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Large-scale reform of the system for appointing judges was ruled out yesterday by the Conservative-dominated Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, despite continuing evidence that women and racial minorities are still markedly under- represented on the bench.

The effective vote of confidence in the status quo by the committee's Tory members comes as male appointments to all ranks of the judiciary stands at 2,804 compared to 312 women and just 75 people of non-white origin, predominantly in the lower echelons.

While voicing some low-key criticisms and suggesting some limited changes, a report from the committee yesterday leaves senior appointments, particularly, in the continuing control of an overwhelmingly male, white and exclusively- educated judicial Establishment.

The report suggests that the Prime Minister should no longer have the power of veto over the appointment of senior judges. But even this is not worded as a firm recommendation. "We have some qualms about the role of the Prime Minister ... in particular we do not see how he or she might be better informed than the Lord Chancellor to make recommendations to the Queen. We therefore question whether the Prime Minister should play any part in appointing judges."

But the committee rejected Opposition plans for a judicial appointments commission and ruled out wholesale reform.

All but the most junior judges are appointed after the Lord Chancellor's Department takes informal and secret "soundings" among existing judges and leading barristers.

Far from recommending the abolition of the legal equivalent of the old boys' network, which is incompatible with generally accepted equal opportunities practice, the committee said: "We are satisfied that there is value in gathering opinions of serving judges and of practitioners, although we believe that there may be some scope for improvement in the methods by which comments are collated."

While accepting that job descriptions and selection criteria for all judicial posts should be formulated without delay, including for the high-ranking "invitation-only" posts in the High Court and above, the MPs rejected the idea of open advertisement and competition for senior posts. Labour MPs on the committee attempted to insert paragraphs spotlighting the draw-backs of the current system, but were outvoted by Tory members.

Jo Hayes, chairwoman of the Association of Women Barristers, said: "We remain very concerned that not enough women are getting selected for the senior High Court appointments, even though quite a number are allowed to sit as part-time deputies. Secret soundings mean that the system will remain vulnerable to charges that it unfairly excludes well-qualified women."

The committee gave the system for appointing magistrates a largely clean bill of health, but said imbalances in the political, ethnic and educational make-up of JPs often arose because many people did not realise they were eligible to apply. There should be high-profile radio and television advertising campaigns designed to attract suitable candidates, the MPs said.

Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, welcomed the committee's findings, saying: "I am particularly pleased that they agree that the appointments process treats men and women equally and that they have welcomed my initiatives to encourage ethnic minority practitioners to apply for judicial office, since I am very keen to ensure that more judges are appointed from both groups."

9 Home Affairs Committee: Judicial Appointments Procedures. HMSO; pounds 12.50.

Old boys' network, page 19