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Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): I am grateful to have secured this debate, and for the support of right hon. and hon. Friends, which demonstrates the importance that we attach to this issue. I am also grateful to the Minister for appearing, especially as he is a Wiltshire MP; I hope that he will bring to the debate a particular insight into the issue.
I have learned that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) also has a magistrates court in his county town of Oakham in Rutland that is threatened just as the magistrates court in my county town of Trowbridge in Wiltshire is threatened. However, the problem is country wide.
The county's magistrates courts committee recently announced plans to close the West Wiltshire magistrates court in Trowbridge in my constituency and the Devizes courthouse in the constituency of the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). Those plans have been put on hold by the timely intervention of Wiltshire county council. I hope that that will provide a breathing space so that the Minister and the Lord Chancellor can reverse a disastrous decision. My right hon. Friend regrets that he is unable to be here, but having campaigned for much longer than I have for the retention of magistrates courts in Wiltshire, he has asked to be associated with my remarks.
Next week, I shall present a petition with more than 2,000 signatures in support of West Wiltshire magistrates court. Despite that measure of strong local feeling, some people have said to me, "What's the point? It's a done deal." We all moan that the public are uninterested in us and in what we do. The Government's response is to devise ever cleverer ways of re-engaging with them, such as electronic voting and polling booths at supermarkets, but the gist of it is that people feel that they cannot influence events that affect them. If the Government are serious about improving the reputation of politics, they must be prepared to be guided by strongly held local views of the sort that I have the privilege to represent today.
My local youth offending team has just produced a map of young offenders in the West Wiltshire and Kennet districts, and found that the majority live in and around Trowbridge and Devizes. What is more, a high proportion of offences in both districts occur within two miles of the two threatened courthouses. What effect does the Minister suppose that the closures will have on those young offenders, who will now have to find their way to the relatively remote and unfamiliar towns of Chippenham and Salisbury?
In Wiltshire, the situation has already sparked the resignation of one of our longest-serving justices of the peace, and I fear that more resignations may be in the pipeline. The fact is that our magistracy are to be packed off to vast justice factories in the large urban centres. Farewell, then, to the notion that justice should be dispensed locally by those with some knowledge of the context in which a crime has been committed and in which a sentence handed down would ultimately be served. Farewell to any chance that the convicted will feature in the local press, so that justice can be seen to be done.
The Auld report endorsed a system of lay magistracy that has existed since 1361. I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I detect a desire to draw that to a close by way of the Government's centralisation of justice. Only this week, we have heard that magistrates are to be discouraged from using their JP post-nominals, a practice that I recall at least one Minister was pleased to follow until fairly recently. In itself that seems pretty unimportant, but it is symbolic of an attempt to downgrade the office. The implication behind the move may well add to the disillusion that is by stealth eroding the lay magistracy, paving the way for more stipendiaries in large sub-regional courthouses. We hear that Ministers are turning their backs on stealth. Let them come clean about their intentions for the bench.
My comments are couched mainly in general terms, but Wiltshire's case is put extremely well in the county council's paper, which was sent to the Lord Chancellor in March. Wiltshire is a deceptive county. Its population lives in a doughnut around Salisbury plain, which, as the Minister knows, is the size of the Isle of Wight. That means that transport is far more difficult than the uninitiated imagine. To compound that, we learn that the closure of Trowbridge and Devizes would mean that the number of
Of course, we must upgrade our courthouses. In particular, we must make them more accessible to disabled people. We must also ensure that they are healthy and safe for all who have business in them. There is no doubt that Charles Dickens would recognise Trowbridge courthouse, which needs to be brought kicking and screaming into the 21st century as a matter of urgency. The fabric of the building is inadequate and needs serious attention.
However, Ministers should be careful for two reasons. First, they should be careful when using the human rights agenda to proscribe, for example, the appearance of accused in handcuffs as they walk only a few feet from the police van to the courthouse door. If that constrains the rights of those who are not well off or who live in remote areas to equal access to justice, I wonder what, on balance, has been gained. Secondly, the Minister should note that disabled people are more likely than average to lose out if they are forced to travel to gain access to justice. Closures based on the cost of upgrading court rooms may be unhelpful.
We must recognise that those who have business in magistrates courtsthe accused and their families, witnesses and victimstend to be at the poorer end of the social spectrum. Many are on benefit, and many do not have ready access to transport. The hurdle that the closures present will be far higher for them than for the better off. The hurdle for those who live in remote rural areas will be higher than for those who live in towns. How does that square with the Government's stated desire to create an equitable and fair society?
A local policeman said to me that it is already difficult enough getting people to attend court in Trowbridge. If he had to get them to attend in Chippenham, there would be little chance. The well-off urbanite therefore presents himself at Chippenham in a timely fashion and the poor man from a small town or village does not, for a complex variety of reasonsand the Government believe that they are creating a fairer society.
The Minister cannot hide behind the decisions of the magistrates courts committees, as I regret that he did in his letter to me of 8 April. He knows that Wiltshire magistrates courts committee is caught between a rock and a hard place. In his haste to indulge an expensive taste in wall coverings, the Lord Chancellor has neglected to furnish magistrates courts committees with the necessary funding to cover the crippling extra burdens that he has imposed on them.
Although £600,000 buys mighty fine wallpaper, it would also renovate six court houses such as Trowbridge and ensure that people in areas like mine continue to have ready access to justice. Lord Chief Justice Auld is clear where the responsibility lies: in his opinion, courthouse closures are
I hope that the Minister will take home some of those points. I recognise that he is a Wiltshire MP; he will therefore know the geography of the area. I also hope that the Countryside Agency's point about the rurality of the area, along with the need to ensure access, the special situation of Wiltshire with regard to transport, and the large area of Salisbury plain in the middle which means that access from north to south is extremely difficult, will convince him that we have a case for keeping the Trowbridge and Devizes courthouses open. A particularly telling revelation was made by the county council, which showed that, were those courthouses to close, we would have far fewer courthouses than one might expect, compared with similar rural counties in the south-west and nationwide.
This is an important issue that affects us all, wherever our constituencies may be. It is about access to justice, one of the most fundamental tenets that we value in this country. My strong concern is that, with the closure of those two courthouses and a move towards a system of justice based in large urban centres and housed in vast justice factories, that access would be denied, particularly to the most vulnerable and to those who live in rural areas. I am sure that the Minister does not want that to happen, and hon. Members on this side of the House certainly do not. I hope, therefore, that he will be able to give us some reassurance today about these two important courthouses and, more generally, about courthouses in other parts of the country.