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The person we need could be a young person chosen by the Prime Minister of the day because they would bring a different style and character to the job. The key issue is that the person must not seek to carry out the functions of the job in a way that renders them a candidate for another ministerial office which is not responsible for the independence of the courts and the judiciary. We have talked about the oath that the person would be obliged to take. It need not preclude the person from going on to the Back Benches or from becoming a judge of the Court of Justice of the European Communities in Luxembourg or the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. There is no need to preclude the person from sitting on the International Court of Justice, from being Advocate General in Luxembourg or from all sorts of other jobs. They could be chairmen or chairwomen of tribunals or serve in a variety of other public offices. The one thing that has to be renounced is preferment as a Cabinet Minister or Minister of the Crown.
Mr. Leslie: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point and I do not wish to denigrate the virtues of the convention of having someone at the end of their ministerial career. However, I earnestly caution him to think very carefully before supporting a statutory bar. Surely he can envisage circumstances that could amount to a fettering of the democratic choice of the country in respect of an individual who could be excellent at being Lord Chancellor and also capable of going on to higher things. I believe that preventing that possibility through statute would be a backward step which would fetter the democratic choice.
Simon Hughes: I acknowledge that the issue is debatable, but I have thought about it and I come down very strongly, when it comes to this particular job, on the side of protecting people from the usual pressures to give in to colleagues in order to be seen to be advancing a particular party view.
Let us consider the present circumstances and a Bill such as this coming before Parliament, steered by the future Lord Chancellor, who could be a member of this House rather than the other place. Let us imagine that we are eight or nine weeks away from a general election and that a certain Bill faces the deadline that all its stages must be completed before Parliament is prorogued. Colleagues might exert all sorts of pressure to get the measure pushed through, but the compromises involved might not be in the interests of justice.
The party and political pressures faced by the person who is Minister of justice in all but name must be different from those faced by other office holders. The
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nature of democracy is that people are subject to such pressures, but the new system should provide protection for the person in that role.
Mr. Cash: One aspect of the Lord Chancellor's role has not been debated today but is very important. Traditionally, the Lord Chancellor brings weight and authority to Cabinet discussions of constitutional matters. He is also the Government's conscience, and that is not a light matter. That role goes back to Sir Thomas More, and beyond, and it has an unromantic but practical function. The Lord Chancellor traditionally has qualities that enable him to provide the Cabinet with advice that other Ministers cannot, for the reasons that have been set out. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is another reason for supporting new clause 9?
Finally, there has been growing controversy in recent daysnot for the first time in historyabout the role played in government and public life by the Attorney-General. I have no reason to impugn the current Attorney-General: I have met him a couple of times and found him to be entirely reputable, decent, honourable and straightforward. However, it would be foolish to deny that a debate is going on outside the House about his independence. The Attorney-General is one of the two Law Officers, and the other is a Member of this House. We must do everything that we can to protect the person who holds the new post that is being created, and his or her successors, from the political criticism that I have describedthe task of upholding justice must not be compromised by the political expediency of the day.
Every week, we are asked how we can do more to get people to vote and believe in politics as a good thing. We are expected to raise the public perception of the role of politicians, and one small step in that direction would be to protect the person running the justice system in this country from the normal pressure exerted by party, friends and colleagues. I cannot believe that there will not be plenty of good candidates to choose from in every Parliament.
That is a statement of fact, but the report also expresses an aspiration that that should continue. In our second report, the Committee reinforced that approach, although we did not say that the Lord Chancellor had to be a Member of the House of Lords.
New clause 9 is a genuine attempt to achieve that aspiration. One might believe that the convention was well established and that there would be no need for legislation, but the Minister's remarks made me realise that that is not so. He said that people might be reluctant
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to become Lord Chancellor because that would interfere with their future career prospectsan observation that goes to the heart of the concerns felt by me and by the Committee.
Mr. Grieve: A story has been going around the Bar for some years that, when the present Lord Chancellor took office, the Lord Chief Justice suggested to him that, as he would not sit as a judge, it might be a mistake to take the judicial oath because it might cause him problems with his future career. I cannot help but think that one of the reasons why the Government resist this proposal so hard is the problem that it would pose to the present Lord Chancellor.
Mr. Beith: I make no prediction about the duration in office of the present Lord ChancellorI will not even quote what the Lord Chief Justice was alleged to have said about his many endearing qualitiesbut something quite important is at stake. We have probably lost the conventions during the argument. We are considering a Minister with a substantial Department that involves a lot of spending, and there may be a case of his sitting in the House of Commons and it may not be essential for him to be a lawyer. If we start to add all those things together, the convention could go out with the bathwater. It is a valuable convention for all the reasons that have been givenI do not want to repeat themand I see no other way to safeguard it or to signal that we think it important than by supporting the new clause, so I intend to do so.
Ross Cranston: I congratulate the Opposition on raising this serious issue; but, on balance, they are wrong. I accept all that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has said about the need for my right hon. and hon. Friends to respect the judiciary, but mutual respect is needed. The judiciary itself must respect what Parliament has done and what the Executive do in accordance with our constitution, but there are three reasons why the Opposition are wrong on balance.
First, we are recasting the office of Lord Chancellor in relation to the statutory obligations that we have already considered in clauses 1 and 4, and the obligations to protect the rule of law and respect the independence of the judiciary. We are recasting the office in terms of the concordat, whereby the Lord Chief Justice, for example, has a much enhanced role. So the first reason is that the office has a different character.
The second point is that there is no comparable provision in the other jurisdictions to which we might look. I know the situation in Canada and Australia best of all, and there is no suggestion that their Attorneys-General, who occupy a role that combines that of our Attorney-General and Lord Chancellor, are precluded from going on to other high ministerial office. The best example that I know is Sir Nigel Bowen, who was a Conservative Attorney-General in Australia. I worked with him very closely on an inquiry. He became the Australian equivalent of Foreign Secretary, and there is no suggestion that he in any way pulled his punches, while Attorney-General, in protecting the independence of the judiciary.
The third reason is that convention is importantI agree with Member for Beaconsfield and the Liberal Democrats in that respectbut we should allow such
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conventions to develop. A convention may develop that the people who occupy the role ought not to go on to accept other ministerial office. The great office of Lord Chancellor has changed over the centuries depending on the historical context. My hon. Friend the Minister is absolutely right to say that we ought not to stifle the development and evolution of that office as it faces new challenges.
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