HC Deb 06 November 1997 vol 300 cc442-54

Motion made and Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.—[Mr. Hoon.]

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I will respect your ruling, Sir Alan, and the House must abide by it. When Bills are taken at short notice, it is difficult for the House to obtain the best procedural value from the time available to us. We now have this clause stand part debate, and I intend to use it to focus again on the important questions that the Parliamentary Secretary utterly failed to answer.

There was one point on which the hon. Gentleman gave an answer, but I do not agree with it. I shall make this point to explain why hon. Members are being asked to stay here on a Thursday evening. If the permanent secretary is not a lawyer and does not have five years' experience in the Department, there is a great deal of sense in having somebody else in an acknowledged senior position who does. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will address that.

Mr. Hoon

I said on Second Reading that there is a senior legal adviser who works directly to the permanent secretary. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will find that such a figure, who is responsible for giving legal advice, is a sufficient satisfaction of his concerns.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I am not satisfied with that. The very first point made by the Parliamentary Secretary when he was replying to the earlier debate was that this was simply a gaggle of lawyers articulating concern for a vested interest. I am a lawyer, and I am articulating concern for an interest, but it is not the interest of any private sector lawyer. I am concerned about the interest of 1,000 members of the Government Legal Service who hitherto have held this post for sound constitutional reasons.

We modified it so that, on occasion, somebody who had spent five years in the Department might be able to take their place as permanent secretary. The Government now find that inconvenient, presumably because they do not have anybody who has spent five years in the Department whom they are willing to appoint, or because they wish to go outside Government to find somebody who does not fall within the requirements of the current statute—that may not be wholly stupid, and, as I have said, we are not seeking completely to block this Bill.

However, it is important—the Parliamentary Secretary has not attempted to deal with this—that the Lord Chancellor should have at his right hand somebody with deep and practical experience of the workings of the Department, who has experience of close co-ordination with the legal system generally, and the legal profession and the courts in particular. There is absolutely no reason why such a person should not be appointed as a deputy secretary.

To say that, in government generally, the post of deputy secretary has been faded out in recent years, is a truism. We have moved towards a more flexible system of senior management. However, this is an exceptional situation, and I would not have thought that the Government were in principle so rigid and hidebound as to be unable to look for a small but exceptional answer to a substantial but exceptional problem.

It is nonsense to say that no deputy secretary can be appointed in the Lord Chancellor's Department because there are no deputy secretaries in any other Department. It is not true. The Government could do that, and, if they are refusing to do so, they are being obdurate.

6.45 pm

I shall have to read Hansard to find out the Parliamentary Secretary's exact words about a senior legal adviser to the permanent secretary. We are asking for a senior legal adviser not to the permanent secretary but to the Lord Chancellor; somebody who has right of access to the Lord Chancellor's room in the same way as the permanent secretary. The permanent secretary can enter the Lord Chancellor's room on any occasion—it would be a strange Lord Chancellor who would not let that happen—to alert him to matters that may concern him. A deputy secretary should have that power. Why should he have that power?

Mr. Hoon

Since we are proceeding in this manner, I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept that, for a considerable time, it has not been the responsibility of the permanent secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department to give legal advice to the Lord Chancellor. That advice is given by a specialist unit within the Department, which is there to give such advice. As I explained at some length earlier, the permanent secretary is no longer required to give advice to the Lord Chancellor.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

That may be so, but it does not begin to answer the question. Obviously, I have not been the Lord Chancellor and I have not been junior Minister to the Lord Chancellor, although I dare to say that it was partly on my recommendation that such a post was created. I was Solicitor-General for five years, and I did all the Lord Chancellor's business in the House.

Mr. John M. Taylor

Will my right hon. and learned Friend take note of the fact, although the permanent secretary may not be the mainstream legal adviser to the Lord Chancellor, he has an important role in judicial appointments? When I was junior Minister to the Lord Chancellor it was made perfectly clear that I was excluded from any part of the functions relating to judicial appointments. The permanent secretary has that important role, and it is far from being administrative.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I agree with my hon. Friend, and he has anticipated the very point that I was developing. The Parliamentary Secretary should recognise, if he does not already from his six months or so in the Department, that we are not just talking about legal advice. We are talking about the long-standing comprehension of the legal system and the judiciary. As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) said, we are talking about judicial appointments, probity in government, things that can go wrong, and the opportunity for effective feedback from within the Government Legal Service.

The Government will not have to be in power for very long before they will find that Ministers who are not lawyers will want to do things which may not be consistent with the law. Civil servants who are "can do" civil servants will be appointed. In our parliamentary democracy, it is the Opposition's duty to point out such things, and I can recall occasions on which the Labour party in opposition pointed out that we had appointed people with too much of a "can do" attitude.

Without revealing too many secrets, I can say that, in my role as a Law Officer over 10 years, I had to make it perfectly clear that the law had to be respected. Having done that, the law was respected. Lady Thatcher, when Prime Minister, was absolutely scrupulous in her adherence to the law. Naturally, she would push the bounds of government as far as possible in the direction that she thought was politically correct, but, once she was advised that that was as far as she could go, she would reign back and find another way to do what she wanted, if it was lawfully doable.

I am sure that that would also be true of the present Prime Minister, and that he would have a deep respect for the law. However, if there is to be a deep respect for the law, the proprieties and the general understanding of how our constitution works, there must be somebody who can advise on that.

The Lord Chancellor has an immensely busy job. He is far busier than earlier Lord Chancellors. There is now an administrative overlay for the management of the courts, which was not the case previously. It is largely because of that administrative overlay that the Government want the opportunity to appoint somebody from outside the ranks of the profession—indeed, if necessary, outside any significant experience in the Lord Chancellor's Department.

The Minister said that the previous Government had already prepared the ground, by changing the requirement for a lawyer of 10 years standing to somebody who had spent at least five years in the Department. He is now trying to sweep that away, so that somebody who has spent little or no time in the Department, and therefore has no feel for matters, can have the Lord Chancellor's ear. It is obvious from the Minister's earlier replies that the senior legal people will have to go through the permanent secretary, who will filter out information before it reaches the Lord Chancellor.

Even more important—as I imagine that the person concerned will be someone of great probity who will listen carefully to his legal adviser—that person will not have on-the-hoof experience. There will not be someone close to him who will hear the bells of propriety ring. Someone with an acknowledged position in the Department should be involved. Surely the Minister agrees that there will still be senior lawyers in high places in the Department. What is needed is someone with an acknowledged position who has the ear of the Lord Chancellor as of right. Of course, out of courtesy that person would inform the permanent secretary before he went to see the Lord Chancellor—but he would be entitled to insist on going if the permanent secretary happened to say, "I do not think you should do that," or, "I would much rather you didn't do that." That is the sort of remark that tends to be made. It is the sort of remark that is made to lawyers. Of course, what tends to happen is that people do not really want too much legal advice, as it might not be terribly helpful.

The matter is important on two levels. First, there is the immensely practical point that the Lord Chancellor should have immediately available the benefit of the long-standing, consistent experience of the profession, the judicial system and the legalities, in the knowledge that, as holder of the office, it is his duty to act a watchdog.

If we were debating this issue with the Lord Chancellor now, I am sure that he would say that he could do a great deal of that for himself; but he would not be so arrogant as to say that he could do it all. The Minister, on the Lord Chancellor's behalf, should not be so arrogant as to suggest otherwise—[Interruption.] Perhaps I am doing the hon. Gentleman an injustice. However, that is why I say that he should look more carefully at the matter than he has so far shown himself willing to do.

The second point relates to the Government legal service. I am not arguing for lawyers qua lawyers; I am arguing in favour of members of a highly honourable branch of the public service—the Government legal service—who have probably spent all their working lives from their late 20s or early 30s to retirement advising Government, while being conscious of the legalities, the difficulties, the management problems—

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way again. Does he accept that there is nothing in the Bill to prevent any lawyer from the Government legal service—or, indeed, any lawyer from any other position—from applying for the job and being considered alongside others who apply?

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Of course. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is a point of any weight, he has not understood my argument. Rather than repeat it, I invite him to read it in Hansard.

The 1,000 members of the Government legal service are attracted by the fascination of the work. The sheer level of legal work likely to be seen by a young man or woman in the service outstrips that which is available to all but a tiny handful of the Bar and solicitors' professions. No lawyer would gainsay that. Those lawyers in their 20s, 30s or even 40s in the Government legal service see matters of a weight and complexity that most private practitioners never see. Lawyers grow up in the service over many years, and build up a body of wisdom.

When lawyers move on to the administration of justice and the courts—about which my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull knows so much because of his previous ministerial position—they know how a court case is run. Over the years, they have discussed the problems with the judges. When they become administrators, they bring with them a great background of real knowledge, just like those in the upper reaches of the health service who do a certain amount of administration.

Of course, sometimes people do not want to do that—they want to do clinical medicine and nothing else. However, it is hugely valuable to the health service when people with real hands-on experience of medicine go into management. That is how the Government legal service should work. There is a genuine danger, which, sadly, the Government are so far failing to recognise, that much of that will be lost or diminished if my sensible—indeed, friendly—suggestions, which I mentioned to the Lord Chancellor in advance of this debate, are simply brushed aside.

There is also a point about agism. I do not think anyone has given much thought to that; I admit that I had not until a week ago. However, the more 1 thought about the valuable service given by permanent secretaries who have run one, two or three years over their time, the more I thought how stupid and doctrinaire it would be to get rid of them.

That point deserves a sensible and reflective answer from the Minister—at least an answer along the lines, "As a junior Minister I cannot commit the Government here and now, but I will discuss the matter carefully with the Lord Chancellor. I promise that, even if this Bill passes all its stages in the House tonight"—as, I freely admit, I had anticipated—"I will consider the matter carefully before it goes to the other place, and at least seriously consider tabling amendments to meet the serious, sensible and reasoned objections that have been made."

I very much hope that, when the Minister replies to the debate, I will receive a carefully considered and reflective answer to what I believe are genuine points of substance.

Mr. John M. Taylor

Even as we debate clause stand part, some emphasis should be laid—not least for the record—on the importance of judicial appointments when considering the qualities and qualifications that the permanent secretary to the Lord Chancellor should hold.

As I said earlier, judicial appointments are scarcely a matter for the Executive. When I was a junior Minister in the Lord Chancellor's Department, it was made abundantly clear to me—not in a menacing way, but in an entirely logical way—that my remit was to shadow the Lord Chancellor in all matters in the House of Commons, save judicial appointments. I was excluded from judicial appointments—quite rightly. They are personal to the Lord Chancellor and his immediate advisers.

Judicial appointments do not relate just to the odd judge here or there—they relate to the appointment of the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls, the President of the Family Division, the Vice-Chancellor, the entire High Court bench, the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, every recorder and deputy recorder in England and Wales, the circuit bench and every magistrate in England and Wales, save in Lancashire.

The appointments are an enormous task, and a gigantic responsibility. Part of our security in the United Kingdom is based on our belief in freedom under the law. The law is very important, and the public's confidence in the law is extremely important. That public confidence begins with the Lord Chancellor's appointments.

The Lord Chancellor probably has as many appointments in his gift as any other Minister. However, the eternal weariness for any Lord Chancellor begins once—or sometimes twice—a year, when he must preside over the incredibly difficult and delicate matter of determining who shall be appointed Queen's counsel and take silk, thereby reaching the zenith of a Bar career. What joy for those who take silk, and what utter dismay for those who are not chosen! In making the appointments, the Lord Chancellor has the most thankless role imaginable.

7 pm

Members of the Bar certainly do not regard that assessment of their worth as being administrative. Even now, I suggest that it is right for hon. Members to bear in mind the many roles of the Lord Chancellor. He sits in the other place—in a role equivalent to yours, Mr. Lord—on the Woolsack, he performs a thankless task in making judicial appointments, and he runs what has become a most controversial Department. As many hon. Members have pointed out in this debate, the Lord Chancellor's Department has changed from being a relatively small office with a relatively small range of functions into a very big Department that has in many ways entered the very centre of political argument.

Legal aid has become a much-argued-over benefit. It is part of the welfare system, and has its boundaries. People are disappointed if they do not receive a legal aid grant, and they cannot discern fairness in the system if they see someone else receive one. When I was a junior Minister in the Lord Chancellor's Department, at least half of each Question Time was taken up with often argumentative and frequently aggressive questions on legal aid.

When questions were not on legal aid, they were on the provinces and jurisdictions of magistrates and magistrates courts committees. The magistracy has been in the United Kingdom for 600 years and is independent of the circuit court system. It is the jewel in the crown of the judicial system. Appointments to the magistrates' bench are delicate and crucial. There have been political arguments over the political complexion of magistrates, and questions such as, what does the balance of the magistracy look like? Are there more of these, or more of those? Those matters are worth arguing and debating.

Magistrates are fiercely independent.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

My hon. Friend is most eloquently making the key point. He has referred to the legal aid system and to the magistracy, and undoubtedly he is about to refer to the court system. If one is to administer those systems, one must understand them. Does he not agree that, without having available a senior person who has been through the mill and understands it, the Department will be diminished?

Mr. Taylor

I could not agree more with my right hon. and learned Friend, because he has stated the case exactly.

I realise that legal aid is run by a semi-independent agency. Nevertheless, that agency spends taxpayers' money, and it is now spending about £1 .5 billion per annum, which is a very serious sum. In many ways, it is to be welcomed that the new Labour Government are developing thoughts that might have existed in a previous Administration—but I will not go over that ground.

The Government are showing some fortitude in dealing with the legal aid system, which must be dealt with. The Comptroller and Auditor General has qualified the accounts of the Lord Chancellor's Department in the past six years. The Department's accounts have not passed muster, because there has been no evident control over legal aid spending.

I wanted primarily to deal with the permanent secretary's role in judicial appointments, but, in doing so, I have enlarged my case by saying that he holds an important political and mainstream governmental role, with heavy judicial responsibility. Rightly, the qualities of the person to do the job are closely scrutinised. In this debate, I hope that Conservative Members have been trying to scrutinise those qualities closely.

Mr. Burnett

For the reasons that I have already given on Second Reading, we support the Bill. Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to the two points that I made in that debate. For his recollection, I will repeat them, but in precis form.

The first point was on the method of selection for the permanent secretary. The second point—for which I quoted from Sir Peter Middleton's recent report on legal aid—was to question whether the Government are minded to concentrate the various judicial functions and the various Departments into one separate, distinct Ministry.

Mr. Hawkins

I expressed some concerns about the Bill in the Second Reading debate. The longer debate on the Bill continues—both on Second Reading and in Committee—the more my concern increases. I paid generous compliments to the Minister in the earlier debate, but I may have overstated them. He has certainly failed to respond to the very legitimate concerns—particularly on the lack of consultation—raised by my hon. Friends and myself.

As the Minister may recall, I served on the Bar Council for seven years, until 1995, when I became a parliamentary private secretary. For the last three of those years, I was on the council's general management committee, which acts as a type of inner cabinet. In my remarks earlier today, it had certainly not occurred to me—the fact was revealed later, by questioning by Conservative Members—that there had been no consultation on the Bill with any of the legal professional bodies. The Bar Council has not been consulted, the Law Society has not been consulted, and even the civil servants' trade union has not been consulted.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that Ministers have been caught out practising government by press release, by spin doctoring and by anything other than the normal democratic process. I am particularly pleased that Conservative Members have followed up on some of the attacks made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) on the Government's attempt to push through the Bill without debate.

The manner in which the Bill has been passed will be very much noted among the professional bodies, who will regard it as a straw in the wind, or perhaps even more, showing the extent to which they will have to watch the Government—as Conservative Members intend to watch the Government—every step of the way. Ministers are constantly attempting to evade debate and to move it away from the Chamber and from those of us who have been democratically elected to scrutinise legislation, and to pass on the blind side as many measures as possible. The Government have clearly been caught out trying to pass this Bill on the blind side, but they have not succeeded—thanks to the vigilance of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire and other hon. Members. The Bill's passage has provided a classic example.

I hope that the Minister will do the House the courtesy of addressing the very serious issues raised by hon. Members in this debate. We still have absolutely no answer to many questions. What about the issue of people who have given long and loyal service in the Lord Chancellor's Department and who will be unable to continue doing so beyond a purely arbitrary age limit? Such a limit is clearly against the public interest, and the House will have to hear the Minister's answer to that question.

My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor)—who served as a Minister in the Lord Chancellor's Department in the previous Government—has raised a much more serious issue, which I will not repeat, and could not deal with half so well. It is absolutely essential that the person who holds the job of permanent secretary should himself have the legal experience necessary to discharge the functions of advising the Lord Chancellor on judicial appointments—of which there are so many, as my hon. Friend said—or, at the very least, have a deputy who has legal qualifications or long experience of service in the Department.

How can someone who has pursued an administrative career path but has no experience of the specific mysteries and specialist concerns of the law possibly discharge the function of properly advising the Lord Chancellor? All hon. Members who have some experience of the legal profession are bound to be worried about that especially serious concern. We want the Minister to deal with such points in his first response to the clause stand part debate.

Finally, I had hoped for better from the Minister than the high-handed approach which I know has come to him from those in other offices in the Government. Perhaps the Minister without Portfolio has been sending him pager messages, telling him to dismiss all the relevant points that my colleagues have been making, but I hope that at long last we shall hear a proper answer.

Mr. Grieve

I want to pick up a point that arose earlier. The Minister suggested dismissively that because in 1990 there had been an alteration to the previous requirement that the permanent secretary be a lawyer, the arguments being advanced by Opposition Members about the likely changes that the present proposals would make to whether the permanent secretary was a lawyer were irrelevant.

Mr. Hoon


Mr. Grieve

The Minister is excelling himself in the courtesy he extends to Conservative Members. The matter clearly requires even more prolonged discussion.

An alteration was made in 1990. I should be interested to hear what position Labour Members took on it. It was possible, in certain circumstances, to enable a civil servant who had experience of the Department, but who might not be legally qualified, to become a permanent secretary. I do not disagree with that for one moment, because, as I told the Minister on Second Reading, I accept that the Department had a complex role and that its administrative role had grown considerably. I said that I had some sympathy for the underlying problems that might have led to the Bill being introduced.

Far from seeking to rubbish the Bill, I appreciate that there may be sound reasons for it. I should like the Minister to present them to us, but I am at a loss to understand why the Government are attempting to rush it through the House without consultation.

The permanent secretary shoulders a great burden of responsibility. It is all very well our being told that the legal adviser will always be there, but he is there to advise on legal matters. The Minister knows, or should know, given his qualification as a barrister, that, although the legal profession may have its detractors, one of its strengths is that, within a relatively small compass, there is a large pool of talent comprising solicitors and barristers who are capable of going on to hold high judicial office. It is one of the principal roles of the permanent secretary to identify them, to maintain good links with the judiciary and the relevant professional bodies and to advise the Lord Chancellor about them. I infer—I am sure that the Minister will confirm this—that the legal adviser has absolutely no role whatsoever in that. Therefore, our arguments are relevant.

It is not acceptable to introduce the Bill simply because it is administratively convenient. The previous arrangements spelled out in the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, as amended, state, significantly, that the first consideration is whether a person is legally qualified and that the secondary is to ascertain whether a person, if not legally qualified, has at least five years' service in the Department. I have examined the statute carefully.

Any changes should not be rushed. I am concerned about the absence of consultation, but I am perhaps even more concerned that such a Bill should be rushed through simply because it happens to be administratively convenient in November 1997. I ask the Minister to bear in mind the points that I have outlined and to treat Opposition Members with the courtesy that I hope we have extended to him.

Mr. Hoon

I have been asked to consider the arguments carefully. I hope that hon. Members agree that I set out carefully at the beginning of Second Reading why it was necessary for the Government to introduce the Bill at this stage. If there were any doubts about the need to change the present restrictions, the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) put them very well. He said that the position of permanent secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department was an important political, mainstream Government role. He outlined the responsibility that anyone who holds such a position should have.

Opposition Members have confirmed me in my view that it is vital that the Lord Chancellor's Department should have the same opportunity to select a permanent secretary as is available to other major Departments of State. In making that selection, the Lord Chancellor's Department should not be constrained by rules that have long since lost their function. In my careful presentation at the beginning of Second Reading, I rehearsed the history of the matter. I am sorry that Opposition Members did not listen with sufficient care and attention as I pointed out that the problem surrounding the question of legal advice has long since passed into history. I hope that that deals satisfactorily with the issue raised by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell).

7.15 pm

The right hon. and learned Member also referred to the retirement age. Once again, the Bill is designed to bring the position of permanent secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department into line with that of every other permanent secretary. It will be possible for the permanent secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department to stay on by arrangement beyond the age of 60, with the agreement and co-operation of the head of the civil service. That is exactly the position of every permanent secretary.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Will the Minister clarify what difference the Bill is making? How is the Bill changing the situation?

Mr. Hoon

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, the formal retirement age is to change, but he was anxious that we should recognise the skills and qualities of someone who might attain the age of 60 but who still has a considerable contribution to make to the country. I am clarifying for the right hon. and learned Gentleman the position of the permanent secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department and, indeed, that of any other permanent secretary. In the circumstances that we are debating, it will be possible, by arrangement, for a person to continue in post.

The hon. Member for Bolton, West and Torridge—

Mr. Burnett

Torridge and West Devon.

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman made two points. First, the Government remain committed to an independent civil service. The selection process will be the same as for other permanent secretaries. Secondly, we shall consider the Middleton recommendation for a single Ministry of justice. We are already considering Sir Peter Middleton's recommendations, but I have to say that the Government have no present plans to implement the particular recommendation to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

I was greatly entertained by the arguments of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), but I should perhaps not rise to the bait. He was more moderate in Committee than on Second Reading. The constitution seems likely to survive the shock that the modest change introduced by the Bill might cause it. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's willingness to watch the Government every step of the way. I assure him that in this Parliament he will have plenty of watching to do as we ensure that the promises made to the electorate in the Government's manifesto, on which Labour was elected overwhelmingly—including to the Blackpool seat that he formerly occupied—are carried out.

I cannot avoid dealing with the argument put forward by the hon. Members for Surrey Heath and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that we are rushing the Bill through on the blind side. They both know full well that it was thoroughly advertised—as is all business in the House—on the previous Thursday. Only very recently have the Conservatives decided to prolong the debate. The proposal is modest and I commend clause 1 to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mr. Pope.]

7.21 pm
Sir Nicholas Lyell

I shall be brief, because my points are easily understood. I regret that the Minister, who, I believe, has a degree from Harvard, has answered only one of my questions and has not sought to respond to the detailed points that I put to him about the role of a deputy secretary in the Department.

I am grateful to the Minister for answering about the ability of a permanent secretary in any Department to continue in office after the age of 60 if the public interest requires it. To some extent, his helpful answer has allayed my concern. However, he must know that he has not addressed my detailed and formidable arguments about why there should be someone in the Department with a particular responsibility and the opportunity to have the ear of the Lord Chancellor to deal with the many non-administrative matters that are profoundly important to that unique office, should the Lord Chancellor require it or should a senior person realise that he needs it and that it is his duty to give it.

I very much hope that that point will be pursued further in another place and that the Government will reflect more closely on my detailed arguments before the Bill reaches another place. I hope that they look sympathetically, albeit not in this House, on amendments such as those that I have suggested.

7.23 pm
Mr. Forth

The debate has covered substance and style. It is right that the substance of the Bill should be considered. I say that it should be, but that requires the participation not just of the Opposition, carrying out their duty to scrutinise proposals, but of the Government, personified in this case by the Minister. I regret that he has failed to satisfy us on the key issues that we have raised time and again. He has given scant regard to our arguments of substance about the nature of the position of permanent secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department, the role of that individual and the qualifications required. He has failed to persuade us that the matter is as simple as he has argued, however brief, peremptory and superficial those arguments were.

The Minister has not deal at all with the mandatory age of retirement of the permanent secretary. That may appear to be a subsidiary detail, but its importance ranges beyond the measure before us, because it sends out a signal. We are being asked to approve the idea of a mandatory civil service retirement age of 60. I am not satisfied with that. In the one Department that has some flexibility, we are doing away with it and imposing a mandatory retirement age. That is a gratuitously unnecessary proposal which the Minister has made no attempt to justify. It is important that our objections should be firmly on the record. I hope that we shall return to the matter at an appropriate time.

The debate has also been about style. If the Minister had listened carefully to our arguments, put in good faith, and had attempted more comprehensively and courteously to reply, he might have made rather more rapid progress. I say that in as friendly a way as I can. He may wish to reflect on that. However, that is water under the bridge, and need not be dwelt on unduly.

The Minister has laboured the point several times that we should all have known about the Bill. He has told us that there were understandings and that he is mystified as to why so much fuss has been made. I am a humble out-of-touch Opposition Back Bencher. I am not privy to conversations that may take place in dark corners and secret locations. I read the Order Paper in good faith. Today's Order Paper says: Supreme Court (Offices) Bill: Second Reading Remaining stages may also be taken. I take the word "may" at face value. The Order Paper does not say that deals have been done and understandings have been reached, so we should not look at the matter too closely and get away early; it says that the remaining stages may be taken. To me, that means that, if there has been satisfactory consideration on Second Reading, if there are no points of substance dividing the Opposition and the Government and if those who have taken the trouble to attend the debate and listen to the Minister are satisfied, it would be proper for the matter to be dealt with rather more rapidly than most other measures.

None of those conditions has been fulfilled. It was not only proper, but a duty, for the Opposition to seek more elucidation from the Minister. The fact that we have failed is a matter of great regret, but we shall make a note for the future. Perhaps as well as reading the Order Paper I should make inquiries of those in the know to find out whether I shall be required simply to nod something through or whether I am expected to discharge my responsibilities as a Member of Parliament by scrutinising the Government's proposals. Those matters are all to be resolved.

I hope that there is ample evidence on the record from the points made by Conservative Members that we are distinctly unhappy about the measure—its substance and the way in which it was brought to the House. We have tried not to be unduly obstructive—and, I think, succeeded. The Minister will be allowed to take his Bill forward.

I hope that those in another place will read the report of this debate. They may well conclude that the Bill deserves more scrutiny and answers to the questions that were not answered in this House. Given that it is the Lord Chancellor's business, they may well take that opportunity. I hope that they do.

7.28 pm
Mr. Grieve

One or two points arise out of the way in which the debate has been conducted. One of the reasons for having debate is that Ministers should answer questions that are asked. The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department is always courteous and is normally assiduous in answering questions, which is not the case with most of his colleagues. In winding-up speeches, we are frequently treated to cheap moments of invective, the sidelining of points and a little bit of propaganda, after which the Minister sits down.

I make that point because in Committee two pertinent questions were asked by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) which the Minister made no attempt to answer. [HON. MEMBERS: "He did."] I did not get that impression.

Mr. Burnett

The hon. Gentleman may have been confused by the fact that the Minister called me the Member for Bolton, West and Torridge.

Mr. Grieve

I did not pick that point up.

Will the Minister confirm that the Bill is not a prelude to merging two Departments to create a Department of justice? I assume that the Minister would have told us if that was the intention. On Third Reading, it would be helpful to have reassurance on that pertinent point. The present structure of the Lord Chancellor's Department and the marriage between the Executive and the judicial capacity embodied in the Lord Chancellor, which is valuable and unique to this country, would be seriously jeopardised if the Government intended to merge two Departments. I should be grateful for reassurance. On that basis, and as the matter has been well aired. I am happy to allow the Bill to proceed without a Division.

7.31 pm
Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed to a lively debate. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) commented on the importance of style. He described the unhappy transformation that he appears to have endured—from powerful Minister and Privy Councillor to, as he rather sadly described it, humble out-of-touch Opposition Member. It may be a measure of the Conservative party's decline that such Conservative Members are here to deal with the matter at length.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said that we have had a full and detailed discussion. There are, however, one or two matters that, in the light of comments made on Third Reading, I must repeat for the avoidance of doubt. I have repeatedly said that there is a legal adviser in the Lord Chancellor's Department who works directly to the permanent secretary. I have stressed that point several times during our proceedings, but for the avoidance of doubt, I do so again.

I answered the point about a Department of justice, but I repeat my answer: the Government have no present plans to act on Sir Peter Middleton's recommendation. I hope that Opposition Members are satisfied that the Bill introduces a very modest change that will benefit public administration by removing an outdated restriction that has become anomalous.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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