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Mr. Forth: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you clarify for the House that the motion, which the Order Paper states can be debated for up to one and a half hours, is debatable and, therefore, that it is in order for hon. Members to raise these matters and to ask legitimate questions about them? The Leader of the House seems to be implying that that is not the case.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Of course, the motion is debatable. That is why I allowed the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) to speak and that is why I am allowing the Leader of the House to speak. The right hon. Lady is in perfect order at the moment.

Mrs. Taylor: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I was saying, I have looked at the list of those nominated from the Labour Benches and have been extremely impressed by the expertise of the new Members whom

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we have been able to nominate. I would have had every confidence in those Labour Members. If the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and his Conservative colleagues do not have confidence in the person whom the Opposition have nominated through the usual channels, I am perfectly willing to take the matter back to the usual channels and look at it again. On that basis, perhaps it is best that I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.



(1) The following Standing Order (Environmental Audit Committee) be made:

Environmental Audit Committee

(1) There shall be a select committee, called the Environmental Audit Committee, to consider to what extent the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development; to audit their performance against such targets as may be set for them by Her Majesty's Ministers; and to report thereon to the House.
(2) The committee shall consist of fifteen members, of whom four shall be a quorum.
(3) Unless the House otherwise orders, each Member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it for the remainder of the Parliament.
(4) The committee shall have power--
(a) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report from time to time;
(b) to appoint specialist advisers to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee's order of reference;
(c) to communicate its evidence and any other documents relating to matters of common interest to any committee appointed by this House or by the Lords; and
(d) to meet concurrently with any committee appointed under Standing Order No. 152 (Select committees related to government departments), or any sub-committee thereof, or with any committee appointed by the Lords, or any sub-committee thereof, for the purposes of deliberating or examining witnesses.'
(2) Standing Order No. 152 (Select committees related to government departments) be amended, in line 27, after the word 'Accounts', by leaving out the word 'and', and in line 28, after the word 'Committee', by inserting the words 'and to the Environmental Audit Committee'.--[Mr. Clelland.]

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Court Closures (Essex)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Clelland.]

10.41 pm

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): When I first decided on this debate, I thought that only the county of Essex was subject to court closures of such magnitude, but, as we have heard in recent weeks and, indeed, this afternoon, magistrates courts are closing throughout the country. It could be said that the magistrates court system, which has evolved over centuries, is being systematically dismantled. That policy is driven by the Treasury and it will lead to fewer, larger courts and to almost a production-line distribution of justice. That is not what local justice is all about.

Essex courts have suffered cuts totalling £1 million in the past three years, on a budget of £7 million. The evidence shows that the object of the exercise is to reduce the number of courts in the county to five, although Essex has one of the largest populations of any shire county.

What is the object of the exercise? The consultation process has shown that everyone is against the court closures save the Crown Prosecution Service and the magistrates courts organisers. In other words, this is all about the convenience of the bureaucrats rather than the distribution of justice in local communities.

It is a case of one side of Government saving money--or so it seems--but that is more than outweighed by the costs to other aspects of Government and to the community at large. The move is also contrary to the Government's policies on traffic reduction. It may seem strange to mention that while on the subject of court closures, but it is a serious question and it needs to be addressed because people will have to travel further.

The Government's policies of greater police presence and being tough on crime are being undermined by magistrates courts committees shutting courts. MCCs are, of course, quangos. In Essex, the quango has seven members, unelected and unrepresentative of the county. They are not there to respond to the wishes of hon. Members across the political divide or local councils. All those involved in the life of our magistrates courts are opposed to the closures, but the MCC meeting behind closed doors--so much for open government and accountability--made the decision to close.

I invite the Minister to comment on who knows best about the court system in the county of Essex: those who have to be there--solicitors, probation officers and, above all, the police--or the bureaucrats who run the system. We acknowledge that there are financial constraints on the public sector, but to save money on the one hand the public purse will pay far more on the other for a worse service. Except for the Crown Prosecution Service, whose reduced staffing will be helped by having fewer courts, nobody supports the closures envisaged in Essex.

The chief constable of Essex, Mr. John Burrow, wrote to me saying:

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Colchester is not going to lose its courts, at least not on current plans, but it will become a centre of courts for the whole of north Essex and further afield. In time, that will lead to the merger of the magistrates benches and to the loss of the local knowledge of local magistrates of local cases. Magistrates in Colchester will adjudicate cases from Clacton and Braintree, and vice versa.

The Minister noted:

He also referred to the

    "efficient and effective administration of the courts".--[Official Report, 29 October 1997; Vol. 299, c. 901.]

That is what it is all about. It is to do with the bureaucracy of the administration of the magistrates courts rather than fairness to the people involved.

There has been a range of media criticism. The courts at Halstead, Castle Hedingham and Southminster have been closed. Now Braintree, Clacton and Saffron Walden are under attack. Does the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) wish to intervene?

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) indicated dissent.

Mr. Russell: The offer was there.

When the Minister replies, will he dissociate himself from the words of the director of central services at Essex magistrates court, Mr. Richard Hawkes? He said:

of those opposing the closures. Among those who have opposed the closures is the chief constable of Essex, who stated:

    "The decision will greatly inconvenience the victims of crime and witnesses who are required to attend court . . . but more importantly it will in the long-term undermine the very concept of local justice as there are now large areas of Essex that are without a local court."

That is what is happening in a county that has one of the largest populations in the country.

This afternoon, other hon. Members expressed their concern because their local magistrates courts were to close. It is clear that the Government are pursuing a systematic closure scheme throughout England and Wales. Such closures fly in the face of the opposition of local Members, county and district councillors, members of the legal profession, the police and public opinion.

The closure of a magistrates court in any town means a loss of the concept of local justice. It also has large cost implications for the police force because of increased travelling expenses and increased overtime payments. The greatest cost, however, is that an officer is no longer available for ordinary operational duty on the streets of the home town because he or she has to travel to a distant court.

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