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The Solicitor-General: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There are more general issues that need reflection and consideration. Whether they need a statutory amendment to children's legislation is not at all clear, but I think that further consideration is needed. He is right that we want to be sure that Ministers in other Departments and, indeed, Members of this House are in no doubt about the position when people come to see them, particularly if they have seen reports of such judgments. We do not want anybody to be in any doubt about whether they can carry out their duties by proceeding to discuss a case, or whether they would be in breach of contempt rules.
I hope that the House will find it helpful if I offer to consider how we think about clarifying the situation. It is an issue not only for Ministers, but for Members in general. Perhaps, as I am fully respectful of the long years of experience of the shadow Attorney-General, I will offer to consult him, and he can help us to ensure that we have an agreed position that everybody in this House can be clear about, as they should be able to feel certain of their duties to their constituents and their duty to obey the law.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Does the Solicitor-General accept the traditional doctrine of ministerial responsibility, under which Ministers are responsible for the advice that they take and are therefore obliged and have an incentive to probe, question and validate that advice? Or is she joining the long list of Ministers who seem to be enunciating a new doctrine under which, if the advice proves correct and successful, Ministers take responsibility, but if it does not do so, they invoke an official and point the finger at them?
The Solicitor-General: I have never been in any doubtand I think that the Law Officers are in a particular position on thisthat responsibility lies not with the adviser, even where that adviser is the Law Officer, but with the person who is taking the decision. In this case, the person who was taking the decision was me, and I take responsibility for it. I simply described to the House, in the way in which I described it to the local authority and the court, what the process was.
I want to be clear that I take responsibility for the actions that I took. There was nothing improper about the actions that I took. The court has no criticism of me or of the actions that I took, and I do take responsibility for them. I do not want the House to be left with the idea that my explanation of the background to my actions was somehow a denial of responsibility. I accept responsibility, and no harm was done.
One of the things that I would be very concerned about and would regret would be if the excellent work of the legal secretariat to the Law Officers, which has served Law Officers down the decades excellently and
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): Although I am rather late in the day, may I congratulate the Solicitor-General on the blow that she struck 25 years ago by breaking the barrier of contempt of court, which was a real obstacle to freedom of information in those days? I congratulate her on that and I am sorry not to have done so earlier.
May I also congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on her wisdom in taking a second opinion and not relying solely on her own legal advice in making the decision? May I deplore the criticism that has been levelled at her when she has asked to come to the House and explain how the decision was taken? If she did not explain that she had taken advice and how it turned out, she would have been heavily criticised for not mentioning it. No doubt, she would also have been belaboured for taking the decision on her own. May I congratulate her, as she did absolutely the right thing?
May I express very briefly my sympathy with anyone who finds themselves in the complicated, multi-layered depths of contempt of court? It is often very hard to know where the public interest lies in that sector, and frankly that whole area of law needs urgent review.
Further to the comments of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), I have certainly seen a letter from the Law Society suggesting that it is considering writing to all its family practitioners inviting them to review their files to see whether there is a case to be brought out and put into this whole area of review. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Law Society is going to write to all family solicitors inviting them to submit cases for review, and is that being done with the encouragement of her Department or the Minister for Children?
The Solicitor-General: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for the points that she made. Issues have arisen around the edges of the case that require further review, and I am aware of those that the Solicitors Family Law Association and the Law Society have been looking at.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): The Solicitor-General suggested that we should broaden consideration of the problem, particularly as a reference in the press suggested that a Member of Parliament could be in contempt of court if a constituent brings an issue to him. In reality, as she said, most Members of Parliament will deal with cases, from both men and women, which go on to the family division. I dealt with one case in which fighting had been going on for two yearsnot with the courts but with the evidence given by social services to the courts. Ultimately, a guardian ad litem was appointed for court proceedings, which confirms that the guidance I was given was correct. It is important that the right of the citizen to see their Member of Parliament as an ombudsman is maintained.
The Solicitor-General: I am sure that we all want to be reassured that citizens maintain the right to meet their Members of Parliament, tell them what has been going on in a case that affects their life profoundly and, if they want the opportunity, to protest to them and ask for something to be done. Of course, we all want to be absolutely clear that we are sticking to the letter of the law. I suspect that custom and practice operates when a Member writes to social services on behalf of a constituent, as the hon. Gentleman may have done, and asks for background to the case. However, if such information consists of issues that have formed the background to court proceedings that custom and practice may not be within the strict letter of the law. We have to be absolutely sure about thatwe do not want to invite social services to break the law in communicating with MPs; we do not want to give comfort to constituents but at the same time breach the law; and we do not want to break the law in anything that we do in the House or debates. We need to discuss the issues of principle and we need to support our constituents. When we discuss those issues, it will assist us to have an understanding of the way in which the courts deal with those issues in practice.
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This afternoon, in Prime Minister's questions, the Deputy Prime Minister accused the deputy Leader of the Opposition of hypocrisy. May I draw your attention to column 1603 of the Official Report on 10 March 2004? In a debate on the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, one of my hon. Friends was called to order by the Deputy Speaker for accusing another hon. Member of hypocrisy. I know that you wish to protect and uphold the rights of Back Benchers, and would not wish to have two sets of rules in the House for Front Benchers and Back Benchers. Will you therefore give a ruling on whether it is unparliamentary for one hon. Member to accuse another of hypocrisy, regardless of whether they are a Front-Bench or Back-Bench Member of Parliament?
Mr. Speaker: I always say to the House that temperate language should be used at all times, and it is unfortunate if it is not. Whether Members are Front Benchers or Back Benchers, all are hon. Members and are treated the same. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that I have no fear about whether the Member concerned holds high officethey will abide by the rules of the House.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In that case, the Back-Bench Member was asked to withdraw their comments, but today the Front-Bench Member was not.
Mr. Speaker: Perhaps the Deputy Speaker was more attentive than I was today, but the hon. Gentleman will know that Prime Minister's Question Timewhether questions are fielded by the Prime Minister or by the Deputy Prime Ministeris a heated time of the week and I have many things to watch out for. I would put it down to that.
Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is there not a distinction between referring directly to an hon. Member and accusing them of being a hypocrite, which you would rightly rule out of order, and making a general criticism that the Opposition's position is hypocritical?