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24 Apr 2002 : Column 128WH

Knutsford Crown Court

1.28 pm

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise directly with the Government in Parliament an issue of the most pressing concern to my constituents, those of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and those of other hon. Members. I want to try to get some answers.

Two weeks ago, out of the blue, I received a letter from the court service, informing me that the Lord Chancellor's Department intended to close Knutsford Crown court and end 700 years of history of the administration of royal justice in the town. No forewarning was given of the decision, although the Government have clearly been planning it for some time. The Government have explicitly denied in the past that closure was imminent on several occasions.

When a reporter from the local newspaper, the Knutsford Guardian, asked the Lord Chancellor's Department last month about rumours that it was planning to close the court, he was told by its press officer:

What the Department said was, charitably put, a lie. A fortnight later—the near future by anyone's standards—a "public consultation" on the closure of the court was announced and it became immediately clear that the Department had been working on those plans for some time.

"Public consultation" is the phrase used by the Lord Chancellor, but there is no real consultation with the public. Only one option is offered; closing the Crown court and moving all cases 20 miles away to Chester. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton correctly describes that approach in her submission to the Court Service as

I am grateful for her support today.

Only one argument has been advanced, which is that the courthouse needs expensive refurbishment. I note, in passing, that that argument is a little rich coming from our present Lord Chancellor. Only one month has been given for responses; one month to preserve seven centuries of tradition. The consultation document gives no estimate of the cost of converting one of the Chester magistrates courts into a Crown court. It makes no assessment of the impact of moving the court 20 miles away on getting witnesses to appear, on getting people from east and mid-Cheshire to do jury service or on access for disabled people. It gives no answer to the question of how people from Congleton are supposed to get to the Chester court, when the Court Service itself admits that there are no public transport links. It provides no breakdown of the suspiciously high estimate of £4.9 million that has been put on the cost of refurbishing the Knutsford court and no explanation of why the Lord Chancellor's Department has allowed the court fall into such a state of disrepair.

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Not a word is said of what shall become of the magnificent 19th-century courthouse once the Crown court leaves. That landmark has dominated Knutsford since it was built and its future use is a hugely sensitive issue for people who live in the town. The Court Service has made virtually no attempt to let the public know that they are being consulted. Unless one happened to be a local MP, a local judge or a manager of Group 4, or had by chance seen the notice pinned up in the courthouse itself, one would not have been aware that a consultation process was under way.

Thanks to the efforts of the local media and Knutsford's elected representatives—I pay particular tribute to the town council and the mayor, George Walton—the public now know that a consultation process is under way. During the last seven days, more than 1,000 people have signed a petition urging the Lord Chancellor not to close the court. I hope to present that petition to the House next week.

The only argument so far advanced by the Court Service for closing the court is that it will cost too much to refurbish the courthouse. Forced to choose between abandoning a 700-year history of local justice and repairing the roof, it has chosen to abandon our history. How tragically short-sighted.

There has been a court in Knutsford since 1294. Quarter sessions were held in the town from 1575 until 30 years ago. The imposing sessions house that is home to the Crown court today was built 200 years ago. All that history, all that tradition, is being thrown away because the roof needs repairing, the wiring has to be replaced and the building could do with redecoration. Can one imagine our forebears, who invested so much in building the sessions house two centuries ago, coming to the same decision?

Saving Knutsford's Crown court is about much more than respecting the history of our country and my county. It is about the future of our present criminal justice system. The Crown court is in use day in, day out. Last year, it sat for 268 days, which, allowing for weekends, was almost every working day of the year. This year, according to the Government's figures, some 280 cases will have been received for trial, 60 more cases than two years ago. In short, it is a hard-working court. The Court Service thinks all that activity and work can simply be transferred 20 miles away to a converted magistrates court without cost to local justice. I must say to the Minister that the professional users of the court do not agree.

The chairman of the Macclesfield bench has written to me, and says:

The secretary of the Chester and North Wales Law Society says:

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A constituent of mine, Joan Birchall, who works for the witness service, sent me an e-mail that said:

That is what professional users of the court are telling me. I see no evidence that anyone in the Lord Chancellor's Department or the Court Service has answers to those concerns and others.

We are already half way through the consultation period, and this is the only chance that I foresee to challenge the Government's case directly. I am not trying to make a party political point. I imagine that the administrative decision has been passed up to the Minister from the Court Service, and I note that the number of Crown courts in the country has remained remarkably steady for many years. I simply ask him to use his ministerial discretion, and to do what he is there to do, which is to sometimes reinterpret what is put in front of him. He should consider the decision made by the Court Service.

I ask the Minister to provide me with the answers to eight simple questions. First, when did the Lord Chancellor's Department start preparing the proposals for the closure of Knutsford Crown court? Secondly, may we see a copy of the feasibility study that puts the cost of refurbishing the courthouse at £4.9 million? Thirdly, how much of that refurbishment is regarded as absolutely necessary for the proper functioning of the Crown court, and how much is for things that the Court Service would like to do if it had the money? The Court Service says that it would need to improve access to the courthouse in Knutsford for disabled people. That is one of the arguments in the consultation paper. How is moving the court 20 miles away supposed to improve access to justice for disabled people?

Fourthly, what is the estimated cost of converting the magistrates court in Chester into a Crown court, and what is the estimated total extra cost of relocation, including reimbursing the travel and accommodation of jurors, witnesses and some local members of the legal profession? Until we see those figures, we cannot make a judgment on how much money will be saved by closing the court. Fifthly, how will people from Congleton and other areas with no public transport links to Chester be expected to get to the new court if they do not have access to a car?

Sixthly, what assessment has been made of the impact that moving the court will have on jury service, and on persuading witnesses to appear? Will that make it more difficult to secure convictions? Seventhly, what is the Court Service planning to do with the historic Knutsford courthouse when the Crown court moves? Eighthly, and most importantly, if the response to the public consultation is overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the Crown court, will the Department listen, or is the consultation just a charade? If that is so, will the Minister please say so before we jump through all the hoops, organise a petition, try to get a local campaign going and try to secure further such debates? Please will the Minister be honest about how far down the line we are with the decision.

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If the Minister cannot answer all eight questions instantly, will he assure me that I will receive written answers from his officials as soon as possible, preferably by tomorrow? They are not particularly difficult questions, and I should like to have the answers. The thinking behind the decision to close the court is painfully weak and wholly misguided. Faced with a repair bill to a building that it has failed to maintain, the Lord Chancellor's Department thinks that it has a good excuse to move the Crown court to Chester, which is much more convenient for court staff.

I am sure that the Minister agrees that justice is about more than convenience and cost. It must not only be done, but be seen to be done. Closing Knutsford Crown court removes yet another link between local people and our justice system. It makes the laws of the land even more remote from people. It undermines a powerful deterrent to criminal behaviour; the fear not only of being caught and tried, but of being caught and tried before the eyes of the community.

In places such as Knutsford 30 years ago, law and order was rooted in the community. The local policeman on the beat knew everyone, and everyone knew him, because they were neighbours. When wrongdoers were caught, they were hauled before the town's magistrates court and tried by magistrates who were themselves local people. If the crime was serious, they were sent to the Crown court, a stone's throw away. Those convicted could be sure that it would be all over the local newspaper, because local reporters would be sitting in the public gallery. If a person committed crimes locally, everyone knew about it.

In the past, justice was done, and seen to be done. Over the past 30 years, under Governments of all political persuasions, that has changed. The police operate out of squad cars and live anywhere. Local magistrates courts have shut, and everyone in my constituency, for example, must now go to Macclesfield. As the head of the Macclesfield bench told me when I recently visited the court, it is much more difficult to recruit magistrates who live in my constituency to serve in the magistrates court in Macclesfield.

Local newspapers cannot afford to send a reporter to the local magistrates court, so local criminals have a good chance of keeping their names out of the press. Now the Crown court will be moved to the other side of the county. The only connection that most of my constituents will have with the criminal justice system is when they watch soap operas. The major trials of "Coronation Street" characters Jim McDonald, Terry Duckworth and Jez Quigley all took place in Knutsford Crown court, and even that connection will have gone. Indeed, I am relying on that crucial "Coronation Street" connection to whip up a mass public campaign throughout the country.

Is it any wonder that people's respect for the law is declining and that fear of crime is increasing when the criminal justice system no longer seems to have any connection with local communities? Closing Knutsford Crown court would be a tragedy for Cheshire. Instead of the great principle that the justice system should come to the people, the people will have to go to the justice system. Seven hundred years of tradition is being thrown away because of the cost of repairing a courthouse roof. I urge the Lord Chancellor and his

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Ministers to listen to the public, use their ministerial discretion, preserve access to local justice and save this Crown court.

1.42 pm

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): I am delighted to be able briefly to contribute in support of my hon. and young Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and the excellent and strong case that he presented about the retention of the court facilities at Knutsford. He mentioned the long history that has gone before and the good modern reasons why these facilities should be not only retained but enhanced.

In the almost 19 years that I have represented Congleton, there has been a tremendous diminution in the local administration of justice. Before I was first elected, I attended the magistrates court in Congleton—not, I hasten to add, because I was up before the magistrates, but because I wanted to become a magistrate. I sat in and listened and met court staff and magistrates. Since then, Congleton magistrates court has closed, as has the one at Sandbach, an important town in my constituency. The south Cheshire bench is now at Crewe, although some of my constituents still go to Macclesfield.

Knutsford Crown court has been extremely important in the administration of local justice. If the Minister examines a map of Cheshire, he will see the distances involved in travelling from the east of the county from the constituencies of Congleton and, indeed, Macclesfield, to Chester.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton pointed out the difficulties of public transport. Although many people own cars, from Congleton, no practical public transport is available. From Sandbach, Macclesfield and Poynton, there is a train, but at times it is almost impossible to get to those trains. I wonder whether the indications are accurate and that the trains run at a time convenient to get people to Chester in time for the beginning of court proceedings.

We feel that the closure, which is happening so quickly that it is almost being bounced through, is all down to cost. The Court Service has owned the premises since 1993. The case has not been presented properly, as my hon. Friend said, because we have been given only half of it—we do not have the costings of any alternatives in Chester, and no local alternatives have been presented.

It does not say much for the court system if it is now believed—I would like to see the estimates—that almost £5 million will have to be spent on a beautiful building, which has served a practical purpose for everyone in east Cheshire for hundreds of years. The costs and convenience of those who work in the court have been put before the service that they provide to local communities. I note that more cases will sit on fewer days. What does that tell us? I support every word uttered by my hon. Friend in defence of a local justice system for east Cheshire. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) is also supportive, because this proposal, about which there appears to be no meaningful consultation, will equally adversely affect his constituents.

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1.46 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills) : I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) on securing this debate. Both he and the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) made their points extremely cogently. The hon. Gentleman managed to get almost all the way through his speech without making the partisan comments that he said he would avoid. He asked eight questions, most of which were perfectly reasonable. Rather than answer them now, or write to him tomorrow as he requested, I offer both hon. Members a meeting, if that is acceptable—he nods. My office will be in touch to arrange a time in the next few days when we can deal with all the points in detail. I hope that I will be able to provide reassurance.

I assure both hon. Members that I will approach the meeting with an open mind, as I always do. I am prepared to listen carefully and constructively, and I ask them to do the same. As a backdrop to the meeting, I will set out some of the background to the decision. Although both hon. Members made their points with great force, they did not give the entire picture, and I would like to give some context to the decision to go to consultation on the closure.

The proposed closure of the Crown court at Knutsford is currently subject to public consultation, which began on 10 April when, on the same day that I answered a question to the House from the hon. Member for Tatton, the group manager for north Wales and Cheshire wrote to all court users in the locality setting out the reasons for the proposed closure. He invited comments to be returned by 8 May, four weeks from the date of the letter. It would be inappropriate to second-guess the outcome of the consultation, as we are only halfway through it.

As a matter of process, the circuit administrators of each of the Court Service's six administrative regions determine how many courthouses and what other accommodation are needed locally. They are required to undertake regular reviews of accommodation requirements in fulfilling their responsibility. Each circuit must provide an efficient and effective service to their court users while maintaining secure, well-equipped court accommodation and ensuring full utilisation of court facilities. That seems reasonable, and I hope that the hon. Members for Tatton and for Congleton agree.

Mr. George Osborne : Will the decision to close the court be made by the regional manager of the court service or will it, ultimately, be a ministerial decision?

Mr. Wills : I am just about to come on to the next stage of the process. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.

In August 1988, the Lord Chancellor's Department issued guidelines for the closure of Crown court centres. If hon. Members do not have those to hand, I am happy to provide them. It is acknowledged that the potential removal of local services, particularly in more rural areas, will always be controversial. I shall return to that theme later. The guidance states that when circuit administrators contemplate the closure or re-siting of a court centre, they should not base their decision on financial considerations alone.

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Initial consideration will consider the views of the judiciary, the state of the accommodation, the work load of the particular office, where the work would be dealt with in future and the implications for Crown court availability, including any increased difficulty of access for the general public by private and public transport as a result of the changes. Obviously, there will also be an assessment of the cost and savings generated by the proposed changes.

If, having considered those issues, the circuit administrator believes that there is a justifiable reason to take the proposal forward, a submission will be sent to the Lord Chancellor asking whether he or she is content with taking the proposal to public consultation. In the case of Knutsford, the Lord Chancellor approved such a move, and the consultation is now under way.

A formal submission will be sent to Court Service headquarters if the circuit adminstrator believes that the responses received during the consultation, which includes local discussions that arise, indicate that the closure of the court is still the most appropriate course of action. A decision will then be made as to whether to invite the Lord Chancellor to consider formally closing the court.

As the guidance clarifies and the president of the Law Society recently wrote, it is of the utmost importance that the closure of any court should be based on an overall strategy and not done on an ad hoc basis or simply because of cost. It is also important that we assess what impact any closure is likely to have on local users. Therefore, it is important that Court Service officials do not lose sight of local concerns. Equally, it is important that local concerns do not lose sight of the needs of the criminal justice system as a whole.

All court users deserve an efficient service that is delivered in well-equipped and secure buildings. The Crown court estate contains an assortment of buildings. Some were built in the 19th century, others were built in the 1990s. The oldest listed building in the estate may have historical or social significance but, in itself, that does not justify its continued use as a court building. On its own, an old building does not make a court. The Court Service and the world have moved on since the 19th century. Secure accommodation, separate waiting areas for victims and witnesses away from defendants and access for disabled people are basic standards of accommodation that people expect from their courts today. Improvements must be balanced against other factors, such as local transport difficulties—we heard a little bit about that today.

The Government are particularly concerned to provide courtrooms that enable cases to be listed in a manner that will achieve our aim of reducing delay in the criminal justice system. Users want their case to be heard on the day that it is listed. Transferring the work load to better-equipped centres is one way to modernise and improve the overall service that the Court Service provides. Circuit administrators and group managers have local knowledge and are best placed to make judgments about how to make the best use of all their resources, whether finance, staff or buildings.

Why has Knutsford been brought forward? Hon. Members will be aware of the case, but I think that it is worth setting it out. The Crown court at Knutsford is a historic building. It is a third-tier centre, which hears

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class 4 work, including cases such as wounding or causing grievous bodily harm, robbery or assault with intent to rob, crimes of conspiracy and any either-way case; in other words, cases that can be heard in either the magistrates court or the Crown court. At present, all preliminary hearings in class 1—the most serious cases, including murder, which are generally heard by a High Court judge—class 2, which are also usually heard by a High Court judge and include cases such as manslaughter and rape, and class 3, which can be heard by a High Court or a circuit court judge and include all indictable-only cases other than those mentioned under classes 1, 2 and 4, such as aggravated burglary, kidnapping, death by dangerous driving and cases requiring video-link access, are already heard at Chester. Of the 72,000 cases committed for trial in England and Wales in 2000, only 265 were sent to Knutsford.

As we have heard, the court is a grade II* listed building and was purchased from the local authority in 1993. The accommodation is what one would expect of a building of that age, and does not meet the requirements of a building that we expect to deliver court services in the 21st century. For example, it is not compatible with disability discrimination legislation.

Despite reports in the local press and the suggestion by the hon. Member for Tatton, the building has been maintained in accordance with grade II* listed building requirement. We have had advice from our specialist conservation consultant, and have spent in the region of £130,000 to maintain the building in the past five years. That said, significant investment of about £5 million will be needed to bring it up to standard. That is not a negligible sum, nor is it for negligible work. It is not only for a new roof, but for a new heating system—justice is not best dispensed with inefficient and inadequate heating. New ceilings, total rewiring, air conditioning, improvements to cells, secure areas, and separate waiting areas for vulnerable witnesses are not nothing, but essential to the dispensation of justice in the age in which we live. I hope that hon. Members agree on the importance of such things.

So surely it is reasonable to ask whether it is a sensible use of limited public funds to spend so much money on works when alternative and more modern accommodation is available. I ask hon. Members seriously to consider that central point before the meeting.

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Travel, to which both hon. Members referred, must be considered carefully, including the provision of details of public transport to alternative venues and its additional time and cost. We will go through that in detail when we meet.

The Lord Chancellor is committed to making the best use of the physical estate. We must make better use of joint working between all courts—magistrate, crown and county. Joint use of courthouses can create more justice centres in which hearings of different types of case can be conducted. We need to consider how we can benefit from closer working. If two courthouses—a magistrates court and county court—are close, perhaps all their work can be accommodated in one place, and only one courthouse will need to be closed. The best use of the estate must be considered in a business-like way.

I understand the deep attachment that many people have to the court system as it has grown up over the years, and to their local courthouses. That is evident whenever there is a proposal to close a courthouse, whether it be in Knutsford or elsewhere; we hear the same passion that we heard earlier. However, justice is not just about where a courthouse is situated. That is important, but it is rather about the Government's commitment to modernising the services that courts provide. We said in "The Way Ahead" that

In other words, a criminal justice system must deliver justice for all. Decisions about the estate, and everything else, must be seen in the context of pursuing those aims. The local crown court is not the only place involved in delivering justice, and we are doing much work to bring all the disparate elements together.

I shall bring my remarks to a close because I am against the clock. I assure both hon. Members that we take their concerns seriously, which I hope they will recognise when we meet. I hope also that they will approach the meeting with an open mind, as I will. I understand the worries of local people in Knutsford about the proposed closure. However, I hope that they will consider the interests of the criminal justice system as a whole, and carefully consider, sentiment apart, how the people of Knutsford can best have justice dispensed.

Question put and agreed to.

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