HC Deb 01 July 1996 vol 280 cc545-6
29. Mr. Mackinlay

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department for what reason it is necessary to seek the voting intentions of justices of the peace, without anonymity, prior to the next general election; and if he will make a statement. [33687]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Gary Streeter)

All those who apply to be appointed justices of the peace are asked to indicate their political affiliation in order to ensure that benches are balanced in that respect. The information is confidential to advisory committees, clerks to justices and my Department. Local surveys of the political affiliation of existing justices are sometimes carried out to establish current political affiliations.

Mr. Mackinlay

I accept the need for a bench that reflects the social and political complexion of the country. After justices are appointed, however, surely it is inappropriate and intrusive, as well as dangerous from a judicial point of view, to inquire how they intend to vote at the next general election. Does the Minister agree that it is inappropriate for justices to make such declarations to clerks, and will he reconsider the practice in relation to existing justices?

Mr. Streeter

There is no intention of reviewing the practice, which has continued for generations under Lord Chancellors and Prime Ministers of different persuasions. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to learn that, at the last count, 31 colleagues on his own bench supported the Conservative party and 36 did not. I cannot see what his beef is all about.

Mr. Fabricant

Will my hon. Friend assure the House that, if a JP reveals himself to be a member of the hang 'em, flog 'em and disembowel 'em school of politics, he should not be barred from serving as a JP?

Mr. Streeter

The most important thing is the quality of justice dispensed by local benches, and I think that most of us feel that the quality of justice in this country is extremely high. It should come as no surprise to any Member of Parliament if the majority of JPs are Conservative supporters: after all, we know that Conservatives are actively involved in voluntary organisations up and down the country because we care about our country and our local communities.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Can the Minister give us a lucid explanation of the correlation between voting intention and the capacity to return a fair verdict? Will similar inquiries be made about which football club magistrates support, or whether they are freemasons, Oddfellows or farmers? What other matters are now to be inquired into?

Mr. Streeter

As I said earlier, the practice of inquiring about the potential affiliations of potential JPs has been going on for generations. What I do not know is whether it took place under the last Liberal Government. That was such a long time ago that I suspect that records are no longer kept.