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Dr. Murrison: I was being a little facetious about wallpaper, but the point was well made. I was referring to the inefficient use of funds. I was also trying to point out that magistrates courts can be renovated relatively cheaply. I agree with the Minister that it is not just a matter of resources, but I am afraid that resources are a large part of the efficient use of public money, and I used a fairly good example.
Mr. Wills: I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman that he was being facetious, but not about much else. Owing to the constraints on time, I shall have to omit the remarks that I was about to make about the general background, since I want to say something about the situation in Wiltshire. Although I register the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, he has not recognised the complexity of the case and hasunderstandablyleft out a number of salient facts.
An extensive consultation process has continued for some time. The second period of consultation conducted by the magistrates courts committee started in September 2001. As a result of that, it revised its original proposal, accepting that the convenience of victims, witnesses and defendants is more important than strict petty session area boundaries. That will allow cases to be heard at one of the three courts that the MCC proposes to retain, whichever is more convenient to the parties concerned. It is also prepared to stagger court hearings throughout the day for those who have to travel greater distances. That shows the responsiveness of a local body to local needs.
The magistrates courts committee investigated the possibility of upgrading the three courthouses, but found that much of the necessary work on the two, town centre, grade 2 listed buildings at Trowbridge and Salisbury was impossible and prohibitively expensive. I remind the
The overwhelming consideration is to reduce the number of under-used courtrooms. The degree of use in Wiltshire is under the national average by a considerable amount, as I suspect the hon. Gentleman knows. Between October and December last year, the national average utilisation figure was 60.5 per cent., but the figure for Wiltshire was 49.4 per cent. In the interests of everybody, we have to consider how to increase that figure.
On 8 February, Wiltshire MCC made a final determination, under section 56 of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997, to close Trowbridge courthouse with effect from 1 April. In accordance with that Act, Wiltshire county council formally lodged an appeal against the determination on 11 March. The appeal process is continuing, and each party is being given the opportunity to make its case for closure or retention of the courts. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that responsibility for deciding whether the appeal should be upheld resides ultimately with the Department.
Once both parties have confirmed that they have no further representations to make, l will be asked to make a decision, which will be final and binding on all parties. The hon. Gentleman will doubtless be aware that the MCC has recently requested a meeting with me, and in my response I will point out that I am happy to meet all interested parties separately to discuss the matter in detail. If the hon. Gentleman wants to discuss these issues seriouslyunfortunately, for reasons of time I have been unable to address several of them this eveningI am
The hon. Member for Salisbury commented on his constituency, so perhaps I might spend a few moments on that. The MCC has submitted a business case, and as a result officials in the Lord Chancellor's Department have submitted a bid for additional funding in the spending review to support small court schemes. If the MCC's determination to commission a courthouse in Salisbury is permitted, it will be procured via a route known as the "2 stage design and build", which is used by Government Departments for acquiring new buildings when capital becomes available.
I hope that my brief remarks have shown that these issues are complex. We must take account of everything and ensure that courts are fully utilised. Apart from anything else, that allows business to be conducted efficiently. It is in no one's interestsand certainly not of local justiceif people are unable to have their cases heard in court at the appointed time. The hon. Member for Westbury made many fair points about travel times and convenience for victims and witnesses, but it is also convenient for those people that their cases be heard when they are scheduleda point that relates to the efficient use of court space.
These are complex issues to which there is never an easy answer. Any decision to close a court is always going to evoke local opposition. We must find a right way forward, but that can be done only through dialoguehence my offer of a meeting. In the end, we are looking to provide a modern system of justice, with well equipped and secure courtrooms. We want to reduce delay in the time taken for cases to proceed through these courts