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21 Nov 2002 : Column 905continued
Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington): I am grateful to you for your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I am to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) and the Minister for their generosity with their time.
I shall not detain the House long. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has said pretty much everything that I would have wanted to sayand, I am sure, with far greater eloquence and insight. He mentioned the Minister's accolade of today. Unlike himI fear that he was rudely snubbed by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who is the editor of The Spectator, and not invited to witness the Minister's great occasionI was fortunate to be on a table almost directly at her feet as she graciously accepted the first in what will no doubt be a long line of such awards over the years.
My primary purpose in attending the debate is simply to associate myself and my constituents with everything that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has said. This is a truly unique example not just of consensus but of universal agreement across the board. My constituents in Erdington have little love or affection for his constituents in Sutton, whom even he described as toffs. Perhaps I should not describe them as he described them in the meeting the other dayit was an appellation that they would have liked, but which would do little to endear them to my constituents.
As far as I can ascertain, every Birmingham MP, every councillor in my constituencyand, I believe, in that of the hon. Gentlemanall the groups on Birmingham city council and all the thousands of petitioners whom he wishes to bring to the House in a couple of weeks, are unanimous in their opposition to the plan. I have not met a single human being in Birmingham who supports the closure of Sutton Coldfield magistrates court.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we have had meetings with my hon. Friend the Minister. She has heard the arguments already and he has elucidated them with great verve. I will not go on, but merely wish to reiterate that there is a fundamental misconception in the proposals, which were obviously drafted by someone who does not know or understand the city. In the administration of the court system my constituency is classed as being in Birmingham whereas the hon. Gentleman's constituency is not, so the assumption was made that it would be more natural for my constituents and those in surrounding constituencies to look inwards towards the city centre rather than outwards towards Sutton Coldfield. As the representative of those people, and having grown up in those communities, I assure the House that that assumption is wrong. We do not look towards the centre. We would much prefer to go to court in Sutton Coldfield than to be taken to court in the city centre.
Another issue arose in the meeting that my hon. Friend the Minister kindly granted us. She said that local justice was about justice by one's peers. Of course, it is. If she gained the sense that the toffs in Sutton Coldfield adjudicate over the less toff-like people in Erdington, we want to dispel that impression. As the hon. Gentleman has explained, that is not the demographic case. Even if that absurd notion were true, it would still not deal with the point about local justice.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this debate on the proposal by the West Midlands magistrates courts committee to close Sutton Coldfield magistrates court. I thank him and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) for their kind remarks. They are much appreciated. I am sorry that I cannot take them into account when deciding the future of the courthouse.
I listened carefully to the issues that have been raised. I welcomed the chance to meet them and representatives from their constituencies to discuss the issues and their concerns. They have made passionate speeches on behalf of their constituents and about their concern at the proposal of the West Midlands magistrates courts committee. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said that he understood the current situation whereby the committee has made the proposal to shut Sutton Coldfield magistrates court. However, I cannot comment in detail at this stage on the points raised.
Hon. Members will know that magistrates courts are managed by locally based magistrates courts committees, as set out in the provisions of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. Each committee is responsible for the efficient and effective administration of the magistrates courts in its area. Decisions to close magistrates courts are also the responsibility of MCCs after consultation with the local paying authority.
In the case of Sutton Coldfield magistrates court, West Midlands MCC made a determination on 19 August 2002 to close it and to transfer the work to a new courthouse in Birmingham. That decision was reached after a period of consultation with both the paying authority and a wide variety of stakeholders. The paying authority concerned, Birmingham city council, lodged an appeal with the Lord Chancellor's Department on 19 September. It is common for MCCs to consult more widely than the local paying authority, which is the local council. Consultees usually include the magistrates, staff, the police, the probation service, the Crown Prosecution Service, MPs and other professional users.
The role for Ministers is as an appellate authority in the event of an appeal being lodged. Ministers do not decide on court closures that are not subject to appeal. Birmingham city council has lodged an appeal and I will need to consider it on the merits of the case presented by each party. The decision will come to Ministers when the dialogue between West Midlands MCC, Birmingham city council and officials in the Department has ended and all parties to the appeal are satisfied that they have made their representations and that their case is complete. Given that the appeal process is ongoing, I cannot comment on specific issues relating to the proposed closure because Ministers are the sole appellate authority.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield asked about the time scale. I cannot give a certain answer. As I said, the dialogue has to be completed first. Once everyone has made their representations, officials will need to draw those together and make a recommendation. I may also need to ask other questions and seek further information when I receive that advice. For that reason, I do not want to give him misleading guidance about the time scale in which the decision will be made.
I am keen to ensure that I hear the fullest possible representations from everyone concerned before I make a decision. I also need to ensure that I hear the full views of the West Midlands magistrates courts committee too. The meeting with hon. Members and their constituency representatives was useful and I listened carefully to the points raised today. In particular, it was interesting to hear their responses to many of the questions that I raised at the meeting on the issues discussed then. They are welcome to make further representations before the final decision is taken.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell: I am listening carefully to the Minister's helpful comments. She says that it is part of the duty of the West Midlands magistrates courts committee to take into account the views of a wide range of stakeholders and people who have an interest. As part of her appellate role, will she establish to her satisfaction that it really did take into account the views of all the different stakeholders? Apart from those who have a direct interest in the decision, I cannot discover any stakeholders who have approved of it.
I want to make a few general remarks about the issues that need to be taken into account when magistrates courts committees make such decisions and when appeals are made to Ministers. Much has been said about local justice. It is important that people are judged effectively by their peers. Magistrates who consider a case in a particular area should, where possible, live or work there too. We need to be realisticlocal justice
We are keen to look at closer working between the court service and MCCs on the use of courthouses, particularly on sharing facilities, where feasible, to ensure the better use of the estate and value for money. Sharing courthouses can often support local justice in areas where, without shared facilities, family courts or magistrates courts could be under pressure.Hon. Members may be aware of the way in which funding works for MCCs. Central Government provide 80 per cent. of their revenue grant and the local authority contributes 20 per cent. MCCs are given an annual allocation, but it is left to each one to determine how best to use the funds to provide services, including the effective and efficient management of courthouses in their area.
As I have set out, a series of issues need to be taken into account by MCCs when making decisions about the use of courthouses and allocations in their areas; Ministers need to consider a wide range of issues when those decisions come before them. As I hope that I have made clear, I shall consider seriously the points made by hon. Members this evening, as well as those they have made in meetings with me. I shall also consider the points made when I met the local coroner, the chairman of the bench and local councillors. I shall consider closely the views of the West Midlands magistrates courts committee and any other relevant points that are made. It is important that the right decision is made, and I hope that people will bear with me as I consider carefully their arguments. I shall keep in touch with them as the process is resolved.