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Ross Cranston: I do not accept that analysis. Obviously, resources ultimately have to be voted for by Parliament, but the function of the Lord Chancellor, or the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, will be to press the Government for adequate resources. The Department has a range of responsibilities. There are many functions for it to perform. In terms of the allocation of resources within those functions, the Lord Chancellor is simply acknowledging—this reflects the earlier stipulation, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said—the obligation to ensure that the courts are adequately funded. I have no difficulty with the oath as it stands. In fact, it is a helpful reminder that we cannot simply wish that the courts are working properly. We have instead to provide sufficient resources so that they work effectively in practice.

Simon Hughes: This is an important matter, on which other hon. Members have done more research than I have. However, I want to deal with two issues, one of which has not been touched on.

First, when we take our seats in this place, we are given the option of swearing or affirming, as people are in courts up and down the land. In this modern age, in which people may not wish to swear, either from reasons of belief or faith or from conviction, they should have the option of affirming, no matter whether it is the Lord Chancellor or someone becoming a Member of the House of Commons. Personally, although I have a faith, I have never taken an oath by swearing, because I think that it is wrong. I have always affirmed here and in other places such as courts where I have given evidence, and I do not see why the Lord Chancellor of the future should not have the same option.

Mr. Grieve: I think that I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is nothing to prevent the Lord Chancellor from doing just that. As I understand it, any oath can be turned into an affirmation.

Mr. Leslie rose—

Simon Hughes: If the Minister can assure me of that, I shall be encouraged.

Mr. Leslie: When we discussed this in another era, we mentioned that the Promissory Oaths Act 1868 allows for affirmation to apply to such oaths.

Simon Hughes: I am reassured and need not pursue that. I am satisfied with the consensual view that there is an option available.

Mr. Bercow: I do not want to break the consensus, but I want it to be worthy of support, and I am not
 
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absolutely sure that it is. It is all very well to be told that that is what the 1868 Act says, but it seems to me—the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) may think that I am being pedantic, but so be it—that if the alternative of an affirmation is to exist, it would be sensible to say so in the Bill.

Simon Hughes: That would certainly be my preference. As I read it, other parts of the Bill expressly give the option of oath or affirmation, but not this one. That led me to believe that affirmation might not be possible, despite the Minister's assurance, which I accept. I am conscious that we are at a late-ish stage of the Bill, but it would be better if it were included for the avoidance of doubt.

Secondly, of the two options before us, I prefer the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) and his hon. Friends to what the Government set out in the Bill, not least because it keeps the two fundamental jobs in question—upholding the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law, and the historical rights and duties that go with that—and does not add the novel obligation to do with being a good housekeeper. I can see potential merit in Ministers swearing, by oath or affirmation, to be good housekeepers. I assume that if we pass the Bill unamended, all future Lord Chancellors will have to swear to

I agree that it would be better still if it said, "adequate resources", because that would add an extra protection that "efficient and effective support" does not have.

It strikes me that this will be a unique, governmental, ministerial obligation. Is it the start of a trend? Will the Minister and all his colleagues, when they take office, have to make some affirmation or public declaration that they will be responsible for the efficient and effective support for, in the case of the Home Secretary, the prisons or the police service, or, in the case of the Deputy Prime Minister, local government? In that sense, I would much enjoy going back to my old job of administrative lawyer, because many challenges could be made in court that Ministers were not doing their jobs properly. This will be the first time that we have this modernist oath saying, in effect, "I am going to look after the buildings as well". If that is really what it means, it makes one's great moment a bit banal. One arrives at the end of one's career, with the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain—[Interruption.] Well, under this new system someone might then be transferred to be something like the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as the next job. I would hope that we could have a slightly less banal oath than "Here I am, I will look after the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary, and make sure all the courts have enough curtains, cleaners and cleaning materials to do the job." If it really means that, there is a huge amount more work to do.

Ross Cranston: Does the hon. Gentleman concede that if the Government do not appoint enough judges, build courts and provide staff for judges, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary will not be protected?

Simon Hughes: The hon. and learned Gentleman, in his previous role as Solicitor-General, would have dealt
 
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with such matters much more regularly than most of us. If this is just words—dressing—it should not be in the Bill. If it gives me—the citizen—or my constituents in Southwark and Bermondsey a remedy allowing them to say, "Look, I do not want to wait six months for my court hearing, or to go across the country to a court because the court that used to be here has been closed", it will be worth something. If it is all about saying, "I'm going to do my best to make sure there are enough resources", that is great, but we could have a lot of argument about the amount of resources and why all Ministers should not be subject to the same oath of affirmation.

Mr. Cash: Would the hon. Gentleman like to extend that thought to the question of why the Prime Minister, for example, should not swear such an oath to provide all the public resources that people want and apparently need? Why not the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Why does the poor Lord Chancellor have to be required to carry out these duties, when the real responsibility lies even further up the chain than him?

Simon Hughes: That is a proper question, and I would be grateful for an answer from the Minister as to whether it is intended to oblige the officeholder to carry something out, and whether there is a remedy if they do not.

All I would say to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is that if this does get written into the Bill, and if the Tories were ever to return to government, although some of us hope that that will not happen, it may act as a Tory Government's brake on starting a tax-cutting, public-expenditure-reducing agenda that some of his hon. Friends might be keen on. For my part, I am keen to ensure that we hold Ministers to account, but if it is just to be the poor Lord Chancellor who is to be in the firing line, I did not know that he had access to resources other than by going to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is not governed by the same proposals.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: I am delighted to support amendment No. 355, which gives a few traditionalists on this side of the Committee the opportunity to form a square against the horde of modernisers led by the Minister and ably supported by the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) and the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who want to destroy the last vestiges of tradition that surround the law. I am not a lawyer—[Interruption.] I apologise to my north-east neighbour, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). She has not spoken, so I was not about to blame her for this.

It is important for people of this country who believe in the importance of the law that there should be some dignity and respect attached to it, because that gives it something additional to the normal run of life. It makes judges stand out; people talk about the majesty of the law. That is very important if one is to engender the respect of the population for the legal system and the judiciary. They need some traditions, and over the years we have been wiping those out. We wiped out the assizes, quarter sessions and all sorts of aspects of the tradition of the law and replaced it with things such as this rather dull and banal version of the oath that we see today.
 
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I remember the introduction of new rules and regulations about juvenile courts. The idea was to make them far more user-friendly for those who were brought before them. Judges and magistrates were made to sit informally in small rooms, and that was meant to help young offenders. Of course, it did not. The respect of young offenders for the system of the courts and justice declined, as we have seen. It is ironic that the Government are now so fond of reversing that process by introducing naming-and-shaming antisocial behaviour orders.

I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that the oath is banal and nonsensical. It is interesting to look at a copy of the Promissory Oaths Act 1868—one can get it online, believe it or not—and the original words. It says that the Lord Chancellor will swear that he or she

Those are ringing words—words of tradition—to be replaced by this banal oath whereby he promises to ensure the adequacy of curtains, drains or other things, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said. I believe that we should resist this change, and I hope that my hon. Friends will push the amendment to a Division.

3.30 pm


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