Previous Section Index Home Page

5 July 2006 : Column 270WH—continued

I shall move to some of the specific points that the hon. Member for East Antrim and others raised. There was discussion of the position of Sinn Fein in relation to policing. Of course, the Government want to see Sinn Fein take its seats on the Policing Board and support policing at the earliest possible opportunity. I gathered from what the hon. Member for East Antrim said that, for all the difficulties in the past, he, too, wants that. However, it must be active support, not just sitting on a seat, and I fully support what the hon. Gentleman said about that. I do not accept—he will not be surprised at this—his description of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The point that my right hon. Friend has made is that the
5 July 2006 : Column 271WH
pledge of office is sufficient. The commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means is an unequivocal commitment.

Mr. Dodds: But the same Sinn Fein Ministers took exactly that pledge previously when they took office, and they did not support the police then. Given that, what gives the Minister any confidence for the future?

Paul Goggins: What gives me confidence is the progress made since then. That progress is backed by the IMC report, which both the hon. Gentleman and I have read. It clearly indicates the path to peace, which is now a clear commitment from the Provisional IRA. We look forward to further reports, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman does. He will be looking carefully at the next IMC report when it is published in October.

Let me move on to the core issue that the hon. Member for East Antrim raised and on which other hon. Members commented: community-based restorative justice. In a way, the wrong Minister is responding this morning, in that justice as an area of policy is the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office. Hon. Members will know that he has been engaged in a consultative process. They referred to the guidelines that have been out for consultation. My hon. Friend hopes to make an announcement relating to community-based restorative justice and the conclusions of the consultation in the very near future and certainly, he hopes, before the summer recess.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) made his point about how effective restorative justice can be. Previously, when I was in the Home Office, I had responsibility for a time for promoting restorative justice. Whether it is face-to-face or indirect restorative justice, it has a role to play. Particularly from the point of view of the victim, it can be a valuable experience. However, we must ensure that all community-based restorative justice schemes operate in full co-operation with criminal justice agencies. We simply cannot have a parallel criminal justice system. We need a system that reinforces confidence in the criminal justice system, rather than detracting from it. My hon. Friend will make a statement on the detail, but let me make four brief points.

First, all criminal cases referred to restorative justice schemes will have been investigated by the PSNI and will be referred by the Public Prosecution Service. There is no back-door route to restorative justice; things have to be done through the front door and with the full consent and involvement of criminal justice agencies.

The second point was raised by the hon. Member for East Antrim. Victims must of course agree to participate in any restorative justice scheme. However, their agreement alone is not enough; there must be the agreement and involvement of criminal justice agencies.

5 July 2006 : Column 272WH

Thirdly, the police must of course be involved in all restorative justice schemes; that will be a prerequisite of all schemes. The police cannot be sidelined in that process; they must be engaged.

My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made the fourth point forcefully: high standards must operate in respect of restorative justice schemes. There must be a robust accreditation scheme. Of course, no one currently engaged in paramilitary activity could possibly be allowed to participate. There will be and there will need to be oversight by the criminal justice inspectorate. That is as far as I can go this morning. We await the further details that the Minister of State will announce in due course.

I shall deal briefly with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle on national security intelligence. He invited me to read the Patten report for myself. I hope that he has enough confidence in me to know that I would do that. I draw his attention to Patten recommendation 20, which is:

It is not true to say that Patten recommended that national security should stay in Northern Ireland; he recommended quite the opposite. What he recommended and what we intend to do from next year is to put Northern Ireland on the same basis as the rest of the UK.

Mark Durkan: I do not dispute what the Minister has quoted from the Patten report, but that report went on to say that the Chief Constable would report on matters of national security to the Secretary of State as opposed to the devolved interest. That is how the difference between national security and regional policing is dealt with, not by giving MI5 the role proposed.

Paul Goggins: What I can say in the brief time left is that the Chief Constable is of course deeply involved in discussions and negotiations about the future arrangements. He has made it clear that he will sign off only arrangements with which he is entirely happy. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend confidence for the future. Basically, the arrangements will put Northern Ireland on the same footing as the rest of the United Kingdom in relation to national security intelligence.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) raised the issue of police community support officers, whom the Policing Board has decided to recruit. I reassure him that there will be absolutely no lesser standards in relation to recruitment criteria and vetting. It cannot be a back-door route. The same standards have to apply to PCSOs as to all police officers, but they can make a big difference. They are highly visible, out in the community most of the time, and they will make an effective contribution.

5 July 2006 : Column 273WH

Sutton Magistrates Court

11 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I welcome the opportunity for this timely debate. I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) wishes to make a brief contribution to the debate.

Mr. David Marshall (in the Chair): Order. May I just correct the hon. Member? Your colleague cannot make a brief contribution without the consent of the Minister and the Chair, but he can, of course, intervene on you.

Tom Brake: Thank you, Mr. Marshall, for that intervention. I hope that the Minister will be receptive to the idea that my hon. Friend will share my time in this debate. I think that she has nodded her assent to that proposal.

This is not our first debate on Sutton magistrates court. My hon. Friend secured a debate on this subject on 14 May 2003, to which I contributed. I also secured a question high up the list in Prime Minister’s questions on 26 March 2003, when I asked him whether he could explain why the Greater London Magistrates’ Court Authority, which existed then and was responsible for the courts in London, had decided to close Sutton magistrates court. It is worth reminding hon. Members of the Prime Minister’s response. He said:

I am afraid that that could not be further from the truth. The GLMCA was not local in any true sense of the word. The real locals—justices of the peace, councillors, Members of Parliament, Victim Support, residents and the police—were all opposed to the closure. The GLMCA, which is not accountable to the local community and had no connections with it, as far as I could detect, favoured closure on cost grounds.

I congratulate the Minister at that time, Christopher Leslie, on granting the local authority’s appeal against the closure, so Sutton magistrates court did not close in 2003. One consideration that now gives me cause for concern is that the local authority can no longer appeal, so it is down to other parties to object or try to get overturned any future decision to close the court, should such a decision be taken. When Christopher Leslie made that decision he issued a press release, which I shall quote, because it is very relevant. He said:

He went on to say that he had decided that each borough needed a local court given the size of the population that the courts serve and the high use made of them. I very much welcome those statements.

5 July 2006 : Column 274WH

The press release also said, of another appeal, that Mr. Leslie judged that it would be particularly difficult for Harrow borough residents to get to Brent courthouse, which is where work would have been reallocated. It is worth dwelling on that point, because it might be proposed that the court in Bromley could be used as an alternative venue for some or all of Sutton court’s cases. I recommend to the person who might put forward that proposal that they attempt to travel from Sutton to Bromley. I have made that journey five times in the last month or so, because of the by-election there. I imagine that by car it would take about an hour to an hour and a half in the week. To travel that journey by public transport requires one either to go in to London Victoria and right back out again and take bus connections at either end, or to take a train journey to East Croydon or West Croydon, followed by a tram to Beckenham junction, followed by a train to one of the Bromley stations and a bus at the other end. Clearly, many people, whether they are due to appear in court or to attend as a victim or witness, would simply rather not undertake such a journey. I cannot see how Bromley can be a viable alternative.

I do not have time to go through everything that was put forward in the local authority’s appeal when it fought the court’s closure, but I shall quote the final paragraph of the document, where it says that

Surely, whatever review is under way, that is what it must be about.

It has been quite hard to find out what is driving the current review of the courts. According to an official at Her Majesty’s Courts Service, there is no formal review under way, and what is happening is just part of the normal business planning process. It appears to be driven by the London estates strategy, which talks about the estate having a direct impact on the user experience in relation to victims, witnesses, jurors and people with disabilities. I certainly support that, but organisational changes are being proposed that would see the court clustered with Croydon and Bromley. Apparently, a paper is to be circulated some time this month, and there is to be formal consultation in September or October. Will the Minister comment on that time scale and whether that process will be followed?

If Sutton is proposed for closure, will the following steps be taken? Will the reason for the proposed closure be published? Will there be a consultation paper and time allowed for responses to the paper, after which an area director will decide whether to confirm the court closure? Will that decision then go to a courts board and eventually arrive on the Minister’s desk for her to sign off? I hope that she can confirm that. Her officials behind her have just nodded their heads, so it seems as though that procedure would have to be followed.

Local JPs are worried that clustering will be the first step towards closure. They particularly think that if each court in the cluster is not appointed a bench legal manager—the person who arbitrates on legal procedure, acts as a channel of communication with the police and
5 July 2006 : Column 275WH
Crown Prosecution Service and provides a link between the court’s operational activities and the magistrates—that will lead to the demise of the court. They are also worried that the demise of Sutton magistrates court is being precipitated because there is a shortage of administration staff there, which means that although it has the legal capacity to do more work than it does, it does not have the administrative capacity to support that. The court might therefore appear not to be busy. I can confirm that administrative support is missing; having made repeated attempts to call the court to discuss this issue, I eventually had to find another way to contact the court because the phones were, regrettably, not answered.

There are many local concerns, but I shall conclude now to allow my colleague to contribute. We fought and won a battle on this issue three years ago. The arguments that we then deployed in favour of the magistrates court are just as relevant now. We want local justice to be delivered locally by local magistrates, and that is why the court in Sutton must stay open.

11.9 am

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for applying for and securing a debate on this subject today. I am also grateful to the Minister for giving me the opportunity to contribute briefly to it.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, when this debate came up and when we became aware that in the wind was the possibility that Sutton courthouse might again be under threat of closure, there was a sense of déj vu. As he said, just three years ago such a threat was hanging over it. Then, it was the Greater London Magistrates’ Courts Authority that was making the running and setting out the arguments for closure. I say setting out the arguments, but in a way the closure proposals then lacked any robust evidence to argue the case and the process lacked transparency. Time and again, my hon. Friend and I would write to the GLMCA on behalf of the magistrates court chairman at the time, Tony Kerr, asking questions and seeking data. In response, we received either no answer or prevarication; we did not receive the information that was relevant to understanding the basis on which the GLMCA was proceeding.

Following much hard work by the justices of the peace, the Sutton bench, in particular Tony Kerr, and colleagues on the council of the London borough of Sutton, and some lobbying both at Prime Minister’s questions and in other ways by myself and my hon. Friend, we seemed to have been able to unpeel the lack of evidence and get the Department to understand that the basis for the closure proposal was not robust, and was indeed rather flimsy. Consequently, the appeal that was made was upheld, and we were grateful to the Minister at the time for reaching that conclusion.

It is hard to see what has changed in the past three years, except that there has been a diminution of the services available to my constituents over the past few years, as access, at least by telephone, seems to have worsened. When one examines the strategy that is being put forward by Her Majesty’s Courts Service, particularly the strategic goal that is set out in the business plan, one
5 July 2006 : Column 276WH
finds it hard to reconcile the proposition that might now come along of clustering, and of moving my local courthouse and requiring victims of crime, the local police service and others to make the journey all the way to Bromley to have their cases dealt with.

As my hon. Friend rightly identified, the difficulties of getting from the London borough of Sutton, particularly from Worcester Park, which is at the furthest extent of my constituency, all the way to Bromley beggar belief. Orbital movement in that part of London is difficult. Public transport is not effective in facilitating easy transit. How on earth could the closure be seen to be improving access to justice? I would need to see some close argumentation from Her Majesty’s Courts Service before I could be convinced on that matter. Many of my constituents would not be convinced that such a move made sense from their point of view.

My delight in my hon. Friend’s securing this debate is tempered by the fact that, three years on, we are back to square one; we are back to the point where this debate must happen and we must ask the Minister some questions. The key issue for me is that if we are now about to embark on a similar process of examining the need for this courthouse, we must be clear that this time there will be transparency, honesty and the availability of the data. If those things are not present, and if we cannot see the data—

Tom Brake: On clarity, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be important to know what the estates strategy means when it talks about Sutton court being an “opportunity”?

Mr. Burstow: Yes, there is a lovely euphemism in the business plan; it talks of “integration opportunities”. I call them mergers and closures. That is what we are talking about. It is an opportunity to close a courthouse, realise an asset and reinvest it elsewhere in the business activities of Her Majesty’s Courts Service. The downside is that our constituents and those who are victims of crime do not have as easy access to the courts service.

I end with the fact that I am particularly concerned about the amount of time that will potentially be wasted by police officers from my patch having to travel further to be present in court. That runs the risk of non-attendance and of people who should be patrolling our streets and looking after our communities not being able to do that job—even more so than at present. That must be a consideration. So, for the same reasons as were given by my hon. Friend, we need transparency in any process of decision making on this, and reassurance that we will get to see the full facts on which any decisions are based. Local people want, need and deserve to have local justice delivered by local magistrates close to home, not a long way away, in Bromley.

11.15 am

Next Section Index Home Page