Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): The impact on my constituency of the proposals to close courts across the country has been to identify the court in Buxton for closure. This is probably the third or fourth time I have spoken on this matter, in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall, since that decision. I heard what the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) said about timings, but I pay tribute to the Minister. He has been exemplary in his availability, transparency and consideration for individual Members. He met the hon. Lady and he met me on several occasions. There was a Westminster Hall debate, principally on the courthouse in Buxton. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) secured a similar debate, so we have all had a fair run at this.
I was strongly opposed to the closure of Buxton court. The alternative was to send everybody to Chesterfield, just because it happened to be in Derbyshire. For those Members who are not aware of the geography of Derbyshire and the High Peak, the clue is very much in the name of my constituency. Getting from Buxton to Chesterfield is not easy. Only a couple of weeks ago, the constituency had about six or seven inches of snow in a single day. It would have been practically impossible for people to get to Chesterfield—I got stuck in Bamford, which is not even as far as Chesterfield. I was very concerned about the proposals. I thought they were wrong and I said so at the time.
I will recount some of the details of the decision on Buxton, because it is important to consider this issue in context. The consultation document relating specifically to Buxton is, as I have said before, the worst consultation document I have seen in many a year, both as a Member of Parliament and as a member of my local council. It was riddled with errors, falsehoods and mistakes. There was much discussion about the document and, because I thought it was so woeful, I probably used some phraseology that Members probably ought not to use. After much discussion, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service admitted it had made some mistakes in the document, but it still pursued the same end-game and the decision has been made to close Buxton courthouse. I regret that decision, but it has been made and I do not think we can revisit it here today.
At the time, in discussions with the Minister and others on the Chesterfield issue, I looked for a compromise, politics being very much the art of compromise. I cannot welcome the decision to close Buxton court because I think it is wrong, but I will, reluctantly, accept it. The Minister listened to the points I made about the difficulties of commuting to Chesterfield. The decision was taken to keep the Stockport court open. The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) is not here, but, come 2020, she may well say that she saved Stockport court. She might even flag up my contribution to saving it. Although Stockport is in a different county, it is a lot easier to get to Stockport from High Peak, as it is to get there from Macclesfield, which faces a similar challenge.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): It is very interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman’s tale. I accept what he says about the Minister, but my logical proposals for Durham, which would make travel a lot easier for my constituents, were completely dismissed and ignored. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has more power over the Minister than Opposition Members have.
Andrew Bingham: I am not sure how to respond to that without sounding big-headed. I do not know the ins and outs of the courts in Durham, but I felt I put forward a coherent argument.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): My hon. Friend is making a very passionate speech. I just want to put on the record that decisions on changes, closures and keeping courts open have been made about courts represented by Members on all sides of the House. There has been no preferential treatment for Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) sits on the Labour Benches. I listened to her eagerly, as she said, and the proposals were changed. My hon. Friend will also be aware that the Stockport constituency is held by a Labour Member.
Andrew Bingham: I argued against the closure of the Buxton court. It will be closed, so I was only partially successful.
The response to the consultation states:
“move the workload to Chesterfield justice centre and Stockport magistrates and county courts”.
My concern, which I want to flag up today, is how much work will be going to where. I do not want only the odd case going to Stockport just to placate one awkward Member of Parliament.
I want to raise the response to the proposals and the consultation. My judgment is coloured by my views about the way the consultation was carried out and by its content. Yet again, I think there is a hidden agenda and that the officials are letting the Minister down. The response document, which I have here, contains serious flaws. For example, nowhere in the response are the comments made by High Peak Borough Council. The council has 43 elected members from across the political spectrum and they discussed this issue. They made representations, but they have not been referred to anywhere in the official response to the consultation. It seems as though the officials did not like what the council said, so they did not put it in. They have either ignored it or treated it with disdain. This happens is at a time when, across the political parties, we are seeking people to stand for public office in councils. Councillors go to meetings, make their opinions well known and then they are ignored. If we are not careful, this will increase the feeling of “What’s the point?” I am very, very disappointed by that. I may be a little cynical, but were councillors’ representations not mentioned because they did not fit in with what Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service wanted?
The decision has been made and it will be implemented. In the official documents, Buxton court is earmarked to close in the first tranche. It is therefore scheduled to take place as we speak today, between February and June this year. The argument was made that the court could not be moved to Stockport because it is in Cheshire and Buxton is in Derbyshire. After discussions, the Minister said the system could work across counties, which I can accept. However, I am told that for the work of a Derbyshire court to be sent out of county, further administrative action needs to take place. I urge the Minister to ensure that that action is taken. I do not stand here as member of the Minister’s fan club, but he is a decent chap and he has been very fair with me.
Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): This is about public money.
Andrew Bingham: I am talking about public money. This whole debate is about public money. That is why I said we should keep Buxton open.
I am concerned that the Minister has been let down by his officials, because the consultation was flawed, or wrong, and the officials showed an arrogance and unwillingness to accept the mistakes they had made in the consultation. Now that we see that the response document is highly selective, I fear they are letting him down again. I doubt their motivation. The Courts Service has been given a decision it does not want, and now, from where I am sitting—I might be cynical, bordering on paranoid—it seems to be very tardy in implementing his decision. So long as the delay continues, given that the courts are due to close imminently, the work will have to go to Chesterfield, which is what the service wanted. That was their original intention, and the longer the delay continues, the harder it will be to implement his decision to send the work to Stockport. That is what I am concerned about.
Thanks to the Minister’s determination and, contrary to what has been said by the Opposition, and thanks to his willingness to listen to hon. Members, including to me on this occasion, the decision to move work to Stockport was taken, and I applaud him for that. As I have said, we want it sent to Stockport; we do not want everything sent to Chesterfield. That is what we want, and that is what we should have, but from the outside looking in, it appears that the officials want it their own way.
Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab): I thank the Minister for being willing to assess alternative options—he has talked to my council in Southwark about such an alternative—but in criticising the officials, is the hon. Gentleman not questioning the Minister’s ability to oversee the Department?
Andrew Bingham: No, not at all, because the Minister has done that by making this decision. The officials wanted Buxton closed and everything shipped to Chesterfield. I wanted Buxton open. Having listened to all sides of the argument—in the Chamber, in Westminster Hall and in private meetings—he came up with a compromise, so I think he has been very robust. I will not criticise him. I might be wrong—I hope to be proved wrong—but I think the officials wanted it a certain way, but they did not get it, and by tardiness they seem to be trying another way of getting it.
I commend the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood for bringing this debate the Chamber. The decision has been made and we have had these debates before, so this debate might be after the fact, but it is still a good debate to have. This is the Thursday before the Easter recess, yet attendance is good, so it is obviously an issue.
I ask the Minister for some assurances. Will he look at this issue, as a matter of urgency, to ensure that any further administrative work necessary to implement his decision to move the work—the vast majority of work, not just the odd case to make me, the people or the council happy—is done quickly, for the peace of mind of my constituents, as well as the magistrates, who, we must remember, perform a valuable public service for little recompense? I know for a fact that, if the work moved to Chesterfield, we might lose magistrates from the bench. Will he also make it clear to the officials that by “sending work to Stockport”, I mean the majority of work, not just a little bit? Finally, will he pay attention to the work of the officials? I hate to be critical but they seem to have a different agenda from the one that he and people elected to other bodies wanted. If he could give me those assurances, I would be very grateful.