Neath Magistrates – Adjournment Debate

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Pritchard. I look forward to your presiding over it. I ask the Government to reverse their decision to close Neath magistrates court, which has served the town for generations. Written records show that from the early 18th century, and probably much earlier when they were situated in the castle from which the town gets its name—in Welsh, Castell Nedd—magistrates in Neath were so busy that they sat almost continuously, not just four times a year as they did in other places. The current facility has been open since 1977.

Although I am grateful to the Secretary of State for meeting me on two occasions, I totally refute what he said in his letter to me of 5 February confirming his decision to close Neath magistrates court and move it to Swansea. I challenge the costing that he presented to justify the closure, which will have a seriously damaging impact on the quality of local justice for local people. I also challenge some of his basic facts, such as those on the usage of the Neath court, which are simply wrong.

I presented an incredible low-cost alternative that would have delivered savings, namely to transfer the magistrates court to the nearby county court facility, which is underused and might easily be modified for that purpose. That suggestion was rejected, seemingly arbitrarily, which caused deep local anger. More than 1,800 signatures were collected in a matter of weeks on a petition that circulated in the town.

Dr Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him warmly on his success in securing the debate. His point about local feeling is a strong one. Does he agree that alongside trial by jury and the appointment of local magistrates, one of the central tenets of our common-law system, which has been developed over centuries and of which we are very proud, is the importance of the local delivery of local justice? My constituents share his concerns, because Neath magistrates court also serves Port Talbot.

Mr Hain: Indeed, and I am happy to be corrected by my hon. Friend from the neighbouring constituency. Having examined the Secretary of State’s argument, the proposal document and the consultation response from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, I am convinced that the transfer of the magistrates court service from Neath to Swansea will severely and detrimentally affect the town and its citizens, and will erode the provision of local justice for local people, as my hon. Friend has eloquently pointed out.

The decision to merge has been driven purely by cost reduction, as part of an exercise across England and Wales in which 130 courts have been closed since 2010. In recent years, the Neath and Port Talbot area has lost two magistrates courts in Pontardawe and Port Talbot. The loss of the third and final magistrates court in the county borough will leave nearly 140,000 people— a population bigger than that of Middlesbrough or Cambridge—without a magistrates court. Instead, the Swansea court will serve a population of 380,000 people. Local topography, transport and economic issues have been completely disregarded.

The timing of the consultation was perhaps no coincidence, coming as it did alongside the start of work on Neath Port Talbot county borough council’s long-awaited regeneration of the town. The implication in the executive summary of the consultation document and the impact assessment of August 2013 that there was no other option because the county borough council required the land seems to have been designed to lay the blame firmly at the door of the local authority. However, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service had known about the county borough council’s intention since 2008, when alternative venues, including a new courtroom nearby, were being explored. At that time, my suggestion to the then Secretary of State to move the magistrates court to the county court only 300 metres away was being examined, and Neath Port Talbot county borough council had even budgeted for its contribution to the estimated cost of £1.4 million to facilitate the move. Had that been pursued and any problems overcome, which I believe could easily have happened, not only would the Government have made their savings, but Neath would have retained its magistrates.

The costs associated with the proposed merger of Neath and Swansea magistrates courts are far greater than those involved in the conversion of Neath and Port Talbot county court to a new Neath Port Talbot magistrates court. That new facility would have minimal additional operating costs, because the crown court is already fully functioning. There would be no additional travel costs for magistrates or staff. The county court has free car parking, so there would be no additional car parking fees. There would be a net saving of operating facilities costs, estimated to be between £100,000 and £110,000 per annum, which includes utility costs, cleaning, waste disposal, security and maintenance, because those are already in place at the county court.

The projected enabling cost of the Swansea merger is £165,000, but the true figure will be significantly greater. I give notice to the Secretary of State that should he continue to disregard our representations and the case I am making to the Minister today, I will carefully monitor what those costs actually are and report them. Court 6 in Swansea, for example, has no retiring room. Court 5 has neither a secure dock nor secure access and egress for magistrates, so it cannot be used for criminal cases. Even if it is physically feasible to correct those deficiencies, major alterations will be required. Only criminal cases would be heard in Swansea magistrates court after a merger, with all family work being transferred to the Swansea civil justice building. Travel costs after a merger would increase by £55,000 a year.

Had those figures been objectively analysed, not only would the Government have made their savings but Neath would have retained its magistrates court, albeit in a new location. There is a suspicion that the Government decided to merge Neath and Swansea magistrates courts with little or no investigation of the real costs and savings involved. Consequently, they appear to have undertaken the consultation exercise without intending to take much notice if the facts demonstrated that it would be far less costly to convert the county court than to merge Neath and Swansea magistrates courts.

The option of converting Neath and Port Talbot county court and connecting it by secure walkways to the adjacent cells in the police station is supported by local magistrates, local politicians, the local police and local court users. The police in Neath no longer require the cells, but they wish to retain a presence in Neath. Because there is a low-cost option for a new court in Neath, there is absolutely no justification for merging the court with Swansea. The conversion of the county court is a viable alternative that can deliver savings in addition to the £300,000 that will be obtained from selling the existing building to Neath Port Talbot county borough council. That is more than enough for a careful remodelling of the county court.

Conversely, if the Government press ahead with the merger of Neath and Swansea magistrates courts, they will incur transition costs estimated to be at least £150,000 and additional annual travel costs of at least £55,000, in addition to the cost of establishing a new digital service proposed by the Secretary of State, which would have to be housed in the county court in Neath anyway. That facility would have to be staffed by relevant personnel, a legal adviser and an usher, duplicating the staffing in Swansea magistrates court. Only one video link can operate at any given time, and the Swansea courts will grind to a halt if solicitors and defendants have to liaise via a video link rather than face to face. Few witnesses will choose to attend Swansea magistrates court for a trial if video link facilities exist locally in Neath, thus denying magistrates the opportunity to assess witnesses’ countenances when they give evidence, which can be a crucial or even determining factor in their assessment.

Even the original, deeply flawed impact assessment produced by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service was not clear on the extent of savings from the proposed closure. It did not adequately take into account the increased travel and parking charges that would accrue in Swansea. As the Neath county court is fully functioning and has adequate security, there would be no increase in total running costs if the county court were to become the magistrates court—indeed, there would be savings to both court services through the merging of overheads.

To accommodate the magistrates, the family and civil work currently undertaken at the county court could easily be transferred to the justice centre in Port Talbot, which cost £3 million some five years ago but currently averages just 13% usage. There are no cells in the Port Talbot building, so criminal cases cannot be heard there, but the transfer of civil work would increase its utilisation. Thus, the county court could become the new Neath magistrates court and the justice centre in Port Talbot could become the new family and civil justice centre. It is just 8 miles from Neath to Port Talbot, so the journey time would be considerably less than the proposed increased journey time to Swansea from the many towns and valley villages.

The times and distances quoted in the consultation document are deeply inaccurate and ignore the difficulties of travelling from valley communities such as Banwen, Glynneath and Onllwyn. A simple journey to Swansea can involve two or three buses, and it could take well over an hour to complete a journey. Getting to Swansea court involves negotiating Fabian way, which is notorious for long delays owing to the volume of traffic—especially at peak times—which can add half an hour to a journey. That is on a good day when the bus services run well, whereas often the tricky topography and poor weather mean longer and more convoluted journeys. In a county borough where 30% of households do not have a car, the difficulties of public transport should surely have been recognised instead of simply ignored by the Government.

Even if, as he indicated to me, the Secretary of State is less concerned about inconvenience to defendants, surely he should concerned about witnesses, victims and court staff who will have to make the same trek to attend at Swansea court, incurring additional running costs. We must also remember that magistrates are unpaid volunteers; they are the bedrock of the justice system in this country. In Neath, we have notably dedicated and able magistrates serving in a well-respected team. To suppose that they will just move wherever Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service decides, adding gratuitously to their precious volunteering time, is to presuppose and expect an awful lot.

Many living in Neath will be thinking long and hard about whether they wish to relocate, and prospective magistrates will certainly think twice if that means not being able to deliver local justice locally and continue to serve the local community they cherish, and, in Neath’s case, are proud of. With such uncertainty over their future, the staff, to whom I pay tribute, have acted with great resilience over the past few weeks, as they did during the recent storms, which saw a huge upheaval for the work force when the Neath court roof blew off—but I will come on to that later.

Despite assurances to the contrary, I am concerned that the closure of Neath magistrates court will result in possible redundancies for staff who live locally and cannot commit to a longer commute. The suggestion in the consultation document that

“some staff and judiciary may experience slightly higher costs having to travel further to the receiving court”

is disingenuous, given that increased costs are almost certain because of the much longer distance to travel and the high cost of parking in Swansea. The loss of that local knowledge will be a huge blow to local justice.

Local solicitors representing defendants in Neath will inevitably relocate to Swansea in order to be closer to Swansea magistrates court. A number of solicitors firms are key employers in Neath town and provide well-paid, skilled jobs. If they relocate, it will leave a gaping hole in the economy.

Access to the probation services based in Neath courthouse will be affected, and probation service staff will also have to be redeployed. There will be upheaval and a cost effect on the youth offending service, the victim support service, and the witness service, all of which often work with the most vulnerable in our communities. Relocating all such professional and support jobs will also significantly damage the local economy.

It is wrongly asserted that Neath court rooms are currently 55.3% used. That figure is calculated on the assumption that there are three courts available for criminal work, whereas in fact only two courts are suitable for criminal work, with a secure dock and secure access to the cells. The correct calculation would be 75% usage in Neath court building; Swansea has 74% usage and Cardiff 59%. Of the 16 magistrates courts in Wales, 10 have utilisation figures well below those of Neath.

On efficiency, Neath court staff and magistrates have an exemplary record. Cases are dealt with swiftly and efficiently, fines are collected, and court utilisation is often among the highest in Wales. Neath compares very well with Swansea, Merthyr and Cardiff in all areas. There is no justification for the closure of Neath court on the grounds of efficiency, and detailed and up-to-date figures are available to substantiate that statement. It is also the case that, unlike other areas of the UK, crime in south Wales is increasing, and the number of cases being heard in magistrates courts is going to increase as a result of the Lord Chancellor’s review of out-of-court disposals, which was instigated in 2013.

Recent damage to the roof of Neath magistrates court caused by bad weather caused all work to be transferred to Swansea court. The damage has since been repaired, but the staff and magistrates from Neath coped brilliantly. They were welcomed by the staff and magistrates in Swansea, who did everything they could to make them comfortable. Nevertheless, the key point that I want to make is that there is no avoiding the fact that justice suffered, particularly as Swansea’s court rooms 5 and 6 are not fit for criminal court work. All the evidence shows that if Neath is merged with Swansea, the same will happen, except permanently.

One example case illustrates the point. There was a joint alleged assault, and the defendants were in a relationship. They received the letter reminding them of the new venue for their trial—Swansea—but the accused woman, a drug addict, had to get her methadone prescription from her chemist at 9 am, then try to get a bus to Swansea. Receiving the methadone and taking it in the chemist, as addicts must in order to prevent them selling the methadone on the street to buy heroin, she missed the 9.15 am bus, but caught one at 9.45 am. Her partner had given her the fare, leaving him with no money. He eventually found a friend and borrowed the fare.

Meanwhile, the court began hearing the case and, as the defendants were not present, there was considerable delay while options were considered. The woman then arrived, so the trial began again, and an arrest warrant was issued for the co-defendant. Just as it seemed that the trial was concluding, the man arrived. The arrest warrant was cancelled and the trial concluded. One and a half hours of precious court time was totally wasted. Had the trial been in Neath, both defendants would have arrived before 10 am and the trial have been concluded by 10.45 am. That may seem trivial compared with work in our Crown courts, but if there is to be justice for all, courts must be available to deal with the less high-profile cases as well.

The temporary arrangements demonstrated that, despite the best efforts of Neath staff and Swansea staff, Swansea magistrates court was ill-equipped to handle the additional work and the delivery of local justice—indeed, it was pushed to the tipping point of being unworkable. Although I have described extraordinary circumstances, the proposal to move services from Neath to Swansea will make such events the norm.

To conclude, the situation I have described highlights the fact that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has no contingency plans for such scenarios, and has major problems of organisation and viability, making both the decision about Neath and the refusal to countenance the alternative of moving Neath magistrates into the county court very short-sighted and damaging indeed. If Neath and Port Talbot court is merged with Swansea magistrates court, public money will be wasted. That is unacceptable at a time of Government cuts everywhere. I therefore urge the Secretary of State to reverse his decision—I hope that the Minister will take this message back to him—and transfer Neath and Port Talbot magistrates court to the local county court.

Local justice should be carried out by local people in a local venue. That is a fundamental principle of our justice system. Should the Secretary of State push ahead regardless, he will be responsible for the erosion of local justice. I put it to the Minister and to the Secretary of State that Neath is an exception in the list of countrywide magistrates court closures because there is an alternative solution that will save money for the overall court service. I strongly urge the Government to change their mind and allow common sense to prevail.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I thank the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) for securing this debate and for his continued interest in the subject. As is clear from his comments and from the record in Hansard, he has taken a huge amount of interest in the subject.

I appreciate that the Lord Chancellor’s decision to proceed with the closure of Neath magistrates court is a deep disappointment to the right hon. Gentleman, who has already met the Secretary of State for Justice twice, as he mentioned. I know that on one occasion he met the Secretary of State with others, who presented a petition opposing the closure.

At those meetings and throughout the consultation process, we have listened carefully to the points made against the proposal to close the court. The consultation on the future of Neath magistrates court was published on 26 September 2013. It proposed that the court should close and that the work should move to Swansea magistrates court nine miles away. The consultation document set out that Neath Port Talbot borough council wished to purchase the site of Neath magistrates court and to demolish the building to enable development of the site as part of its plans to regenerate the town centre.

The impact assessment of the consultation concluded that the closure of Neath magistrates court would save £220,000 a year, whereas retaining and undertaking the required maintenance to the court would cost a minimum of £1.3 million.

Mr Hain: Is the Minister talking about a new court building or a transfer to the county court? I do not believe that that figure is the case for the county court.

Mr Vara: The right hon. Gentleman made it abundantly clear from his speech that he has looked into all the figures. Clearly, he will not be satisfied with whatever figures I give. I have a limited amount of time, because he used more time than is customary for the person opening the debate, and I am keen to put the Government’s view on record. Therefore he will forgive me if I do not repeat the figures, but I will state them as I see them. I will deal with the county court shortly, but as far as figures are concerned, the maintenance work for the current magistrates court would cost £1.3 million.

Several factors were taken into consideration before developing the consultation proposals, including work load, current and projected future utilisation, and whether there was a suitable alternative location where the work could be accommodated without a detrimental impact on service levels.

When the consultation was published, local stakeholders, partners and elected officials were directly engaged to ensure that they were aware of the proposals and could provide a considered response before the consultation closed. The consultation was conducted in line with the process set out by my predecessor’s written ministerial statement on 17 July 2013, which set out that future consultations on courts and tribunals would be locally focused, run for six weeks, and reduce parliamentary and administrative bureaucracy. Any proposals on the future of a court would be considered with emphasis on the local area and how justice would be most efficiently delivered there.

Some 63 responses were received to the consultation. I am happy to put on the record that most respondents supported the closure of the court house on its current site to enable the regeneration of Neath town centre. However, I am also happy to put on the record that most responses argued for the retention of a magistrates court within the town’s boundaries. That view is clearly shared by the right hon. Gentleman and, I understand, many local magistrates. I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman discussed that during meetings with the Secretary of State. In particular, he suggested that Neath and Port Talbot county court could be converted to conduct magistrates court hearings.

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has been aware of the council’s regeneration plans for several years. There has been a number of informal discussions with the council about potential options to relocate the magistrates court in Neath. However, the alternative sites suggested by the council were all in unsuitable shared facilities. A site was identified for a new building, but estimated costs at the time were between £6 million and £11 million and simply not affordable.

HMCTS officials have considered in detail the option to relocate to Neath county court. It would have required the use of a custody facility in the adjacent police station. Costs for a custodial facility were estimated at £1.46 million. While there were some preliminary discussions with the council regarding funding, no formal agreement was reached. There would, in any case, have been additional costs, including an estimated £285,000 to transfer the work of the county court to Port Talbot justice centre.

I accept that there will be an impact on court users, justices and staff. Many will have to travel to attend court in Swansea, including some who will have to use public transport. However, I do not believe that that prevents access to the courts system or compromises the quality of the service provided. HMCTS will seek to make arrangements for customers who are unable to attend court at a particular time and will continue to explore ways to reduce the impact of the closure on court users.

I take on board what the right hon. Gentleman said about the number of people in his area who do not have cars. In any case, travelling to Swansea by car will be within an hour. For those using public transport, 65% will have travel times of less than an hour. Travel times will be reduced for people living nearer to Swansea. For those who use trains—there is a train service—the extra travel time is 15 minutes each way, with trains running every half an hour.

Discussions are currently under way with South Wales police to consider whether it is possible to establish a facility for vulnerable witnesses to give evidence in criminal proceedings via a live video link from a location in the Neath area. That would provide a safe and secure environment and avoid the need for victims and witnesses to travel to court, improving their experience when giving evidence at trial. Contrary to the concern expressed by the right hon. Gentleman, HMCTS does not intend to locate any video link facility to Swansea magistrates court from Neath county court.

Since the decision to close Neath magistrates court was announced, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the court suffered extensive storm damage in February 2014. During that time, court business and staff were transferred to Swansea magistrates court for 10 days to minimise disruption to hearings. That proved to be a successful contingency arrangement, during which no significant issues were raised. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman would disagree, but from our point of view, that worked well. That Swansea magistrates court was able to accommodate that work at short notice is a reassurance that it will be able to absorb successfully the work of Neath magistrates court when it closes.

I am pleased to say that, following safety inspections and a new fire certificate being issued, hearings resumed at Neath on 3 March 2014. Officials are finalising plans for the smooth transfer of work, justices and staff to Swansea, and an announcement of the closure date for the court will be made locally.

As is the case with any publicly funded body, HMCTS has a duty to ensure that its estate is utilised as cost-effectively as possible. We must ensure that we provide value for money for the taxpayer.

Let me emphasise that the Lord Chancellor’s decision to close the court was not taken lightly. It was made after a detailed analysis of the work load of the Neath and Swansea courts, and in consideration of all the points raised in the consultation responses. While it was clear to the Lord Chancellor that many people in Neath, including the right hon. Gentleman, had sincere concerns about the closure, on balance, they did not outweigh the benefits of the proposals or suggest that access to court services would be genuinely compromised.