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10.26 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): May I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) and the Minister for allowing me a few minutes to speak in this traditional Adjournment debate?

There have been courts in Salisbury since the city was founded in 1220, and I hope that there will be for a long time to come. I have not actually represented Salisbury since 1220: only since 1983. In that time, however, I have seen courts close. We lost the court in Tisbury, but we learned to live with that. My late mother was a magistrate in Salisbury in her day. I am old enough to recall the Assizes sitting in the Guildhall courts in Salisbury; the judge's procession from his lodgings in the close provided a moment of awe. The city came to a standstill, the traffic stopped and people stood still on the pavement as the judge walked past. Those days have gone, but I suspect that the quality of justice may have been better then.

My hon. Friend is wholly right to campaign for local access to justice in his constituency, and in that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). These proposals are a Treasury-driven exercise, and I understand and respect the position in which the Minister finds himself. I have to thank the magistrates in my constituency for upholding the law, and the dignity of the law, in picturesque but antediluvian surroundings. I also have to thank the solicitors, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. They, too, make the law work in facilities that are not at all appropriate to modern expectations. Salisbury magistrates courts also fail to meet the standards set as a result of the Government's decision to introduce the Human Rights Act 1998 to British law.

The problem facing us all is: who is going to pay and when will this happen? We were told some years ago that the Lord Chancellor's Department would pay, but it

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always seems short of money and living hand to mouth at the end of the financial year, with the result that perhaps only a few crumbs might slip towards Wiltshire. Our constituents deserve better than that. They deserve to have their courthouses in Devizes and in Trowbridge, as well as in Salisbury.

I was interested to see who supported the magistrates courts committee proposals. Of course, the Crown Prosecution Service, the probation service, the prisoner escort services and most of the Wiltshire justices of the peace support the Lord Chancellor's proposals, as, of course, do I. I was surprised, however, to see that the Wiltshire police authority apparently opposes them. I got that information in a written parliamentary answer from the Minister on 10 April 2002, at column 45W of Hansard.

The assistant chief constable of Wiltshire police wrote to the justices' clerk on 27 September 2001 as follows:

He also wrote to the justices' chief executive on 23 January this year to say:

I wonder why the police authority has acted against the advice of the police, but that is not a matter for me; it is a fact that I hope the Minister will bear in mind.

I am disappointed by the county council's decision to oppose the proposals. It has not had the courtesy to offer me any explanation, or to show me the submission that it sent to the Lord Chancellor, but it must be a partial case. We in Salisbury hope very much that the Lord Chancellor's Department will accede to the suggestions of the magistrates court committee.

Perhaps I can offer a crumb of comfort to my hon. Friend, who I hope will be able to persuade the Minister to change his mind and save the courts. It is significant that the magistrates court committee intends, if the proposals go ahead, to ensure full integration of magistrates court staff with Crown and county court staff at the Salisbury courthouse. It also intends—this is, perhaps, more of an innovation—to install live video links in other rural community facilities, such as libraries, police stations and schools, particularly for the benefit of witnesses and victims in the more rural parts of Wiltshire such as my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury.

I think that system could work. I have seen it work very well in the context of the new proposals for courts martial. In Cyprus, for example, I have seen successful links between courtrooms there and courts martial centres in Aldershot.

I thank my hon. Friend again for allowing me, briefly, to support his case, but also to point out that we in Salisbury hope very much that we will get our new courthouse.

10.31 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): Let me begin, as is traditional, by congratulating the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) on securing the debate. I seem

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to have been replying to a number of debates on magistrates courts and Crown court closures in recent months; this is the second in the current month.

When courts close, local Members of Parliament—understandably, and reflecting the understandable concerns of their constituents—become rather agitated, and often seek debates such as this. I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman's legitimate anxieties, although I was slightly surprised that he used a fair amount of his precious parliamentary time to engage in what I considered to be irrelevant party political knockabout. I certainly failed to see the relevance of some of his points.

These are serious issues for all concerned, and we take them seriously. As everyone knows, we are about to embark on measures to implement the recommendations we will accept from Lord Justice Auld's report on the review of the criminal court system. That will inevitably have implications for the magistrates courts, and I think it important for us to discuss them with the seriousness that they deserve.

I think that before I deal specifically with Wiltshire—as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, I am a Wiltshire Member, and as such I am familiar with much of the background—I should deal with the context in which decisions are made. The hon. Gentleman's speech demonstrated that he had not wholly understood the process, so I want to clarify it. As he probably knows, magistrates courts are managed by locally based magistrates courts committees, each of which is solely responsible for the efficient and effective administration of the courts in its area.

The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. Either, as he alleges, we are hell bent on centralisation, or—as he also alleged—we are trying to duck out of decentralising responsibility to the local courts. It must be one or the other. Being in opposition, the hon. Gentleman has the privilege of being able to make two contradictory allegations at the same time.

Dr. Murrison rose

Mr. Wills: I am happy to give way, but I should point out that as we must finish in nine minutes, my important remarks about Wiltshire will inevitably be curtailed if I do so.

Dr. Murrison: Removing Trowbridge and Devizes magistrates courts and sending cases to Chippenham must be viewed as centralisation. I also think the Minister must not duck the issue of the Government's ultimate responsibility for closures. That is the issue that faces him now.

Mr. Wills: There is no question of ducking anything. Courts have to close under all Governments and the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) gave an example from his constituency. It is regrettable, but courts have to close for particular reasons that are not all Treasury driven. To dismiss the needs of disabled people and other perfectly fair human rights considerations does no credit to anyone.

The remarks that the hon. Member for Westbury made about the use of handcuffs are irrelevant. I do not want to take up precious time now, but I will be happy to discuss

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the matter with him on another occasion and explain the true position about the application of human rights measures to the courts.

It is the responsibility of magistrates courts committees, which are locally based and know their areas best, in consultation with the relevant paying authorities, which are also locally based, to determine how many courthouses, whether urban or rural, as well as other types of accommodation, are needed locally. In discharging this statutory responsibility, the Government expect magistrates courts committees to undertake regular reviews of their accommodation requirements. In doing so, they follow set guidelines which take into account crucial factors such as the strategic aims of each magistrates courts committee, the facilities that are needed, and the results of user surveys. They have to strike a balance—I appreciate that this can be difficult and that there is sometimes strong local opposition—between providing an efficient and effective service to their users and maintaining secure, well equipped court accommodation, and ensuring reasonably full utilisation of court facilities.

It is slightly ironic to be lecturing Conservative Members about the proper use of taxpayer's money, as for many years we heard them use this rhetoric but never fulfil it in practice. We believe that we have to be prudent custodians of taxpayers' money and I would have hoped that, at the very least, the hon. Gentleman could have agreed with that.

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