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21 Nov 2002 : Column 898—continued

The Deputy Prime Minister: As I said, even with the extra facilities of about 120 appliances, we shall not have the 3,000 vehicles that are available for normal service. We are ensuring that every region has a number of those vehicles; it will then be up to the emergency control centres to decide where and how they are sent, so I leave that to their good judgment.

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Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): When MPs' salaries were reviewed, a thorough analysis was undertaken of the way in which our jobs had changed by contrast with comparative professions. I have read the Bain interim report and it is clear that no such analysis has been undertaken of the fundamental element of the firefighters' claim. We all want the strike to be called off, even at this late hour. The firefighters have moved. Is it not time that the employers were allowed to move from the 4 per cent. now, take it or leave it position?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Let me make it clear: the employers' resources have to cover all local authority workers—I know that my hon. Friend will be extremely concerned about all such workers in her constituency—who have just settled for a two-year deal of less than 4 per cent. a year. Would they not feel angry if 40 per cent. was given to the firefighters without an agreement? The nurses' agreement will soon take place. There will be all sorts of agreements and my hon. Friend will fight for each of them, but she is not paying for them. We have to find a solution.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance on the vexed question of written ministerial statements, yet again. Today, the Order Paper included notice of a ministerial statement from the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, who is in the Chamber this evening. The statement is brief. It states:

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That is not true. The Library knows nothing of those codes of practice. That is not a satisfactory procedure for the Department and it is hardly in line with freedom of information. Is there anything that you can do to assist, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed the ruling given by Mr. Speaker yesterday. Mr. Speaker pointed out that the statements

The basis of the hon. Gentleman's question appears to be incorrect.

Mr. Heath: Further to that point of order, I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My argument is not that the statement was made incorrectly—it was available in the Library and will indeed be printed in Hansard; it is that it is an incorrect statement because it says that something has been placed in the Library but it has not. Given that the matter relates to freedom of information, that seems most unfortunate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: If the statement has been printed in Hansard, it should be available in the Library. If it is not available, that should be examined. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's point has been heard. We are in the early days of these written statements and I hope that some of these little difficulties can be overcome quickly.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance. In the course of the statement that we have just heard, the shadow Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) made points of order. Will you advise the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether it is proper to make a point of order during a statement?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I accepted the point of order because it was obviously connected with the statement that was taking place at the time.

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Sutton Coldfield Magistrates Court

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

7.39 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): I am grateful to the House and to Mr. Speaker for giving me this opportunity to raise the grave concerns felt in my constituency and throughout north Birmingham about the possible closure of Sutton Coldfield magistrates court. I record my thanks to the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department and her officials for the courteous way in which they have dealt with me during the past two months. They met me some months ago to discuss how the matter could be resolved. The Minister also generously gave her time last week to meet a delegation from Birmingham, and she is responding to this debate. I understand that she is to be congratulated on winning an award today as the Minister to watch. I certainly congratulate her on that, and assure her that she will be watched most carefully in Sutton Coldfield and north Birmingham as she tries to conclude this matter.

With the permission of the House authorities, Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope on Tuesday 3 December to table a petition signed by no fewer than 5,000 people from north Birmingham. That, too, underlines the gravity of the matter as viewed from north Birmingham. The signatures on the petition were collected extremely rapidly, and I pay tribute in particular to the Sutton Coldfield Observer, one of our two local newspapers, which recently won the national award of the best free newspaper of the year. I congratulate it on the staunch stand that it has taken in defence of this most important local interest.

In Birmingham the political establishment agrees on almost nothing, and there are divisions within the political groups on almost everything that one can imagine. It is true that there are no divisions among Conservative Members of Parliament in Birmingham, but that, alas, is because I am the only one who represents the Birmingham conurbation—at the moment. However, I am tonight supported by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), and I am most grateful to him. On this matter he is certainly my hon. Friend, and I will even forgive him for his rude article about my constituents in The Spectator. I should advise hon. Members with long memories that, as they may recall, The Spectator is a somewhat faded coffee-table publication with a good wine column towards the back.

All nine of the hard-working Sutton Coldfield councillors, and those throughout Birmingham city council, are unanimously opposed to the proposal to close Sutton Coldfield magistrates court. Such utter unanimity of view is unheard of. The council is the paying authority, hence its appeal to the Lord Chancellor's Department.

I have read the many debates that have taken place on court closures, and I fully understand the Minister's position tonight. She cannot say very much, but I hope that she will be able to tell us a little about the process of the appeal, and in particular how long she anticipates that it will take before she and her officials will be able

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to pronounce judgment, and whether any more written evidence for our case would be helpful to her Department.

Debates have been secured by the hon. Members for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), all of whom raised the same important matters in respect of their areas. Each case bears some similarity to the one that I am putting, but I believe that the case for keeping the Sutton Coldfield court open is much stronger than those that the House has previously heard.

The proposal by the West Midlands magistrates courts committee to close the court in Sutton Coldfield is a dreadful mistake, and I hope that the debate will play a part in convincing the Minister of that view. Accompanied by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, representatives of the local bench and Birmingham city council, and Her Majesty's coroner for Birmingham and Solihull, I recently met the Minister, as I said, to outline the objections to the proposed closure. The meeting was useful and demonstrated the widespread cross-party support for the court and against the committee's proposal.

The current courthouse was built in 1956 and was refurbished and extended in the 1980s. It is adjacent to the police station and the many other offices and bodies that serve the infrastructure of a court location. Since the 1980s, almost nothing has been spent on routine redecoration or cyclical maintenance, so that today it is accepted that the court needs work to improve its appearance, but the basic fabric of the building is sound.

The committee has cited that chronic lack of investment as a reason for regarding the courthouse as unsuitable. Yet the committee is the body responsible for determining which buildings receive investment over the years. By consistently withholding money for maintenance, it has ensured that the building appears neglected. It is 11 years since it was repainted, yet the committee rejected out of hand an informal offer from the local magistrates to provide their labour to repaint areas of the court, if the committee would just provide the paint. It says something about the character and commitment of those in our local magistracy that they should have made that offer and sought to proceed in that way.

In the summer of this year, some #250,000 was spent on providing new cell accommodation at the rear of the existing courthouse. Those new cells, together with the new interview room facilities for solicitors and new kitchen facilities, greatly improve the utility of the existing courthouse. I have today accepted an invitation formally to open those enhancements to Sutton Coldfield's court facilities.

There is already a ramp and a lift providing access to the courthouse, and the Lord Chancellor's Department has allocated funds for the works necessary for building compliance. So the basic structure of the courthouse is sound, even though, as I have said, some redecoration is long overdue—and it has been withheld by those who now claim that the appearance of the building is a reason to close it.

It has been argued that because the courthouse is situated in Sutton Coldfield but serves around 100,000 people in the north Birmingham area, there is some

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mismatch between those who form the bench and those to whom they dispense justice. However, the truth is that the bench is drawn from all parts of the community that it serves. The magistrates are drawn both from the leafiest parts of Sutton Coldfield and from the more deprived parts of the adjoining area. The bench is well balanced, and there is no evidence to support the contention that somehow the toffs of Sutton are dispensing justice to the poor of the wider area.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon)—he hopes to catch your eye in a moment, Madam Deputy Speaker—and I are not presenting a partisan case, but a case for retaining that courthouse in north Birmingham. Sutton Coldfield magistrates court extends its administration far beyond Sutton Coldfield, taking in Erdington, Castle Vale and Kingstanding, making it in reality a court centre covering nearly a third of Britain's second city.

It is perfectly clear that for many years that courthouse has been a court centre based in Sutton Coldfield; it is not just Sutton Coldfield's court. Birmingham is the largest metropolitan council area in Britain. It is four times the size of most metropolitan borough councils, so it makes no sense to close down a court that currently handles a third of the city's work load.

There is no problem with recruiting magistrates to serve on the bench in Sutton Coldfield, and it is exceedingly uncommon for a case to be heard by only two magistrates, rather than the normal three. That contrasts markedly with the situation in the existing magistrates court in central Birmingham, where it has been a common occurrence for only two magistrates to sit. The existing courts in central Birmingham already constitute the largest courts centre in Europe.

Approximately half those currently serving as magistrates in Sutton Coldfield have said that if the courthouse were closed, they would not be willing to serve in central Birmingham. That would represent a loss of about 60 experienced magistrates. A loss on that scale will undoubtedly increase the frequency of cases for which only two magistrates are available. The loss of the court will have a profound effect on recruitment to the magistracy.

The five courts at Sutton Coldfield currently operate at around 88 per cent. of their theoretical capacity, compared with a target of 80 per cent. set by the West Midlands magistrates courts committee. I believe that that shows that the arguments about the efficient use of resources are specious. Sutton Coldfield's courthouse deals efficiently with a large number of cases. Each year some 15,000 cases are heard in Sutton Coldfield. Hon. Members will therefore appreciate that not only 15,000 defendants, but more than 15,000 witnesses, solicitors and people from all the other court agencies attend the courthouse. Any proposal to add to the number of people heading for central Birmingham runs contrary to the policies of the Government and Birmingham city council, which aim to reduce the number of journeys made into the already overcrowded city centre, but the potential to add to the traffic congestion is not the only issue.

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One feature of the current justice system that the Government say they deem important is that

I quote from the Parliamentary Secretary's letter, entitled XJustice for All". It would be a tragedy if we lost that fundamental connection in north Birmingham.

The city of Birmingham is home to about 1 million people. It cannot by any stretch of the imagination be seen as a single homogenous community. It contains many separate and distinct communities, one of which lives north of the M6 and is currently served by the Sutton Coldfield magistrates court. As I am sure that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington will explain, his constituents do not look towards the centre of Birmingham, and there is a strong feeling throughout our communities—and much wider than that—that the court should remain in Sutton Coldfield.

The concept of local justice is one of the cornerstones of the magistracy, and it is threatened by proposals to close successful, efficiently run local courts. The specific proposal to build some super-courthouse in central Birmingham, on a site yet to be publicly identified, at a cost that therefore cannot be known, seems to fly in the face of both logic and the Minister's statement, which I quoted a moment ago. At our recent meeting with the Minister, Her Majesty's coroner for Birmingham and Solihull, Mr. Aidan Cotter, made clear his desire to hold weekly sittings in Sutton Coldfield. That desire is based on his recognition that those attending his court would face much less inconvenience and distress if they did not have the added burden of travelling into the city centre.

The existing courthouse in central Birmingham is a grade 1 listed building. It is, I understand, incapable of being expanded to cope with the proposed closure of the Sutton Coldfield court, and is itself in need of works to improve its efficiency. What would the future of that building be were the proposals to proceed? It cannot house more courts, it is not well suited to the technological age in which we live, and it is proposed that its use as a courthouse should cease. Is it to stand mothballed—and at what recurring cost? I know that that is of some concern to Birmingham city council.

The proposal to close Sutton Coldfield's court has met with widespread opposition, not only from local magistrates, Crown Prosecution Service staff who work in Sutton, the police, the youth offending team, solicitors, social services and Birmingham city council, but from nearly 5,000 local residents who have signed the petition to the House that I mentioned earlier.

I urge the Minister to promote local justice and keep Sutton Coldfield's magistrates court open, to cut through the inadequate and often specious arguments of the West Midlands magistrates courts committee, to reject a private finance initiative proposal that is, by common consent, seriously flawed, to hear the unanimous voice of our communities across north Birmingham, to deploy wisdom and judgment in the exercise of her office today, and to throw out such an intellectually inadequate case, which, if accepted, would do such damage to the efficient and effective administration of justice in the north Birmingham area.

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7.52 pm

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