Previous SectionIndexHome Page

16 Mar 2005 : Column 358

Constitutional Reform Bill [Lords]

Lords Reasons for disagreeing to Commons Amendments considered.

7.14 pm

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I must inform the House that a message has been brought from the Lords, as follows. The Lords disagree to certain of their amendments made by the Commons to the Constitutional Reform Bill, for which disagreement they assign their reasons. They agree without amendment to the remaining amendments proposed by the Commons. Copies of the Lords reasons and motions and amendments relating to them are available in the Vote Office. They will be debated as a single group.

Lords reasons: Nos. 1A, 2A, 264A, 265A and 593A

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move, That this House does not insist on its amendments Nos. 1, 2, 264, 265 and 593, and beg to move amendments (a) to (e) in lieu thereof.

Despite the clear decision taken by this House a few weeks ago in February, the House of Lords has yet again insisted that the newly reformed office of Lord Chancellor must for ever be a peer, and must for ever be a lawyer with 12 years' service or a High Court judge with at least two years' service.

So much has now been agreed between both Houses on the Bill—a new judicial appointments commission, a new UK supreme court and the ending of the judicial role of the Lord Chancellor—that it seems bizarre for the Lords to have this continued attachment, first, to a statutory bar on anyone elected in this House from ever becoming Lord Chancellor, and secondly, from anyone with anything less than two years as a senior judge or 12 years in legal practice from holding what in future will be a wholly ministerial post.

Despite hours, days and months of protracted debate, their lordships seem to have suffered a bout of collective amnesia and forgotten that the core, essential nature of the role of Lord Chancellor is changed and reformed fundamentally by this Bill. The Lord Chancellor will no longer be a Law Lord or head of the judiciary, so there is no longer any justification to insist that a Lord Chancellor must never be someone elected to this House of Commons.

Is there any reason why the Lord Chancellor must always be unelected? The answer is no. The Lord Chancellor will deliver public services with a budget of more than £3 billion and there is a strong case that, from time to time, the House of Commons should be able to hold that person directly to account. In our constitution, a Government are formed from the largest party group of elected MPs in this House. With the reformed office of Lord Chancellor no longer a Law Lord nor necessarily tied to the Woolsack in the other place, logic dictates that, in future, any Prime Minister should be able to make appointments from either House of Parliament, and not be fettered from selecting Ministers who can be held democratically accountable.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): This is a minor point, but the Minister said that we would be
16 Mar 2005 : Column 359
barring someone from this House from ever becoming Lord Chancellor. That was a slight slip. Although they cannot be Lord Chancellor while they are in this House, they could be if they went to the House of Lords. That has happened in the past.

7.15 pm

Mr. Leslie: In which case they would not be able to be Lord Chancellor while they were in this House. My point is quite simple. It would be irrational to pickle for ever the Lord Chancellor in an unelected House when the ministerial post has changed. Although it has the title "Lord Chancellor", it is a different post.

Are there any good reasons why the Lord Chancellor must always be a senior judge for two years or a lawyer for 12 years? No. Enshrining the new "concordat" that we have in the Bill between the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor means that, henceforth, the Lord Chancellor will no longer be the head of the judiciary. The Bill removes the judicial functions from the post of Lord Chancellor, which fundamentally changes the nature of that role. There is nothing in the reforms that requires a Prime Minister to pick only a high judicial office holder or similar as one of his or her Ministers. Such a restriction could potentially narrow the field so greatly that perfectly eminent individuals—perhaps senior law academics—would be debarred by statute from appointment.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his deft finesse. Can he confirm that, although we will no longer have to choose a peer or lawyer, none of those qualifications is prevented from being taken into account by a Prime Minister in the future?

Mr. Leslie: As usual, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. He is completely right to suggest that we will want to appoint the best person for the job. That is quite simply our intention, and part of the reason for our amendments. It may well be that, in practice, an individual with experience as a practising lawyer or, indeed, a Member of the House of Lords is the most appropriate and best person for the job. However, it is not inexorably the case that that will always happen.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I have said it often enough, but I am happy to repeat it: I am not a lawyer and I say that as a matter of pride. Nevertheless, I can see some merit in the occupant of the office of Lord Chancellor having legal experience. I would not want to cavil for a moment at the motives of the hon. Gentleman or his ministerial colleagues. If, however, what they have in mind is a cunning plan at some stage to make the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) the Lord Chancellor, why not say so?

Mr. Leslie: I was wondering which constituency beginning with "Sh" the hon. Gentleman was about to suggest might provide a future occupant for the post. I, too, am not a lawyer, but I agree that it may well be reasonable to assume that a practising lawyer would be a good person to have as Lord Chancellor. I would not want to say for a moment that that might not be a good
16 Mar 2005 : Column 360
qualifying criterion. However, I am saying that it would be wrong to enshrine in statute that, absolutely and in all circumstances, the post must be held by a lawyer with 12 years' experience or a senior judge with two years' experience.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I totally agree with the Minister's propositions and will be glad to support him in the Division Lobby, which will be a great relief to him. Just looking ahead a little, is it not time that this potty Parliament—I do not mean that disparagingly—had Ministers of either House going into either House? That is the real issue. The architects of legislation should see it through all the procedures. They would not have to work off a brief or be parrots for others. If a Lord Chancellor—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The intervention is lengthy.

Mr. Leslie: We were just getting into it, Madam Deputy Speaker. Perhaps my hon. Friend will catch your eye later.

My simple point is that we need to find a way through the impasse. Therefore, we have made a suggestion. We are content to say, in the Bill, that

or she

and that the Prime Minister may take into account any of the following: experience as a Minister of the Crown; experience as a Member of either House of Parliament; experience as a qualifying legal practitioner or as a teacher of law in a university; or any other experience that the Prime Minister considers relevant.

In proposing that compromise, we acknowledge the concern that there may otherwise be nothing to continue the convention that a suitably experienced person should undertake this senior office within the Government.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I know that the Government specialise in meaningless words, but the hon. Gentleman must agree that if he reads the amendment in lieu, it amounts to nothing whatsoever. It is not worth the paper it is written on because the Prime Minister can still do exactly as he pleases.

Mr. Leslie: It would have been possible for us simply to rebut the insistence that came from the other place, but we wanted, in the spirit of compromise, to answer those concerns that there was nothing in the Bill to enshrine a sense of convention that we should have suitably experienced individuals for this senior ministerial post. That is why we have put the compromise together in the form of an amendment in lieu.

Next Section IndexHome Page