HC Deb 17 December 1997 vol 303 cc318-9
9. Mr. Pike

What representations he has received regarding the appointment of magistrates in the County Palatine. [19609]

Dr. David Clark

During a visit to Lancashire earlier this autumn, I had discussions with the chairmen of the five advisory sub-committees, lieutenancy staff, the chairman and justices chief executive of the magistrates courts committee and the chairman of the Lancaster bench regarding the appointment of magistrates. I have also corresponded with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) regarding the balance of the St. Helens bench.

Mr. Pike

Does my right hon. Friend accept that magistrates benches in Lancashire are becoming less representative of the areas that they serve? How can we ensure that more Labour people and more working people are appointed as magistrates, so that magistrates benches better reflect the population of the areas that they serve?

Dr. Clark

My hon. Friend raises a serious point. I am concerned that the balance was lost under the previous Government. For example, fewer than 5 per cent. of the local councillors in Burnley and Pendle are Conservatives, whereas there are almost as many Tory magistrates on the local magistrates benches as there are Labour and Liberal Democrat magistrates put together.

The guidance on the appointment of magistrates is clear. On political affiliations, it says: It is important that justices should be drawn, and should be known to be drawn, from all sections of the community, and should reflect all shades of responsible opinion. To try to open up the magistracy, we have raised the age limit on first appointment from 55 to 65. We want to attract many of the people who have taken early retirement, and whose great experience could be well used on the various benches in Lancashire and elsewhere.

Mr. John M. Taylor

Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster accept that he, like the Lord Chancellor, can appoint only those people who apply to be magistrates? If Labour Members think that not enough Labour people apply to the justices bench, the remedy lies in their own hands.

Dr. Clark

We accept the need for a better political balance on magistrates benches throughout the United Kingdom, in compliance with the directions of the law of the land. The situation is out of kilter. The total number of Labour and Liberal Democrat magistrates for the St. Helens bench only equals the number of Conservative magistrates, in spite of the fact that the ratio of local councillors is 44 Labour to one Conservative. The problem is that not enough names are being put forward.

Madam Speaker

Order. I should be obliged if the House would come to order. Conversations are much too noisy, and it is impossible to hear the Minister.