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11 Mar 2003 : Column 154—continued

Magistrates Courts

19. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): What recent representations the Lord Chancellor has received about the reopening of magistrates courts. [101888]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): The decision to reopen magistrates courts is a matter for the independent magistrates courts committees. The Lord Chancellor's Department is working in partnership with local MCCs and local councils in several areas to build new magistrates courts.

Andrew Selous : I thank the Minister for that reply, but could she give the House some assurance about the situation in towns that are growing rapidly? The magistrates court in Leighton Buzzard, which is in my constituency, has been closed. The town's population is increasing from about 35,000 to 50,000, and it will become the second largest town in Bedfordshire. Given that huge increase, will the Minister offer me an assurance that her Department will look into establishing a mechanism to assess whether the magistrates court can be reopened, for the benefit of victims and of witnesses?

Yvette Cooper: I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman's concerns to the local MCC. It is for the MCC to assess local need and circumstances, and the requirements for magistrates courts in that area. I certainly agree that magistrates courts committees need to look ahead in their planning, and to examine population developments.

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Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does the Minister not recognise that her disingenuous answers to my hon. Friends the Members for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) disguise the fact that it is her Department's guidelines that box in magistrates courts committees? Ever since this Government came to power, month after month she and her predecessors have mouthed sweet platitudes at the Dispatch Box about this Government's supposed support for the lay magistracy. In fact, month in, month out, local magistrates courts are closing—indeed, more than 200 have closed since her Government came to power.

There is increased centralisation, and in rural areas witnesses and defendants have to travel many miles. That is not an efficient way to run the Court Service. At the same time, the Magistrates Association is being undermined, and the penny is starting to drop: from the way in which this Government have suffered defeat after defeat—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Yvette Cooper: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his speech. Let me remind him of what happened in 1996, when 21 magistrates courts closed—considerably more than closed in the past year. As I have said, such numbers fluctuate, but in 1996 courts closed in Bromley, in Mansfield, in Hornsea, in Howden, in Market Weighton, in Old Street, in Halstead, in Biddulph, in Cheadle, in Kidsgrove, in Tonbridge, in Colwyn Bay, in Bedale—I could go on. The hon. Gentleman should realise that magistrates courts committees need to take responsible decisions about improving the facilities that they provide, and about improving access for witnesses, including disabled witnesses. It is their responsibility to do that, and that is what they are doing.

20. Angela Watkinson (Upminster): What plans the Department has to open new magistrates courts. [101889]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): The Lord Chancellor's Department is working on a series of new court developments with magistrates courts around the country.

Angela Watkinson : The Minister will be as concerned as I am at the amount of court time that is wasted through the non-attendance of witnesses. Does she agree that ensuring that local magistrates courts are indeed local, and ensuring short journey times for witnesses, are the best ways to overcome that problem?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Lady is right. Travelling times must be taken into account when considering magistrates and other courts. Improvements to county courts are aimed at increasing the number of local hearing venues by 15 per cent., to improve local access. In fact, the unified administration will provide the opportunity for MCCs and the Court Service to look

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closely at areas in which they can provide better local access. MCCs often have to take into account difficult issues, and it is their job to do so.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Is my hon. Friend aware that communities in Bolton are pleased by the decision that the magistrates court will be retained—and in a much improved building?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. Both Bolton and Salford will benefit from new investment in magistrates courts. New courthouses are also up and running in Hull, Beverley, Bridlington, Hereford and Worcester, and investment programmes have been set up for new courthouses in Manchester, Derbyshire, Liverpool, Avon and Somerset and other areas, to improve the facilities in courtrooms for witnesses and victims, to whom it can make a real difference.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): The Minister referred to the benefits of the unified courts administration. If that is put in place, will she encourage magistrates to make use of county court centres for hearings, where available, and vice versa, so that the gaps in both systems can be filled?

Yvette Cooper: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In some areas, the Court Service and the MCC are working together to improve the use of buildings. In some cases, either court on its own might not be viable, but by working together they can preserve or even increase the services in an area. We want to see that happen more often, as part of the unified administration.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): What value does the Minister put on local and accessible justice, especially in connection with Trowbridge magistrates court, and when can the people of west Wiltshire expect to have a decision on the future of that courthouse?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman has met me to make his points about the Trowbridge magistrates court. I have asked for additional information about both the Trowbridge and the Devizes magistrates courts. As he will be aware, the MCC has proposed that they should be closed. The local council has appealed against the decision. It is for the Lord Chancellor's Department to determine that appeal and I will let the hon. Gentleman know as soon as the decision has been taken.

Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): Will the Minister accept, from someone who has practised as a lawyer in many rural courts, that the case against closure of those courts is often exaggerated? What must really be taken into account is the need for properly resourced, good buildings for the convenience of all concerned, not least witnesses and victims.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right, and several issues must be taken into account. For example, if witnesses or victims have to sit in a corridor next to the family of the defendant, they can feel intimidated. Having the resources to invest in separate facilities for

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victims and witnesses is important to delivering justice—which is, in the end, what the courts should be about.

External Advisers

21. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): What recent representations the Lord Chancellor has received regarding his Department's annual expenditure on external advisers. [101890]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): The Lord Chancellor has received no recent representations on this subject. Parliamentary questions on this subject from the hon. Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) were answered on 16 January and 24 February 2003 respectively.

Mr. Ruffley : The Minister will be aware that under Labour her Department's annual bill for external consultants and advisers has increased from £400,000 a year to £2.5 million—a sixfold increase of which Cardinal Wolsey himself would be proud. Given that the Department has lost control of its running costs, will she apologise to the British taxpayer?

Ms Winterton: The use of external consultants costs less than 0.5 per cent. of the Department's overall budget. External consultants are used only when we do not have the relevant expertise or skills in-house, and when their use provides value for money. The hon. Gentleman may not be aware of the July 2001 National Audit Office report, which looked at the use of external consultants in all Departments. It found that the Lord Chancellor's management of external consultants was pretty good. However, we also have an internal audit review to make sure that all the recommendations of the NAO report are carried out and implemented effectively.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): Have the external consultants to the Lord Chancellor's Department made any attempt to earn their crust by pointing out the grave damage done by the closure of magistrates courts, to witnesses who may be deterred from turning up and to local papers that are deterred from reporting cases? Does she agree that it is vital for local justice that there should be public reporting of cases? What steps will she take to ensure that local newspapers receive advance notification of upcoming cases?

Ms Rosie Winterton: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting his question on magistrates courts into this question. External consultants have been used in the courts and tribunals programme, whose aim is to improve services to people using the courts and to make accessibility easier. However, the official solicitor, for example, has also used external consultants to ensure that services to very vulnerable clients and children are improved. That is the sort of use that we want to make of external consultants, when their use is necessary and represents value for money. We want to improve the services that we give to the people who use the courts services and the other services of the Lord Chancellor's Department.

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