May I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary on her appointment? It is the first chance that I have had to do so. She is probably aware that I have more than a passing interest in the judiciary. While maintaining standards, it is important that we do all that we can to ensure that the expansion of the bench that is proposed is more representative of the wider community—especially in improving ethnic and gender balance—that the judiciary is seen to be impartial and independent, and that public confidence in the judiciary, which has taken a real knocking, is restored.
That is especially important because one of the main reasons for the expansion given by my hon. Friend in her introduction is the expected increase in work as a consequence of the passing of human rights legislation. To that extent, I agree with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) that the judiciary will increasingly be seen as having a political role when deciding cases on human rights, as well as, for example, those on devolution matters and on European law more generally.
On 18 November, research was published by the Nuffield Foundation which showed how out of touch people believed the judiciary to be. An article on the research stated that
people saw judges as old, white and male, reflecting the values and biases of a privileged elite… Two out of three thought judges were out of touch with ordinary people's lives.
It was particularly worrying that, as the report stated of those who were subject to the survey:
There were virtually no significant differences in the response to this question (whether judges are out of touch) depending on age, education, employment status, problem type, previous experience of legal advice, or involvement in legal proceedings.
At a press conference, Lord Woolf responded to the survey by simply blaming irresponsible media reporting of judges. However, that is not the answer. I believe that the problem is more deep-rooted. That research supports the argument that, when opportunities arise to increase the number of judges, steps must be taken to start dealing with the crisis of confidence in the judiciary.
I am sure that, at this late hour, it will come as a relief to the Parliamentary Secretary and other hon. Members that I do not propose to make detailed arguments against secret soundings, or for reform of court dress, or for a judicial appointments commission, or for a register of interests for judges. My principled arguments have been made on previous occasions.
However, I will say that the secret soundings system plumbs the depths of private prejudice. It permits the unfettered exercise of byzantine power by the inner cabals of the legal and judicial establishment, as that establishment continues to clone itself, ensuring that the bench remains the unrepresentative bastion of privilege that it has been for centuries.