HC Deb 10 March 1981 vol 1000 cc857-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Newton.]

10.52 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this subject on a day which is cloaked by somewhat more widely publicised events.

Advisory committees for magistrates have the function described in the Central Office of Information pamphlet on Justices of the Peace in England and Wales published in 1976. The document states: About 1,500 appointments of men and women are made every year to the Commissions of the Peace. It is not possible for the Lord Chancellor to have sufficient knowledge of individual people and conditions in all parts of the country to enable him to select suitable candidates for this purpose. In practice therefore the Lord Chancellor appoints Justices on the advice of Committees which have been set up throughout the country. These Advisory Committees were first established following the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Justices of the Peace of 1910. The present system is based on the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Justices of the Peace which reported in 1948. There are about 100 Advisory Committees … Final recommendations of the Lord Chancellor are the responsibility of the Advisory Committee. Members of Advisory Committees and Sub-Committees are drawn from all sections of the local community. Their identity is not disclosed, in order that they may be shielded from undesirable influences in performing their duties. Each committee, however, has a secretary whose name and address is published and is obtainable on application to the Clerk of a local authority and from any Clerk to the Justices in the area concerned. The Royal Commission recommended that the advisory committees should consist of about six or seven members. I assume that this has not changed.

Clearly, advisory committees are important because they shape the local magistrates' bench. In my view, such an important function should not be conducted in secret. Secrecy gives rise to the possibility of abuse. For example, one political party can gain dominance. People can use their membership of the advisory committee to gain influence behind the cloak of secrecy. Can the Minister confirm, for example, that a previous Lord Chancellor suggested that the Keighley bench was not properly balanced in its representation of the two major political parties?

Normally, members remain on the advisory committee for six years, half the committee retiring every three years. Sir Thomas Skyrme, in his somewhat complacent book,"The Changing Image of the Magistracy", says about the advisory committees on page 42: With a view to ensuring that appointments do not become the perquisite of any one political party each committee and subcommittee includes a number of recognised supporters of different parties, though it is a condition of appointment that they must not regard themselves as representing party interests. Every committee contains at least one Conservative and one Labour member and most also have a Liberal. During the past few years a Plaid Cymru supporter has been added to some of the committees in Wales. Until 1948, the Lord Chancellor usually checked that members being appointed to the advisory committees were, indeed, members of the appropriate party. But the Royal Commission of 1948 somewhat supinely recommended discontinuance of the practice and the Government of the day supinely accepted that recommendation. However, it is worth noting that there was a note of dissent on this issue and one of the members of the Commission recommended that the practice of informing the political party and confirming the person being nominated to the advisory committee was a member of that party should continue. Hence, today, appointments are made in secret without apparently any reference to the political party concerned.

On the Keighley advisory committee which, I understand, is chaired by Sir John Taylor, a prominent Conservative, knighted for his services to the 1970 Conservative election victory, a person whose name I have but do not propose to reveal was introduced to the advisory committee as the Labour representative. The person concerned was not a member of the Labour Party in the year in question and was chosen presumably under the advice of a local prominent Conservative. I regard that as an unsatisfactory and untenable position which is made the more unsatisfactory by being cloaked in secrecy.

The secretary of the Keighley Labour Party was never approached about the matter and sought further information today but was unable to obtain it. I therefore wish, first, to urge the Minister to restore the pre-1948 position so that the political parties are approached for a member to represent them on the advisory committee instead of this secret method which gives rise to a possible impression of unfairness and which, for all I know, because of the secrecy, may be used to retain the dominance of a particular political party in given circumstances.

My suspicions about advisory committee secrecy and its unsatisfactory nature was given further confirmation about 10 years ago when my wife was nominated to the local bench. She was rung up and informed by a person that she stood no chance since it was understood that I intended to be nominated as the prospective parliamentary Labour candidate for the Keighley area and the Lord Chancellor would not accept political people in that situation. The person who made the telephone call was a magistrate and, I believe, was at the time a member of the advisory committee. I do not know and I cannot confirm that because of the secret nature of the circumstances. I think that the whole gist of that conversation was very unsatisfactory. Whether I stand for a particular party in any capacity has nothing to do with whether my wife should be nominated.

Yet a further person was interviewed by the chairman of Keighley magistrates at the time, and when asked what activities he was interested in pursuing, among other things, in a general discussion of a background nature, he said that he was a supporter of the League against Cruel Sports. He was never asked to become a JP and to this day he wonders if his membership of the League was the cause of his failure to be nominated to the bench.

In a parliamentary answer on 11 December the Attorney-General said of the criteria for the use of magistrates adopted by advisory committes: The primary consideration is personal suitability in character. Subject to this, it is sought to ensure that so far as possible benches throughout the country are so composed as to reflect a fair balance of the various sectors of the community they serve, as regards age, sex, occupational background, political affiliations, area of residence, and other similar matters". —[Official Report, 11 December 1980; Vol. 996, c. 733.] If the advisory committees do not reflect these characteristics also it is unlikely that the bench will reflect them.

I well recall being prosecuted in 1978 for speeding, when I pleaded guilty. It was a routine affair and I make no criticism whatsoever of the bench at that time. I was intrigued to learn—and I made no issue at the time, because I was personally involved—that the bench consisted of the former president of Keighley Conservative Association, the former chairman of the National Union of Conservative Associations and a former Conservative councillor, In my view, such a composition of the bench should not have been allowed to hear cases, because it did not reflect the balance which should exist between all the sections of the community. It certainly did not meet the criteria laid down for the section of magistrates by the advisory committee. It may have been a fluke for that particular day, or it may have been a reflection of the composition of the Keighley bench.

I first raised the issue of the secrecy of the advisory committees in the House in December 1979, because I was concerned about the lack of appropriate representation on the bench of a cross-section of the community, caused, I believed, to some degree by the unjustifiable secrecy surrounding the advisory committees. My local weekly paper, the Keighley News, ran an article headed:"Is it a fair system?" which seemed to me to be a very useful contribution to the debate. Although I welcomed that, I must point out that I disagree frequently with the views of the editor of that paper, but it plays an important role in contributing to this sort of discussion.

The clerk at that date said in answer to my criticism that there was a preponderance of directors or housewives who did not have to go out to work and therefore had the time to contribute to the bench and: That out of 77 magistrates in the district only half-a-dozen are company directors—of breweries or anything else. If that is the case, I must point out that they are very much over-represented as a proportion of the population, because about 8 per cent. of the population at large by no means consists of company directors.

The clerk went on to say: There are housewives, quite naturally. But also represented on the list of Justices of the area are people from the textile industry, a fireman, bus drivers, school teachers and college lecturers, representatives, estate agents and others. I would have thought that was a cross-section of society". The reporter went on: While the membership of the local advisory committee is confidential—it is hardly the secretive organisation which Mr. Cryer would suggest. For instance, [the clerk] is well enough known as being the secretary of the committee, and he can be approached at the Magistrates' Clerk's Office at Bingley court house by anyone who is interested in putting forward nominations. That is the constant argument put forward, that the clerk is known, but the advisory committee itself is highly secret. I know of one magistrate who was actually appointed to the bench and was serving without any knowledge whatsoever of an advisory committee even being in existence.

When I raised this locally, as I have demonstrated, Keighley Conservatives were very keen to find fault with the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party as regards open government or, as they claimed, the lack of it. But they seemed to be very shy of their own position when I raised the situation with them of the advisory committee and whether they feel that the advisory committee should be open, in the interest of open government.

The article in the Keighley News said that the clerk agrees that to some extent Mr. Cryer has a point. 'But I would still claim the system we have has a lot of merit. While the local advisory committee is very confidential, that is as it should be or it could be subject to pressures,' he says. It has been claimed that the advisory committee would be subject to pressure if made public. That claim was made by the Royal Commission in 1948. Paragraph 58 states: The reason for keeping the membership and proceedings of these committees confidential is to prevent canvassing of members and public discussion of their proceedings. It is easy to deal with the canvassing of members. Local bodies, for example councils, make many hundreds—probably thousands—of public appointments every year. They have the invariable rule that canvassing is a disqualification. That could easily be made a rule for the membership of advisory committees.

There is another example of where the claim that pressure would be applied is fully answered. I tabled some parliamentary questions on the issue. On 1 December 1980 I asked the Attorney-General: what are the two areas where advisory committees on magistrates are published; what adverse or beneficial effects have resulted; and whether any further areas propose to follow suit. The Solicitor-General replied: The names of the members of the Inner London Advisory Committee have been published in the Magistrates' Year Book since 1970. No significant benefits or adverse effects have come to notice. The Lord Chancellor has approved a proposal by the Essex Advisory Committee to have its membership included in a similar publication which will be available in 1981. No other committee has expressed a wish to do so.—[Official Report, 1 December 1980; Vol. 995, c. 36–37.] On 11 December I asked the Attorney-General whether he has received information that any members of the published magistrates advisory panels have faced undue pressure as a result of their names being published; and what is his policy towards the publication of names of the advisory panels. He replied: So far only the Inner London Advisory Committee has published the identity of its members. No information of undue pressure has been received by Her Majesty's Government. The policy regarding such publication is that contained in the reply to the hon. Member on 12 November 1980.—[Vol. 992, c. 217–18.]—[Official Report, 11 December 1980; Vol. 996, c. 733.] That procedure has been carried out for 10 years in a large and important city—one of the largest in the world—and no information of undue pressure has been received by the Government. Surely that example completely negates any claim that publication of the advisory committees would result in their members being subjected to undue pressure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) intends to intervene briefly. I conclude my remarks with a number of brief points and requests. We accept that magistrates do an important job. As I have demonstrated openness in selection has not led to pressure. Openness of advisory committees will remove any doubts about membership, any secret influences, a domination of any political grouping or any undue pressures behind closed doors. I suggest that the Lord Chancellor should not simply say that he has not received any requests from committees. He should positively encourage them to publish names.

The varying sentencing and bail policies between benches suggest that a further Royal Commission on the functioning of the magistracy is now due. The 1948 report is well out of date and in sections is quite quaint. I do not have time to quote it, but in page 22 the Royal Commission recommends that members of the bench should become acquainted with the poorer classes. That is. an indication of its lack of modernity.

It is important that allowances for loss of earnings and out-of-pocket expenses should keep pace with inflation, especially after the swingeing petrol increases announced today, to allow ordinary working men and women to take their full share—that is a majority of places if they are to represent their position in society—on the Bench. Members of the Labour Party and Labour Members of the House of Commons have often been suspicious of the selection process, and openness would rebut those suspicions, which are based on experience.

Employers should be encouraged to release employees. Public bodies already have fairly clear and open rules laid down for service on the Bench, but some private employers do not recognis that they have a public duty to allow and encourage their employees to take their fair share on the magistrates' bench.

I urge the Minister to take serious consideration of the recommendations that I have made. This subject is not often discussed in the House. The magistrates fulfil an important function and we must examine these matters afresh.

11.11 pm
Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) for giving me an opportunity briefly to participate in the debate. I shall be brief, so that the Solicitor-General may answer my hon. Friend's questions. I apologise to the hon. and learned Gentleman for the fact that it was only at the last minute that I requested the opportunity to intervene.

I am concerned about the appointment of magistrates in the Jarrow constituency. There has been concern for a considerable time. It is an issue that was taken up by the previous Member for Jarrow, Mr. Ernie Fernyhough, and it was taken up by the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Evans) when he was the secretary-agent for the consituency. We have never been satisfied with the appointment of magistrates in the constituency.

As my hon. Friend said, magistrates are supposed to be representative of the area in wich they serve. That is not so in South Tyneside. Most of the magistrates who are appointed to serve in the Jarrow constituency live in one area where the housing is predominantly private. The area where the housing is 90 per cent. council controlled has a minority of the magistrates for the Jarrow constituency.

I wrote to the clerk to the magistrates for South Tyneside in April 1980 about an appointment. I eventually received a reply after writing a second letter in July. I referred to someone who lived in Hampshire for part of the year and in Whitley Bay for the remainder of the year. That person was appointed a magistrate to serve in South Tyneside. The chairman of the Jarrow constituency Labour Party, who had lived and worked in the constituency all his life—the only time that he had been out of the constituency was during the war, between 1939 and 1945, when he was injured—had been told unofficially that he had been turned down as a magistrate because he was over 55 years of age when his name was submitted. However, a person who did not live in the district was appointed who was older than the chairman of the local Labour Party.

I hope that the Minister will ensure that there is an inquiry into the appointment system in South Tyneside. If those who conduct the inquiry conclude that the appointments are proper, let them publish the names of those who serve on the advisory committee so that we know who is responsible for the appointments. At present it is a secret committee.

When I wrote my second letter to the clerk to the magistrates, I was told that, as the advisory committee was appointed by the Lord Chancellor, he was the only person who could give me the information that I requested. That was the final letter that I received from the clerk. That is nonsensical. The clerk lives just down the street from where I live and yet I have to write to the Lord Chancellor to obtain some simple information.

I hope that the Solicitor-General will respond to the issues raised in my brief intervention.

11.14 pm
The Solicitor-General (Mr. Ian Percival)

I am sure that the hon. Members for Keighley, (Mr. Cryer) and for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) will realise that I have very little time.

Mr. Cryer

I am sorry.

The Solicitor-General

I do not think that it is a matter for apology. If hon. Members want to raise these matters, it is more important that they should have the opportunity to do so than for me to have sufficient time to reply to them. I can deal later with such matters as I cannot deal with now.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Keighley has stressed the importance of the work done by magistrates. It is enormously important work. Goodness knows what we would do without magistrates.That makes it extremely important that selection is carried out by the best possible method.

On the two specific points put by the hon. Member for Keighley, I am told that we have no knowledge of any previous Chancellor having said that Keighley was not properly balanced politically. However, that will be checked. If I am wrong, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman or, preferably, speak to him. I am also told that it is believed that at present, even if there may have been some imbalance in the past, the political balance on that bench as nearly reflects the political situation in the constituency as possible.

I have no information about the points raised by the hon. Member for Jarrow, but I shall look into them and see that he receives an answer either from me or direct from the Lord Chancellor. I, too, shall be interested in the answer. As these people do such an important job, it is enormously important to get the selection right. In cases where misgivings are felt, I have no doubt that my noble Friend would like to be informed and to have the opportunity to acquaint himself with the facts and give an answer. I do not believe that a formal investigation is necessarily called for.

The hon. Member for Keighley quoted an article from a local paper asking whether the system was fair. That is the important thing. It will never be perfect. When 1,500 people a year are being chosen by 97 committees and when they are trying to reflect certain balances that are pretty indefinite anyway, the system will never be perfect. The point is that it must be fair and be demonstrated to be fair. The hon. Gentleman would say that if that is to be so one essential is that there should be no secrecy. With respect, that is a matter of judgment.

The hon. Member quoted two advisory committees that have asked to have their names published. They are published in the Magistrates' Year Book, I believe. My noble Friend takes the view that if committees ask for their names to the published, he will consider such a request, but, having regard to the position that has been taken for so long, in particular by the Royal Commision in 1948, he would not be minded to direct that persons who serve in a voluntary capacity should have their names published, unless they so wish.

The best thing that I can do in the short time that I have is to address my mind to the question of whether the system is fair and to put on record what seem to me to be the essentials of the system, which I should like hon. Members to consider and weigh in the balance against the doubts that they have. It is also important that I should do that so that those members of the public who take an interest in the matter may have a little of the other side against which to balance such considerations. Because of the shortness of time I shall have to jump about a little in what I had prepared, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Keighley will not take me to task for that. I shall try to bring out only those parts that explain what the system is, so that people can take that as the starting point for their consideration of whether the system is fair.

There are 97 advisory committees set up to advise the Lord Chancellor, who makes the appointments, except in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Lancashire, where they are made by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In each case it is necessary for the person making the appointments to have the best advisory committees that he can get. Having regard to the scale of the appointments, he cannot know about each one personally.

The appointments are non-statutory. There is generally one committee for each non-metropolitan county, one for each metropolitan district and, one for the City of London and for some of the larger cities and former boroughs. There are five areas in Greater London, each with its own committee.

I think that it is fairly common knowledge that the Lord Lieutenant is appointed as chairman of each non-metropolitan county committee. Other suitable persons are appointed by the Lord Chancellor as chairmen of the other committees, but usually on the advice of the Lord Lieutenant, who is either an ex-officio member or has a co-ordinating role for the committees in his county.

The members of the committees are appointed by the Lord Chancellor on the advice of the individual chairmen, usually for a period of six years, with about half the members retiring every three years, so there is a turnover. In general, the Lord Chancellor is willing, on the advice of the chairman, to reappoint members for a total tenure of 12 years, but rarely beyond that.

It is important that hon. Members should know what is the Lord Chancellor's policy and what he seeks to achieve in the composition of the committees. If it then comes to their attention that this is not being achieved in a particular case, I am sure that my noble Friend would like to have that information. The Lord Chancellor seeks to include in each committee at least one recognised supporter of each of the main political parties and one or more members who are politically uncommitted. Geographical representation within the area covered by the committee is also sought, as well as a reasonable age spread among members of both sexes.

The majority of the members are usually themselves justices. But again, just as the Lord Chancellor seeks to include people who are politically uncommitted, so he seeks to include people who are not justices. It is thought that justices are probably best qualified to assess the suitability or otherwise of candidates for recommendation for appointment, but the inclusion of some members who are not justices helps both in the obtaining of names for consideration and in providing a balance of opinion from justices and non-justices alike.

Those are the guidelines that my noble Friend has adopted. That is, in a nutshell, how he would like to see the committees formed and balanced.

The advisory committees endeavour to achieve the Lord Chancellor's aim of making each bench representative of the community which it serves by seeking and finding a sufficient number of candidates from all sections of the community from which to choose. Again, there is a need for a geographical spread of appointments, as well as balances of age, sex and occupation. Furthermore, although politics play no part in the administration of justice, every effort is made to ensure that there is no undue preponderance on benches of justices supporting any one political party. In order to satisfy themselves as far as possible—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-two minutes past Eleven o'clock.