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Order for Second Reading read.

The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris): I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

3.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am pleased that, after much debate and discussion in the other place, the Bill has at long last come to the House of Commons. I shall address the details of the Bill in due course, but we must not neglect the fundamental principles driving the reform, namely, the need to modernise our constitution so that our institutions can serve the public in a clearer, more transparent and more effective manner; so that our courts and justice system can be administered by a full-time Minister clearly accountable to Parliament; and so that the relationship between the three arms of the state—Parliament, the judiciary and the Executive—is settled, clarified and easier to understand, in turn making each better fitted to carry out its vital roles in a modern democracy.

The Bill therefore proposes the reform of the office of Lord Chancellor, removing the blurred lines between political and judicial functions, so that the post holder, as a full-time Cabinet Minister, can concentrate on the administration of the justice system, no longer sitting as a judge, and we hope no longer tied to the Woolsack in the other place as its presiding officer. The Bill sets up a new judicial appointments commission, an independent body responsible for selecting our judges in the future, and it creates a new supreme court, putting beyond any doubt the independence from politics and the legislature of the highest appellate court in the United Kingdom. There will be a clearer separation of the powers of Parliament, the judiciary and the Executive, and greater confidence in the shape and nature of each branch of our constitution.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): It would be appropriate if the hon. Gentleman could tell us at this stage what these changes will cost.

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman must wait for that section of my speech, when I shall be happy to elaborate on that particular matter—I know that he will wait patiently.
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There has been wide consultation on the reforms. Many academics and observers of our constitution have long called for a properly independent judicial appointments process and a separate supreme court for the UK. The Lord Chief Justice and members of the senior judiciary support the Government, and a Select Committee of the House of Lords has meticulously scrutinised the Bill.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I am startled to hear that the Lord Chief Justice supports the Government. I recall the Lord Chief Justice saying that, given the constitutional crisis that the Government precipitated by announcing their back-of-the-envelope changes in summer 2003 without any consultation, certain aspects of the Government's proposals—in particular, the concordat, on which the Lord Chief Justice insisted—make the best of a bad job.

Mr. Leslie: That is not a correct representation of the Lord Chief Justice's views. A lot of time has passed since the Bill was introduced—as I have said, it was debated at length in the other place—and the robust package of measures has wide support, including from members of the senior judiciary. We have responded to the long debate in the other place and have accepted a number of changes.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend have no truck whatever with the argument that this is a Johnny-come-lately policy? It is more than 12 years since the party of which we are members agreed the basic points in the package. Some of us think that the process has taken far too long to come to fruition, rather than its having been done on the back of an envelope in the past 18 months.

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend makes the reasonable point that the measures are fundamental and overdue. They are important, in so far as they help to clarify the relationship between the different branches of our constitution.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Would it not have been easier to maintain the position described by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) if the announcement had not been made before any consultation had occurred and had not been seen as a fudge? If we were starting afresh, one might believe in the process, but not after the Prime Minister made such a faux pas in the first place.

Mr. Leslie: All good ideas have to start somewhere. This one started with the announcement by the Prime Minister, which subsequently resulted in numerous consultation papers and a lengthy consultation process. The process in the other place was even longer and involved accepting a number of changes to the Bill.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): This point relates to the    argument advanced by the hon. Member for
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Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve): on Second Reading, the Lord Chief Justice referred to the Bill as

and said that

Mr. Leslie: My hon. and learned Friend always has the facts at her fingertips, and I am grateful for that quote.

We have reflected on the consideration of the Bill in the other place and have accepted a number of changes. The Government accept the decision of the House of Lords on the retention of the title and formal office of Lord Chancellor. Whether the post holder is called "Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs" or "Lord Chancellor", or whether he has both titles, is not a matter of great significance. What matters most is the substance of the post, the nature of the job and whether the position is reformed so that the post holder's duties are no longer contradictory.

If the role of the head of the judiciary can pass to the Lord Chief Justice, and with it many of the judicial functions incompatible with the role of a political Cabinet Minister, then the office of Lord Chancellor can continue, but in that substantially reformed way. The Bill continues the office of the Lord Chancellor, but in a significantly altered and more appropriate form.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does the Minister recall that the Constitutional Affairs Committee indicated that the important point is that the office of Lord Chancellor, which it felt should continue at least for the time being, should be in position firmly to assert and protect judicial independence, particularly when senior Ministers might appear to impair and threaten it, and that the post holder must therefore be someone of considerable seniority who is not looking for further promotion?

Mr. Leslie: I shall comment later on the other protections that we have added, with particular reference to the office of Lord Chancellor and the holder of that ministerial office. We have managed to strike the right balance in having flexibility for the Prime Minister in making appointments while enshrining the independence of the judiciary in its relationship with that post.

Mr. Grieve: I, too, commend the parts of the Lord Chief Justice's speech on Second Reading that the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) commented on, which dealt with the concordat and the manner in which the Government had carried out their proposals. Can the Minister provide reassurance that the Government will preserve the substance of the amendments on the Lord Chancellor that were drafted in another place to ensure that we retain not only the Lord Chancellor's name in carrying out the functions of the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, but the added protections of his sitting in the House of Lords and being a lawyer?
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Mr. Leslie: I may be giving way a little too often, because I was about to come to that. Perhaps that is something that I can learn for the future.

Before dealing with the hon. Gentleman's question, I want to restate why these reforms are necessary. Under the current system, the Lord Chancellor holds potentially conflicting judicial and political roles, and sole responsibility for the whole judicial appointments process. In our view, it is no longer appropriate for a Government Minister to have such unfettered discretion in the appointment of judges. The Lord Chancellor also holds a number of outdated, inappropriate and anachronistic functions. Reform of the office will enable that Minister to focus on his and the Government's main priority—the delivery of essential public services.

The Bill gives all Ministers—particularly the Lord Chancellor—and those responsible for matters relating to the judiciary and the administration of justice a statutory duty to uphold the independence of the judiciary. It ends the Lord Chancellor's judicial functions and ensures that his responsibilities for the judiciary are exercised under new transparent statutory arrangements with the Lord Chief Justice.

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