HL Deb 19 June 2003 vol 649 cc957-60

3.8 p.m.

Lord Ackner asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take to achieve the cooperative relationship required between the judiciary and the Home Office which the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, informed the House on 21st May was missing (Official Report, col. 882).

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the Home Office is committed to ensuring that consultation and co-operation with the judiciary plays an important part in the development of policy. We recognise that, in order to deliver vital improvements to the criminal justice system, it is necessary to work together closely. The Government are committed to constructive dialogue about areas of shared concern, and we will seek to maintain and strengthen regular contact between the Home Office and the judiciary.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her Answer. Has she had the opportunity to consider in detail the devastating criticism made by the Lord Chief Justice and the Lords Justices who preside in the Court of Appeal Criminal Division, which is contained in a 22-page, 71-paragraph memo deposited in the Library, following the Lord Chief Justice's speech at Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill on Monday? Does she appreciate that it covers not only what has been known as the ministerial decrees in sentencing—the Blunkett revenge on the Convention on Human Rights—but a whole variety of other matters, such as disclosure, expert evidence, bad character, hearsay evidence and trial without jury. Will the noble Baroness confirm that the Government will answer the points in that memorandum paragraph by paragraph and put the Government's response in the Library before the Committee stage in a week's time?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I had the advantage of hearing the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice during the Second Reading and had the privilege of responding to him. Secondly, the department has fully taken into account the issues contained in the memorandum to which the noble and learned Lord refers. Thirdly, all those points, made as part of the Second Reading speech of the Lord Chief Justice will be taken into account when we make our individual responses on the Bill clause by clause.

Lord Renton

My Lords, as the Government consider the future of the judiciary, will they ensure that the judiciary continues to make a major contribution to our debates on legal matters? That is an essential part of our democracy, and has been for generations. It must continue.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, of course I hear what the noble Lord says, but the original Question related to the relationship. I am no longer a Minister in the Lord Chancellor's Department, now renamed, so I no longer have primary responsibility in that regard. However, the future of the judiciary is certainly of enormous importance. I am sure that it will be quite safe in the hands of the Government.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, is not the best solution to get responsibility for the criminal law out of the Home Office and into the Department for Constitutional Affairs and turn it into a proper Ministry of Justice? Is not that the logical conclusion of the process started last Thursday?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we are starting a debate that I am sure we shall have for quite some time in this House. Some will say "Yea" and some will say "Nay", but in due course your Lordships and Members in another place will decide.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, on the subject of a co-operative relationship between the judiciary and the Home Secretary, did we not valuably learn on Second Reading from the Lord Chief Justice that there is a drastic and, in the opinion of the judges, dangerous disparity between some of the sentencing provisions in the Bill and the practice direction that the Lord Chief Justice published only in May last year? Was not that practice direction submitted in draft by him to the Home Secretary and published with the Home Secretary's concurrence? Before the provisions were introduced at a late stage in another place, what "constructive dialogue"—to use the noble Baroness's expression—took place between the Government and the judiciary?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the judiciary and the department have had an opportunity to speak on several occasions. The last discussion between our department and the Lord Chief Justice was when the Lord Chief Justice met my right honourable friend the Home Secretary on 11th June. I am pleased to say that I noted when the Lord Chief Justice gave his speech that he acknowledged that he and the Government begged to differ. This House, together with another place, will have to determine the framework that is proper to be contained in the Bill. It is a matter for Parliament to decide, and Parliament will do so.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, on the subject of the independence of the judiciary, can the Minister help me? Who speaks for the Government on that matter? Is it the Prime Minister, who tells us that the Government's policy is to enhance the independence of the judiciary, or is it the Home Secretary who tells us that the judiciary needs to be made more accountable and is highly critical of some of its recent judgments?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the Government's view is absolutely firm. Both my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have said robustly that they wish to protect the independence of the judiciary. They give way to no one on that.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the Minister may be aware that last week, in its 21st report, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments expressed a significant doubt whether one of the instruments before the House was intra vires. The Government thought otherwise. Will the Minister give us an undertaking that, in the not impossible event of the judges agreeing with the Joint Committee, the Government will not accuse the judges of rewriting the law? Will they further accept that if they were a little less certain that they were right, they would suffer less pain when occasionally they are found to be wrong?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I reassure noble Lords that the Government enjoy greatly the benefit of the democracy we have. We know that it is the joy of those who sit on the Benches opposite—and, indeed, sometimes of those who sit on the Benches behind me—to tell the Government in an unequivocal way when they believe that the Government are wrong.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, one criticism made by the Lord Chief Justice in his speech on Second Reading which has not been the subject matter of any comment is that the sentences that the Home Secretary has laid down in Schedule 17 will increase the prison population enormously. If those principles, as they must, reflect on all serious offences, the prison population will become so vast that it cannot be contained.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has said very clearly that he feels—and this is the Government's view—that prison is a course of last resort. Noble Lords will know that in the Criminal Justice Bill we have produced a menu of different sentences—a mixture of community sentences together with prison sentences—which the whole House very much welcomed. It is not the Government's view that the proposals contained in the Criminal Justice Bill should increase the prison population enormously, as the noble and learned Lord seeks to assert.

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