HC Deb 09 November 1999 vol 337 cc877-9
30. Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

What steps the Government have taken to ensure that magistrates are representative of the communities they serve. [96375]

32. Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

What steps the Government have taken to ensure that magistrates are representative of the communities they serve. [96377]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy)

My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor requires his advisory committees to make strenuous efforts to ensure that benches broadly reflect the communities that they serve in terms of gender, ethnic origin, geographical spread, occupation and political affiliation.

Mr. Linton

I welcomed my hon. Friend to her first public engagement, in Battersea; I now congratulate her on her appointment as she stands at the Dispatch Box.

I congratulate the Lord Chancellor's Department on having appointed so many justices of the peace from the ethnic minorities—I believe that the figure is 6. 5 per cent.—and also on the fact that 50 per cent. of appointments have been women, but does the Minister not believe that it is regrettable that only 1 per cent. of appointments to the bench have been of young people under the age of 30? Will she consider reviewing the unofficial age limit, which I believe is currently 26, on appointment to the bench?

Jane Kennedy

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words, and to hon. Ladies and Gentlemen for the warmth of their welcome. I appreciate the number of hon. Members attending questions to the Lord Chancellor's Department today—although I suspect that my fellow Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock), and I, interesting though we are, are not the main attraction.

My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has instructed his advisory committee to make strenuous efforts to improve the gender, ethnic and political balances on the bench. A sub-committee will shortly be established specifically to address those issues, and I will ask my noble and learned Friend to consider the points that my hon. Friend made.

Mr. Quinn

May I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on her new position? I very much welcome the answer given some time ago. What representations has she made to employers' organisations to ensure that people who are in full-time work are given the opportunity to participate in this important part of our society?

Jane Kennedy

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue and allowing me to explain the work that is going on in the area. It is an increasing problem, which my noble and learned Friend takes very seriously. In literature and seminars, employers are shown that the training that magistrates receive, and the experience that they gain on the bench, can be a positive advantage for the individual and an asset to the employer. The Lord Chancellor is considering what else he may need to do, in partnership with the Magistrates Association, to encourage more employers to allow their staff time off to become magistrates.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

In the light of the answer that the hon. Lady gave to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), will she give the House an assurance that she will oppose any proposals to close magistrates courts in rural areas?

Jane Kennedy

Decisions about how magistrates courts are organised, the services that they provide and where they are provided are decisions for the local magistrates courts committees.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

I add the official Opposition's congratulations to the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock), the two new Ministers in the Lord Chancellor's Department. We know that the Government are very keen on job creation, but we observe that it seems that two Ministers are now needed to do the job that was previously done by one.

Can the Minister confirm that it is important to ensure that it is the people who can take the best decisions who are appointed as magistrates? That is far more important than any matters of political correctness. While we are on the subject of the best people for legal jobs, would the Minister like to comment on the report in today's Evening Standard, which quotes the Lord Chancellor's biographer as saying that he may be quietly eased out before the next election as unsuited to politics?

Jane Kennedy

I have not seen that report, but given the important role of the lay magistracy, the hon. Gentleman might have taken the opportunity to ask me to join him in paying tribute to the thousands of men and women who willingly give up their time to serve the public, without remuneration and often with little recognition or thanks. Without the lay magistracy, there would be no justice system, and the hon. Gentleman has missed a good opportunity to make that point.