courts, not just where cases are heard.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing the debate and echo the comments of many colleagues today, especially those made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). This is a particularly significant issue for Wales and for my constituents in what is a largely rural constituency. I want to put on record that I am the co-chair of the justice unions and family courts parliamentary group.
Wales is witnessing a gradual yet steep decline in access to justice. Fifteen courts were closed across Wales during the 2010 to 2015 Parliament, and since the 2015 election a further 14 have either closed or are under discussion today. The closure of Dolgellau magistrates court in my constituency, for example, means that cases will need to be transferred to Caernarfon or Aberystwyth. The issue of inadequate public transport in Wales is well documented, but Members will understand that a journey from Dolgellau to Caernarfon or out of county to Aberystwyth is not simply a matter of waiting for the next bus to turn up. Of course, who would not be concerned at the prospect of defendants and witnesses travelling to court together on the same bus, possibly for a matter of hours? For my constituents in Dwyfor Meirionnydd and many people across Wales, it would become impossible to reach any magistrates court for a 9.30 am start. Closures will also have a severe impact on staff, who face either redundancy or significantly longer journeys to work. Consideration must be given in these circumstances to staff who have caring responsibilities, or to those who are disabled, for whom continued employment could well become untenable.
The Government defend themselves by claiming that courts are underused, but I have been told by credible sources that court cases are being moved to skew the figures and justify closing some courts. If the justification is not the lack of demand, it is the need to save money, which will effectively result in the cost of providing justice being passed from the state on to the individual engaging with the justice system, whether as an offender, a witness or a victim.
In fact, such a transfer of burden is a long-running strategy for the UK Government. Most notable and, arguably, most controversial are the restrictions on legal aid. When Sir Hartley Shawcross opened the Second Reading debate on the Legal Aid and Advice Bill in December 1948, he said that it would
“open the doors of the courts freely to all persons who may wish to avail themselves of British justice without regard to the question of their wealth or ability to pay.”—[Official Report, 15 December 1948; Vol. 459, c. 1221.]
Legal aid was meant to put an end to legal rights being luxuries beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. The UK Government’s restrictions roll back those important steps towards social justice. The new restrictions pass on the cost of justice from the state to the individual and, unfortunately, that means that many people simply cannot afford to access justice, whether their court is within geographical reach or not.
The closure of courts in rural Wales will also have a profound impact on a person’s ability to conduct their business through the medium of Welsh. The consequence of court closures and the reduced availability of legal aid, including the reduction in legal aid contracts awarded to local solicitors, will continue the trend of small independent legal firms becoming unviable and subsequently being forced to relocate or close down altogether. In strong Welsh-speaking parts of Wales, that will make it impossible for residents to access legal services, obtain advice or legal counsel, or conduct their business in the language of their choice—which, I remind the House, is their right.
The Welsh language should be an essential consideration in deciding whether to close courts and I am pleased that the Government belatedly agreed to carry out their duty of completing a Welsh language impact assessment. However, Welsh speakers should not be forced to mount campaigns to ensure that these assessments, which the Government are legally required to carry out, are completed. I regret that it took so long for the Government to do that in this case, although I am glad that it has been done.
Returning to the issue of court access in rural areas, I have a background in teaching through video conferencing. I used to be the director in charge of teaching through video at Grwp Llandrillo Menai and we talked to a number of secondary schools throughout Wales. I have a particular interest, therefore, in efforts to increase access to justice through the use of technology, particularly video technology. Given the swathes of court closures and the particular problems they will cause in rural parts of Wales, allowing hearings to take place remotely might well be welcome.
Technology has great potential if its strengths and weaknesses are properly considered. I note, however, the eight conditions set out by Lord Leveson’s review of efficiency in criminal proceedings in January 2015. He considered those conditions to be prerequisites for remote hearings. The first seems obvious, but is in fact crucial: the equipment used and the audio and visual quality should be of a high standard. Given that the connectivity infrastructure in my constituency, along with that in vast swathes of rural Wales, is even poorer than the transport infrastructure, will the Minister outline what consideration is to be given to the quality and reliability of that infrastructure in those areas where courts are to be closed?
I hope especially that proper attention is given to Lord Leveson’s recommendation that a committee of criminal justice professionals be charged with identifying best practice for hearings conducted via video link, not only to maintain the gravitas of the court environment but, more importantly, to ensure that justice outcomes via communications technology are consistent with those in a conventional face-to-face environment. That is very important; one would be very concerned if the use of different means of communication produced inconsistency of results.
I recognise that there are general and serious concerns around the use of alternative buildings to ensure that access to justice is maintained, even if we may on occasion be able to use video technology. There are particular concerns about the Lord Chief Justice’s suggestion that pubs and hotels could be used; proper consideration must be given to the nature of the issues being discussed and resolved. I am of the view that when concerns about suitability can be tackled, and if certain criteria can be met, the use of alternative public buildings should certainly be considered before the closure and removal of courts to distant locations. In the case of Dolgellau, the Meirionnydd council chamber would require little adaptation, and offers such facilities as parking and translation equipment. It is also nearer the police station, whose cells are used for court purposes when necessary, than the present grade II-listed court building. I strongly urge the Minister to consider that alternative as a physical court location, rather than leave my constituency, which covers 843 square miles and includes eight sizeable towns, with no court facilities whatever.
I remind the Minister that since 2010 the UK Government have already closed 15 courts across Wales, and a further 14 courts are now to close their doors. I urge the Minister to listen to what is said today, and to reconsider the proposal to close these further courts, especially if we can find alternative sites in those areas where public transport militates against defendants, witnesses and victims’ travelling elsewhere with any sort of ease. I would strongly urge that alternative arrangements are made.
I will close by quoting Jeremy Bentham, who in 1795 said:
“The statesman who contributes to put justice out of reach…is an accessory after the fact to every crime”.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to hold this important debate. We had a similar debate in September 2015, initiated by the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) and myself.
Hartlepool magistrates court and county court are scheduled for closure by the Government, which is why I wanted to raise the issue in September. That debate obviously fell on deaf ears, as Hartlepool remains scheduled for closure, as do 86 of the 91 magistrates courts that were identified. I mentioned in September that I had serious reservations about the proposals. Those reservations remain. My concerns are shared by the Law Society, which recommends that Hartlepool magistrates court and county court remain open.
There is nothing lacking in the facilities in Hartlepool. I understand that in other parts of the country magistrates courts have been earmarked for closure because they have failed to comply with the Equality Act 2010 or are lacking in security. Hartlepool has none of that. We have a prison video link, separate waiting facilities for prosecution and defence witnesses, and interview rooms. The consultation document itself concedes that if the proposed closure goes ahead, reconfiguration of the hearing space at Teesside magistrates court, which is where the magistrates would go, would be required; and I do not know how much that would cost.
That brings me to an additional point—that of the costs that will be saved by the proposal to close Hartlepool. I understand that the consultation is being driven primarily by a desire to reduce costs. The Minister has said on many occasions that the courts estate costs around half a billion pounds a year, and that he wants to drive that down, but I question whether the closure of Hartlepool magistrates court will reduce costs at all.
There is a real lack of transparency on this matter. Hartlepool magistrates court and county court have operating costs of about £345,000 a year. The Minister has never been able to explain to me how savings will be made. I would imagine that a large proportion of those costs will be staff expenditure. Eight members of staff work at the magistrates court and seven full-time members work at Hartlepool county court. If there is going to be redundancy, which I imagine is the only way forward although it is still difficult to find out why, those are job losses that Hartlepool can ill afford.
It was announced last week that unemployment in Hartlepool increased in February, to 2,747 claimants. Although unemployment in the UK fell in the past year by 11%, the jobless rate in my constituency actually rose in the past 12 months, by 11.8%. Hartlepool is now the 11th worst-affected constituency in the entire country for unemployment. At a rate of 6.5%, it is over two and a half times the national rate. We simply cannot afford any more job losses, especially those that have been initiated by the Government.
Another reservation is about the building in which Hartlepool magistrates court and county court operate. It is not freehold. The Government cannot realise any value by selling off the building. The consultation document states that the Government want
“To maximise the capital receipts from surplus estate for reinvestment in HM Courts & Tribunals Service”.
That aim will not be met by closing Hartlepool down. It is a leasehold property with a significant number of years still to run. The building is owned by Hartlepool Borough Council. I asked the Minister this before, and I have never received an answer so I will ask him again: how much will it cost to break the lease? Is the Minister considering whole-of-government efficiencies rather than taking a silo-based approach in terms of what he has to achieve for his individual Ministry? Does he not think that he is transferring financial pressures from his own Department on to hard-pressed local government?
I mentioned in the September debate that the criteria by which the courts would be closed seem opaque. On 9 September 2015 I tabled a parliamentary question about the cost-per-case across magistrates courts in England and Wales, including those in Hartlepool and Teesside. That seemed to me to be a reasonable metric with which to evaluate relative efficiencies across different operating units—it is what business does all the time. But the answer I received from the Minister stated:
“The information is not available centrally and could only be provided at disproportionate cost.”
If that metric is not being used, what is? How can relative performance and effectiveness across the estate be evaluated in a consistent manner? I contend strongly that I do not think the closure of Hartlepool magistrates court will save the Government any money.
However, my central concern, which has been raised by several hon. Members throughout today’s debate, is that my constituents will be inconvenienced in their access to local justice. The consultation document “Proposal on the provision of court and tribunal services in the North East region” said of Hartlepool that,
“there are excellent road, rail and bus links.”
The person who wrote that has never been to my part of the world. It is absolutely ludicrous to suggest that. Public transport in Teesside is appalling. Somebody from Hartlepool required to be at Teesside magistrates court for an early morning hearing and without access to a car would struggle to make it. The proportion of Hartlepool residents who have access to a car is 41%—more or less half the UK average of 81%. Victims, understandably, need a period of calm before having the stress of giving evidence, and they will be inconvenienced. I asked the Minister in September and I will ask him again: is this what the Government really want—to make justice and access to justice more stressful and inconvenient for innocent victims? Justice is not served by making victims travel longer distances.
The consultation document itself concedes that, at the present time, 99% of those accessing Hartlepool magistrates court can be there by public transport within 60 minutes. After the closure, scheduled to take place in January 2017, 91% will take between one and two hours. That fails directly the Government’s intention of ensuring that people would not have to face longer journeys, and it is one of the key reasons why the Law Society is opposed to the closures of the courts in Hartlepool.
Finally, I want to raise another point on Government policy, taking an holistic view of law and order and security. Police staff and officers at Cleveland police fell from 2,628 in March 2010 to 1,634 in September 2015—almost 38%. Total crime reported to Cleveland police in the past year has gone up by 22%, and in Hartlepool, offences of the type on which cases would be seen by the magistrates have risen sharply. Year on year, violence without injury has gone up by 46.7% in the Hartlepool area; non-domestic theft has risen by 10.9%, shoplifting by 19.5% and personal robbery has gone up in the past year by 63.6%.
That will put enormous strain on the whole judicial system. I ask the Minister again to reconsider the proposed closure of Hartlepool magistrates court, in keeping with the holistic view of good local law and order. Please think again. Please think about the representations made by me, my constituents and the Law Society, and ensure that Hartlepool magistrates court and county court can remain open.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for her hard work in securing this important debate today.
Halifax is unusual in that two courts are closing in my constituency as part of the changes. Both Calderdale magistrates court and Halifax county court and family court, currently in two different buildings, will be closed and the majority of the workload transferred to Bradford. Anyone who has seen the recent BBC series “Happy Valley”, which is set in my constituency, may be forgiven for thinking that there is surely enough criminal activity in Halifax to keep two courts busy processing criminals around the clock, perhaps even with enough demand to open a Crown court, owing to the severity and frequency of the criminal activity that takes place there. I am pleased and relieved to inform hon. Members that “Happy Valley”, albeit thoroughly gripping television, is not an accurate portrayal of law and order across Calderdale.
Back in the real world, and perhaps unlike other constituencies, we were prepared to work with the Government on the closure of one of our courts. We recognised that efficiency savings could be made, and in a move predominantly led by the local magistrates bench—I thank them for their detailed analysis and work on the proposals— we actively campaigned for a merging of the courts in a way that would deliver a cost saving to the Government while maintaining access to local justice. However, the announcement last month—delivered in a written statement, as a number of my colleagues have pointed out, on the last day before a recess—that both courts would close revealed that the Government’s ambition for savings would not accommodate this proposal.
Like most MPs, fighting injustice is largely what motivates me to do this job, and I would argue that British values and our standing in the world are entwined with our fair and accessible justice system, which has paved the way for so many others around the world. We never know when we might be a victim of crime or witness a crime. We live in hope that we never have a family breakdown so serious that we require guidance from the family courts. Injustice takes many forms and the two courts in my patch play an essential role, not only in righting wrongs, but in resolving all manner of often difficult and sensitive disputes.
The arguments about access to justice and the merits of this have been well rehearsed over the course of the consultation and throughout the debate, so I will focus on challenges to the Government, which I hope the Minister will recognise in his winding-up remarks. The closure of 86 courts and tribunals has been packaged not as closures at all but as a means of facilitating a justice revolution, driven by technology that will make justice more accessible than ever before.
The Government have committed to spend £700 million over five years to modernise and fully digitise the courts. However, a written question to the Minister tabled on 7 December and answered on 29 February revealed that £1.35 million was spent on delivering the digitisation programme in courts whose closure has subsequently been announced. Although the response outlined that the vast majority of this expenditure was in reusable hardware assets which could be reallocated to other sites, representatives from the courts in Halifax tell me that thousands of pounds will have been wasted in costs associated with the installation and custom cabling in buildings soon to be closed. Is the £700 million figure quoted a new fund that will mitigate the access gap created by the court closures, or does this figure include moneys already spent as part of the digitisation programme in courts that we now know will be closed?
To echo the sentiments expressed in the Chamber, I was grateful for the opportunity to meet the Minister in person to present the case for merging the courts, and I know that he met separately representatives from the magistrates bench in Calderdale. It was not clear to me what services the Government would provide in the roll-out of this technological revolution in justice, and what responsibilities might fall to local authorities and even law firms working privately to bridge the access gap.
Our local authorities are cash-strapped, particularly in Calderdale where the devastating Boxing day floods, combined with other pressures, have placed an unprecedented burden on the budget, and I would be concerned if the Government were expecting local authorities to play a role in part-financing some of the changes that might be required. I would be even more concerned if the Government were expecting the private sector to step in and introduce the technology required to mitigate the closure of the courts, in a way which will inevitably introduce a postcode lottery to accessing justice. We have heard from colleagues about challenges linked to mobile coverage and broadband cover, which would inevitably contribute to the postcode lottery. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify what role he expects local authorities and the private sector to play in the digitisation process.
I want to outline the impact that the closures will have on the local economy, as other Members have identified. The two courts in Halifax are located at the top end of the town centre and are surrounded by a number of law firms in what could be described as the legal quarter. Like Wakefield, we have a post office due for closure in the same part of town. Back in October, I sent a letter to the Secretary of State signed by 13 representatives of law firms which, by no coincidence, are situated in close proximity to the courts. Those law firms, paying rates, employing highly educated professionals and paying good wages in my constituency, are now considering their futures in Halifax. Several are considering following the workload to Bradford and although I accept that there will still be clients in Halifax, will there be enough to keep all those jobs there? I reiterate once more that there is not as much work for lawyers in Halifax as “Happy Valley” might suggest.
With the court buildings empty, the potential for a number of surrounding offices to be empty as a result would not be at all healthy for that area of the town centre and would place quite a burden on the local authority in terms of regeneration. Ultimately, like many of my colleagues across the Chamber, I am worried about how this will impact on those who are regular attenders at the courts. Far from those being exclusively repeat offenders, staff from social housing provider Pennine and representatives of the local authority—Calderdale council, Calderdale women’s centre, police officers and youth offending services—are just some of the predominantly public services and charity organisations which stand to be inconvenienced by the closures. Let us be clear. When I say “inconvenienced”, that means extended journey times, and therefore more costly journeys, and potentially extended periods out of the office dealing with court appearances or formalities. Inconvenience is a cost, and when we are dealing with public services, it is a cost ultimately picked up by the taxpayer.
I am looking for assurances from the Minister that the justice revolution is real and deliverable in the appropriate timeframe, and that the funding is available. I am looking for clarity on what wastage there has already been in delivering the digitisation programme. I want to know that consideration will be given to assisting local authorities in managing the closure of the courts and any resulting impact that this will have on town centres and on the businesses that relies on their proximity to the courts. Finally, I seek an assurance that the Department for Justice is genuinely delivering a cost saving to the taxpayer with these closures, not just a saving to the Department—that it has not just passed some of the cost to local authorities, some to the Home Office and some to social housing providers and charities, and that the Department’s ambition to achieve savings has not compromised what is sensible and practical in our world-renowned justice system.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for this debate. In particular, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing it and opening the debate so skilfully and eloquently. We share a concern about Lambeth county court, which covers many of our constituents.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) spoke about how busy his court was in Bromley, and showed how busy he was by receiving a call here. Lambeth court, too, is busy. When I appeared at the court—as a witness, I hasten to add—to speak for leaseholders against Southwark council, that morning alone there were about 22 individual cases involving residents and the council. It is an incredibly busy court, which is why local legal professionals approached me and other Members about the Government’s assessment of how the court was being used. Their concerns related to both the time that that assessment took place and the consideration of preparation for cases.
When this topic was discussed in Westminster Hall, these issues were not answered fully. It would be useful if the Minister could confirm whether alternative facilities have the capacity to provide the necessary preparation time and space. It is deeply unfortunate that in a debate about justice, the Government have not provided sufficient evidence to justify their course of action.
One aspect that has not been discussed today concerns law students. London South Bank University approached me to ask whether the Government are even considering assessing the impact on law students, the additional costs they will incur and the additional travel they will have to undertake to attend cases. Can the Minister tell us whether such an assessment will be conducted?
The issue of travel has been raised many times. The Government figure showing that 97% of people affected can be at a different court within an hour has been significantly challenged by Resolution and by Members today. That figure is not for travel from home, and it would be much more useful if the Government could provide an assessment of average journey times from home to court. I hope the Minister will commit today to provide such an assessment.
The 97% figure is also undermined in communities such as mine. In the borough of Southwark, only 50% of households actually own a car. The policy of controlled parking zones also affects many residents. People are therefore either unable to own a car or have only limited access to one.
In looking at the issue on behalf of individual constituents, I looked at journey times for constituents in Rotherhithe. It would take some of them four hours to go from Rotherhithe to Putney if they needed to appear there, and that would include six different bus journeys. I hope we have a new Mayor in May who will freeze fares and introduce the one-hour ticket, but my constituents still face potentially higher costs. Those costs and the inconvenience involved in travelling will affect court attendance, and they could affect the number of cancelled cases and appeals. We have not seen a full assessment of those issues.
Nor have we seen a full assessment of the potential knock-on costs for the police, who are transporting witnesses further, or to the probation service and the Prison Service, which are transporting defendants further. I believe it was the Law Society that raised the case of jurors claiming higher costs for their car use and the cost of public transport. Assessments of those issues have not been made available to the level we would expect. We have also heard about the additional costs to councils’ housing and social services offices.
Instead of the Department providing the evidence base and undertaking assessments, huge assumptions have been made about the willingness of councils and police stations to make space available to provide the video link facilities that the Minister has mentioned previously. Where is the evidence base to show that those things will happen and that the equipment will be available and useable? My hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) talked about rural access to broadband services, but the issue is equally relevant to Rotherhithe, where BT has not provided the capacity to meet local demand. It would be useful if the Government could indicate today that they will look at that issue.
Without the demonstrable capacity to deliver the justice we know is needed, it seems that the Ministry of Justice is rushing into these proposals and passing the buck to other parts of the public sector and to individuals—individuals who have experienced crime or misfortune, and who are now being served another layer of injustice.
I am certainly not opposed to the modernisation agenda, but without the full assessments and commitments I have outlined, it is a very risky agenda. It is vital that the Government provide those assessments before they push ahead with their agenda.
May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing the debate? The general tone has been that no one is opposed to change, and that is where I start from. Like any other public service, the justice system and the magistrates system need to change. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) said, the root cause of the proposals, whether we like it or not, is the attempt to save money and the small-state conservatism that the Chancellor of the Exchequer longs for. That has made the system throw up some very peculiar examples of injustice. We also have ludicrous situations such as the one the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) mentioned, where substantial investment was made in a magistrates court a year or so ago, only for it to be written off now.
The hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) said the consultation was clearly flawed, and I agree. The assumption that was made was clearly that these courts would close and that people could travel to the courts that remained open. What was not taken into consideration was the people who do not have access to cars. In my constituency, people use the magistrates court in Consett, and they were told in the public consultation that took place in the north-east that if they had to travel to Peterlee court—as they will now have to—they could go by train. Well, that would be a very circuitous route, seeing as there is no train station in Peterlee. Even if someone took another form of public transport, they would have to set off at something like 7 o’clock in the morning to get there by 9.30, and that depends on public transport being available. That also fails to recognise the rural nature of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass). That has been the main flaw in the proposals.
Having spoken to the Minister, I recognise that he is committed to change, although he has a sword hanging over his head in terms of cutting costs. Like the hon. Member for High Peak, I made representations to the Minister—about the proposals for North Durham. My constituents will now have to travel to Peterlee magistrates court, which will take them more than two hours on public transport, if it is possible to use it. The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham will find things even more difficult. I suggested to the Minister that it would make more sense for my constituents to travel to Newcastle or Gateshead—it would certainly be a lot quicker to get from Chester-le-Street, in my constituency, for example, to Gateshead or Newcastle magistrates court. I am also told by the local head of the Crown Prosecution Service that there is spare capacity in those two courts.
I wrote to the Minister on 25 February, and I was very disappointed this morning when I got his letter, which said that my proposal was not possible and that my constituents would still have to travel to Peterlee. That makes no sense whatever, when people can get from Chester-le-Street to Newcastle in 10 minutes on the train, as opposed to the nearly two hours it takes to get to Peterlee. I would therefore ask the Minister to look again at those proposals. I accept that the problem people have is that they will have to cross county boundaries, but my proposals will make things a lot easier for many of my constituents.
A number of Members have raised the fundamental problem with the cost-driven nature of the proposals. Access to justice is a serious issue for the magistrates service and for the dedicated individuals who give up their time to serve as magistrates. Justice is supposed to be dispensed locally, but that will not be the case in future, when people will have to travel long distances.
As I say, I am not opposed to new technology; indeed, having spent quite a lot of time recently in court—I have been doing a fellowship with the Industry and Parliament Trust—I have spoken to the professionals, and they are not opposed to change. However, one thing they keep telling me is that there is a shortage of cash in the system. If we are going to achieve the situation I think the Minister wants to, with local video conferencing and other buildings being used, some up-front money will have to be put into the system. Otherwise, we will just settle into a situation where the cuts have been made and we keep the courts we still have—and that will be it. That would be a mistake, because in terms of dispensing local justice—the hon. Member for Torbay raised this point and it is a good one—we need to look at what goes to magistrates courts. If we are talking simply about non-violent offences and people not being sentenced to prison, their cases can be dealt with in other settings, but the cash has to be there.
My experience of visiting the Courts Service throughout the country over the last few weeks as part of my fellowship with the Industry and Parliament Trust has been that there is not the cash up front to do what would make sense to support the professionals and, more importantly, our constituents. Constituents will want access to justice not only if they have to go before a court, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield rightly argued—this is sometimes forgotten in the system—if they are a victim. They need to be able to see that justice is being done, and if obstacles are put in their way, such as those relating to access to travel to a magistrates court, that will be a problem for them.
I ask the Minister to take a step back before making any commitments. If he is going to implement the other proposals, which I think he genuinely wants to do, there needs to be a timetable. Will he look again at the proposals for North Durham? It makes no sense whatsoever for people to have to travel for two hours to Peterlee to access justice, when they can travel to Newcastle in 10 minutes. I do not think that the people who drew up this consultation looked at the local geography, and I think they assumed that everyone had access to a car. Not everyone in my rural constituency has access to a car, and public transport is intermittent. If that puts an obstacle in the way of them getting justice, I have to say that, in a modern and rich society such as ours, that is a scandal.
May I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for bringing this important matter before the House? I also thank every other Member who has spoken today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) spoke passionately about the closure of the magistrates and civil courts in Bridgend after thousands of pounds had been spent recently on the building. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) spoke of the Government’s many U-turns on justice policies, including the scrapping of two-tier contracts, costing the Ministry of Justice more than £400,000.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) told the House that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) is a black belt in martial arts. I am a fourth dan black belt in judo, but that is a story for another day.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) spoke of the very good facilities in magistrates courts and that their closure will not save money. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) spoke of the massive impact on her constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) noted that the consultation mentioned travel by train but that there is no train station in Peterlee. My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) raised an issue that has not been raised before, namely the impact of court closures on law students.
The hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) spoke about the closures in his area. The Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), brought his vast experience to the debate, and his mobile phone made an intervention at a crucial time. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) was disappointed about the closure of his local magistrates court and said that we needed a long-term plan. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) spoke of his campaign to keep the Stockport court open. There have also been many excellent interventions.
Everyone who has spoken has set out comprehensively and eloquently the issues at stake and the importance of access to local justice. Labour absolutely recognises that savings have to be made in these difficult economic times. Only this week, we heard the Chancellor say how he has failed to meet his own economic targets, which he set, and that further savings therefore needed to be found. We disagree profoundly, however, as to how those savings should and could be made, and we vehemently argue that across-the-board cuts to vital local services are unfair and, indeed, unjust.
The latest court closures, which affect a fifth of the court estate, come on top of ongoing cuts in the sector. If they are not implemented fairly, they will lead increasingly to the creation of a two-tier justice system and seriously hamper access to justice, particularly for the most vulnerable in our society.
The current proposals are based on a flawed consultation process, and a flawed process begets flawed results. Indeed, the Minister apologised for those many errors. However, that does call into question the basis for the 86 listed courts that are currently being considered for closure.
The announcement on those potential closures was made on the last day before the February recess, making today’s debate all the more important in order to ensure proper parliamentary scrutiny. One of the criteria for the court closures consultation was court utilisation, which on the face of it seems a reasonable criterion. However, we must also bear in mind that fewer hearings are taking place because of broader cuts in this sector; cuts to legal aid and increased court fees mean that fewer people have recourse to justice, which is not the right result. There is also a shortage of staff and judges. Since 2010, the Courts and Tribunals Service has been cut by 5,000 staff, and it is set to lose a further 5,000 to 6,000 by 2020.
The Public and Commercial Services Union, whose members include those working in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, the Crown Prosecution Service and the private sector delivered guard service, has stated:
“High utilisation rates can only be achieved by listing several lengthy contested matters in the same court on the basis that they will not all be effective. If all the hearings are effective and one or more cases have to be delayed it adds distress and inconvenience for the parties and witnesses involved.
Lack of available court time for listing cases, often due to a shortage of staff, causes cases to be adjourned for long periods. Many courts already struggle to list family multi-day cases due to both lack of court rooms and lack of staff. This often means cancelling trial courts. A reduction in the available court rooms will lead to further delay.”
The PCS report on the court closures consultation finds that the figures used overestimate the maximum amount of time for which the court can be used. For example, it notes that, according to Government assessments, North Avon magistrates court has a maximum utilisation of 1,240 days, whereas staff working there put the figure at 992 days.
In many instances, as hon. Members have said today, the travel times resulting from many of the court closures will cause unacceptable inconvenience for their constituents. The Government contend that most people will still be able to reach court within a one-hour car journey. It has been said on a number of occasions, most recently by the Law Society, that the methodology used to calculate travel times was not transparent or independently verified. The travel times given in the consultation paper represent the “best case scenario”.
I know from my own experience that, since Neath magistrates court closed in May 2014, my constituents have had to travel to Swansea, denying them access to local justice in their own community. Constituents, magistrates and local solicitors working in the area suggest that the closure of the local court has had a negative impact locally. Several areas of my constituency are far removed from the courts that they are now expected to use in Swansea. Public transport options are severely limited and operate infrequently. Their travel times far exceed the so-called one-hour travel time limit, and it is possible that opposing sides, victims, witnesses and perpetrators, will sit on the same bus or train.
The Neath civil and family court is on the list of proposed closures. That will mean that my constituents will have to travel to Port Talbot, joining people who will have been moved from the Bridgend civil and family court, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend mentioned. I have visited the court in Port Talbot and question whether that centre can bear the increased workflow and whether the facilities will be sufficient for their purposes. Moreover, the journey from Glynneath to Port Talbot takes one hour and 35 minutes, with one bus change, and that from Banwen to Port Talbot takes one hour and 44 minutes, with a change of bus and added walking time on either side, without allowing for heavy traffic problems.
Those on low incomes often have to choose between buying necessities or the cost of travel to court, causing hardship at what is already a stressful time. The closures have caused great inconvenience to many people in Neath who may find themselves victims of spurious allegations or charged unnecessarily. Victims of domestic abuse, for example, will have to travel further to seek emergency protection at a critical time, when any delays could lead directly to further and serious harm.
In addition to affecting those of our constituents who are forced to travel further afield, the closures will mean redundancies and lost jobs, and I know that, in many constituencies such as mine across the UK, every job is much needed. Even if jobs are retained, the additional travelling times will mean higher costs for staff to travel to work. It will have a particular impact on staff with caring responsibilities and staff with disabilities. The consultation did not adequately address that aspect of the closures.
The court closures will have broader implications. In Neath, now that the magistrates court is closed, the police are forced to travel all the way to Swansea to get warrants, which uses up valuable time that could be spent on the beat. I am sure that that is the case in many other areas, and those issues should be addressed in the light of future closures. I have spoken to many who work in and alongside our justice system, and I hear time and again of a perfect storm of pressure on our courts and tribunal system.
An increase in litigants in person means more time and follow-up work for the courts. At the same time, cuts have been made to the number of administrators and clerks in the Court Service. Now we are looking at a raft of court closures. The consequences are frustrating for users and for those who work in the courts. Increased waiting time outside courts and uncertainty about when cases will be heard are particularly problematic for those who are reliant on public transport, for parties who are distressed—that includes vulnerable people—and for those who have young children waiting with them.
Lack of availability of court time leads to delays in proceedings. For example, at Edmonton county court, a transfer of tenancy application in a domestic abuse and financial remedies case, which should normally last half a day, waited seven and a half months for listing for the final hearing. With larger volumes of cases at fewer court centres, the buildings come under pressure. It is not unusual for advocates to have to discuss highly confidential and sometimes highly distressing matters sitting on the floor of a corridor or in a stairwell because conference rooms are full. Let us not forget the impact on jurors, who were not included in the list of affected groups in the impact assessment.
On many occasions in this House, we have heard how the wonders of technology will transform the judicial service and make the need for proximity to court buildings a thing of the past. I am not one to stand in the way of progress, but we simply have not had, to date, a sufficient—or indeed any—explanation of how a judicial system fit for the 21st century and beyond will function. We have simply been told by the Minister about the use of video conferencing. It is quite possible that the most vulnerable in society, who are most in need of support—those who do not own a car and are reliant on public transport to travel to court—do not have reliable, secure and private internet access. Many of my constituents in Neath, like those of so many of the hon. Members we have heard from today, simply do not own a computer or smartphone. They have no internet access at home, and our local libraries seem to be closing because of local authority cuts. We need a real explanation of how that practice will work. How will vulnerable victims and witnesses be kept safe and secure during online or remote proceedings? Giving evidence can be a traumatic experience, and proper support needs to considered. We are also due a proper explanation of the costs involved.
I recently met staff from the personal support unit, who provide advice and guidance for court users and help to translate the specific language and procedures in the court service into lay terms. Staff at the unit said that it is far more about in-person support, compassion and sympathy. At a difficult time when they feel vulnerable, victims and accused need reassurance and guidance most of all, and those cannot be provided via teleconference.
The Government’s case for the closures is underpinned by untested digital processes. According to the PCS union, the national roll-out of several digital products has been delayed because they were not fit for purpose.
My hon. Friend makes an important point.
I want to refer to the e-form that was used to calculate individuals’ financial assets in divorce cases. A fault in that online form caused a lot of trouble. It was corrected by the Minister, but e-forms were involved in almost 36,000 cases during the affected period. The Minister regretted the error and said that application to vary or set aside would not attract fees, but those involved would not be able to access legal advice on those complex issues through legal aid.
The client and cost management system is due to come into compulsory use from 1 April 2016. Over the past two weeks Resolution, the family law group, said that many legal aid firms cannot access the system, or that they get thrown out when they submit the form. The system is not fit for purpose, and its introduction should be delayed.
An online court has been proposed for claims of up to £25,000. Individuals would have no access to legal advice for such claims, even though they might be up against big organisations with their own legal teams. That would be a major disadvantage. The proposal needs to be rigorously tested, piloted and evaluated.
What happens in the event of technological failures or unreliable technology? Those would, undoubtedly, further delay proceedings rather than expediting them, which would add to the stress of victims and witnesses. The Law Society acknowledges the aim of increasing the use of technology, but it recommended during the consultation process that it would be prudent to modernise courts with new technology, assess how that is working and then consider savings, rather than the other way around. I wholeheartedly agree.
I welcome the Government’s desire to harness technology positively and efficiently, but we need to hear much more about the plans. Surely, the systems should be tested and piloted before many of the slated closures go ahead. Perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity to explain in more detail what his thinking is and how the system will work for those who wish or need to access justice. Once again, I must stress that it should not, and cannot, lead to the creation of haves and have-nots.
Finally, I wish to highlight the last round of closures and talk about the use of buildings after the closures. Many of the courts that are slated to close, or were recently closed, have better facilities than the alternatives that people will be forced to travel to. I have raised questions about the proceeds of sale of those buildings, and about the ongoing costs of their maintenance and upkeep in the event that they are not sold or used for other community purposes. Such buildings tend to be prominently and conveniently located in town centres. If they are left to fall into rack and ruin, they can have a negative effect on a town centre.
The Ministry of Justice is still paying to secure and maintain 15 of the courts that were closed in 2010, and they are costing the taxpayer more than £40,000 a month to secure and maintain. The most expensive upkeep is for the former magistrates court in Alton, which costs almost £10,000 a month. The facilities that existed in Alton have not been replicated at the court that received the work. In some instances, the buildings are not suitable for any use other than as a court.
In conclusion, it is an unavoidable fact that savings in the court system need to be identified, as colleagues have said. One of the central tenets of our common law system is the local delivery of local justice, with access to justice for all. Any court closures must absolutely minimise the negative impact on access to justice for all our citizens.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on giving colleagues the opportunity to debate this very important issue one more time. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken. I will try to mention them as best I can in the few minutes available. May I also take this opportunity to welcome the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on her first outing at the Dispatch Box? I look forward to debating with her in the weeks and months ahead.
I am keenly aware that hon. Members hold strong views about the importance of courts in their constituencies and about the impact that their closure may have on the delivery of justice. That has been made abundantly clear today, as it has in numerous parliamentary debates and questions, as well as at the many meetings I have had with hon. Members and in the correspondence—I have written letters to them in response—in which they have engaged.
I very much understand the sincerity of those concerns. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that the decision to close a court is not one that I take lightly, but it is a decision that I am prepared to make when it is necessary to do so to support essential reform of our courts and tribunals system and to bring it up to modern-day standards. We need to create a modern and flexible Courts and Tribunals Service that is fit for the 21st century.
Court staff and the judiciary work hard, but they face challenges in delivering an efficient service when the infrastructure that supports the administration of the courts and tribunals is inefficient and disjointed. Some of the technology that supports services is decades old, and few of the services we offer can be accessed online. We continue to use paper forms, and when court users need to make a payment, we often accept only cash or cheques. We need urgently to modernise the way the courts and tribunals operate to reduce inefficiencies, and to open up new ways for the public to access justice.
The Government are supporting this reform with very significant investment. Investment of £700 million over the next four years will transform the experience of everyone who comes into contact with courts and tribunals. We will provide new services and deliver better, more joined-up ways of working across the justice system. These reforms will increase access to justice by making it swifter, easier to use and more efficient.
I appreciate that some hon. Members have concerns about the consultation exercise we conducted. I have apologised at the Dispatch Box for errors that have occurred in some of the individual courts concerned. However, I assure the House that, although there have been some inaccuracies, the final decisions were taken on the basis of correct information and after consideration of all the well over 2,100 submissions that were made.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way, particularly as I was unable, owing to other parliamentary business, to be in the Chamber for much of the debate, for which I apologise. I do not like having to intervene in this way on so kindly a Minister. Frankly, however, the closures, particularly for Chichester, are not a policy, but a negation of a policy. Everyone understands the need for financial stringency, but no economic rationale for these closures has been provided, despite repeated requests. Until such a rationale is provided, people will continue to be deeply concerned about the closures. Chichester’s court use is above the national average, and the travel times analysis is seriously flawed. Is the Minister now prepared at least to reconsider the closures, for which no economic case at all has been provided?
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
My right hon. Friend speaks with passion. He and I have corresponded much, and we have met on many occasions. In fact, it is fair to say that I dreaded entering the Tea Room when I knew he was there, because I knew he would come and speak to me about his court. I think he will agree that I have tried to give him the best information I can, but on the final conclusion he wants, we will have to agree to disagree.
The Government have listened carefully, which is why, in addition to the five court buildings we have retained, we have modified our initial plans for a further 22 sites. The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood will be mindful of that, because the court work that was initially going to be transferred to a court at Wandsworth, 6 miles away from Lambeth, will now be transferred to one at Camberwell Green, just 2 miles away. That was a consequence of our meeting and engagement with the local community.
In eight of the 22 sites where changes have been made, we will not close the court until suitable local alternative provision is in place. Work is under way to determine the specific provision to be provided at each of those locations, and to evaluate a number of options for holding hearings away from traditional court buildings. I expect further testing to take place over the coming months.
Will the Minister clarify whether what he has just said is accurate? He seems to indicate that all the cases that were to be heard in Putney instead of Lambeth county court will now be held in Camberwell, but that is not the impression delivered previously. How much of the £700 million budget being made available will go to police or council facilities to ensure that a video link is possible?
This four-year reform programme is worth more than £700 million, and the intention is to ensure that we have one of the best justice systems in the world. I will not give the hon. Gentleman details now about the precise minutiae and breakdown of a four-year programme involving so much money.
The hon. Gentleman chunters away from a sedentary position, but if he had a little experience of business, he would know that in a four-year programme with such a huge sum of money involved, the figures might not be as precise as he would like them to be at the initial stage.
An important aspect of testing and evaluation will be to ensure that any hearings held outside a traditional court offer appropriate levels of security for members of the public, the judiciary, and court staff. Travel time was mentioned by a number of people, and there must be a fundamental recognition that far fewer people will have to travel to courts in the first place. We intend to use modern technology, and video conferencing facilities are already available. The hon. Member for Neath asked whether those have been tested in any way, but we already have such facilities—for example, there is a community centre in Wales that is used to give evidence.
We already have alternative places to use as courts, and employment tribunal cases have been conducted on oil rigs in the North sea. Only yesterday, a lawyer colleague of ours who joined the House after the election last year told me about probation cases that she had been involved in that were held in public houses.
I note what the Minister is saying about new technology and I do not disagree with him, but will he look again at my North Durham constituency, because it is nonsense when people can travel to Gateshead or Newcastle in 10 or 15 minutes, as opposed to travelling to Peterlee? I have raised the issue previously with the Minister and asked him to reconsider, because it makes no sense whatsoever.
There comes a point when we have to start taking decisions and agree to disagree. This whole programme started before last year’s summer recess, and we had a lengthy consultation period. I have had numerous debates and met more people in the House than I can remember. There has been a huge dialogue, but there must be some recognition that we have listened and made changes in a huge number of cases. That may not be the case in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I am afraid we must agree to disagree.
My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) raised concerns about the effectiveness of the administration process that will see this programme through. I will be keeping a sharp eye on proceedings, and if he has any concerns about his local area, I will be more than happy to try to arrange a meeting with senior people at local level, so that he has the comfort he wants.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) spoke of the wonderful work that magistrates do in our courts. I can only echo those comments and say that many magistrates recognise the need for reform.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) spoke about the very useful work of the Justice Committee and brought his own expertise to the House. He also questioned the reliability of the IT projects we will be undertaking. I emphasise that we are taking a staged approach. We will not be putting all our eggs in one basket and we are bringing in expert advice from outside to assist us.
What I can say is that the 10 has now been reduced to nine, and there are offers in place for some of the remaining courts. Others have had genuine difficulties because of joint occupation with other parties. We hope to transfer the remaining courts to the Homes and Communities Agency, which is dealt with by the Department for Communities and Local Government.
The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) spoke about her personal experience. I was sorry, as I am sure were other colleagues, to hear about the assault that had taken place on her. I very much take on board the points she makes about domestic violence. I emphasise that we are improving the system by which witnesses and victims give evidence. At the moment, they have to go to court and go through a terrifying experience. With a video conferencing facility, they can go to a place that is closer to their home and in much more pleasant surroundings, rather than the awesome and austere environment of a court.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) for his comments confirming that this has been a genuine consultation. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) made a very powerful speech, raising an important point about digital infrastructure. I take on board what he says. We will certainly be making sure that the infrastructure is in place to support the court reform programme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) spoke about low-level offences, such as TV licence offences. He sought assurances that perhaps they could be dealt with in courts that are closer to the area. Our thinking is that such low-level offences can probably be dealt with online where people plead guilty, which is the majority of cases.
The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd gave a very powerful speech, raising concerns about access to justice. I assure her that we are very mindful of rural areas and want to make sure we get this right. My constituency has a rural element to it, so I know where she is coming from.
The hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not provide detail on the provisions for eight separate courts at the Dispatch Box now, as time is pressing. I am happy to write to her later in more detail and I will certainly do that.
The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), a very good friend of mine, made a passionate speech. He wanted an assurance that justice would not become more stressful. As I said in relation to the comments made by the hon. Member for Wakefield, we hope the experience will be a lot better for people. We hope they will not have to travel as far and that modern technology will assist them in giving evidence in a closer and more convenient location.
The hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) made a heartfelt speech, in which she referred to technology. I assure her we will deal with the £700 million in a very careful way and make sure we get it right.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) raised concerns, in particular in relation to his local court. He has been passionate in defending his local court, but the consultation received only three responses about it from his local community. I give him credit for wanting to keep the court open, but the fact that there were three responses speaks for itself. I am pleased that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) welcomed the need for reform, and I take on board what he said, but we will have to agree to disagree, as I said.
In conclusion, I thank all hon. Members, particularly the two who secured this debate. This is a major undertaking by the MOJ, and we will do our best to ensure we have a fit-for-purpose justice system. Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you, hon. Members, the Clerks and, most importantly, all the people who ensure that this place continues to operate, especially the security services, a happy Easter.
I thank every Member who has contributed to this debate. The level of concern about the decision to close 86 courts and tribunals is clear.
We have heard from across the Chamber concerns about the physical accessibility of courts as a consequence of the closures and about serious problems with the assumptions about the use of digital technology, especially in areas with poor broadband. Several hon. Members spoke about sensible and creative alternative proposals that were more responsive to local geography and demographics but which were rejected. We also heard about the overreliance on travel by private car and the flawed travel-time data underpinning the decision and about the interrelationship with other public sector cuts. How can police stations provide video links, when in my area so many have closed that the remaining ones are bursting at the seams? We have heard about many hidden impacts from the decision, including on the micro-economy of town and city centres.
I brought this debate before the House because I was concerned that the decision to close 86 courts and tribunals without a coherent, joined-up plan for ensuring access to justice would impact most on the most vulnerable victims, witnesses and defendants, would bring additional costs to several other areas of the public sector and would have a serious impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of our justice system. I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but I urge him to rethink these proposals and come back to the House with a comprehensive plan that addresses the many concerns raised.
Question put and agreed to,
That this House acknowledges the need for some underused courts and tribunals to close; notes the detrimental effect that too many court closures will have on access to justice for vulnerable families and individuals particularly in rural areas where public transport is less reliable; further notes with concern the effect these closures will have on the experienced and dedicated staff working in the 86 courts and tribunals; and calls on the Government to acknowledge the concerns of staff, magistrates and third sector organisations who highlighted numerous flaws in the consultation document, to think again on some of these closures and acknowledge the importance of access to local justice.