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Courthouses (Private Finance Initiative)

18. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): How many courthouses have been constructed by means of a private finance initiative. [168401]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Since 1997, 11 courthouses have been constructed with support from the private finance initiative, and a further four courthouses are at various stages of construction.

Bob Russell : Has it dawned on the Minister that his Government have been in office for longer than the duration of the second world war, but fortunately Churchill did not have to wait for the PFI to come on stream? Does he agree that 11 new courthouses in seven years is lamentable? When will the new courthouse in Colchester, which has been promised for seven years, be built?

Mr. Leslie: To correct the hon. Gentleman, more than 11 courthouses have been built; those are only the ones built under the PFI. The point about Colchester is important, and I know that the hon. Gentleman has been waiting for some time. The courthouse has been delayed because the Government decided to keep open Grays magistrates court, which required a change in the PFI arrangements in Essex and consideration of where the alternative business should be located. I know that the hon. Gentleman is waiting for a new courthouse, but at least this Government are building them—something that the Conservative party certainly would not do.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Will the new, unified Court Service be genuinely free in deciding how to fund future building projects? Will it be able to choose between the traditional public sector route and the PFI, depending on which offers better value for money?

Mr. Leslie: Clearly, the unified courts administration will be pragmatic about where it raises finance. If the PFI offers better value for money, we will consider that; if not, we will look to normal public sector procurement
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arrangements. What matters is the value for the taxpayer and the extent to which we can reduce risk in large capital programmes, and sometimes the PFI offers benefits in that regard.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Does the Minister recall that the principal justification for PFI quoted by the Prime Minister and others is the report entitled "Public Private Partnerships: A Clearer View" by PricewaterhouseCoopers? Will he confirm that the consultants engaged by his Department for the PFI schemes in Kidderminster, Hereford, Worcester and Redditch were from PricewaterhouseCoopers, as they were for schemes in Hull, Beverley and Bridlington, and are for schemes in Manchester, Avon and Somerset, Bedford, Luton, the west midlands, Bolton and Salford, and at the probate records centre? Is that not a mite cosy? Exactly how much is he paying in consultancy fees?

Mr. Leslie: If the hon. Gentleman is trying to concoct some conspiracy about those consultants, I am afraid that he is completely barking—up the wrong tree. He should recognise that we are trying to build new courthouse facilities in local communities where they are required as speedily as we can, at the same time making sure that we minimise risks for the taxpayer. Sometime the private finance initiative is the best way to do that.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): Does the Minister recognise that there is not only the cosy relationship mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—we noted that the Minister did not give any figures for the amount the Government have spent on the consultants specified and consultants in general—but the fact that the new courthouses that the Government have built in no way compensate for the more than 100 that they have closed? People want local justice. They are not getting it under the Government, who set the guidelines under which magistrates courts committees are boxed in and forced to close courthouses. The Government have abandoned local justice.

Mr. Leslie: The Opposition forget that they spent money on consultants and elsewhere to bring in expertise from outside, so for the hon. Gentleman to criticise the Government is a little rich. He forgets that in the Conservatives' last year in power, they closed 21 magistrates courts. This year, none have closed, so I think we compare pretty well with their record.

Court Proceedings

19. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): What powers are available to a court to investigate instances of the inappropriate commencement of court proceedings. [168402]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): Although the civil courts do not have investigatory powers, they do have extensive case-management powers to deal with
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claims brought inappropriately. For example, the court may stay proceedings, strike out a claim, give summary judgment or make a suitable order as to costs.

Mr. Illsley : My question emanates from a constituent who came to see me and who has been involved in litigation over the past 12 years, which resulted in a court judgment in which the judge said that the solicitors

to set aside an application. He went on to say that

by the plaintiff and his advisers. In my view, the court may not have been manipulated, but collaborated in the application brought by the solicitors. Can my hon. Friend tell me how my constituent could obtain an inquiry into the actions of the solicitors and the judges who were criticised in that later court judgment?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend makes very serious allegations. He knows that court proceedings are ongoing, so it is difficult for the Department to comment at this time, and it would be inappropriate to do so. If the judge in the case was guilty of misconduct, my hon. Friend can take up the matter with the Lord Chancellor when the case comes to an end. He can raise the matter of the solicitors firm with the Law Society, and he can write to me if there is a specific problem.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): How many instances of inappropriate commencement of court proceedings were there last year in East Anglia? How widespread is the problem?

Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman will know that under our system the problem of vexatious litigants is not a large one, and that courts seek to remedy such matters in various ways. Judges have different powers. I shall investigate the position in East Anglia and write to the hon. Gentleman to set out what has happened.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): Ought there not to be a similar power in the criminal court to investigate a failure to start proceedings? For instance, the Soham killer, Huntley, was alleged to have sexually assaulted at least six times, and he was never prosecuted. Why should not a judge, who has to mop up the consequences, ask on behalf of the public the question why not?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. and learned Friend makes an interesting point. Of course, it is a matter for the prosecuting authorities, and I am sure that they will be interested in her comments.

Child Abduction (Cross-border Co-operation)

21. Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): What progress has been made in securing better cross-border co-operation to prevent child abduction. [168404]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): The 1980 Hague convention is respected internationally and generally works well. There was a problem in Germany,
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but the situation has now improved, with the number of German cases falling from 600 to 24. The Foreign Office continues to work bilaterally and regionally with non-Hague convention countries.

Helen Jones : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply, but I am sure that he will agree that even one case of child abduction is one too many. What steps are being taken to deal with the problem through discussion with our partners in the European Union? What can be done through the institutions of the EU to prevent such cases from occurring in future?

Mr. Lammy: I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done on the all-party group on child abduction. Under the new EU regulation on parental responsibility, which comes into force on 1 March 2005, the court in the state of a child's habitual residence will have the final say on where the child will live. The EU regulation improves the system of cross-border recognition and enforcement and applies not only to children of married couples, but to children more generally.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend feel that a new criminal offence specifically about coercion into marriage may help to reduce the number of children who are moved out of the country for the purpose of marriage? Such a measure may help in a case that I was made aware of at the weekend, in which a father who has amassed gambling debts of £1,500 has sold his daughter for that amount to someone abroad. In the next few weeks or months, he will be taking his daughter abroad to see her married off to the person who has bought her. Does my hon. Friend think that a specific criminal offence may be a shot across the bows in respect of such parents?

Mr. Lammy: I say to my hon. Friend, whom I know continues to take up this cause, that the issue is quite properly a matter for the Home Secretary. I know that she has met him to discuss her concerns. She will know that it is important that the Foreign Office continues to work bilaterally with non-Hague countries, and we have had some success on the matter with those states.

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