Justice: Judicial Appointments — Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:06 am on 17th March 2011.

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Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat 11:06 am, 17th March 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress is being made in improving gender and ethnic diversity in judicial appointments.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in February 2010, the independent advisory panel on judicial diversity published its report, which detailed a number of recommendations to deliver speedier and sustained progress to a more diverse judiciary without diminishing appointments on merit. In response, the judicial diversity taskforce was established to oversee the assessment and implementation of those recommendations. The taskforce met last Monday to review what has been achieved to date, and will publish its report on progress shortly.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his helpful Answer, but given the lamentably low number of women judges and the virtual absence of ethnic minority judges among our senior judiciary, which bears a very poor comparison with those of other European and other common law jurisdictions, does he agree that it is time for urgent and effective action and that all necessary steps should be taken to ensure that the recommendations of the taskforce that he mentioned, set up as a result of the recommendations of the advisory panel chaired last year by my noble friend Lady Neuberger, are implemented in full and without delay?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

My noble friend makes a correct assessment of the figures for judicial appointments. The meeting last Monday was my first with the diversity group, and I made it very clear that as far as I am concerned, the concept of trickle-up is not a response to the diversity problem that we face in the judiciary.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative

My Lords, we have hardly started. There is time for both noble Lords. Only one of us can be standing up at one time.

Photo of Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Labour

Given the nature of the issue, I think that giving way was appropriate.

I remember that when I started at the Bar there were sets of chambers that used to say, "We don't take women". We then made a great advance where chambers would say, "Women? We've got one". We now have one woman in the Supreme Court. That has been the situation for seven years. It is not good enough. What is being done? There are four wonderful women in the Court of Appeal. Why is not one of them, such as Dame Mary Arden, being promoted to our Supreme Court?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I understand that there are two imminent vacancies to the Supreme Court. I am sure that everyone will be watching as to what happens with those appointments. The noble Baroness touches on another point. The professions themselves- the Bar, the Bar Council, the Law Society and their members-should show leadership in encouraging more women into the legal profession.

Photo of Baroness Prashar Baroness Prashar Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the establishment of the Judicial Appointments Commission acted like a litmus paper in highlighting the barriers which impede progress in this area? Does he further agree that more concerted action is needed by the Ministry of Justice, the judiciary and the professions in order to make a difference?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

I most certainly agree with the noble Baroness and I pay tribute to her contribution to making the Judicial Appointments Commission so valuable. I recently met the new chairman, Mr Christopher Stephens. As well as many other attributes, he is the son of a former Clerk of the Parliaments, which should reassure this House.

Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour

My Lords, while giving every welcome to the much needed improvements in diversity over recent years, will the Minister ensure that, in the pursuit of these very proper and important aims, quality and merit will never be sacrificed by those who are responsible for appointments? Further, does the Minister agree that all these aims, including quality and merit, should apply to those who are responsible for the appointment of Queen's Counsel as well?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

I hear what the noble and learned Lord said. I can only say that 30 years ago when I was in government in the Foreign Office, women advisers were a rarity at any meeting. Returning to government 30 years later, I quite often sit in meetings where the majority of my advisers are able and talented women. I wonder why the legal profession has not made the same progress in the past 30 years as has been made in public appointments. I suspect that, perhaps not intentionally, the idea of quality and suitability is embedded in the thought "people like us".

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Liberal Democrat

Does the noble Lord agree that the previous question implied that women and ethnic minorities possibly do not have the merit or the suitable qualifications, which should not be allowed to stand? Will he tell the House whether the judicial appointments review will set targets? If that other bastion of male privilege, the City of London, can have targets, is it not time that the senior judiciary did as well?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

I think that targetry would be the wrong approach but it is worth remembering the figures. Just over 20 per cent of our judges are women. Even in the magistracy under 8 per cent represent black and ethnic minorities. I understand selection on merit but there are still signs of old selection prejudices that produce these appalling figures. They have to be broken into.

Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Labour

My Lords, I declare an interest as a deputy High Court judge of the Family Division. The noble Lord will know that that appointment was a very long time ago and that the opportunity to be a deputy is very important. Will the noble Lord tell me how many other ethnic minority women of some quality are now appointed in relation to the deputy's role?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I do not have the figures here, but I will write to the noble and learned Baroness. Let me say this about quality. This is not an attack on our judiciary. One of my other responsibilities is as deputy to the Lord Chancellor in his international role. Time and time again, we find ourselves in areas where the judiciary is corrupt and the justice system deeply flawed. I pay tribute to the quality of our judiciary, but I must say that, when the figures show that it is 80 per cent male, we are wasting half our talent. Other professions have shown the ability to change. It is time for the legal profession to change as well.