Almost £3m a year could be saved by the Ministry of Justice by selling judges’ lodgings, the Labour party has claimed.
In a spending review document released in the run-up to the election campaign, the party pledged to conduct a ‘value for money review’ of the 15 judges’ lodgings across England and Wales.
The buildings are currently held by the MoJ for accommodating High Court judges seconded from London for major trials across the country.
Labour’s Zero Based Review said the lodgings could be sold for an estimated £26.3m and, if judges were instead put up in hotels, their disposal could save almost £3m in annual running costs.
The coalition government reduced the number of permanent lodgings from 17 to 15 and has been in the process of replacing a further two with cheaper ‘pay as you go’ hirings. The MoJ has also removed certain privileges such as Sky TV subscriptions as part of a package of measures to save £5m a year.
But Labour said the continuing running costs of the lodgings are ‘astonishing’, with the dwellings ranging from ‘penthouse flats to Georgian townhouses’.
The party added: ‘Questions need to be asked about the amount that the government is spending on judges’ lodgings.’
According to a response to a freedom of information request last November, the ministry spent £2.8m on running costs in 2013/14 for 15 lodgings. The most expensive to maintain was in Leeds, costing £363,642.
The costs include council tax, utilities, service charges and permanent staff salaries.
The MoJ response said the lord chancellor and lord chief justice have reviewed spending on judges’ lodges to make changes where possible to ensure better value for taxpayers’ money.
It added: ‘The most serious and complex cases, both criminal and civil, are heard by High Court judges in courts near to where the events took place and in a place most convenient to parties and witnesses.
‘High Court judges are based in London and need accommodation, often for long periods of time, when they hear cases outside London.’
As well as a discussion on judges’ lodgings, the Labour spending review said savings could be made from combining county and magistrates’ courts in the same location.
The document suggested at least £5m could be saved each year if two-thirds of the remaining single-use courts could share premises.
Labour said fine enforcement could be improved to boost the MoJ coffers, with the collection rate for the most recent year when figures were available showing £290m of the £420m levied was actually collected.
The party said it would consult on making it easier to deduct fines directly from the offenders’ pay or benefits and look to introduce a new offence of failing to provide details of income and expenditure.
Enforcement officers who work effectively could receive incentives, while an extra £3m would be spent on recruiting 90 additional enforcement officers.