§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sainsbury.]2.30 pm
§ Mr. David Amess (Basildon)
Before presenting the case for a magistrates' courthouse in Basildon. I should make it clear that the need for this results not from any crisis or breakdown of law and order in my constituency but from a crisis in the physical administration of justice. I am fortunate and privileged to represent an area in which the overwhelming majority of my constituents are decent, hard-working, law-abiding citizens. The reputation that some people gave to Basildon in its infancy as a new town of being a rough area, rife with vandals and thugs, is entirely unjustified. The town has matured and developed into a happy, well-balanced community full of the old east end spirit of warmth and generosity, and I greatly enjoy living there.
From time to time, however, some of my constituents fall foul of the law and end up in Billericay magistrates' court because there is no court in Basildon. The largest new town in the country does not have its own magistrates' court, and it is no exaggeration to say that crisis point has been reached at Billericay magistrates' court, where many have described conditions as inhumane and unjust and likely to lead to miscarriages of justice. I have taken soundings from many people interested in these matters and all agree about the unsuitability of the present courthouse.
The population of Basildon is about 100,000 and is increasing yearly by between 2,000 and 3,000, with a projected total on completion of the new town of about 120,000. With the increase in population, there has been an increase in crime. The number of arrests has doubled since 1974 and is now nearly 4,600 per year. Nine male and three female cells are available, so that double banking is often necessary. Billericay police station has three male and two female cells. In 1984 it had to handle 1,130 prisoners. Those cells are also used by prisoners from Basildon because there are no court cells, so it is common for as many as six prisoners to wait in one cell.
Billericay courthouse consists of two court rooms, two retiring rooms, one interview room doubling as a duty solicitors room, and one witness room. There are no rooms for advocates, police, press or ushers. There is no first-aid, waiting public or matrons' room, and there are no refreshment facilities. There is also no custody accommodation for juveniles, and the statutory requirements for a juvenile court are not met at all. Cells, toilets and gaolers' rooms are shared with Billericay police station.
There is minimal room for lawyer-client consultation. That cannot assist the administration of justice. The toilet facilities sometimes lack the capability to provide privacy for large numbers of prisoners, and there are no exercise facilities whatever. That cannot do much for the preservation of human dignity among prisoners, some of whom are subsequently found innocent. The most worrying aspects are that it is sometimes impossible to separate juvenile offenders from adults, that distressed victims often have to sit opposite their attackers and that separated parents may have to sit opposite each other even in cases involving child battering. There is nowhere in the building to conduct private interviews before or after a 1075 case has been heard. There is no facility for private counselling by social workers. The lack of those facilities could mean the wrong kind of assistance, or the wrong sentence.
I am not just worried about the conditions. The effectiveness of the battle for law and order is being reduced because the court is six miles from Basildon. The sheer drain on manpower is harming the effectiveness of the local police, who do a marvellous job despite the appalling difficulties.
One prisoner must be accompanied by one escort, three by two escorts and five by three escorts and a sergeant. After the weekend, it is a common occurrence for the police to have to escort six prisoners to Billericay. Large numbers of Basildon police spend time outside the court room waiting for cases to be reached and decided, and at the same time a number of vehicles are kept waiting outside the court. Only five prisoners may be carried in one vehicle, so after the weekend at least two may be needed.
Last year, just under 800 prisoners required immediate transport from Basildon to Billericay and 5,449 offenders were reported for process and later summoned to the court. Vast amounts of the time and resources of the police are therefore being spent elsewhere than on their prime function, which is the prevention and detection of crime. There are also the officers who are needed to give evidence —perhaps on a number of occasions. Beside the cost in manpower and indeed in cash terms, year after year, the capital cost of providing a courthouse in Basildon pales into significance.
There is little point in the Government's increasing the numbers of police, encouraging a return to the beat and ensuring that the total package of remuneration is good enough to attract high quality recruits if policemen are to spend much of their time sitting in court rooms miles from their sphere of operation.
It had always been intended that, as Basildon took its place as the centre of population for the area, a courthouse would be provided. In 1966 Essex county council acquired land next to the police station. There is already a tunnel leading from the cells to the proposed site. A purpose-built courthouse would provide suitable accommodation for the efficient administration of justice in the petty sessional division for years to come.
The major advantage of the provision of a magistrates' court in Basildon would be the elimination of the quantities of police and vehicle time spent on security and escort duties. Security would be immeasurably increased by the use of the tunnel. Policemen who might otherwise wait for hours for a case to be called would be available for office duties, and so more policemen would be available to patrol the streets and to care for the population.
An experiment has recently been conducted locally. The police have set up a sub-station in one of the busiest areas of Basildon. To date it has helped them to arrest at least one person who might otherwise have got away, and it has accelerated dramatically the arrest of others. The localising of the executive arm of the law has indeed increased efficiency. The localising of the judicial function must surely have the same effect.
There are differences of opinion about what other activities might be catered for in the new courthouses. 1076 There is what has been termed the joint venture project. I believe that it is crucial that the courthouse should be the right size. Authoritative sources believe that we need four court rooms. There must be proper facilities inside, and a reasonable exercise yard for prisoners. Time after time communities build some new facility and then find that the building is too small. Let us not make the same mistake here, but consider reasonable projections.
Essex county council is a well-run authority which does its best to provide cost-efficient services. Ironically, it is in some financial difficulties. It believes that it has been penalised unfairly through following tight Government financial guidelines. We badly need a new library in Basildon, and I want the best possible facility for it. For financial reasons, the council is considering combining the library with the courthouse building. I do not like that idea, for many reasons, so I appeal to the Government to help us in our financial difficulty and to prevail on an appropriate local body to see whether it might help us.
It makes sense to combine the courthouse with the probation service and with social services if there must be a joint venture. Such activities are conducted in difficult circumstances in Essex House, which does not even have facilities for disabled people. The lease on Essex House expires in 1994.
I spoke earlier of a crisis in the administration of justice. Our legal system adheres to the view that a person is innocent until proven guilty. I pay tribute to all of those who are involved in that process and who are battling on in difficult conditions. I should like to mention the magistrates especially. The case for a new courthouse is overwhelming. At the moment, the statutory requirements for holding juvenile courts cannot be met. Additional courts are held at Brentwood—there are six a week. For many years there has been talk of a courthouse in Basildon. I want the talking to stop and for there to be some action.
In June 1983 my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said that our main task was to ensure that the extra resources were used efficiently and effectively. I should like the start date to be brought forward one year, because the most efficient and effective way in which to use the resources in Basildon is to build a magistrates' court now.
§ Mr. K. Harvey Proctor (Billericay)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) for allowing me a few minutes of his Adjournment debate, especially as this is the first time that I have spoken in one. As the former hon. Member for Basildon, I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on his splendid election victory of 1983.
The magistrates in our petty sessional division have sat at Billericay for more than 100 years, and in the present building since 1938. I join my hon. Friend in praising the chairman of the bench, Mr. Watt, the 46 magistrates and the officials who serve with such distinction. They have a high reputation for quality, judgment and fairness.
I am delighted that the Government have proposed the building of a new courthouse in Basildon. It is long overdue. We have the use of an overflow court in Brentwood, which is not satisfactory, although we are grateful to Brentwood magistrates for giving us the use of one of their courts from time to time.
1077 I assume that the magistrates' bench will be transferred to Basildon. What is the proposed use for the present court buildings in Billericay? Will they be used as overflow courts, even when Basildon is operative? The name of the petty sessional division is the Billericay petty sessional division. I understand that Parliament must approve any change of name. Might I suggest, for historic reasons that I have already given, that the name remains unchanged?
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon commented on the position of the county council, the court building and the library. This matter goes back to the time when I represented Basildon. The Great Oaks site in Basildon was owned by the county council and a joint scheme for three courts and a 14,000 sq ft library was thought appropriate. Will the Minister tell us whether a fourth court will be necessary and whether it will be built? What accommodation will be available for other services, such as those of lawyers and probation officers? I understand that the county council is prepared to consider alternative sites for the library so long as the site involves no extra cost to Essex ratepayers. So far, sites such as the civic centre and the Church walk house block have been suggested.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) has eloquently described the many and various shortcomings of the existing magistrates' courts in Billericay. Although I have not had the pleasure of visiting the premises, I would not want to dispute his account. Indeed, our files are well filled on the subject. We were not surprised or displeased to receive in 1982 proposals by Essex county council to replace the courthouse of Billericay with one in Basildon. We were sent full details of the scope and range of the existing facilities, and we acknowledge them to be lacking by modern standards.
The picture presented showed that the case for a new courthouse satisfied three of our four basic criteria of operational need: shortage of court rooms, shortage of staff accommodation and inadequte ancillary facilities. We were able to agree that that added up to a priority operational need and, therefore, that forward planning might be put in hand for the scheme.
At that stage we could not give a commitment to a specific start date because, against the background of continuing severe restraint on capital expenditure in the public sector, the rolling programme of major magistrates' courts building schemes was already substantially committed. The case made about the Billericay court is being made by many other courthouses. There is stiff competition for a place in the programme.
Hard decisions still have to be made about relative priorities for slotting in new starts. We explained at the beginning that inclusion of the scheme on the priority planning list meant that the Basildon courthouse was now one of the group of high priority schemes which would have first call on such margins as became available for new starts in the years ahead.
That was two years ago. I am glad that since then further progress has been made. We have found a place for the scheme in the latest package of projected new starts in 1987–88, on which offers went out to the providing authorities last month. Since his election my hon. Friend has played a leading role in ensuring that we have not been 1078 left in any doubt about the deficiencies of the present position. I hope that he will not let the best be the enemy of the good. Compared with the timings of many projects, the Basildon project has been processed with considerable speed. Since the hon. Gentleman has achieved so much, I hope that he will not sell his achievement short by thinking that he has been handed a dusty deal. He has been handed rather a good deal. I should like to know that he acknowledges that fact.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Proctor) to the debate and know that he is interested in it. I am glad that the move from Billericay to Basildon will not provoke local enmities, in the middle of which we sometimes find ourselves, in relation to magistrates' courts benches. In answer to his questions, the local authority is in the driving seat. The national taxpayer may pick up 80 per cent. of the bill, but the local authority and local interests are in the driving seat for producing the plan. The Government do not seek to dictate on such matters. We consider carefully the points put to us and, provided that they fit our view of the way in which the court system should operate, local interests usually discover us to be obliging on matters such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend. Therefore, I must ask him to make his points first to the local interests, and we shall see where we go from there.
It is for Essex county council, as the providing authority, to decide whether it can accept the offered commitment and its expenditure implications. Although the capital cost will qualify for the usual 80 per cent. grant from central funds, the basic funding responsibility and that for the residue rests with the local authority. In that connection, my hon. Friend expressed some disappointment that the start date is 1987–88. I would say only what I have already told him: on the present pattern of committed expenditure on the magistrates' courts rolling programme, 1987–88 is the earliest date at which margins will be available for any new major start on courthouse schemes under the centrally controlled capital allocation within which all magistrates' courts in England and Wales must be accommodated.
Indeed, in the present financial climate, with local authority budgeting so fine-tuned, as my hon. Friends will be aware, it would not be reasonable to expect the local authority to accommodate the funding of a substantial new capital commitment in its forward budget, at much shorter notice than the start date that we have given. However, once a starts offer is accepted and the commitment agreed as firm, the Government would always be ready to consider adjustments on timing, forward or back, to take account of changed circumstances.
It has been suggested, as my hon. Friend said, that there might be security problems if the new courthouse complex were to incorporate the local public library. The practicalities of locating other services on the same site or in the same building as the courthouse are a matter for the local authority, because the site belongs to it and public libraries are its responsibility. If public library facilities were provided in the same building as the magistrates' court, there would be security considerations in relation to some aspects of the courthouse function—the custody area is an obvious example—and there would have to be separate access arrangements. However, I differ a little from my hon. Friend in saying that these are matters which 1079 we would expect the local authority to sort out with the police. We would consider those aspects when firm design proposals were put to us following those discussions.
Subject to what we may discover when the detailed plans are introduced, I can see no grounds of principle for excluding other services or the public from the site or from other parts of the building; nor is there any reason why the practicalities of ensuring the necessary separation of facilities should present insuperable problems. We must await the plans before we make a decision. My hon. Friend will make his points to the local authority and the police to ensure that his views are taken into account as the necessary local evaluation process continues.
My hon. Friend asked me to say which specific facilities would be provided in the new Basildon courthouse, including the number of court rooms, and whether there would be facilities for the probation service. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay also mentioned that. These are matters for the providing authority, Essex county council, to decide, but it will wish to take into account the views of the magistrates' courts committee. The scheme can then be put to the Government, who will express a final view on its scope and range. The original 1080 outline proposals envisaged a need for three court rooms plus the usual ancillary facilities, and on that basis we accepted the scheme. However, no detailed design proposals have been put to us. I acknowledge that provision for future expansion might make it sensible to build four courts rather than three, and I should make it clear that, if the local authority decided to do so, the Government would have no objection. These matters lie in their court—no pun intended.
As for the probation element, as far as we are aware, this was not originally envisaged. However, there is no reason in principle why a probation suite should not be provided as part of the complex if it is needed. Again, this is a matter for the probation committee to sort out with the Essex county council, and then to put such arrangements as they propose to us.
I hope that by the end of the decade we shall have a new court building in Basildon that will be an ornament to the administration of justice in Essex. If so, a number of people can take credit for that, and my two hon. Friends will be prominent among them. I am glad to be able to say as much this afternoon.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Three o'clock.