HC Deb 13 January 2004 vol 416 cc664-5
24. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

When he next expects to meet representatives of the magistracy from East Anglia to discuss court closures. [147119]

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

I have no current plans to meet representatives of the magistracy in East Anglia to discuss court closures—not least because there are no planned court closures in East Anglia.

Mr. Bellingham

I am pleased to hear that. I am sorry that the other Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) is not answering this question, because we have had previous exchanges on this subject.

Does the Under-Secretary accept that not only the present Government but, to be fair, the previous Government, have been too cavalier about closing magistrates courts? In my constituency, Hunstanton and Fakenham have been closed; again, that happened not only under the present Government but under the previous Government. Those courts were good at ensuring that local justice was administered to local hooligans and thugs by local people. Surely the time has come to stop further closures. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that there will be none?

Mr. Leslie

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises that in the last year of the previous Administration, 21 courts were closed. As I said, I do not intend any courts to be closed in East Anglia at the moment, and the magistrates courts committees do not have any plans to do so either. I shall keep his suggestions under review and I am glad that we have already been able to hear a small number of appeals on magistrates courts and to allow some of them, thus preventing more closures than have been prevented in any other year.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways in which to secure the future of courthouses in rural parts of East Anglia and elsewhere in the United Kingdom is for him to reassure the magistracy—I declare an interest, as a member of the Magistrates Association—that the decisions will be placed in the hands not of short-sighted accountants who cannot see beyond the next balance sheet, but of people who appreciate the value of local courthouses with local magistrates dispensing justice locally?

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that we have sufficient local courthouses to administer local justice. However, we must make sure that we respond flexibly to modern circumstances, and that we have adequate facilities for victims, witnesses and so on. Those are the considerations that we have borne in mind when considering the resources in the magistrates courts estate across the country.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con)

Does the Minister not recognise that far too many courthouses in rural areas have already closed under this Government? About 100 courts have closed since they came to power. It is not acceptable simply to say that there may not be so many closure plans in the future. The real problem is that the Minister's Department boxes in local magistrates courts committees and makes it more or less inevitable that any small courthouse will fail to meet Government criteria. The Government must recognise that local justice is more important than their obsession with the tick-box culture and political correctness.

Mr. Leslie

The hon. Gentleman is clearly seeking some line of attack on the closure of magistrates courts. I remind him that we are not planning any such closures in East Anglia, and that 21 closures took place in the final year of the Conservative Administration. That compares with the 10 courts that closed last year. This year we have allowed more appeals than ever before, which has ensured that fewer courts are closing. We have to look at each case on its own merits. We are also building new courts—for example, in Ipswich and in Cambridgeshire. That is a sensible way to move forward.