Outrage at magistrates' finance freeze

A STORM is brewing over a government decision to freeze millions of pounds-worth of magistrates courts building work in order to “privatise” the schemes under its Private Finance Initiative (PFI).

Officials from magistrates courts committees (MCCs) and local authorities are outraged by the move and are seeking urgent meetings with the Lord Chancellor's Department, now responsible for the magistrates service.

A spokeswoman said the LCD was putting 49 magistrates court projects worth £250 million into the private sector under PFI. These include all current projects where a contractor's contract has not yet been signed.

But critics claimed millions of pounds in public money already spent on new projects would now be wasted, while delays of between 12 to 18 months could ensue before PFI schemes were in place.

Peter Wright, chair of the Central Council of Magistrates Court Committees (CCMCC) and a JP, said: “We are very concerned at the news that PFI is to be applied to the service. We are seeking to determine whether PFI is an appropriate option for MCCs and whether, indeed, the necessary statutory framework exists.”

Wright said the CCMCC would need proper funding and allocation mechanisms to allow members to negotiate PFI contracts. He said: “We will seek to protect the interests of MCCs, particularly those who have invested heavily in establishing building projects.”

A £13 million courts scheme in Newcastle, on which about £1.5 million has already been spent, is one of the frozen projects.

Jeremy Beecham, city council development committee chair and a partner in law firm Allan Henderson Beecham & Peacock, said the council was “outraged” by the freeze and planned to meet LCD officials next month.

The decision's timing, inevitable extra costs and inappropriateness of PFI “is altogether a lethal mix,” said Beecham.