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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Attorney General's Salary Order 2000

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 27 June 2000

[Mr. Jim Cunningham in the Chair]

Draft Attorney General's Salary Order 2000

10.30 am

The Chairman: If hon. Members want to take off their jackets, they may do so. I hope that we will not be here long.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Attorney-General's Salary Order 2000.

Mr. Cunningham, I share your views entirely. This is a short, and, I hope, straightforward, order that provides for an amendment to the Attorney-General's salary. Lord Williams of Mostyn, QC was appointed Attorney-General on 29 July l999. Previous occupants of the post have been Members of the House of Commons; Lord Williams is the first peer to be appointed Attorney-General. The current salary of the Attorney-General applies only if the postholder is a Member of the House of Commons. There is currently no equivalent salary rate for the post in the Lords, so a new salary must be determined for the post of Attorney-General in the Lords.

The Senior Salaries Review Body examined the matter and recommended that the salary should have the same differential over the rate for a Cabinet Minister in the Lords that the salary for the post in the Commons has over the rate for a Cabinet Minister in the Commons. The order is backdated to 1 April 1999 and sets the salary at £87,585. Following the annual increase in ministerial salaries from 1 April 2000, that results in a current salary of £90,125. I hope that the Committee will agree the order.

10.31 am

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the purpose of the order, which is, as he rightly says, to set a salary for the Attorney-General, who is now in the House of Lords, backdated to 1 April 1999. It increases the salary of the Attorney-General, from the House of Commons rate of £68,332, to a new House of Lords rate, which, after uprating on 1 April, would be £90,125. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong.

The Committee will recall the debate last year on the orders made under the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1997, which amended the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975.

In the debate on the 1997 Act, the then Leader of the House, made clear the Government's intention, as far as possible, to move away from annual debates over ministerial salaries and to link them to senior civil service pay bands and the implementation of SSRB recommendations.

We must not only respond to the SSRB's recommendation, which I understand is the Government's intention—from which I do not depart—but examine how it relates to past recommendations. In 1996, in its 38th report, the SSRB set out the relevant principles. In relation to Lords ministerial salaries, paragraph 57 states:

    The main determinant of salary levels should be responsibilities.

It went on, however, to accept the historical argument for a higher salary in the Lords than in the Commons, although not one sufficient to equate to the parliamentary salary paid to Members of Parliament. In March 1999, in its 43rd report, the SSRB considered Lords ministerial salaries more fully. The result was to bring Lords ministerial salaries into line with the non-abated Commons ministerial salaries paid prior to 1996. We debated and approved that last year.

When it made those recommendations in 1999, the SSRB said that it was a short-term solution, pending the wider review of the House of Lords. In the light of the Wakeham commission and subsequent debates, will the Minister say when the Government intend to ask the SSRB to look again at Lords ministerial salaries? Given previous recommendations, the order points towards a Lords ministerial salary equivalent to that of a Minister in the Commons, but taking account of the pre-1996 abatement.

How do we apply all that to the Attorney-General's salary? Before considering the issue in detail, I should say that the Opposition regret that the Prime Minister has chosen to appoint an Attorney-General in the House of Lords. That is not to disparage the qualifications of Lord Williams of Mostyn for the post. An Attorney-General in the Lords is, however, not accountable to the elected Chamber for the way in which he discharges his responsibilities. My hon. Friends may wish to elaborate on that.

As to the Attorney-General's salary, the SSRB set out the general position in paragraph 62 of its 38th report, in 1996. It stated:

    The Law Officers are senior Ministers outside the Cabinet with professional legal qualifications. Historically their salaries have been set with an eye to professional earnings but also to establishing a satisfactory relationship with other Ministerial salaries.

One could hardly say that the proposed salary should be constrained by such comparisons with professional earnings. The SSRB's 45th report in February 2000 discussed a survey by the Office of Manpower Economics on the net receipts of Queen's Counsel appointed to be circuit judges. The median level of receipts in the years prior to their appointments was £176,000.

If the salary is modest in comparison with professional earnings, is it satisfactory in relation to other ministerial salaries? The Committee will recall that the Lord Chancellor's salary is £160,011—I am sure that the £11 is particularly useful. It is, therefore, £6,000 in excess of the Prime Minister's salary, even including his parliamentary salary.

Past precedent has put the Attorney-General's salary slightly above that of a Cabinet Minister. For example, from April 1997, the Attorney-General was paid £63,756 in addition to his parliamentary salary; a Cabinet Minister at that time was entitled to be paid £60,000. In March 2000, prior to this year's uprating, the positive differential between the two was £4,025. On that basis, the salary proposal in the order for a positive differential in respect of Cabinet Ministers' salaries in the House of Lords follows quite reasonably.

The Leader of the House of Lords, the Lord Privy Seal, draws a salary that is less than her entitlement—at least that was the case earlier this year. That may still be the case, although I am not sure whether that is relevant, because we are dealing with salary entitlements, rather than salaries drawn.

On the basis of the SSRB's past statements and current recommendation, the salary proposed in the order is not intended to compensate for lost outside earnings, but bears favourable comparison with potential outside earnings and follows established precedent for other ministerial salaries. On that basis, the Opposition have no objection to the passage of the order and will not seek to divide the Committee.

10.39 am

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I do not rise to attack the current Attorney-General. However, there is something gravely inappropriate about the Prime Minister's decision to appoint a Member of the upper House to this quintessentially Commons position.

I should declare an interest as a member of the Bar, although I am not currently in practice. I am also a former member of the Bar Council and a former chairman of the corporate barristers' organisation. That is particularly relevant because when I was first elected to the Bar Council, the current Attorney-General was its chairman, so I am well aware of his good qualifications for high office. I have travelled abroad with him since he became a Member of the upper House, when he has represented the Government and I have represented the official Opposition. I stress that not only am I not attacking him personally, or his qualifications, but that he and I get on very well, and I do not doubt that he is a distinguished representative of the Government.

None of that must be allowed to disguise the fact that it is wholly inappropriate for the holder of the office of Attorney-General to be in another place. He has an important role both as the leader of the Bar, and in advising the Government, and it is vital that he should be open to scrutiny in the democratically elected Chamber for his decision making, and for his legal and political advice.

I want shortly to turn to the historical background of the role of the Attorney-General. However—I say this almost as much in sorrow as in anger, but I am very angry—the hallmarks of this Government are, unfortunately, the most appalling high-handedness and cronyism. There is no doubt among members of my party and Members of the House that the legal profession believes that the Government have treated it with astonishing arrogance. Even today, on Radio 4's ``Today'' programme, there was an extraordinary battle between representatives of solicitors and the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock), in which it was again suggested that the Government were behaving high-handedly, on this occasion over the matter of the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors. I will not go into the details of that battle; that is for another time and place.

Many senior members of the legal profession—some of them in the past avowed supporters of the governing party—suggest that the Attorney-General, having previously been a reasonably successful and well regarded member of the Bar, and a Minister in the Home Office, was appointed to his current post only because the Government wanted to have somebody waiting in the wings. They wished to ensure that if the present Lord Chancellor continued to behave arrogantly and high-handedly, went beyond the pale and so had to be replaced, there would be somebody ready to step into his place.

The Chairman: Order. Will the hon. Gentleman get back to the salary? He is ranging wide of the issue.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful, Mr. Cunningham, but as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said, we must examine why the order has to come before us. The Minister made it clear that it arises from the current situation—unprecedented in the history of Parliament—in which the Attorney-General is not democratically accountable to the House of Commons. With respect, while I accept your instruction and will try to relate my remarks to the salary, I am responding to the Minister's clarification.

The role of the Attorney-General should be examined in relation to the legal profession as well as to the Government. That is why the post requires a salary, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire made it clear that we do not take issue with the overall pitch of the salary in relation to other senior political salaries. I will briefly refer to the role of the Attorney-General as set out in one of the classic works on the British constitution and constitutional law, ``The Machinery of Justice in England''. The distinguished author of that seminal work said:

    The job of an Attorney-General is to support his party in power; he is avowedly a partisan who is expected to fight for the Government with all the zeal he can show.

The distinguished author, Mr. Jackson, went on to say that the tradition earlier in the 20th century had been to appoint Attorneys-General to the more senior position of Lord Chief Justice, and he welcomed the fact that that no longer happened. One does not know what lies ahead for the current Attorney-General, as one of Tony's cronies. Will the Government appoint him Lord Chief Justice and return to the practice of which that distinguished author disapproved? It has been suggested in the profession that he may become the next Lord Chancellor.

The Government have ridden roughshod over many traditions, so it is not surprising that there is great concern about not only their cronyism, high-handedness and arrogance, but their contempt for our history and traditions. Nothing makes me and, more importantly, senior members of the profession—of all political persuasions and none—more angry than that. To sum up the Government's approach, everything traditional is automatically bad. That is Orwellian. The only thing in which they totally believe is so-called modernisation. Anything traditional must, by definition, be bad—it is just like ``Two legs bad, four legs good'' in ``Animal Farm''.

That approach is wrong. When the Attorney-General leaves his post—whether to become Lord Chancellor or Lord Chief Justice—it is vital that his successor is democratically accountable once again. The Attorney-General's advice to the Government is crucial. One has only to look back as far as the previous Parliament to see how much play the then Opposition made of the role of the Attorney-General. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), who, sadly, will retire from Parliament at the next general election, was under scrutiny day in, day out over issues such as public interest immunity certificates. One could have no clearer example of why any Attorney-General in any Government must be open to scrutiny.

I make no criticism of the Solicitor-General, who answers questions on behalf of the Attorney-General. He is pleasant, mild-mannered and rather academic, but he is not the Attorney-General. It is the office that is crucial, not the person. The holder of that office plays a crucial role at Cabinet meetings, to which he is invited to give Her Majesty's Government legal advice.


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Prepared 27 June 2000