HC Deb 15 January 2002 vol 378 cc144-5
29. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

What plans he has to encourage more applications to join the lay magistracy; and if he will make a statement. [25043]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills)

The Lord Chancellor's local advisory committees tailor recruitment initiatives to local needs so that magistrates benches are representative of the community. In Norfolk, the advisory committee participated, for example, in a regional television broadcast and had interviews with magistrates published in the local press. Such activities led to an increase in the number of magistrates in Norfolk from 13 in 1997 to 30 in 2001.

The Lord Chancellor has commissioned a national strategy for recruiting lay magistrates, which will be announced shortly.

Mr. Bellingham

I am grateful for that reply, but the Government are not doing enough. Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware that a record number of lay magistrates resigned last year? Many of those in my constituency cited low morale and a sense of being undervalued by the Government. Is he also aware that 22 magistrates courts closed last year and that Fakenham court in west Norfolk is threatened with closure? That makes local justice more remote from local people, not least because the local press does not report cases in much detail. Why do not the Government do more for local justice?

Mr. Wills

The hon. Gentleman did not listen to my answer. I explained that the number of magistrates recruited in Norfolk increased from 13 in 1997 to 30 in 2001. That hardly squares with his allegations of a lack of interest or morale among those who wish to be magistrates. We take local justice seriously, but he knows that the closure of magistrates courts is a matter for magistrates courts committees.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

My hon. Friend knows that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has, through the advisory committee for the appointment of magistrates in Lancashire, tried to achieve a better representation of people on the magistrates bench. Does he appreciate that employers make it increasingly difficult for working people to take time off to be a lay magistrate? Can we do more to ensure that employers recognise that we need ordinary working people to serve on the magistrates bench and that that is an important element of justice in this country?

Mr. Wills

My hon. Friend is right. That is why the Department is supporting the Magistrates Association project, which tries to draw employers' attention to the transferable skills that magistrates acquire through their work and training, apart from the civic appropriateness of people serving as magistrates.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Does the Parliamentary Secretary accept that the number of magistrates will increase and people will be encouraged to join the magistracy by a confirmation that Government policy under the Auld proposals and the subsequent legislation supports an increase, not a reduction? Will he confirm that it is Government policy to increase the number of lay magistrates in England and Wales, not reduce them? Does he have figures to show the number of new appointments of people aged between 18 and 38, not between 38 and 58, since the Labour party came to office in 1997? Without significant new recruitment of younger people, we shall have an imbalanced bench, which is unrepresentative of the community with which it deals.

Mr. Wills

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on the need to ensure that magistrates benches are properly diverse and represent the communities that they serve, and that is clearly something that we strive to achieve. I do not have the figures for precisely those age breakdowns to hand, but I shall be happy to write to him with the details. He will be aware that we are still consulting on the proposals made by Lord Justice Auld, so I am not in a position to announce policy on the matter today, but I can assure him that the House will have plenty of opportunity at the appropriate time to debate our responses to Auld.