Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Keith Vaz: I want to speak briefly on Third Reading because we have rehearsed the arguments over so many days and, indeed, a number of months since the Government first published their proposals.
1 Mar 2005 : Column 919

I pay tribute to the Minister, who has conducted himself eloquently and tirelessly in ensuring that the House has an opportunity to be provided with as much information as possible, and he has done it all with good humour. I thank him for the work that he has done in ensuring that the Bill passes all its stages.

I want to say how pleased I am that the Lord Chancellor and the Minister have worked so hard with the judiciary. Certainly, when these proposals were announced, some of those in the senior judiciary were concerned about some of them. There was concern in the judicial part of the House of Lords and a number of Law Lords were not consulted about what was happening. Since then, we have agreed the concordat with the Lord Chief Justice. I am glad that we worked with the judiciary because we have the finest judiciary in the world. It is important that the judiciary should be kept fully informed of the developments and properly consulted, and I now think that the judiciary support the reforms. I hope that the Minister will take the message from the House to those in the senior judiciary that we will consult them on matters that concern them and ensure that we consider their views.

What has saddened me tonight, however, is the   attitude of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr.   Grieve) and the Conservative party's decision to vote against diversity in the House. It is appalling that a party that claims to the black and Asian communities and on the gender issue that it is in favour of diversity should wish to vote against an innocuous clause proposed by the Government—new clause 42.

Mr. Grieve rose—

Keith Vaz: Hang on—wait a minute. The hon. Gentleman will attend an Asian function in the House this Saturday. He attended Baisakhi last year. I think that he even put a turban on his head in the middle of Baisakhi. He says to the ethnic minority community that his party is in favour of diversity, yet he comes to the House and votes against diversity. [Interruption.] He has had a lot to say. Let me just say that he should have known about the substance of new clause 42 and we cannot do his homework for him. He is a clever man and I should have thought that he would have established what that clause was intended to do.

First, it was originally proposed by myself, his hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston), who is, sadly, to retire from the House, despite his distinguished service in the Government and on the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs. It is obvious that when the three individuals concerned all signed the same proposal, it is worth reading and considering very carefully.

Secondly, new clause 42 comes straight from Northern Ireland legislation. It reflects exactly what was intended in respect of the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission.

Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Keith Vaz: I will when I have finished making my point.
1 Mar 2005 : Column 920

The proposal has worked well in Northern Ireland and it was therefore appropriate to suggest it again. The third point is that the clause is specific on merit. No woman and no black or Asian person in this country wants to be appointed to any job on the basis of their colour or gender. The first and overriding consideration is merit, and that is exactly what new clause 42 states. That is why it is written in terms that allow merit to be the overriding consideration.

Mr. Grieve: I am sorry to note that the hon. Gentleman's sensible points are, characteristically, marred by the malevolence of tone that he so habitually adopts. He knows that the Conservative party is proud of promoting diversity, but as a parliamentarian I want to ensure that the Government do what they promise. Central to the Bill has been their promise that judicial appointment wholly on merit would be preserved. If the Government wanted to table a sensible amendment, I would have expected them to do so in a way that guaranteed debate and with their views known to the House before they did so.

Keith Vaz: That was not an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to make another speech. He is wrong and the message will go out to the community today that the Conservative party—despite what it said during the Leicestershire, South by-election when the Leader of the Opposition ran from mosque to mosque saying that he was in favour of diversity, despite what the shadow Home Secretary said at the Diwali function at the Dorchester hotel last year when he tucked into his chicken tikka masala and told everyone that he was in favour of diversity, and despite what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield says at ethnic minority community functions—when it came to the crunch, it voted against diversity. That is a shame on the Conservative party and a shame on the hon. Gentleman.

7.7 pm

Simon Hughes: May I first thank the Minister? Although the Liberal Democrats did not like the programme motion, nor the fact that we did not debate so much of the Bill, he dealt with matters today with his usual expertise, competence, courtesy and friendliness. We are grateful for that because it helps to alleviate the other criticisms, which we do not lay largely at his door.

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has had the conduct of the Bill through the House, except today, with the assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who was in his place for most of the day and chairs the Constitutional Affairs Committee, gave his apologies as he had to be at another event now, but he has been assiduous in ensuring that the Committee and all its members played their full part in contributing to our deliberations. We owe them all our thanks.

The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) raised, with his usual intensity, new clause 42, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and others. My colleagues and I supported that new clause and voted for it with enthusiasm. We believe that it should be added to the Bill, but I will not join the hon. Member for Leicester, East in criticising
1 Mar 2005 : Column 921
the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and his colleagues for saying that the new clause should have been debated in the House and in Committee. The Government did not say that they would support it. They are entitled to do so, but in the 27 minutes of unbroken recital of new clauses, new schedules and amendments, there was no chance to discuss any of them. It is proper to say that we should debate it.

I accept that no woman or member of a minority ethnic community wants to be promoted within the legal profession on any grounds other than merit. I also accept the huge pool of talent that there was, is and will be from women and black and ethnic minority communities. I have held the strong view for many years that they have been under-represented by miles in judicial appointments at the highest level. Only in the last 12 months has the first woman made it to the most senior court in the land. That delay has done us no credit, but I am pleased that it has happened at last.

None the less, we should have been able to have this debate and the new clause could then have been judged on its merits. That has been our view for a long time, and it is unreasonable to associate a lack of concern for these issues with the way in which the Conservative party voted on the issue.

Turning to the matter of substance, the Bill is important and substantial—all 227 pages of it. I think that it is the last of the Bills envisaged under the Cook-Maclennan agreements made before the 1997 general election by the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and my colleague Lord Maclennan of Rogart, as he now is. Our parties put forward a set of constitutional proposals that we said we would want to introduce when either of us were in government. Labour was elected and did good things in its initial period in government, including passing the Human Rights Act 1998. That has been spoilt by the question of derogating, but that is a sad and separate story.

The time has long come for the reforming proposal that lies behind the Bill. I do not think that in any other modern or older democracy throughout the world, the roles of the Speaker of one of the Houses of Parliament, a Minister in the Executive and the most senior judge have been fused and carried out by one person. It is absolutely proper to argue that the roles should be separated.

I support a two-Chamber Parliament, with a principal Chamber and a second revising Chamber. In passing, may I say that I support a predominantly elected second Chamber and hope that we will have one before long? I think that that was on the Prime Minister's agenda at one point, but it has slipped a bit as he has changed his view in a retrograde way. It is self-evident that the two Chambers of Parliament should choose their own Speakers and call them what they want.

Additionally, there should be a Minister of Justice—he will now still be called the Lord Chancellor—who is accountable to parliamentarians, one hopes in the elected House of Commons. That will be the case in the future. There should also be a separate, independent and free-standing supreme court for the United Kingdom. It should be seen as separate from legislative and party pressures and able to do its new job. That is not to say that the Law Lords have not done a good job. We value
1 Mar 2005 : Column 922
hugely what they did as recently as December when they found that the Government had acted illegally and that the law of this country was contrary to the European convention on human rights. They thus effectively called on us to repeal the law, which we will inevitably now do. However, in modern democracies, courts and supreme courts are separate from the legislature, and the Bill will allow us to achieve such separation.

It is important that we modernise the way in which we appoint our judges. The system set out in the Bill is not perfect, but it is much better than the existing one. We will have an independent commission and independent scrutiny. I personally would have preferred a structure under which the nomination of the Prime Minister would also require approval by a Select Committee, as is the case in the American Congress, as well as involving the judicial commission process, because that would have provided for extra protection.

The Bill changes ancillary matters to do with such matters as the Privy Council and its appellate functions. Those changes needed to be made, so it is right for us to modernise our judicial process.

We need a judiciary that is modern, but above all independent. When Liberal Democrats have criticised the Bill, it has been because the Government have not adequately ring-fenced that independence—we had one such debate today. However, with a few reservations, we warmly welcome the Bill, so my colleagues and I will support it on Third Reading, as we have done throughout its passage. We hope that it will be on the statute book soon, whatever the date of the general election.

7.13 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page