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Women Judges

33. Jackie Ballard (Taunton): If he will make a statement on the progress the Lord Chancellor is making on the appointment of women judges to the High Court and higher courts. [114041]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): All appointments are made strictly on merit, but I am pleased to say that there are now more women judges, in more senior positions, than ever before. There are now 11 female judges in the High Court and above, including the president of the family division. Out of the 11 senior appointments made since last April, five are women.

Jackie Ballard: All the 12 judges in the House of Lords are men, as are 34 out of the 35 judges in the Court of Appeal, and 89 out of the 100 judges in the High Court. When will the Government take meaningful action to increase the representation of women in the higher levels of the judiciary? Do we have to wait for a judicial appointments commission to recognise that many able women are hitting their heads against a glass ceiling in the Crown court and in the legal profession?

Mr. Lock: I hear what the hon. Lady says, but I hope that she will give the Government some credit for ensuring that women make up nearly half of recent appointments to the High Court bench. That shows the Lord Chancellor's commitment to appointing the best people to the judiciary. Appointments are made on merit--they are not based on race or gender. Talented women and members of ethnic minorities will secure appointments.

However, she should compare the membership of the Liberal Democrat Benches with that of the Labour Benches. Given that there are so few women among her colleagues at the top in her party, when will the Liberal Democrats practise what they preach on equal opportunities?

Judges

34. Angela Smith (Basildon): What powers the Lord Chancellor has to remove a judge who does not display the skills and experience suitable for judicial office; and how often such powers have been used. [114042]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): The constitutional principle of judicial independence requires judges to have security of tenure during good behaviour. Lords of appeal in ordinary, lords justices of appeal and High Court judges may only be removed by the sovereign on an address presented by both Houses of Parliament. For other full-time judges, the Lord Chancellor's powers of removal vary depending on the office but, in general, are exercisable only in relation to incapacity or behaviour.

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The only judge removed from office in recent times by the Lord Chancellor was a circuit judge removed in 1983 for misbehaviour.

Angela Smith: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, but is he satisfied that his powers to remove a judge, which apply only to cases of incapacity or misbehaviour, are adequate? Is not it strange that judges, unlike so many other professions, are not subject to review and evaluation? I am aware that judicial decisions are subject to review, but is not there a case for examining the efficiency of judges and their willingness to deal with cases effectively? Should not there be management scrutiny of decisions that are administrative rather than judicial? I appreciate that there has been some reluctance in this regard, but is not it time to introduce Ofjudge?

Mr. Lock: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as always, for her novel and interesting suggestions, but the constitutional principle of judicial independence means that the Lord Chancellor cannot interfere with, or comment on, judicial decisions. I can assure her that my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor treats all complaints about judicial conduct very seriously. Since he took up his post, he has established a dedicated team of officials in his Department, who make thorough inquiries on his behalf into all complaints about judicial conduct. He considers every complaint to determine whether it is justified and, if so, what action should be taken. However, I emphasise that we are talking about a tiny proportion of judges, and that the vast majority serve extremely professionally and efficiently. We are very grateful for all their work.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): A judge gave summary judgment in a case in which a constituent of mine was the plaintiff without allowing that constituent to put his case in court or be present for the decision. Does the Minister consider that that judge demonstrated the necessary skills and abilities?

Mr. Lock: It would be infringing the principle of the constitutional independence of judges, to which I have just referred, to comment on an individual case. Clearly, the appeal courts give any litigant with a good case that did not get a proper hearing first time around the opportunity to have it considered by a higher court.

Lichfield Magistrates Court

35. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): If she will make a statement on the future of Lichfield magistrates court. [114043]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): I am currently considering the appeal against the proposed closure of Lichfield magistrates court. I expect to announce my decision shortly.

Mr. Fabricant: For more than 600 years--week in, week out and one way or another--there has been a magistrates court in Lichfield. At present, there is no such court, pending the announcement of the result of the appeal. I have spoken to the Minister, her predecessor and

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her predecessor's predecessor about this matter. Will she please make a statement soon, saying that the magistrates court in Lichfield will remain open?

Jane Kennedy: I have on previous occasions complimented the hon. Gentleman on his assiduous pursuit of his constituents' interests. However, I cannot confirm precisely when the decision will be made. I want to pay careful attention to all the representations made during the course of the appeal. I will make my decision known on both Lichfield county court and the Lichfield magistrates court at the same time.

HOUSE OF COMMONS

The President of the Council was asked--

Oral Questions

44. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): If she will propose to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons that it examine the cut-off time for the tabling of oral questions. [114054]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): My right hon. Friend has no plans to do so, but is always happy to respond to Members' concerns. However, work on this subject was considered by the Procedure Committee in 1991 and 1993.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister consider referring the matter to the Modernisation Committee? It seems unnecessarily restrictive that hon. Members have to table their questions by 5 pm. Would not a cut-off time of 7 pm, when there is often a vote--particularly on a Monday--be more appropriate on Mondays and for the rest of the week?

Mr. Tipping: The Procedure Committee and the Speaker are always willing to consider such matters. With new technology, a later cut-off time could well be considered. I think that it would be important to have the same cut-off time for every day of the week. However, if the hon. Gentleman is anxious to pursue the matter, we ought to refer it to the Procedure Committee.

HOUSE OF COMMONS COMMISSION

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked--

Nursery (Palace of Westminster)

45. Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): To ask the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, if the Commission will bring forward plans to establish an on-site nursery in the Palace of Westminster. [114056]

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (on behalf of the House of Commons Commission): I commend the hon. Gentleman for the tenacity with which he is pursuing this important

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matter. The House of Commons Commission takes its responsibilities as an employer very seriously. However, given the constraints on space and cash, we remain of the view that the fairest way of dealing with staff child care needs is by means of the existing and highly popular staff voucher scheme. I regret that I have nothing further to add to my written answer of 14 December--that we have no plans to establish an on-site nursery.

Mr. Corbyn: Will the hon. Gentleman take back to his Committee the feeling of many people in the House and outside that we should at the very least set an example by providing on-site child care facilities in this building, and that the voucher system discriminates against parents with responsibility for young children because it comes out of the office cost allowance budget, which then militates against other staff? Of the 3,500 staff surveyed in 1998, more than 75 per cent. supported some kind of child care facility. If we can find space for bars, gyms and many other things, I am sure that we can find space for on-site child care facilities. Will he and his Committee kindly reconsider?

Mr. Kirkwood: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. To establish an on-site creche would cost in the region of £600,000. The current voucher system costs £100,000. We think that that is a better balance in terms of protecting the taxpayers' interest. That £600,000 would have to come out of the taxpayers' money, which would be difficult to justify. Certainly, that was the recommendation of the Administration Committee when it conducted its latest research in 1998.


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