The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have reached a decision on whether to proceed with the public/private partnership financing for the reorganisation of magistrates' courts in Dyfed-Powys.
My Lords, the Gwent and Dyfed Powys scheme continues to be within the programme of new court building projects. However, my department must finalise its investment plans following the development of a business strategy for Her Majesty's Court Service. That is due to be announced by the end of summer 2005 and a further announcement will be made thereafter.
My Lords, it is customary to express gratitude to the Minister for an Answer, but my gratitude is limited in this case. This issue has been around for three years: the mid-Wales magistrates' courts are threatened with either closure or rebuilding until some sort of natural arrangement is made. As I understand it, a decision was to be made last year—then it was to be made this year, now it is later on. Could my noble friend the Minister kindly ask her noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor to whisper in the ear of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to get a move on with this, because people in mid-Wales are worried?
My Lords, I am sure that my noble and learned friend will listen very carefully to what my noble friend has said. I understand my noble friend's frustration, and I realise what tremendous work he does in that part of the world, but it is incredibly important that these decisions are made when we have a proper business strategy. So it is not a question of my right honourable friend the Chancellor holding up the discussions or of my noble and learned friend not having put forward the argument. It is a question of ensuring that the strategy is properly in place so that we have an effective strategic plan.
My Lords, I declare an interest as an ex-chairman of a Bench, who has presided over the closure and amalgamation of courts. Would the Minister agree with me that there is greater sensitivity about the closure and amalgamation of such courts in thinly populated areas where local transport is almost non-existent? Would she further agree that inaccessible justice is often justice denied?
My Lords, the noble Viscount is right to raise the issue of transport. Indeed, in preparing for this Question that was a point that I raised with officials. We have a policy within Her Majesty's Court Service that public transport links must enable people to travel to court within the guideline travel time of one and a half hours. Indeed, for this particular Question from my noble friend Lord Williams I checked the bus and other travel times. They come in within the hour, which fits very well within the accessibility criteria. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Viscount that it is important to ensure, as we do in our strategic plan, that transport is taken into account.
My Lords, can the Minister give any assurance about the time that this process will take after the publication of the strategic approach this summer? Will it be another three years before the plan materialises?
My Lords, the ambition is that the strategic plan will be ready in the summer of this year, as I said. There are 10 potential areas where me might look to develop new courts. We have to look very carefully at the timing for those, and I am not in a position at this stage to indicate precisely when it will happen. Having got that agreement, we will be able to indicate to those involved precisely when that will come forward.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the former MP for Brecon and Radnorshire. Would the Minister take note of the fact that I received a petition in the House of Lords late last year, which was signed by 3,000 residents, in favour of rebuilding the court in Llandrindod Wells? It is vital that there is access to justice in the county of Radnorshire, which is the most sparsely populated area south of the Highland line. The county of Powys is 132 miles long, and access is extremely difficult. I hope that she and her noble and learned friend will exert some influence to ensure that the PFI goes ahead in this relationship with Llandrindod Wells court.
My Lords, I am indeed aware of the involvement of the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, as I have read the correspondence and know that the petition was delivered. I am aware of the issues around Llandrindod Wells. There are real questions about the rebuilding of that court because of the cost involved in the refurbishment. As the noble Lord will know, there are real question marks about whether one could have refurbished the court without great expense—and indeed, whether one could have been compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, for example, in the process. The noble Lord will also know that there were no queries about the decision from the council involved, and that the council did not appeal. I am very concerned that we ensure that, within the strategic plan, access to justice is provided for all the citizens of that area.
My Lords, is there a danger that if the administration of justice is reduced in rural areas, the policing may be reduced? As a result, offences may not result in conviction, giving rise to general insecurity.
My Lords, it is very important that we consider issues of general security. I shall not tread into Home Office territory, as my noble friend will not be surprised to hear, but it is important that, when considering access to justice and the facilities people need in their locality, we think about security and individuals' sense of security.
It is also very important to make sure that our estates are fit for purpose and accessible, and that people are enabled to get into them easily and to understand what is happening within them. It means that we need a good strategic plan for our courts.
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, had a wonderful honeymoon! I think that the noble Lord misheard me. I was talking about the Disability Discrimination Act and the issue of the accessibility of courtrooms.