Magistrates should be permitted to sentence convicted defendants for up to 12 months in prison for a single offence, a committee of MPs has recommended.

The Justice Committee’s report, The Role of the Magistracy, also called for a clearer strategy to tackle the ‘low morale’ on the bench and ‘serious’ recruitment issues.

The number of magistrates has almost halved in the last decade, from 30,000 in 2006 to 17,500 now. Of those, 86% are aged 50 or over and 89% are white.

Committee chairman, Bob Neill said: ‘It is unfortunate that the government’s evident goodwill towards the magistracy has not yet been translated into any meaningful strategy for supporting and developing it within a changing criminal justice system. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.’

He said: ‘Although evidence does not indicate a universal problem, there is sufficient evidence of low morale within the magistracy to cause concern.’

The report recommended steps be taken to increase diversity, including wider advertising and consideration of the introduction of equal merit provisions for recruitment.

It suggested a kitemark scheme that recognises and rewards employers who support the magistracy would help to rebalance the age profile.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: ‘We welcome this report and will consider its recommendations carefully.’