HC Deb 04 November 2003 vol 412 cc771-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

7.3 pm

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

I am very pleased to have secured this debate, although the situation has moved on considerably since I applied for it, as I shall explain as my speech unfolds.

The debate is about access to justice, particularly for my constituents in Dorset. In the foreword to the access to justice White Paper, Lord Irvine of Lairg, the then Lord Chancellor, said: The justice system should serve everyone, regardless of their means. People should be able to find effective solutions to their legal problems. Justice must not be restricted to the very wealthy, who can well afford high legal fees, or the very poor, who may qualify for legal aid. Those words apply as much now as they did then. We are talking about equal access regardless of wealth, but that also means equal access regardless of geography, which is why the reorganisation of our courts system is so important. We must ensure that witnesses called to appear in court, jurors serving the court and, equally, defendants appearing in court have access to local justice.

I was pleased that, earlier this year, I was able to meet the Minister's predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), to discuss my concerns about the reorganisation of magistrates courts in Dorset. We discussed the effects on our rural county of closing little-used courts in towns such as Wareham. If that proposal goes ahead, my constituents in Swanage will have to travel to Poole or Bournemouth to access magistrates. For defendants without private transport, that means an hour-long bus journey to either place that costs £5.75 for a return fare. It is not relevant to re-rehearse that discussion now, but it serves to show that when we discuss access to justice, geography and rurality is relevant. People in a town such as Swanage, which is poorly served by a whole range of services, incur significant cost in time and fares to access our courts.

However, I welcome the progress that the Government has made in this area. Ministers have recognised that our justice system needs to be reformed. Currently, the House of Lords is delaying the Criminal Justice Bill, which will, for example, rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim, witnesses and the community to reduce crime and bring more offenders to justice. The Courts Bill makes provisions that will allow the Government to replace magistrates courts committees and the court service with a single executive agency responsible for the administration of all courts below the House of Lords. It ends the current division between the 42 magistrates courts committees and the court service. Again, I have no desire to re-rehearse the debates on the Courts Bill, which has been through its stages in the House, but some aspects were debated on Report that merit closer examination in this debate. I am pleased to see the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) in the Chamber, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome raised at column 413 the issue of proposed changes to the western circuit.

At this point I must apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I mistakenly gave the name of the circuit as the Wessex circuit when I applied for this debate. Such is my enthusiasm for regionalism that I got carried away in using the old regional titles for something as established and historic as the western circuit. The circuit has been in existence in roughly its present form since the King's Justices first went out on assize in medieval times. Its three main centres have always been Winchester, Bristol and Exeter. Indeed, Winchester, as we all know, was the original capital of Wessex.

On Report of the Courts Bill, to which I referred earlier, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome discussed the letter sent to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole by his honour Judge John Beashel. I also received a similar letter from the judge, in which he raised concerns about the proposals to remove Winchester from the western circuit and to place it in the southeastern circuit. He argued that the current arrangements work well and that without Winchester the circuit would not have sufficient business to sustain a viable high-quality circuit. The justification for the change would be to achieve coterminosity with the Government regions, which in almost all other respects place Hampshire in the south-east and the rest of the western circuit in the south-west.

As I have said, I am an avowed advocate of regional government. I am pleased that the Government are now starting to delegate more responsibility to regional and local level and I am keen to see those regional decisions made accountable through regional government. I was concerned, however, that it appeared to practitioners, from the Lord Chief Justice downwards, that this was a proposed reorganisation driven more by bureaucratic convenience than by improvement. We need to demonstrate clearly the gains if we are to proceed. Government policy is that the regional boundaries used by Departments should follow those of the nine English Government offices of the regions and Wales, except in exceptional circumstances. Regional offices will be joining up government at regional level, including strong involvement in spending reviews. I appreciate that the Government did not want courts to be left behind in this process.

First and foremost, however, we need to ensure that local justice works for the witnesses, the victims and the local people. Proposals for re-alignment under the Courts Bill make sense and fit well with Government plans for regional government. However, the delivery of an effective justice system serving the needs of local people must not be compromised merely to achieve administrative efficiency. That is why I was so delighted to receive a letter from the Minister by fax last Thursday that made a decision on the future of Hampshire in the new unified courts administration. Remarkably, the letter was written on the very day that I secured this debate. I pay great tribute to the Minister for responding with such lightning speed to the mere suggestion of the debate. The debate was announced on Thursday morning and the fax had arrived in my office by 1.30 pm. I applaud the Minister not only for his agility, but for listening to representations that have been made on the issue.

The Minister's letter says: We have focussed on what produces the best justice system for the public in the two regions. He continues: We acknowledge that making a change at this stage would raise a number of potentially difficult issues for the Judiciary and the Bar, which could impact on the administration of justice for the public. In addition we have received representations from partner criminal justice agencies locally to the effect that from their perspective change would not bring significant benefit. The letter concludes by saying: We have decided not to realign Hampshire and the Isle of Wight at this time. That is a victory for common sense. I am sure that there were celebrations at that news this weekend throughout Somerton and Frome—led by its hon. Member.

That must not be the end of the story because two issues remain. First, the decision will be reviewed in 2006–07 and, secondly, and most importantly for my constituents, there is a question of whether we can do better in terms of access for justice for serious crimes in Dorset.

The Minister's letter says: We have decided that in order to provide a better service for court users in Dorset that, subject to the views of the Senior Judiciary, Bournemouth Crown Court should become a first tier centre. That is potentially great news for Dorset because it means all crime will be heard locally. It means that the witnesses, jurors, and defendants to whom I referred earlier will all be able to access the courts easily.

I have already told you, Madam Deputy Speaker, about the time and cost to my constituents of getting to Bournemouth by public transport. Getting to Winchester court is yet another challenge. Naturally, there is no direct bus or train service from Swanage to Winchester, so one has to get the bus to Bournemouth and a non-connecting train to Winchester, which takes more than an hour and costs almost £12 return. The cost of accessing justice for my Swanage constituents who use the Winchester court is therefore almost £17, and four hours of their time is taken each day that they attend. Will the Minister give some detail on the pledge to bring justice closer to the good people of Dorset by hearing serious crimes in Bournemouth?

When can we expect certainty on the announcement? The Minister said that it is subject to the senior judiciary. If they view the proposal as part of a longer-term strategy to allow the western circuit to be sustainable without Winchester, they might resist it. I encourage the Minister to resist them, if that is the case. The enhancement of the Bournemouth court will increase the capacity of the courts throughout the south of England and improve access. It should therefore mean that cases would be heard more quickly and justice would speed up in what is currently a very busy part of the courts system. In order to achieve that, we would need to ensure that more professionals work on the circuit in time. I would be interested to find out what steps the Minister and the Department are taking to achieve that so that the extra capacity can genuinely be capitalised upon.

A series of other questions follow from this exciting proposal. Assuming that the Minister goes ahead with this proposal, how soon does he think that we can proceed? Are there physical constraints relating to the court buildings in Bournemouth? What sort of development would be required, and how would such development relate to the reorganisation of the magistrates courts in Dorset? I appreciate that he might not be able to answer all those questions now, although I shall be delighted if he can, but I know that he and his officials will be listening carefully, so I would be happy to receive answers in due course.

The other key question is about the review in 2006–07 to which the Minister referred in his statement. What work will the Department for Constitutional Affairs undertake to prepare for such a review? If no work were done, what would have changed in the next few years? Would it not be sensible to ensure that the south-east could cope with the addition of a busy court such as Winchester and, in turn, that the addition of Bournemouth would provide sufficient work to sustain a new western circuit without Hampshire because the Minister would then have a genuine choice? I am aware that a similar anomaly will exist between Cheshire and north Wales. Will the Minister encourage change to allow coterminosity with the government regions or will the Department remain neutral?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. I hope that we shall not have too much of a replay of the Courts Bill, although clearly some reference to it is acceptable.

Jim Knight

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will refrain from that.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue. Access to justice is at the heart of much of the Government's good work. It is no doubt apparent that I expected to use a different tone in the debate when I first applied for it. I expected to be pleading for improved access to justice for Dorset in the medium to long term and for common sense in relation to the western circuit in the short term. As a result of receiving the highly efficient fax from the Minister's office last Thursday, I have been able to make a different speech. He can tell that I am excited about the potential of his proposals for Bournemouth. He has listened to the representations on Winchester. I now ask him to listen to them on behalf of Dorset, to press ahead with those proposals and to use this opportunity to give the House more detail than he gave in last week's statement.

7.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) on his success in securing this timely debate on the organisation of the courts and the western circuit. He explained why he needed to change the debate's title from Wessex circuit to western circuit. I could spend some time delving into the different definitions of what is Wessex and whether it is the same as the south-west and so on, but I do not want to waste time.

My hon. Friend noted that faxes winged their way to him on the day his Adjournment debate was selected, but I assure him that the timing of the debate was unconnected to the decision taken. However, his advocacy of the case was very much part of the process. His arguments to me, the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs were important and it is right to respond to them. Responding positively reflects the quality of his arguments. As my hon. Friend observed, we reached a decision on the organisation of the south-west region of the planned new courts agency. I am glad that our decision meets with his approval. I suspect that it will also meet with the approval of hon. Members on both sides of the House who have raised the issue in the Chamber and privately with me, as well as with many members of the judiciary and the legal services community, who have been vocal in their arguments on the subject.

It might help if I set out a bit of the history of how we went about planning the structure of the proposed agency. In our White Paper "Justice for All", the Government set out their intention to establish a new organisation responsible for the administration of all the courts in England and Wales below the House of Lords. We are implementing a programme to integrate those courts in England and Wales into a single executive agency, as my hon. Friend explained. That will be a major change programme, creating an agency of 20,000 staff engaging with a judicial work force of more than 30,000 and with a budget of about £1 billion. Bringing 43 separate organisations into one with a common management and culture will be a major leadership and change management challenge.

There are many benefits to the new agency. Briefly, it will involve better performance, better management and better use of resources; a more joined-up criminal justice system; a narrowing of the gap between offences recorded and offenders brought to justice; and a more developed stronger focus on the standards of service and modern methods of delivering services in all courts. The focus of our work is to create an organisation that is more responsive to better public service objectives and the needs of the courts' customers, victims and witnesses.

There are, of course, organisational issues to settle. In the court service, the Crown court and county courts are located in six different regions, known as circuits, each headed by a regional manager, called a circuit administrator. Magistrate's courts, on the other hand, are run by 42 independent magistrates courts committees. They are coterminous with criminal justice, police authority and Crown Prosecution Service areas.

We have decided that there should be 42 local management units when the agency is first established. That is because all the other criminal justice agencies are configured in that way. However, in the new unified courts agency, we want a regional management tier, similar to the circuit arrangements. A regional tier will help to facilitate a more collegiate approach between areas and the handling of local and regional issues. It will also enable the dissemination of best practice to raise standards and provide a strong leadership capacity, which will be especially important during the transition to the new agency, when we will have to forge a new organisation and culture.

Civil trial and family care centres, as well as specialist jurisdictions such as chancery and mercantile business, draw work from across criminal justice boundaries to provide specialist facilities and a critical mass of cases. There is a need for the mechanism to be regionally based to move such work across the boundaries of the 42 areas.

Compared with the magistrates courts, the caseload of the Crown court, county courts and specialist courts is more complex and volatile, so a regional tier is needed to provide an overview to match resources to need. That would be much more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve from national headquarters. In addition, deployment of the full and part-time professional judiciary will be better managed at a level above local management units.

Having decided the principle that it is necessary to have a regional level of organisation, we then had to think about the boundaries of those regions. Of course, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, the Government's clearly stated policy is that regional boundaries should match those of the nine Government office regions and Wales, unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary. The Government last reaffirmed that principle in last year's White Paper on the regional agenda, and we believe that it will impact more and more on the work of the courts because they are a part of the wider public service community.

The regional offices will increasingly be joined up with other Government services at a regional level. We do not want the courts to be left behind in that, and many of our justice partners—the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, the national probation service, the Prison Service and, informally, the Crown Prosecution Service—are already aligning with the Government office regions. The courts have been an anomaly, and that is one reason that the issue has evolved in this way.

The Crown and county courts are currently organised around the circuits, which had their origin in the historic tours of duty that judges, their key officials and members of the Bar undertook, setting out from London at regular intervals to oversee the different regions. Over the centuries, the circuits varied from time to time, but until the Beeching reforms and subsequent Courts Act 1971, they continued to be based on groupings of counties. The reforms left the circuit boundaries relatively untouched, and the current court service organised itself on a regional basis corresponding with them.

The circuit boundaries are coterminous with those of the Government office regions, with two exceptions. First, the Wales and Chester and the western circuits broadly correspond with Wales and the south-west region, but the former also includes Cheshire, from the north-west region, and the latter includes Hampshire from the south-east region.

Dealing first with Wales and Chester, there are practical issues concerning the way in which court work is administered in north Wales and Cheshire, so we have decided to keep the link between them for now. We would like, however, to review that position in the financial year 2006–07 as part of a general post-implementation review of the agency's working arrangements. We believe that at that point there may well be compelling reasons for moving Cheshire into line with the region covered by the Government office for the north-west and to align the courts in Wales with the National Assembly.

For Hampshire, which is largely the subject of the debate, we had to decide whether it should be included in the south-east, in line with the Government office, or with the south-west, in line with the current western circuit. We focused on what produces the best justice system for the public in those two regions. I am aware that the western circuit of the Bar is strong and plays an important role in providing training for members of the Bar, among other things. The circuits work well for the judiciary and the Bar, but we wanted to ensure that the public were best served by the arrangements, and were at the centre of our thinking. We received and considered carefully a number of representations about the location of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight in the structure of the new courts agency.

I acknowledge that making a change now may raise a number of difficult issues for the judiciary and the Bar that could impact on the administration of justice for the public. Moreover, we received representations, as my hon. Friend pointed out, from partner criminal justice agencies locally to the effect that, from their perspective, change would not at present bring significant benefits. On balance and after a great deal of careful thought, there is insufficient merit at this time in adopting the policy of realigning the western circuit with the regional government boundary. Although the policy of aligning the courts administration with the boundaries of other government services is important and can have significant benefits for the administration of justice, we have concluded that, for now, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight should not be aligned with the south-east.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

Will the Minister outline the factors that need to change for a different decision to be made in 2006?

Mr. Leslie

As I have explained in, I hope, a logical sequence, there is a need for a regional management structure within the new unified courts administration. Given that arrangement, we would normally be predisposed to see whether it is possible to realign the boundaries with those of the relevant Government office for the regions to achieve the good administrative practice of coterminous services cutting across other public service boundaries. The regional agenda is clearly developing, as I have said, and it is prudent to keep the matter under review according to the time scale that I have set out.

We have listened carefully to the views of hon. Members and others who have made a case for the current structures, and whose arguments have been thorough and detailed. We have responded to their concerns, paid attention to worries and taken note of the success of current working arrangements, all of which has helped to inform the decision. Nevertheless, the regional agenda is developing, and there may well be a much clearer case for realignment later, so we will reconsider the issue in 2006–07.

My hon. Friend pressed me on the issues affecting his constituents in Dorset. In the course of studying and reviewing the particular circumstances of the organisation of the justice system in the south-west and south-east, it became clear that the distribution of court business across Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire needed to be improved, as my hon. Friend pointed out. The exercise identified the fact that, subject to the views of the senior judiciary, we could provide a better service for court users in Dorset if Bournemouth Crown court became a "first-tier centre" so that serious cases from Dorset could be tried more conveniently. There may be clear benefits for victims and witnesses in the area from upgrading Bournemouth to a first-tier centre, so the Government intend to investigate the possibility of achieving that. My hon. Friend pressed me on time scales and so on. I shall endeavour to establish a firmer timetable for the plans, and shall look closely at the question of buildings and facilities, as well as other issues that he raised.

While I recognise that many of the representations on the boundaries of the western court circuit have been made by people who work within the existing framework, it is essential that the Government take a fresh look at the arrangements from time to time to ensure that the needs of the public in the justice system remain paramount. We have concluded this matter for the time being but, as I have said, the greater need for a well-organised, cross-cutting and integrated criminal justice system able to work readily with other public services remains an important part of our reform agenda, hence the decision that has been made. I am glad to have the opportunity to put on record my appreciation for the strong case made by my hon. Friend, and my thanks to other hon. Members who have given the matter diligent scrutiny.

Question put and agreed to.

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