HC Deb 10 June 1998 vol 313 cc1041-9

1 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to introduce the debate. I also thank the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, for being here, and for his considerable courtesy in receiving my hon. Friends and myself on more than one occasion to discuss this important issue in the life of Suffolk.

Five of the 10 existing courthouses in Suffolk are under threat. Two are in my constituency, and the others are in the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), both of whom, I am sure, will seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am most grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann), and I have here messages of support from my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard).

Throughout Suffolk there is a universal view that closure would mean a terrible breakdown of the criminal justice system locally, and would have a detrimental effect on local communities. There is a simple principle at stake here—that local justice should, if at all possible, be done locally, in local magistrates courts, by local magistrates.

The question at the heart of the issue is: is the proposal to close the five courts justified? I have to tell the House that I do not believe that there is any justification whatever. Suffolk is a rural county and settlements are geographically spread out. The public transport infrastructure is poor, and to the extent that it exists at all in many areas, it hardly works. It would certainly not be convenient for those seeking to use the courts. The small towns and rural communities of Suffolk are often self-contained, and very different one from another.

The working party report of the magistrates courts committee in Suffolk sought to justify the proposals. Under the heading, "The National Background", it says: In Suffolk we are fortunate that the County Council, the Police, the Prosecution Service and the MCC share the same boundaries. Nevertheless, we cannot be complacent and if we are to remain as an independent unit as one of the smaller MCCs we will have to be financially viable. We consider that a serious attempt by the MCC to prepare itself for the 21st century is essential. I do not believe, and I am sure that the Minister does not believe, that there is any fundamental reason based on national criteria for the MCC to take that view, because it is not confirmed by reality.

The report highlights economies of scale, as follows: It cannot be considered either effective or efficient use of resources to have court staff travelling around the County when we already have a problem with the number of court clerks actually sitting in courts. That reminds me of the story in which, at the turn of the century, someone was shown all the great yachts belonging to Wall street bankers—"This is Mr. J. P. Morgan's yacht, this is Mr. Rockefeller's and that is Mr. Vanderbilt's." That individual turned round and asked, "Where are the customers' yachts?"

The courthouse system of local magistracy exists not for the convenience of court clerks but for the carrying out of the criminal justice system in local communities, and for defendants, witnesses, magistrates and solicitors.

Those are the people primarily concerned with making the system work well. Local magistrates know their communities and areas well, and the difficulties of recruiting magistrates are already well known. Everything would be put at risk.

Magistrates, the police, defendants, witnesses and solicitors would all incur substantial additional costs if the courthouses were closed. Here, I am delighted to have the support of the commander of the western area of the Suffolk constabulary, who entirely shares my view about additional policing time and costs.

The public purse would lose far more money through the closure of the courts than would be gained by any possible savings highlighted by the magistrates courts committee. Indeed, the North Essex and Suffolk Law Society says that additional costs for solicitors alone, primarily because of legal aid costs, would outweigh any possible savings, without even considering all the other cost pressures on the public purse.

In a letter to me dated 24 March, the justices' chief executive wrote: The Courts Committee has had regard to the poor facilities at those courthouses". The Minister's predecessor as Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), visited the courthouses in my constituency in January last year, and saw for himself what the facilities were like. There was no question of criticism of their fabric. Furthermore, I have never heard any criticism from magistrates, members of the public or anyone else in the local communities about the facilities.

The working party report says: Many rural courts are cramped and not conducive to the dignified delivery of justice. That is a matter for magistrates and those involved in the local criminal justice system to decide, and those people are entirely happy with the fabric of the courthouses. That argument, like all the other arguments advanced by the MCC, does not wash.

Another argument that the MCC has hinted at is access for the disabled. I have yet to have a complaint from any disabled person about access to the courts, where arrangements are made should the necessity ever arise in the first place. No local magistrate believes in the closure of the courthouses—that is an essential element in the situation.

One of the two courthouses in my constituency is in Haverhill, a town with a population of more than 20,000 and growing rapidly. Surrounding villages bring in another 8,000 people, and recruitment of magistrates has been especially difficult. Such is the real concern in that community about the potential closure of the courthouse, that I have had sackloads of letters from people there on the subject. The town council is prepared to spend £9,000 of its minuscule budget to help to keep the courthouse open.

The reason for that support from the local community lies in the campaigns, to which I pay tribute, by the Haverhill Echo and the Haverhill Weekly News, which have been most supportive. Both papers point out that it would be impossible for them to send a reporter long distances—to Bury St. Edmunds, say—to report what happens in the magistrates court, which is an important part of the local criminal justice system.

Newmarket, the world headquarters of racing, has a population of 20,000, soon to be increased by 5,000 in the nearby village of Red Lodge. Already, one prominent local magistrate has resigned because there is no adequate public transport between Newmarket and Mildenhall. There is a huge wave of public fury in Newmarket at that, and I salute the Newmarket Journal, the local newspaper, which has been running a coupon campaign. The fabric of the building concerned contains cells; it is adjacent to the police station; it is complete; and it works extremely well.

The Parliamentary Secretary has seen the correspondence, and he will know that the magistrates courts committee has a budgetary surplus this year and next year. All of the salient points that I have sought to raise in correspondence with the chairman of the MCC have been ignored; he has refused to answer those points.

That brings me to my final point, which concerns the consultation process—or rather, the lack of it. Solicitors in the county of Suffolk have been extremely angry at the lack of full consultation with them. We as Members of Parliament sought meetings with the chairman of the magistrates courts committee. We offered to meet him in London; we offered to meet him in Suffolk; we offered to meet him privately; we offered anything for his convenience; but he flatly refused to see us. That reflects an attitude of utter contempt for the democratically elected representatives of the people of Suffolk.

It is a matter of judgment for the magistrates who sit on the magistrates courts committee whether, knowing how the matter has been conducted, they would want the chairman and vice-chairman of the committee to continue in their jobs. If I were a magistrate, knowing how the public in Suffolk have lost confidence in the MCC, I would seriously consider their future/

The Minister will know that the county council has appealed. Every district council in the county shares its view, which is one of opposition. The local daily paper, the East Anglian Daily Times, has been magnificently supportive. There is no basis or justification for the closures. Our country, of course, comprises urban and rural areas; people must have no perception of an urban-rural divide. I know that the Minister will agree with that. If magistrates courts are closed in a rural county such as Suffolk, that will be regarded as a body blow to the fabric of our rural communities and our rural county. I therefore beseech the Minister to reject the proposals to close the magistrates courts.

1.12 pm
Mr. Jamie Cann (Ipswich)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. Does the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) have the permission of the Minister to speak? In an Adjournment debate, the Minister must give his authority for that.

Mr. Cann

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I will not speak for long.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) on initiating this Adjournment debate, and on the work that he has put in on the issue. I am not quite as harsh about the members of the MCC as he has been; they are honest, decent people trying to do the right thing. It is perfectly appropriate for them to review costs and levels of service. My problem with them is that they have produced candle-end savings, at great cost to the service provided to the people of Suffolk.

It may be thought odd that I am speaking in the debate; there is no proposal to remove the magistrates court in my constituency. However, we must recognise that under the proposed reduction in the number of magistrates courts, more and more people will use the court in my constituency. There is a great danger that the process of justice, which in many cases is already too slow, will be further slowed by such closures. It is of interest to everyone in Suffolk if the police budget will be affected in the way that everyone to whom I have spoken tells me that it will. More people being transported greater distances means fewer people on beats; it is as simple as that.

I am therefore against the MCC's proposal, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will listen to us.

1.13 pm
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for allowing me to speak briefly.

There are two magistrates courts in my constituency. One is in Felixstowe, the population of which and neighbouring parts is more than 25,000. The court has a proud record; it is busy, and perfectly adequate for the magistrates who want to sit there. Certainly there is no room for more cases in Ipswich without considerable changes in the Ipswich courts. I have occasionally argued with the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann), but we are united on this matter. It is not sensible for either Ipswich or Felixstowe. It is important that there should be a magistrates court, which is of the town in Felixstowe and to which people can relate. That is what local justice is about.

At the other end of my constituency, in Saxmundham, there is a rural court, providing a crucial part of the service. We are talking about a rural area, so people are supposed to go to Lowestoft. But very few people use Lowestoft. Excellent though the town is, it is not part of people's normal run. It is hard, if not impossible, to get to Lowestoft by public transport from any of the villages. To go from Aldeburgh or Leiston to Lowestoft is a day's journey. It is far too complicated for most witnesses to want to bother. I am worried about having a justice system with witnesses being unavailable. They will not attend because it is all too much trouble. I am also worried that justice will be seen as something for the towns but not for the countryside.

The court at Saxmundham is excellent. It has all the facilities, and good access for disabled people. It is part of the town's fabric, and means that there are branch offices of solicitors in Saxmundham. All of us who defend rural areas know that, when such institutions, especially courts, are removed, all sorts of infrastructure is removed as well.

I am deeply opposed to the change, and want to add my considerable embarrassment that we have had to have this debate. The Minister has been extremely kind in using his time. But why, when the Minister has been prepared to see us twice and to allow this debate, will the magistrates courts committee not meet us at all? So rude was that committee that, when I offered to have a private meeting in my own home, the invited individual did not even bother to say whether or not he was coming. That is the local situation, and we have been unable to solve the problem.

The money involved is not much, but it is far outweighed by costs for the time of the police, solicitors and witnesses. The costs to the public purse will be considerably greater. When one part of the public system feels that it can save money by making another service in the public system more expensive, the only person to whom to turn is the Minister. It is his job to say that it is not sensible to save £70,000 on one part of the public system, given that twice as much will be spent elsewhere.

Will the Minister do what he can to ensure that the magistrates courts committee's proposals, which are opposed by all three political parties in Suffolk, the district councils and the county council, are overturned, and that we can continue to have the excellent court service that we now have?

1.17 pm
Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds)

May I place on record my appreciation of the courtesy, the time and trouble that the Minister has taken in addressing the concerns set out by my right hon. and hon. Friends? It is more courtesy than has been extended by the Suffolk magistrates courts committee.

I shall be brief, because the Minister will need time to respond. I am concerned about the future of Stowmarket courthouse. Stowmarket is a small market town in my constituency. In the past few months, there has been a movement of rural people who feel, with some justification, that rural values and interests are under threat. They see that in the health settlements that have been doled out, and they are unhappy about education funding. The issue of local justice is on all fours with their concerns about schools and hospitals. In Stowmarket, there is no local support whatsoever for the closure. The Stowmarket citizens advice bureau does not want it. Stowmarket and Needham Market town councils do not want it; nor does the local inspector, Inspector Davies. The reason why they are so opposed to the proposed closure is that it will undermine local justice.

We are in a new age of politics, when community is becoming increasingly important—no more so than in the case of Stowmarket. The magistrates in Stowmarket say passionately that only they are the best magistrates to dispense local justice. In a small town such as Stowmarket, they know many of the individuals, witnesses and local policemen. It is no use asking them to travel to Bury St. Edmunds or Ipswich to sit on cases of which they have not much knowledge. My constituents, whether witnesses or defendants, might have to travel long distances to go before people who simply do not understand them, the area or the local concerns. It is that fundamental undermining of localism that is the most offensive aspect of the closure about which we are protesting.

As my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, the magistrates courts committee has argued that it is seeking to introduce so-called economies. That argument is entirely bogus. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has eloquently said, the cost to the public purse will far outweigh any minor savings resulting from the closure of Stowmarket magistrates court.

The closure will result in higher demands on the legal aid fund and on police time, as the local police force in Stowmarket has said. For those reasons, and for the reasons adduced by my right hon. and hon. Friends, I urge the Minister, if this case comes before him on appeal, to weigh those arguments very carefully, not least because rural areas will be hugely appreciative if he finds in their favour.

1.21 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

I grateful to the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) for the opportunity to deal with this matter once again. I met him, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) two days ago. I note the observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann).

The provision of magistrates courts in Suffolk, in common with the rest of England and Wales, is the responsibility of a locally managed service. Each area is administered by a locally based magistrates courts committee, which is made up of local magistrates. Under legislation enacted in 1994 by the previous Government, those committees have a statutory responsibility to provide for the effective and efficient administration of the magistrates courts in their areas. Those responsibilities are now set out in the Justices of the Peace Act 1997.

It is for the individual magistrates courts committee, in consultation with its paying authority—in this case, Suffolk county council—to determine both the number of courthouses it needs and where they should be sited. If an MCC decides to close a courthouse, the paying authority has the right of appeal to the Lord Chancellor under section 56 of that Act. In determining its needs, both now and for the future, an MCC might consider it prudent to close one or more old, ill-equipped or otherwise unsuitable courthouses. Of course, that might be part of a continuing programme, which includes plans for new courthouses with improved facilities.

I emphasise that whether a court should close is, in the first instance, entirely a matter for the local MCC, which takes the decision in the light of local needs. The Lord Chancellor has only a limited role in the provision of magistrates courthouses. First, he may determine any appeal that a paying authority makes to him. That is the limit of the Lord Chancellor's jurisdiction on closures. Secondly, he may approve any bid for inclusion in the Lord Chancellor's Department's private finance initiative programme for new courts. Again, that must be supported by the local paying authority.

The Government are committed to the better distribution and use of the public resources that are allocated to MCCs as an integral part of the process for delivering justice. We want to provide a modern system of justice, with well-equipped and secure court rooms, and to reduce the time taken for cases to proceed through the courts, so honouring our manifesto commitment. We are committed equally to remaining within the spending limits that we have inherited. I cannot say, therefore, that more money will be available in future for a particular magistrates courts committee. It is the responsibility of the local magistrates court committee to manage within its existing resources.

The magistrates serving on the courts committees and those who sit in courthouses regularly are local people. Therefore, they are best placed to decide whether a particular court is helping to provide an efficient and effective system to all court users. Over the past few years, Suffolk magistrates court committee has made savings of some £287,000 by streamlining administrative processes. The MCC felt it appropriate, therefore, to begin examining other areas of its expenditure.

I remind hon. Members that, before decisions were made locally, a formal consultation process was carried out by the Suffolk magistrates court committee. It consulted on two occasions, and did so much more widely than the law requires. It invited comments on its proposals from 705 individuals and organisations, seven local MPs, eight criminal justice agencies and other court users, seven district councils, 70 local solicitors, 230 parish councils and 364 magistrates, as well as carrying out the formal statutory consultation with Suffolk county council.

I understand that hon. Members who represent Suffolk were, during the second round, given six weeks in which to comment on the MCC's current proposals.

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary is right to say that the letters were written and replies were sent, but, as he will know as a Minister, the only way in which to discover why people have done things is to ask direct questions. The MCC refused on all occasions to answer any such questions. It insisted that they were written questions, and, when they were written, the MCC did not give any answers. It was a consultation process without any consulting; it was a one-sided consultation.

Mr. Hoon

I am simply pointing out that the MCC exceeded the requirement to consult that is placed upon it by the legislation. It consulted more widely than required under the law, and, to that extent, it has fulfilled its responsibilities under the statute.

The MCC has produced a document that provides a great deal of information. The working party's report includes a description of the accommodation of the courts in question, together with a comparison of the court where it is proposed that the work is to go, a survey of users at each court, including the percentage of actual appearances from those scheduled, modes of transport, and the times and costs of local buses and trains. The MCC received 187 responses before it reached a decision about the closures.

As a result, Suffolk magistrates court committee made a formal determination to close Felixstowe, Haverhill, Newmarket, Saxmundham and Stowmarket magistrates courts, with effect from 31 December 1998. The work is to be transferred to existing courthouses at Ipswich, Sudbury, Mildenhall, Lowestoft and Bury St. Edmunds.

Hon. Members will also be aware that Suffolk county council has now appealed against all five closures, and those appeals have yet to be determined. It would therefore be inappropriate for me at this stage to comment in detail on the proposed closures of those courts. I can, however, describe the process and the matters that will be taken into account. The issues are presented by each party—in this case, the MCC and the county council—and each may comment on the various points that have been raised. The Lord Chancellor's Department will receive representations from several other interested parties, and I reassure the House that all those representations will be considered in detail when the appeal is decided.

The comments that Opposition Members have made to me during our two meetings, together with their observations in the debate, will be of great assistance in resolving such questions. Each appeal is considered separately and on its merits. It follows that there is no set formula by which the appeals are decided. However, certain considerations are common to every appeal. Account is taken of the accommodation that is offered, not just at the court that is subject to appeal but at the court to which the work will be transferred. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich will accept that that is taken fully into account.

For example, is the building fit for the purpose? What are the security arrangements in relation to violent offenders or those in custody? What facilities are provided for separate waiting areas for defendants and witnesses, and for access to telephones? What facilities are available for disabled people? What renovations are needed to bring the courthouse in question up to a modern and acceptable standard?

We also know of the distances that people have to travel, the cost of that travel and the time that is taken to complete the return journey. I know that that last element will be of particular concern to those right hon. and hon. Members who represent Suffolk constituencies. I am aware of those anxieties, and I shall certainly ensure that they are taken fully into account.

Local justice is not simply about the local delivery of justice; it is about local management, through the magistrates courts committee. Most important, it is about justice by local people for local people. Magistrates live locally, and they know that their communities are the bedrock of the local justice system. However, we must be open-minded about new ways of organising the business of magistrates courts. Just because things have been done in a particular way for many years does not necessarily mean that they are being done in the best way.

I am aware that difficult choices will continue to confront all the MCCs in England and Wales. I am sure that, in resolving those matters, the Government will derive considerable benefit—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We now come to the next adjournment debate, entitled, "Mr. Ray Herring and the Merseyside Police".