HC Deb 27 April 2004 vol 420 cc742-3
18. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)

How many courthouses have been constructed by means of a private finance initiative. [168401]

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

Since 1997, 11 courthouses have been constructed with support from the private finance initiative, and a further four courthouses are at various stages of construction.

Bob Russell

Has it dawned on the Minister that his Government have been in office for longer than the duration of the second world war, but fortunately Churchill did not have to wait for the PFI to come on stream? Does he agree that 11 new courthouses in seven years is lamentable? When will the new courthouse in Colchester, which has been promised for seven years, be built?

Mr. Leslie

To correct the hon. Gentleman, more than 11 courthouses have been built; those are only the ones built under the PFI. The point about Colchester is important, and I know that the hon. Gentleman has been waiting for some time. The courthouse has been delayed because the Government decided to keep open Grays magistrates court, which required a change in the PFI arrangements in Essex and consideration of where the alternative business should be located. I know that the hon. Gentleman is waiting for a new courthouse, but at least this Government are building them—something that the Conservative party certainly would not do.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab)

Will the new, unified Court Service be genuinely free in deciding how to fund future building projects? Will it be able to choose between the traditional public sector route and the PFI, depending on which offers better value for money?

Mr. Leslie

Clearly, the unified courts administration will be pragmatic about where it raises finance. If the PFI offers better value for money, we will consider that; if not, we will look to normal public sector procurement arrangements. What matters is the value for the taxpayer and the extent to which we can reduce risk in large capital programmes, and sometimes the PFI offers benefits in that regard.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

Does the Minister recall that the principal justification for PFI quoted by the Prime Minister and others is the report entitled "Public Private Partnerships: A Clearer View" by PricewaterhouseCoopers? Will he confirm that the consultants engaged by his Department for the PFI schemes in Kidderminster, Hereford, Worcester and Redditch were from PricewaterhouseCoopers, as they were for schemes in Hull, Beverley and Bridlington, and are for schemes in Manchester. Avon and Somerset, Bedford, Luton, the west midlands, Bolton and Salford, and at the probate records centre? Is that not a mite cosy? Exactly how much is he paying in consultancy fees?

Mr. Leslie

If the hon. Gentleman is trying to concoct some conspiracy about those consultants, I am afraid that he is completely barking—up the wrong tree. He should recognise that we are trying to build new courthouse facilities in local communities where they are required as speedily as we can, at the same time making sure that we minimise risks for the taxpayer. Sometime the private finance initiative is the best way to do that.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con)

Does the Minister recognise that there is not only the cosy relationship mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—we noted that the Minister did not give any figures for the amount the Government have spent on the consultants specified and consultants in general—but the fact that the new courthouses that the Government have built in no way compensate for the more than 100 that they have closed? People want local justice. They are not getting it under the Government, who set the guidelines under which magistrates courts committees are boxed in and forced to close courthouses. The Government have abandoned local justice.

Mr. Leslie

The Opposition forget that they spent money on consultants and elsewhere to bring in expertise from outside, so for the hon. Gentleman to criticise the Government is a little rich. He forgets that in the Conservatives' last year in power, they closed 21 magistrates courts. This year, none have closed, so I think we compare pretty well with their record.