HC Deb 08 May 2001 vol 368 cc11-3
30. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

If she will make a statement on the progress being made to allow people from a wider range of social backgrounds to become JPs. [159319]

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

I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about this issue. As I said in a written answer: my noble and learned Friend, the Lord Chancellor, has asked for a national strategy for tin recruitment of lay magistrates to be developed."—[Official Report, 3 April 2001; Vol. 366, c. 173W.] The local advisory committees do a lot of good work to encourage people from all walks of life to apply. I ask all hon. Members to help us to get the message across that we want benches to be representative of the community that they serve.

Mr. Chapman

Is it not important that that representational approach reflects the ethnic, social and political mix of the community? Is it not vital to focus on making the bench more equitable? Will the Minister consider, for example, shortening the hours of commitment, so that the bench is more accessible to working people? Will she also consider improving the image of the bench, which is not as good as it should be?

Jane Kennedy

I will, of course, take careful note of all the points that my hon. Friend raises. The Lord Chancellor was one of the first Lord Chancellors to consider that political balance may not be an appropriate way to measure social balance on benches, and that was the result of the landslide at the last general election.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does the hon. Lady accept that whatever has gone wrong in her Department, we all k low that it was not her fault? So magnificent has been her stewardship that we know that this is the last time we shall see her before she rockets to greater heights, in the shadow Cabinet. Does she agree that what matters most is that such people, who perform an incredibly important job in the community, are seen to be truly effective, and that anything that takes our eye off that ball would be a great mistake?

Jane Kennedy

I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to help me, and I hope that the Prime Minister was listening.

The hon. Gentleman is right; the pre-eminent requirement is personal suitability for appointment to the job, and more than 30,000 people from all walks of life serve as lay magistrates.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

There are hairdressers.

Jane Kennedy

As my hon. Friend says, the magistracy includes hairdressers. Being a magistrate is not an easy task, and I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to magistrates for the important work that they do.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Will the Minister comment on her Department's success in recruiting people from the ethnic minority community to the magistrates bench? What sort of gender balance has been achieved from within that community?

Jane Kennedy

We seek constantly to review the balance and make-up of benches. It is important that hon.

Members on both sides of the House support us in every step that we take along the route to ensuring that the bench is properly representative of the community from which it is drawn. We are doing well in recruiting in the ethnic communities, but we have a lot more to do, and that message needs to go out from the House.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

The Minister uttered some fine words, but in many parts of the country they are meaningless. Because of the magistrates courts closures under the Government, a number of people from wider social backgrounds have been forced to leave the lay magistracy. The Government have commissioned an inquiry into the cost-effectiveness of the lay magistracy. Auld has reported. Will the Minister tell us what the Government's policies are for the future of the lay magistracy and whether it has a future at all under the Government?

Jane Kennedy

On every occasion that such points are made to me, I demonstrate not only in fine words but with examples how we are working hard to promote the magistracy, and to improve and modernise the service that magistrates give their communities. It is Opposition Members who question that commitment who cause magistrates to have doubts. I strongly recommend that the hon. Gentleman consider the words of his hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who, during proceedings on the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill, said that he had far more confidence in a judge and jury than in a bench of magistrates. Had we passed that Bill, it would have been living testament to the Government's commitment to the magistracy.