Justice Committee Press Notice

Press Notice No. 43 of Session 2007-08


Report reveals system of appointments dominated by narrow social circle

In a report published today, Thursday 18 September 2008, the House of Commons Justice Committee says the way people are chosen for ceremonial roles such as the positions of High Sheriff and Lord-Lieutenant must be reformed if they are to survive and retain credibility. The Committee concludes that the method of appointing High Sheriffs does not properly reflect modern practice and that this, together with the very limited support for the costs of the office, places an unreasonable restriction on the range of people who can be considered for the post. High Sheriffs are nominated in many counties by a Committee which consists largely of previous High Sheriffs. The Committee point out that:

"it is not appropriate for an appointment body to be heavily dominated by people who hold or have previously held the position, with little or no opportunity for names to be put forward from outside their own circle of acquaintances." For rural areas, the Committee points out "most High Sheriffs come from a limited range of landowners and wealthy individuals."

The role of Lord-Lieutenants is practical as well as ceremonial and is expanding in scope and activity, yet they are unpaid and bear certain office-related costs themselves. They give active support to the voluntary, community and charitable sectors and in many parts of England and Wales they chair the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committees which appoint, and oversee the conduct of, magistrates. They, or their deputies, often play a part in citizenship ceremonies. The role of High Sheriffs in England and Wales is largely ceremonial but they serve as a representative of the local community to visiting judges and are expected to attend a wide range of public events, as well as being the nominal Returning Officer in Parliamentary Elections in County Constituencies. Many High Sheriffs have been involved in initiatives to support the criminal justice system and to promote crime prevention, particularly among young people. The general expenses of the office€”which can be considerable€”are also borne personally by the holder.

The Committee says that if there is insufficient support for the expenses of holding the office then in effect only people with their own considerable private financial resources will be able to hold such positions.

In the report the Committee says it regrets that Michael Wills, Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, indicated in evidence that he was not inclined to measure diversity in these roles outside the 'easy-to-measure' categories of ethnic origin or sex. However, the Minister did promise to provide the Committee with a paper on the possibilities in this area which will also consider whether the financial implications of holding these offices limit the candidates for the roles to those from a restricted social background. The Committee says:

"The broad principles set out by the Nolan Committee in relation to public appointments should be applied to these offices. In both the public sector and the not for profit sector, part time and voluntary positions are now also widely subject to similar procedures and publicly advertised."

Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP, Chair of the Committee, said: "The positions of Lord-Lieutenant and High Sheriff have a very long history and are part of tradition that many people value. The symbolic impact of these posts, particularly in rural counties, should not be underestimated. The reality is that ceremonial offices such as that of Lord-Lieutenant and High Sheriff are associated in the public mind with a very narrow band of people in society. If such offices are to retain credibility as representative links between the Crown, local communities and the judiciary, then that must change. Such posts should not be limited to the gentry and the wealthy. The roles must continue to develop and must be brought up-to-date to reflect changes in society. The method of appointing people must be seen to be fair and open, as is now the case for most other public appointments. If appointees cannot afford to serve because the costs are large and the allowance for expenses insufficient, no amount of good intentions will succeed in widening the range of backgrounds of office-holders."


1. Committee Membership is as follows: Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP (Chairman), Mr David Heath MP, Siân James MP, Daniel Kawczynski MP, Jessica Morden MP, Julie Morgan MP, Rt Hon Alun Michael MP, Robert Neill MP, Dr Nick Palmer MP, Linda Riordan MP, Virendra Sharma MP, Mr Andrew Turner MP, Mr Andrew Tyrie MP and Dr Alan Whitehead MP

2. The Report is the Committee's Sixth Report of Session 2007-08, HC 1001.

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