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The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I apologise. I am delighted to see the noble and learned Lord in his place; he must never hide his light under a bushel. I want to give him some comfort on Law Commission Bills. I expect to bring forward two more reform Bills this Session: a privity of contract Bill and a trustee delegation Bill. But for a decision of your Lordships' House in its judicial capacity which put the law to rights, I would also have been bringing forward a Law Commission Bill in relation to mistake in contract. I can assure the noble and learned Lord of my strong support for the work of the Law Commission in getting its Bills onto the statute book.
The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, expressed concern that franchising in criminal cases will make inroads into the principle that a defendant can choose his own lawyer. I can offer him reassurance. In most cases suspects and defendants will be enabled to choose any lawyer who has a current contract with the criminal defence service. The contract will guarantee a quality assured lawyer and that is in the interests of defendants.
The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, should be the first to recognise--having cited the statistics, though not entirely accurately, that 46 per cent. of the criminal law budget goes on 1 per cent. of high-cost cases--that, in an area where there has been some notorious publicity about the high fees that those cases have attracted at the expense of the public purse, there is an overriding need to bring those fees under proper and reasonable control.
Another point I should like to make to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury--obviously I cannot reply to all his points of detail but if he desires to write to me I will write to him--is this: it is not the Government's role to guarantee a particular structure for the legal services industry. The Government's duty is to guarantee and to secure the best quality of advice and service for consumers at prices affordable by the taxpayer.
So far as rights of audience go, I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, that there will be no violation of the separation of powers because, in the unlikely event that I, as Lord Chancellor, having consulted with the judges and with the professions, have to exercise a fallback power to impose rules upon the profession--and I am as great an enemy of rules which are too lax as I am an enemy of rules which are too restrictive--I would not do so without the support of an affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament. When that is said, as I say quite unequivocally, I can see no ground for argument that there is any violation of the separation of the powers.
I turn to the Government's commitment to major constitutional change. Our objective is to put in place an integrated programme of measures to decentralise powers in the United Kingdom and to enhance the rights of individuals within a more open society. We are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for his interim assessment of this part of our programme: nine out of 10 for trying, seven out of 10 for achievement. I say to the noble Lord that in my book those are pretty good marks. I hope that perhaps in the eyes of history we will score even better. Perhaps we will even persuade the noble Lord to score our card better as our programme beds down and is tested, as it will be by events.
It was essential to settle our priorities and to make early progress to establish momentum from the word go. Less than a week after the election the Cabinet had decided on the constitutional measures for inclusion in our first legislative programme. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, in his notable maiden speech, called attention to that speed of progress--a great co-operative effort, he said.
Those measures were devolution to Scotland and Wales through a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly; a referendum on a strategic authority and elected mayor for London; the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights; a Bill to provide for the establishment of regional development
First, we brought forward proposals for the creation of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. These democratically elected bodies will take control of a wide range of public services, currently the responsibility of central government departments and unelected bodies. Devolution to Scotland confers, subject to areas expressly reserved, a general power of legislative competence on the new Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament and the Scottish executive will have responsibility for most aspects of domestic, economic and social policy, while the United Kingdom Parliament will retain control of foreign affairs, defence and national security, social security and macro-economic and fiscal areas. Relations with the European Union and with other foreign governments will, however, remain the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government.
Devolution is not a form either of federalism or independence for Scotland and Wales. The Union will be strengthened, not weakened, by devolution and the Westminster Parliament will remain sovereign in the United Kingdom. I must say to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, that I could give no real meaning to his musings about the state of the opinion polls in Scotland unless he was reverting to type and declaring that devolution should have been withheld since he claims it will lead to independence for Scotland. That argument is well in the past. I am sure that devolution will secure, not break, the Union. I say to the noble Viscount that a dog-in-the-manger attitude to Scottish devolution does not mark out a bright, optimistic route for the resurrection of Tory Party fortunes in Scotland, where it was wiped out at the election. It is not a promising platform for a party seeking to come back from the grave in Scotland to ask the electorate to vote for it and to return it to the new Scottish parliament when it is not reconciled to devolution.
The Belfast agreement also has constitutional implications. There will be an Assembly of 108 members, with legislative and executive powers on social and economic issues. In time it may also take responsibility for law and order. These are complex mechanisms, but they hold out the prospect of constructing stable and widely acceptable political institutions in Northern Ireland.
We have also put forward proposals for extending regional government in England, but not until popular demand is demonstrated. As a first step we are creating regional development agencies to co-ordinate transport, planning and economic development. We have also set out plans for revitalising government within London. For most people it is inconceivable to think of any major capital city of the great size and importance of London without its own city-wide government. Yet for over 10 years London has had to do without after our predecessors abolished the Greater London Council. Despite that, London has continued to thrive. It remains a world-class city. But like all major cities it faces problems such as traffic congestion, air pollution and areas of inner-city poverty. These are problems that must be tackled on a city-wide basis.
Our proposals for a Scottish parliament, a Welsh assembly, a mayor and authority for London, and in the new political settlement in Northern Ireland in each case were put to the people in the regions affected in separate referendums. In each case the Government's proposals have been endorsed and any further proposals for regional government in England will be subject to approval in referendums. We are also committed to having a referendum before we join our European partners in economic and monetary union. We would only join a single currency if the Government, Parliament and the British people agree that we should do so. The wider use of referendums in the United Kingdom marks our insistence that people must have a determinative say in major constitutional change.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble and learned Lord's flow. But before he leaves the subject of referendums, can he give me some kind of answer to the question I asked during my opening remarks as to what the Government's attitude will be about legislating for the fair holding of referendums before any more are held?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, that is something that the Government will address in the context of the Bill which will be published before the Summer Recess on the subject of the funding of political parties. I said that openness is fundamental to good government and that confidence in it has been undermined in the United Kingdom by a culture of secrecy. Therefore, our manifesto included a commitment to introduce a Freedom of Information Bill. Our first legislative programme did not include such a Bill. There were those who claimed that we had lost our appetite for openness at the first taste of office. But in fact we simply wanted sufficient time to devise from within government a regime across government which would be as liberal as possible consistent with the protection of the national interest. Complex problems do not benefit from hasty solutions. But I can give an absolute assurance that there will be a Freedom of Information Bill which will be published early in the New Year. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that she need have no doubt that such legislation will be brought forward and that it will constitute a strong freedom of information regime. The media, too, will gain largely from that regime if it operates the Act with vigour, as I am sure that it will and should.
Another key part of active citizenship is for citizens to know their rights and how to enforce them while at the same time knowing how to respect the rights of others. Hence the Human Rights Act giving greater effect to the European Convention on Human Rights. These human rights proposals will prove to be a
I do not repeat what my noble friend said at the outset of this debate about the reform of your Lordships' House. But it is as well to remind the House that this Government won a majority of 179 at the last general election. We have an unambiguous mandate to remove the hereditary Peers. Let me read it:
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, asked various questions about the White Paper. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, had no need to repeat them, I was busy scribbling them down. I can give some assurance to the noble Viscount. The White Paper will cover how Peers will be appointed in the interim House; it will cover the timing of the Royal Commission. I can say, quite unequivocally, that there will be a stage two. The noble Viscount is afflicted by the most advanced state of suspicion that I think I have ever observed. I do hope that it is not terminal. It is very extreme.
The White Paper will cover the terms of reference of the Royal Commission, including its anticipated timetable. I hope that in the White Paper it will be possible to name the chairman of the Royal Commission, if he has not been named earlier. The White Paper will set out options for the Royal Commission to consider; it will address the role and functions of the House and it will consult widely. The White Paper will come in the context of the Bill. Noble Lords will have to wait only a little longer. Patience, therefore, should replace the noble Viscount's advanced state of suspicion. Quite apart from anything else, I rather think it will be good for his health.
The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, asks: why such a hurry? The answer is absolutely plain--because the presence of hereditary Peers is a centuries old state of affairs which this Government have a huge mandate to eradicate. I say this to him: the case for not combining stage one and stage two is that we won the general election on the opposite proposition.
With the strong public support for our agenda, we have seized an historic opportunity to modernise our constitutional system. Unless we modernise we will never secure the levels of commitment, interest and trust needed to develop and maintain real practising democracy in this country.
I shall close by repeating a familiar quotation: "There is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women". So said Margaret Thatcher, as she then was, in 1987. We profoundly disagree. Society
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