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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 31 October 2001

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

London Magistrates Courts

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

9.30 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): A colleague once accused me of asking for debates on obscure matters, because I led consecutive debates on inflation indices, hedonic pricing, volunteering and time banks. My colleague was spot on, if the lack of prior outside representation on those subjects was anything to go by. That charge cannot be made today, because the debate has sparked an almost alarming number of representations from external bodies. I thank them, and everyone who has provided me with helpful briefings; I do not think that I can do justice to them all.

I asked for the debate because many of my constituents are concerned about Kingston magistrates court. As the Liberal Democrat spokesman on London, I am aware that the issue is London wide, and I am not surprised that Members from all parties are here today to raise concerns about their constituencies, and the impact that the issues may have on the capital. The representations that I have received show the urgent need for debate on the future of London magistrates courts. Ministers must heed the representations because a political storm is brewing that may soon wash up on the shores of Whitehall.

The combination of recent Government policy initiatives and proposals could produce drastic changes in the bedrock of London's legal system, the magistracy. In a few years' time we could wake up to realise that we had undermined something precious because we did not realise its true value. I shall give a flavour of the changes that London magistrates courts face with three examples of recent initiatives and proposals. First, last April, the administration of London's 22 former magistrates courts was centralised under the Greater London Magistrates Courts Authority. That was a major administrative change.

Secondly, GLMCA has introduced a wide-ranging consultation on London's 40 magistrates courthouses, which covers everything from which courthouses are to close, to whether the post of justices' clerk should be widely maintained. Thirdly, a recent review of the criminal courts of England and Wales by Lord Justice Auld proposed a unified criminal court system, including a new district division consisting of a district judge and two experienced magistrates. There are many other proposals that would have an impact on London's magistrates courts.

The GLMCA consultation is not yet complete, and the Auld review is not yet published, but if all such changes were combined, their extent would be huge. The changes exercise the minds of court staff, magistrates, lawyers and many others. Many worry about how the changes add up; they worry not just for themselves,

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but for the nature and quality of London's justice system, the prime task of which is to serve the people of London, our constituents. The democratic arm of government should focus on the scale of what could happen to the legislative arm of London. We must question such changes and demand explanations from the Government.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), to take careful stock of the changes, and proceed with considerable caution. Many of the changes should be prevented or altered before the political die is cast.

The GLMCA has been something of a success story. That may surprise hon. Members and those who read the report of the debate. Some people see the GLMCA as the cause of all their woes. However, some of what it has been doing is quite good and the administrative change has yielded dividends.

Hon. Members may have examples of the new authority's teething problems, but since its creation earlier this year, the GLMCA has done at least two things that bode well for the future. The authority provides a better focus for much-needed co-ordination of London's criminal justice system, bringing together the top management of the different arms of London's criminal justice system. The chief executive of the GLMCA now regularly meets senior managers from the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the probation service and others throughout London, and that is producing some good results. It has reduced delays in dealing with persistent young offenders, and has breathed new life into London's criminal justice board.

A range of cross-agency initiatives is under way to crack some of the perennial problems affecting London's criminal justice system. There are, for example, ideas for improving the enforcement and collection of fines, extending court hours, and, beyond that, for improving the co-ordination of spreading best practice. We should welcome those initiatives.

The GLMCA is already making better use of its capital assets before the conclusion of the widespread consultation on its document. Individual magistrates courts committees had squirreled away courts' assets in case they might need them. By taking a more strategic view, the GLMCA can decide not to buy a car park or a building that it does not need and that is not fundamental to the operation of the court, and to recycle the money instead.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): Is it not the case that the people best placed to decide how a car park should be used are in the local courts, and not in a body that is a long way away and is insensitive to the local requirements?

Mr. Davey : It is possible that local people should have a role in such decisions, although I understand that the GLMCA is at least consulted. The hon. Gentleman would surely agree that sometimes court committees and local authorities have held on to capital assets unnecessarily. I stress that the assets in question are not fundamental to the operation of the magistrates courts and are not core to the function of the justice system. There is a case for better use of assets, and the GLMCA is making that case well.

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I do not want to wax too lyrical about such achievements—these are early days—but they show that there are huge potential benefits from the relatively minor reform of establishing the GLMCA. Ministers should focus on that success and on the potential from that reform without proceeding too rapidly with some of the other ideas that are being proposed, about which I will be more critical.

The tome "Delivery of summary justice in Greater London: the GLMCA's strategy" was launched last June. It has provoked much sound and fury throughout the capital, which does not surprise me. I was taken aback when I read the executive summary—a thinner volume—as were the local magistrates in Kingston, mainly because some of the options included either a partial or even a full-scale massacre of the capital's courtrooms. The options would imply the total demolition of the idea of local justice in London. Local justice is important, and not for sentimental reasons, nor because that is the way we have always done it. Local justice means justice that is as accessible to low-income citizens as it is to the better off, and where local magistrates understand the local area.

The document's more extreme proposals, which attack the very notion of local justice, seem unlikely to go much further. Indeed, it seemed that at the time of publication—and certainly on reflection—some of those proposals were included as Aunt Sallies, intended to draw fire and tease out the arguments. My research has reinforced that impression. In debating the future of London's magistrates courts, we should not focus on that document. The situation has moved on significantly and most courthouses in the capital are likely to survive the exercise. That might be welcome news for some hon. Members.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department may be able to enlighten the House about the current state of play, although I expect that he is waiting until the GLMCA advances its conclusions later this year. The GLMCA is listening to many representations, and closures may prove to be more limited than some expect.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing the debate. He has obviously researched the subject carefully. Has he come to any preliminary conclusion about the number of courts that will remain in London when the reform process is over? Currently, there are 40 and, as I understand it, 29 may be closed, although it may be fewer. Does the hon. Gentleman have a figure in mind?

Mr. Davey : Unfortunately, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a figure. The GLMCA will meet on 21 November for consultation in the light of Lord Justice Auld's report, so it has not yet reached a final decision. Therefore, it would be wrong for me to suggest a figure because no one knows of such a figure. It is certainly my view that the number of closures will be small.

The need for this debate follows on from what the hon. Gentleman said. We cannot be sure that my research is correct. It is possible that more courts may be

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closed than has been suggested to me, which is why I wanted to have the debate. The democratic arm of government should make it clear to the GLMCA and the Minister that we will strongly oppose a major closure programme. When the GLMCA makes its recommendations, I hope that it will take this debate into account. I hope that the GLMCA executive will ensure that all authority members receive a copy of the debate so that they can read what we, as elected representatives, have to say about London's justice system.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the uncertainty that he describes about the number of courts in London is not a good example of joined-up government? There are at least three initiatives: the Auld committee, the GLMCA and the proposals for fewer courts. That is exactly what we do not want in the provision of justice for London.

Mr. Davey : The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the combination of all those initiatives and proposals is causing huge uncertainty and great anxiety.

We must consider some of the details in the strategic consultation document. The argument for larger closure programmes is predicated on the idea that there is massive overcapacity in London's courtrooms. That is the basis of the policy consultation and many aspects of policy in the Lord Chancellor's Department. We must challenge the proposition that there is huge overcapacity. Currently, it is believed that there is 30 per cent. too much courtroom space in London, which is also a national average figure. The Lord Chancellor's Department is demanding that authorities such as the GLMCA cut that overcapacity by one third by the end of next year, which means selling off 10 per cent. of the estate by the end of 2002. That is worrying as we cannot be sure about that overcapacity, especially if one third is to be removed in one year. Let us remember that London performs well in not leaving courtrooms empty. In the capital, we use our courtrooms well, especially compared with other areas and the Crown courts. For example, in the last quarter, London was almost 16 per cent. above the national average in courtroom utilisation, and only three percentage points lower than the very best.

We must factor in the need for spare capacity. Sometimes courts are busier than at other times, and we need to ensure that peaks can be dealt with. We must also factor into the analysis that capacity should not be measured simply by courtrooms. What about interview rooms, custody suites and witness rooms, for example? They should be part of a capacity analysis.

We need to remember that we want to improve the quality of justice. We have initiatives such as the London magistrates court witness service, which is promoted by, among others, Victim Support for London and the Government. In trying to secure better courtroom facilities for witnesses, that new service is already absorbing some spare capacity, even before new training facilities and more refreshment facilities, for example, are considered. Some of that space could be absorbed in other ways.

We should also remember that a courtroom sometimes stands empty for reasons entirely outside the court's control. Perhaps the failure of the CPS is

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involved, perhaps a witness fails to turn up, or perhaps London's chronic shortage of probation officers means that proceedings cannot continue. Whatever the reason, the courtroom will be empty due to reasons beyond the court's control. Does that count as overcapacity? When consultants talk of overcapacity, I am reminded of what happened more than a decade ago in the national health service, when consultants' calculations told us that there were too many expensive beds throughout the NHS in London, and bed numbers were slashed. We have still not recovered from that.

I urge members of the GLMCA and the Minister to examine closely the figures for overcapacity. The Lord Chancellor's Department and those at Marylebone road should question the figures and data sources, ask for definitions and cross-check the findings. Those who take major decisions based on those figures should ensure that they analyse them properly.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North): I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman intended to move on to this point. If spare capacity exists, could it not be used by other agencies? The court in my constituency lets out space to the Inland Revenue—I do not know for what purpose. It might be used for tribunals, for example.

Mr. Davey : I had not considered that. The hon. Lady makes a valid point. What she and I are saying boils down to the fact that the GLMCA should not be rushed into a massive closure programme and the Minister should give it directions to that effect.

There is another major reason why the GLMCA should be ultra cautious about proceeding with rationalisation. The Minister may want to provide some assurance on this, but as far as I know, the Government have given no public assurance that the GLMCA will be able to retain the financial savings derived from closing courtrooms. That is surprising, as surely only one sensible argument could support the sale of a courthouse given the inevitable negative effect on local justice in the area—the possibility that the funds could be recycled, freed up and ploughed back into other magistrates courts, to refurbish them and pay for a modernisation programme that raised the overall quality of justice for London. However, if we do not know that the GLMCA can keep the capital receipts, that argument does not get off the ground. Let us make no mistake: usual Treasury practice is to claw back such money in some way or other. Unless Ministers can guarantee publicly, preferably today, that the Treasury is not about to mount a smash-and-grab raid on London's public legal system, the GLMCA should not be conned.

I know that the Minister is widely regarded as helpful and accommodating on the matter, so I do not mean to slight his intentions. In many ways, my arguments focus on another Department. However, I hope that he understands the crucial point that, without a promise that 100 per cent. of realised capital can be retained for reinvestment, with no hidden penalties or grant regime, the GLMCA would, on financial grounds, be foolish to undertake more than a limited estate rationalisation. It would hardly be outrageous of the GLMCA to request that. This year, its budget represented a cash freeze, so it is hardly imposing extra costs on the Government. Frankly, it would be reasonable for the GLMCA to ask

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not only for such a guarantee, but for an above-inflation settlement in the new comprehensive spending review, at least for the early years, because it is often important to invest up-front in order to make savings down the line. I will listen closely to the Minister's remarks on that particular point, and I hope that he will reassure us.

I return to the details of the GLMCA's consultation document and, for a moment, I will be parochial and argue the case for Kingston's magistrates court. In the document, Kingston is one of 18 courthouses included for closure in option D, and is mentioned in option C as a possible additional closure within the so-called "moderate rationalisation" option.

The closure of Kingston's magistrates court would be a serious mistake. It would affect not only Kingston, but the wider London magistrates network. Kingston may have a relatively small court, but it is a good, efficient performer. I pay special tribute to the justices' clerk, Andrew Vickers, and his dedicated staff for their hard work over the years, which has been central to that excellent performance. I also mention the work of the chairman of the bench, Dr. Alan Vincent, and his fellow magistrates who have contributed to the performance.

Small can be beautiful, and can help to make justice more accessible. I have attended open days at the Kingston courts when schoolchildren are shown how the courts work and are shown mock trials. That may seem a minor example, but it is just one instance of how a locally minded bench can be proactive in its work with the local community. It can promote active citizenship and, in a roundabout way, contribute to crime prevention.

Kingston's case, however, is based on much more than efficiency. The court's location is in the centre of town, next to the police station. That is a real advantage. It is extremely easy for local people to access, and professionals are on hand, whether they are the police or the Crown Prosecution Service. Moreover, south-west London's probation service is just across the bridge. Therefore, the courtroom is more convenient than others.

Kingston's court is a unique case. Its closure would not yield capital receipt because the local council owns the courtrooms and the administration headquarters is leased. Yes, there would be savings on staff costs, but they would be small because the court is relatively small. Therefore, there is a weak financial case for closing Kingston's court. Moreover, there is room for expansion because the council has already designated a site immediately adjacent to the court's entrance. Building there could modernise the overall facilities and reduce total leasing costs.

Finally, the GLMCA must think of its public duty. The courts are in a grade 2 listed building, within the Kingston old town conservation area. They are in the basement of the Kingston guildhall, which is a neo-Georgian building that was built in 1954 and designed by Maurice Webb. The courts are in good condition and retain their original layout and fixtures. Our court building is of significant historical and architectural value. As the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) will recall from his days with English Heritage, that means that if the GLMCA closes the court, it will be

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extremely difficult for consent to be granted for the existing courtroom fittings to be stripped out, or even significantly altered. However, there is a much greater chance that permission would be granted for enhancements to the building that develop its historical usage.

Kingston council would be left with a costly white elephant that could, at best, serve as an expensive storeroom, and would require assistance from the Minister's colleagues in local government. Alternatively, and more cost-effectively, the GLMCA could include the historical courtrooms in its strategic plans. I urge the Minister and the GLMCA to examine Kingston's case, which is strong even before general points about local justice are considered.

Of course, there is a factor that could change all the calculations—for Kingston, London and throughout England and Wales. That is the Auld review. This is not the time for a full-scale analysis of Lord Justice Auld's review, not least because it goes far wider than London's magistracy. However, it is germane as there can be no doubt that some of its key recommendations would impact on the future of London's courts in a very big way.

The GLMCA has delayed final recommendation on its strategic consultation document pending the extraordinary meeting in November, to which I referred, for consideration of the impact of Auld. I know that the Minister has already told the authority that it should not wait for the Government's response to Auld before finalising and implementing a strategy. However, I am sure that he would agree that it would be imprudent for the authority not to be mindful of Auld, at the very least, in the timetabling of strategy implementation. It is well known that Auld's key recommendations of a unified criminal court with a Crown division, a magistrates division and a new district division could have major implications for the management structure of the courts and the courtroom needs of the criminal justice system.

Equally, if Auld and the Government get their way and abolish the automatic right to a jury trial, the whole work load of the lower two divisions could be significantly increased, with longer trials and more of them. That is not a change at the margin; it is a revolution at the core. The GLMCA and the Minister might wish to press on regardless, but it is a prudent and sensible body and the Minister is rightly well regarded, so Auld must be a consideration. It would be irresponsible madness to sell off any more than a tiny number of courtrooms given that reality. What is the Minister's public guidance, not just to the GLMCA, but to other court authorities? Would he advise them to go ahead with rationalisation utterly regardless, as if Auld did not exist? If not, what recognition of Auld should they build in to their strategies?

Before I conclude, I want to make a few final points about the magistracy in general. The Government's views on the matter are important for the capital. What are the Government's long-term plans for the lay magistracy? That might seem an odd question—the Government might think that it is a trick question—but it has been put to me by many justices of the peace. Magistrates are worried, and the more suspicious ones

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think that the Government want to get rid of them totally. I do not say that in jest: magistrates regard Auld's proposals for a district division as a stalking horse. They regard the proposal that lay magistrates should not be involved in decisions on matters of sentencing as deeply corrosive. If the district division proposal is implemented, and the district judge sits as the chair, the incentive for magistrates of chairing a bench and being authoritative in reaching conclusions will be taken away and the role of some of our senior magistrates will be reduced. Undermining the purpose and incentive to do the magistrate's job might undermine the whole magistracy.

Worse still, the more suspicious magistrates fear that the unified criminal court, and the Court Service that will manage it—although we know that those proposals are not finalised—will mean that the administrative side of the magistrates courts will disappear into the Court Service, and will therefore be accountable to the Lord Chancellor's Department. They fear what could be regarded as a wholesale takeover of the magistracy by the Crown courts. I am afraid to say that such fears were not calmed by the recent and pre-emptive decision by the Lord Chancellor's Department to transfer the head office magistrates courts service staff to the Court Service. That seemed like a lightning raid to take away the magistrates courts civil servants, and, before any decision had been taken, put them into the Crown court. That decision, which was almost presented as a fait accompli, annoyed a lot of people throughout the wider judiciary. As the Minister will know, it led to the granting of a judicial review application. I am told that, in the short term, the matter may be sorted out before that judicial review is heard. I welcome that, and I hope that the Minister will confirm it. I refer to that because magistrates have many reasons to be rather jittery, and I am not surprised that they are nervous.

Even those who are prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt are nervous because they do not see them worrying about recruitment to the magistracy. Why is that? The Government should want to recruit more people, but magistrates do not see them making a big deal of telling employers, "Give your employees time off to serve as magistrates." The Government do not seem to understand that the magistracy is made up of volunteers who undertake 95 per cent. of the administration of justice and without whom the whole edifice would crumble. The Minister might accuse me of exaggerating those fears, but that is what people are telling me.

I want to end with a plea. The Government should put the brakes on and think. Do they really want to press ahead with their combined reforms and end up with a highly centralised, professional, lawyer-based legal system or do they want a system in which ordinary people are involved in the administration of justice as jurors and magistrates? I want to live in a society that makes it possible for citizens to get involved and to serve their communities. I want to encourage active citizens and healthy communities and, in respect of their other policies, the Government say that they do too. However, when it comes to their policy on magistrates, they do not seem to value the work of volunteers and do not encourage active citizens.

The Liberal Democrats believe that individuals can deal with responsibilities in the justice system and should be encouraged to do so for the good of their

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neighbours and communities. It is better that they should be involved in the magistracy. That is not a plea for the status quo—far from it. We can get better value for money, improve the service that we get from the courts and introduce a wider spread of lay person into the magistracy. However, let us make those changes by building on the strength of our existing institutions, not by undermining them.

10.1 am

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I apologise that I will not be around for the Minister's winding-up speech, but I have a constituency arrangement. However, I want to say a few words as a London Member of Parliament.

I took on board the comments of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), in particular the concerns that he expressed at the end of his speech about a centralised, lawyer-based legal system. I come from the legal fraternity and spent four years as a solicitor, although the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), is a more distinguished lawyer. None the less, volunteers play an active and important role in the legal system, particularly in the magistracy. There is also the role of justice of the peace, which goes back to the 13th century. I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that people have serious concerns about the proposed changes, and several constituents have expressed them to me.

Above all, I am concerned about the fact that the rationalisation takes no account of several local factors. One must be careful to bear it in mind that any rationalisation will involve much special pleading. That is particularly true for the City of London, which has had its own magistrates court for as long as there have been justices of the peace. It will now be one of the 22 areas to be swallowed up into the single, Londonwide court, although I appreciate the fact that Westminster has been part of an inner-London bench for some time.

We should also consider the redundancies that are involved in the rationalisation. Everything seems to be up in the air in that regard. We are still at an early stage and have had only a small summary of a very large document, but I hope that we shall hear more detail today and in the coming period. Uncertainty about many of the changes is causing great concern.

It is somewhat curious that we are considering rationalisation at this juncture. As has been said, that is partly because of Auld's wholesale recommendations. Furthermore, in 1997 the Labour party promised to crack down on persistent young offenders. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 set out the fast-track provisions, which had been much heralded. I wonder whether some of the proposals, particularly for central London, will fly in the face of the Government's aim of securing a fast-track procedure, notwithstanding all the purported overcapacity in London as a whole.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton was right to say that a political storm is brewing over the matter in question, and that the drastic changes proposed will upset the bedrock of the magistracy. Local justice is important. There is always a tendency to look on London as one large amorphous entity, but London Members know that it was, and is, a series

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of villages. In the Cities of London and Westminster, even a five-minute walk takes a person from one village to another: from Soho to Covent Garden, for example. That applies equally to the suburbs. For example, Kingston has a guildhall, which is part of its history. The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) will know that there are several old London villages in her area.

Locality is of key importance. Dealing with London as a large, amorphous mass will remove some of the local links that are, and should be, the bedrock of the justice system.

Mr. Horam : My hon. Friend has touched on an important point. He will notice how many hon. Members are present whose constituencies cover parts of outer London such as Croydon, Barnet, Kingston and Surbiton, and Ilford. That is important. Bromley has a very new court, in contrast to that in my hon. Friend's constituency. It is five years old and was purpose-built at a cost of £10 million. That will be closed under the proposal.

Mr. Field : I take that point on board. I am sorry that I do not know all the facts and figures about the London borough of Bromley; my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) will recall that Orpington was previously a district council in its own right, as part and parcel of Kent. Those loyalties and ties remain strong and, as far as possible, they should be encouraged.

I doubt whether the proposals will achieve the goal of improving the performance and consistency of court services. They seem to be in part an asset-stripping operation. According to the documents there is a 32 per cent. overcapacity across Greater London, yet we all know that the much-vaunted fast-track arrangements have not really become established. I am thinking particularly about youth justice. Much of the relevant activity in the City of London concerns the youth justice bench. I am well aware of concern about the current arrangements and the sense that there is massive overcapacity that could be rationalised. I am concerned that that will do less to help justice than it will to provide a one-off capital gain, and that the magistracy and legal system in London may never recover.

I ask for a complete rethink of the entire package. Above all, we know as politicians that all politics is local. We must realise that issues of locality are of keen importance in the dispensation of justice, even in what might seem to be a faceless capital city.

10.8 am

Linda Perham (Ilford, North): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing the debate. I declare an interest at the outset, in that I have been a justice of the peace since 1990 and served as a magistrate in my area until I was selected as a parliamentary candidate. The Redbridge courthouse is in my constituency.

I appreciate the wide-ranging consultation process in which the Greater London Magistrates Courts Authority is engaged. I understand and support its priorities, which I paraphrase from the strategic consultation document as follows: to ensure consistency across the criminal justice system in London; to deliver

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improved services to all court users in London with efficiency and effectiveness by joint working with other agencies; to fund investment and reinvestment opportunities and provide value for money; to respond to national policy priorities; to be a good employer providing job opportunities, training, development and flexibility, and to support magistrates in their work.

I also recognise the GLMCA's concerns about the costs of administering justice in London. However, by focusing on the courthouse in my own constituency, I hope to demonstrate that closing down many courthouses throughout the capital will not necessarily save money or achieve the strategic aims.

I pay tribute to the Justice for Redbridge campaign. Thanks to the efforts of the present chairman of the bench, Councillor Richard Hoskins, and the immediate past chairman, Ron Jeffries, a formidable case against closure has been presented. The campaign enlisted the support of all four local Members of Parliament, all the political groups on Redbridge council and the GLA member for Havering and Redbridge, the Metropolitan police, Victim Support, the secretary of the Legal Aid Board and local solicitors, the youth offending team, the citizens advice bureaux, the North East London mental health trust, the Redbridge Pensioners Action Association, the Redbridge trade union council, local school students who signed petitions, and readers of local newspapers, including 880 people who returned cut-out forms printed in the Ilford Recorder.

All those groups stressed the importance of local accessibility, which the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton also mentioned. That comes through time and again in the representations that I have received about rationalising the courthouse estate. They all concentrate on the potential loss of access to local justice for all court users.

I wrote to the chief executive of the GLMCA, Ashley Truluck, in September saying:

The Metropolitan police borough commander wrote to me:

The chairman of the youth court also makes points about the difficulties of transferring the youth court from our area into London. She mentions the fact that the youth offending team can produce the specific case worker within 10 to 15 minutes to the Barkingside courthouse. She states:

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The question whether fewer courthouses would save money was addressed in the remarks of a long-serving local solicitor, David Diamond:

In a letter to me, a constituent who works for the Lord Chancellor's Department said succinctly:

My other main point concerns local contacts and networks, which the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton mentioned. A locally based courthouse with magistrates living in the area can build and maintain a range of links with the community that it serves. The courthouse in Redbridge is no exception. Indeed, it has taken a proactive role in spearheading local initiatives in some sectors.

The clerk to the justices is one of 12 members at chief executive level of the Redbridge safer communities partnership. He also chairs the steering group on racist crime. The court was proactive in setting up the Redbridge domestic violence forum, the town centre steering group—it tackled violence in clubs and pubs—and a group to deal with violence on buses, which worked with the route operators. Under the mentally disordered offenders diversion scheme, representatives of the mental health trust, social services, police, probation and the court monitor the work of the on-call court-designated community psychiatric nurse.

There is also the Redbridge court drug initiative. Following the Government's launch of borough-based drug action teams and drug reference groups, there is magistrate representation on both Redbridge bodies. With funding from the Government Office for London via the probation service, the court was one of the first to appoint a full-time court-based drug referral worker.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton mentioned open days for community groups and schools. My local court had a drug awareness day, which I was pleased to attend. Local courthouses build up many networks, which would be a great loss if they were closed.

On efficiency, Redbridge magistrates court performs far better than average compared with Greater London and nationally. Cases are heard at Redbridge 11 days faster than the Greater London average and 16 days faster than the national average. In fact, according to the latest performance indicators, which were released in the first week of October by the GLMCA, the court is so efficient that it is already meeting next year's targets. That places it second in the list of the 29 courts in London. It completes all types of cases, from first listing to sentencing or acquittal, in 17 days, against a Government target of 29 days.

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The court is also well ahead on fines paid. Courtroom usage is 10 per cent. better than the national average, and user satisfaction is 14 per cent. higher than the Greater London average.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) speak about his local courthouse. We have had a modernisation programme in Redbridge. In recent years, well over £1 million in capital costs has been spent on projects to enhance facilities for victims, witnesses, legal representatives, criminal justice agencies, disabled court users and at-risk offenders. One project involved the installation of a lift for disabled magistrates.

It is important to bear in mind the Auld report, which has been mentioned. I am pleased that the chief executive of the GLMCA says in a letter to those who responded to the strategic consultation document that

That gives me some hope. It is important that the Government bear in mind the proposals in the Auld report when they consider the rationalisation of courthouses. Using the example of my local courthouse, I hope that I have shown that there is a case for not proceeding with the draconian rationalisation of the courthouse estate, as is set out in several of the options in the strategic consultation document. Once again I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton on securing this timely debate, and I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. I hope that the importance of these issues is borne in mind by those who take the decisions.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Frank Cook (in the Chair): We are hoping to start the wind-ups from the Front Benches shortly after 10.30 am. I therefore ask hon. Members to be as concise as they can.

10.20 am

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) : Thank you for that advice, Mr. Cook. I can considerably shorten my contribution because many of the points have already been made by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and I congratulate him on the timely manner in which he has raised the issue.

The Greater London Magistrates Courts Authority was set up in April this year. It replaces 22 magistrates courts. That authority is now the largest in England and Wales. It has a budget of £75 million, 1,800 staff, over 3,000 magistrates and 40 courthouses. That is centralisation of some magnitude. In their White Paper of December 1998 the Government rightly said that magistrates courts should provide local justice dispensed by local people. I would add "locally", and I find it significant that that word was left out.

We start from the basis of section 83 of the Access to Justice Act 1999, which set up the GLMCA. I am worried about the strategy that that new authority recently published. It examines estate options ranging from no change and minimal rationalisation, to significant rationalisation and, at the far extreme, a central courthouse or courthouses. I make no apologies if this seems a parochial point, but even under the moderate rationalisation option, Barnet and Hendon

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courts would close and their caseload would move to Brent. Under the significant rationalisation option, 18 courts would close, including Harrow and Highgate, the next nearest to my constituents. Under the clustering system 29 would close and Brent court would effectively serve the whole of the north of outer London. I would find that quite unacceptable.

I should be grateful if the Minister could also deal with the effect that the Human Rights Act 1998, which gives effect to European Court of Human Rights decisions, will have on the design and costs of local courts, whether there are 40 or only 11. I take this opportunity to praise the work of lay magistrates. It has been an integral part of our justice system for hundreds of years. They give a considerable amount of their time and they are not paid. As the hon. Gentleman said, they deal with 95 per cent. of all court cases. Quite simply, if we are not to maintain the two existing courts in Barnet we must have at least one court in the borough even if that means closing those two courts after building a new one more centrally.

Finally, and I know the Minister will appreciate this, the public transport routes, and indeed the road networks, in London radiate out from the centre. It is difficult for those above the north circular road to get across London. That would be a particular problem for my constituents if they had to go to Brent court. That is a vital consideration.

Local accessibility is vital in the administration of justice and even more vital in the administration of local justice.

10.24 am

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing the debate. I have sparred with him over many years on London matters and Treasury matters, and have worked with him on the issue, and it is a pleasure to meet him in debate again. I take his word for it that the absent ranks of Liberal Democrats support him on the issue. As a solicitor, I declare an interest: my wife is a magistrate and many of the points that we have heard today are often forcefully made to me over the breakfast table.

Magistrates make a huge contribution to the community. I hope that the Minister will take away from the debate the fact that the magistracy is a locally and community-based activity. If we are to support the community, which is the glue of society, the magistracy must remain local and we must have a local structure to support it. The proposals threaten and jeopardise that local structure. Justice must be dispensed locally. We cannot have the Croydon courts shut down, for example. Croydon is the largest borough in London and the Sutton courts could not cope if Croydon courts were shut down. There would be a gap between Kingston on the one hand and Bromley on the other—entire swathes of south London would have no courts. The thought of witnesses and magistrates having to travel 10 or 15 miles across London is terrible; it would destroy the local dispensation of justice. In rural areas, 10 or 15 miles is not much, but in London it is a huge distance. Magistrates, witnesses, police and all the officials would be in alien territory.

My second point is important and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) will also make it. Justice cannot be finance-led. The hon.

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Member for Kingston and Surbiton rightly said that he was addressing a different Department on the issue. All Departments have to face the Treasury. Every hon. Member would like to scrum down behind the Minister in his battle for funding from the Treasury, but he has right on his side. The Treasury cannot decide how justice will be dispensed in this country. Justice, the jury and the magistracy are the cornerstones of our local democracy and of everything that we believe in. One cannot require that justice be tailor-made to fit a budget.

My next point is on the overcapacity of London courts. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton dealt with the point well by pointing out that London is outperforming the average. However, the magistracy is not responsible for empty courts. I am reliably informed that it is often the inability of the Crown Prosecution Service to have cases ready that is to blame. The magistrates are waiting, ready and willing, as is everyone else, but problems in the CPS mean that cases are not ready, so everyone sits around twiddling their thumbs. Such cases are entered on the records as vacant courts and overcapacity. It is not overcapacity. There is a tremendous backlog; some cases take six, seven or eight months to appear. Magistrates are ready and willing to dispense justice.

Mr. Horam : This is precisely the point that was made to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) when we recently visited Bromley magistrates court. The fact that courts are empty is a reflection of the competence not of the magistrates, but of the Crown Prosecution Service.

Richard Ottaway : It is interesting that the experience of courts in my constituency is reflected elsewhere. Indeed, it is probably reflected by courts around London—the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) is nodding.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) said earlier, we are suffering from initiative fatigue and uncertainty about the magistrates courts. For better or worse, we have the Greater London Magistrates Courts Authority, and I am less keen on it than the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. Schools and hospitals take devolved decisions about the maintenance of buildings; they get their priorities right and run things properly. To remove the management of the logistics of the magistrates courts to a London wide authority is anti-devolutionary; it takes away the responsibility that should properly be devolved down to the clerks and to people locally.

I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that there may be improvements in co-ordinating the collection of fines, which I welcome, but the use of assets has not been a great success, although it is early days and there may be teething problems. I ask the Minister to consider devolving management of the assets as far down as possible, which would be widely welcomed locally.

This is not the moment to debate the Auld report, but I hope that the Minister will persuade the Whips Office to allow a full debate on that important subject on the Floor of the House. The thrust of the report is welcome,

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although we will obviously find some nit-picking points when we read it more closely. The magistrates welcome it, and it provides for an enhanced role for them—I am pleased to see the Minister nodding in agreement—and enhanced powers when two magistrates are sitting with a judge, although I do not know what type of judge. Will it be a stipendiary? The magistrates welcome the recognition of the importance of their role. However, the question about the long-term future of the magistracy remains. If the Minister cannot spell out what it is today, we hope that he will do so in the future, as it is so important to the community.

10.32 am

Mr. William Cash (Stone): We have had an extremely interesting debate, and we await the Minister's reply with interest. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing the debate.

I declare my interest as a solicitor. When I was appointed, one newspaper asked, "Is this man a lawyer?" The answer is yes, and he has been for a long time—since 1967. Hon. Members from every part of London and from all parties have made a powerful case, although it would have been desirable if even more hon. Members had been present.

The central theme of the debate has been the impact on the system of justice, especially in the London area, if the proposals go ahead. The present state of affairs could fairly be described as transitional, or a watershed. The GLMCA report stated that the authority was considering options, and had a problem because the Auld committee was about to report. It therefore put forward its views with some uncertainty, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) said, does not help in situations relating to justice.

We now have the Auld committee report, which deals with extremely important matters that will need to be considered. The debate is useful as a pointer to the future; it shows the necessity for a major review of the ideas generated by the GLMCA and the Auld report. Chapter 4 of the Auld report begins:

That gives us a good idea of how important the system is.

Another issue mentioned in speech after speech was that of locality of justice. On that question, the observations—I would not call them recommendations—in the Auld report do not tend to point in a happy direction. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind. For example, Auld quotes from a report by Messrs Seago, Walker and Wall that he states was seminal in compiling his compendious report. The quote is on page 108:

In paragraphs 36 and 37, Auld says:

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A consistent theme of the debate is that we want locality of justice. I believe in it profoundly and support hon. Members from all parties who have made that point. I hope that the Minister will consider some of the concerns that have now emerged.

Mr. Edward Davey : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that too much emphasis can be placed on consistency? One understands why the Government are concerned about it—rightly so. However, if one places too much stress on it and looks for solutions through centralisation alone, big mistakes will be made. Many centralised bodies in the public sector do not deliver consistency across their agencies. Furthermore, consistency can be achieved by many routes other than the centralised, professional approach that Auld proposed and towards which the Government seem to be inclined.

Mr. Cash : I am strongly in favour of the volunteer ethos that lies behind the magistracy. I would be deeply concerned if we ended up with an overly centralised and professional system, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, particularly in light of the statistics that I gave, the strong endorsement in some of the reports on which Auld relies as to the efficacy of the system and the lack of significant criticism about the quality of justice that comes out of his report. I think that that is another point to bear in mind.

I am slightly puzzled by some of the statistics about the weighted case loads in different areas as compared to annual budgets. This is directly relevant to what the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said about whether the Government will seek to centralise and/or try to contain and/or reduce costs. For example, in the west midlands, to which my constituency of Stone is fairly near, the weighted case load is 703,000 with 89 courtrooms and an annual budget of £16 million. According to the Auld report, the GLMCA has a weighted case load of 1.58 million with 193 courtrooms and an annual budget of £77 million. The actual amount allocated to the Lord Chancellor's Department is £75 million, which I find curious because that is slightly less than the amount of money that was predicated in the consultation paper.

The significance of the example is that the west midlands has about half the case load but is nearly five times less expensive. That must be taken into account, but it worries me that it should be used to bolster the argument against locality of justice. Somehow the Government have got to find a means of maintaining the locality of justice and saving the courtrooms where they are at present, for the most part, while at the same time reducing costs.

There is another problem with regard to greater London, which has not been mentioned so far. An interesting article by Joshua Rosenberg on the question of unpaid fines, which appeared in the The Daily Telegraph in May points out:

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According to Judge Fabyan Evans, chairman of the London criminal justice strategy committee, little more than one third of the fines imposed in inner London were paid last year. On the enforcement of fines, Joshua Rosenberg says:

The GLMCA's new authority has been given only £3.37 million for the enforcement of fines. The authority has told the Government that it needs another £1.23 million. According to a spokesman, it is considerably understaffed. These figures make it clear that the authority needs only an extra £1 million or so, added to the total budget for the London magistrates courts of £75 million, to deal with this problem.

The Government are attempting to centralise the courts, which—unless we hear to the contrary from the Minister—will deprive people of the local justice to which they are entitled, but they are not dealing with the problem at the hard end: collecting the fines. We are in considerable difficulty. I urge the Minister to have regard to the powerful arguments that have been made by Members from all parties and all parts of London and to put justice and locality of justice ahead of ideology and centralisation.

10.44 am

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills) : I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing this important debate. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in what I hope we will all agree has been an informative and useful exchange on these matters.

Let there be no doubt about the fact that the Government attach as much importance to the lay magistracy as anyone else. It is significant that Sir Robin Auld also arrived at the view that the lay magistracy was centrally important to our system of justice. His independent report took a radical and far-reaching look at the criminal justice system—those who have read it will be aware of how independently minded he is. We have often made our views clear in the Chamber. I want again to stress the importance that we attach to the lay magistracy, for all the reasons that have been adduced today.

This is an important time for the criminal justice system. Over the past four years, there have been significant achievements; much is still to be done and we intend to do it. Sir Robin Auld's report is part of that process. The work of the Greater London Magistrates Courts Authority also forms an important element. Before I deal with more general issues, I shall address some specific points. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton raised the matter of the judicial review proceedings; I am happy to tell him that they have now been withdrawn. He also asked about the relationship of the GLMCA to any funds that it realises by disposing of any part of its estate. The GLMCA owns its estate; any assets that it acquires through disposal of its estate are for it to use at it sees fit according to its remit.

Mr. Edward Davey : The Minister's words will be partly reassuring to the GLMCA—he is right to say that

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the legal position is that the authority will be able to keep all its proceeds. However, before he moves away from the financial issue, will he give an assurance that there will be no change to the grant from the Lord Chancellor's Department as a result of capital realisation?

Mr. Wills : As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the allocation of grants is subject to a variety of factors that we negotiate with the Treasury. I can give no guarantee of what factors will be taken into account, but the straightforward position is that the estate is owned by the GLMCA, which can dispose of it and realise its assets. I will mention later how, over the past four years, we have secured increased funding for magistrates courts to improve the facilities that are offered to those who use them. We intend to ensure that funding continues. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also recognise the increased funding have secured for the coming years.

I shall briefly deal with the point about the Human Rights Act 1998—a matter raised by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman). With respect to him, and others who have raised the matter in the past, I must say that there is much misunderstanding about the impact of that Act. The Act leads to court closures only in exceptional circumstances, such as if the court were to rule that it was unacceptable for a court to be used at all, according to article 6 of the convention. For example, having no interview rooms would be a clear breach of article 6. We think that that is highly unlikely. The driving forces behind the process are modernisation and the aim of delivering an acceptable service to those who use courtrooms. I will return to that point shortly, although I am conscious of the time.

Several hon. Members have asked us to rethink and reconsider—something that I am always happy to do—but before one does that, a considered view must be reached. We are undergoing extensive consultation on the Auld report. The GLMCA is still consulting on its strategic plan, so it is a little premature to ask us to reconsider before we have reached a considered view.

Let me clarify another matter. Magistrates courts are managed by locally based magistrates courts committees as set out in the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. Each committee is solely responsible for the efficient and effective administration of the magistrates courts in its area, which means that in the case of the Greater London area we are talking about the GLMCA.

I recognise that we are undergoing a programme of considerable change, about which hon. Members will clearly have concerns. I hope that everybody here today recognises that these concerns, many of which are legitimate, are not an argument for doing nothing. I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton pay graphic tribute to the achievements of both the GLMCA and his local courts. When I have visited courts I have noted the excellent work done by magistrates, and that has also been the experience of other hon. Members. I do not want there to be any doubt about that, but it is not an argument for doing nothing. We must make progress and ensure that everybody gets the service that they have a right to expect from their courts.

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I do not intend to spend a great deal of time discussing the consultation document. There has already been a long discussion, which produced a strategic consultation on three management options and six estate options. It is a complex and wide-ranging plan that went out to consultation with all interested parties. The GLMCA is considering the responses that it has received, and it anticipates publishing its plan in December 2001.

The relationship between the plan and the Auld report, which is a matter for the GLMCA to decide, was raised by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. The Auld report is under consultation, and its proposals may require further consideration after the consultation period, or legislation. While that process is going on, the authority remains responsible for providing an efficient and effective service across London, and it is expected to take the necessary action to achieve that.

Mr. Cash : The Minister mentioned the Auld report. I hope that he will discuss the Government's attitude to the remarks in the report regarding locality of justice.

Mr. Wills : I am happy to address that issue immediately. We shall of course make our views known on the Auld report, but only after we have completed the consultation process, which will continue until January next year. It is important that we hear the views of everybody concerned with this radical and wide-ranging report, which we have welcomed. Lord Justice Auld has done a remarkable job, but we must hear the views of everyone involved, and we shall do that before we make our views known. Furthermore, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall make our views known in the House.

Richard Ottaway : There is a point that does not need review, consultation or consideration. Does the Minister support the principle of locality of justice?

Mr. Wills : The hon. Gentleman deftly anticipates my next point, which concerns the central question of local justice. There are many other matters on which I should like to touch, but we are running out of time.

Local justice is something that we can all happily sign up to because it is fundamentally important, but we must be clear about what we mean, because it will mean different things to different people. We must keep in mind that local justice is not only about providing justice through a particular courtroom in a particular locality and maintaining the status quo, come what may. That is not what we mean by local justice. It is about making sure that there is an effective and efficient service for all those who use it. Everything that I have heard today about the importance of local justice goes to that central point. How we achieve local justice will obviously vary from locality to locality. Greater London's needs will be completely different from, for example, the needs of Stone and Stafford or of rural areas in Shropshire and Cornwall. We must take account of those differences.

A criminal justice system must be effective at preventing offending and re-offending, efficient in the way in which it deals with cases, responsive to the needs of victims and the law-abiding community and

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accountable for its decisions; these are fundamental propositions. The locality of justice is, of course, an important element, but we must never lose sight of those core objectives. The criminal justice system must deliver justice for all, and it is not only local magistrates courts but all the criminal justice system agencies that are involved in delivering such justice. I pay tribute to the great amount of work that those two agencies have done to join up their work so that they function much more effectively as a single, coherent system. That was one of the reasons for establishing the GLMCA in the first place. If we are to have a system whereby all magistrates courts users get an efficient service delivered in well equipped and secure buildings, without the delays to which hon. Members have referred, we must consider—sometimes radically, sometimes in a way that inevitably involves local opposition—the system that we have inherited.

Most of the magistrates courts that have been closed were those that magistrates courts committees no longer felt able to justify keeping open because they lacked necessary facilities such as secure accommodation, separate waiting areas for victims and witnesses away from defendants, and access for disabled people. If courtrooms cannot manage to provide those basic standards of accommodation, which all court users expect from a modern 21st-century service, there must because for closure.

Any such improvements must be balanced against other factors such as local transport difficulties, which vary in different parts of the country. We must ensure that courtrooms are best suited to enable cases to be listed so as to achieve our aim of reducing delay in the criminal justice system. All users want their case to be heard on the day that it is listed, and it is in no one's interests—certainly not in the interests of local justice—for that not to happen. Transferring cases to better equipped centres is one way of modernising and improving the overall service provided by the GLMCA. It will have the local knowledge and be best placed to make judgments on how best to make use of all its resources, whether they be finance, buildings or staff. The Lord Chancellor becomes involved only if a decision is challenged by the paying authority.

Mr. Edward Davey : I offer the Minister a practical example of the need to get right the balance between

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local justice and travelling to justice. It is important to enable witnesses and victims to be separated from defendants, but if they all have to travel to the courtroom—which may some distance away—by public transport, they may all end up queuing at the same bus stop or sitting in the same tube carriage. Making justice more remote may jeopardise an objective that has been achieved in the courthouse. The Minister must consider the practicalities of ensuring that the Government's policy hangs together coherently.

Mr. Wills : Of course I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, which was well made. However, I ask him again to think about the matter in the round. The various factors must be balanced to provide an effective and efficient service. It is not in the interests of local justice for any part of it to be ineffective or inefficient or for cases to be delayed.

I shall use my last two minutes to talk briefly about funding. As I said, magistrates courts committees make the initial decisions, but central Government have a responsibility to ensure adequate funding. We are spending nearly £20 million in 2001-02 on improvements to magistrates courts, in addition to the on-going court-building programme procured under the private finance initiative. The amount that we spend on such improvements will more than double over the next two years.

Let me give some detail on the improvements that are under way in London. Since 1999-2000, the Department has provided capital funding amounting to just over £2.75 million to carry out more than 100 projects. Security has been improved in the custody areas at Richmond and Redbridge; other improvements include the introduction of archway metal detectors and hand-held wands at the guildhall in Kingston and the Merton and Bexley courthouses. Works to improve disabled facilities have been approved in Kingston, Haringey, Barnet and Harrow.

I hope that I have made it clear that we are determined to continue our programme of modernisation, putting the interests of local justice at the forefront. We are engaged in an extensive programme of consultation on the Auld review, and I hope that hon. Members will be reassured by our commitment to funding the improvements that are necessary.

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