HC Deb 19 March 2001 vol 365 cc71-2W
Mr. Fabricant

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department if she will make a

statement on the selection criteria operated by the Advisory Committee on Justices of the Peace for Stoke-on-Trent in relation to recruiting magistrates, with specific reference to applications from Labour party supporters. [153797]

Jane Kennedy

All advisory committees in England and Wales operate the criteria set out in my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor's directions for advisory committees on justices of the peace, copies of which are available in the Libraries. The pre-eminent requirement is that a candidate must be personally suitable for appointment, possessing the six key qualities required in a magistrate (good character; understanding and communication; social awareness; maturity and sound temperament; sound judgment; commitment and reliability). As a secondary consideration, in common with his predecessors, the Lord Chancellor requires that each magistrates bench should broadly reflect the community it serves in terms of gender, ethnic origin, geographical spread, occupation and political affiliation.

Political affiliation has been used by successive Lord Chancellors as a proxy for social balance in the lay magistracy and has been endorsed by two Royal Commissions. The Department, by letters dated 7 August 1995 and 17 July 1996, copies of which have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, referred to the concern of the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, that the political balance in Stoke-on-Trent was not good, with the Labour vote under reflected, and encouraged measures to seek our more Labour voters to become magistrates.

My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor personally favours the abandonment of using political balance as a proxy for achieving social balance. With this in mind he issued a consultation paper in 1998 "Political Balance in the Lay Magistracy" seeking views. While most respondents favoured removing political affiliation as a balancing factor, no viable alternative was suggested. The Lord Chancellor therefore reluctantly decided in 1999 that political balance would have to remain for the time being, but instructed officials to continue to work on an alternative.

Later this year pilots will be conducted to ascertain whether or not a combination of social and occupational groupings would be a practical alternative to political balance.