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Mr. Leslie: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time. New clause 1A makes provision for a new statutory office and title of President of the Courts of Northern Ireland, which will be assumed by the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. The new clause sets out the responsibilities of the President of the Courts of Northern Ireland and the courts to which the presidency applies. His responsibilities, which are similar to those already provided for in respect of the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, include representing the views of the Northern Ireland judiciary to Parliament, the Lord Chancellor and Ministers of the Crown generally and, when the Northern Ireland Assembly is restored, to the Assembly, the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and Northern Ireland Ministers.
The new clause also provides that the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland will be head of the judiciary in Northern Irelanda post that is, by convention, held by the Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor will of course continue to have ministerial functions in respect of courts administration on a broadly similar basis to that for England and Wales.
The new clause is straightforward and mirrors many of the existing provisions for the consequential changes to the post of head of the judiciary in England and Wales by virtue of the reforms of the office of the Lord Chancellor.
Mr. Hunter : I have two brief questions for the Minister. First, on paragraph (b), will he explain the mechanisms whereby the President of the Courts of Northern Ireland can represent the views of the judiciary to the Assembly? I am advised that there are no established mechanisms for that, and it would be helpful if the Minister would explain the practicalities of that dimension.
Secondly, on paragraph (c), some confusion and bewilderment has been expressed about the inclusion of the concept of the welfare of the judiciary of Northern Ireland. What do the Government have in mind as regards the inclusion of the word "welfare"?
Mr. Leslie: In reply to the points made by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), other clauses relate to representations to Parliament and, similarly, to the Northern Ireland Assembly. They would be written representations, the nature and extent of which would be as prescribed in those other clauses.
On respecting and advocating the welfare of the judiciary, those are general phrases found elsewhere in legislation covering the role of the head of the judiciary in ensuring that proper facilities and arrangements are made for its work in the normal course of its duties.
The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) asked why the provision was not included earlier. I do not have the whole history of the genesis of
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the Bill in front of me, but suffice it to say that I am glad that the provision is here now and that we can make it complete and perfectly formed in the way that we propose.
Mr. Leslie: I believe that the clause should not stand part of the Bill and I therefore urge my hon. Friends to vote against it. It was included in the other place and we wish it to be removed. I shall explain why the Government take that view.
We oppose the concept, although we understand why their lordships would prefer to keep the reformed office of Lord Chancellor in their Chamber. However, they are wrong and I hope that we can delete the clause. They have fundamentally misunderstood the changed nature of the ministerial post. The title of Lord Chancellor may remain, but gone are the duties to select the judiciary on his own and the power to sit as a judge.
If the Lord Chancellor is no longer solely responsible for selecting the judiciary, can no longer sit as a judge and is no longer head of the judiciary, there remains no reason to be inherently distant from public accountability or parliamentary scrutiny. Of course, we propose nothing that would prevent the Lord Chancellor from being a Member of the House of Lords, but there is no good reason for the clause explicitly to prevent someone's appointment simply because they happen to be an elected representative.
It would be odd if a Prime Minister could appoint anyone except someone who happened to be elected. Deliberately to exclude an individual who was chosen to sit in Parliament by democratic means would appear perverse to most people.
Mr. Heald: Certainly not. Is not it obvious that the other place has a far less partisan manner of debate and that it is far better for the sort of figure who upholds the independence of the judiciary to come from such an environment, be approaching the end of a career but have the necessary great seniority rather than being some young politician who is starting in the Cabinet, has ambition and wants perhaps to make a name for himself?
The hon. Gentleman is clearly talking about himself again. I wish he would not indulge in relating his personal ambitions, but I am sure he will go a long way in politics. There is nothing to stop a
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Member of the House of Lords being a young person, perhaps with less experience and knowledge of the world than the hon. Gentleman expects. We are therefore focusing on clause 2, which suggests that membership of the House of Lords is inexorably connected with the nature of the reformed ministerial post. It is different from the former office of Lord Chancellor because of the other changes that the Bill makes. It would be perverse to suggest that anyone could be appointed to the post of Lord Chancellor by virtue of a peerage and being put in the House of Lords but not if they were elected, even if an elected person was, by common consent, the best person for the job. It is nonsense.
The person who fulfils the reformed office of Lord Chancellor will be a Minister of Cabinet rank, responsible for more than £3 billion of taxpayers' money. Why prevent for ever the possibility of taxpayers holding to account, through this Chamber, that individual who is responsible for spending their money? Junior Ministers, who answer to the Lord Chancellor, can try their best to account to the elected House, but should not at least the option exist of having the responsible Cabinet Minister account to elected representatives? It would be strange for the House to accept the proposition of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that any future Lord Chancellor must always be protected from the full force of politics while accepting that his junior Ministers should not be so protected.
"My firm support for the Concordat reflects the fact that I see no difficulty with a Government Minister exercising any of the functions assigned to the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs by the Concordat. I do not consider that such a Minister requires any enhanced status or particular title to enable him or her to exercise those functions."
Like many other Ministers in the House of Commons, for example Ministers with perhaps quasi-judicial decision-making responsibilities under the Town and Country Planning Acts, the Lord Chancellor will have to act with neutrality and impartiality in some functions. That should not prevent a Lord Chancellor from being chosen by a Prime Minister from either House of Parliament.
Times change and change is now necessary. Until the 14th century, the Lord Chancellor was always a cleric. Does that mean that we have broken a cardinal rule by departing from that practice? Are we worse off because the Lord Chancellor's duties have evolved since the days when he was primarily a secretary to the King? I do not believe so.
The post of Lord Chancellor has evolved and continues to evolve. It is now time to end the unnecessary qualification that that Minister must be unelected. We should accept the possibility that, one day, the right person for the post might be a Member of the House of Commons. The Lord Chancellor should
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simply be the best person for the job, sometimes drawn from outside the ranks of elected representatives and sometimes not.
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