In the period from 1 May 1997 to 31 March 1998, 25 magistrates courts were officially closed following decisions taken by local magistrates courts committees. Since then, I am aware of 12 other courthouse closures against which appeals were lodged and subsequently dismissed.
When will the Minister stop the pretence that local communities are advocating the closure of their magistrates courts? Does he accept that in every case, a quango—the magistrates courts committee—has recommended the closure? In most cases, the local democratically elected councils, county councils and/or political parties oppose the closures. How many more courts does the Minister intend to close while he holds his current office?
I have repeatedly answered this question as well. I have made it clear that the process of closure is laid down in law and is scrupulously followed. It requires a determination by a local magistrates courts committee that a courthouse should close. The only role that my Department has in resolving such matters is in hearing the appeal against closure, which is taken forward only if a local paying authority decides to appeal. If the local paying authority chooses not to appeal, which happens from time to time, the Lord Chancellor's Department has no involvement.
In that case, would my hon. Friend like to look closely at the powers of the Lord Chancellor's Department? Frankly, there is not a lot of point in the Government's advocating through environment and transport policies the sensible placing of basic services, such as magistrates courts, in the centre of communities if there is a continuing programme of closure, over which my hon. Friend has no influence. Will he please have a word with some of his colleagues and point out that this is just a little tiny bit illogical?
I do not accept that it is illogical, but I accept that it is important that the Government continue to review the powers available to them and ensure that there is appropriate access to justice for all our citizens.
The Minister listened courteously to the arguments over the proposals to shut magistrates courts in Biggleswade, Ampthill, Dunstable and Leighton Buzzard put to him by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) and myself. We represented our constituents and powerful local views on the matter. Will he explain why our strong arguments were brushed aside and why the decision has been taken to shut down those four magistrates courts? It was the wrong decision.
I want to make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that his arguments were not brushed aside. Indeed, he made a most powerful case. Each appeal is considered on its own merits; the Department follows the procedure laid down in legislation for which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman voted when it went through Parliament. As I pointed out earlier, the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor's Department is simply to consider the merits of the particular case put to it by the local paying authority and the local magistrates court.