HC Deb 12 February 1976 vol 905 cc617-24
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

Mr. Speaker, with permission, I should like to make a statement.

I have recommended to Her Majesty the Queen that a Royal Commission should be established with the following terms of reference: To inquire into the law and practice relating to the provision of legal services in England and Wales and to consider whether any, and if so what, changes are desirable in the public interest in the structure, organisation, training, regulation of and entry to the legal profession, including the arrangements for determining its remuneration, whether from private sources or public funds, and in the rules which prevent persons who are neither barristers nor solicitors from undertaking conveyancing and other legal business on behalf of other persons. The House will have seen this morning that the Bar Council and the Law Society have issued a joint statement saying that they would welcome the opportunity to participate in a comprehensive examination of the structure of the profession, its functions, its remuneration and the services it provides". The Commission will have all the usual powers to call for evidence and information to make inquiries and visits and to submit interim reports.

An announcement will be made in due course about the chairman and membership of the Commission.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is the Prime Minister aware that the joint statement to which he referred also emphasised that the legal profession should remain independent? Does he share that view in setting up the terms of reference? It is a little difficult to judge from the terms of reference whether that is so. Secondly, as the Prime Minister will be aware that it is extremely important that the Commission should command the confidence of both the public and the profession alike, will he undertake wide consultations on its membership?

The Prime Minister

On the last point, yes, certainly. In order that the Commission shall command wide confidence, I am sure that the right hon. Lady, who is a member of the legal profession, will agree that it would be inappropriate to have a lawyer as chairman of the Royal Commission.

The point which the right hon. Lady raised at the beginning, which I do not quite understand, is not in question at all. The whole House recognises the importance of the independence of the legal profession. The particular matters to be inquired into—which I dealt with in considerable detail in the proposed terms of reference—will cover some of those on which great public anxiety has been expressed about the organisation and practices of the profession.

The right hon. Lady will be aware of the motion on the Order Paper signed by, I think, 111 hon. Members. I cannot recall whether the right hon. Lady signed it. That motion expressed anxieties going far beyond this House. I am happy to feel, as is the right hon. Lady, that the legal profession was among the first to welcome this decision.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Will my right hon. Friend accept that his announcement will be extremely welcome within the legal profession, but that not all members of the profession would share the view he has just expressed that there should be a lawyer as chairman. Many members of the legal profession would prefer to have a lay chairman. [Interrirption.] If I misheard my right hon. Friend, I shall be very glad to be corrected.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that it will be within the scope of the Commission to consider the desirability of setting up a Ministry of Justice to deal with the antiquated and inefficient administration of the courts, for which no Minister is at present answerable in the House?

The Prime Minister

Dealing with the first part of my hon. Friend's question, what I said was that I would not recommend to Her Majesty that a lawyer should be chairman of this particular Commission.

Concerning the question of a Ministry of Justice, this has often been considered in this country and debated in the House. It has been considered by successive Prime Ministers. I would certainly need—as my predecessors would have needed—a great deal of argument to convince me that this would be right. There is, however, nothing in the terms of reference of the Royal Commission to preclude it from commenting on that matter.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that we welcome any Royal Commission which is to examine any profession which has a restriction on terms of entry, whether it be lawyers or dockers, in order to see whether it is in the public interest? Secondly, will the Prime Minister tell us why the Commission's terms of reference do not extend to Scotland? Thirdly, will it be in order for the Commission to report on whether legal aid should be made more widely available to citizens of this country?

Finally, and simply for the record, can the Prime Minister—he might require notice of this question—tell the House how many Royal Commissions have been set up in the last 10 years, how many of their Reports have been implemented in whole or in part, and how many have been shelved?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I think it is right—the House has supported it—that we should have a Royal Commission at this time. It is a long time since there were inquiries into those two most distinguished and ancient professions, the doctors and the lawyers. The oldest profession was inquired into by Wolfenden some time earlier.

The question whether a similar inquiry should be held in respect of Scotland, which has its own system of law, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, and the question a Northern Ireland are still under consideration. Legal aid is certainly very clearly within the terms of reference, as the right hon. Gentleman will agree when he has studied what I have said.

As to the number of Royal Commissions, I have actually asked the same question myself. I have had the answer but I cannot remember it. I shall make it my business, if the right hon. Gentleman will put down a Question or write to me about it, to answer it and make the answer publicly available.

Mr. Ashley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that millions of people who have been concerned about the legal profession and the legal services will warmly welcome his statement about the setting up of the Royal Commission and will want to thank him for it? Will he try to ensure, first, not only that the chairman of the Royal Commission should be a lay member but that there should be a majority of lay members, not lawyers?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend seek to ensure that any urgent legal reforms now being considered by the Lord Chancellor will not be delayed by the Royal Commission?

The Prime Minister

Legal reforms stemming from the work of the Law Commission and those originated by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will not be impeded in any way by the announcement of the establishment of the Commission. I thank my hon. Friend for the welcome he has given to it.

As to the membership, in my view—I am picking up a point which I may not have fully answered from the Leader of the Opposition—there should be the fullest consultations about the form of membership of the Royal Commission.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

Will the Prime Minister indicate why there is a delay in dealing with the Scottish legal profession, if the matter is still under consideration? Secondly, if the Prime Minister is not prepared to go ahead with a Royal Commission for Scotland at the present time, will he give consideration to providing enough time in the House for the Solicitors' (Scotland) Bill, which seeks to provide lay representation on disciplinary committees?

Will the Prime Minister accept our thanks for not having lumped the Scottish legal profession, which is entirely different from that in England and Wales, into the same Royal Commission?

The Prime Minister

To receive thanks or praise from those Benches is unprecedented, and I am duly moved by it. I explained in answer to a previous question that urgent consideration is being given to the matter of a separate inquiry or whatever might be the appropriate form of procedure in respect of a country with its own distinctive branch of law. As to the other matters raised by the hon. Member, these really are more appropriate for my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council, when he deals with business questions today or on some other occasion.

Mr. Christopher Price

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is considerable suspicion at the alacrity with which the Law Society and the Bar Council have rushed in to welcome the setting up of the Commission? Is he aware that we have seen Commissions come and go in the past, and that many hon. Members on this side of the House will judge the Commission by its membership? Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only is it important that the Commission should not be packed with lawyers, but that if it is packed with members of the Establishment it will be equally unsatisfactory?

Will my right hon. Friend further agree that we need ordinary working people on the Commission in order to make sure that the law does not continue with the types of restrictive practice that it has at present?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend referred to the suspicion which he finds surrounding the statement by the Law Society and the Bar Council. Being totally innocent in this and all other matters, I have no reason whatsover for supporting such suspicion.

I have already answered questions about how the membership of the Commission should be arranged.

Reverting to the point raised by the Leader of the Liberal Party, I am reminded that I answered what is described as a huge Written Question from the right hon. and learned Gentleman the former Attorney-General two weeks ago about the Royal Commissions which have been established in the last 20 years. When the Leader of the Liberal Party has had time to study that very long answer, if he wishes to approach me on any questions I shall be happy to answer them.

Sir T. Kitson

Is the Prime Minister aware that on 23rd October he announced the name of the Chairman of the Royal Commission on Betting and Gaming but that, as yet, we have still not been informed, 15 weeks later, who the members of the Commission are to be? Is there any way of speeding up the appointment and the work of this Royal Commission?

The Prime Minister

Once having announced the decision in principle, it is very difficult to make sure that there are adequate consultations not only with the interests concerned but with "anti-interests" and with people in all parts of the House who may have views about this matter. I am sorry that it has taken so long. I shall get in touch with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about this matter. There has been some delay, and I am afraid that it is fairly usual. I hope that we can proceed with more speed on this occasion.

Mr. English

I take it that the terms of reference of this Royal Commission are wide enough to consider my proposals for an ombudsman to deal with complaints of negligence against solicitors. Will my right hon. Friend also persuade the Exchequer to allow a little more money to the existing ombudsman and persuade the Lord Chancellor to widen his powers within the extent of the present law? It is desirable that the many complaints that we receive—they run into five figures—should be considered even while this Royal Commission is sitting rather than simply waiting for the long processes of the Royal Commission.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend's professional qualifications in the law being so much greater than mine, he will have more authority than I do to interpret exactly how the terms of reference might be construed. But this must be a matter for the Royal Commission. It is for the Royal Commission to construe its terms of reference. I see no reason why it should not deal with such issues as those raised by my hon. Friend.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall allow two further supplementary questions on this. Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn.

Mr. Fairbairn

May I declare an interest in that I am a member of a legal profession which is not to be the subject of paranoiac scrutiny in this form? Will the Prime Minister assure the House whether there is any intention to make a similar inquiry of this rather witch-hunting kind into the legal profession in Scotland and, if not, why the cost of this long bureaucratic inquiry should be paid for by the people of Scotland?

The Prime Minister

I am not competent to bandy words with the hon. and learned Gentleman either in legal matters or in paranoia. Dealing with the latter part of his question, I have already answered the point twice, if not three times, when I said that the question of a parallel inquiry or some other form of inquiry in relation to Scotland was being considered urgently. Whatever happens, it will not be paranoiac. The hon. and learned Gentleman's reaction may be.

Mr. Wellbeloved

In view of the widespread concern about the conveyancing side of this question, will my right hon. Friend consider requesting the Commission to give urgent priority to the conveyancing issue and to publish an interim report? Will he also say whether the terms of reference of the Royal Commission allow for consideration to be given to the thorny question of the amalgamation of the two branches of the law?

The Prime Minister

Conveyancing and the present legal monopoly in respect of conveyancing are covered in the terms of reference. I made that clear. I also made it clear that the Commission would have all the usual powers to submit an interim report or reports should that be the position.

With regard to the divorcement, if that is the word, between the two branches—the question whether there are two branches of the profession; if it were not so we would not have had the dual statement welcoming this decision which was issued this morning—it is manifestly clear that that can be considered by the Royal Commission.

Mr. Edward Gardner

Can the Prime Minister say when he anticipates that this new Royal Commission which is about to be appointed is likely to be in a position to make its report?

The Prime Minister

That must be a matter for the Royal Commission. It has been charged with a very, very important task. No one would wish it to rush its report unduly. But, as I have said—and the hon. and learned Gentleman will have heard me—it will be a matter for the Royal Commission to decide, if it finds any subject on which it thinks it urgent to make an interim report or a series of interim reports, to do so.