Lord Irvine attacked over call for more Labour JPs

BY FRANCES GIBB

LORD IRVINE of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, has been criticised by the chairman of the Magistrates' Association over his call for a campaign to attract more Labour voters to sit on the bench.

Lord Irvine's comments, at the annual general meeting of the Magistrates' Association on Saturday, suggested that magistrates were a political body and that politics were part of their job.

Anne Fuller said: "Politics play no part in the work we do. I have no idea what the politics of my colleagues are. They do not, and never will, affect our judicial judgment."

Lord Irvine told the meeting that he was concerned that "some sections of the population are under-represented on the Bench - not least Labour voters". He added: "That was so in very many parts of the country before the last election. The result of the election, in which new Labour won so resounding a majority, has made the imbalance gross."

Lord Irvine said that Labour voters were no longer confined to "trade unionists and the chattering classes". He said: "Labour voters are out there in every walk of life. It should not be too difficult to find them and I expect them to be found."

Ms Fuller said it was impracticable to find out what JPs' politics are. "We are asked, but we do not have to say, when we apply. Furthermore, magistrates - like many other people - change their opinions. One third of the population are floating voters and I have no reason to think magistrates are any different."

Lord Irvine also expressed concern that magistrates were not coming from wide enough backgrounds. "My intention," he said, is to "open the magistracy to as many people as possible."

Lord Irvine has called for measures including advertisements in supermarkets as well as telling magistrates' advisory committees to disregard the question of magistrates' age in an effort to bring in more Labour supporters. He has also launched a project into ways to attract people from "non-traditional" groups such as manual workers and people from ethnic minorities.

No figures exist for the number of Labour justices but even in Labour areas they are not thought to represent even half the magistrates. A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said magistrates were asked at interview, and on their application forms, what party they supported, but many said they were uncommitted. Others changed their opinions during the course of serving as JPs.