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ADVOCATE-GENERAL

The Advocate-General was asked--

Staff Increases

24. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What representations she has received on her plans to increase her staff; and if she will make a statement. [114032]

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): I have nothing to add to my written answer on 22 February 2000, Official Report, column 860W.

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Miss McIntosh: I do not know whether or not I should be grateful for that answer. Will the Advocate-General share with the House what her responsibilities are for Scots law in the House of Commons, and why she needs any staff?

The Advocate-General: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her interest. I know that she is a distinguished--although no longer practising--member of the Scottish Bar. My responsibilities are many. I inherited the opinion work of the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor-General. I advise not only on Scots law in relation to devolved and reserved matters but, with the Attorney-General, I advise in relation to the European convention on human rights and European law. That is my main advisory work. It has taken one woman to do the work of two men.

In relation to my new statutory powers under the Scotland Act 1998, there are a number of different aspects to them. I have the power, but not the duty, to take matters to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council if I think that any Scottish Parliament legislation is outwith its legislative competence. I also have certain powers in relation to devolution issues. These matters can arise in any court in Scotland, in civil or criminal matters. I think that today's was the 500th devolution issue intimated to me. I have looked at all 500, and I have intervened in a number of them. Some will come to the Privy Council, and I hope--certainly initially--to do those cases myself. I also have--[Interruption.] Will the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) be satisfied with that for now?

Miss McIntosh indicated assent.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): Could my hon. and learned Friend share with the House what considerations she takes into account when she is deciding whether or not to enter an appearance in a case involving a devolution issue?

The Advocate-General: I thank my hon. Friend--another distinguished member of the Scottish Bar, which is having a good run today. I consider each case individually, and there are a range of criteria that I take into account. The first matter that I might consider is whether or not there is a UK interest. For example, in relation to the road traffic cases which came before me recently, the legislation is common to Scotland and to England and Wales, which raises certain issues. Many of the cases have been raised at sheriff court level throughout Scotland. Generally, I have not intervened in such cases. Each case is considered individually, and I consider a range of criteria in relation to them.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): The Advocate-General has today answered a question which, a month ago, she refused to answer. I asked about her involvement in Starr v. the Procurator Fiscal, but she said that she would not answer because the matter was confidential between her and the Government. Will she confirm that it is nothing of the kind, and that it is part of her statutory duties under the Scotland Act? In future, can

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we please have answers from her to Members of this House on the discharge of her responsibilities under the statute?

The Advocate-General: The hon. Gentleman is a member of the English Bar, which might explain the way in which he put his question. It had a certain lack of finesse. Earlier I made some general comments about the way in which I approach individual cases. It would not be my practice to give reasons for individual cases, especially if they are sub judice.

LORD CHANCELLOR'S DEPARTMENT

The Parliamentary Secretary was asked--

Public Record Office

31. Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): What steps the Lord Chancellor is taking to improve the performance of the Public Record Office. [114039]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): The Public Record Office is already providing an excellent service to the public and to the Government. To improve matters further, I am establishing goals for it in three areas: first, extending access to the public records by electronic means; secondly, helping the Government to make the transition to electronic records management; and thirdly, developing the PRO's educational services for schools and lifelong learners.

Mr. Thomas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he continue to ensure that his ministerial spotlight is kept firmly and squarely on the performance of the PRO in terms of its work with schools? Will he ensure, in particular, that a proper, proactive education policy is developed to bring schoolchildren, especially those from London, into contact with many of the great historical documents that the PRO has in its collection?

Mr. Lock: Schoolchildren are already making more than 200,000 visits a year to the PRO's online educational service, the learning curve, from their classrooms and homes. They will be able to visit the PRO's new education and visitor centre at Kew, which will be open on 11 April by the Lord Chancellor. Schoolchildren will be able to see there a wide range of historical documents, including the Domesday Book. If my hon. Friend's constituents look at folio 127, they will find out that 900 years before Harrow had the privilege of being represented by him, it had one archbishop, a total population of 120 and 2,000 pigs.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Despite the somewhat querulous tone in which the previous question was put, will the Minister join me in congratulating the staff of the PRO? I spent many years working there in the 1970s and early 1980s and I have recently started using it again. Will he accept that the service has tremendously improved, both online and in the actual services displayed

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on the premises? Will he also accept that the standard of courtesy shown to me and other researchers over 20 years has been outstanding?

Mr. Lock: It gives me pleasure to agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman says. The PRO is one of the Government's success stories. Its staff are unfailingly courteous and I am sure that it provides an excellent service to the public.

Judiciary

32. Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): What plans the Lord Chancellor has to review the entry procedures into, and career structures of, the judiciary. [114040]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): The qualifications for professional judicial appointments are prescribed by statute; they are open to those with the relevant legal qualifications, whether solicitors or barristers. In general, the pool of candidates for judicial appointment reflects those entering the legal profession 20 years ago and those who have progressed within it. The Government have no plans to change that policy but are keen to ensure that opportunities exist for promotion within the judiciary.

Dr. Gibson: Could my hon. Friend confirm that the job description of the Lord Chancellor is under review and is somewhat onerous and contradictory in places? Could he also tell the House how the public perception of the higher echelons of the judiciary can be changed, because people think they are full of Oxford-educated, public school, genetic morons? While those are easy questions, will he also tell us what steps he is taking to inspect institutionalised racism in the judiciary?

Mr. Lock: First, I shall deal with the issue of the Lord Chancellor. The independence of the judiciary is a fundamental principle of our constitution. In this country, we do not have separation of powers, but rely on a series of checks and balances on the three branches of Government. The office of Lord Chancellor has evolved as one of those checks. The value of the Lord Chancellor is that he upholds judicial independence and can mediate between the Executive and the judiciary when needs be. His office is not under review.

I can tell my hon. Friend that recent research by Professor Hazel Genn has confirmed that while those who gain their impression of the judiciary from newspapers follow the somewhat jaundiced view that he has relayed, those who have experience of appearing before judges have a much better impression of them and are impressed by their professionalism and the public duties that they are undertaking.

As for racism in the appointment process, I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that a thorough review of the process was recently carried out under the former Commissioner for Public Appointments, Sir Len Peach, which was highly complimentary. However, it suggested a number of improvements, which my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has accepted in principle and is carrying through.

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Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether the Lord Chancellor's Department has had any communication with the criminal justice review group that was established by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? If so, what are its suggestions for judicial appointments? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is crucial that precisely the same standards apply to judicial appointments throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Lock: I can confirm that copies of the draft report to which the right hon. Gentleman refers have been under discussion. The Government are not yet in a position to make any final conclusions on that draft. I entirely agree with him that it is important to ensure that the best people become judges. It is an important position and all appointments must be made on merit regardless of sex, race or the community from which the individual comes. Judges are a vital part of our constitution and the merit principle must be the only guiding factor that determines who should become judges.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I am tempted to say to the Minister after the astonishing attack by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who asked the main question about the role of the Lord Chancellor and that of the judiciary that, with friends like that, he does not need enemies. However, I ask him to reinforce the fact that we are proud of our judges. We have a proud tradition of judges who are completely independent of political influence. Will he confirm that the new judicial appointments commission set up under the recommendations of Sir Len Peach will not impose any ridiculous notions of political correctness? Will he endorse the calibre of our judiciary, of which we are proud?

Mr. Lock: I can certainly confirm that the Government's view is that the vast majority of our judges in the vast majority of courts perform a valuable public service day in and day out. They do so in a professional, efficient and sensitive manner. The proposals in Sir Len Peach's review that have been carried through will improve our ability to ensure that we select the best people to carry out the important role of judges.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): Does my hon. Friend agree that Sir Len Peach's recommendations will bring greater objectivity to the appointment of judges, which could in turn encourage people from less representative groups to come forward? Does he further agree that promotions, particularly from the district judge bench, could do much to improve the balance of the more senior levels of the judiciary, bearing in mind that the district judge bench is more representative?

Mr. Lock: I agree that in the past there may have been too great a tendency to promote the best advocates from Bar to bench without sufficient attention being paid to the need for other skills, which are just as present in the litigation solicitor as they are in the successful barrister. As for promotion from one level of the judiciary to another, I assure my hon. Friend that all appointments, whether internal or external, are made on merit. It will be open for district judges to apply for promotion to circuit

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judge, and they will have to compete on merit with others who are applying to come into the judiciary at that higher level.


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