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Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I am obliged to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important, if not dramatic, debate. I declare an interest as someone who plied his trade, or calling, in the magistrates courts for a number of years. In that time, I became aware of the important function that they, and those who serve in them, perform.
Like many other hon. Members, I have had the misfortune of losing one magistrates court in my parliamentary division, and I am about to lose a second. Had I served in Parliament for longer, I would be able to claim the loss of four magistrates courts over 25 years in my district alone. Other hon. Members have mentioned accessibility, and there is a problem with that. Other than in Lincolnshire, the magistrates courts committees are not mourned because they oversaw the closure of one court after another and were unreceptive to the pleas of local people and members of local councils to keep courts open. It may not be the magistrates who serve on those committees who determine policy; I suspect that it is often the permanent employeesthe chief executives. Nevertheless, the magistrates courts committees do not appear to have a sympathetic reputation in the House, and there seem to be few who will mourn their passing.
The consequence is that the Lord Chancellor, or his successor in title, will have drawn to himself many other powers that he previously appeared not to have. He will be able to close magistrates courts, rearrange magistrates courts and deal with all manner of things. As the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said, essentially all the power will be in the hands of the Lord Chancellor or his successor.
There is an opportunity there that hitherto did not exist. Previously, as has been said, when a court was destined for closure it almost entered a kind of purdah. The Lord Chancellor's representative in the House could not speak about it because the matter was going to the appellate court, the local magistrates courts committee would not speak about it in terms that led one to believe that it was open to reason, and hon. Members on both sides of the House would feel frustrated in any endeavour to advance the interests of their local communities.
That excuse will now be gone. The power to decide whether courts stay open or close will be entirely in the hands of the Lord Chancellor or his representatives. Therefore, we will be able to make representations on closure directly to the Minister on the Floor of this Chamber.
We have had the pernicious system whereby the magistrates courts committee announce a proposed closure, and that may go to appeal. Meanwhile the court will wither on the vine because the magistrates courts committee will often redirect business away from it. Then the Member of Parliament will be told that no one is using that court, but the reason why no one is using it is that the magistrates courts committee, during the period of appeal, has ensured that no one will use it.
Another aspect of accessibility on which I should like to comment concerns rearranging the court's business. With the magistrates courts committees and the local courts, there is a tendency to distribute business as it fits in with their scheme of thingstrials in this town, youth courts in that town, early guilty pleas in this townirrespective of where the defendants, witnesses, probation officers, solicitors or anybody else might be.
Because the county of Essex, with which I have some familiarity, is convenient for the Crown Prosecution Service, all cases for committal to the Crown court go either from the Basildon court or the Chelmsford court. Irrespective of where the case originates, they go from those courts at the convenience of the CPS, so everybody else involved has to travel to those courts for that purpose, irrespective of other cases.
David Taylor: That raises the further point of the location of the judicial hearing being effectively detached from the scene of the crime. If there is not a link between the two, and so no potential for media coverage, the constraints that result from media coverage will not be present in the judicial system. Is that not regrettable?
The situation is seen more acutely with bank holiday and Saturday courts. Again, the powers that be deem that there will be only one or two for the whole county, so again, people involved in the system have to travel long distances, with no regard for their convenience, but only for the convenience of those employed by the system. The Lord Chancellor therefore has a marvellous opportunity, if he uses his discretion rightly, to make the Court Service serve the people who are involved in it, rather than merely serving the convenience of administrators. We need to be a bit careful about that. It is absolutely right, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) said, to have proper witness rooms to separate witnesses from defendants and to have creches and every other facility that modern man and woman know of. However, if one is disabled and has to travel 30 miles to get to those facilities, one's degree of access is not as high as it was when there was a much simpler building with far less grand facilities.
The reason why security is a greater problem than it was formerly is that police officers are not automatically in court. When I prosecuted for the county, I would have a grizzled police sergeant sitting next to me in courtfirst, to make certain that I did not make a hash of the case and, secondly, so that he was on hand to deal with any eventuality. In the cells below the courthouse, there would be police officers who were there as the guardians and jailers of those who were to appear in court, and so that in the event of a problem they would be on hand to deal with it straight away. Traditionally, courts were built next to police stations and there would be a tunnel between them. Security was not the problem that it has become in the more hygienic times in which we now live. If a police presence could be restored to courts, the over-neurosis about security might fade away.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The debate has been an example of Parkinson's law in parliamentary terms, in that speeches have expanded to fill the time available. One or two have gone into quite a lot of detail, but that is no bad thing.
As the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, the House overlooks the smooth running of the courts at its peril. She said that she wants the courts to be in touch with the communities that they serve; Conservative Members would agree with that. There followed a somewhat mistaken intervention by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). If I may respectfully say so, the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) repeated the erroneous view that they share. They both correctly said that they wanted to keep courts in their constituencies open, and the hon. Member for Thurrock expressed his pleasure that the Minister has overruled the original decision by the magistrates courts committee to shut the court in Grays in Thurrock.
If the hon. Member for Braintree really believes that the situation will get better as a result of the Bill making the process ever more centralised and giving ever more power to the Lord Chancellor, I fear that he is sadly mistaken. The problems that he describesthe centralisation of decisions to suit the convenience of the Crown Prosecution Service and the interests of the administrators, the bureaucrats and the system, not those of our constituentswill continue to an even greater extent. I echo his complaints, but he and his hon. Friend were firing at the wrong target.
More than 100 courts have closed since the Government came to power in 1997. The situation has been getting worse. The hon. Member for Braintree is wrong to say that we have been unable to raise these issues in the House. My right hon. and hon. Friends have done so for years at every Lord Chancellor's Department and Solicitor-General's Question Time. The situation has got no better because the Government have not been prepared to accept that what is wrong is the guidance given to magistrates courts committee. We fear that this Billthis further centralisationwill make matters worse.
In opening the debate, the Parliamentary Secretary set out her view of the new executive agency structure. Conservative Members believe that it contains great dangers, and could be a charter for an ever-expanding bureaucracy. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said, we are worried about increased centralisation. The Government's hallmarks are more tax, waste, central control and ever-expanding public sector jobs. I respectfully agree with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who made a sensible intervention on the Parliamentary Secretary and to whose wise words we should listen often. She said that she was not in favour of increasing the number of agencies. That is the voice of reason, from a senior Labour Back Bencher with great experience of the expansion of bureaucracies.
In response to an intervention by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, the Parliamentary Secretary conceded that the new courts boards will not necessarily have the power to do anything except express a view; they have no executive power. Is not there a danger that they will simply be talking shops? The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who chairs the new Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department, pointed out that, as many witnesses have stated, boards are neither one thing nor the other.
The Parliamentary Secretary said that the Bill provides for new arrangements for magistrates to move benches if they move house, and for the Judicial Studies Board to have a greater role in training. Conservative Members welcome those provisions. As my hon. Friend
The Parliamentary Secretary who opened the debate said that she expected Government amendments on fines to be tabled in Committee. We shall obviously consider them when we see them, but I hope that both Parliamentary Secretaries will listen to the wise words of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), with all his experience as a stipendiary magistrate and deputy district judge. Many Labour Back Benchers expressed anxiety about the way in which the operation of fines undermines faith in our justice system.
The Parliamentary Secretary also said that she expected Government amendments to be tabled on contracting out. I hope that her fellow Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), will confirm in her winding-up speech that we shall see the Government amendments as soon as possible, given that we expect the Committee stage to begin shortly.