Like others in the Chamber, I believe that the importance of the steel industry means it deserves a top-level summit to discuss its long-term viability and how it can be supported in these extremely challenging times. We know that productivity increases are part of the reason there are fewer jobs in the steel industry, but we also

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know that there has been significant movement to production centres overseas. Chillingly, the number of employees in iron and steel production has fallen by 98% in Scotland since 1971 and by 94% across the UK in the same period. There is no doubt that what the UK Government do now and what they are prepared to do will have significant long-term consequences for the industry and might even go as far as determining its very survival, so I am grateful to the Minister for engaging in the debate.

The steel industry in the UK is undoubtedly at a major disadvantage compared with its European counterparts and competitors, since other European Governments have supported and sustained their steel industries while our own has not as yet—we will keep our fingers crossed—received the same level of support. As has already been pointed out, some of the challenges are global, but there is still much that the UK Government could do to provide support.

The importance of the industry is hard to overstate: and, along with its associated metals sector, it comprises more than 24,000 enterprises, which directly employ more than 330,000 people. It was worth more than £45.5 billion to the UK economy in 2012 and, as has been pointed out, two or three jobs in the broader economy are indirectly dependent on each job in the metals sector. The potential economic case for acting to save not only jobs but also the broader value, innovation and skills that come from a strong UK supply chain is both urgent and compelling.

The entire sector in Europe has faced real challenges since 2008, when the demand for steel plummeted. Indeed, such demand is still very much in recovery, standing at 25% below pre-crisis levels for 2015 by contrast with German levels of 94% and Chinese levels of 180%. Of course, China has flooded the market with cheap imports and has huge overcapacity. As has been mentioned, the devaluation of the yuan will result in further increases to China’s export volume, which is already at record levels. Indeed, imports to the UK from China during the period January to April 2015 doubled compared with those in the same period in 2014, so the problem is becoming more and more acute.

In addition, the strong value of sterling against the euro, an issue that poses unique challenges to the UK industry, is an issue. It impacts on UK demand for steel as UK exporters struggle to compete in European markets. Such factors, their impact and how much can and will be done to mitigate them will determine the future, and perhaps the very survival, of this industry in the entire UK. Now is the time of real challenge for the UK steel industry and the Government must not drop the ball. The steel industry has pointed out that Government intervention is needed for its very survival in areas such as energy, tax and procurement—the same levers of support that have been used by Governments in France and Germany and throughout Europe to support the UK’s competitors. We must not be left behind.

Community, the largest and leading trade union in the UK steel industry, has given a chilling warning that the UK Government would be foolhardy to dismiss or ignore. That warning is that unless the Government make a game-changing intervention, it is likely that thousands of jobs will be lost, whole communities devastated and priceless industrial assets lost for ever.

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As for the future of Tata, the second largest steel producer in Europe and the largest steel production employer in Scotland, its plate business is of real concern. The plate mills at Clydebridge have been loss-making of late, but they should have a bright future as an integral part of the renewables industry supply chain. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned, Fergus Ewing MSP, the Minister responsible for energy and climate change, has committed the Scottish Government to doing all they can with the powers they have to secure the future of those mills.

Let us consider the renewables obligation and how it impacts on the cost of the industry. Let us defend supply chains from unfair practices and protectionism from countries such as America, with barriers being erected around the world while safeguards remain weak for our industries. Let us re-examine how we can make the industry more competitive and investment-friendly. Let us use local supply chains that will help to meet sustainability targets and to sustain local communities and jobs, examining and being mindful of the criteria of local economic benefits in assessing tenders for major projects—by inserting community benefit clauses in contracts, for example.

The Government in Scotland stand ready to work with the UK Government in whatever ways are necessary to secure the long-term future of this vital industry. Clearly, UK support is the key. If European Governments can support their steel industries, there is no reason why such support cannot be forthcoming from the UK Government.

2.5 pm

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) on securing this vital debate today, and I also thank the Backbench Business Committee. Before I get on to the substance of my speech, I want to pay tribute to three gentlemen who are sitting in the Gallery. Roy Rickhuss is the general secretary of the Community union, and he is here with Alan Coombs and Dave Bowyer. Those three men are fighting with passion and dedication to secure a sustainable future for the British steel industry and I pay tribute to their professionalism and dedication today.

The UK steel industry and its associated metals sector comprise more than 24,000 enterprises and were worth more than £45.5 billion to the UK economy in 2012. The sector’s exports account for 150% of UK demand and steel is a driver of productivity that, along with other UK foundation industries, is characterised by sector productivity of 136%. I think the Minister will agree that steel has a clear strategic, economic and defence value to the country and is invaluable in driving sustainable productivity growth.

A foundation industry feeds into the supply chain of multiple other industries. From automotive to locomotive and aeronautical to power generation, from transmission to construction and from white goods to consumer electronics, the steel industry is at the heart of the British economy. It is no exaggeration to say that the quality of our national infrastructure and the future of the British economy go hand-in-hand with the future of the steel industry.

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The steel industry and its associated metals sectors are also a vital source of employment, accounting as they do for 330,000 jobs in the UK. In fact, three UK jobs rely on every job in the steel industry and those jobs are likely to be found outside London and the south-east, in regions where such jobs are desperately needed. Those jobs are exactly the type that we all want to see: highly skilled, with high value added, relatively high wages and a vocational field, with the potential for development and fulfilling career paths. In fact, it seems to me that the steel industry is a model of precisely the type of industry that all in this House should wish to promote if we are truly serious about wishing to create an export-led recovery, about solving the productivity puzzle and about rebalancing the British economy away from its dangerous overreliance on the services sector and towards a far more resilient manufacturing base. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, no less, has set a target of doubling exports by 2020. It is crystal clear that he will never achieve that target unless the country has a vibrant and sustainable steel industry.

The steel industry is also crucial to our prestige as a nation. Without a steel industry, would we even qualify as a leading industrialised economy? What would the loss of this strategic industry mean to our membership of the G8, for example?

I rise today not only to remind this House of the central role that the steel industry plays in our national economy and security. This industry also shapes the social economic landscape in my constituency of Aberavon. The Tata steelworks in Port Talbot is one of the largest in Europe; it is essential to the UK’s manufacturing sector and the beating heart of our community. As the Minister will know, as she visited the steelworks only weeks ago, the Port Talbot plant is a beacon of British-made manufacturing. She will be in no doubt about the dedication and professionalism of its 3,000 workers.

As I have mentioned, this is a highly skilled, specialised workforce, and this high-risk, high-skill work results in some of the highest-quality steel in the world. The super bainite steel produced at the Port Talbot works, for example, is used by the Ministry of Defence for such crucial projects as reinforcing the armoured vehicles that were used until recently in Afghanistan. I am deeply proud of the fact that this ultra-specialised type of steel has saved lives in war zones and is made by my constituents.

The steel industry has a proud past and a vitally important present, and it should also have a truly promising future. It is therefore with deep regret that I rise today to make a speech that I hoped I would never have to make. I believe that the steel industry is on the brink of collapse. This is not rhetoric; it is reality. For a number of reasons, as other hon. Members have said, the industry is now caught in a perfect storm. Let me briefly outline those reasons.

First, cheap Chinese steel is distorting the market. For the first six months of 2015 the amount of Chinese steel imported into the UK increased by 120%, relative to the same period in 2015. The fact is that the global steel market is now comprehensively saturated by Chinese steel, and the impact is impossible to exaggerate. It is literally squeezing British steel out of the global market and is the primary cause of the parlous state in which the British steel industry currently finds itself.

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Secondly, the pound is stronger than it has been for many years. Some 40% of total steel sales are exported to the EU, and for every sale in euro, Tata Steel now receives 20% less in sterling than it did just 18 months ago.

Thirdly, there is the high cost of production here in the UK, which can be attributed largely to the crippling costs of energy bills. Steelmaking is an energy-intensive activity, and the cost of energy in the UK is twice as high as in any other EU country, despite the fact that those countries face precisely the same regulatory costs charged at EU level, such as the EU emissions trading system. UK energy costs are a massive barrier to companies that wish to invest in the future of their business and the skills of their workers.

The net result of this perfect storm is that Tata Steel is facing a deficit of just over £250 million for the year 2014-15, reflecting substantial year-on-year losses since 2011-12. Despite this, Tata Steel has invested £1.4 billion since it acquired its UK business from Corus in April 2007. I would like to place on the record my recognition of the fact that Tata Steel is facing an extremely challenging macroeconomic and market picture, and I believe that it is striving to address the issues as best it can.

It is now essential that the Government give Tata Steel all the support and assistance they possibly can. If they fail in their duty to do so, the consequences of such inaction will be catastrophic. The action that the Government can and must take urgently is as follows. First, the Minister must accelerate the full implementation of the energy-intensive industries package. The steel industry must be either exempted from the renewables obligation or shifted to a compensation model. In order for that to happen, the Government must instruct the European Commission to give top priority to reviewing the state aid question in this context. That may well mean a reprioritisation of current cases, for example on nuclear power. If that is necessary, so be it. It is essential that the case of steel is fast-tracked now and placed at the top of the pile of British cases that are currently sitting in the European Commission’s in-tray.

The Minister has been asked to intervene in that spirit on several occasions since the beginning of this Parliament. Her answer has been, “It’s complicated”. We on the Opposition side of the House truly understand that Brussels is a complicated place but, with all due respect, those complications need to be overcome rapidly and effectively. The concerns about state aid must be resolved within the next month, so that the British steel industry can receive immediate respite from the crippling energy costs that it currently faces. The Government’s insistence on rigidly following every letter of EU state aid rules is killing the steel industry and forcing UK steel producers to compete on a playing field that is neither fair nor even.

Secondly, a further element of relief on the cost of doing business would be the removal of plant and machinery from the business rates valuation process for manufacturing. Tata Steel recently invested £185 million in the construction of a new blast furnace in the Port Talbot steelworks and was promptly clobbered with a £400,000 increase in its business rates bill. That is patently absurd. If we are to tackle the productivity

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puzzle by driving a manufacturing renaissance, surely we should be encouraging investment, not disincentivising it in that way.

We recognise that exempting the steel industry from the renewables obligation and removing plant and machinery from business rates will incur a cost to the Exchequer. However, we also know that the collapse of the steel industry would lead to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, and the resulting cost to the Exchequer would be exponentially greater. Therefore, I urge the Minister and her colleagues to see that a failure to provide the urgent support to the UK steel industry that is now required would be a classic and tragic case of a false economy.

Thirdly, it is essential that the Government do more to support industry positions on anti-dumping cases. I am a firm believer in the importance and value of free trade, but I believe even more passionately in the importance and value of fair play. The fact of the matter is that the US and Chinese Governments are simply not playing fair. There are myriad examples of how tariff and non-tariff barriers are being deployed by Washington and Beijing in order to prevent the fair access of British steel to the Chinese and US markets. That has to stop. I urge the Minister to adopt a more aggressive posture in Brussels, Beijing and Washington. She must stand up for steel and secure a fair deal.

Fourthly, I would like to pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar about the use of Teesside steel in wind turbines. I would like to contrast that with the regrettable lack of support that the Scottish Government have shown over the Forth road bridge. I understand that the general secretary of Community union has today written to Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones requesting a meeting to explore the support mechanisms that the devolved Governments can and must provide.

It is 10 minutes to midnight for the steel industry. The future of this vital foundation industry is hanging by a thread. Steel producers and workers need the full support of the Government, and they need it now.

2.16 pm

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Let me start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate and enabling Members across the House to stand up for steelmaking across the UK. I thank the hon. Members for Corby (Tom Pursglove) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and, most particularly, my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), alongside other Members from all parties, for working so hard to secure the debate. I also thank Roy Rickhuss and his team at Community union for their work. I thank Paul Simmonds, the Community representative at Celsa in my constituency, and all those in UK Steel and other bodies that are standing up, making the arguments and supporting us all in our efforts to secure a sustainable future for steel in this country.

This debate comes at an absolutely crucial time for the steel industry and for the country. As Community has said, we are at an historic crossroads. Decisions taken in the months ahead by the Minister and others in the Government will be crucial in determining whether there is a sustainable future for steel in this country.

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From Shotton to Cardiff, from Skinningrove to Llanelli, from Scunthorpe to Middlesbrough, and from Newport to Redcar, steel producers are facing clear and present dangers that show no sign of abating.

I want to pay tribute to a number of outstanding contributions made in today’s debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) spoke powerfully about the potential risks that the current challenges pose not only to the steel industry on Teesside, but to incredible projects such as the Teesside Collective. I attended a meeting with the Teesside Collective the other day, and the work it is planning to pioneer in carbon capture and storage could be seriously at risk. The hon. Member for Corby spoke about the history of steelmaking in his constituency and its importance to his constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) spoke powerfully about the constructive role that workers in plants across the country have played at a very difficult time for the industry, and she spoke about the reality of job losses and relocations and the impact on families and individuals.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) made an outstanding speech that was powerful, passionate and personal and drew upon his own experience. We can be very factual in this Chamber, as we should be at times, but sometimes it is important to hear the passion and frustration that so many of us feel that these issues, which need to be dealt with urgently, are continuing unabated. We also heard a powerful speech from the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). I am glad he agrees that we should bring forward the energy intensive industries scheme in full.

In an excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), the Chair of the Select Committee, made the key point that manufacturing matters to our economy and that these foundation industries are absolutely crucial. He rightly praised the Minister for the work that she has undertaken, but challenged her in some areas. He rightly praised the co-operation of trade unions and their members and their effort in trying to stand up for communities and workers across the country.

It would be unfair not to praise the excellent opening speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar, who made a powerful case for the impressive projects that the Teesside steel plant has supported and described the deep difficulties that are facing the SSI plant in her constituency. In highlighting some of the crucial factors, she talked about the £431 million a year cumulative disadvantage for the UK steel industry. That is fundamental to this debate. We have to deal with those disadvantages to move forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) made an excellent speech in which he paid a powerful tribute to his local workers. My hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) also spoke, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). Steelmaking is at the heart of his constituency, as in mine. He made an important point about the contribution that steel makes to defence and the importance of resolving the issues of state aid.

We also heard important contributions by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), my

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hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), and the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), among others.

I want to turn to the comments made by Scottish nationalist party Members—the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, and the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). [Interruption.] They are saying “Scottish National party”. I know that is its formal title, but it is a nationalist party, as its Members state themselves—a separatist party. Although I am glad that they share the consensus of concern across this House, and that they are here with us to express that, it is also important—I say this to the Government in Wales as well—that there is a consensus of responsibility among all Governments across these islands, including the Scottish Government.

Unfortunately there is a tendency for Scottish National party Members always to be blaming somebody else—it is always somebody else’s fault. On the Forth Road bridge—

Marion Fellows: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Doughty: I will in a moment, but let me make this point.

On the Forth road bridge, it is important that we deal with the facts. The fact is that if the Scottish Government had applied for the community benefit clauses as they originally could have done in the procurement process, it is possible that the work could have gone ahead with UK companies—Scottish Steel and SSI—involved early on. Instead, it went off to the Chinese, the Spanish and others. Now, eventually, some of the steel is being made in Scotland and on Teesside, and I welcome that, but it is important that Governments across the UK—

Anna Soubry: They should practise what they preach.

Stephen Doughty: I absolutely agree; that applies to the UK Government as well. It is important that the Scottish Government take full responsibility. I am glad that Community is seeking a meeting with the First Minister of Scotland and with the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, because it is important that we work on this together across the country .

Marion Fellows: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a real pity that he is summing up this entire debate with an attack on the Scottish Government, given that there had been consensus? Members of the APPG and the Scottish National party have worked really hard to get this debate. Will he apologise?

Stephen Doughty: No, I will not, because it is entirely right that in this Chamber we scrutinise all comments made. As I said, it is wonderful that we have a consensus of concern, but we also need a consensus of responsibility. I am not going to shy away from raising concerns about Governments across this country. I will turn to the UK Government now.

After I was elected in November 2012, one of the first issues I raised with the Government was the high energy prices facing energy-intensive industries, including steel. Since then, Ministers have come and gone, but the

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fundamentals affecting the industry remain, and are advancing unabated. Whether it is energy prices, taxation, foreign dumping, uncertain future ownership, or a lack of clarity in the UK’s industrial and infrastructure strategies, which I raised with the Secretary of State in BIS questions yesterday, warm words at various stages have not, I am afraid, been matched with sufficiently robust or urgent action. The coming months are absolutely critical. Action by this Government will define whether steel has a sustainable future.

I say in all sincerity that I welcome the Minister’s actions on the anti-dumping measure—I hope she will take action on further such measures—as well as the constructive way in which she has approached dialogue with steel MPs and their constituents and the way she has talked about a whole series of issues. I understand that she is to visit China. I would be interested to know what she will raise during that visit and what she expects to get out of it. These are all welcome steps.

However, I must say to the whole Treasury Bench—the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Business Secretary and others, not just this Minister—that the time for delay is over. If there is one thing we must leave this debate with, it is the need for urgent action. We cannot delay for months and years into the future. This crisis has been building up for the past 18 months to two years, or even longer, and we have to take action now.

Let me turn to the key issues that I want the Government to address. First, on energy compensation, while I firmly believe we must drive a responsible and urgent transition to a low-carbon economy, it is completely counter-productive if we pursue policies that result in carbon leakage and higher carbon emissions globally. That simply offshores the issue to other countries. That is particularly important in relation to companies such as Celsa in my constituency and SSI, which are pioneering some of the most environmentally and energy-efficient policies and processes. It is unacceptable that that could eventually end up being offshored to places such as China.

Energy prices for UK steel producers can be more than 50% higher than for our main European competitors. While other EU countries, including Germany and France, are providing additional help to their energy-intensive industries to level the playing field, we have not had the same clarity from this Government. The Chancellor announced that he would bring forward part of the energy compensation package for steel and energy-intensive industries, which is waiting on state aid clearance. However, as UK Steel has said, the steel industry in this country is still paying 70% of the policy cost that that package sought to address. No doubt the Minister will say that the Government are providing millions of pounds in exemptions related to the taxes and levies, but the fact is that in 2015 the steel industry will pay a record level of taxes and levies. Will she confirm whether mitigating measures can be brought forward immediately, as many Members have asked? What discussions has she had with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister about reviewing the entire regime, which gets to the absolute nub of the issue? Are there other exemptions that can be considered in VAT and other areas?

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Secondly, there are the foreign threats. We have heard about the massive increase in the import of unsustainably produced carbon rebar and other products over the past two years, of which Ministers are well aware. Over-production and dumping are at the heart of the issue. As I said, I will be interested to hear what the Minister hopes to achieve in China. Many non-EU countries such as China and Turkey are increasing their market share, often using anti-competitive practices with scant regard for environmental standards. I want to hear more from her on that.

UK steel companies are subject to business rates that are much higher than those paid by competitors in other European countries—in some cases up to 11 times more. What does the Minister propose to do about that? What discussions has she had with the devolved Administrations? We cannot simply wait for the wider business rates review; is there action that can be taken now?

I draw attention to the charter for sustainable British steel, launched by UK Steel and other producers, and urge support for its straightforward and very reasonable demands. Where does the Minister stand on that? Are the Government supporting it? We have heard some warm words, but can we have categorical assurances?

It is important to look at all ongoing construction and redevelopment projects. I hope that the parliamentary authorities are thinking about the steel that is being used in reconstruction and building projects here. Madam Deputy Speaker, will you pass on that message to the parliamentary authorities?

Any one of the issues raised by me and other hon. Members across the House is enough to put serious strain on any business. The Minister should be left in no doubt that the risks are real and the threats to the British national interest are intensifying. The UK steel industry needs a crucial injection of confidence, urgent and robust action, and ultimately crisis support if necessary, but let us hope that we do not get to that point.

Steelworkers and their families do not want special treatment. They do not want to posture or erect barriers to free trade in an increasingly globalised world, or to protect the industry from fair competition; they simply want to level the playing field. It is worth bearing in mind that the UK steel industry and its associated metal sector encompasses more than 24,000 enterprises, which directly employ 330,000 people and are worth more than £45.5 billion to the UK economy. If that capacity is lost, it may be lost for ever, with dark consequences not only for the employees and our communities and economy, but for our critical infrastructure and construction supply chains. The time for action is now.

2.30 pm

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry): May I begin by congratulating everyone who secured this debate? It has been excellent, with some fabulous speeches by hon. Members who have done what we should all do when we speak in this place, which is represent constituents, especially in times of great difficulty.

I pay tribute in particular to the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley)—I hope I have pronounced her constituency name correctly, or I will be trouble—and

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to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop). I will talk briefly about the particular problems with the steelworks in their constituencies, but I will not say too much, because this is a critical time for them, and in some ways the least said, the better. I do not want to say anything that might alter or affect the very good work that both hon. Members are doing in trying to find a solution to the problems at this difficult time. I hope that everybody will accept that and—if I may put it this way—not quiz me any further, because after this debate we will meet those union members who are in attendance, and I look forward to that.

I also pay tribute not just to all those who work in the steel industry, but to their families at this very difficult time. Many people listening to this debate or reading about it in their local newspapers are undoubtedly very worried about not just their and their family’s future, but that of their community. I get that—I thoroughly and totally understand it. I do not know whether that is because my great-grandfather began his working life as an apprentice cutler in Sheffield. I remember making the journey from Worksop to Sheffield as a teenager and a young woman and seeing the forges there. It was a fabulous sight. Indeed, I was reminded of it when I visited Celsa in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). That was a truly remarkable experience, because I had never seen the fabulous process involved in the recycling of steel—I will come on to that in a moment—or the high quality and skills of the workforce. I have also visited the Port Talbot plant in the constituency of the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), which has a highly skilled workforce doing a very dangerous job. That should never be underestimated

I thoroughly echo the Prime Minister’s words in response to a question last week by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin):

“We will go on doing everything we can to support this vital industry.”—[Official Report, 9 September 2015; Vol. 599, c. 404.]

I fully agree with that. My task in my role is to champion the steel industry and do all I can, not only as a champion, but to make sure that the Prime Minister’s words are echoed right across Government and that we do not fail in doing everything we can to support this vital industry.

Andy McDonald: When there was a crisis in the south-west of England after the floods, I recall the Prime Minister saying that the problem would be corrected no matter what the cost. On the steel industry, he has said that he will do everything he can. Does that mean that the outcome will be secure and that he will do anything to keep the steel industry on the rails?

Anna Soubry: The Prime Minister said:

“We will go on doing everything we can”.

I am not looking for excuses. When she opened the debate, the hon. Member for Redcar said—I wish she was not right, but she is—that the steel industry is in crisis. The hon. Member for Aberavon has said that it is about 10 minutes to midnight. The hon. Member for Redcar went on to say that the industry is in crisis because the price of steel has collapsed as a result of over-production in China—in fact, there is over-production across the whole world—and there are allegations that

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China is dumping its product. The problem, as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) knows, is that the price of slag has gone from $500 to $300 in a year.

Unfortunately, the Government cannot force other countries to stop over-producing, any more than they can force up the price of steel. We can, however, look at measures and the hon. Gentleman and other Members can be assured that I will do all I can to make the argument within Government when we are doing things that we should not be doing. I hope the hon. Gentleman understands what I mean by that. I am not an actual free marketeer. I believe there is a role for Government, which is why I was more than happy—in fact, I demanded —that we voted in favour of the anti-dumping measures on Chinese wire. There are times when Government should and do intervene. We have a system to compensate those electric-intensive industries that pay an awful lot of money for their energy bills, and that includes renewables obligations and other tariffs.

I will be completely honest: I would much rather that the price of energy were considerably lower. I struggle with the current system, whereby we put something on industries and then use taxpayers’ money to compensate them for it. I want cheaper energy. That is what I see as the solution, but we cannot have it both ways. We cannot say that we want a greener, cleaner environment and to reduce emissions and hit targets—those are all the right things to do—without recognising that the consequences are that we all have to pay more for our energy. We have to accept the realities of the situation.

Andy McDonald: The Minister makes a valid point, but the point I made in my speech is that the steel industry is right at the heart of securing some incredibly powerful dividends with regard to cheaper energy and climate change. If it is not allowed to persevere, it will not be able to deliver them for us.

Anna Soubry: I agree, but as the hon. Gentleman also knows there are very strict state aid rules. We could have a debate about whether this country should impose them at a higher, gold-plated level compared with other countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) has said, “Everybody else tears up the rules and so should we”, but I do not agree, because we cannot complain about other people breaking state aid rules if we are doing it ourselves. I would much rather go to the European Union with clean hands so that we can say, “We’re abiding by the rules, so now you have to abide by them, too.”

The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) is not in her place, but she made demands of the Government. I hope she will forgive me, but I do not think she is aware of what the state aid rules are: they expressly prohibit the Government from giving any money to rescue and restructure a steel company in difficulty. EU state aid rules for steel permit support only for research and development, environmental protection and training, and only then within specified limits.

The hon. Members for Redcar and for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland talked about what happened to the SSI plant when it was under the ownership of Tata and mothballed back in 2009-10. I will be corrected if I am wrong, but as I understand it that process was

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not supported by Government aid. I absolutely pay tribute to the unions, the workforce and everybody involved, including the local Members of Parliament and, no doubt, local councillors, who came together to work out that package, but I understand that the state aid rules forbade the Government from giving aid.

Tom Blenkinsop: To provide some context, at that time trade unions—with Community in the lead—alongside other helpful partners in the industry, were looking at potential buyers, such as Dongkuk, Marcegaglia and SSI, so that was not the issue. We had a destination to go to, but we needed a bridging gap. The Government provided £60 million of support funding to make sure that there was a taskforce for the area. The situation is now different, but we can talk about that in private.

Anna Soubry: I think we are agreed because this has affected Governments of all colours—or rather, of both colours. In all seriousness, the rules on state aid are very strict. I take the view that we should not blatantly breach those rules, because we cannot hold to account other countries that breach them, blatantly or otherwise, if we are guilty of doing the same.

Nic Dakin: The reality is that the universal application of the carbon floor tax in this country has had a detrimental effect on energy costs for this industry, and the mitigation package so far put in place does not fully address what needs to be done. Will the Minister make a commitment to do her very best to bring forward the mitigation from the current 2016 destination?

Anna Soubry: The hon. Gentleman can be assured that I will do everything I can. I think we all agreed on and voted for the financial obligations that we have put on all our industries, so there is nothing between us. I want us to be able to reduce energy prices, not just for domestic consumers—ordinary members of society—but for industry. I think that that would be a much better way forward.

I have not actually got a speech to read out, which often frightens my officials—you may be quite pleased about that, Madam Deputy Speaker—so I will just remind the House of the actions that I and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills have taken. He will meet the all-party group on steel and metal-related industries on 26 October. I assure all hon. Members that both he and I have spoken to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Only this morning, I bumped into the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and had yet another discussion about this problem, the urgency of the situation and what we can do to provide assistance. Hon. Members should be assured that we are doing all that and having such discussions at governmental level.

I met the director of UK Steel back at the beginning of June. I have met the chief executive of Tata Steel, Karl-Ulrich Köhler, who did not flinch from explaining to me the very real difficulties that Tata faces in its operation in the United Kingdom. I pay tribute not just to the workers at Tata Steel, but to its management for all that they do. They and hon. Members can be assured that I certainly got everything he told me: Tata does not want to leave the United Kingdom. He made it very clear that it still has a huge commitment to Britain.

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We had a debate on the UK steel industry in July, but it was only for 30 minutes, which, as we all know, is far too short. Since then, I have been to Port Talbot and to Celsa, and I have met the directors of SSI. I have had private conversations with the hon. Members for Redcar and for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and we will meet later. Rightly and understandably, the Members who represent Rotherham—the right hon. Members for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron), and the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion)—and of course the hon. Member for Scunthorpe, asked to meet me. I have met them, along with the trade unions who came with them and, in the case of Rotherham, the management of Tata. I am due to have meetings with my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), as well as with those who represent Hull and Rotherham. As I have said, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and I are meeting the all-party group, and we will continue to hold such meetings.

I want to go through some of the very important points made about what more the Government can do. You are looking at me, Madam Deputy Speaker, as if to say, “Get on with it!” You are not wrong, but these are important matters, and I hope that you will forgive me.

The hon. Member for Redcar covered nearly all the points that other hon. Members have made. I have discussed the price of energy, especially for industries, such as steel, which use so much electricity, so I think I have dealt with that point.

Some hon. Members mentioned business rates. They made a compelling case about the fact that if businesses invest—more than £182 million was invested at Port Talbot—they find, bizarrely, that their business rates go up. Even more bizarrely, businesses pay corporation tax only if they are in profit, but whether or not they are in profit they have to pay business rates. That is another peculiarity of the system. We will have a full review of business rates, but the Chancellor has made it quite clear that the outcome must be fiscally neutral. What I would say to everyone as a caution is that if we change the rules in relation to plant and machinery, we will have to move the burden somewhere else, because it must be fiscally neutral.

On the dumping of steel, the hon. Member for Redcar will already know what I have said about the decisions that have been made. There are more decisions to be made in the European Union to make sure that we do all we can to stop steel dumping.

Several hon. Members made very good points about public procurement. It is right that the Government should practise what they preach, and that applies to local authorities as well. I would gently say to SNP Members that they must champion, as many hon. Members on both sides of the House do, the works in their constituencies. They should beat up on Ministers and on Governments—whether the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly or whoever they may be—to say that people must buy British.

When I went to Port Talbot, which supplies a large section of the automotive industry, a particular car company was being shown around, and I hope it will not just buy British, but buy Welsh. We have taken a number of steps to ensure that business can get the most from procurement opportunities. Current public

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sector contracts can be found on the contracts finder portal, which provides what we call forward pipelines of potential contract opportunities up to 2020, including more than 500 infrastructure projects. Public procurement is important, and we are looking at it. We know that Crossrail achieved 97% of UK content and that 58% of the work went to UK small and medium-sized enterprises. There is more that we can do on public procurement, and I have asked my officials to look at that.

I am looking through my notes to make sure that I deal with everything that has been raised by hon. Members. If any of them wants to remind me of anything that I have missed, I am more than happy to take interventions.

Nobody wants to intervene, so I will just say this. I am going to China next week and Members can be assured that the Secretary of State and I will not hesitate to discuss a number of matters with the Chinese Government. We want to talk to them about dumping, production and the future of their steel industry. We will not hesitate to make those representations. If there is anything in any of the speeches that I have not responded to, I will write to each and every hon. Member and answer their points.

Finally, I doubt that this matter will go to a vote. Therefore, we will get on with arranging the summit quickly. I already have a list of people whom it is obvious we should invite. It will be a cross-Government summit, I hope, that will involve the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, all the relevant Departments and representatives of the workers and the various companies. I congratulate everybody on what has been a very good debate.

2.49 pm

Anna Turley: I want briefly to say a huge thank you to everybody who has participated in the debate. As a new Member, I have been moved by the passion, commitment, diligence and depth of knowledge, and by the willingness of people to work together to do something that is in the interests of all our constituents. We have heard powerful voices from around the country—from Scotland, Wales and across England—come together to fight for jobs, opportunities and the British economy.

I thank the Minister. I appreciate her commitment to hold the summit. We will, of course, continue to press her for action on the specific matters that we have put before her. I look forward to meeting her after the debate. There was no need for her to list all the activities that she has undertaken as Minister, because she has been a breath of fresh air. I hope that she has felt the strength of feeling from colleagues on the Opposition Benches, because we appreciate her constructiveness

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and willingness to engage. She said, to use her words, that she gets it. We get that she gets it and we look forward to working with her on the delivery.

I thank the Minister for the tone that she used when talking about the issues with SSI in my constituency. It is a delicate situation and we have been dealing with it for days, weeks and months. I want to put it on the record that I object to the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), regarding today’s debate. Trust me, if anyone wanted to showboat, we could have done so. We have worked hard and constructively behind the scenes, and have tried not to put any pressure on anybody who is involved in the situation because we understand how delicate it is. Today is about bringing the issues to the fore and making sure that there is action to back up the work that is being done behind the scenes. I make no apology for bringing the debate to the House today. I am proud to have done so and to have worked with my colleagues on it.

The Minister said that the Chancellor’s plans have to be fiscally neutral. As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) said, sometimes money is no object. In a crisis such as this, I beseech the Chancellor and the Government to—

Stephen Kinnock: Be bold.

Anna Turley: As my hon. Friend says, they should be bold and look at everything that they can do. It is in their hands to see where the money can be found. We have heard the strength of the feeling today—the money must be found and action must be taken.

I thank everybody who has contributed. When my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough was speaking so passionately about the history and heritage of steelmaking on Teesside, I remembered a word that is held dear on Teesside: “Erimus”, which means, “We shall be”. That word came about on Teesside when steelmaking was coming to the fore, and our whole area was built upon it. It is about our destiny and our future. I do not want steelmaking to be about our past; I want it to be our future, so please tell us once again that it will be.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House recognises the unprecedented gravity of the challenges currently facing the UK steel industry; and calls on the Government to hold a top-level summit with the key players from the steel industry to seek meaningful and urgent solutions to the crisis.

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Courts and Tribunal Services (England and Wales)

2.52 pm

Ben Howlett (Bath) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the closure of courts and tribunals services in England and Wales.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving me and the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) the opportunity to bring to the House this debate on the closure of courts and tribunal services in England and Wales. Given that it was my first pitch to the Committee, I was pretty chuffed to receive the good news.

In July, the Government announced a consultation on the proposed closure of 91 courts and tribunal services across England and Wales called. “Proposal on the provision of court and tribunal estate in England and Wales”, and it closes on 8 October. It forms part of the wider changes to the criminal justice system, which have not been debated in this Parliament.

Many Members have been in contact to say that, with the closure of courts, the way in which people access the justice system will be incredibly different. Given the introduction of new and not-so-new technology, and the fact that fewer people will attend the courtroom in person, we felt that a debate was necessary. I am therefore delighted that the Backbench Business Committee accepted a debate on these significant proposals, which will see some constituents across England and Wales travelling for more than an hour to reach a courtroom. Many Members believe that the changes to the estate of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service could lead to the complete transformation of the justice system as we know it.

I thank the Minister for his support and his speedy responses over the last few months. His continued support in person, on the telephone and in relation to exchanges of emails and letters has been incredibly helpful in allowing me to update my constituents. I know that that is true of other Members across the House, so I thank him.

On 23 June the Lord Chancellor gave a speech to the Legatum Institute on what a one nation justice policy would look like. He said that he wanted

“to make our justice system work better for victims; to deliver faster and fairer justice for all citizens…to make sure the laws we pass provide protection for the weakest… rescue young offenders, and those who may be on the path to offending, from a life of crime”.

He announced his intention to work with the judiciary to reform Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, and he wanted—I agree with this—to create a modern and efficient service. That will involve challenging decisions about the current system. One such decision relates to the courts and tribunals estate, and the consultation provides a superb opportunity for Members to make a reasoned and sensible case for the use of courts in their constituencies. I hope it will enable them to present clear evidence to the consultation. Pending the results of the consultation, we should begin a conversation now about the future use of the estate, and about how best to use it in the one nation terms outlined by the Secretary of State.

I understand the reasons behind the Secretary of State’s decision to hold a consultation. In his speech he

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recognised that a dangerous inequality lies at the heart of the current justice system, because it involves not one nation but two. The wealthy international class can settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice, but everyone else has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their lives.

The courts are trapped in “antiquated ways of working” that leave individuals at the mercy of grotesque inefficiencies and reinforce indefensible inequalities. Over the past few months I have spoken to a range of key stakeholders in my constituency, and it is clear that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service needs major reform to deliver value for money for taxpayers and fair treatment for all citizens.

Some children in my constituency have waited two years for sexual assault cases to be brought before the courts, and too many cases show that the system is failing the victims and those whom we are trying to rehabilitate. It is right to use this opportunity not just to look at reforming the Courts and Tribunals Service, but also to consider the processes and administration of the remaining courts.

The Courts and Tribunals Service currently operates from 460 courts and tribunals across England and Wales. The estate costs taxpayers around £0.5 billion each year and is underused. In my constituency, usage is well below the 50% capacity, and last year more than one third of courts and tribunals were empty for more than 50% of their available hearing time. As I discussed with Bath magistrates, there is no shortage of cases needing court time, and if more magistrates were provided, capacity could be increased.

Evidence is clear that hearing rooms in the estate are underused. In the financial year 2014-15, recorded national utilisation levels by jurisdiction were as follows: Crown Courts 71%; county courts 53%; magistrates courts 47%; and tribunal hearing rooms 71%. Although Bath has a relatively modern building, much of the national estate is ageing and requires extensive maintenance. The cost of keeping buildings in a fit state is unsustainable given the overall financial pressures placed on the Department. I therefore understand the need to reduce the outgoings of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and improve efficiency.

It will come as no surprise to hon. Members that today I will make the case for Bath magistrates court to stay open. The Government’s own report states that the court was built in 1989 and is in a good state of repair. It has five courtrooms, of which four are magistrates courtrooms. The court has separate waiting rooms for prosecution and defence witnesses, and video link facilities for witnesses to give evidence. It does not have a prison video link, but I wish to query the lack of a court hearing loop as stated in the consultation, as I understand that it does have one.

After speaking to a range of key parties, there is an opportunity to use the court building more effectively than in the past. If Bath courts are kept open following the consultation, I wish to ensure that our buildings and others around the UK are at the centre of the Government’s reforms to improve the criminal justice system, that they have the best technology and improve access to justice, and that they work effectively in the interests of the most vulnerable—the victims of crime and those in most desperate need of rehabilitation services.

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I therefore welcome the fact that the Minister has noted that he would like to maintain access to justice, particularly in rural areas. I also welcome the fact that he wants to make the system fairer and faster, as the Government look to invest significantly in digital technology to enable more issues to be resolved without people needing to go to a court or tribunal building to access justice. This includes extending the use of video links to enable victims and witnesses to give evidence and participate in hearings remotely.

Of course, it is the staff who work in the courts and tribunals who experience the inefficiency every day. From visiting the courts in my constituency, I am baffled as to how they put up with the cumbersome IT processes that they have to go through and the archaic systems. On my visit to the courts in Bath a couple of weeks ago, I was interested to learn that many letters have to be sent out via first class mail, rather than via email. The voices of staff are the ones we need to listen to most when it comes to the reforms.

We need to make sure that prosecutions are brought more efficiently, that information is exchanged via email or conference call, rather than in a series of hearings, and that evidence is served in a timely and effective way. It is not just within the criminal courts that the case for reform is clear. Millions of people each day access our civil courts to reach custody agreements after divorce, contest their traffic offences or settle a dispute over intellectual property rights. Without our civil and family courts or our tribunal services, our contracts are unenforceable and individuals are left with no recourse when deprived of their rights.

As we look at reforms to the civil court estate, we ought also to be looking at maximising efficiency. If the estates are to be kept, we must address the reasons why the current system prevents people from filing their cases online, is often not in plain English, and adds stress owing to its complexity and bureaucratic nature. I am pleased that the Government have recognised that we need to question whether many of these formal hearings need to be heard at all in our current court and tribunal estate, and why we are not submitting more information online and using our estate in a much more efficient way

Like many Members, over the summer I consulted my constituents on the proposed closures and received hundreds of responses. I thank them and the legal professionals, charities and magistrates who sent me their views. One thing is clear: the vast majority know that the criminal justice estate needs reform. Many are clear that it is underutilised and that it needs to be better used to help service those most in need—the victims of crime and those who must be rehabilitated. So far, over 84% of the respondents to my consultation believe that Bath magistrates and county court should stay. However, very few have ever needed to access the services provided by the courts—probably something I should promote a little more. Those who do need the services provided are often the most vulnerable in society, and I think it is right to maintain local access to justice while providing for efficient use of the services provided in the courts and tribunals estate. This is something I will come on to a little later.

At this point it is important to set out the chronology of the relevant reforms to the criminal justice service and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service in

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order to set the scene for Members as we begin a wider debate on the reforms to the criminal justice estate. In March 2014, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and the Senior President of Tribunals announced details of a programme of reform of courts and tribunals. At the heart of this programme are the use of technology and the principle of proportionality. Modern technology could not only make the justice system more accessible, but reduce the costs of the whole system.

In January this year the president of the Queen’s bench division, the right hon. Sir Brian Leveson, published his “Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings”. In his report he focused on changes to procedure which can be achieved without the need for legislation, but which make better use of technology and other advances within the criminal justice service. All the recommendations were designed to streamline the way in which the business of the criminal courts is conducted, without losing sight of the interests of justice. Therefore, rather than tweak the current system, as has been done over the past 50 years, he tried to identify ways in which our current procedures can be adapted to make the best use of the skills, resources and IT systems available.

With the report published, it makes sense to review the estate in the context of wider reforms to the courts and tribunals service. In March this year my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), then Lord Chancellor, welcomed the Leveson report as a “detailed and valuable report”.

On the wider issue of changes being made to the courts and tribunals service as a whole, I am sure the House would be interested to receive a statement about the progress that the Minister is making in introducing the Leveson report’s recommendations. Given that the improvements to the IT provision, recommended by Brian Leveson, are fundamental to the proposed closure of the courts, it would be useful to understand what stage they have reached.

I would like to set out the debate on the wider consultation, explore how the criminal justice service must be reformed and give an opportunity for Members to explore the reasons why courts in their constituencies should remain open, be reformed, or, in an unlikely circumstance, be closed down, as the structure of the consultation permits.

The consultation sets out a number of key principles that the Government have considered to decide which courts would be included in the proposals. The first principle is ensuring access to justice. Within this section of the consultation, the first consideration is the assessment of the impact of possible closure on professional users, lay court users and tribunal users.

One argument that has been repeatedly raised is that the founding principle of magistrates courts is that justice is delivered by local people who understand the local area and understand where retribution is appropriate. Following the announcement of the consultation, I met magistrates from Bath on numerous occasions and they said that knowing the local community provided a huge benefit when delivering local justice. I am very concerned that this experienced provision of justice will be lost if cases are diverted to Bristol, where this thorough understanding of the nuances of Bath is likely to fall

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short. Indeed, if one is a part-time magistrate holding two or more roles, how is one able to deliver justice in Bristol as well as work simultaneously in Bath?

The second principle is taking into account journey time for users. I am pleased that the consultation notes that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service acknowledges that users should not have to make excessively long or difficult journeys to attend hearings. However, there is a limit to that and I am pleased that at the Justice Committee on 17 July the Lord Chancellor stated that he wanted to make sure that the time it will take for any citizen to travel to court remains less than an hour.

As a Bath resident, it is near impossible to get from Bath city centre to Bristol city centre within an hour by bus or car. If one is trying to get to Bristol court from any of the villages or small towns, this is simply near impossible. Regular trains do run between the cities. However, those attending court would face a walk of half an hour on arrival, which would pose a challenge to some—for example, the disabled.

I also worry that the cost of travel may lead some to not attend court, resulting in harsher penalties at a later date and the involvement of the police to force them to attend a hearing. Each of these steps places a further burden on local services and the taxpayer. It would be useful if the Minister updated the House on the Government’s proposals to provide financial support to the most vulnerable to get to and from the court.

The third principle is the alternative provision of criminal justice services in other locations. If Bath court is to close, I am already working with our council in Bath to discuss the use of our original courtroom, which was indeed a council chamber. As I have explained, there are public buildings in my constituency, as there are in the rest of England and Wales. I hope the Government will work with our councils and other public bodies to offer up facilities where security threats are low. The Government need to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of upgrading current facilities while investing in local civic buildings. Let us not forget that the equipment needs to be brought up to the standards set out by Leveson. We will therefore need financial help to achieve that.

The fourth principle is the need to take into account the needs of the users and, in particular, victims, witnesses and those who are vulnerable. I am pleased, therefore, that the Secretary of State said that the Ministry of Justice has looked at the types of work that the court does and the need to ensure that particularly sensitive people are not exposed to additional upheaval and unnecessary distress.

If the courts are to close and there is an increase in the distance that people have to travel to access the courts system, we need innovative solutions to improve access to justice. In the previous Parliament, some excellent work was undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on pop-up civil courts. These courts could open in village halls and community centres. The move would end the requirement for all defendants charged with low-level offences to attend a central court building. This would enable improved access to justice. For people who, for example, have committed a speeding offence, I imagine

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that having to attend so publicly could have an additional benefit of making them think twice about speeding in the future. Instead of having a public forced to come to the courts for this sort of offence, the public should see justice in their own communities rather than at a magistrates court.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes a strong case for the court in Bath. On distance, does he accept that in London and other inner-city areas, although a court might seem very near, all sorts of travel issues, such as with bus routes and so on, might arise? In my constituency, for example, a consultation is under way over whether to close Lambeth county court on Cleaver Street. The closure of this court, which is centrally located on all transport networks, would make a huge difference, particularly to the poorest, who are likely to have great difficult getting to the court if there is a change of venue.

Ben Howlett: I agree. As the crow flies, the distance between Bath and Bristol might look like a 30-minute journey by car or bus, but when one factors in the congestion renowned in my constituency, it can be a problem. I know exactly the problems the hon. Lady mentions in Lambeth from my travels through her constituency. It can be particularly problematic for vulnerable people who cannot necessarily afford to access the courts system. In some instances, they might be left in a place that is slightly foreign to them without the money to get home. As I will discuss later, that adds additional costs to the overall system.

The idea of pop-up courts could be applied to a host of lesser offences, including minor criminal damage, failure to pay the television licence or being drunk and disorderly, which could ensure that the most vulnerable can access the courts effectively. The second key principle is value for money. I have largely covered that already, but no doubt Members will want to mention it later. The most interesting principle in the consultation is the third, about creating efficiency in the longer term. I agree with the Government that we need to reduce our reliance on buildings with poor facilities and remove from the estate buildings that are difficult and expensive either to improve or to upgrade. As I have said, however, the Bath courts are already large, having 12 courtrooms, a youth court and county court, and have excellent facilities for court users, staff and judiciary.

Here, then, is my pitch to the Government. Following conversations with magistrates, service users, charitable organisations and others in Bath, I would like to encourage the Government to back the creation of a new justice and rehabilitation service in Bath. I would like our court buildings transformed into a one-stop shop, providing a range of services that attendees might require and enabling all services within the criminal justice service to be accessed at source. That could involve drug and alcohol services, social care and children and witness support under one roof.

Someone in court because of actions resulting from alcohol abuse could leave the court and walk across the corridor to an alcohol rehabilitation charity. Someone struggling to cope with money who needs help from Citizens Advice could access such advice immediately, instead of having to leave the court estate. By getting the help immediately, offenders could rehabilitate quicker,

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while advice from a local organisation can be tailored to the local area. No doubt that would increase local support for the venture. The criminal justice system must aim to help prevent reoffending, and such ease of access would provide a way of doing that.

The Bath courts, like many others around the UK, have appropriate rooms that could be utilised in that way—these vacant rooms, after all, are the cause of the consultation. Offering rooms within the estate to local organisations and charities would take the pressure for funding these services off central and local government and the NHS. I know from experience that rents in Bath are extremely expensive, and that many charities essential to improving the lives of offenders would appreciate having such access to those who need their help and to facilities from which to operate.

It is also proposed that we move to an estate providing dedicated hearing centres and concentrate back-office functions where they can be carried out most efficiently. Bath magistrates court and county court already provide a range of different services. Without wishing to run before I can walk, I am pleased that the Government have recognised the need to invest in some of the buildings that need improvement, and I hope that following the consultation the Minister will open discussions with MPs as each case is assessed to ensure that plans deliver value for money. In addition, when it comes to the redistribution of the courts around England and Wales, it would be good to discuss the redistribution of local justice areas as well. It makes no sense that a resident living east of Chippenham has to go to Swindon, or that someone living closer to Bath has to go to Yeovil.

In summary, I hope I have made a strong case not only for reform of the courts and tribunals estate, but for better utilisation of the current estate to help create a one nation justice system. On Bath, I end by reminding Members of what was said in Select Committee on 17 July by the Lord Chancellor:

“when you announce a series of closures or economies it will always, always, always be the case that you find someone who will make a very good argument as to why in a particular circumstance a closure should not go ahead…I want to stress that when we make our announcement about closures, it is not the final word. If a strong case is made and, on the balance of judgment, it is worth keeping a court open, we will revisit any individual decision where we think we may have got it wrong.”

I hope I have made a very good case that the Bath court should stay open.

3.15 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing the time for this excellent and timely debate on court closures. It is a pleasure to follow the well-informed and comprehensive speech by the hon. Member for Bath, and I assure him that I fully support his imaginative proposals for Bath.

The Ministry of Justice consultation on the proposals for future provision of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service talks about reforming the courts and tribunals system to bring quicker and fairer access to justice that reflects the way people use services today. I absolutely agree that this has to happen. It also talks about how many cases do not need face-to-face hearings and about the increasing use of new technology such as digital

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screens, video, telephone and online conferencing, which will drive change. The document says we can only provide better access to justice if we take difficult decisions to reduce the cost of buildings and reinvest the savings. It outlines the courts that will close in Greater Manchester, including Stockport, in order to achieve that.

I am sure the Minister will agree that it is vital to get this right. Court buildings, once closed, cannot easily be reopened. There are consultations and there are consultations! The best consultations give people full information that enables them to make a well-informed response from their own experience. My concern is that the consultation document, due to close on 8 October, does not contain sufficient information and costings to enable a proper response to be made.

A further concern is that this is one of three consultations, all of whose proposals might impact on the use of court buildings. The second consultation on the merger of the local justice areas in Greater Manchester has just finished, and although I appreciate that it is not directly about court buildings, the proposals could impact on their use. The problem is that the Government response to that consultation will not be known before the closing date of the consultation on court buildings.

There is also a third consultation, which has just started, about youth justice, which aims to cut reoffending. If successful, it will have an impact on the use of court buildings. There could also be changes to criminal proceedings. I have been interested in section 28 pilots of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 that enable pre-recorded cross-examination of the evidence of vulnerable child witnesses. I visited the recorder in Liverpool, one of the pilot areas, and he told me that this has led not only to a better experience for vulnerable child witnesses, but to shorter cross-examinations, thus freeing up court time. These pilots have not yet been evaluated, but if they were rolled out nationally, that would have an impact on the use of court buildings. I am sure Members would be interested in any information that the Minister could provide about when the evaluation of these pilots is likely to be concluded. Also, if as part of this roll-out, non-court buildings such as the St Mary’s sexual assault referral centre were to be used, that would also have an effect on the use of court buildings. Many vulnerable witnesses would welcome giving evidence in a non-court building.

Surely the consultation on proposed closures of court buildings should be done after all the relevant consultations and evaluation of the section 28 pilots have been completed. This feels like a very disconnected consultation process with piecemeal proposals, when we should be considering all the changes to the criminal justice system together. It seems to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

I am also concerned about delays in the bringing of cases to the Crown court in Manchester, and I should have liked to see wider proposals to tackle those delays. It cannot be right that traumatised child victims must wait for months to give their evidence. I urge the Minister to be bolder and more radical. At present, cases are sent to be tried at the Crown court because of the seriousness of the offences and, of course, the right of the defendant to be tried by a jury. Perhaps there is a case for holding some jury trials for some offences in courthouses that are currently used for magistrates’ cases and family hearings. I think that business case should be considered. The tackling of unacceptable delays in Crown court

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hearings would be greatly welcomed by witnesses, and it might meet the Minister’s aspiration—which I support—to provide quicker and fairer access to justice.

Let me turn to the proposals relating to Greater Manchester. The HMCTS’s consultation document provides only minimal information about the costs of the new arrangements, and the impact statement is very general. It talks about value for money, but there is very little available information about how that is being assessed. The only figures provided are for the overall operating costs of the courts that are being closed.

To get a better picture, I tabled some parliamentary questions about the operating costs of each court in Greater Manchester by type of expenditure in each of the last three years. However, I have not yet received an answer. May I ask the Minister to ensure that that information is made available before the closing date for responses to the consultation?

I asked what estimate the Justice Secretary had made of the capital and revenue costs of implementing his proposals for the future provision of HMCTS services in the north-west. I was told that I would not receive an answer until after the consultation had closed and all the responses had been analysed. I also asked what costs were paid by HMCTS for attendance, travel, loss of earnings, childcare and subsistence for all courts in Greater Manchester, and what estimate the Justice Secretary had made of the likely level of such costs if his proposals for future courts provision were implemented. I was again told that the information was not held centrally. How can it be that such information is not available for people to consider as part of the consultation? How can a proposals document be produced when the Ministry of Justice, by its own admission, does not keep those figures?

In response to my question, during the most recent Justice Question Time, about the use of non-court buildings, the Minister talked about the types of buildings, such as town halls, that could be used. I can certainly see that that is a possible solution—as I have said, not everyone likes attending a court—but no costs are attached in the consultation document.

Let me now turn specifically to the proposed closure of Stockport magistrates and county court, and the transfer of the workload to Manchester and Salford. Like the hon. Member for Bath, I am concerned about the impact of travelling times and the implications for local access to justice. I do not want travelling time to be a deterrent for witnesses. I found no evidence in the proposals of the conducting of any survey of people’s chosen modes of travel—bus, train, car or walking. Underlying the proposals is a presumption that the majority of people using the court in Stockport travel by car. I would argue that that is not the case: many vulnerable and disadvantaged people who use the courts travel by public transport.

The consultation document says that it takes 15 minutes to travel by train from Stockport to Manchester. That is unrealistic, as it does not include travelling time from home to Stockport station and on to the court. For example, the total journey time to Manchester from Heaton Mersey in my constituency is one hour and three minutes, and involves a train and two buses. The journey time from Brinnington is roughly one hour and

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four minutes, and also involves a train and two buses. It cannot be right that, on the basis of these proposals, an area with an identity that is distinct from that of Manchester and a population of 284,000 will be left without a court and access to the local justice system.

Stockport magistrates court houses a variety of court work in the same building. It houses adult and youth work, a family hearing centre, the county court and tribunals, as well as a highly effective problem-solving court which addresses the underlying problems that contribute to criminal behaviour. It is not clear that all those uses have been built into the model that the consultation document has used in its usage statistics. That needs to be clarified.

With regard to the youth court, the borough of Stockport has more children in care than any other area in Greater Manchester. Relocating that court to Manchester would have a significant impact on costs and on the efficiency of justice for a number of youth agencies and court users. The rationalisation of court services provided for in the proposals will mean that there will be family courts in the north and centre of the county but not in the south. That cannot be right.

It is proposed to close Macclesfield court and transfer its business to Crewe, but Stockport is within easier reach of the people of Macclesfield than Crewe. A better option would be to transfer the business of Macclesfield magistrates court, the county court and the family hearing centre to Stockport and retain the Stockport magistrates and county courts. There are good train and bus services between Stockport and Macclesfield, and the train journey from Crewe to Macclesfield takes double the time of the journey from Macclesfield to Stockport. Moving the Macclesfield court business to Stockport would provide local and accountable justice and value for money.

I cannot support the closure of the Stockport magistrates and county courts because I see no evidence that it will lead to better access to justice for my constituents; nor do I think that the financial case has been made. Local people with expertise and a wealth of knowledge of the criminal justice and family courts locally do not feel that the proposals provide the depth of information needed for them to give proper consideration to the proposals. They need to feel confident that the closure of the Stockport courthouse would lead to a better justice system for local people. The closure of the court would be a blow to Stockport, and I would really welcome an opportunity, along with the other Members representing constituencies in the Stockport borough, to meet the Minister to discuss these proposals and the alternatives before he makes his decision.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. It is obvious that a great many people wish to speak. However, we are not under huge time pressure this afternoon—the Benches are not overflowing—and I do not wish to impose a formal time limit. I therefore hope for the co-operation of Members, and if each speaks for between eight and nine minutes, everyone who wishes to speak will have the chance to do so. Eight minutes is a considerable amount of time in which to put a succinct argument; we do not always need to hear the same points being made over and over again. I am sure that we shall not hear that from Mr Andrew Bingham.

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3.27 pm

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): I shall endeavour to grant your wish, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on securing the debate on this important subject, which is a matter of great concern to my constituents and, I am sure, to those of all hon. Members. I am particularly pleased to follow the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), for reasons that will become apparent as I go through my speech.

I want to start by talking about the consultation document, and I am going to be very critical of it. I have witnessed many consultations in my 12 years as a borough councillor in the High Peak, and in my five years as a Member of Parliament, and I am sorry to say that I cannot remember seeing one as poorly written and riddled with errors and inaccuracies as this one. It contains basic mistakes regarding the High Peak magistrates court in Buxton. For example, it claims that it has no public lift, when in fact it has one. That is a basic error, and I shall talk about other such errors in the document later.

Many people take a dim view of consultations, which are often seen as window dressing, while the result of the process is inevitable. I am sorry to say that the mistakes that have been made in this consultation will only feed that view among the general public. I very much welcome the assurance from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), in his letter to me last month that this is a genuine exercise and that no final decisions will be made until the consultation is complete. I was pleased to see that, and I believe it.

I want to return to the content of the consultation. It is a slapdash piece of work, and I have to ask whether its author has actually been to Buxton and visited the court, or whether it is merely a regurgitation of a consultation undertaken about 10 years ago. Has someone simply dusted off that document, changed a few of the names and dates and decided that that would do? Whichever it is, it is not acceptable. At best it is inaccurate; at worst it is misleading. It has been pointed out to me by somebody with a far more qualified legal brain than mine that so great are the inaccuracies in this consultation that any decision based on it could be open to legal challenge, and I would hate to see that. I want to run through one or two of the inaccuracies.

The document says there is no public lift, but there is. In fairness, a letter was sent out subsequently saying, “This was an error and we are very sorry.” I got a copy of that letter, but many people I know did not; that is another mistake. The document states the Buxton court is not compliant with the Equality Act 2010. That is wrong; it is fully compliant with the disability legislation under that Act. The document states that there are two consultation rooms and that they are in poor condition. That is again wrong; there are three, and they are of a high standard because they were refurbished in 2010.

The document also claims that there is one waiting room available, thereby preventing the “desired segregation” of parties. Yet again, that is wrong. In 2010 the waiting areas were reorganised so now there is a separate entrance and room in the courthouse for witnesses, and the “desired segregation”, as it is termed, is therefore now in place; witnesses are segregated from defendants at all

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times and can be taken into the court without any communication with others waiting in the court waiting room.

I am sorry to labour this point, but the errors are multiple. The document claims that vulnerable witnesses have to use a waiting room across the road. There is a room across the road from the court; it is used for vulnerable witnesses giving evidence via video link. That has proved to be a valuable asset and is one not offered by all courts. It reassures vulnerable witnesses to know that they do not even have to enter the court building where, despite the segregation offered, they would fear bumping into the defendants. That gives huge reassurance to those who need it most.

The document goes on to talk about using Chesterfield as an alternative, claiming it is fully compliant with health and safety regulations. By omitting the fact that Buxton is also compliant, there is implication by omission, and yet again in my view that could be seen as misleading.

I will now turn to the proposals to use Chesterfield court as an alternative. Yet again, if someone had bothered to visit Buxton and do their homework they would realise that Chesterfield is just not practical. It may look a good solution on a map but in reality it does not work. The consultation talks about travel times from Buxton to Chesterfield. It completely ignores the fact that the court serves not just Buxton but the whole of the High Peak, including Glossop, which has a larger population than Buxton. Getting to Chesterfield from Glossop is just not practical by public transport. If someone had to get to Chesterfield court by public transport for 9.30 am, they would have to leave Glossop at 6.45am. We have heard talk about the journey time from Brinnington at one hour and four minutes; a move to Chesterfield would see 73% of my constituents facing a journey by public transport of over two hours. From that perspective, Brinnington is practically next door.

The hon. Member for Stockport talked about Macclesfield. As we both know, the transport links between the High Peak and Stockport are a lot better than those between High Peak and Chesterfield. If there are going to be closures in the High Peak, has any thought been given to sending people to Stockport? We have talked of Tameside, Macclesfield and Stockport closing. My geographical knowledge of the area is pretty good, and although I want High Peak retained, if there had to be just one site other than that, I would choose Stockport. It could feed Macclesfield, Tameside and High Peak because the transport links are a lot better. Has that not been looked at because Stockport happens to be in a different county or region from the High Peak—or could no one really be bothered?

Members will probably have got the impression by now that I am very unimpressed with the consultation and its contents. To compound the felony I wrote to Amanda Lowndes at Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service on 28 July and I have yet to receive a direct response to my points other than the generic apology regarding the public lift. I do not know why; I do not know whether it is an unwillingness to engage or embarrassment at such an appalling document.

I want to say at this point that this contrasts greatly with the response of the Minister, to whom I have spoken personally and who has responded to my letters. I applaud and thank him for that.

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I understand the need to look at issues such as the cost to the public purse and whether we can do things differently, as has been eloquently described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath. The savings for the courts on the High Peak, however, are projected at about £46,000, but the moving to Chesterfield will incur extra costs elsewhere, such as the travelling costs of defendants and, indeed, the magistrates. Does a magistrate who is living and serving in High Peak really want to be going over to Chesterfield? Those who know the area will be aware that it gets a touch cold in the winter and we have quite a bit of snow, and people who try to drive from High Peak to Chesterfield in February sometimes do not have the best of chances. This move will discourage people from High Peak from becoming magistrates, and I would not like to see that. The magistrates do a great job and I support them in everything they do.

People will face additional travelling costs, leaving aside the inconvenience, but we also have to consider the costs for other organisations, such as the police. Officers of High Peak Borough Council have to go to court for various things and at the moment they have only to go across the road from the town hall. They can go across, do what they have to do and be back behind their desks fairly quickly. Moving the court to Chesterfield will mean that council officers will be taken out for at least half a day, if not more, and then we have to add on the travel costs and so on. Given the lack of feasible public transport between High Peak and Chesterfield, I can see money being spent on taxis to get people to and from the court. That would be an expensive and unacceptable outcome; I seem to remember someone from the other side of the House going on about people in taxis scuttling around cities—that came to my mind a long time ago.

I have had discussions with constituents who work in and around the courts about this matter, and there are other ways that savings can be made. Previous speakers have highlighted the people who work in and around this area. We should speak to them, because I am sure they can find ways. A lot of cases of Crown Prosecution Service inefficiency have come across my desk. I have known of cases adjourned a dozen times because they are not ready and of the double listing of cases. If we speak to the experts, they could find such savings without the court in Buxton necessarily having to close.

I could talk for much longer, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am mindful of your eight-minute ruling and so I will keep my remarks as succinct as I can. I wish to conclude by saying that High Peak is sandwiched between large towns and cities, and we get pulled one way and then the other, and we often used to be forgotten. As with everybody in this House, part of my responsibility is to represent my constituency, make sure that it is not forgotten and make sure that we get our fair share. The Minister should think long and hard about this decision. He should not base it on this woeful and sloppy piece of work masquerading as a consultation. He should look carefully at the submissions from people in High Peak, mine included. They will give him an accurate picture of High Peak, not the one put out in the consultation. If he is determined to reconfigure the court services in High Peak, I ask him to find a way of doing so that does not force my constituents into long unsustainable journeys.

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He should examine innovative ways of doing things, such as the pop-up courts. If we have to travel, he should make this realistic and do-able, but I urge him to find a way to preserve a court in High Peak, as that makes sense. If this consultation document had been properly researched and presented, it would have led one to that conclusion. Instead, it is a biased, inaccurate and lazy piece of work.

3.37 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on his 100% record in securing Backbench Business Committee debates.

I want to focus my remarks on the proposed closure of Hartlepool magistrates court and county court, as I have a number of serious reservations about that. The first is that there is nothing lacking or missing from the magistrates facilities in Hartlepool. I understand that magistrates courts in other parts of England or Wales are earmarked for closure in part because they fail to comply with the Equality Act 2010 or are lacking in security. Hartlepool has a prison video link, separate waiting facilities for prosecution and defence witnesses, and interview rooms for confidential consultation. By contrast, the consultation itself concedes that if the proposed closure of Hartlepool’s courts goes ahead, a reconfiguration of the hearing space at Teesside magistrates courts will be required to accommodate a further waiting room and create a disabled access door. No figures are provided as to the costs of this work.

That brings me on to an additional point: the costs saved by the proposal. I understand that, as the hon. Gentleman has said, this consultation is being driven by a desire to reduce costs. The Minister has said that the courts estate costs about half a billion pounds a year. I would question how much will be saved if Hartlepool magistrates court is closed. There is a lack of transparency as to what will be saved. I understand that the court in Hartlepool has operating costs of about £345,000 a year. Does the Minister expect to save all or part of that figure? If it is the latter, how much does he expect to save?

I suspect that a large proportion of those operating costs will be staff expenditure. Eight members of staff work at the magistrates court and seven full-time members work at Hartlepool county court. Will they be made redundant as a result of the proposed closure? Unfortunately, Hartlepool still has a high unemployment problem, like the rest of the north-east. At double the national average, our level is the 40th highest among all constituencies.

Any redundancy in Hartlepool, especially that initiated by the state, does not help that unemployment problem, but if staff are not being made redundant will they be transferred to Middlesbrough, and how much does that save?

The building from which the magistrates and county courts operate is not freehold, so the Government will not be able to realise any value by selling it. According to the consultation, the Government’s wishes are:

“To maximise the capital receipts from surplus estate for reinvestment in HM Courts & Tribunals Service.”

That aim will not be met by closing Hartlepool magistrates courts, a leasehold property on a 99-year lease that currently has 60 years left to run. The building is owned

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by Hartlepool borough council. How much will it cost to break the lease? If the Minister is considering whole of Government efficiencies rather than a narrow, silo-based approach to achieving cuts for his own Department, what impact does that have? Does he realise that, by closing Hartlepool magistrates court, he is not saving the taxpayer anything, but is merely moving financial pressures to the local authority, which has already had cuts totalling 40% to its budget in recent years.

The criteria by which the courts will be closed seem opaque. I have asked a series of parliamentary questions on this matter. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), I asked about the cost per case across magistrates courts in England and Wales. That seemed to be a reasonable dashboard metric to evaluate relative efficiencies across different operating units. It is what business does all the time. However, the answer I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who is a genuinely lovely and decent man and whom I am proud to call my friend, stated:

“The information is not available centrally and can only be provided at disproportionate cost.”

If this metric is not being used, what is? How can relative performance and effectiveness across the estate be evaluated consistently?

I understand that one of the central considerations of this proposed closure is the utilisation of the estate. Those 91 courts are used, on average, a third of the time. What is the magic utilisation figure that makes some courts safe and others not? I have seen the Minister quoted as saying that a third of all courts and tribunals were empty for more than 50% of the time.

Hartlepool has a utilisation rate of 49%. In an answer to a parliamentary question that I received this morning, the Minister revealed that Hartlepool’s utilisation rate is actually higher than the England and Wales average. With the exception of Wakefield, Hartlepool has the highest utilisation of any court proposed for closure in the whole north-east. Will the Minister take that context into consideration when deciding which courts to close, or should Hartlepool resign itself to closure simply because it has missed, by 1 percentage point, the magic 50% utilisation rate?

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): The hon. Gentleman cites the lack of information. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) says that the Department has provided inaccurate information. Given that we are talking about unavailable information, inaccurate information and consultations where things are ignored, does he think that this is an example of the Ministry of Justice going rogue?

Mr Wright: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Given what is coming out in this debate, the Ministry of Justice needs to scrap this consultation and start again on the basis of meaningful and accurate information.

I have mentioned costs and utilisation rates, but my central concern is access to local justice for my constituents.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend mentions access to local justice. Does he share my concern about the impact that this could have on recruiting magistrates, who serve their communities

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and understand their local areas? Without a strategy for the magistracy, there could be detriment to the principle of local justice.

Mr Wright: My hon. Friend makes an important point. My central focus is the victims, rather than the magistrates—with the greatest respect to those people who provide an invaluable public service.

The consultation on the proposed move to Teesside magistrates courts states that there are

“excellent road, rail and bus links.”

Whoever wrote that has a budding career in writing gags for a living, because that is just not the real experience. Public transport provision in Teesside is appalling. Somebody from Hartlepool who is required to be at Teesside magistrates court for an early morning hearing and has no access to a car will struggle to make it. Victims, who might understandably require a period of calm and reflection before enduring the stressful and arduous process of giving evidence, will be massively inconvenienced. Do the Government really want to make justice more stressful and inconvenient for innocent victims? Justice is not being served by making victims travel longer distances. The consultation says that at present 99% of those accessing Hartlepool magistrates court can be there by public transport within 60 minutes, even taking into account the appalling local public transport provision. The consultation states that after the proposed closure 91% will take between one and two hours. That fails the Government’s intention of ensuring that people will not have to face long journeys, and I hope the Minister will consider that.

Finally, I finish on a wider point that is perhaps not the direct concern of this debate and of the Minister but has implications for relatively small towns such as Hartlepool. We have endured the movement of local hospital services from Hartlepool to other areas. Retail units are moving from the high street and the shopping centre into other areas. There is a drift of services from places such as Hartlepool, but what does that mean for the future? Does it mean dormitory towns, at best, or, at worst, ghost towns in which there is no sense of community and where economic activity is stopped?

We have to think about this as widely as possible and, given the concerns, I hope that the Minister will think again and ensure that Hartlepool magistrates court remains open.

3.46 pm

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): About 10 years ago, sitting on the Opposition Benches, I made my stammering first attempt to entertain the House with my thoughts in my maiden speech, in which I mentioned my belief in local facilities, particularly mentioning the magistrates court in Newbury, which was under threat. I spoke—I thought eloquently, although others probably did not—rather like the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) just did about the need to resist the sucking out of facilities from smaller communities to larger communities, which is a predominant theme. It is done in the name of efficiency, but it disadvantages people. In that context, with some dismay five years ago I had to fight a battle to defend Newbury court from closure. I am glad to say that that was successful, but, like groundhog day, it has come round again. The court is proposed for

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closure in this consultation and I and a great many organisations and individuals across west Berkshire have made submissions to it.

I believe that, like many others, the court has been deliberately run down to set it up for closure. The usage figure makes it look like a no-brainer, but a few years ago the court service advertised for a new prisoner escort contract and excluded Newbury court from the contract. Now, no case that has even a scintilla of a chance of the accused being given a custodial sentence can be heard in Newbury court. That is another reason for its reduced use, and we lost the Crown court some years ago. That is just one example of a rather badly run service. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money was spent on building a new custody suite at Newbury, which lies dormant because of those decisions.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, who is a courteous and decent man and has spent an enormous amount of time talking to me and no doubt others about this decision because he knows that it hurts our local communities. I urge him to consider the points made in response to the consultation. I represent an area with some very rural communities and I think of the victim of crime who has to make the difficult trip to court to give evidence as a witness. I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s assurances about trying to consider new technologies, and in some cases that might be better for individuals, but in others a traumatic experience will be made considerably worse by a long trip to somewhere such as Reading.

Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con): One of the problems in Corby and east Northamptonshire is that travelling by public transport from many of the villages is simply impossible. Are there similar concerns in my hon. Friend’s constituency? It costs £80,000 a year to run the court in Corby, but we may well end up spending more on transport for magistrates, witnesses, victims and everybody else.

Richard Benyon: I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s point, because communities in west Berkshire will have precisely the same problem.

The courts service is run according to very strict boundaries. One does not have to go more than a mile south of Newbury before one is in Hampshire, and any cases that are relevant to that part of the community, or indeed to east Wiltshire or south Oxfordshire, cannot be heard in Newbury. It seems crazy that we do not have a more flexible, cross-border system—we are talking about the border between Berkshire and Hampshire, not between Serbia and Hungary. We really ought to be smarter and more efficient by looking at cross-border solutions. If the mistake of closing Newbury court is made, I hope that it can at least be mothballed for a time while we look at the reorganisation of our courts service, and the same might go for other Members’ constituencies.

A journalist working on my local newspaper, the Newbury Weekly News, made the following point: “Surely as important as justice being done is justice being seen to be done.” One local journalist has made a speciality of reporting on court affairs in Newbury, and there is simply no way in which that can continue if cases

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relating to west Berkshire are to be heard in far-off Reading or Maidenhead. Local people will not see cases for crimes committed in their area being heard in their area.

William Wragg (Hazel Grove) (Con): On the point about local justice being seen to be done, a magistrate put it very succinctly to me—not wanting to sound like a character from “The League of Gentlemen”—when they said, “It is important in order to preserve the long-standing principles of local justice being administered by local people within that local area.” Does that neatly summarise what my hon. Friend is trying to express?

Richard Benyon: It really makes sense. There is a bypass around Newbury, which, as some hon. Members might remember, was quite controversial, and we also have Greenham Common and the Atomic Weapons Establishment. Magistrates, including the Prime Minister’s mother, developed a great expertise in dealing with those situations. I hope that we never have those problems again, but we do have issues relating to rural crime, and accidents and crimes on the M4, so local expertise and an understanding of the dynamic of the local area really help.

I understand that the low-hanging fruit in the Ministry of Justice has already been grabbed and that the Minister now has the difficult job of reaching higher. I believe in what the Government are doing and understand the difficulties when Members like me support what they are trying to do economically in general but whinge about the particulars. But in this case I really believe that it is wrong and unjustified, and I can make a very good case—I have done in my response to the consultation, so I will not detain the House with it now.

I have one final point to make. Two weeks ago a case was deferred in Newbury because there were not adequate procedures in place to hear it. It cannot be heard until January. Not only must justice be seen to be done, but justice delayed is justice denied. That is a principle we were all brought up with. I do not believe that this decision is right for Newbury. I believe that it really needs to be looked at again. I hope that the Minister will have the opportunity to make the same judgment when he looks at the consultation responses.

3.54 pm

Marie Rimmer (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab): I want first to thank the Minister for the courtesy and quickness of his response to my first communication—there is another one on the way. I will not repeat what many Members have said, because we are all anxious to get on and there is not much time.

Magistrates in my area have expressed exactly the same concerns about local people serving local justice with their knowledge and expertise. There are serious concerns about the accuracy and quality of the communications in the consultation. In September 2014, the Department for Transport closed the transport direct planner tool used in the impact assessment to calculate travel times by car and public transport, and the methodology for calculations has not been publicised as part of the consultation. It is calculated that the 14-mile journey from St Helens court will take 45 minutes. That takes no account of peak times, delays, parking, or getting to the court in the city centre. There is no car

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park nearby. People have to travel within the town centre to get a train out to Liverpool and then walk across the city or get another mode of travel. The travel network is not described accurately in the documentation.

The consultation document states that the court was utilised at approximately 62% capacity, but that figure has been seriously challenged. The council is having difficulty getting time allocated to court cases due to the lack of capacity in the courts. There have been some very serious incidents that have bothered me. The youth offending service is required to attend the local youth court frequently. Some parents and carers are not able, capable or willing to attend with their child for a variety of reasons. The situation is likely to be exacerbated if cases are to be heard in Liverpool. When St Helens custody suite was recently closed temporarily while £1.7 million was being spent on remodelling it, young people had to go across to Merseyside. The youth offending service was called on even more because an appropriate adult had to be found for those children. It is likely that more warrants will need to be issued due to failures to attend. This could result in young people being arrested and possibly detained overnight in police custody. That will be evident on their criminal record and may impact on future bail applications.

Residents and other stakeholders will have to travel to and from Liverpool, at additional expense time. As I said, £1.7 million was spent on redeveloping the court, and it is still only just about finished. It is highly suitable for such cases, having more capacity. Even with the figure in the document of 62% usage, which we challenge, its capacity is larger than that of another court that is being kept open. Equally importantly, the courts that it is proposed stay open are within 5 miles of Liverpool city centre court. There are also Birkenhead and Bootle, which are 5 miles and 3.2 miles away. They both have direct rail links into the city centre, with journeys every eight minutes taking about three minutes, while we would not be able to get to Liverpool Crown court within an hour. There are very serious concerns about the quality of the information in the documentation.

The Justice Minister is being done an injustice. His courtesy has been exemplary in the responses to us. I urge him to look at the consultation document again to ensure that the information is accurate, and that justice can be seen to be done and and transparent for all.

3.59 pm

Dr James Davies (Vale of Clwyd) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) and the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing this Backbench business debate, and thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating the necessary time for it. The estate reform consultation impacts on my constituency. I want to say a few brief words further to my recent meeting with the Minister and his subsequent correspondence with me, for which I thank him.

I fully understand how important it is that the Ministry of Justice ensures value for money and efficiency and that it embraces new technology. Nevertheless, it is also important that true local justice is maintained and that decisions taken as a result of the current consultation are based on accurate facts and projections.

I want to make a general point on behalf of all those Members who represent rural or semi-rural constituencies: we need to consider very carefully the impact of court

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closures on those who rely on public transport. As a result of some of the proposed changes, not only would many journey times increase significantly, but defendants, victims and witnesses would, in certain instances, need to travel on the same bus and rail services. Clearly, that is of great concern when wishing to minimise further trauma to victims who have already been through difficult circumstances. We must also consider the potential false economy of asking people to travel further when it might increase the possibility of some court users arriving late or even failing to attend.

I have already set out in my consultation submission my specific arguments as to why the proposed transfer of magistrates court functions from Prestatyn to Llandudno may result not in savings but in the opposite. It would not add to today’s more general debate if I went into the precise details, but the key point is that, regardless of the consultation’s outcome, it is intended that the Prestatyn building should remain open to cater for civil, family and tribunal functions. Furthermore, the same building already has a magistrates court utilisation rate which, having been corrected and revised significantly upwards at my request, is at or around the national average. Bearing that in mind, I believe it could and should be converted into what would undoubtedly become a first-class criminal justice centre. That could be carried out inexpensively, and the resulting facility would boast a good overall utilisation rate. Such a facility would, of course, combine the functions of the existing Prestatyn magistrates court and those of nearby Rhyl county court, whose closure was announced in 2010.

It is my belief that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is best arranged to reflect crime statistics, in the interests of both local justice and efficiency, and I respectfully call on the Minister to reconsider the proposal to remove criminal courts from Denbighshire.

4.2 pm

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Having listened to the debate, I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on securing it with the support of others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright). The Minister will be familiar with what has been said because, to his credit, he sat with me and the vice-chair of the Scunthorpe bench and heard pretty much the same arguments from us. They are a familiar refrain on familiar issues.

Part of the problem is the quality of the consultation document. The hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and others have drawn attention to its narrowness. It focuses on closing facilities, rather than on developing justice. It is therefore understandable that we and our communities have reacted with concern, because we have not been presented with a broader consultation on the future direction of access to justice, which is an issue.

The information in the consultation is threadbare. It lacks detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool has pointed out that, although it appears to save money on buildings, proper scrutiny of the costs and the framework within which those buildings function would demonstrate that those savings are probably not there to be made. That is certainly the case in Scunthorpe.

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I want quickly to rehearse the arguments that have already been made to the Minister, to whom I pay tribute for the way in which he has responded to concerns across the House with his usual diligence and engagement. He is firm and he tells us his views—I respect him for that—but I value the fact that he has gone out of his way to reiterate that this is a genuine consultation. The consultation must therefore take on board the concerns of our communities and of hon. Members.

There are issues about access. As many of us know from the geography of our areas, and as the hon. Member for High Peak mentioned, the situation looks very different from what is on the map to those who know our communities. For some the outlying areas of my community, it takes more than two and a quarter hours to access Grimsby court by public transport, and that does not include the brisk, 15-minute walk at the other end. It will take even longer for someone who is disabled or elderly, or has other constraints.

In Justice questions and in a meeting with me earlier this week, the Minister was at pains to say that we need to see the closures in the context of the digitalisation of the service. That is a helpful umbrella under which to place the closures, but it is important to examine digitalisation properly, because it is not a free hit. There are costs involved in putting in place not just infrastructure, such as for video conferencing, but support for people and businesses, so that they can be confident in how they present information during court processes. Access is a very important issue, but that part of the picture is largely invisible at the moment, because of the nature of the consultation. I respect the Government’s view that how we access justice is changing and ought to continue to change, but such change must be managed properly and appropriately so that it does not lead to any casualties.

I share the concern stated by many hon. Members that the closures result from a narrow consideration of the cost to the Ministry of Justice, rather than of the cost to the public purse. I am concerned that we might find police officers having to spend more time as taxi drivers, when I would prefer them to be out on the streets preventing crime in the community that they serve, so there are real problems about the narrowness of the approach. As other hon. Members have described in relation to their constituencies, Scunthorpe has a very integrated justice area. The courts are next to the police, the probation office, the drugs and alcohol service and a suite of solicitors, so everything is neatly contained for ease of access and all that stuff. I do not mean to say that things should not change, but I am very concerned that the closures may assist the Ministry of Justice’s narrow approach to its balance sheet, while in the end costing UK plc more money, which would be unwise and unfortunate.

I want to emphasise the important role that the magistracy plays within the broader local community. We need justice to be delivered not only locally, but by local people. The magistracy does that, and it also does a lot of important outreach work in the community, particularly with schools and young people. The Respect court in Scunthorpe, which is targeted at reducing youth offending, has been recognised as a beacon of good practice for elsewhere in the country and has made a real difference. It relies on magistrates, the police and

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others volunteering their time, but it works because we have some of the lowest reoffending rates for that cohort in the country. We cannot measure the value of the work done with schools in the community, but as someone who worked with young people all my life—until I had the dubious pleasure of ending up here—I feel that the sort of work done by the magistracy is important because it has a direct impact on preventing crime and reducing the level of crime in the community.

My final point is about equality and diversity. Humberside—I know that my comrade from Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) does not like that term, but let us use it for now—is the area with the largest ethnic minority population in the Humber region and in Lincolnshire. It seems unwise to create barriers, such as long distances and travel times, to that ethnic minority population not only accessing justice, but stepping forward to serve in the magistracy.

On our bench, there are two magistrates who are significantly visually impaired. They make a full contribution to the magistracy in Scunthorpe, but if it is transferred to Grimsby, that will have a direct impact on the ability of those magistrates to contribute.

I see that you are getting a little fidgety, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I will not test your fidgets any more.

4.11 pm

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): It is a pleasure to be called in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) and the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing a debate on this important topic. I now know to ask my hon. Friend for his help if there are any debates that I am interested in securing, given his success rate before the Backbench Business Committee.

First, it is important to set out what I believe to be the purpose of a magistrates court. As a number of hon. Members have said, it is about the principle of local justice. The offences that irritate and affect local communities should be seen to be dealt with locally. We all accept that major crimes will come to trial further away, but there should be local justice for the more minor things and the things that irritate. Crucially, as has been said in one or two other speeches, there must be local decision makers—justices of the peace who live in the communities that they bring justice to. That provides a knowledge of the area and the impact of crimes that is important when dealing with more minor offences. It is different from the justice that is administered in respect of more major crimes at a Crown court, where the law and the penalties that have been provided by Parliament are the driver of what is done.

If the priority is local justice and local decision making, I accept the argument that has been made by the Minister and others that the important thing is not having a building that looks impressive or a bench that looks like something out of the 18th or 19th century. Having the facility of a court is the important thing.

I will focus on the proposals for Torquay magistrates court. As the document says, it is utilised 62% of the time, which is a higher rate than many of the other courts that are included in the consultation. Given the infrastructure in Devon, which was referred to in the earlier debate on steel, I am concerned about witnesses having to travel to court to give evidence and about the

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potential loss of cases that that could bring. Likewise, general users of the court will have to travel significant distances.

Although Newton Abbot and particularly Plymouth are accessible by car, the consultation document presents quite a different picture when it comes to public transport. If a witness needed to get to a case in Plymouth, it would take 1 hour and 50 minutes by bus or 1 hour and 10 minutes by train. From my local knowledge, I suggest that that is based on the timings working out well.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) spoke about the police becoming taxi drivers. There is a relatively busy custody suite at Torquay police station. At the moment, there is a bus to the court in the morning and if someone is arrested and detained to be put before the courts, they can quickly be taken a couple of minutes down the road. If the proposal goes ahead, the police will have to become a taxi service between Torquay and Plymouth so that the same people can be arraigned, given the lack of custody facilities at Newton Abbot. I am concerned about an additional demand being put on the police. Torquay magistrates court is also convenient for many of the support services that those who appear before the court benefit from.

I was concerned to read in the consultation that one team based in the court—the TurnAround integrated offender management team—has been given notice to quit its facilities on 31 December. When I heard that, I was grateful for the Minister’s genuine answer to my question last week, which was that no final decisions have been taken about the court. Like other Members, I am grateful for the way that he has engaged with Members who are concerned about this process in a genuine spirit of listening to concerns and alternatives, rather than the line of “a decision has not yet been taken, although it probably has” that we sometimes get in such consultations. I would be concerned if that notice had indicated pre-emption, but I take the Minister at his word, given the enthusiasm that he has shown for listening to our representations.

As the document states, there are issues with the current building, but no issues of dock security have been raised by the police. If Bruce Reynolds was arrested in Torquay today, he would not be arraigned at Torquay magistrates court but taken to a much more secure facility. On whether savings would be made, the consultation states that some enabling work might be required at Newton Abbot magistrates court if custody facilities are required. I suspect that a lot of the £106,000 saving that it is suggested would be made by closing Torquay magistrates court is related to the cost of the custody block. It would therefore disappear if we need to provide custody facilities at Newton Abbot to make up for closing them at Torquay.

If the Government decide that the building is at the end of the line, I hope for another positive indication that alternatives will be considered. Torquay town hall is nearby, and the local legal profession has pointed out that the county court already exists in a different location in Torquay and has more modern facilities. If the magistrates court is disposed of, could that help fund works at the county court to allow for a range of hearings and create a justice centre, rather than the current separation between magistrates court and county court? Many local people would be keen for the Government to consider that the issue lies purely with the building rather than with the service overall.

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Torbay is the second largest urban conurbation in Devon. When Totnes magistrates court was closed after a previous consultation, it was argued that cases could go to Torquay. It would therefore be strange for Torquay magistrates court to be closed because cases can now go to Newton Abbot or Plymouth. I hope that the Minister will listen to the consultation and responses, and that a decision will be taken to help keep justice local in Torbay by ensuring that it has a magistrates court in which hearings can take place.

4.18 pm

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on securing this debate, as well as the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey). I am taken back five years to my first election to this place and the proposed closure of Goole and Selby magistrates courts, which affected my constituency. I was not as successful as the hon. Member for Bath in securing a debate in the main Chamber; I had to settle for Westminster Hall, so in that respect he is already doing a better job for his constituents than I managed to do for mine five years ago. Things have improved since, however.

It is also a pleasure to speak in another debate with my friend the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), who is also my friend. We have been a triumvirate of common sense in three debates this afternoon.

Mr Iain Wright: Division!

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I hope we are going to talk about court closures, rather than patting each other on the backs. It is a great love-in, but I want to hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying about courts.

Andrew Percy: You will know as a Yorkshireman, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you have to take praise where you can get it.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Don’t accuse me of being a Yorkshireman!

Andrew Percy: Lord no. We can do better than that, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe, my constituency neighbour, talked about Scunthorpe court. I agree entirely with his comments, so I will not reiterate them all. He shared with the House the fine work of the court and I entirely concur, in particular with regard to the Respect programme. I have seen for myself magistrates and police officers giving up their own time, through the Respect court, to find a way to engage with young people in the system in a different way to try to help them avoid getting a criminal record. It works really well and they deserve praise.

Five years ago, we fought the closure of Goole magistrates court. When it closed, there was no saving grace other than that at least the county of the East Riding of Yorkshire, which I partly represent, had two other courts to replace it: Beverley magistrates court and Bridlington magistrates court. At the time, there was a suggestion that Goole had been chosen over

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Bridlington because of the private finance initiative contract at Bridlington. There is also a court in Hull, so at least there are three courts to replace that one.

If Scunthorpe magistrates court closes, however, not a single court will remain in the unitary authority of North Lincolnshire. That is a big rural area. It is a real concern to me that people will be expected to travel outside the county of North Lincolnshire to access justice. That cannot be right. For my constituents in particular, moving the court to Grimsby is really not—in any way, shape or form—offering local justice.

I represent the area called the Isle of Axholme, which is a very rural and disconnected part of our area, a considerable distance from Grimsby. Grimsby could be a world away in so many ways. Travelling from communities such as Fockerby or Garthorpe on the north of the Isle of Axholme by public transport to Grimsby is really just laughable. It would be interesting for anybody to actually attempt it—I do not think it has been attempted before. I did say recently to somebody from that area, “Have you ever tried to get to Grimsby?” Their first response was, “Why would I want to make that journey?” I explained all the very good reasons why they might want to get to Grimsby and their second more serious comment was, “Surely that’s not possible.” From the Isle of Axholme, Doncaster is actually a lot closer than Grimsby.

As we explained when we were fighting the closure of Goole magistrates court, from our area it would actually be quicker for people to get to King’s Cross magistrates court on public transport than it would be to get to Grimsby. I do not want to leave the Minister with the idea that transferring all our cases to King’s Cross would be a good idea—it certainly would not. Another concern that applied when we fought the closure of Goole is that if people are forced to use public transport, they could end up being on the same public transport as other parties to a case. That raises safety issues.

The Minister deserves a great deal of praise for the positive way in which he has engaged and communicated with me and other hon. Members on this issue. However, for a local authority such as North Lincolnshire Council not to be able to access a local court, to apply for orders and undertake the cases it needs to in its daily workings, will place a huge burden on it. It cannot be expected to make an 80-mile round trip to Grimsby every time it needs to get a court order. It would be a great loss for a local authority not to have a single court in its locality. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind. North Lincolnshire Council has proactively tried to engage, and has said that it is willing to pay for and accommodate a replacement service in its own building—in the civic centre or elsewhere. It will pay for it. It will cover the running costs. It has been open about that, so important is maintaining a court in our locality.

As I said, I need not go into all the arguments about Scunthorpe. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe put them across a lot better than I ever could. I thank the Minister. He has heard our pleas. I hope and believe this is a genuine consultation. Please consider the rurality of our area and the fact that it is a very, very long way to Grimsby. It is in a different local authority area and for a lot of my constituents it simply would not be an option. It is not nearby. We might as well send the court

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to Timbuktu for all the connection we have with that area—and please don’t do that either. I will end my comments there.

4.25 pm

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) for bringing this matter before the House, as well as other Members who have spoken: my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), the hon. Members for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) and for Newbury (Richard Benyon), my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer), the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies), my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and the hon. Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy).

I will not repeat what hon. Members have said as they have already expressed forensically and eloquently the concerns of their constituents. These debates are remarkable for showing that Members can be consensual, cross-party and precise in identifying problems, and no doubt the Minister will wish to address those raised today, although he might want to pay particular attention to the comments from the hon. Member for High Peak about the consultation being riddled with errors, slapdash and lazy. I know that the Minister, who has been praised by both sides for his care and concern in these matters, will be concerned to hear that. There is evidence to back it up as well.

It is not only hon. Members today, or indeed other hon. Members, who have raised concerns; the Conservative police and crime commissioner for Suffolk said about the proposals for his county:

“It is completely unacceptable. The people at the Ministry of Justice have got to understand Suffolk is a very big rural area and access to justice should not be the preserve of those who are well-off, privileged or the comfortable. The victims need to be at the centre of this. Not some accountant’s pen stuck in Whitehall. These people need to get in the real world.”

The slightly more circumspect chairman of the Shropshire branch of the Magistrates Association said about the Shropshire courts:

“In recent years five small courthouses have been closed in Shropshire market towns. Since these closures took place, the two remaining magistrates’ courts – one in Shrewsbury, one in Telford – have continued to provide an effective service for the whole county. The Association will wish to be convinced that that can continue with only a single magistrates’ court.”

I must bear in mind the spirit in which the hon. Member for Bath introduced this debate. His speech was all the better for being balanced and noting that closures and reorganisation should not always be resisted. I endorse that. Particularly at a time when public money is short, if savings can be made, they should be made, and of course we should look at usage and rationalise where there is chronic under-usage. There are inefficiencies and improvements to be made in the system, and no doubt the Minister will talk about the improvements that he wishes to see or which are happening in digital services. I would add one caveat, however: although technology improves all the time, too great a reliance on it can often lead to more delay than it cures.