Draft Attorney General's Salary Order 2000

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The Chairman: Order. Can we get back to the salary? If hon. Members want to discuss the future of the Attorney-General, whether we should have an Attorney-General or whether he should be in the House of Lords, they can arrange for an Opposition day debate.

Mr. Hawkins: Of course I accept your injunction to stick to the matter of the salary, Mr. Cunningham.

I recognise that it is essential for any Government to choose their own appointees and to put the question of their salaries before the House. Whatever the salary, however, it is vital for the Attorney-General to be in the House of Commons.

I have made several attacks, and I am slightly sorry that a Law Office Minister is not responding. The Parliamentary Secretary is one of the most mild-mannered Ministers, and I am sorry to have to attack him.

On a lighter note, I now understand not only how ministerial appointments are made, but how the Whips Office selects hon. Members to appear on statutory instrument Committees. No less than half the enormously successful Lords and Commons football team, which defeated the Football Foundation 5-1 at Wembley yesterday, is serving on the Government side of the Committee. Let me be the first to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) for his captaincy and goalkeeping skill in that wonderful triumph. As a late substitute who was proud to play a minor part as one of only two Conservative Members in the team, together with the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) for the Liberal Democrats, I now understand the skill of the hon. Member for Bradford, South in picking hon. Members to serve on this Committee.

10.49 am

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I welcome you, Mr. Cunningham, to the Chair.

I follow other hon. Members in observing that my comments are not personal. The Attorney-General is well qualified for his office and held in high regard by his peers. However, it must be put on record that we deprecate the office of Attorney-General being occupied by someone who sits in the other place. He should be democratically accountable in this House. The process of election itself is a salutary experience.

The Attorney-General is responsible for the Crown Prosecution Service. I shall not wander too far from his salary but I wish to put on record, as I have consistently in the House, the inadequacy of the CPS and the collapse in morale there. Things are going from bad to worse there. The Government create new crimes and boast of their law and order agenda when they cannot mount compelling prosecutions through the CPS.

The mathematics of the Committee dictates that the Attorney-General will have an increase in salary. Let us hope that with it, we get a consequential improvement in the standards and running of the CPS, which currently leave much to be desired.

10.51 am

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Before I deal with the Attorney-General's salary, I congratulate him on the speed with which he acted on a constituency matter. The Committee will know that since I joined the House, I have been a great critic of Ministers who do not respond to letters in a timely manner. I faxed the Attorney-General about an urgent, complicated legal matter on 19 June and again on 21 June. He signed the letter back to me on 21 June and faxed it to my office first thing in the morning on 22 June. I put on record my appreciation of his prompt action.

That point, however, leads me to question whether we should pay such a salary and whether this is a full-time post. I do not want to be niggardly. Having had good service from the Attorney-General, I do not like to suggest that the reason may be that he has nothing else to do or that he does not have a full-time job that justifies a full-time salary. I mentioned that I would be attending the Committee to Members of the House of Lords, whose immediate reaction was to hope that we would not approve the order. They said that the Attorney-General spends his time sitting on the Front Bench, getting in the way of the Home Office team, of which he used to be part. He appears to have nothing to do with his days. I hope that the Minister will comment on the hours necessary for the job.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend is in close touch with members of the legal profession in his constituency, as I am sure all hon. Members seek to be. On legal salaries, does he agree that there is much concern among hard-pressed legal aid solicitors that the Lord Chancellor spends all his time attacking so-called fat cats in the legal profession when there are so many distinguishedó

The Chairman: Order. We are not talking about the fat cats in the legal profession. We must return to the salary.

Mr. Bruce: I shall try to deal directly with the salary order. My local solicitors would be pleased if the Attorney-General received a salary of £500,000 so that they could compare their meagre earnings with his. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend makes a good point, because many hon. Members will not have much sympathy with very high salaries. The salary is reasonable for a full-time Attorney-General doing a full-time job. I am concerned about the job being done in the House of Lords and about whether he is doing the full job.

What has been the effect of having the Attorney-General in the House of Lords in terms of appointing more people in the House of Commons? If an important job that is normally done in the House of Commons is done in the House of Lords, another Minister is generally appointed on another ministerial salary. The taxpayer not only pays the salary for the job in the Lords but an equivalent or lesser salary to duplicate it in the House of Commons.

This salary order is being made only because of the individual who has been appointed in the House of Lords. I am sorry to have to say this but Lord Williams was appointed as a friend of the Prime Minister and a great supporter of his before entering the House of Lords. I concur that he is obviously a very able man, but there was a big row before the Prime Minister took office about his blind trust and the money that was going into it to run his office.

The Chairman: Order. I am trying to be fair and let the hon. Gentleman have his say, but he must return to the issue in hand.

Mr. Bruce: Mr. Cunningham, I think that you will find my next remarks relate precisely to the salary. There must be absolute openness about anyone appointed to a salaried position. When I wrote to the Prime Minister's Office about donations to the blind trust, it was made clear that the trustees would tell the honours secretary whether an individual had donated to the trust before an honour was awarded. I asked the question because Lord Williams was appointed to the House of Lords. If he had given money to the blind trust, that information will have been available to the honours secretary and therefore to the Prime Minister and the Government. Will the Minister confirm whether Lord Williams contributed, perfectly correctly, to the Prime Minister's blind trust? I think that that is important to the salary orderó

The Chairman: Order. I thought that we were debating the salary, not the merits or demerits of an individual.

Mr. Bruce: Mr. Cunningham, I hear what you say. I have made my point and I will not labour it.

Lord Williams moved from the Home Office into the post of Attorney-General. When he was prisons Minister, I had the delight of accompanying him on a visit to a prison in my constituency. I wonder, whether, notwithstanding his present post, he could continue with some of his previous roles to justify the full salary, despite his being unable to do the full job because of the fact that he sits in the Lords. I suspect that Lord Williams was fully in control of the early release of prisoners. After he left, that systemó

The Chairman: Order. We are not debating what Lord Williams did or did not do. We must return to what is under discussion: the salary.

Mr. Bruce: I am suggesting that Lord Williams could earn his salary by getting a grip of that problem, with which he was previously involved. It would make the salary worth while if people who were not eligible for early release stayed in prison, as he promised in his previous post. Mr. Cunningham, I thank you for your indulgence. I think that I have said as much as I need to.

10.59 am

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I associate myself with everything that has been said by my hon. Friends and by the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. I share the deep concern that the Attorney-General is in the House of Lords, and that the order exists at all.

It is a great shame that the Committee has to debate the order, which should not be before the House; the Attorney-General should be in the House of Commons.

I also wish to associate myself with the remarks made about Lord Williams, who is an amiable and talented man. He has shown me some kindness with respect to personal difficulties that I have had, and I would like to express my gratitude.

I object, however, to the need for the order, and I have a simple question for the Minister, although I might have got the answer from my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire if I had listened to him when he opened the debate. What rate of inflation is applied to the salary of the Attorney-General? Is it the rate that the Government set for pensioners, which gives rise to a 75p increase, or the higher rate, which is applied to petrol price increases and raises more tax revenue for the Chancellor?

11 am

Mr. Tipping: It might be best to associate myself with the remarks that have rightfully been made about my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South. He is indeed a consummate manager and a fine professional. A bit of crawling to the Whips does nobody any harm, and I want my views placed on the record. I would also like to leave early on Thursday.

I am grateful for the support given to the order by the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire and for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), although they raised other issues, too. I also am grateful for the kind words about my right hon. Friend Lord Williams of Mostyn. He has been a distinguished lawyer and a fine Home Office Minister. As the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire said in parenthesis, Lord Williams, along with many other Lords Ministers, has, almost by definition, suffered a big drop in salary in accepting a ministerial position. I sometimes think that the general public do not sufficiently recognise the degree of personal commitment made by politicians here and in the other place.

I am sure that Lord Williams will be a distinguished Attorney-General. Where he goes after that is a matter for the Prime Minister. A number of hon. Members have asked sotto voce how such appointments are made, but I freely confess that I have not got a clue. They are a mystery emanating from No. 10 Downing street. Some of my hon. Friends were astonished to get a phone call about various matters, but I do not want to delve further.

On a more serious note, the Prime Minister has a difficult job in ensuring a balance of Ministers from both Houses. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire pressed me on how a Member of the House of Lords was appointed Attorney-General. He has a good deputy in the House of Commons, the Solicitor-General, whom the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) described as a mild academic. He is a very distinguished academic and will be performing at 3 o'clock in the Chamber; those who have seen him know that he performs well.

The presence of Ministers in the House of Lords is an issue about which Members of all parties feel strongly and on which the Wakeham report comments. The House discussed that report last week, and one issue that arose was how Ministers in the other place can be made accountable. The Government intend to discuss that further in talks with all the political parties about the way forward on the Wakeham report.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire asked how reforms in the House of Lords will affect salary levels for Ministers in the Lords. No decisions have yet been made but it is clearly a matter for discussion and, I believe, for change. When we move to stage 2 of reform of the House of Lordsó

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Prepared 27 June 2000