Orders of the Day — Judicial Pensions and Retirement Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:56 pm on 3rd December 1992.

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Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers , Wallsend 6:56 pm, 3rd December 1992

Many members of the public watching the debate will wonder what priority the House gives to important issues of the day. We heard during the autumn statement that low-paid public sector workers would receive no more than a 1·5 per cent. increase in their pay next year. Today we are talking about the pensions—which are really just deferred pay—of judges earning in some cases more than £87,000 a year.

The House has not yet had the opportunity of discussing the public sector pay policy that is being imposed by the Government. Nor has it had the opportunity of looking at the effects of the reduction in the availability of legal aid, which will deny justice to many citizens. Even so, tonight we are considering the pensions and retirement age of judges.

Despite that, this is an important time to consider those issues because retirement and pensions are the framework within which the judicial structure will operate. They are the fixed points that will determine much of what goes below it, and the House must recognise—not in terms of the complacent language used by Conservative Members—that there is a crisis of confidence in our legal system today. There is prolonged delay, escalating costs and, as we know, a series of miscarriages of justices, and the judiciary has a heavy responsibility to bear in that respect.

It is not good enough to blame the police or juries. The judges have a responsibility, and public perception generally cannot be ignored. It is arrogance in the extreme to say that the public perception of how the judges operate can be ignored. The House has a responsibility to recognise the deep feelings that members of the public have about the way in which judges conduct themselves and their business. Judges must bear a heavy responsibility.

Reference has already been made this evening to the occasional quirkiness of some members of the Bench. Odd comments often make for a good after-dinner speech. We have heard about the judge who does not know about Cliff Richard or a launderette. Such comments are faintly amusing, but they show how judges are often out of touch with modern living. That degree of being out of touch does not concern me as much as the way in which that being out of touch has an effect on the sentencing policy, which often occurs.

There is a responsibility on judges to acknowledge the depth of public feeling on certain issues when they come to pass sentence. The House lays down a maximum sentence which can be imposed in many cases. There are many cases in which judges, because they are out of touch, fail to reflect the way in which the public feels about some serious crimes. Let me give a few illustrations. We all know of the many cases of men being violent towards women. We know that lenient sentences are often imposed on people who are convicted of such crimes. If the roles are reversed and the woman, who has often been subjected to many years of violent beating from a husband or partner, commits a crime, often in a moment of passion, a heavy and harsh sentence is imposed on her. Such decisions lead to a lack of confidence in the judiciary.

The age of the judiciary is an important factor. There must be a cut-off point at which judges need to retire. They cannot sit on the Bench for ever, as the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans) said, subject to an occasional medical check-up. There must be more to it. The Bill takes a small step towards reducing the retirement age of members of the Bench from 75 to 70 years. That small step is welcome, but I feel that it goes nowhere near far enough. I agree with the Bar Council suggestion that there should be a fixed retirement age of 65 for the Bench. That would be wholly appropriate.

The Bill not only reduces the age of retirement from 75 to 70; it gives the Lord Chancellor a discretion to extend annually the services of members of the judiciary who are aged from 70 to 75. I do not feel that that is appropriate. There must be a clear cut-off point. We must not put ourselves in the position in which the Lord Chancellor has the power to renew annually a judge's term of office on the Bench. We have been told that that degree of power is essential to fill the gaps in the judiciary that may be caused by sickness or by a call to lead an important national inquiry.

Retired judges will be brought back annually to fill the gaps. That is an absurd way of proceeding with an important part of public life. If Manchester United has a long injury list, the call does not go out to Bobby Charlton, Denis Law or Nobby Stiles to get their kit and turn up at Old Trafford. The same should apply to members of the judiciary. When the Prime Minister is unable to attend Question Time because of his trips around Europe, the call does not go out to Baroness Thatcher.