HC Deb 01 February 2000 vol 343 cc158-64WH 11.30 am
Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Jones, and I am delighted that you will be presiding. I initiate the debate today because of the terrifying effect that may result from the Lord Chancellor's wish to save money by closing magistrates courts throughout the country, and especially in Devon and Cornwall. Lay magistrates, supported by justices' clerks, are best placed to provide local justice in courts throughout the country. However, judicial functions are increasingly being compromised by administrative expediency and financial cuts. That is unacceptable to the public, court users and the cause of justice.

Magistrates courts are managed by locally based magistrates courts committees of local magistrates selected by a selection panel of local magistrates. The committees act under the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994 and the Justices of the Peace Act 1997.

The Devon and Cornwall magistrates courts committee is responsible for the proper and efficient operation of courts in Devon. It must determine not only the overall operation of justice but how many courthouses are necessary and what other accommodation, urban and rural, is required. In so doing, it acts in consultation with the relevant authority that makes money available for that work—in this case, Devon county council. The committee must operate within "the guidelines"—the diktat—of the Lord Chancellor's Department, which is trying to save the Government money.

The Lord Chancellor is obviously out of touch. When I complained about the centralisation of the youth court, which is to be removed from Axminster and sent to Exeter, he wrote: The magistrates Court Committee has no proposals to close Axminster or any court house in Devon and Cornwall. Hon. Members might assume that that was written months or even years ago. The Parliamentary Secretary will probably have been supplied with the letter. On 22 November last year the Lord Chancellor was trying to fob off Members of Parliament in that way, when he must have known that his instructions to the magistrates courts committee would effect such closures. It is equally interesting that only last week the Parliamentary Secretary said in this very Chamber: The essential feature of local justice is that magistrates live or work in the locality."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 25 January 2000; Vol. 343, c. 34WH.] The current approach of saving money through the Lord Chancellor's edict will result in exactly the opposite.

Closing the magistrates court at Axminster, which would require people who have been charged to appear in Exeter, is similar to closing a magistrates court in West Ealing and making people go to a court in Reading. That would be mad, and it is equally mad to expect those in the Axminster area to travel to Exeter for justice. What I am saying is not a foolish assumption—it has already happened. The youth court previously in Axminster has been transferred to and centralised in Exeter.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

As usual, the right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful speech. He knows Devon and Cornwall well, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and knows that there are countless such examples. Does he agree that it is ludicrous even to suggest that people from Okehampton should travel to Barnstaple for those purposes, and that the proposals are short sighted, unlikely to provide any savings and inimical to access to justice?

Mr. Barry Jones (in the Chair)

Order. I should tell hon. Members that the House has ordered that people such as me should be addressed by name, not as Mr. Deputy Speaker. My name is Mr. Jones.

Sir Peter Emery

So far as "local" is concerned, I shall quote from a letter from a well-known solicitor in my constituency, Mr. Colin Chesterton. He wrote to me after seeing the Lord Chancellor's letter in November and said: What we now have is the worst of all worlds, with cases being heard in the wrong place for the wrong reason. To describe Devon Magistrates Courts as 'locally managed' is a bizarre use of the word local. Devon and Cornwall is a 'region'. It is worth remembering that Axminster is equidistant from Penzance as it is from London. I take it that it is not proposed that somebody from Axminster should have a say in whether South London Magistrates Courts should do Youth Courts work. I am sure that those in the Lord Chancellor's Department are very clever, but geography is not their strongest suit. They could also brush up on their English and the use of the word 'local'. Unless of course they think we can be fobbed off with platitudes about what is really local decision making. Let me come to the major worry. The magistrates courts committee has proposed that 10 of the 17 courts in Devon should be closed. Those are: Axminster, Exmouth, Kingsbridge, South Molton, Tavistock, Teignmouth, Tiverton, Bideford, Okehampton and Newton Abbot. Exmouth, the second-largest town in the county of Devon, is to have its court closed. Does that really make sense to its population? It is a tragedy for local people and is typical of the Government's lack of attention to the requirements of the countryside.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

As my right hon. Friend is aware, the problems that he referred to are happening throughout the country. Does he share my concern that we are seeing an enormous centralising tendency in which everything local is subsumed to the diktats of the Treasury?

Sir Peter Emery

It is really a tragedy. In the long term, we will see local magistrates being taken over by stipendiary magistrates as part of the centralisation.

One of the major factors understood by everyone with experience of magistrates courts is that local magistrates know the people in their locality. They are most likely to know the local rogues and malcontents, and transferring them to centres a considerable distance away from their locality will soon mean that that important local aspect of justice is lost. To expect justices of the peace sitting in Exeter to have the knowledge of the local justice of the peace sitting in Axminster is nonsense. What is more, it is likely that people living 30 miles from the court will think twice before taking on the responsibility of becoming a local magistrate. Local people will not come forward.

I turn to the problem of getting respondents to a court many miles from their home. In an urban area, one can jump on a bus, or in London one can take the tube. There are no tubes in Devon or Cornwall, and the bus services in many country districts are so infrequent that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for some people to get to court by 10 am. People living in Beer, Branscombe and Seaton have a limited bus service, and would have to take the bus to Axminster and the train to Exeter. That is immensely time consuming and incurs considerable cost. Moreover, as one of my solicitors pointed out, they may not be able to get back home that night, which would mean finding a bed in Exeter.

Will the Minister tell us how much the Lord Chancellor's Department is trying to save by these amalgamations? I have heard that it is £225 million. I do not know if that is correct, but I would like a figure to be given to us in the debate. Even if the figure is that high, is it not well worth the Government's while to spend such an amount to ensure local justice?

May I analyse some of the effects of the closures of local magistrates courts? I take Axminster as an example because I know it well, and because it is illustrative of the other towns to which I have referred. Once Axminster court closes, it will lose its county court and its tax commissioners hearings, and we shall no longer have coroners' inquests. The probation service will have no office in which to meet its clients on neutral ground anywhere nearer than Exmouth, which could be difficult for female probation officers dealing with male sex offenders. That will be made worse by the announcement that the Exmouth court is to close, so the probation service in Exmouth will have to move to Exeter as well.

Local papers will be unlikely to report petty crimes, as they would if they were dealt with locally, because they will be dealt with in the two major courts in Exeter, with each court often handling 50 cases a day. Local papers will probably report only serious crimes, which is not much help to the elderly who are worried about crime. They would see papers carrying only stories about rape, murder and so on, instead of run-of-the-mill cases such as shoplifting and motor offences.

The Devon and Cornwall constabulary has confirmed that Axminster police station is to close. At the moment, we have a courthouse. Costs of about £7,000 will be incurred to make it comply with disability requirements. East Devon district council, realising the need to keep the local court, has offered to pay half that amount, even though there is no obligation for it to do so. If the courthouse is to disappear, the capital cost of any future replacement would be such as to make its reconstitution unlikely. It is interesting to note that the capital cost of the courthouse was written off many years ago.

I am worried that there has been no proper cost benefit analysis of the closure of this court. The Government do not know how human rights legislation will affect the operation of local courts. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us on that? I am told that it will increase the work load in magistrates courts. It is nonsense to have the wholesale closures of courts and the loss of their existing facilities, if their work is to be expanded.

I return to the question of getting people to court. I have checked the following times this morning to ensure that they are correct. The people now served by the Axminster court in the villages of Hawkchurch, Dalwood, Branscombe, Chardstock and Membury have buses only once a week—Tuesdays or Thursdays—at only one time, which varies from 1.35 pm, 10.30 am, 12.45 pm, 9.10 am and 10.30 am. I suppose that the Government do not have to consider people living in those areas.

That is a major error of judgment by the Lord Chancellor, who should know better. He is there to defend justice, not to attack it. Undermining local justice to save a relatively small amount of money is a threat to local society, completely misunderstands the problem of those who live in and around the countryside. The Government should know better.

11.45 am
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy)

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr. Jones. It is the first time that I have been required to answer a debate such as this in my capacity as Parliamentary Secretary. I look forward to returning on future occasions, as I am sure that hon. Members will return to this subject.

Last week, I congratulated the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) on securing a debate on similar issues. I now congratulate the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) on securing this debate and allowing us to return to these matters. He has demonstrated the importance of the subject. The right hon. Gentleman made a most interesting speech, making many serious points well, expressing his constituents' concerns and demonstrating the local strength of feeling about this matter. It may help if I set out the current position in Devon and Cornwall.

Devon and Cornwall magistrates courts committee, which came into existence on 1 April 1999, undertook a review of all aspects of the service to decide how best to fulfil its statutory duty. As I said last week, it is sensible and rational for these reviews to take place, and the Government expect no less of committees discharging their responsibilities. In conducting reviews, committees must have regard to the level of service that they seek to provide across the area as a whole. They cannot look at any one part of their area in isolation.

The committee has begun a consultation exercise on its proposals to develop the service over the next five years. The consultation period does not close until 7 April. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate from previous debates that at this stage any matters in connection with the proposals are for the Devon and Cornwall magistrates courts committee to address.

Mr. Burnett

Will the Minister tell the House whether there are any instructions from her Department, as alluded to by the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), in relation to cost savings or overall budgets for Devon and Cornwall?

Jane Kennedy

Having anticipated that those issues might be raised, I shall come to them shortly.

As I was saying, these are only proposals: the end result will not necessarily be the closure of 13 courts. The courts committee will carefully consider the results of its consultation exercise on 13 April, when it next meets.

The Government already encourage courts committees to extend their consultation processes wider than is required by section 56(1) of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. They usually consult more widely than only among their paying authorities. Consultees typically include magistrates, the staff, the police, the probation service, the Crown Prosecution Service, Members of Parliament and professional users of the courts. Devon and Cornwall magistrates courts committee consults far more widely than the statutory minimum.

If a magistrates courts committee makes a determination to close a courthouse, the paying authority has the sole right of appeal to the Lord Chancellor against the proposed closure. I assure hon. Members that we give detailed consideration to the case that is presented when an appeal is made, and we shall do in this case, should the paying authorities appeal.

Sir Peter Emery

Is the Minister saying that the Government will make available to the local magistrates courts committee the same amount of money that it has had in the past, and that it therefore does not have to close anything because it has the necessary money? Surely closures occur because the committees do not have the funds.

Jane Kennedy

Proposals to change the way in which courtrooms are distributed are not normally cost driven, but are informed by the requirement of the magistrates courts committees to provide modern court services that meet the needs of court users. I shall come to that issue in a few minutes. I shall keep my eye on the clock so that I make sure that I respond to the points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised.

All the points made by local representation, the paying authority and hon. Members are listened to carefully. Travelling time, cost, convenience and accessibility to the courts are points frequently raised with the Department. Right hon. and hon. Members will be heartened to learn that not all appeals are dismissed by the Lord Chancellor.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of statutory responsibility, which, as he said, is set out in the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. No instructions from the Lord Chancellor order that a court should proceed along a certain route, or that decisions should be driven by cost. I hope that I have reassured the right hon. Gentleman on that point. As I said last week, when he was present, magistrates courts committees are made up of local magistrates, selected by a local panel. We must remember that "local" means different things to different people: for some it means the town, for others the village and for others the magistrates courts committee area.

I want to spend a moment describing the functions of the magistrates courts committees and those elected to serve on them, so that hon. Members are aware of their responsibilities. The changes enacted by the previous Government were designed to make the committees more effective as management boards and to extend the range of skills available. The Government did not envisage individual benches of magistrates no longer having a say in the management of the courts in their area, but saw individual members being selected on the basis of the skills and abilities that they could bring to the area as a whole. The committee's function can best be summed up by repeating what Lord McIntosh of Haringey said during the passage of the Access to Justice Bill: The committee is there to decide strategy and set standards and to monitor and be accountable for implementation and achievement.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 January 1999; Vol. 596, c. 1265.] One way in which to modernise and improve the service would be to transfer the work load to better equipped centres. Local magistrates who form courts committees have local knowledge, and are best placed to decide how to make the best use of all their resources. Only when a decision is challenged by the paying authority does the Lord Chancellor become involved. The Government believe that those arrangements are working well and that committees are comprised of those who can best serve the needs of the area as a whole. It would not be consistent with our aim to modernise the service if we were to return, as has been suggested, to a system of geographical representation that may serve the interests of individual benches rather than the magistrates courts overall.

It is crucial that the committee should be able to plan strategically for the whole of its area. I can only reiterate that it is entirely for local magistrates courts to make any decisions on the number and location of courthouses, in consultation with the relevant paying authorities—in this case, Cornwall county council, which is the lead authority, Devon county council, Torbay unitary council, Plymouth unitary council and the Council of the Isles of Scilly.

Those matters lie solely within the responsibility of local magistrates courts committees. When resources are tight, it is up to the local committee to manage within available resources. However, the central council of magistrates courts committees has produced a good practice guide on the subject of court closures, and the Government encourage magistrates courts committees to follow that advice.

I turn to funding. I am sure that hon. Members are aware that the Government provide 80 per cent. of the revenue grant to magistrates courts committees and local authorities contribute 20 per cent. Individual committees are given an annual allocation, but it is left to each committee to determine how best to use the funds to provide services, including courthouses in each area.

I was asked last week about the funding formula. We are reviewing the mechanism for allocating grant to magistrates courts committees. One of the issues that is being considered is whether there should be a sparsity factor to reflect higher costs associated with providing services in generally rural areas. We expect to finalise that review in time for the financial year 2001–22.

The right hon. Member for East Devon asked about amalgamations. In the long term, it is reckoned that amalgamations will save 6 per cent. of the budget of a magistrates courts committee overall. Consultants were commissioned by the previous Government to look into proposed amalgamations at Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull. Efficiency savings are not just cost savings. They include improvements in the court service delivered to court users, as I discussed at length last week.

Dealing with Devon alone, prior to the amalgamation with Cornwall, in cash terms the total revenue resources available increased by £220,000 in the four years to 1998–29. We are not discussing an issue that is being driven by costs and cost savings. We are discussing issues that the magistrates courts committees must decide, bearing in mind their local information and experience, and bringing that to bear on the services that they provide to the court users and to the delivery of justice in their locality.

Sir Peter Emery

The Minister is being most helpful and I know that she is trying to assist me, but I shall come to the nub of the matter. Will the Devon committee receive this year the same amount in the 80 per cent. that comes from the Government as it received last year, although presumably with a 3 per cent. increase for inflation?

Jane Kennedy

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to write to him in reply to that question, because I do not want to mislead him.

Mr. Burnett

Will the Minister also extrapolate the projections for the two following years and send me a copy of the letter?

Jane Kennedy

I shall be happy to send the hon. Gentleman a copy of my letter to the right hon. Member for East Devon.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the Human Rights Act 1998 and I have only a few minutes left. He will be pleased to learn that the Government are considering the whole question of ensuring that magistrates courts premises provide, as far as possible, facilities that are compatible with the European convention on human rights. I do not anticipate any closures resulting directly from implementation of the 1998 Act on 2 October this year. However, magistrates courts committees may need to apply a higher threshold than now when considering, for example, the standard of custody, interview and witness facilities that are required in courthouses. When the viability of rural courts houses is assessed, many factors need to be taken into account, including the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998. Our overriding concern must be to provide facilities that can deliver the required service at an acceptable standard. We must take a pragmatic—

Mr. Barry Jones (in the Chair)

Order. We must now move on to the next debate.