HL Deb 08 November 2001 vol 628 cc299-302

3.8 p.m.

Lord Hooson

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they would like to see progress towards a Supreme Court separate from the House of Lords, as advocated by the senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, Lord Bingham of Cornhill.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)

My Lords, it is of course a singular arrangement for a Supreme Court to be housed in a House of Parliament; but it works. The contribution that the Law Lords make to our debates is highly appreciated. They chair various committees of this House. The Wakeham Royal Commission endorsed the continuance of their unique role, as do the Government in the White Paper of yesterday. In this country we have never applied a rigid doctrine of the separation of powers because we are pragmatists, not purists.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his Answer. However, is it not of great importance that the matter was raised by the senior Law Lord? In view of that—the senior Law Lord is suggesting an important change in our constitution—is it not of supreme importance that the House should debate the matter properly? In light of the fact that the matter was raised at such a level, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, with his influence in the Government, ensure that an opportunity is given for a full debate on the subject?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Lord has not misunderstood the senior Law Lord. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, has not, so far as I am aware, made any proposal in relation to the Law Lords' membership of this House. A new Supreme Court building of high architectural merit in the heart of London may be one of the most worthy of ambitions and is entertained by the senior Law Lord, but the Government have no plans for such a project.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, as most people in this country seek justice in the existing courts, can my noble and learned friend tell the House whether he has any plans to improve services in the existing courts?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I plan or contemplate new court buildings, in various parts of the country, offering better facilities for victims and the disabled, not to mention much-needed improvements to the High Court in the Strand. New court buildings are planned for Sheffield, Bristol, Exeter and East Anglia and a new major court centre in the heart of Manchester is a strong gleam in my eye. I believe that all those matters are higher priorities than a new building for our Supreme Court.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the views expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, are supported by the Lord Chief Justice, by the Master of the Rolls and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott of Foscote, who last night devoted an after-dinner speech at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies to the subject? In those circumstances, perhaps the noble and learned Lord might reconsider allowing the matter to be debated.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am always influenced by what the higher judiciary say, either judicially or extra-judicially, but I have stated the Government's priorities.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has defended the current situation on the ground that it works. Will he use the same principle with regard to other matters in relation to your Lordships' House?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, our plans for the reform of your Lordships' House are to make it a better place and one which works better.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord accept that a number of Law Lords take the view that it is inappropriate for them to take part in and to contribute to the debates? Does he further accept that there are serious constitutional issues in relation to this matter that need to be the subject of a proper debate, not only in this House but also in the wider community in this country?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I believe that these issues are widely debated in the country. They have also very recently been considered by a Royal Commission. Debates in this House are of course a matter for the usual channels.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, can my noble and learned friend comment on the recent Denning Society lecture given by the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, which touched on these matters?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, is not in his place. With respect to the noble Lord, I feel that he fell into a basic error in asserting that a Lord Chancellor can be non-political. If a Lord Chancellor were non-political, presumably he would not sit in the Cabinet, as the Cabinet is the political executive that takes political decisions collectively. The noble Lord, Lord Alexander, also says that the Lord Chancellor should be in charge of non-political law reform. In fact, practically all our law reform has a strong political dimension. He said that the Lord Chancellor should continue to be responsible for the courts, but expenditure on the courts, as I indicated in my earlier answers, requires political priorities to be settled and the Lord Chancellor is accountable to Parliament for that expenditure. For once, I believe that the customary rigour of the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, was lost.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the present somewhat anomalous system works simply because the Law Lords are very careful to avoid party politics and because, historically, Lord Chancellors have not been too party political themselves?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I recall very well the late and much loved Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, stomping the country during a general election when he was Lord Chancellor. As regards the Law Lords, the senior Law Lord, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, has set out in this House the principles by which the Law Lords will take their individual decisions on whether to participate in our deliberations. I have often said that in debate in this House Law Lords should avoid—I am sure that they are prudent enough to do so—the appearance of expressing concluded views of a judicial character on issues that arise in legislation under debate so as to ensure that they do not thereby disqualify themselves from sitting.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, perhaps I may press my noble and learned friend for a post-prandial answer. How can the Law Lords ensure that their role in this Chamber does not run into conflict with their role as members, in effect, of our Supreme Court?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the Wakeham Commission made a recommendation on that subject. On 22nd June 2000, on behalf of all the Law Lords, the senior Law Lord made a statement in this House on the principles that the Law Lords would observe. That statement is to be found in Hansard of that day and I am not aware that his statement has subsequently been subject to any criticism at all.