HC Deb 10 February 2004 vol 417 cc1258-61
22. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con)

If he will make a statement on the future role of the Lord Chancellor. [153651]

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

To reform the justice system and enhance judicial independence. the Government have concluded that it is no longer tenable for a Cabinet Minister to head the judiciary and chair the second Chamber. The Government will therefore introduce legislation to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor in this Session of Parliament.

Ann Winterton

Why are the Government hellbent on meddling with our unwritten constitution and abolishing the office of Lord Chancellor, which has maintained judicial independence and in which our constituents have confidence? After all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Mr. Leslie

That is the right thing to do, and I shall explain why. It is right not only because we need more clarity and transparency than the current blurred arrangement between the different branches of our constitution provides, but, more importantly, because we need a more effective Parliament, judiciary and Executive to ensure that each branch can focus on its core functions. We now have a ridiculous position whereby the head of the judiciary is a politician who also chairs the second Chamber, and the Prime Minister chooses who should chair the House of Lords. The changes are overdue, and I am glad that we can make them.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)

The Under-Secretary is aware that the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs has today published our report on the reforms. Although there is support for modernisation of the judicial system, there is also concern that the pace is too fast and that mistakes will be made. Will he assure hon. Members that the post of Lord Chancellor will not be abolished until all the other elements of the modernisation process have been put in place and seen to work?

Mr. Leslie

I welcome the report of the Select Committee, which looked in great detail at some of our proposals. The constitutional reform Bill will make it plain that all those different aspects are interrelated and that the reform programme has been well thought through. Of course I understand the need for widespread consultation, and the consultation documents were issued last July, so we have had a considerable period in which to consider them. However, I do not see any particular outstanding reason why we should have a further, prolonged period of debate before introducing the legislation so that the House can consider it line by line and in detail, in the proper scrutiny process that is needed.

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

Bearing it in mind that the Lord Chancellor will have to remain in office until certain of these processes are complete, can the Minister give us an approximate date—or even a year—by which he expects the supreme court to be sitting in its own building and the judicial appointments commission to be appointing judges?

Mr. Leslie

That is a simple question but, obviously, the answer depends not only on the date of Royal Assent for the legislation but on when we identify the future building for the supreme court. Both matters depend on various factors, some of which are commercial—in regard to whether we refurbish a building or build a new one—while others are connected to the passage of legislation through Parliament. However, I anticipate that we should be able to make progress in the next couple of years and see such matters settled in good time.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, far from criticising the plans that have been announced, we need to take further radical steps, here and in the other place? We must bring ourselves up to date. Parliament ensures the civil liberties of all our citizens, but that is no reason to worship what has occurred over centuries. Modernisation is essential.

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend is right, and implicitly highlights the obvious conservatism of the Opposition, who have opposed themselves to any change, no matter how obvious and rudimentary it appears to the rest of the country. They think that Westminster is happy with the current arrangement, that the establishment is content with it, and therefore that no change is necessary. However, we believe that we must make sure that our constitution has clarity and transparency, so that it can be understood by the wider public. We must also ensure that we have a justice system that serves the public's needs.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con)

Does the Minister recognise that the Government are indulging in dangerous constitutional tinkering, and that they have caused great anger through such proposals as the idea of calling the presiding officer of the other place the Lord Speaker? That move would be dangerous and confusing. Have not the Government in recent days accepted not one or two, but 12 Opposition amendments in another place to replace the title of Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs with the original title of Lord Chancellor in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill? The Government are really in a terrible mess. Would it not be better to keep the historical role of the Lord Chancellor, which works?

Mr. Leslie

I take that as a commitment that the Conservatives will put it in their manifesto that they will repeal any changes and reinstitute the office of Lord Chancellor. Is that what the hon. Gentleman is saying? I can hear no response whatever from him—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I say to the Minister that no response is necessary. The Minister is there to answer a question.

Mr. Leslie

It is important that we do answer that question. There are several important issues involved, including whether the second Chamber chooses a different title for the person who presides over its business, but that is a matter for the second Chamber itself to debate. We will be careful to make opportunities to listen to what it says on that. The fact that there have been a number of amendments to a Bill in the other place is almost irrelevant, given that we will have the constitutional reform Bill, which will make all the necessary changes to previous legislation when it is passed. The principles are clear, which is what the hon. Gentleman refuses to address.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Coop)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on a rare ministerial victory over Jeremy Paxman last night on this issue. He performed superbly. Does my hon. Friend agree with the Lord Chief Justice that there could be a threat to judicial independence because future judges whose decisions offend Governments might be disciplined, moved to other work or denied promotion? Should there not be legislation to protect their independence?

Mr. Leslie

Following extensive discussions with the Lord Chief Justice about the constitutional reform Bill, I am pleased to say that he has mentioned in a speech to the other place that he agrees with the process of changes now in train. For that reason, we shall put into the Bill provisions to ensure that the Secretary of State has a duty to uphold and maintain judicial independence, and that the Government as a whole have to respect that independence. Those are positive steps forward, and I know that my hon. Friend will welcome them.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon) (LD)

If the office of Lord Chancellor is abolished, does the Minister believe that there should be an objective voice in Cabinet at all times to safeguard the interests of justice? Does he also believe that that role should be undertaken by the Attorney-General, who would then have to attend not selected Cabinet meetings but all of them? Does the Minister then believe that the Attorney-General should be a voting or non-voting member of the Cabinet?

Mr. Leslie

Thankfully, the composition of the Cabinet is a matter not for me but for the Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman asks who should have the role of defending judicial independence. I believe that it should be the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. That is our proposal, and we shall put it into the Bill. I hope that that will go some way towards satisfying the hon. Gentleman.