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Clause 15

Speakership of the House Of Lords

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Leslie: Clause 15 introduces schedule 5, which vests the functions currently vested in the Lord Chancellor as Speaker of the other place in the generic office of Speaker of the House of Lords. The provisions remove the automatic link in primary legislation between the Lord Chancellorship and the speakership of the other place, ensuring that the other place can, under its own Standing Orders, appoint any person to be its own Speaker rather than, as is currently the case, having the Speaker selected by the Executive. The person then appointed will be empowered to carry out all the functions currently attached to the speakership of the House of Lords. It is for the other place to settle its own arrangements for presiding over its own proceedings.

The Government acknowledge that discussions in the other place, following the report of its Select Committee established to examine the speakership, have taken place and we have encouraged the other place to consider appointing as its Speaker a Member other than the Lord Chancellor. The report of the House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee notes that it is reasonable to assume that the Lord Chancellor who, after all, has the responsibility for running a large Government Department should not also be Speaker of the House of Lords. That is also the Government's view, so I support clause 15 and schedule 5.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Until recently, I had not appreciated that the proposals in clause 15 and schedule 5 were part of the provisions of the Bill. A Member of this House gets into a debate about the conduct of affairs in the other place only with some trepidation, but I have a sort of interest that I should declare, in that I was the first Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Lord Chancellor.
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In the previous Conservative Government, I had the privilege to serve Lord Mackay of Clashfern—for my money, one of the finest Lord Chancellors that this country has produced. As his PPS, I saw for myself something of the Lord Chancellor's different roles and the value of having the person in that post as Speaker of the House of Lords.

There is a difficulty that this House needs to consider and it relates to the use of the word "Speaker" in both Houses. I do not feel entirely comfortable with that, as the word has a particular resonance in the British Parliament. I feel strongly that that resonance is best protected if the word "Speaker" is used solely in connection with the House of Commons. I regret that the House of Lords is considering using the word for the person who chairs its proceedings, and I also regret that the Lord Chancellor will no longer be the automatic choice as Speaker in the other place.

On a point of procedure, I am slightly surprised—as an amateur in these matters—that clause 15 should have such lax wording. It states:

I hope that the Minister, when he winds up this short debate, will confirm that the wording is sufficient to give effect to the amendments contained in schedule 5.

Those amendments are surprisingly wide ranging. One might have imagined that the simple change proposed in the clause would have required relatively few consequential changes, but no fewer than eight Acts of Parliament will have to be altered as a result. I suppose that the changes to the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975 could have been predicted, but I hope that the Minister will confirm that the clause does not have wider implications. For example, the Lord Chancellor at present has power in relation to ecclesiastical patronage. Schedule 5 deals with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, and I should be interested to know where in the Bill that ecclesiastical patronage power is covered.

The problem is that the significant constitutional changes proposed in the Bill were rushed in the first place. The consequences for the organisation of business in the House of Lords were not properly considered when the Department for Constitutional Affairs was created. The matter at issue in clause 15 and schedule 5 is not of a piece with the rest of the Bill. Essentially, the Bill describes how this country's legal processes will work in the future. It sets out important questions of a strategic nature that have to do with our systems of criminal and civil justice, but we must also consider the importance of symbols of power and authority.

That is why I was so disappointed by the earlier debate about the proposed titles for the courts. I do not think that the word "senior" is appropriate, given that the word "supreme" has served us so well for so long. That usage is infinitely preferable, as such symbols matter. For that reason, we should also be concerned about the changes proposed in clause 15 and schedule 5.

The authority of the other place derives in part from the mystique attached to the title of Lord Chancellor, who chairs its proceedings. That is another reason for
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concern. The British constitution is not unwritten as it has been set out in scores of Acts of Parliament, conventions and documents, but it is precious and delicately balanced. Often, apparently insignificant changes can have quite big consequences, and it is a matter of great regret that one consequence of the over-hasty creation of the Department for Constitutional Affairs in 2003 is that we are now having a rushed debate about how the other place should organise its proceedings, and about the role of the Lord Chancellor in those proceedings.

I do not suggest for a minute that the status quo is necessarily the right position to occupy, but the post of Lord Chancellor has evolved over the centuries to meet the needs of changing judicial and political structures. I think that I am correct in saying that it is the oldest post left in the British constitution—except, of course, for the monarch. The Lord Chancellor's Department—to which I feel such personal attachment, having served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary there—was created in 1885. The Lord Chancellor only gained power over the courts under the Courts Act 1971. Of course, the Government created the Department for Constitutional Affairs only about two years ago, so I accept that there should be change.

I am not saying that the Lord Chancellor should necessarily always be the Speaker of the House of Lords, but I am attracted to that solution. I am concerned that the Minister, in his opening remarks, did not give a sufficient explanation of why we need to rush this change. The argument about separation of powers of the Government or Executive, Parliament and the judiciary—the different elements of the constitution—lies at the heart of much of our debate, but I have always seen the attraction of the Lord Chancellor occupying different roles. Certainly, the last Labour Lord Chancellor found no difficulty with those roles, and Conservative holders of the office have had no problem with that either.

Keith Vaz : The hon. Gentleman said that he did not mind the Lord Chancellor occupying different roles. Is he saying that he supports the view that the Lord Chancellor should continue to sit as a judge?

Mr. Luff: That probably takes us rather wide of the clause. I would not have changed the status quo at all; I was entirely content with the status quo. I belong to the school of thought that says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The speakership of the House of Lords was not broken and it did not need fixing. The Government have not really adduced an argument about why that should be changed.

If we are to separate out the judicial role, I might understand that—I might regret it, but it is happening—but it does not necessary follow that that great historic symbol, the Lord Chancellorship and his role as the Chairman of proceedings in the House of Lords also needs to change. Frankly, as someone who saw Lord Mackay of Clashfern perform that role with great distinction, I am totally unpersuaded by the case for change, so perhaps the Government are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The clause and schedule 5, to which it gives effect—at least, I think that it gives effect, depending on the reassurance that I get from the Minister—are a bridge
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too far. We need much more justification for a change that may appear trivial, but could lead to confusion between the two Houses and removes an ornament to the British constitution that does no harm and brings great pleasure, distinction and a sense of historic continuity.

My final thought is that Parliament should treasure historic continuity whenever it possibly can; it should throw away traditions and customs only when it is forced to do so by changing circumstances. When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. That is an important principle with small and big things, and it should be applied now. I am not persuaded by the case for the clause or schedule 5.

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