Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Clause 4

Guarantee of continued judicial independence

Mr. Leslie: I beg to move amendment No. 18, page 2, line 24, leave out '("the Minister")'.

The Chairman of Ways and Means: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 19 to 324.

Mr. Leslie: These amendments are purely matters of drafting improvement and consistency and do not affect policy. After one sentence, I give way.
31 Jan 2005 : Column 621

Sir Patrick Cormack: The Minister is unfailingly courteous and always tries to help. I wanted to intervene at this stage because I have a point not of order but of substance, which I want the Minister to address. We have spent two hours of the first three hours allocated and have discussed one amendment. There has clearly been no filibustering; many Members have not taken part because they have felt that they should leave matters to those who are leading on the issue. We now have less than an hour to complete consideration of the first group of clauses. Some very important subjects will clearly not be debated. Will the Minister discuss with the Leader of the House and others responsible for deciding the programme whether we can have a fourth day on this Bill? It is absurd that whole chunks of a Bill of this magnitude, which has come to this House having been thoroughly discussed in another place, will be dispatched without anybody saying anything about them.

Mr. Leslie: We have not debated just one amendment; we have debated two separate amendments on a very big issue. What can be much bigger than the issue of the rule of law? I am not surprised that we took some time on that. However, having listened to the hope expressed by the hon. Gentleman, I shall try to be briefer so that we can make as much progress as possible. Perhaps we shall even finish consideration ahead of schedule, leaving time for other matters.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): I have been sitting quietly trying to listen to the debate. This Bill is important to those of us who are not lawyers and who are trying madly to find a way through much of the provision, which impinges fundamentally on parliamentary privilege. The point made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) is not about the content of individual amendments; it goes rather deeper. If such a Bill is programmed—as this one is—the House will not debate it. My hon. Friend has called in aid debates in another place, not once but several times. It is bizarre that in seeking to amend a House of Lords Bill the House of Commons is praying in aid the House of Lords. We should be debating the Bill here.

Mr. Leslie: Indeed we are debating it here. We are at the beginning of our extensive debates on these matters. I say to my hon. Friend that I will try to be as brief as possible to allow as wide a debate as possible.

The amendments replace references to "Minister" with "Lord Chancellor" throughout the Bill. The Bill as introduced into the Lords last year sought to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor and therefore set down many functions as the responsibility of the "Minister". Since then, we have listened to concerns about abolition, expressed here and in the other place. The Government accept the decision of the House of Lords to retain the title and formal office of Lord Chancellor. Whether the post holder is called "Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs", "Lord Chancellor", or has both titles, is not of great significance.

As I said on Second Reading, what matters most is the substance of the post, the nature of the job, and whether it is reformed so that the post holder no longer has conflicting duties. If the role of the head of the judiciary
31 Jan 2005 : Column 622
can pass to the Lord Chief Justice, and with it many of the judicial functions that are incompatible with the political functions of a Cabinet Minister, the office of Lord Chancellor can continue in that substantially reformed way. The Bill therefore retains the office of Lord Chancellor, but in a significantly altered and more appropriate form. To ensure that the Bill's terminology is consistent, the Government amendments replace references to the Minister with references to the Lord Chancellor. They ensure that it is immediately clear to everyone who reads the Bill that the Lord Chancellor is the Minister responsible for exercising those functions, so they do not need to cross-refer to another part of the Bill. That follows the precedent that functions vested in the Lord Chancellor in statute are, for the sake of clarity and ease of understanding, vested specifically in that office rather than in "the Minister".

6.30 pm

Mr. Heald: As I have already mentioned, the decision to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor was misconceived. It was a back-of-the-envelope decision made on the back of a reshuffle by cosy chums sitting around in No. 10, without the usual safeguards of consultation and measured consideration in Cabinet. It was clearly wrong to try to abolish such a pivotal role in that way, and the amendments represent recognition by the Government that the Prime Minister got it wrong. Conservatives and Members in the other place were right to battle hard to restore the Lord Chancellor's role and ensure that that ancient but important post was not abolished as planned. I therefore welcome the fact that in numerous instances throughout the Bill the word "Minister"—the Lord Chancellor would simply have been a Constitutional Affairs Minister—has been replaced with the words "Lord Chancellor", which reflects the success of my noble Friends in another place.

Mr. Tyler: I, too, welcome the clarification in the Bill, which reflects the views of Members from all parts of the other place and puts into effect the requirements of the concordat between the Government and the higher judiciary. I have some sympathy with the view expressed by Shakespeare that a rose

I am not sure how we would apply that to the post of Lord Chancellor, but the semantic significance of the amendments goes beyond the title given to his particular functions. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was concerned that by retaining the title of Lord Chancellor we were sending the message that there was not any change in his functions within the Executive and the hierarchy of the judicial system. That is not the case, so I regret that it has not been possible to find a better title. Indeed, my hon. Friend and others have argued that the Bill provided an opportunity to look at the boundary between the Department for Constitutional Affairs—Decaff, as it is commonly known, because it is said to be all froth and no substance—and the Home Office. This could have been the time to look more substantially and strategically at they way in which those two Departments interrelate. Logic, however, now dictates that references to the Minister throughout the Bill should be replaced with references to the Lord Chancellor. That is the settled will of Members from all
31 Jan 2005 : Column 623
parts of the other place and, I suspect, of Members of the Commons. I hope that we will now progress as fast as possible to the more substantial issues before us.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I support the Government amendments, and I am delighted that the Government have seen sense and conceded the power of our arguments. References to the Lord Chancellor now appear in the Bill, but I think that the Minister would agree that it is important that people outside should not be confused. There is nothing confusing about changing some of the Lord Chancellor's responsibilities. That has happened before—in the middle ages, the Lord Chancellor was frequently a bishop or senior cleric—but if he has a dual title, as at present, people will get mixed up. We should not have a dual title for the man or woman who fulfils the role of Lord Chancellor. I should be delighted if a woman became Lord Chancellor—that would be a very good idea if we chose the right person—but whoever bears that important title, it should not be subsumed by another title.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): My hon. Friend has made an important point about the confusion that has been engendered. That is not helped by the fact that the Government did not include these proposals in either their 1997 or 2001 manifesto.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Indeed, that is the case, and the events that led to the introduction of the proposals have been rehearsed many times. The Prime Minister was suddenly confronted with what turned out to be the temporary retirement of the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn). He also had some sort of altercation with the then Lord Chancellor—one day, when memoirs are written, perhaps we will know precisely what did, or did not, happen. The proposals, however, were introduced without proper consideration or deliberation. As we said on Second Reading, the substance of the Bill should have been the subject of a White Paper and preferably a Green Paper and draft legislation as well. All that, however, is history.

Next Section IndexHome Page