HC Deb 06 November 1997 vol 300 cc407-10

Order for Second Reading read.

4.7 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

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

The Bill is short, and modest in its scope. Indeed, it might be characterised as a technical adjustment to the machinery of government. It does, however, concern an office of great importance. I believe that some reasonably detailed explanation of its background and effect will help the House to understand the need for the Bill itself, and for it to make rapid progress.

For technical reasons, the Bill's title refers to offices of the Supreme Court, but it concerns solely the Lord Chancellor's Department. Within living memory, that Department was a very small organisation staffed almost exclusively by lawyers, but it is now a major Department of State, with a wide range of responsibilities, including overall responsibility for the court system as a whole, as well as the legal aid system.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I apologise to the Minister for intervening at this stage, but he used the phrase "rapid progress" a moment ago. I wonder whether he will explain quite what lies behind that phrase. Does it mean that there will be any deviation from the normal process of scrutiny of legislation by the House, or will the process take place in the normal way?

Madam Speaker

That seemed to me more like an intervention than a point of order, but perhaps the Minister will tell us the answer.

Mr. Hoon

Obviously, procedure is a matter for the House to decide, but in due course I shall invite the House, if it considers it appropriate, to deal with all stages of the Bill. As I say, that is clearly a matter for the House. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I understand that it was announced in the House on Thursday that all stages would be taken today.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful, Madam Speaker.

The Department's budget is more than £2 billion, and it has a staff of more than 11,000. Selection of the Department's permanent secretary, however, is still constrained by restrictions first imposed when the permanent secretary headed an organisation of five officials.

The present restrictions prevent anyone from being considered for appointment as permanent secretary to the Lord Chancellor who is not either a barrister or solicitor of at least 10 years' standing, or a civil servant with at least five years' experience in the Lord Chancellor's Department. The purpose of the Bill is to remove those restrictions, so that future appointments may be made from the widest field of possible candidates.

The post of permanent secretary to the Lord Chancellor dates back to 1885. Before that, the Lord Chancellor was assisted by a principal secretary who was an officer of the Supreme Court. The principal secretary's duties were political as well as legal, and he was appointed by the Lord Chancellor personally, and generally left office along with the Lord Chancellor.

In 1885, however, the existing principal secretary became a permanent officer, and his political duties devolved to a private secretary, leaving the permanent secretary with duties which were largely legal. It was agreed by the Treasury that these duties required a legal qualification for their proper performance, and that the permanent secretary should be a barrister of at least seven years' standing, which was later raised to 10 years, and was enshrined in statute in 1925.

As I have said, the Lord Chancellor's Office at that time was very small, and the permanent secretary performed many legal duties. It was appropriate that the permanent secretary should always be a lawyer while the Lord Chancellor's Office remained a small organisation without significant administrative duties, as it did for many years. However, after the Courts Act 1971, the Lord Chancellor assumed overall responsibility for the administration of the court system as a whole, and the organisation was restructured as the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

I hope that I understand the Minister correctly. He is saying that, because the Lord Chancellor's Department now controls a budget of £2 billion or more, it wants the widest possible choice in the appointment of a permanent secretary and the ability to go outside the civil service and the law, perhaps into industry and other such places, to get the most efficient and able man or woman for the job.

Mr. Hoon

We are certainly proposing that the present restrictions should be eliminated. They severely limit the availability of candidates.

The present permanent secretary has restructured the Department around an administrative and policy-making core of officials, who get legal advice, when they need it, from a separately managed group comprising legally qualified civil servants headed by a legal adviser answering directly to the permanent secretary. Therefore, the old arrangement under which a small number of legally qualified staff undertook all duties, whether legal or administrative, has disappeared.

With the ending of the old structure went the justification for requiring the permanent secretary to be a lawyer. This was recognised in part by changes made by the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, which allowed a non-lawyer with at least five years' experience in the Department to be considered for the post.

Some concern was expressed during the passage of that legislation in another place that it might presage some kind of downgrading of this important position. In case there are similar concerns about this Bill, I assure the House that the intention is quite the opposite. It is precisely because of the importance of the post and the qualities that it requires that its future holders should be the most able and experienced candidates available, selected from the widest possible field.

Successive Lord Chancellors have been well served by a distinguished line of permanent secretaries, who have ably managed the organisation throughout the changes that I have described. However, the existing restriction has no parallel for any other Department, and is no longer appropriate to what has, over the years, become a major Department of State, with a large budget and staff and a wide range of responsibilities.

Furthermore, in addition to the expansion of functions and changes in the structure of the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Lord Chancellor's responsibilities as a member of the Government have greatly expanded.

The Lord Chancellor now chairs the Queen's Speeches and Future Legislation Committee, responsible for the Government's legislative programme, and all the Cabinet Sub-Committees concerned with the Government's programme for constitutional change, as well as serving on numerous other committees. Together with the more specifically legal and departmental concerns, these additional responsibilities emphasise the necessity for the Lord Chancellor to have the advice and assistance of a permanent secretary of the highest quality and experience, selected from the widest possible field of candidates.

The effect of the existing restrictions, however, is to limit the field to such an extent that there is available across the entire senior civil service only a handful of officials who are of the seniority and experience ordinarily required of a permanent secretary and who also fulfil the existing statutory criteria for the office of permanent secretary to the Lord Chancellor. It is therefore imperative that those restrictions be removed.

The Bill therefore simply removes from schedule 2 of the Supreme Court Act 1981 the reference to the permanent secretary to the Lord Chancellor and Clerk of the Crown in Chancery. That has the effect of removing from that office special provisions which are, by virtue of sections 88 and 92 of the 1981 Act, applied to certain offices of the Supreme Court set out in schedule 2.

As well as removing the restriction on appointment to the office, that will result in provisions concerning tenure of the office no longer applying to it, so that the provisions governing the retirement age of the Lord Chancellor's permanent secretary will be brought into line with those applicable to other permanent secretaries.

The Bill does not affect the office of permanent secretary to the Lord Chancellor in any other way. In particular, the permanent secretary will continue to hold the office of Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, and to be the head of the permanent staff of the Crown Office, which supports the Lord Chancellor in his capacity as Keeper of the Great Seal. No other office is affected.

The present permanent secretary, who has already been persuaded to remain in office longer than originally planned, is to retire in April 1998. To give time for his successor to be properly selected, the existing statutory restrictions must be removed by the end of the year.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

Will the Minister assist me with this point, which I may have missed in his explanation? Is he saying that, if the legislation that he now proposes becomes law, the permanent secretary to the Lord Chancellor's Department will continue to be Clerk to the Crown in Chancery; and if so, does not that second office have a requirement that its holder be a lawyer?

Mr. Hoon

The answers to the hon. Member's questions are yes and no. It is anticipated that the permanent secretary will continue to be Clerk of the Crown in Chancery. That position does not require the office-holder to be a lawyer.

Mr. Taylor

Thank you.

Mr. Hoon

To meet the timetable that I have set out, the Bill must make rapid progress, and it is for that reason that I ask the House to give it a fair wind, and allow it, if appropriate, not only to be read a second time but to pass through its remaining stages in the House today, so that it may be considered in another place with the necessary dispatch.

Forward to