Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Grieve: It is indeed the case that when the provision is subjected to proper scrutiny in the other place, those who follow the Conservative Whip will have had a further opportunity to discuss the matter and may decide that they are content with it. However, it is simply not good enough for the Government to adopt a Back-Bencher's new clause that is not their own without expressing their view on the Select Committee's report, when they know perfectly well that when the issue was extensively debated in the other place they accepted the centrality of basing judicial appointment wholly on merit. I fully accept that what the Government have done may not wholly dilute that aspect, but it nevertheless has an impact on it. The Government should not have behaved in that fashion.

Mr. Leslie: I am getting mixed messages from Conservative Members. They say that we should respond to debate and not simply railroad Government amendments through. If sensible amendments are proposed by the Select Committee or by hon. Members, we are encouraged to respond to them. That is precisely what I have done. It is not my fault that we did not have sufficient time to debate that particular part of the Bill in full. It was a matter for hon. Members, some of whom—they are no longer in their places—spoke for considerable periods of time on matters connected with the oath and so forth, which others may feel was excessive. Nevertheless, what happened was all in order; if it were not, we would not have been able to adopt the new clause. I am glad that new clause 42 now stands part of the Bill and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East will make some further comment on it later.

I return to my overview of why the Bill should have its Third Reading. It reforms the office of Lord Chancellor, removing the bloodlines between Ministers and present judicial roles and removing outdated functions. It ends the Lord Chancellor's judicial functions, ensuring that his responsibilities for the judiciary are exercised under a new transparent statutory arrangement in the form of a concordat with the Lord Chief Justice. Reform will enable that Minister to focus on his and the Government's main priority—the delivery of essential public services. We also recognise the Lord Chancellor's important role in the administration of the courts and in accounting for the appointment of judges.

The Bill gives all Ministers, particularly the Lord Chancellor, a statutory duty to uphold the independence of the judiciary. It creates a free-standing UK supreme court, separating the highest appeal court from the upper House and removing the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary from the legislature—a very important step forward. The Bill ensures that the judiciary's voice can be heard and represented to Parliament and that our highest appeal court will be visibly separated from the legislature by being housed outside the Palace of Westminster, our first preference being Middlesex Guildhall. It also puts beyond any doubt the independence from politics and the legislature of the UK's highest appeal court.
1 Mar 2005 : Column 917

The Bill also sets up the new judicial appointments commission, an independent body responsible for selecting judges in England and Wales. It sets out the process to be followed in appointing judicial office holders and in making complaints to the ombudsman.The Bill defines the limitations of the Lord Chancellor's role in the appointment of judges, and provides real accountability over appointments. It is no longer appropriate for a Minister to have unfettered discretion in the appointment of judges. The Bill also makes provision for a new disciplinary process for the judiciary that is open, transparent and accessible. The JAC will have a positive and beneficial impact on the   diversity of appointments, even though all will be made solely on merit.

A further series of amendments was adopted in Committee, largely in relation to enshrining the concordat and making parallel provisions for Northern Ireland. However, the Bill's rationale is clear and simple: it is to provide a modern footing for the relationship between the Government, the judiciary and Parliament.

The Bill restates and strengthens judicial independence and will ensure the better administration of the courts, with a full-time Cabinet Minister overseeing nearly £3 billion of public expenditure. It also makes clear the responsibilities necessary for the vital functions of a modern democracy.

Our constitutional history is one of the longest and most illustrious of any country in the world. It has evolved gradually, but constantly, over the centuries. Change and reform are core features of our system of governance; they are not alien to it. The changes in the Bill will further enhance and improve our constitution so that it is fit for the 21st century.

I commend the Bill to the House.

6.56 pm

Mr. Djanogly: We now find ourselves at the end of a full day of business on the Constitutional Reform Bill. Hon. Members have covered a certain amount of it as a Committee of the whole House, but more than half the clauses have not been considered today. Hundreds of clauses and amendments remain unconsidered and the Government have adopted amendments tabled by Back-Bench Members that have not even been debated. It may be an academic matter to protest now, but the Government can take no pride in their handling of the timetable for a Bill of such constitutional significance.

This afternoon, some controversial proposals have been pushed through, among them provisions relating to the Lord Chancellor's oath, the speakership of the House of Lords, and the land charges search fees levied by local authorities. Of course, many of the clauses are not fundamentally in dispute as they deal with issues covered by the concordat between the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice. For example, the Opposition remain generally supportive of the judicial appointments commission—although, despite the wording in the Bill, we still fear the influence of a candidate's politics or crony potential on his or her chances of selection as a judge.

As we have made clear from the outset, Opposition Members are not opposed to those aspects of the Bill that bring into force the sensible redefining of the
1 Mar 2005 : Column 918
relationship between the judiciary and the Government. However, the positive measures implementing the concordat do not make up for the serious damage that this Bill, in its entirety, will do to this country's delicate constitutional balance which has protected Britain's people and judiciary so effectively up to now. I maintain the view that I expressed on Second Reading. This Bill represents nothing less than constitutional vandalism in the way it sets out to replace the long-standing Appellate Committee of the House of Lords with an unnecessary supreme court, as well as in its undermining of the historical office of the Lord Chancellor.

Indeed, the situation in relation to the Lord Chancellor has become much worse since Second Reading. The other place rightly saw fit to amend the Bill to require the holder of that position to be a member of the House of Lords and a person who had previously been a senior lawyer or judge. The argument for those requirements was entirely valid. They would ensure that the traditional upholder of the rule of law and the guardian of judicial independence had an understanding of the legal significance of events with which he or she might be confronted. By overturning those requirements, the Government have done nothing to further the rule of law that they purport, in clause 1, to uphold. Presumably, we are supposed to feel grateful that the Government have at least respected the Opposition amendment in another place that ensured that the position of Lord Chancellor remained in existence.

As I said, a new supreme court is being thrust upon us. I make no apology for reiterating the effects of that proposal. The creation of such a court will guarantee only unnecessary upheaval and exorbitant costs. The principle of the separation of powers does not require such a change, and neither does the Human Rights Act 1998, which has not been used successfully to challenge our present position. No lack of integrity and independence on the part of the Law Lords necessitates such action. Contrary to what the Government have previously maintained, we believe that the role of the Law Lords is widely understood by the British public.

A starting estimate of £30 million in set-up costs and an estimated £8.8 million in annual running costs will be required for the new court. By contrast, for a little over £168,000 a year, we already have a final appeal court in the Appellate Committee, which is admired at home and abroad for its authoritative rulings. The Lords of Appeal in Ordinary will be removed from Parliament, reducing the quality of debate and legislation in the other place. The Law Lords will lose the benefit of their existing location at the heart of government.

The many reasons for opposing the Bill have been made quite clear throughout the debates in the House. The Government are modernising for the sake of it, and the Conservative party cannot go along with that. I ask the House to take what may be its final opportunity to vote against the Bill, which is damaging to our constitution and wasteful and unnecessary in practice.

7.1 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page