HL Deb 25 June 2003 vol 650 cc288-90

2.53 p.m.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Lord Chancellor's remarks in an interview in the Guardian on 16th June about diversity of gender, race and experience among the judiciary represent government policy.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, we must continue to appoint judges on merit. However, there is no inconsistency between ensuring that judges are appointed on merit and seeking a more diverse judiciary. The Government are making progress and my noble and learned predecessor did much to increase the diversity of the Bench. There is more to be done to ensure that appointments are accessible to the widest possible range of candidates. The creation of an independent judicial appointments commission is a vital step in that process.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, I thank the Lord Chancellor for that reply and congratulate him on his appointment. I hope that he will remain Lord Chancellor for much longer than he intends.

Will the Lord Chancellor confirm that in his interview in the Guardian he in no way meant to diminish the contribution of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, when he described the post of Lord Chancellor as always being occupied by a 50-plus member of the English Bar? I thank the Lord Chancellor for his reply. Is it not the case, as he said, that while diversity of age, gender and experience may be important, the most important point is, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, did, to continue the most important principle of selecting the most qualified personnel for the judiciary?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his congratulations. I unreservedly apologise to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. As the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, said, I referred to all previous Lord Chancellors as being members of the English Bar, whereas the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, was a very distinguished member of the Scottish Bar. I apologise for that; it was a mistake on my part.

I make it clear that merit must be the guiding principle in relation to appointments to the Bench. We need to encourage a more diverse Bench; we need to encourage more people of quality to apply—more females and more people from black and minority ethnic groups—so that we have a more diverse Bench, but without compromising on merit.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, we very much approve of the Lord Chancellor's remarks. Clearly, if there is to be full confidence in the system of justice in this country, all members of our society must be able to see on the Bench those whom they can regard as representing the whole of the United Kingdom. We on these Benches therefore very strongly support what he said.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for those remarks. I believe that we are entirely agreed on the need for quality and diversity on the Bench and for a Bench that is representative of the society that it seeks to serve.

Baroness Howells of St Davids

My Lords, does the Lord Chancellor agree that whatever government are in power, they will seek to ensure that the Race Relations (Amendment) Act is implemented?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, our Government introduced the Race Relations (Amendment) Act after the Lawrence inquiry suggested that. It is extremely important that in all areas of life it is given effect to; that is obviously the case in relation to the public sector, at which it is primarily directed, but also in relation to the way in which the courts operate.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, while merit is clearly the guiding principle on appointments to the Bench, is the Lord Chancellor aware that a committee of Justice—the Stevens committee—reported some 10 years ago that a judicial commission would be the best way forward? While congratulating the Government on that decision, is it not clear that the time has more than arrived by which a far more transparent method of appointing able, qualified members of the Bar and the solicitors' profession should be achieved?

The Lord Chancellor

Yes, my Lords, I entirely agree with the question. On 14th July, we will publish a detailed consultation paper on how we propose to move forward to the next phase.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, political correctness is one fear but political interference is another. From a government who have given us an access regulator for the universities, what can the noble and learned Lord give us in terms of comfort that he is not about to introduce an access regulator for the Bench?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I entirely agree with the first part of the noble Lord's question; of course the time has come, as he will be the first to agree, to separate politics from appointments to the Bench. That is why the time has come for an appointments commission. We will consult widely on issues connected with that, including removal and discipline in relation to the Bench.