Straw launches drive for more Labour JPs

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

Labour supporters were yesterday urged to become Justices of the Peace in order to break the Conservative stranglehold on magistrates benches.

Tory-voting magistrates outnumber Labour JPs by two-to- one - even in some traditional Labour strongholds, according to a survey from the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Yesterday, launching a national campaign to redress the balance, Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, said the breakdown was a matter of concern. "Magistrates are an integral part of our criminal justice system. They deal with 95 per cent of all criminal prosecutions and provide a vital system of local justice. It is important that JPs reflect the political balance of the communities they serve."

More importantly, he said, magistrates tended to come from the ranks of the self-employed, the professional or the non-working classes because of the difficulties facing those on low and middle-incomes to take time off for public duties.

The figures, compiled in response to a parliamentary question from Mr Straw, show that of the 30,982 magistrates in England and Wales, 45 per cent are Conservative supporters, 22 per cent Labour, 16 per cent are Liberal Democrats and 17 support others or no party at all.

Magistrates are appointed by the Lord Chancellor from names submitted by local advisory committees. Would-be JPs do not have to disclose their political affiliations when they apply, but they are asked at the time of interview if they have such affiliations.

The Lord Chancellor's Department, which recruits magistrates in England and Wales, said that efforts were made to achieve a balance on the benches not simply in terms of politics, but also in terms of age, gender and ethnic background. It also warned that the figures should be interpreted with care.