Secondly, my right hon. Friend speaks of a difference of view about what has been said by the magistrates. There is one version and there is his version. I am happy

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to visit the magistrates court to meet him and my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford. They can bring the people whom they wish to invite and I will bring my officials. I will ensure that there is a proper dialogue, so that if there have been any miscommunications along the line, we can ensure that they are put right. I will facilitate that meeting, and what is more, I will be at it and will visit the court.

I described the facilities at Luton magistrates court, and there will be greater certainty for witnesses about where trials will be heard. As for family work, which will be heard at Bedford magistrates court, it is equally important for that work to be undertaken in suitable court accommodation, separate from criminal work, with co-location of all tiers of the family court judiciary. On the whole, the centralisation of criminal and family work will enable greater capacity to distribute the workload more effectively and ease waiting times in hearing and completing cases. It will provide greater resilience to cope with unexpected changes to workload, or to judicial or agency resources.

I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire that the decision to change the listing pattern at Bedford magistrates court was not taken in isolation. There were many other considerations, such as the local reduction in workload, particularly for trials, the need for improved performance and better utilisation of criminal justice system agency resources, and the commitment to maximise the use of digital technology.

As a result of the change in the listing pattern in the Bedfordshire area, some magistrates may incur additional travelling costs. However, they should not be financially disadvantaged, as justices’ allowances allow for the reimbursement of travelling costs incurred in the performance of a justice’s duties.

Richard Fuller: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Vara: I am happy to give way, but my hon. Friend will be mindful of the fact that I have to wind up within the next three and a half minutes.

Richard Fuller: I am, but I wanted to place on record my thanks to the Minister for saying that as a result of the debate he will come to Bedford, take a personal interest in the issue and listen to members of the local community. As part of that, will he listen to the members of the local magistracy who have submitted their opposition to the proposed changes?

Mr Vara: If they wish to attend the meeting, they are welcome to do so. The meeting is to be organised by my hon. Friend and by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, and if they wish to invite them along, I would be more than happy to meet them.

As with magistrates, victims and witnesses attending court should not be financially disadvantaged. They will not incur additional travelling costs, because those are paid by the Crown Prosecution Service.

As the changes take place in Bedfordshire, we will ensure that we continue to provide a good service for victims and witnesses, including vulnerable witnesses. That means that where the situation demands it, applications

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for special measures may be made in cases involving vulnerable witnesses. When the grounds for such applications are accepted, the court may direct that the witness gives evidence from a location other than where the trial is being heard. For instance, applications may be made for witnesses to give evidence from Bedford magistrates court, or any other courthouse or premises with suitable secure video connectivity, to the trial court in Luton.

I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford that the decision to change the listing arrangements at Bedford magistrates court is not the first step to closing the Shire hall in Bedford and is not a cost-cutting exercise. It is aimed at revising the listing arrangements for criminal and family work to improve efficiency in listing and timeliness, making the best use of court time and other resources and providing speedy justice for victims and witnesses. There is a commitment to ensuring that witnesses and victims have appropriate facilities and security when giving their evidence, including the availability of a video link.

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The inconvenience of longer travel times for some will be outweighed by the expected improvements in court productivity, timeliness and the use of technology. We must also acknowledge that for people today, the concept of what is local goes far beyond what was considered local in the past. Local justice is no longer achieved solely by having a court in every town or borough. Indeed, there is no requirement of residence within the local justice area for appointment as a magistrate. Since the creation of the single local justice area, magistrates from across the county have been sitting at both Luton and Bedford without deterioration in the quality of justice, which is delivered through consideration of the evidence presented in open court using sound judgment and social awareness.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate, and I thank him and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.

8.24 pm

House adjourned.