HC Deb 25 May 2004 vol 421 cc1433-5
18. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Bl Ally) (Con)

If he will make a statement on the potential for political interference in the (a)funding of and (b)appointment to the proposed supreme court. [175298]

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

The Government's proposals are specifically designed to minimise any possibility of political interference in either the funding of the supreme court or appointments to the supreme court.

Mr. Robathan

Has the Minister seen the comments made by Lord Hope of Craighead in his written evidence to the Lords Select Committee? He was particularly interested in funding and pointed out that the Law Lords' running costs are currently met by the parliamentary vote, over which the Treasury has no control, and that that insulates the Law Lords almost entirely from interference by the Executive. He said: "At present, the executive cannot lay a finger on the work that the law lords do. In an uncertain world, this is a vital guarantee of judicial independence where it matters most which our history has bequeathed to us, and I do not think that it should be given up." Those are the comments of a very senior former judge. Will the Minister comment on them?

Mr. Leslie

I have seen those comments. Indeed, the Select Committee in the other place has been looking into many issues relating to how we might fund a supreme court in a way that preserves its independence. Yes, we want as much independence as we can possibly give, but we are talking about taxpayers' money and the House of Commons has to vote that money from our electorate, so at some level there must be a degree of accountability for the spending of taxpayers' money. That is not to say that we cannot find a way of having independence in the system, and I am sure that a solution can be found as the debate continues.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)

Does the Minister not agree that, although there should be no political interference, there has to be political involvement in the whole process? That is the only way that we can achieve accountability to Parliament. Will he confirm that, in the ongoing discussions about the new supreme court, the higher judiciary are being kept informed of the Government's proposals? Far too often over the past few weeks, very senior judges have criticised the proposals, yet we know that there is an ongoing dialogue between the Lord Chancellor, other Ministers and the judiciary. Will the Minister confirm that they are all being kept fully informed and that they consent to the changes that are taking place?

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend is right. We need to ensure that we have that dialogue and partnership with the judiciary in the reforms that go ahead. Of course, there will be differences of opinion, and different ideas and solutions will be suggested, but at the end of the day I hope that we can gain consensus and see the Constitutional Reform Bill approved by the other place and brought to this House as soon as possible.

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

Does the Minister recognise that not only the funding but the staffing of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords are entirely protected from the Executive, because the Committee is part of the House of Lords, and that it will be necessary to write into the Bill a much clearer arrangement to protect the funding from the Executive and to give the court designated officers who are not themselves part of the Executive?

Mr. Leslie

The right hon. Gentleman is the Chairman of the Select Committee whose report we shall debate in more detail in Westminster Hall on Thursday—I am just advertising that for other hon. Members. We shall be looking into how we can improve independence of funding, although I have to point out that the Department for Constitutional Affairs, as a UK Department, is capable of providing that level of ministerial accountability for taxpayers' money. That is an important principle because, ultimately, Parliament has to account to our electors for a resource that is procured from them.