HC Deb 15 February 1993 vol 219 cc94-100

Amendment made: No. 20, in page 91, line 31, leave out from 'words' to end of line 33 and insert 'qualifying judicial office, within the meaning of the Judicial Pensions and Retirement Act 1993.".'.—[Mr. John M. Taylor.]

Order for Third Reading read.

8.30 pm
Mr. John M. Taylor

I beg to move, That the Bill now be read the Third time.

I do not wish to speak at any great length at this point in the proceedings, but would like to comment on one or two matters before we bring our consideration of the Bill to a close.

The occasion for the Bill was the change in the tax treatment of pension schemes introduced by the Finance Acts of 1987 and 1989. That legislation provided the means by which the Revenue applied common standards to all modern occupational pension schemes. Those standards were not applied to the judicial pension schemes. However, there was a thorough-going review of those schemes and consultation with the judiciary on the design of improved pension arrangements. The Bill is the product of that review and consultation. Its provisions apply the same standards to judicial pension arrangements as the Revenue applies to all other public service and private sector occupational pension schemes. It brings judicial pension arrangements more into line with modern tax law.

The Government have also taken this opportunity to make a number of other significant changes to the judicial pension arrangements. In place of a plethora of judicial pension schemes with different accrual periods, contribution rates and benefit levels, they have created a unified scheme embracing all salaried judicial officers in the United Kingdom. As well as being inherently fairer than the existing position, this will remove the barriers which the current arrangements place in the way of judges moving between the different levels of the judiciary on promotion. Following representations, the Bill was amended by the Government in several important respects in the other place further to improve the level of benefits it provides. The judicial pension arrangements provided by the Bill now constitute an attractive package which compares favourably with other public service and private sector occupational pension schemes.

The Bill also makes provision, following consultation, for setting a new general retirement age of 70 for all judicial officers first appointed after the Bill comes into force. That uniform arrangement will replace the present variety of retirement ages. The choice of the age of 70 instead of another age has not been without its critics. The right retirement age for the judiciary is clearly a matter of judgment. It is the Government's view, however, that 70 is the appropriate age; it takes account both of the need for experience and maturity of judgment and the fact that the burdens of office can be onerous.

I think that it is right at this stage of the Bill to say a quick word about commencement. If the Bill is given a Third Reading, completes its final stage in the other place and goes on to receive Royal Assent, there will still be a considerable amount of work to be done in the form of regulations—many of an actuarial nature—before it can be fully implemented. It is my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor's present intention that both the pensions and retirement provisions of the Bill be commenced simultaneously. However, in view of the work I have just mentioned, it is unlikely that the Bill can be brought into force much before the end of 1993.

Finally, I would like to thank all those on both sides of the House who have contributed to our debates on this Bill. It has provided an opportunity for hon. and right hon. Members to raise a wide range of issues relating to the judiciary, many of which have proved of great interest. I commend the Bill to the House.

8.34 pm
Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)

Having given such detailed and lengthy consideration—for which we are indebted to the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir. I. Lawrence)—to the special interests of the judges, it is right that we should spend at least some time considering what is perhaps the most important interest of all in judicial and legal services, the public and consumer interest. I shall address myself to those matters.

The Government have missed an opportunity. We hoped that they would go much further than they did and that the House would consider the subject of judicial services. The quality of those services remains high and the intellect of those who work in them is, in the main, without parallel in the jurisdiction of the EEC and further still. We could have examined how judicial services might be improved and enhanced in the interests of the consumer. We hoped that we would address the issue of a younger judiciary and the means by which we could encourage the appointment, at an earlier age, of suitably qualified practitioners, be they barristers, solicitors or academics drawn from either branch, and how we might so arrange pensions to enable that to happen.

The Government missed the opportunity but at the same time increased the required length of service to qualify for a judicial pension and reduced the age of retirement to 70. They failed to incorporate into the Bill any positive measures to encourage the appointment of younger people to the bench. They failed to respond to the desirability of reducing the retirement age still further and making it, as both the Bar and the Law Society and a broad cross-section of consumer interests have suggested, 65 rather than 70. We regret the missed opportunity.

In Committee, we tried to persuade the Government of the wisdom of our case to reduce the retirement age. They failed to be persuaded, and the Bill is flawed. It will remain flawed as a recipe for a judiciary in tune with the times and capable of meeting their challenges. The important issue must be addressed, together with another issue touched on by the hon. and learned Member for Burton, but then drawn away from as if one had spoken of an unpleasant heresy, and that is the notion that it might just be possible to conceive of a judiciary in which there were opportunities for the development of a career. I have in mind a judicial service in which it might be possible to appoint practitioners in their late thirties, or in their forties, to the junior ranks of the judiciary, and then see them advance up the scale to the highest judicial offices. The Bill recognises the importance and possibility of the portability of pensions, and that is to be supported and commended, but it does nothing to recognise and encourage the desirability of appointing practitioners to the bench at a younger age and providing a career structure that will enable them to advance within it.

I do not see why we should accept as holy writ the notion propounded by the hon. and learned Member for Burton that someone at the Bar is automatically qualified for the judiciary when he or she is earning about £200,000 a year. He seemed to suggest that a practitioner should be earning that sort of sum before he or she could be considered qualified for judicial appointment. The hon. and learned Gentleman clearly practises in a different world from that occupied by myself and other humble practitioners. The notion that only when a practitioner earns £200,000 a year is he or she qualified to make the supreme sacrifice of entering the judiciary is palpably absurd. It does not bear examination.

I wish to do nothing at this late stage of our consideration of the Bill to excite the hon. and learned Gentleman. I hope in due course to be able to make much more common cause with him on the issue of legal aid.

Sir Ivan Lawrence

If there is a difference between my earnings at the bar and those of the hon. Gentleman, it is because I have been at it, as it were, a bit longer than he. I have no doubt that in due course he will earn the highest amounts possible under the legal aid system. I can assure him that they will not come to anything like £200,000 a year. I quoted that figure as an example of what some of the best practitioners—the most experienced and successful—earn in some branches of the law.

The hon. Gentleman might agree with me that many of those who are appointed to the circuit beench have not been privileged to earn £200,000 a year. Their earnings before appointment have been substantially lower. They have been unable to accumulate a pension outside the judiciary that would enable them to make a substantial enough contribution to make becoming a judge worth while.

Mr. Boateng

Quite so. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman read the reports of our Committee proceedings. I made that point about earnings then.

It would be dangerous for those who take an interest in our proceedings outside the House and who are not lawyers to gain the impression that only practitioners who earn the sort of sum that the hon. and learned Gentleman has seen fit to quote would be qualified for entry to the judiciary. A progressive approach to judicial appointments must be one that seeks to encourage the broadest possible cross-section of practitioners, people with different skills and experience but suitably qualified. There must be the broadest ranges of ages and gender. In that regard, we cannot afford any complacency.

At a time when there is considerable public interest in the judiciary and legal services generally, it is right that there should be a public debate about the composition of the judiciary, how training might be enhanced and how appointments might be made more transparent. We examined those issues in Committee. We pressed—we shall continue to do so—the value of a lay element. It is a matter of deep regret to Opposition Members that in Committee—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. A debate on Third Reading must be confined to what is in the Bill. It is not the time to talk about what is not in it or what should be in it.

Mr. Boateng

Quite so, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I invite the attention of the House to clause 11.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones)

Must the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Boateng

The right hon. Gentleman has every reason to be tired, given the events of recent months. I have in mind especially his recent exposure to lawyers over international treaty organisations. I well understand why he is reluctant to embark upon a detailed study of the Bill. I must, however, tax him just a little and add to the woes that befall him.

When we consider the clauses that relate to the entitlement to a pension of holders of judicial office, it is interesting to reflect on their impact on the opportunities and entitlements of women who, against the odds, achieve judicial office. There is still an imbalance against women in the appointment of and to the judiciary. The relevant clauses will still further disadvantage women who rise to judicial appointments unless there is a policy that positively seeks out women entrants. I have in mind a policy that encourages practitioners to enter the judiciary at an earlier age, and one that will have more women members. Such a judiciary would be better qualified to command the wholehearted confidence of the public. I say that from the point of view of the Lord Chancellor's Department and of those responsible for appointing judges.

Mr. John M. Taylor

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to know that the Lord Chancellor has stated his policy on judicial appointments in these terms—that while it must be the best who are appointed, none the less he wants more women and representatives of ethnic minorities to be appointed. Optimistically, as more women and people from ethnic minorities are recruited into the legal profession, it will not be long before they are at an age in the recruiting grounds when they can be promoted. I think that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that, as I do.

Mr. Boateng

It is always encouraging to hear such sentiments being expressed by the Minister, echoing what I know to be the Lord Chancellor's sincerely held belief, to which he has sought ably to give effect during recent years. However, there is no room for complacency, which is why we have been concerned to ensure that that matter is taken on board.

It is possible and desirable to have a more ethnic and gender-varied bench which in every way represents the community that it serves not only through talent and intellectual achievement, but through race and gender make-up. It is eminently desirable that we take that into account during our consideration of the Bill.

We doubt that the Bill would have come before the House in its present form had it been the subject of consultation with and input from a far broader range of interests. That is why it is so important to take account of consumer interests. Time and again we have spoken about the deficiencies in policy making within the Lord Chancellor's Department—the shapers of the Bill—when there is no involvement, as of right, for the consumers of legal services. The judiciary provides a valuable public service. Although standards of integrity and intellect are of the highest, we shall continue to press for judicial services that are more shaped by lay involvement through appointments, that are enhanced by training opportunities linked to a career structure, and that are underpinned by pension arrangements of the sort outlined in the Bill. At the same time, we want a judiciary that is more diverse and whose members retire earlier than at present.

We will not divide the House on Third Reading. We want to extend our thanks to the Minister and those hon. Members on both sides of the House who served on the Committee. We also thank the Chairman and the Officers of the House. We owe them a debt of thanks for a course of deliberation that has been enlightening and entertaining and whose ultimate conclusion, while by no means perfect, is livable with.

8.54 pm
Sir Ivan Lawrence

Unusually, I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) said. There is obviously a high degree of cross-party unity on the Bill. The fact that we have concentrated on the Bill's drawbacks should not hide from the public the fact that, in general, the Bill has been widely welcomed for its important provisions, which will improve the system.

It is only right to point out—it may not have been apparent from anything said this evening—that some very distinguished and eminent people have opposed certain elements of the Bill. The Lord Chief Justice made his maiden speech opposing elements of the Bill. A former Lord Chancellor, some Law Lords and a former Master of the Rolls all made speeches opposing certain elements of the Bill. It has not been widely welcomed in all its features.

The circuit judges have done a great deal to advance the argument for widows' and other pensions, although they were not alone in that. When we stand back and look at the current position it is obvious that the major vice of the Bill is, as was said in another place, the combination of reducing the retiring age for judges and increasing the accrual rate for earning a pension.

The Bill was summed up in the other place by, I think, the Lord Chief Justice—although it may have been one of the other judges—as something that would produce serious problems of recruitment, judicial staleness and injustice, and not a Bill that should command, in all its aspects, universal support—not only among lawyers but among all who consider the logical and reasonable criticisms that have been levelled against it.

It is obvious that young people in their early years of practice at the Bar, who are trying to pay off a mortgage and who have substantial expenses if they are educating their children, cannot build up private pensions that are adequate to supplement the pension that a judge will earn at the end of his long period of accrual. There are distinctive features of practice at the Bar and on the bench that are not wholly comparable with life outside. For someone who becomes a judge, it is a whole new profession begun in late middle age. That is the real anomaly about the judiciary, not the fact that the accrual rates vary from one sort of judge to another.

I do not believe that the Government have given enough attention to the judiciary's concern about the future of the judicial profession, and about how much more difficult it will be in the new, hectic litigious world to find judges of calibre and to attract them. If they are of great calibre and are attracted, the calibre of the Bar will be depleted; if they are of calibre and lose their calibre, they will be encouraged to stay on past their sell-by date—their date of efficiency—to qualify for a pension.

Let me make a point that I did not make in my earlier speech, when I was trying to speak as briefly as possible in order not to weary the House. I was stunned by both the comments of the hon. Member for Brent, South and those of my hon. Friend the Minister about women. How on earth can we pretend that we are creating a system in which women will find it more attractive to be judges, while ensuring that, by the time they get on to the bench and have served a period as judge, they will not be able to earn a full pension unless they stay on for much longer than they need or ought to? In the early stages of their lives, such women may have raised families. They may have been out of Bar practice for years, while others will have been accruing private pensions to be added to the pensions that they will receive as judges.

What on earth will be the temptation for those women to follow the judicial path later in life, knowing that they will be so much worse off finanically at the end? It is all very well having pious ideas about how, in the future, there will be more women barristers—if they can find chambers and stay at the Bar, and if they have not been channelled into some other occupation, such as the Crown prosecution service or the solicitors' profession, because it is no longer particularly attractive to stay at the Bar—if they are then given a disincentive to follow a judicial career because their incomes will be reduced from the moment that they take a pension.

Actuaries may look at their figures; Governments, with the help of the Treasury, may examine their financial disbursements. Ultimately, however, we must have a judicial system that contains the best people. We want a judicial system with women—and women will not be encouraged to become judges as a result of proposals such as this.

I wish the Bill godspeed, but I wish that my hon. Friend and the Lord Chancellor had given more serious consideration to the criticisms levelled against it by the most senior judges in the land. They were not talking nonsense. I hope that, when we look back on the legislation in a few years' time, we shall have no cause to regret the decisions that my hon. Friend and the Government have made—quite stubbornly—to proceed with their original plan.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.