HC Deb 10 July 1996 vol 281 cc372-80 1.29 pm
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

I am most grateful for this opportunity to raise an important matter in my constituency: the need for new magistrates courts in Bolton. Whenever I have conducted an opinion poll in my constituency, law and order has always come out as my constituents' top concern and therefore the efficient administration of justice in Bolton is of the highest priority.

The Government admitted the need for new magistrates courts in Bolton as far back as 1989. Everyone in Bolton had been confident that, by now, work would definitely have started on the new buildings. The present courts were built in the 1930s with, initially, just two courtrooms, but the increasing pressure of work has led to eight courtrooms being squeezed into the original building, with totally inadequate facilities for everyone involved. Not only the general public, but the staff who work there, the lawyers, the reporters and everyone concerned with the administration of the courts have to suffer intolerable conditions.

I notice that page 4 of the Government's victims charter clearly says to the public: You can expect if you have to go to court as a witness you will be treated with respect and sensitivity. You can ask to wait separately from those involved in the case. Sadly, in Bolton, that is not true. While waiting to go in, victims and their assailants are forced to sit hugger-mugger next to each other in the corridor outside the court, to the obvious distress of the innocent victims. The other day, a social worker was assaulted while waiting to go into court.

The Association of Magisterial Officers has produced a leaflet emphasising the need for decent facilities. It says: The physical environment of court buildings and courts are a significant factor in creating an effective atmosphere for local justice to be conducted. Each building should recognise and meet the differing needs of all users and should offer, as a minimum, the following: discrete waiting areas, separate facilities for families and children, non-smoking environment with designated smoking area, creches, public telephones, refreshment facilities, facilities for victim support and witness care, access and toilet facilities for wheelchair users, audio induction loops, facilities for nursing mothers and for baby changing, security arrangements which ensure a non-threatening and secure environment. A service which is community based must be accessible to all members of the community. The court should be located in a central position with good affordable public transport and adequate car parking for its users. All persons including those with physical disabilities must be catered for. The Minister will be aware of the information published by the Lord Chancellor's Department showing courts' performance, including one showing the basic quality of service. A sheet headed "1995 MIS indicator values … clerkship category: H" on the performance of Bolton and the quality of service shows that the average courtroom has 48 interview rooms, whereas Bolton has only 20 interview rooms, and that on average there are 38 telephones available for professional users, but only seven, on average, in Bolton. On average, there are 25 separate waiting areas for domestic and juvenile cases, but Bolton has none. There should be, on average, 25 waiting areas for victims and witnesses, but there are none in Bolton. On average, there are three facilities for mothers and children in other courtrooms, but Bolton has none, so clearly Bolton is unable to give the quality of service.

An overall score for quality of service is calculated by a complicated formula. It shows that Bolton has a score of only 607, compared with an average of 812. The best courts have a score of 1,221. Bolton's score is the lowest, so Bolton has the lowest quality of service of any court in clerkship category H. Therefore, without doubt, there must be an improvement in the service in Bolton.

Bolton nevertheless runs its overcrowded courts extremely efficiently. Another sheet produced by the Department shows the cost per weighted case. Bolton comes out with a cost of £18.50 per case, compared with an average that I have calculated of £22.75. That compares with the high figure of £27.80 in nearby Bury, so clearly Bolton is providing its service efficiently. We are getting administration on the cheap in Bolton, at the cost of services that should be provided.

The courtrooms in Bolton are in use for more than 7,400 hours per year—the highest in Greater Manchester, outside Manchester city itself. The average weighted cost per case for Bolton, which has 77,000 cases, comes out at £18.50. I calculate that, on the number of cases being transacted in Bolton each year, that is saving the Government more than £250,000 a year, so we have paid for our new courtrooms already.

That is all to the massive credit of Bolton's excellent team, brilliantly led by Peter Dawson, the chief clerk to the court, his deputy Robert Walker and the excellent chairman of the bench, Mr. Frank Woods. Bolton deserves every favourable consideration by the Government, instead of which it has been let down abominably.

More than seven years ago, the Government admitted the need for the new courts and we were delighted when, in 1994, we were given the go ahead. The Lord Chancellor kindly accepted my invitation to visit Bolton in autumn 1995 to lay the foundation stone. We set the date for 17 November 1995. In January that year, the Lord Chancellor's Department wrote to the council, somewhat ironically urging that there should be no slippage by anyone responsible in Bolton.

The council acted promptly. Tenders were sent out soon after and, in August, tenders were opened from seven national companies that bid for the contract, worth approximately £8 million. In September, the consultative committee of the local authority and the Magistrates Courts Committee advised the successful tenderer that they had approved his tender at a cost of £7.5 million, which was well within the overall cost limit of £8.7 million.

Those tenders were submitted in good faith by private sector firms that had incurred the cost of tendering, and the successful tenderer should have been awarded the contract, but the private sector was let down badly. All of a sudden, out of the blue—or perhaps it was out of the red—the Treasury stepped in to stop the contract and on 2 October 1995 the Lord Chancellor's Department wrote to the council to stop the tender being placed, literally on the day that that was going to happen.

Surprisingly, the Lord Chancellor still expected the new courts to go ahead. Perhaps it was a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing, because I received a letter dated 10 October from the diary secretary suggesting a new date for the Lord Chancellor to visit Bolton—Friday 26 April 1996. That suggested to us in Bolton that there had been a bit of a delay, but that we could look forward to matters still proceeding, with any new financing arrangements that might be decided. Can the Minister confirm that that was the position on 10 October when that letter was written? Or was it just that one hand did not know what the other was doing?

On 20 December, the former Minister kindly met a delegation from Bolton, including Peter Dawson, and Roger Widdicar, then chairman of the bench, and the architect working in the town hall, who came to press for an early decision. A total of £600,000 of public money had already been spent on costs and fees. The former Minister led us to believe that the Lord Chancellor's Department was hoping that 10 successful schemes would be announced in the coming year. Leaving that meeting, we were fairly confident of progress although there had been a little delay. Sadly, the Lord Chancellor is still no nearer visiting Bolton. We would be delighted to see him, but we do not know when that might be; nor do we know if Bolton will ever get its new court.

What on earth has gone wrong? It seems that the Government have run out of money. Yesterday's financial statement confirmed that the national debt has doubled to more than £350 billion since 1990 when the Prime Minister came to power. He was formerly a banker and perhaps his greatest achievement has been to persuade the money markets to accept such massive debt. Plainly, such spending had to stop and it was Bolton's great misfortune to be at the door just as the Government decided to slam it shut. It is doubly unfair to Bolton, whose thrift saved the money to pay for the new court by running the present system more efficiently than any other in Greater Manchester. If every Government operation were run as efficiently as Bolton's court system, there would be plenty of money to pay for a new court.

It is said that the magic private finance initiative will provide for all our needs. The Government announced that the PFI would pay for the new court buildings, but they had not done their homework. At a meeting on 27 March it was felt that, even after six months, all would be well, but the Lord Chancellor's Department wrote on 10 April saying, in effect, "Oh dear, we can't do it—it's illegal." In a letter to Bolton's chief executive, Mr. David Adlington stated that the Justices of the Peace Act specifically excludes capital expenditure from revenue grant. The letter stated that amending the Act would require primary legislation. The Government have not made time available for primary legislation, so where are we now? The Lord Chancellor's Department promised to give Bolton guidance by January of this year on how the PH would work, but we are still waiting for that guidance.

I read in the papers about confusion the length and breadth of the country. A headline in The Observer on Sunday states: PFI at risk of collapse, warns Clarke". What way is that for us to get our new magistrates court? Perhaps the Minister will tell us how we can expect to proceed.

I understand that the Minister who is particularly responsible is the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who was formerly a Home Office Minister. In 1992, when he was at the Home Office, he visited the magistrates court and agreed that it was necessary to renew it. That Treasury Minister is therefore aware of the need. He is also responsible for the administration of the PFI. Yet he seems to be one of the problems preventing us from proceeding.

On 27 November last year, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury wrote a "Dear Colleague" letter about the joys of the PFI. In the letter he states that the PFI is wonderful and under the heading, "Why is this better?" he says that the public get the service that they need. Sadly, that is not happening in Bolton.

As I have said, the weekend press was full of alarms and excursions and I understand that the Prime Minister had a heated meeting with the heads of major Departments to find out what had gone wrong. I do not know whether the Lord Chancellor's Department was represented at that meeting. It certainly should have been, so that the Prime Minister could hear about what was happening in Bolton.

How are we in Bolton to make our decisions? We have to use temporary accommodation to keep going. The Minister will be aware of that, because on account of it there was an application for £100,000 to meet costs. Bolton needs to provide a full service. The people there should not have to travel to Wigan, Rochdale, Bury or Salford because the Government have decided that the courts should be amalgamated in the new scheme. I had a letter a short time ago from Peter Dawson, who said that he felt that the amalgamation would result in the loss of local identity and control of magistrates courts. I fear that that is what we are experiencing. If the Government think that somehow the work load in Bolton can be transferred to courts elsewhere, I can tell them that that is certainly not the service that people in Bolton expect.

Obviously, we need to provide a good local service. There is enough difficulty getting some witnesses to come to court without telling them that they might have to go to a different town. To do that would throw away the benefits of Bolton's efficient, low-cost service, and it would massively disadvantage the public.

The PFI model projects a requirement in Bolton rising from 7,500 court hours a year to 9,500 a year over 20 years. It is clear that the Government do not expect any diminution in the demand for court services in Bolton. It might be thought that if law and order measures were working well we would not need all the court hours, but Government figures on the future projected need for court services in Bolton expect continued expansion.

We need clear instructions and guidance on how to proceed, and I suggest that the Minister's best course would be to tell the Treasury that we should be excused from the PR. We were caught in the door at the last minute and I do not think that at that time anyone realised that it would be illegal to use the PR in Bolton. Excusing us would be the best course, if only on the ground that the best site for the court, which is next door to the existing one in Cheadle square, is owned by the local authority which has agreed to provide it. How could a PR for a site somewhere else, paid for by private sector funds, meet the cost of the local authority providing a site at Cheadle square?

The Minister should demand that the Treasury reinstate the project and say that it is unsuitable for the PR. If he insists on the PFI, we want clear ground rules and a proper timetable so that we can get on with the job. If he does not do that, I fear that we shall never have the new courts that Bolton justly deserves. The Government say that they want to improve justice, but is that just rhetoric? An answer to a parliamentary question on 4 July shows that the average delay in Greater Manchester in bringing indictable offences to court for completion was 112 days. That is far too long, but if we do not have efficient courts how can we reduce it?

I understand that four other authorities are in the same difficulty as Bolton. They are Bedfordshire, Birmingham, Humberside and Newcastle upon Tyne. Therefore, the issue concerns not just Bolton. I congratulate all those people in Bolton, including Mr. Grogan and the town hall team, who have worked so hard. Frank Woods, the excellent chairman of the Bolton magistrates courts committee, recently sent a letter to the Bolton Evening News and I will end by quoting from it. It states: We shall continue with the utmost determination to pursue our aim of achieving a new court complex for Bolton". I certainly exonerate the recently appointed Minister from the previous failings of his Department, of which the Government should be thoroughly ashamed. I look forward to hearing how we can proceed with confidence to have new court buildings in Bolton as soon as possible.

1.47 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Gary Streeter)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) on securing a debate on this important issue and I welcome his support for the proposed scheme to provide a new magistrates court in Bolton. I commend him for the excellent way in which he presented his strong and powerful case. He is right to draw my attention again to the concern of his constituents about the efficient administration of law and order and to say that the Lord Chancellor's Department must do all that it can to secure that. And so we shall.

I fully accept that the courthouse in Bolton has outgrown its original purpose. I understand that it was designed to have three courtrooms but that it now sits with up to nine courts and that further growth is expected. The extra courtrooms have been provided by adapting the building over the years and, as a result, the supporting facilities for all those who use the building are clearly no longer adequate. As my hon. Friend knows, I have not seen Bolton court, but I can imagine what it is like and if he invites me I will certainly go to Bolton to see it. He makes a strong case for a new building. Investment in new facilities is plainly needed and the case for a new courthouse in Bolton has been accepted. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his considerable efforts over the years to secure improved accommodation for the provision of local justice.

As I said, we accept the case for a new courthouse in Bolton, but I must make one matter clear: it will be built under the Government's private finance initiative and in no other way. The search for privately financed solutions in place of publicly funded capital projects is now being taken up across the broad spectrum of public service activity, and the Government are committed to delivering the PR approach. That message was reinforced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister only last week. Meeting the accommodation needs of magistrates courts is no exception, and my officials have been working towards the launch of the entire forward building programme for the PFI route. So I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East that, contrary to his reading of the Sunday newspapers, the PFI is certainly not confused but is alive and kicking.

The PFI represents a completely new approach. It presents challenges and uncertainties, although I understand that some people may feel apprehensive about the prospect of securing their new courthouse by this procurement route. There has, of course, never been an absolute guarantee of public funding under traditional arrangements, and even under the PH, delivery of the programme will always be subject to what the taxpayer can afford.

Recognising that fact, my officials held a workshop with representatives of magistrates courts committees, local authority associations and the private sector. The workshop considered how the PH should be applied to magistrates courts to test how the PH could meet their particular requirements. The PH will involve the private sector owning the building, providing accommodation on a service basis, and accepting the transfer of certain risks in so doing. Crucially, the workshop exercise also showed that value for money can be achieved with this level of private sector involvement, while still allowing magistrates and their staff to carry out the courts' functions.

I am well aware that the Bolton magistrates courts committee—with the metropolitan borough council and with other courts committees and authorities which have schemes in the building programme—are anxious to proceed. Sadly, however, in April officials had to notify local authorities and MCCs that implementation was being delayed while certain accounting arrangements were resolved, and I should like to take a moment to explain the background to that.

Although local authorities have a statutory duty to provide magistrates courts with accommodation, either directly or by procuring from the private sector, my Department meets 80 per cent. of that cost by way of grant. That is true whether the cost involves a capital scheme or is met from revenue. The Justices of the Peace Act 1979 sets out the basis on which grant is provided and contains a provision that prevents revenue grant being used for capital purposes. We had to be sure that the revenue grant that would be available to authorities could be used for meeting PFI costs, and we have now researched the matter thoroughly.

I am pleased to be able to announce today that that doubt has been removed. Proposals recently announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration, which will ease the adoption of the PFI by local authorities, have the effect of clarifying the accounting position. I am also grateful to the members of the private finance panel, who are involved in discussions with industry and accounting organisations to pave the way for PFI projects to proceed. Draft regulations affecting local authority capital finance were published by the Department of the Environment earlier this week and deal with the particular accounting obstacle holding up implementation of the magistrates courts building programme under the PFI. I am therefore satisfied that the accounting obstacle has been resolved, and I am pleased to announce that the PFI programme will now be launched.

I mentioned that we have a building programme; in fact, there are currently 50 schemes awaiting funding. They will continue to be ordered into a programme to be delivered over a number of years. Although the private sector will be asked to make the initial investment, it will levy a charge for the provision of the required accommodation and related services.

In the case of magistrates courts, there is little scope for those charges being met by raising money from other sources. Some income may be generated from catering, car parking or use of spare accommodation, but in practice the charge will continue to be met by the local authority and will require grant support from the Government. That is subject to public expenditure cash limits in the same way as capital has been. The rate at which the programme can be delivered is therefore subject to the availability of funding, as it always has been. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East, who is a shrewd and successful business man, will understand that.

The delay of several months that has occurred while the accounting problem that I mentioned earlier was resolved will mean that some new courts will not be available as early as was originally planned. Obviously, I regret that. It must be recognised that those original plans would have had to be revised in any event, in response to the need to restrain public spending. Clearly those schemes that were close to being started will be most affected, and there is no question in my mind but that Bolton is one such scheme. In drawing up the revised programme, we shall be looking to meet those in the greatest need first, but we will take account of any delay that has been experienced. The implementation programme will be structured to allow lessons learnt from a "pathfinder" project to be applied to projects that will follow in phases. That will improve the chances of achieving successful agreements.

I am pleased to be able to confirm that the Bolton scheme, which had indeed reached an advanced stage of planning, will be among the first group invited to prepare proposals. It is expected that authorities will be able to advertise some of those schemes this autumn and the remainder in the next financial year, according to the level of funding available. Once advertised, I expect negotiations to proceed through to contract and service delivery.

I am keen to see Bolton, as with all magistrates courts committees in a similar situation, working imaginatively with the private sector to secure value-for-money projects which serve the community well. I commend the Bolton magistrates courts committee for the efficient way in which it is running that difficult court building, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East has clearly explained in this debate.

For Bolton, working imaginatively means that the magistrates courts committee will need to review its needs in the light of its current and expected work load and of any organisational changes that are likely to take place. In particular, it will need to take account of the planned amalgamation with neighbouring MCCs, and the likely effect of that on the need for and location of new court facilities across the new MCC area.

That review will then form the basis of a revised business case, to be sent to my officials by the end of September with a draft PFI brief and advertisement, to enable them to ensure that those who face the most difficult operational problems and are best able to demonstrate that they are ready to proceed with the PFI are given priority. I shall of course listen to the representations of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East—which will no doubt be made in September, hot on the heels of any proposals made by the Bolton magistrates courts committee.

It is therefore still our position that the new Bolton magistrates court will proceed, but it will proceed under the PFI scheme. The costs and fees that have already been incurred in bringing the scheme to the current level, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East referred, need not be wasted.

As I have already mentioned, the PFI will require a new and more imaginative approach by all those concerned if we are to reap the full benefits of involving the private sector. It will not be sufficient simply to pick up the threads of existing schemes. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East to take this message back to his magistrates courts committee: it is not merely a matter of dusting off the existing scheme—we are now looking for a more imaginative scheme, and for more active involvement of the private sector to be apparent in the proposal that is made in September.

Time and again, the private sector has demonstrated its capacity to produce exciting and imaginative solutions to problems. Our approach to the PFI must be geared to ensuring that we enjoy the benefits that will flow if the private sector is given a free reign to apply those skills to the problem of meeting the needs of the magistrates court service.

This debate has therefore come at a pivotal moment in provision of magistrates courts. The theoretical obstacles have been put behind us, and we are about to embark on the practical challenge of delivering the programme. Each proposal will be different and will have to be assessed on its merits. As that will be new to everyone concerned, my officials will provide local authorities and MCCs with active support, which will ensure that lessons learnt are collectively available for the benefit of all.

Detailed guidance and procedures have been prepared since the intention to pursue the PFI was announced. We shall also be arranging a number of seminars to help those involved to get off to a sound start and to avoid any further delay. I therefore genuinely hope that it will not be too long before the Bolton project can proceed, and we are celebrating the opening of a new magistrates courthouse in Bolton. It will, of course, be a tribute to the tireless work of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East, who has ensured that the critical importance of the Bolton project has been kept at the forefront of everyone's mind.

It being two minutes to Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.