Great Barr Observer - Tom Watson MP
5th February 2016
Ministers are expected to make an announcement any week now about whether to close Sandwell Magistrates’ Court following the outcome of a public consultation.
I’ve opposed this rotten proposal since the government first published a plan to shut Sandwell and 13 other courts in the Midlands back in July 2015. If the closure goes ahead, we’ll be the only Black Country borough without a magistrates’ court, despite the fact we have nearly 320,000 residents in Sandwell. And 21 jobs could be lost.
We were promised a new court in West Bromwich a few years ago – a project which the coalition government cancelled in 2010 – but now it looks likely the only court we have in Sandwell will be shut. It just doesn’t add up.
I’ve also recently uncovered information that shows the government’s decision to cancel the new court in West Bromwich cost the taxpayer a staggering £3.8 million - £1.7 million for site clearance and associated fees and a further £2.1 million loss on disposal of the land. There’s been no apology from ministers about this colossal waste of public money.
Sandwell Magistrates’ Court is a modern purpose built court and was only opened in 1989. It has an excellent reputation for witness care and costly improvements have already been made to the courtrooms to allow for the installation of digital equipment.
The government’s central argument is that Sandwell Magistrates’ Court is underutilised. This is misleading. The number of courts permitted to sit has been steadily reduced by this government, work is being transferred to other courts and it’s taking far longer to get a court date due to their cuts.
The closure plans also fails to take into account the opening of West Midlands Police’s new 60-cell custody suite, just half a mile from the existing court. When the new custody suite opens the police will have to transport detainees further to other courts, leading to increased costs for a police force that is already over-stretched. The Ministry of Justice should have consulted the Home Office and West Midlands Police about this before proposing to close the court – and, as far as I'm aware, that hasn’t happened.
Previous court closure programmes under the Coalition government were not very successful. Many unused buildings sat empty for months, costing millions of pounds to maintain. There’s no proposal for what will happen to the Sandwell site if it is closed, but the site is in a central location in the borough by the motorway.
Closing Sandwell Magistrates’ Court would be a mistake and it will make it harder for many people in our area to access the justice system. It’s not too late for ministers to make a U-turn and keep it open.