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Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I wonder whether the rest of the House noticed that the hon. Gentleman used the words "at the end of his career". As he is entirely legally qualified to denigrate the independence of the judiciary, being professionally qualified himself, is he aware that he proposes that we elect as Lord Chancellor a man or woman who is, in effect, Eastbourne in erminesomeone at the end of their career? Is that really what we want? Do we want someone at the tail end of their career holding this supremely important position?
That is not what I said at all. When I referred to the appointee being at the end of his career, I meant someone who sees holding the office of Lord Chancellor as effectively the last thing he wishes to do before retiring from public life. That is a sensible measure. He must be in a position to resist political pressures from those around him. While it is true that the Prime Minister can dismiss a Lord Chancellor at will, it is also the case that if the replacement Lord Chancellor is similarly isolated from desires of political preferment, the position will be reinforced that he will not be able to succeed in getting much better from another Lord Chancellor.
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There are compelling reasons for including the new clause. The appointee could be someone in their 30s or 40s who does not wish to continue with a career in politics thereafterthey need not be, as the hon. Gentleman suggested pejoratively, Eastbourne in ermine.
Simon Hughes: I was fearful that the hon. Gentleman was under some misunderstanding. My understanding of the new clause is that all that it would preclude is further ministerial office. One could remain in Parliament as a Back Bencher and take other public office. My hon. Friends and I will support the new clause, but it is clear that that is the specific reason, and it seems to me to be a very good one.
Mr. Grieve: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his expression of support, because that is the intention. Given the way that public life works, in reality, the appointee might be someone of maturity, but that is not a bad thing. It is a question not of Eastbourne in ermine but of having a bit of experience of life and of politics and of having a good track record. That is exactly the benefit that past Lord Chancellors have given us, irrespective of which party they have come from. It is precisely to preserve that that we have tabled the new clause. Were the Government to accept it, it would go a long way towards meeting the criticisms that we have otherwise made about the danger of the Lord Chancellor being politicised, which, I think, would provide substantial reassurance. I hope that the Minister will respond positively.
I do not want to see in 10 years' timeif the Government get their way on this Billsomeone who is effectively a junior ministerial appointment in the House suddenly realising that they are in fact at the mercy of the political pressures with which they will inevitably be surrounded. We should be sensible. One of the reasons why our political system has worked well to prevent impropriety is that it is robust. What the Minister is doing, with the changes that he is introducing, is making it much less robust in terms of the Lord Chancellor's independence. I realise that that is theoretical, but theory will usually turn into practice if the safeguards are not there. The new clause provides those safeguards, and I commend it to the House.
The reformed office of the Lord Chancellor, as we envisage it, would take away the requirements to be a judge, lawyer or peer, because it is fundamentally a ministerial post that requires political accountability, not least for the £3 billion of public expenditure carried out by the Department for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor. The Government believe in the simple principle that the person appointed must be the best person for the job, on merit, and that there should not be false constraints that could jeopardise that choice. The assertion that all Lord Chancellors might somehow be corruptible because they could be induced by the prospect of another ministerial job not only is an insult to past Lord Chancellorsincidentally, they have had no such statutory restriction, including during the 18 years of the previous Administrationbut provides an intriguing insight into how the Conservatives view ministerial life.
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Mr. Grieve: It is absolutely right that Lord Chancellors have no such statutory restriction, but equally, because they are judges they are in fact constrained in what they can do when they cease to hold that office.
Mr. Leslie: But not in a ministerial context, and I am surprised that[Interruption.] Statutorily, there is no such bar on former Lord Chancellors holding other ministerial posts. I shall elaborate on some other perverse consequences of the hon. Gentleman's new clause.
Mr. Grieve: Once again, we confront the question of convention. I should be interested to hear from the Minister whether, during the period to which he referred, a Lord Chancellor held other ministerial office after ceasing to hold that one. The answer, I suspect, is that no one did, because the existing convention makes it completely impossible to do so. Throughout the Bill's passage, it has become clear that the Government loathe convention. They put it in the bin, yet convention has served this country very well. The Government then argue that because a certain practice was only convention, they need do nothing else, but that is precisely how the safeguards in our constitution are eroded.
Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman says with complete confidence that no Lord Chancellor has ever held any other ministerial post; my officials and I will look back through the history books to double-check that assertion. [Interruption.] He says that it is impossible for a Lord Chancellor ever to hold another ministerial post, but he is wrong. He talks about convention, but it is he who proposes to put a statutory bar on former Lord Chancellors holding another ministerial post. I am simply discussing the proposal before the House.
There would be other very significant disadvantages to such a statutory bar. For example, it might put the best person for the job off accepting it, if they felt that such a bar would be an artificial constraint on their future ministerial career. It would prevent that person from taking on any ministerial rolein which their skills and expertise might be of great value to the running of the countryeven if it were blatantly obvious that they were the right choice for the post in, for example, a time of national emergency or crisis.
There could be other perverse consequences for public affairs. For example, because a post-holder could not hold any other ministerial post or perform any other role in public affairs, they would have a perverse incentive to hang on to their office. They might not resign at the time most others would consider appropriate, or when circumstances would normally suggest that they should. New clause 9 gives rise to all manner of oddities.
This point may have been dealt with, but my assumption is that, under the new dispensation, a Lord Chancellor could be sacked by the Prime Minister of the dayjust as a recent Lord Chancellor allegedly wasor a retirement age could be established. Neither of those ideas is unmanageable: the first
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happens anyway; and even if the Bill does not provide for a retirement age, it could, and there is no reason why it should not.
Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman is introducing other elements such as retirement age and term limits, which are somewhat false constraints on the holding of ministerial posts. We should not have such constraints; rather, we should have the best person for the job. Of course, in normal circumstances it may well be that the best person for the job happens to be at the end of their ministerial career, but that will not always, axiomatically, be the case. Strength of character and political courage cannot be legislated for in the crude way suggested in new clause 9. If a post-holder is likely to be swayed by political patronage, they are as likely to be swayed by all sorts of other "temptations", such as European Union posts, international postings and directorships.
There are all manner of problems with new clause 9. We must keep focused on allowing the best person for the job to be appointed, whoever they may be. I urge Members to reflect on the fact that this is a new and reformed post of Lord Chancellor, which requires the right person. False barriers, age-related criteria and term limits are not typically features of our constitution as it relates to public affairs, nor should they be. We stick with the principle of appointment on merit, and I urge the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) to withdraw the motion.
Simon Hughes: As I said a few moments ago, my hon. Friends and I will support new clause 9. The Minister knows that both Houses have supported the notion that the new Chancellor under the new arrangements should not have to be a Member of the House of Lords, should not have to be a judge and can therefore be someone from either House. The Minister also knows that we would have preferred the title "the Minister of Justice", but we accept that the opening up of opportunities is generally a good thing.
The argument that no special characteristics apply to the post does not hold up. For example, the Law Officers of the Crown have always been people who, in theory, could have been chosen from anywhere, but they have, in fact, been chosen from people with appropriate qualifications. The Minister of Justice under the new dispensation is someone who will for the first time be responsible to Parliament only for the justice system in this countryEngland and Wales in some respects and the whole of the United Kingdom in other respects. That is different from the present role.
I agree with the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that the job needs to be as protected as possible from the normal pressures of political aspiration and from the temptation to be popular with colleagues in order to obtain preferment. I cannot believe that, in future, there will not be people who would view it as a huge honour and privilege to serve for an indefinite term as the Lord Chancellor from either House of Parliament. I cannot believe that only an old person should be considered. I understand, in parenthesis, that Eastbourne has a declining average age rather than a rising one, and it
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may be a misrepresentation of Eastbourne to suggest that everyone there is old: indeed, many young people live there.
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