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Constitutional Affairs

Volume 407: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2003

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State was asked

Legal Aid

22.

What recent representations the Department has received in favour of increasing legal aid payment rates for criminal law practitioners. [121035]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs
(Mr. David Lammy)

My Department receives representations from a variety of sources. The most recent was from the Legal Aid Practitioners Group in March.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the rest of the ministerial team on their appointments and wish them and the Department a very successful future.

Does my hon. Friend accept that a growing number of criminal legal aid practitioners are giving up legal aid work because they cannot make it pay? More generally, is he aware of research by the Legal Services Commission showing that in as many as 2 million cases a year people with legal problems cannot find legal help? Does he share my concern that unless there is further reform and investment in the legal aid system its very viability is at stake, with the consequence for the criminal legal system that we would not have the bright, talented lawyers of the future for defence and prosecution work? If he shares that concern, what is he going to do about it?

I agree that criminal legal practitioners do a wonderful job in representing people from some of the most disadvantaged and socially excluded communities. Of course, they have raised, and continue to raise, concerns about their remuneration. My hon. Friend will understand that criminal practitioners, like many people who dedicate their lives to public service, will not receive the same amount as they would receive if they were in private practice. That is the decision that they make. He is wrong to suggest that there is a difficulty in the recruitment and retention of criminal legal practitioners. In fact, over the past few years there has been a loss of only 17 offices out of the 2,900 offices with criminal defence contracts. We continue to monitor the situation, and we are undertaking a widespread consultation on and review of legal aid to ensure that we have the best provision for the future.

Before the Minister authorises an increase in criminal law legal aid rates, will he make a real mark for himself in his new Department by organising a thorough review of the Legal Aid Board and its practices? When we live in a society in which someone who chooses to break into a house with the intention of stealing gets legal aid to bring an action for damages against the householder, has not the world gone barking mad; and is it any wonder that the general public are losing confidence in the Legal Aid Board?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the former Lord Chancellor agreed to a consultation on the supply, demand and purchase of legal aid, which began on 5 June. It will continue for some months; let us see what the outcome is.

Criminal Justice Policy

23.

If he will make a statement on the Lord Chancellor's responsibilities in relation to criminal justice policy. [121036]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs
(Mr. Christopher Leslie)

The Department for Constitutional Affairs will work closely with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to drive forward the Government's priority for reform of the criminal justice system. In respecting the authority of the courts, the Department will focus in particular on improving court performance, on reducing the number of ineffective trials, and on the better enforcement of criminal penalties, especially fines.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but I am sure that he will be aware that there is public concern about sentencing by judges. In the light of that, does he intend to set up an advisory board on the appointment of judges?

As my hon. Friend knows, we have to respect the independence of the judiciary and the decisions that it makes on individual cases. On his second point, the Government will now consult on the creation of an independent judicial appointments commission, so that we can take the selection process of the judiciary out of the hands of politicians.

That is all very well, but in the meantime, is the Lord Chancellor going to continue to appoint judges? If so, how is he going distance himself from the far more political Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs?

The allegedly far more political Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs is, indeed, the Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor will continue with his obligations under the law in regard to the appointment of the judiciary until legislation is introduced to change that arrangement. There will be widespread consultation, and we envisage a consultation paper being published in the middle of July, with plenty of opportunities for all hon. Members to comment on the process.

The formation of the new Department resembles a cunning plan by the Lord Chancellor of 1075, who, as hon. Members will recall, was Baldrick. Will the Minister confirm that the new Department has no additional judicial responsibilities? In fact, it has fewer than the previous Department had, because it has lost the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. Should there not be a shift of responsibility from the Home Office to the new Department in relation to sentencing and, possibly, penal matters? That would create a proper Department of Justice, which is what we were led to believe would be the function of the new Department.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on his historical research. I was not familiar with that particular point. I hope that he supports in principle the moves to create a supreme court and an independent judicial appointments commission. Until legislation makes changes to the arrangements, the Department for Constitutional Affairs will continue to arrange the appointments to the judiciary, to administer the courts and a number of tribunals, to provide legal aid and legal services including the criminal defence service, to promote the reform and revision of the English civil law and to raise public confidence in the court system in general. That is a big and important task.

When the former Lord Chancellor gave evidence to the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department on 18 April, he said that the existing arrangements were perfectly satisfactory. Will the Minister tell us whether the previous Lord Chancellor was consulted about the changes, and what conversations have taken place between him and the present Lord Chancellor?

I am aware of the exchange of correspondence between the previous Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister on these matters; that is in the public domain. The former Lord Chancellor resigned his post in that way and on amicable terms. It is important that we now focus on this crucial constitutional reform agenda, which involves reforms for a purpose, to ensure that we achieve a greater level of independence in the appointment of the judiciary and take the supreme court out of the second Chamber of Parliament. Discussions on these matters will be ongoing once we have published the consultation paper in the middle of July.

A judicial appointments commission has been set up in Scotland on a non-statutory basis. Are we to take it from what has been said today that there is no intention of doing that here, and that a judicial appointments commission on a non-statutory basis has definitely been ruled out?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Scotland already has an independent judicial appointments commission, and in Northern Ireland such a commission is in the process of being established. We feel that for England and Wales a statutory route is the best way forward, but we shall consult on the specific details of many of these matters. The right hon. Gentleman and others may want to raise questions and issues in the House.

Lord Chancellor

24.

What consultations the Department has had on how long the title of Lord Chancellor will remain in existence. [121037]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs
(Mr. Christopher Leslie)

Although there was no consultation in advance of the reshuffle, the Government recognise that creating a supreme court and an independent judicial appointments commission will mean abolishing the current role of the Lord Chancellor. Therefore, we will consult on these changes to ensure that the final details take full account of the constitutional importance of abolishing that post.

Will the Minister now admit that this arrogant Government have handled the whole issue of the Lord Chancellor's Department appallingly? Is not the reality that the Government have held no meaningful consultations on this issue, and given the Prime Minister's complacent answer on 19 June, they have little intention of having any proper, meaningful consultation?

I have to disabuse the hon. Gentleman of his views on this matter. We will be having a full consultation: a paper will be published on 14 July and consultation will run until, I think, November. I do not know how many members of the Conservative Opposition have been consulted on their own forthcoming reshuffle. I am looking to see if there is any reaction from their colleagues on the Front Bench. No, I do not think they know what will happen in their reshuffle. The decisions have been made, we are clear about the direction we are going for, and there will be widespread consultation.

May I congratulate the two new Ministers on the Front Bench, and remind them, as they were probably at school at the time, that they are delivering on a long-standing commitment from the 1993 Labour party conference to establish a judicial appointments commission and a supreme court? Opposition Members whinge about this being done on the back of a fag packet, as one hon. Member said, but these policies have a long and honourable provenance. Many Labour Members are delighted that they are being implemented, and look forward to the creation of a fully fledged Ministry of Justice perhaps this time next year.

I would not wish to comment on the latter part of my hon. Friend's contribution, but he has a long provenance of his own on these matters. He has written extensively on constitutional affairs, and he has long advocated many of the changes that are now moving forward. I am interested to know from Opposition Members whether they support a supreme court and an independent judicial appointments commission. They do not seem to have a policy.

In an answer to me on Thursday 19 June, the Prime Minister admitted that the transfer of functions from the Lord Chancellor to the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs will be completed only when the position of Lord Chancellor is abolished. When will the transfer of functions order come in, and will we have to wait 18 months until the Act of Parliament that authorises it goes through?

The Ministers of the Crown Act 1975 sets out the provisions for a transfer of functions order. We anticipate that an order will come forward quickly, and that will be done in the usual way.

In the meantime, almost all the matters that the Minister has dealt with raise serious questions about the amount of money that will be made available and the accountability of the Minister and his colleague to answer those questions in the House. How can he justify answering questions on matters for which he is not directly accountable when there has been no transfer of statutory functions to him?

I can do no more than appear before the House and account for the new Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is what my hon. Friend and I are doing today. We are open to be questioned on any of these matters, and we shall continue to answer those questions.

Courthouse (Colchester)

25.

If he will make a statement on progress with proposals for a new courthouse in Colchester. [121038]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs
(Mr. David Lammy)

It is anticipated that a new courthouse in Colchester will be ready for use during 2007. Work is now in progress on the outline business case for the public-private partnership contract.

The Minister will be aware from the detailed briefing that we have been banging on about that matter for four or five years. We have had delay, dither, delay and dither. We have been promised that the private finance initiative will deliver a new courthouse speedily. Will he confirm that another year was wasted because his Department, whatever it was called in those days, spent a year trying to resolve whether Grays Thurrock court should close? That has caused delay across Essex.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is about courthouses in the entirety of Essex. There has been a debate about whether Grays Thurrock court should close but a new, fit-for-the-purpose courthouse in Colchester is on the way by 2007. I think that the people of Colchester will thank the Government for giving them that by 2007.

Scotland Office

26.

What the status is of the Scotland Office within the Department for Constitutional Affairs; and if he will make a statement. [121039]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs
(Mr. Christopher Leslie)

Staff in the Scotland Office retain their separate identity within the Department for Constitutional Affairs. They are accountable to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland for their decisions and actions on policy matters in the normal way.

In that case, where has the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), gone? She went precisely at the moment when she could have explained to the House whether the Department still exists, as claimed by the Leader of the House, or whether it is an empty shell, as is patently obvious to everyone else. Lord Hope of Craighead has suggested that a Blairite constitutional court could contravene the treaty of Union. Do the Government have a policy on that? Are they going to restore the final court of appeal for civil matters to Scotland, as is already the case for criminal matters? What is the Government's policy on those Scottish matters and where is the Under-Secretary of State?

I seem to recall that, about half an hour ago, the Under-Secretary of State was answering Scottish questions. Indeed, she continues to work with the Secretary of State for Scotland on Scottish policy matters. She has just answered those questions and will continue to do so in the normal way. She is responsible and accountable in that respect.

In terms of the supreme court, some of those questions will obviously be at the centre of the consultation paper that will be published on 14 July. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's comments in that respect.

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that answer, I give notice that I intend to raise the matter on a motion for the Adjournment.

House Of Lords Reform

27.

When the Government will respond to the Second Report from the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform. [121040]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs
(Mr. Christopher Leslie)

We aim to reply to the second report of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform shortly.

Following the very welcome changes to the constitution that the Government have made recently, I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that we can debate the Joint Committee's report, because there is a real opportunity for both Houses to move forward on constitutional change. While I am not looking for further debates on Putney heath à la 400 years ago, there are significant changes to be made and the House of Lords could start by electing their own Speaker, instead of having its Speaker appointed by the Government. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, would not like the Government to appoint you in this House and we should not accept it in the second Chamber either.

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Conservative party seems keen to defend the appointment of the speakership of the House of Lords by the Prime Minister, which is a rather curious policy to advocate and to put in its future manifesto. I have read the Joint Committee's second report. As I say, we will respond in due course. Some important issues are raised in that but the Joint Committee recognised, not least in respect of the votes in this House on 4 February, that there has not been a massive amount of clarity: hon. Members declined to back any option, whether fully appointed, fully elected or a mixture of the two.

Can the Minister explain why the Government have failed to deliver on an elected House of Lords, which was in their manifesto, but have managed to abolish the office of the Lord Chancellor, which was not in their manifesto? Do they just make it up as they go along?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is advocating the return of the hereditary peerage to the second Chamber. He may not have noticed, but this Government have got rid of the bulk of hereditary peers from the second Chamber. That was a radical step forward and we will continue radically to reform the constitution in the manner set out in the reshuffle.

Now that the Government are very wisely taking the Law Lords out of the House of Lords, could they advance one further step and remove the bishops as well, even if the bishops have in recent days been trying to make themselves a little more representative of the general public?

I cannot say that we have published specific plans in that respect as yet. We will respond to the second report of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, but the creation of a supreme court and an independent judicial appointments commission gives us a number of great opportunities to look at some of these issues in the round.

Judicial Appointments

28.

What the Lord Chancellor's functions are in respect of the appointment of judges. [121041]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs
(Mr. Christopher Leslie)

The responsibility of the Lord Chancellor in advising Her Majesty and the Prime Minister on senior judicial appointments, and in making other judicial appointments himself, will continue in exactly the same way as before, until a new independent judicial appointments commission is created by legislation.

Given that there seems to be little evidence—or little evidence that the Government have produced, at least—to suggest problems with the existing system, and given that there is no evidence whatsoever of consultation before the changes were announced, what were the terms of reference that guided the changes, and how long will the transition take in respect of the transitional post occupied by this reluctant post-holder? Is it not true that this is about not the separation of powers, but the concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister and a few of his acolytes? This is not so much serious constitutional reform as a soap opera: not "Neighbours" and not even "Friends", but "flatmates".

That was a very well rehearsed question, but we believe that it is important to take the judiciary selection process out of the hands of politicians. We are going to consult widely on the details, and a document will be published on 14 July. If the hon. Gentleman is seriously suggesting that he wishes to retain the current system—[Interruption.] He appears not to be saying either way, but if that is his wish he is perfectly free to write in to the consultation.