HC Deb 07 March 1979 vol 963 cc1446-58

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John Evans.]

1 a.m.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Bodmin)

I am grateful to the Minister for being here at 1 o'clock in the morning to answer on this important local issue, especially in view of his unfortunate family circumstances.

It is an inescapable fact that Bodmin is located at the geographical centre of Cornwall. That is the logical place for a Crown court to be situated if it is to serve the county efficiently and fairly. Indeed, it was for this reason that Cornwall successfully petitioned Parliament for Bodmin to be established as the centre for the Crown court, so that in 1836 Parliament acknowledged this need and passed an Act for the building of the shire hall—that is, the Bodmin courthouse—and the shire house, which is the judges' lodgings.

I think it relevant to point out that it was the county of Cornwall, and not the town of Bodmin alone, that petitioned Parliament for the court to be established in Bodmin as the most appropriate location for justice to be brought to the people, rather than their having to seek justice elsewhere. This situation has persisted to the present day. All concerned, whether they be judges, barristers, solicitors, witnesses, or jurymen, as well as administrators, have found this arrangement totally satisfactory. This did not, however, prevent the Royal Commission on Assizes and Quarter Sessions from recommending that the location of the first tier centre of justice in Cornwall should be moved from Bodmin to Truro. The reasons for this recommendation are, in my view, both thin and dubious.

The Lord Chancellor, in his letter to me dated 30 November 1978, gave seven reasons to justify his support of the recommendation. I wish to deal with each of these in turn. I hope to convince the House that the arguments that the Lord Chancellor outlined on that occasion are not substantive.

The first reason the Lord Chancellor gave was that the greater weight of the population to be served by the court lies to the south and west of Truro. I contend that this reason is not founded on fact. According to the county council's financial statistics, the three westernmost district authorities within Cornwall have a larger population than the three eastern districts, but by only 3,000. The point, surely, is that the population of the eastern half of the county, namely, the district councils covered by Restormel, North Cornwall and Caradon, are growing at a faster rate than the western half. By the mid-1980s, when this new court house is intended to be constructed, the balance of population could have swung the other way.

The second reason given was that the great majority of the work of the Crown court originated from the area south and west of Bodmin. This is debatable. There is the fear, which I think is shared by all the people of Cornwall irrespective of their views on this issue, that to move the court to Truro could well result in a greater part of the work for the eastern half of Cornwall being taken at Plymouth or Exeter, thus moving justice away from the people of Cornwall.

The third reason given was the fact that Truro lies on the main railway line to Penzance and Falmouth ". I do not see what relevance this has, because people living in Cornwall who have to attend the courts in any capacity have to travel by car rather than by train, because there is virtually no local train service anyway. For those judges and counsel who travel by train from London or Bristol, or perhaps Exeter, Truro would involve an additional 45 to 60 minutes travelling time each way.

The fourth reason given is that Truro is situated at the junction of several main roads which give ready access to the other parts of Cornwall and to the A30 trunk road ". That may or may not be so, except, of course, that Truro is situated some distance from the A30 trunk road, but it does not alter the fact that Bodmin is situated at the geographical centre of the county. Anyone who knows the county—I mean no disrespect here to the Lord Chancellor, but I sensed that there was a lack of knowledge of the local geography—knows that Bodmin is located at the junction of the A30 and A38 trunk roads. I should not have thought it possible to get a better road communication network than that if one tried.

The fifth reason given was that Truro is the seat of the county council and the centre of other main services serving the county. Again, I am not quite sure what relevance this has to the location of the Crown court. The fact that the county council is in Truro and that there is a new district general hospital there is accepted, but I thought we lived in an age of decentralisation, and I certainly would not accept the argument that devolution in relation to Cornwall ends at Truro.

The sixth reason given was that the court buildings at Bodmin were built in the 1830s and that to bring them up to necessary standard would involve considerable cost. I intend to return to the aspect of cost in a moment.

The seventh reason stated was that The District Registry of the High Court is situated in Truro. I have been informed, by people who are concerned and involved locally, that the existing combined Crown court centre at Bodmin has been a success and operates efficiently, giving satisfaction to the legal profession.

I now turn to the crucial and decisive aspect of the financial cost. The Solicitor-General, in a written answer to me, stated that The cost of building a new court centre at Truro is estimated at approximately £2.5 million at current prices."—[Official Report, 12 December 1978; Vol. 960, c. 95.] That figure in itself seems to me to be high and totally unjustified. What also worries me is that at the present time six Crown courts are at present under construction in other parts of the country and that the cost span there extends from over £3 million to £26.8 million. I accept that Liverpool, at £26.8 million, may be a special case, but a lot of money is involved. When it is admitted that any new court at Truro is not likely to be built until the 1980s, I should have thought that the Solicitor-General's estimate of £2½ million is likely to be exceeded fairly substantially. It is difficult to justify this at a time of economic crisis for our nation, and at a time when there is an undisputed need for financial restraint. I do not believe that the case has been made for this vast expenditure of public money. If the Lord Chancellor's Department has that surplus amount of money available the Public Accounts Committee should be interested to know about it. Most Cornish people would prefer that the money should be spent on primary schools or some urgent need, but not on a new grandiose court house at Truro.

Furthermore, the figure does not take into account the provision of new judges' lodgings or a suitable alternative. I suspect that the whole scheme has not been thoroughly costed. In answer to my parliamentary question in December 1978 the Solicitor-General admitted to me that it was too soon to forecast the operating costs of a court at Truro. Yet there is already an adequate court house at Bodmin which it well lit, ventilated and heated, with a superb judges' lodging house.

If the Lord Chancellor's Department feels that the existing facilities at Bodmin are unsatisfactory, improvements could be carried out at a fraction of the capital cost that it would take to build the Truro complex. If the court is located at Truro, the cost of transporting defendants will also increase, since the distances from Exeter and Pucklechurch are greater. Presumably, that will involve longer hours for the escorts—at greater cost.

On the grounds of the cost involved, and because the case for a transfer to Truro from Bodmin has not been made out, I believe that the Lord Chancellor should be prepared to reconsider his earlier decision. I am supported in that view by four of the five hon. Members who represent the Duchy of Cornwall. Four of six district councils in Cornwall are also of that opinion. One of the two remaining councils takes a neutral view.

The policy committee of the county council has asked its chief executive officer to prepare a report. The Cornish Gorsedd and Federation of Old Cornwall Societies are opposed to the transfer, as are Mebyom Kernow, the British Legal Association and numerous local parish councils and private individuals who have either written to the Bodmin town council or myself expressing their views.

We believe that the evidence collected almost 10 years ago by the Royal Commission could well be outdated, and that inadequate consultation took place in 1972. At that time, the circuit administrator for the Western circuit was given the task of sounding out the views of local authorities, interested organisations and public opinion. If the transfer were implemented the problem would remain of the utilisation of the existing courthouse at Bodmin and the shire house. It would be uneconomic to retain them for the use of the county and the magistrates' courts alone.

There is an additional dimension of confusion because land has already been earmarked in Bodmin for a new magistrates' court. There is the further irony that recently a combined Crown court and administrative centre has been built at Bodmin, designed expressly to serve the county. Presumably, that would be wasted if the Crown court was moved to Truro.

There has been a lack of co-ordination of finances and planning in reaching this decision. I hope that the Minister will persuade the Lord Chancellor to review his earlier decision and meet a delegation from Bodmin before any final decision is made.

1.14 a.m.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

I should like to thank the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) for allowing me a few moments of his time, especially as I am to enter the alternative case.

Whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not, Truro is the economic and commercial centre of the great county of Cornwall. It has the hospitals, the county hall and the registrar buildings. It has virtually all the commercial centres of the county. It has a railway station in the city and even British Rail could not take a whole hour to get from Bodmin station, which is some distance from Bodmin, to Truro station, which is slap in the middle of that great city.

Most people live west of Truro. Certainly far more live west of Truro than live east of Bodmin—if that is the crux of the argument in this case. The number of people within 30 miles of the court would be substantially increased if it were moved to Truro.

The court at Bodmin is old and out of date. The hon. Member for Bodmin mentioned when it was built and that is an indication of the facilities that are available. Clearly a new court will be required some time and any sane person, given the choice, would decide to build it in Truro. I ask the Minister not to take too blandly the offerings of the hon. Member for Bodmin. There is a good case for the court to be moved to Truro and what we really want to know from the debate is when that will take place.

1.16 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Law Officers' Department (Mr. Arthur Davidson)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) for setting out the case for retaining the High Court and Crown court centre in Cornwall at Bodmin and for his interesting historical description of the birth of this respected court. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) will have some sympathy for my position. A stranger crosses the Tamar—if I have not pronounced that right, I am in trouble—with some diffidence and he enters into a row among Cornishmen with considerable caution.

The Lord Chancellor is aware of the strong feelings expressed recently in favour of the retention of the court centre at Bodmin. The hon. Member for Bodmin has raised it more than once. He has written to the Lord Chancellor, put down questions and pursued his case vigorously. My noble and learned Friend is not unsympathetic towards local opinion, but I must make clear that it is his view—as it was the view of his predecessor Lord Hailsham—that if Cornwall is to continue to have the court facilities that it deserves, it is essential that a new complex is built in the foreseeable future. The hon. Member for Truro will be delighted to know that the Lord Chancellor is convinced that the weight of argument is in favour of building that complex in Truro.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Bodmin will accept that this is not a clandestine, surreptitious or furtive proposal. It has not exactly been sprung by the Government on those affected by it. As long ago as 1969, the Royal Commission on Assizes and Quarter Sessions made recommendations for court centres in South-West England—as it did for other parts of the country. The Royal Commission's proposal was that High Court judges should sit in both the High Court and the Crown court at Exeter and that, for the time being, High Court judges should continue to visit Bodmin to sit in the Crown court but not the High Court.

The Royal Commission thought that, in the longer term, Bodmin should be closed and replaced by a Crown court centre, still to be visited by High Court judges, at Truro. These recommendations were not implemented as such. Bodmin has retained the High Court as well as the Crown court during the seven years which have passed since the Courts Act 1971 came into force.

Nevertheless, in 1972, the then Lord Chancellor—the noble Lord Lord Hailsham—decided that interested parties in Cornwall should be consulted on the recommendation that, in the long run, Truro should become the High Court and Crown court centre for the county. Extensive consultation was carried out by the Lord Chancellor's Department. Approaches were made to the judiciary, the leader of the Western circuit, law societies in Cornwall and Devon, the chairmen of the appropriate benches of magistrates, the county council and the councils of Bodmin, Truro and Penzance, the high sheriff and under-sheriff, the appropriate officials of the Devon and Cornwall constabulary, the prison department of the Home Office and the Cornwall branch of the Magistrates' Association. The result was that the overwhelming majority of replies received were in favour of the move to Truro. However, in fairness to the hon. Gentleman, I must concede that the most substantial objector was the then Bodmin corporation, which argued, not unexpectedly, for the retention of the present arrangements.

However, the Lord Chancellor's decision had to be taken in the light of the opinion of the county as a whole, and in October 1972 he accepted that the centre should be transferred to Truro when suitable accommodation could be built. This decision was announced in answer to a question in another place on 16 November 1972. In view of the subsequent lack of protest or comment in Cornwall, it was assumed that the decision was broadly acceptable. It is a little surprising to find that, when the Government take the first moves to implement the decision some six years later, there is a significant body of opinion against the move.

It is the Government's intention that High Court judges should continue to visit Cornwall to sit in both the High Court and the Crown court. It is the Government's duty to provide the right facilities for this purpose, as well as for county courts. The alternative is for judges, barristers and solicitors, witnesses and jurors, prisoners, prison officers and the staff of the courts themselves to soldier on in outdated buildings which are often subject to unsatisfactory sharing arrangements. In due course, if no new accommodation is provided, arrears of work will build up to unacceptable levels or the alternative solution of transferring work elsewhere will have to be adopted.

The Government cannot plan the future arrangements for the High Court, Crown court and county courts on a short-term, hand-to-mouth basis. Indeed, the reform of the courts brought about by the Courts Act 1971 was largely designed to enable Governments to think ahead and plan properly.

The hon. Member for Bodmin has suggested that either no such modernisation is required or, if it is, it could be achieved by adapation of the existing building at Bodmin at a cost far fess than the estimated £2.5 million which is earmarked for the proposed building at Truro. With great respect to the hon. Member and to the strongly and sincerely held views of his constituents, I am afraid that new accommodation will be required in the foreseeable future and that it is not possible, within the bounds of reasonable expenditure, to achieve this by adaptation of the existing courthouse. I should like to explain the position in rather more detail.

It has been said that the existing two courtrooms at Bodmin are not fully used. This is true at the present time, there being some spare capacity. Nevertheless, it would be dangerous indeed to plan on the basis that this fairly minimal spare capacity will continue to exist. The statistical projections for the work load of the Crown court over the next 10 years suggest that, by perhaps 1987–88, the work load at Bodmin overall—that is, High Court, Crown court and county court—will be beyond the capacity of the two courtrooms.

It would be unwise not to plan some extension, but in any event courtroom capacity itself is not the main problem at present. The accommodation at Bodmin as a whole is very unsatisfactory by comparison with what is regarded as acceptable in modern terms. This is not to say that a fine building has not honourably served its purpose for a long time. The hon. Gentleman made clear that Bodmin is very proud of its court, and rightly so, but it is 150 years old and is deficient in a number of important ways. There is only one small consultation room, so that parties, counsel and solicitors have to manage as best they can in the public areas of the courthouse. There is little proper accommodation for judges sitting in the Crown court or for jurors or witnesses. Equally, the cell accommodation is poor, and complaints have been dealt with only by assurances that proper facilities for prison staff as well as for prisoners will be provided in the proposed new building. Finally—and this is an important point—the court offices are in a separate building some distance away. These are not proper facilities in this day and age.

I understand the hon. Member's desire that, if money is to be spent, it should be directed to extension of the existing building, but it is simply not true that the building at Bodmin could be adapted economically to provide an additional courtroom and the fairly extensive facilities for offices and court users that are clearly needed. The Property Services Agency has re-examined the position very recently. It has reached the conclusion that the courthouse at Bodmin would be very difficult to extend or adapt. It is built of granite and is on an island site. There would appear to be little hope, therefore, of extending the building outwards.

Furthermore, the courthouse is a scheduled building. Experience shows that it is very difficult to predict, and even more difficult to contain, expenditure on major adaptations of historic buildings.

Consequently, any extension at Bodmin would have to be made more or less within the framework of the existing building. To provide the space that is required, and is planned at Truro, would mean adding two floors. The experts from the PSA see no practicable way in which this could be done. In addition, were Bodmin to be adapted, the Crown would have to acquire it in the first place—it belongs to the county council at the moment—at a cost which cannot be estimated at present and alternative accommodation would have to be found for a considerable period of time while building work was in operation. Although a precise estimate of cost is not possible, the Property Services Agency takes the view that overall expenditure would be comparable to that proposed for Truro.

The position is, therefore, that Cornwall cannot soldier on indefinitely with the existing facilities if arrears of work are not to get out of hand. Furthermore, what is needed cannot be achieved by adaptation of the courthouse at Bodmin. If a new court complex is to be provided, a decision must be taken—difficult though it is—as to where it should be. It would be idle to pretend that the Government, in taking a decision of this kind, can satisfy all interested parties. That has been amply demonstrated this evening. Nevertheless, it is the Government's view that the arguments weigh in favour of a move to Truro—a one-minute speech as opposed to a 15-minute speech—and that, all-in-all, Truro is better placed to serve the whole county in this respect.

Of course, the views of those who live in northern and eastern Cornwall must be respected as must the opinion of those who feel that the historic connection with Bodmin should be maintained. However, the majority of the work of the Crown court in Cornwall does originate from well to the south of Bodmin and, generally, from the parts of the county adjacent to Truro or south of it.

I am assured, although I am not an expert on the area, that the greater weight of the population is in that area. I see that the hon. Member for Truro nods. Opinion about accessibility of particular towns is necessarily very subjective, but Truro I am informed would seem to be more accessible to a greater proportion of the population of Cornwall than Bodmin. I do not want to go over the arguments—which the hon. Gentleman did not find convincing—in my noble Friend's letter, about the fact that Truro lies on the main railway line to Penzance. Nor do I think any good would be served by rehearsing the other six points. A balance has to be struck. In 1972, it was struck in favour of Truro after extensive local consultation and my noble Friend does not believe that the position has changed since then.

There is one final problem of some importance which concerns the organisation of the courts in Cornwall and which would be solved by a new building at Truro. Just as the facilities at Bodmin are inadequate and must be replaced, so the existing facilities for the county court at Truro, which is a good deal busier than the county court at Bodmin, are unsatisfactory. The court has to sit in the magistrates' court and its offices are some distance away from the courthouse. This is a serious inconvenience though the sharing arrangements with the magistrates are very amicable. The new court complex would combine all the facilities needed for the High Court, Crown court and Truro county court, including the district registry of the High Court which, again very inconveniently, currently has to serve the sittings of the High Court at Bodmin. The courthouse at Bodmin would continue to be used by the Bodmin county court and would, though I do not know if this would be necessary, be available for magistrates' sittings. Thus, the result would be that Cornwall would get good modern facilities to replace arrangements which are clearly unsatisfactory at present for both Bodmin and Truro.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my noble Friend would be pleased to meet him and a delegation he wished to take, but it would be wrong and misleading to imply that my noble Friend would, of necessity, change his mind. The Government hold to their decision that to move the High Court and Crown court centre from Bodmin to Truro is correct and in the long-term interests of better administration of justice in Cornwall. The complex there should serve the whole county effectively for many years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past One o'clock.