HL Deb 19 January 1989 vol 503 cc330-2

3.15 p.m.

Lord Moran asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the Lord Chancellor will not appoint anyone past the age of 60, and usually not past the age of 55, to be a justice of the peace, and whether they think it right that justices of the peace have to retire at 70 whereas judges are not required to leave office until they are 72 or 75.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, I am prepared to appoint older people to the Bench from time to time, but it is very important that the Bench should be broadly representative of the community and should not present an elderly appearance. For the same reasons I would not favour raising the retirement age, which was fixed by Parliament in 1968.

Lord Moran

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that Answer. Did he see the letters published in The Times newspaper of 5th and 10th May last year from two retiring ambassadors? They wished to become JPs and were told by his department that they could not do so because they had reached the age of 60. Despite their experience and the fact that they would now have time to undertake those duties, they could not even be considered.

Is the noble and learned Lord aware that the Prime Minister, whose vigour appears entirely undiminished, is 63 and Mr. Bush, who, after a gruelling campaign, will be inaugurated tomorrow as President of the United States, is 64? As they are capable of discharging their immense responsibilities in their mid-60s, does the noble and learned Lord not think it curious that we should not allow men of experience and sagacity in their mid-60s to act as JPs?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I saw those letters in The Times from people to whom the noble Lord refers as "retiring ambassadors". Retiring ambassadors are unusual people. There is a retirement limit of 70 fixed by Parliament. As far as I know that does not affect the Prime Minister or President-elect Bush. We have to consider the expenditure that is put into the training of magistrates and we hope to get a reasonable return from it. The situation in which I am prepared to appoint people aged over 60 to the Bench is where, in order to complement the categories of people on the Bench, it is necessary to go to those lengths. For example, these days it is very difficult to find people who are in levels of manufacturing industry to go on the Bench during their working lives. It is important however that people with that kind of background should be on the Bench.

In situations like those I am prepared to go above the ordinary limit. I quite agree that there are not many people with the credentials of ambassadors available, but on the other hand there are quite a number of people of lesser age willing to serve in most areas who could be regarded as very similar to ambassadors from the point of view of the ordinary person who may be appearing before the Bench.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that those over 60 are now a very large age group in our community? These are the days of young old people. If the noble and learned Lord wishes to make the Bench as representative as possible, he should have a fair proportion of these old people as magistrates.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, we are talking about the date of appointment. I am fortunate that most people who are appointed to the Bench carry on until the age of retirement and therefore there is a very large number of magistrates who are coming up to 70, the age at which they go on to the supplemental list. So I believe that the balance of the community is very well represented in the present age structure.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord explain why the Government have appointed a noble Lord who is 69 years of age to be Vice-Chairman of the broadcasting commission whereas members of the Independent Broadcasting Authority are obliged to retire at the age of 70? Is that anomalous?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I find it a little difficult to see how that comes into the matters raised by this Question.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, on this delicate subject—especially in this House—of age and reference having been made to the Prime Minister, the sight of two eminent former Prime Ministers on the Benches opposite prompts me to inquire whether, if they were disposed to add to their services to the state service as justices of the peace, they would be disqualified on grounds of age.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the noble Lord will have noted that the Parliament of 1968 of which the two distinguished noble Lords were Members fixed the age of retirement at 70.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, does not my noble and learned friend agree that his real difficulty, given the limit within any one Bench to the number of magistrates it can appoint, is that there is always a problem finding a sufficient number of young people to balance the age proportion of those already sitting?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, my noble and learned friend is right. That is certainly one of the difficulties. As I said, there are difficulties in particular sectors of the community in getting people to serve who are sufficiently young. Therefore, in the light of that kind of difficulty, I am prepared to consider going beyond the normal practice of 55 or 60 as the maximum age for appointment.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that age is no indication of the quality of service which an individual can give? All noble Lords know people of 20 who are quite useless from the neck up, whereas we all know people—I, as a magistrate, know such people— of 70 who are absolutely useful in every way. Will the noble and learned Lord consider excluding age as the reason for accepting or rejecting anyone?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I entirely accept what the noble Baroness says as regards whether age is an indicator of fitness. I believe that to be generally acceptable. However, I have to operate, and I am sure the House would expect me to operate, within the structure that Parliament has laid down. Parliament has decreed that 70 is the maximum age. Within that criterion I have to consider getting reasonable service from people who receive induction training before they have to retire. It is for that reason that this general level of age was fixed a long time ago. My noble and learned friend, who asked a question just a moment ago, carried on that practice during his term of office. The provision is not intended to be any reflection on people of 70 or over. It is intended to give proper effect to the arrangements that Parliament made.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that one point he made in his substantive Answer is of dominating importance —that is, the appearance of the Bench? It should look broadly representative of the community, especially when so many offenders today are young people.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for those comments. That has been a cardinal point in my consideration of these matters since I have had responsibility for them. I know that it was also the case long before I took office.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, may there not be an occasion for looking at the problem of recruiting young magistrates in view of the practice now of fairly extensive training before they are appointed which unfortunately acts as a bar and an inhibition to some of the ablest people volunteering their services?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I consider these problems continually. I endeavour to obtain as much assistance as I can to overcome them. Recently I have written to industrialists to try and get their help as regards allowing people to be released for service. As the point has been raised, I must say that the responses have been extremely favourable. Industrialists regard magistrates' service as an important public duty. They will do their best to give support.

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