Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Peter Bottomley : The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) advertised his speech as a short one, but it ran to 19 minutes; mine will be shorter than that. The first question to ask is why we are paying the price of a ministerial brainstorm that occurred during a botched reshuffle. Abolishing the Lord Chancellor and the issues arising from that proposal have resulted in a Bill of 227 pages. The major associated cost—[Interruption.] I do not intend to be interrupted too much by the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary. The major associated cost is the capital cost, but there are also high recurring costs.

When the Law Lords appeared before the Constitutional Affairs Committee—I am very grateful to them and to the Lord Chancellor for doing so reasonably frequently—Lord Bingham said that the current arrangements passed the Bingham "pudding test", but not Bingham; in other words, appearances seem to be more important than anything else. If the issue is separating the place where the highest court will sit from the Palace of Westminster, I should point out that in doing so we would be separating it from the legislature, not the Government. I was intrigued by the idea, as advanced by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, of locating the court in a Government office. It would be far better to locate it in the legislature instead, but perhaps we can sort out that difference of opinion later.

We could say that the Lord Chancellor's house need not be used by the Lord Chancellor. It could be defined as being outside Parliament, but still fall within the Palace of Westminster security screen. As a result, there would be no additional costs. In other words, we could deal with the situation by changing people's perception and altering the definition, in the same way as—as has been suggested—we could change the name from Lords of Appeal Ordinary to supreme court justices.

The Government seem not to understand the difference between continuity and improvement and change. They have shown a lack of respect for an institution that has worked pretty well and they are obsessed with constant change. As a constituent of mine wisely said, if they were half as good at delivering results economically and effectively as they are at launching their ideas, life would be likely to improve. Not a single improvement will follow the high cost, disruption, argument and delay in which the Government's
1 Feb 2005 : Column 734
proposal will result. A far better idea would be to say that we prefer that the Law Lords do not vote in the upper House. That could be done by convention and, through a minor adaptation, we could establish that the Lord Chancellor need not sit on cases. The third problem could be solved by defining the place where the Law Lords meet as theoretically outside the Palace of Westminster. The only remaining issue would then be the best way of appointing the judges—an issue with which different clauses deal.

I hope that the Committee will forgive me but I will have to leave the Chamber at 2 o'clock because the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which has contributed to this debate, will be in session and it needs to be quorate.

Mr. Tyler : I endorse and support what my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said earlier. I am stimulated to say something else, as well, by the contribution of the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), who is of course a member of the Constitutional Affairs Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has left to prepare for the meeting to which the hon. Gentleman just referred, so I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is still here to hear what I have to say.

The role of the Constitutional Affairs Committee in preparing for this debate has been an extremely useful innovation, and we owe it to its members to take their advice very seriously. I am sorry that Conservative Front Benchers have not done so, because a considerable section of Members support the proposition before the Committee. The hon. Gentleman may want to comment on the fact that the Select Committee did not divide on paragraphs 37 to 54 of its report, which endorse the proposal for a supreme court that is separate from the present legislative role of the Law Lords.

Peter Bottomley: To avoid having Divisions all the way through our proceedings, the hon. Gentleman will want to advise the Committee that unfortunately, it was necessary during our Select Committee proceedings to have two votes on paragraph 55, which in essence deals with this issue. The hon. Gentleman is not reflecting fairly, therefore, the decent, gentle and courteous behaviour of the Select Committee.

Mr. Tyler: I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman make that point because I have read the report very carefully. It is true that there were some Divisions on paragraph 55, which dealt with the actual location of the court, but the principle of setting up the supreme court is dealt with in the earlier paragraphs.

I want to respond to the particular point about using this building for this particular purpose, while still maintaining the separation of powers, to which I and my colleagues are very much attached. I accept that there is an argument for doing so in the transitional period. That is why I want to deal with what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) referred to as the sunrise clause. My colleagues and I have some concerns about it—it is clause 120—because it provides a safety valve that could easily become a blocking mechanism if particular members of the judiciary decided that the
1 Feb 2005 : Column 735
accommodation was unsuitable, not ready, or not of the sufficient calibre, standard or quality to which they were attached as residents of this building. The hon. Member for Worthing, West has made an important contribution in that it would be perfectly possible during the transitionary period to use this building until the Middlesex guildhall is available.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman puzzles me now, because the recommendation in the report wholly endorses the need for a sunrise clause and states that no supreme court should come into operation until a new building has been identified. Is there not some inconsistency between what the Select Committee said and the hon. Gentleman's current view?

Mr. Tyler: Not at all. I want to make it absolutely clear that my colleagues and I are not seeking to exclude the sunrise clause. What we are saying is that the Government owe it to the Committee now to explain precisely how they intend to handle the transition. That is a perfectly reasonable request to put to the Minister, and it is in those terms that I draw his attention to the possibility that the sunrise clause could be used as a blocking mechanism, which I believe would be very damaging to the reputation of Parliament. It would allow one part, albeit an extremely important part, of our body politic to hold up the will of Parliament. I hope that the Minister will respond to that particular point.

I believe that the Select Committee's other comments are admirable. The Committee came down firmly in favour of Middlesex guildhall as an appropriate location, which I believe is a measured and sensible recommendation. The Committee also gave considerable thought to the interim arrangements that will apply until the recommended building is ready. I hope that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield has read that section of the Select Committee report. I endorse the Select Committee's measured approach—I include Conservative members of the Committee in my praise—and I greatly prefer it to the apocalyptic approach of Conservative Front Benchers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): It has been interesting to hear the debate so far, not least because the arguments both for and against have been put forward so well by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) and by the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). I agree with many of the points that those Members advocated, though my reading of the amendments before us is rather different from that of Conservative Members, particularly regarding the entire deletion of the creation of a supreme court in one form or another. I accept some of the points made about particular aspects of the building, appointments to the supreme court and so forth, and I shall try to deal with them in turn.

At present, the highest Court of Appeal in the land sits as a Committee of Parliament—the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. To anyone except a seasoned observer, it can appear that a legislative body
1 Feb 2005 : Column 736
is interpreting legislation. The status quo thus has potential flaws that could cause difficulties. About half of the present Law Lords are now reported to be uncomfortable with their position in the legislature, which potentially conflicts with their judicial role. They have had to exercise a self-denying ordinance in recent years in order to avoid speaking or voting on legislation that might later prejudice their objective application of those laws.

Although the present system works, the time has now come to make improvements. Part 3 of the Bill, from clause 20 onwards, therefore proposes the creation of a new supreme court for the United Kingdom that is separate from Parliament, removing the potential conflict between the legislative and judicial roles of our most senior judges, and providing greater clarity and visible independence for our highest court.

Ideally, the functional separation of the judiciary from the legislature and the Executive is a cardinal feature of any modern, liberal and democratic state that is governed by the rule of law. Pragmatically, the business of justice should be, and should be seen to be, independent of the business of Government and the business of Parliament. That was argued strongly by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. The interpretation and application of laws should not be undertaken by those intimately involved in making the laws. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has welcomed the proposal because it reduces the prospect of a critical judgment in the future that a free and fair tribunal should not be prejudiced by preconceived potential bias. Greater clarity is necessary for public confidence and for our continued reputation in the wider world.

Specifically on the comments by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) about the location and nature of the prospective building, we believe that a new supreme court must be established in an acceptable way, in a manner fitting to the principles of the highest court in the land and the dignity commensurate to its status, while simultaneously securing value for money for the taxpayer.The Bill places the Lord Chancellor under a duty to provide appropriate accommodation and facilities—and here the sunrise clause 120 additionally ensures that commencement will not occur until those facilities are available. I am glad that the Select Committee commented favourably on those arrangements—in particular on page 20 of its report. To explain a little further, the arrangements were made in order to placate some of the concerns expressed in the other place—that there might be a hasty removal or eviction of the Law Lords from the House of Lords to somewhere they regarded as unsuitable. Ministers will approve the new building and ensure that consultation with the Law Lords takes place throughout the process until they become supreme court justices.

The Government announced in December—I believe on either 14 or 19 December and in a written ministerial statement—the preferred option of Middlesex guildhall, the Crown court that we now see on the opposite side of Parliament square, as the new, separate supreme court building. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said that I somehow sneaked this out on Second Reading, because there was, as I said, a voluminous written ministerial statement about it.
1 Feb 2005 : Column 737
Never mind, but that statement would probably answer many of the questions that the hon. Gentleman put to me today.

The advantage of this particular site—I have advocated it throughout as the most obvious choice—is, of course, its prime constitutional location in Parliament square, with legislature, Executive, the Church and now the judiciary to be represented on all four sides. Furthermore, that location would represent a potentially vast improvement on the cramped conditions of the present accommodation in the House of Lords. Middlesex guildhall is already owned by the Department for Constitutional Affairs and is used as a Crown court.

I understand the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, who quoted the concerns of Lord Bingham, but they relate to the building that is used now. I believe that it is perfectly possible to strike the right balance between preservation of the key features—we would need planning permissions elsewhere, which is one of the reasons why the Middlesex guildhall remains our preferred location at this stage—and the more traditional approaches of the Law Lords who prefer to sit in panel and have a more open and transparent method of conducting their hearings. I believe that Middlesex guildhall can be refurbished and changed to meet those concerns. I also believe that that location will provide good value for money, in being a refurbishment rather than a new building. It also has the architecture most likely to galvanise widespread recognition and respect among the general public. We know that it also has the support of the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs.

2 pm

The costs of fitting out and refurbishing the building are on the record. They are significant, but modest in comparison with the costs incurred by some of the big institutional building projects that have taken place already this century. The total of £30 million covers fees, value added tax and a 50 per cent. optimism bias. Also, £15 million will be spent to provide additional Crown court rooms elsewhere in London. We have not announced where those will be, but the options will be reviewed over the next few weeks. Some of London's Crown courts have rooms that are under used, and Middlesex guildhall may not always be the most appropriate place for Crown court hearings, given its wide catchment area and the fact that there might be more suitable locations elsewhere.

We announced in a written ministerial statement that we had looked at various different options, including Somerset house. Our preferred option, the Middlesex guildhall, was chosen according to the statement of requirements agreed with Lord Bingham. We considered it suitable because of its location, and on the ground of value for money. Developing and refurbishing court houses, including listed buildings, is already part of the Department's core work. We have a good track record and we work on such schemes around the country every day.

Amendment No. 350 would force the supreme court to remain in the Palace of Westminster. Various Law Lords have complained over the years that this building is too cramped. Middlesex guildhall would offer much
1 Feb 2005 : Column 738
more space, with better rooms for hearings as well as better libraries and office accommodation. Those facilities will help the supreme court's very important judges make correct decisions.

If we retained the supreme court in the Palace of Westminster, there would be no benefit arising from a visible separation between it and the legislature, and such an arrangement would invite questions about the separation, free from parliamentary interference, of funding, facilities and governance arrangements. I hope that the creation of the new supreme court will ensure that separation and transparency.

Many of the amendments deal with the title "Supreme Court Justice". The hon. Member for Beaconsfield said that his aspiration was to be the Conservatives' conservative and ensure the retention of the title of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. Most people find that title confusing and anachronistic. The title of Supreme Court Justice is far clearer and more accessible. The title of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary was coined in the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876. In addition, the phrase "in Ordinary" derives from ecclesiastical law, which makes things even more confused.

Next Section IndexHome Page