HC Deb 09 September 2003 vol 410 cc160-2
22. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

What consultation processes involving hon. Members he plans for his proposals for (a) a Supreme Court, (b) an independent judicial appointments commission and (c) the future of the rank of Queen's Counsel. [128465]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

The three consultation papers are available to all Members in the Vote Office, and views are of course most welcome as part of the consultation process. We will also endeavour to work closely with the departmental Select Committee, and make all responses available to it at the end of the consultation.

Mr. Allen

I commend my hon. Friend for presenting three proposals that appeared in past Labour party manifestos. That is a high strike rate, which I hope my hon. Friend will continue.

What involvement will there be with Parliament itself during the consultation, and in particular with the new Constitutional Affairs Select Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)? Would it not be a good idea to involve Members of Parliament, and also to involve members of the public by putting the process online so that everyone could discuss it rather than one or two insiders?

Mr. Leslie

The noises off from the shadow Leader of the House, revolting against the concept of online consultation, clearly reflect his enthusiasm for that particular element of modernisation.

I understand my hon. Friend's point. It is important for all sections of society to be involved as much as possible—not least hon. Members, who are never backward in coming forward with their views.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Should not one of the first ways of involving Members through the Select Committee be to take careful note of what the Committee said about the experience in Scotland of setting up a judicial appointments commission? Is it not clear that that body's manifest independence from both the parent Department and the political process has been very important in ensuring its acceptance by the judiciary and others? Is it not also important to resolve the difficulty mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), which still exists in the Scottish system, of ensuring that the fact that ultimately appointments are made on the advice of Ministers does not enable Ministers to become involved in a process that is supposed to be independent?

Mr. Leslie

The right hon. Gentleman makes some interesting points. Like the Chairman of the departmental Select Committee, I think it vital that we have a dialogue with the Committee as the proposals evolve. I also agree that it is important to investigate the method of appointment in great detail. According to one model, appointments would go straight from the commission to the Crown; according to another, the single recommendation would go to Ministers and then, formally, to the Crown, which would preserve ministerial accountability to Parliament. That is another important issue with which I know the Committee will be concerned.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith)

Notwithstanding the virtues of the Scottish independent system for appointing judges, will my hon. Friend note that in many people's opinion the appointments made by the independent commission have resulted in the appointment of more or less the same type of people as before, although perhaps they are slightly more conservative with a small "c" than their predecessors. 'Will my hon. Friend draw lessons from that experience when considering the introduction of an appointment system for England and Wales—and, indeed, for the supreme court?

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend is right: a much more diverse judiciary is certainly desirable. We must preserve appointment on merit, but I do not believe that the two are incompatible. If we have a new judicial appointments commission drawn from a wider spectrum of society, it is more likely that candidates will be appointed from a larger pool, and I hope that that will happen.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

The point that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) was trying to make is that if we move to a commission-based system, we will be less likely to see some of the bold, good appointments that have been made in the past two or three decades. If the Minister is going to take the Select Committee system seriously, could he try to give the Committee a clear answer as to whether the Prime Minister consulted either the previous Lord Chancellor or the current one before announcing the proposed changes to the appointment of judges?

Mr. Leslie

There are of course always full consultations between all Cabinet members before policy announcements are made, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should think otherwise. I disagree with his view that a commission is somehow less likely to appoint bold, more interesting people to the judiciary. There is no evidence for that, and as we develop policy we want to ensure that we have the capability to introduce a diverse range of potential candidates, but also those of the highest possible calibre.