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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 407: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2003

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Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked

Euro

1.

If he will make a statement about his discussions with Scottish business leaders about preparations for the euro. [120209]

7.

What discussions he has had with the First Minister on the establishment of the Scottish committee for euro preparations. [120215]

I will chair the Scottish committee that will help to provide focus for euro preparations in Scotland. The Scottish Executive will be closely involved and will support the work of the committee. The First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Minister for Finance and Public Services will be members. The committee will also include representatives from business, the voluntary sector, consumers and local government. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury and I will be members of both the Chancellor's standing committee and the Scottish committee.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and welcome him to his new duties. Will he tell the House how he intends to involve Scottish business in the committee that is being set up? Does he accept that if the initiative is to be really successful it must be accompanied by local as well as national initiatives? Does he support such initiatives, especially the one that is being set up in Edinburgh?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The committee's membership must have a sufficiently wide brace to enable the Government to be properly informed as we prepare for the euro, if we decide that it would be in the country's national economic interest to join. It is also important generally that as we raise awareness of the implications and advantages of the euro we should encourage local initiatives. I am sure that many hon. Members would want to be involved in that.

When my right hon. Friend is involved in deliberations as the chair of the committee, I hope that he will remember the sixth test that was coined by his predecessor: the actual cost to Scotland in jobs and wages if the delay before joining the euro is protracted. Will he ensure that his committee deliberates with a lot of speed and gets us to join the euro as quickly as possible?

As the Chancellor made clear in his statement on 9 June, five tests need to be met, and they were set out in 1997. The two most important are ensuring that there is convergence and that our economy is sufficiently flexible to deal with any shocks that might arise. The Chancellor also referred in his statement to the fact that if it were in our national economic interest to join the euro, we should do so. He also drew attention to the fact that some hon. Members must face the fact that if we did not join after meeting the tests, there would be a price to pay. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that one of the things that we must consider in this country, provided that the five tests are met and we believe that it is in the national economic interest to join, is the fact that we might pay a heavy price for our failure to join.

It is clear from that answer that the part-time Secretary of State has binned the sixth euro test as fast as he binned Friends of Scotland. He came up with an impressive list of meetings that he will chair, so will he tell us how much time per year they will take out of his busy diary?

I would not expect the hon. Lady to know that it is not uncommon for a member of the Cabinet to sit on a variety of Cabinet committees on the euro and other matters—it is perfectly normal. I would have thought that rather than reflecting on my work load she might want to reflect on her party's position: no matter whether it was in the interests of this country to join the euro, she would be against it as a matter of principle, even if it would be advantageous for jobs and trade. Until she can respond to that point, she has little credibility on this or any other matter.

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State to his jobs. Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke), the Secretary of State's predecessor made a speech last month in which she argued that continuing to be outside the euro area would be deeply damaging to Scottish economic interests. Does he agree with that assessment, does he intend to make a specific assessment of Scottish convergence with the euro area, and can he really find the time to pursue his chairmanship of the euro preparations committee, given his many other responsibilities?

I am grateful, as always, for the hon. Gentleman's unqualified welcome. I, like many of my hon. Friends, welcome the fact that he chose to give up his other job in the Parliament in Holyrood and come back to his job here. We greatly appreciate that.

The Chancellor set out our position on the euro, which is very clear: if we are to join, we must be satisfied that the five tests that he set out in 1997 have been met. He reported earlier this month that considerable progress had been made, but that there was still more to do on sustained convergence and flexibility. What matters at the end of the day is whether it is in the United Kingdom's national economic interest to join. Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, as the voters of Scotland graphically reminded the party that the hon. Gentleman represents at the beginning of May.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new responsibilities and wish him well. I commend to him the officials of the Scotland Office, who for the past four years have carried out their jobs with great professionalism and commitment, often in very difficult circumstances. The whole House should be indebted to them.

Turning to the euro, the Chancellor identified the housing market as a significant inhibitor to convergence. The housing market in Scotland is significantly different from that in south-east England—with the exception, perhaps, of my right hon. Friend's constituency, where the market is similar. Housing and planning are devolved matters. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to take account of Scotland's unique housing issues?

Staff at the Scotland Office are, of course, experiencing dramatic changes as the constitution develops in this country. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: they are extremely loyal and dedicated, and will cope with all the changes that we have to face.

My right hon. Friend is right that, in the main, the Scottish housing market is different from the market in south-east England, although, as she says, my Edinburgh constituency in south-east Scotland is remarkably similar in many respects. The Chancellor is fully aware of those differences. Indeed, much of what he said on 9 June concerned the need for us to make the necessary changes to ensure greater stability in the housing market throughout the country. That means that we have to take into account the variations in the regions and nations of the country.

During his discussions with the Scottish business community, has the Secretary of State identified any damage that has been done to Scotland by it remaining outside the euro?

Scottish business relies to a large extent on its ability to trade not just with the rest of the UK but with Europe. Most people in Scotland believe that if the conditions were met—certainly from a business point of view—there would be huge benefits to Scottish business. Of course, there are some people who take a slightly different view, just as there are in the rest of the country, but it is our view, which I believe is right for this country's future, that if it is in our economic interests to join in terms of jobs, trade and a series of other considerations, we should do so. What I find incredible is the Conservative party's position—that even if it were in our economic interests to join, it would still say no because of its visceral dislike of all things European.

Pension Credit

2.

What discussions he has had with senior citizen organisations regarding the take-up of the pension credit in Scotland. [120210]

I discussed the pension credit yesterday at the older people's consultative forum in Edinburgh. The Department for Work and Pensions, through its new Pension Service and a forthcoming media campaign, is active in ensuring that pensioners receive full information about the pension credit.

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. She will be aware that the benefit is valuable and will help many thousands of people in Scotland. Many elderly people are, unfortunately, unable to look after their own affairs, so has she discussed with the voluntary sector, local authorities and the Scottish Executive how we can ensure that such people benefit from this valuable new incentive?

My hon. Friend is correct. We need to ensure that those who are in receipt of care or who are looked after by family or carers are included. The most vulnerable pensioners have been specifically targeted since April this year with a specially designed direct mail pack, which is issued to carers or pensioners, and the campaign will continue until June 2004. As part of my ongoing discussions with the Scottish Executive, I will ensure that her points are fully taken on board in Scotland.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, may I welcome the Secretary of State to his new duties? Is the Minister aware of the recent admission by the chair of the Inland Revenue to the Treasury Select Committee that the computers had serious problems with the tax credits, which had come as a bolt out of the blue? Given the complexity of the pension credit, what assurance can she give Scottish pensioners that the computers will work and the helplines will cope, bearing in mind that on 12 March 2002 the Secretary of State himself described the Department of Work and Pensions' computers as "decrepit"?

First, may I advise the hon. Gentleman that the decrepit computers have been replaced? Secondly, I assure him that the Pension Service has extensive experience of working with the complexity, as he put it, of the pension credit. Every effort will be made to ensure that pensioners who are eligible for the pension credit take it up. As he is well aware, the new pension credit will give people with small occupational pensions the benefit of savings that they accumulated throughout their working lives, so it is to be welcomed.

May I follow up the point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso)? Sir Nicholas Montagu, chairman of the Inland Revenue, was called before my Committee last week. He said that the dress rehearsal went well, but that when the curtain went up on day one it was a shambles. We do not want a shambles on day one, as the pension credit is good news for many elderly people in Scotland. Given that EDS is the IT company responsible, can the utmost pressure be put on it to ensure that the first day of a rollout is good news, not bad news?

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the relevant Ministers are, of course, aware of the importance of getting the new pension credit right, and I am sure that the lessons of our experience and the situation that we inherited from the previous Government will be learned. My hon. Friend is correct—the pension credit is good news for pensioners across Scotland, and we should not lose sight of that core fact.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that pension credit take-up is dependent on pensioners' and senior citizens' organisations believing that it will make a difference to them and will not be negated by the action of other Departments? When will she resolve the dispute between the DWP and the Scottish Executive over the non-payment of attendance allowance, and thus allow pensioners in self-funded care to benefit? Does not that long-running conflict, which originated under the Secretary of State when he was at the DWP, not require the full-time input of a part-time Secretary of State for Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware—in fact, he is aware—that what he calls a long-running conflict was resolved some years ago. I understand that Age Concern Scotland has raised a legal issue, which it is intent on pursuing but, as far as the UK Government and the Scottish Executive are concerned, this matter has been resolved.

After the trivia of the previous question, may I return to the important matter of support for pensioners? The minimum income guarantee was a great success for those who got it, but 20 per cent. of pensioners did not get it, either because they could not fill out the forms or because they could not get access to them. The difference with the pension credit is that we already have records of people with employment-based pensions through the Inland Revenue system. Is it not time that that system was used to seek out people with those extra pensions so that they can automatically be passported to the pension credit?

I take my hon. Friend's point, but I am not sure whether we can read across from the pension credit to the minimum income guarantee. This issue has been raised before at Scottish questions, and I can assure the House that the Department for Work and Pensions is trying every conceivable means of ensuring that pensioners who are eligible for the minimum income guarantee are advised of that fact. I again appeal to Scottish Members of Parliament, who are leaders in their own communities, not to miss the opportunity to highlight the importance of the minimum income guarantee to their pensioner constituents.

Air Transport

4.

How many responses the Government has received to the "Future of Air Transport—Scotland" consultation document. [120212]

As of 23 June, we had received 1,097 responses to the questionnaire and 520 letters and e-mails.

I thank the new Secretary of State for that answer. Is he aware that figures he has just released to the House show that less than 3 per cent. of the 61,000 consultation documents were returned? Does he agree that in view of the importance of air transport to the economy, transport and the environment, in the remaining six days before the deadline for responses he ought to do everything he can to ensure an increased response?

It is important that everyone who wants to respond to the consultation does so, but for various reasons many people probably do not want to respond, and the Government cannot dragoon them into doing so. With regard to Edinburgh airport, in which the hon. Gentleman, like me, has an immediate interest, and other airports in Scotland, it is important that we get a wide range of views about the projected growth and that we plan accordingly. So far, as I said, we have had a large number of responses. It is a matter of live interest, as the hon. Gentleman knows, not just in Edinburgh but in Glasgow.

In relation to the questionnaire, it is not surprising that many people who do not have any immediate views on the subject may choose not to respond. That does not weaken the strength of the consultation. We are giving people as much opportunity as possible to make their contribution, if they wish to do so.

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his new duties. He knows how anxious I am to see building work recommence on the new Scottish centre, which is so vital for the future of air transport in the UK. Can he tell the House when we are likely to receive an announcement in that regard?

In the not too distant future, I hope. My hon. Friend knows that I visited the Prestwick control centre last summer, and I am well aware of the fact that people in Prestwick and the surrounding area want the second centre to be built as soon as possible. May I reassure my hon. Friend and the House that a second centre is an essential part of the National Air Traffic Services strategy? It is necessary for operational reasons and for back-up. It is a great pity that it has taken such a time to get a decision, but I am optimistic that we will be able to say something in the not too distant future.

Will the right hon. Gentleman have a long discussion with himself about landing charges at BAA airports? He knows that Glasgow airport recently lost a BMI service from Cardiff, and easyJet has branded Scotland's airports as far too expensive. What will he say to himself in order to address the problem?

In relation to the charges, if there is any suggestion that BAA is not acting properly, there is provision in competition law for that to be investigated. One of the reasons that low-cost airlines have been able to cut their prices so significantly is that they have driven hard bargains with airports in order to reduce landing charges—in some cases down to pretty negligible amounts.

The hon. Gentleman speaks from time to time about the need for a sustainable transport policy. There comes a point when someone somewhere must pay to renew airport infrastructure. I know, because I have spoken to just about everyone involved in the airline industry, that it is the view of some low-cost operators that that is someone else's problem. They want to drive a hard deal, and in some cases they are not interested in an airport being done up, because they are not willing to pay for the cost of that. For the long-term sustainability of air transport, we need to make sure that infrastructure is replaced and upgraded, and that must be paid for.

If the hon. Gentleman has a specific complaint about BAA airports in Scotland, I am sure the competition authorities will be happy to hear from him.

lf the consultation on the right hon. Gentleman's airport strategy should suggest that increased capacity requires a northern hub at either Manchester or Edinburgh-Glasgow, how will he speak up for Scotland's airports and advise his fellow Cabinet members as Secretary of State for Transport?

When I set up the consultation exercise in July last year, the question was not Manchester versus Edinburgh or Glasgow; the question was whether it would be possible or desirable to have a Scottish hub airport. The hon. Lady may know, although perhaps the view from Beckenham is rather different, that that has been a long-running argument in Scotland. [Interruption.] The argument in central Scotland is between Edinburgh and Glasgow, both of which are in Scotland. I do not think there is a problem there.

What I will have to decide during the course of this year, prior to publishing the White Paper at the end of it, is whether there is an argument for trying to build a hub airport in central Scotland or whether Edinburgh and Glasgow can carry on working in tandem, as they do at the moment. Frankly, that is the argument. Manchester is competing increasingly with airports in south-east England rather than Scotland, although people from Scotland use that airport because it is a very good one.

Advocate-General

The Advocate-General was asked

Human Rights

16.

What human rights issues have been raised with her since 20 May. [120183]

Since 20 May, I have received intimation of 28 devolution issue minutes, all of which have concerned human rights issues. They were all raised in connection with criminal proceedings and concerned a wide range of matters including pre-trial delay, actions of police officers prior to arrest and surveillance carried out before the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 came into force.

As a United Kingdom Law Officer, does the Advocate-General think that the Scottish and indeed English legal traditions are at ease with the Guantanamo Bay mentality of certain of those surrounding the President of the United States about not bringing to trial those Iraqis who have been put in custody, whatever they may have done?

I have the highest respect for both the Scottish and English legal traditions; of course, one of my jobs as Advocate-General is to explain the Scottish legal tradition to other countries. In the Adjournment debate that my hon. Friend recently secured, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell), gave him some information about the situation of people who were detained. I have nothing to add.

What consideration has the Advocate-General given to the human rights implications of the treaty with the United States Government entered into by the Home Secretary and published on 21 May, which provides for extradition without prima facie evidence of any offence having been committed and is also of retrospective application? Does not that treaty raise fundamental issues about the human rights of people in Scotland who may be subject to its provisions?

I regret to inform the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, as he well knows, the consideration that I give is in private, and any advice that I give, in accordance with normal convention, is not disclosed.

Devolution

17.

What devolution issues she has considered since 20 May. [120225]

18.

What devolution issues have been raised with her since 20 May under the Scotland Act 1998. [120226]

19.

What devolution issues have been raised since 20 May. [120227]

All the 28 devolution issues intimated to me since 20 May have concerned human rights issues. I therefore refer the hon. Ladies to the reply I gave some moments ago to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell).

May I congratulate the hon. and learned Lady on retaining her post in the recent reshuffle, but express my disappointment that the part-time Secretary of State for Scotland has not remained in the Chamber to support her during questions?

I wish to revert to a subject that I have raised before: the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003 and its impact on agricultural tenancies and limited partnerships in Scotland. Will the Advocate-General please urgently give her advice on this issue, which is causing severe consternation among practising lawyers throughout Scotland, and especially among those specialising in agricultural holdings? It is having a severe impact of which she might not previously have been aware. Will she address the issue urgently?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her congratulations, which I am sure are heartfelt. As far as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is concerned, as she well knows, the Law Officers are independent of all Secretaries of State, but I am sure that he is very busy.

On the substantive matter that the hon. Lady raised, I am aware that she has raised it previously and flagged up concerns, which we take into account. However, it is not my role to advise individual members of the public or solicitors about the difficulties that they might be having. Individual constituents who are having difficulties can raise the matter, and if there is any ground for challenge they can take it up.

The Government recently announced proposals for a supreme court. Can my hon. and learned Friend advise me whether she intends to consult members of the Scottish legal profession and the Civic Society in Scotland about how that court should proceed?

I regularly have informal discussions with members of the legal profession about a whole range of subjects, and I am sure that that issue will come up from time to time. The responsible Secretary of State will undertake the formal consultation and the issues will be widely canvassed. Indeed, I was encouraged by hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent Scottish constituencies to take part in that. Plainly, the supreme court is a matter of considerable interest in Scotland.

Does the Advocate-General agree with Lord Hope, the senior Scottish Law Lord, that the new supreme court would have to be distinct in all respects from the English legal system in order not to fall foul of the treaty of Union? Would this not be a timely opportunity to repatriate final jurisdiction over civil law in Scotland to Scottish courts?

There has been a long tradition of appeals from civil cases going to the House of Lords. As part of the general consultation, Lord Hope's comments will be taken into account, along with the many other comments that have been made. I will consider all the issues in due course.

Constitutional Affairs

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.

House Of Commons

The Leader of the House was asked

Programming

37.

To ask the Leader of the House if he will make a statement on progress with the arrangements for programming of Bills. [121027]

The Government believe that the arrangements for the programming of Bills are broadly satisfactory. It is in the interests of both sides of the House to agree a sensible programme for consideration of Bills.

On behalf of the whole House, I ask the new Leader of the House—I wish him well in his new responsibilities—whether it is right that a programme motion that is decided by the Government without consultation or debate should take place immediately after the vote on Second Reading of a Bill. Although I believe it right that the Government should decide the out-date from Standing Committee, does he not agree that it would be better for the whole House, and for its integrity and reputation, if such matters were discussed under the independent Chairman of the Standing Committee by the Programming Sub-Committee of that Committee? That way, all matters could be discussed and the Opposition parties could have a real input into what they wish to debate in Committee.

May I first acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's long and admirable record on these matters, especially in his role as Chairman of the Procedure Committee? I should like to discuss those matters with him, and I recognise the points that he makes. Programming is obviously vital—no one in the House seriously challenges that view. [Interruption.] Apparently, the shadow Leader of the House does, but then he has not been willing to engage the Opposition co-operatively in discussions on establishing programmes that are acceptable to all sides. However, I shall look into the issue that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) raises.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post, but does he recognise that there have been problems with, and shortcomings in, the programming of Bills? For instance, certain key clauses in the Licensing Bill, which had its Third Reading in the House of Commons only a few days ago, were not debated and therefore not voted on. We must deal with such shortcomings; otherwise, they will become increasingly glaring.

Obviously, as the process develops and becomes more refined by agreement of the House, those issues will have to be examined.

We welcome the fact that the Leader of the House is prepared to think afresh about these issues, and I encourage him to be radical in examining ways in which the business of the House can be managed more intelligently. Will he give the House a cast-iron guarantee that, if he produces radical proposals, he will not on this occasion be mugged, gagged and forced to recant by the heavies from No. 10 and No. 11 Downing street? If the Liberal Democrat proposals for improving the income tax regime are still to the Leader of the House's taste, will he also examine our proposals for improving the business of the House?

Being mugged by the hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, be a taxing experience. As to his question, it is for the Modernisation Committee to examine, but I will obviously want to take part in that discussion.

Pre-Legislative Scrutiny

38.

What discussions he has had with Government Departments and others to ensure that all Bills in the next Session will be available for pre-legislative scrutiny. [121029]

The Government are committed to increasing the number of Bills that are published in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny, and we are working hard to achieve that. Five Bills have been published in draft this Session so far, and more will follow.

Following the demise of my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), some of the steam has gone out of the desire for pre-legislative scrutiny. Will the Leader of the House ensure that Chairs of Select Committees and Departments bring forward Bills for pre-legislative discussion? In particular, will he examine the draft constitution of the European Union and ensure that it is put before the House for pre-legislative scrutiny in draft form—not after it has been agreed at the IGC, when we will be faced with a simple yes or no? The people of Britain and hon. Members deserve to be involved in discussing and revising the draft EU constitution, and not be presented with a fait accompli.

On the general principle, five draft Bills have already been published this Session, and four more are to follow, which makes nine in comparison with six during the last Session. On my hon. Friend's substantive point, I acknowledge his creative and innovative ideas and I will want to examine them. Let us pause for moment and look at the process ahead of us. The IGC is about to start, following the conclusion of the European Convention. It will probably start in the autumn and could take a year. Meanwhile, we have an agreement with the European Scrutiny Committee and we have deposited for scrutiny the Praesidium draft texts and produced explanatory memorandums. Members of Parliament have had many opportunities to debate the proposed constitution and there will be future opportunities: indeed, I shall make a further announcement shortly.

The junior Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs confirmed a few minutes ago that setting up an appointments commission would require legislation. Can the tax-raising Leader of the House please confirm that any appointments commission would be fully and statutorily independent of the Home Secretary; that the Home Secretary would have no direct or indirect role in the appointment of judges under such legislation; and that the legislation can be guaranteed pre-legislative scrutiny of the sort that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) mentioned? Would any Bill to set up a supreme court also have full pre-legislative scrutiny? I hope that the part-time Leader of the House can confirm those matters.

I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman is singling out the Home Secretary, which, frankly, seems a bit unfair. However, the objective is to establish an independent procedure, which is what it says. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, and as made clear by the Lord Chancellor, a consultation paper on all these matters will be published on 14 July. At that point, the right hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members will have the opportunity to consider how to proceed. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would welcome both the consultation and the legislation to follow.

While I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post, may I ask for his assurance that the draft Disability Bill will enjoy the widest possible consultation? Will that consultation include the need for a single equality Act—necessary if we are to pursue the policy of amalgamating the various commissions, including the Disability Rights Commission?

I acknowledge my right hon. Friend's long interest in and expertise on disability matters. We hope to publish the Bill by the end of the year and it will obviously be a candidate for pre-legislative scrutiny, subject to further consideration.

House Of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked

Accountability

39.

To ask the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, what steps he is taking to improve the mechanisms for accountability of the Commission to the House. [121030]

The Commission makes considerable efforts to be open and accountable. I answer both written and oral questions, and the Commission's annual report contains full information about the work, performance and plans of the House's administration. The House may like to know that the latest edition, in a revised and improved format, will be published in a fortnight's time. It is not quite Harry Potter, but it will repay careful study.

In recent months, the Commission has also introduced pages on the parliamentary website describing its role and work, and it now also publishes its minutes on the internet. The Commission is financially accountable through the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. Finally, the Commission is supported and advised by six Committees of right hon. and hon. Members, who represent the interests of Members generally and act as a channel for their views.

I am grateful for that long answer from my hon. Friend, who has a good record on freedom of information, so I do not doubt his commitment to the accountability of the Commission. However, does he accept that the way in which the House administration is organised, with its myriad Committees—Broadcasting, Catering, Accommodation and Works, and so on—obscures accountability? Would not it be more sensible if the House managed itself in a way that reduced the number of Committees?

We are always interested in Members' views on how we might reform the system that we use to administer the House. The consultation involved in the six existing Committees that sit under the Commission is a sophisticated and sensitive method of consultation that hon. Members have used to great effect in the past. I would be reluctant to change that unless there was a real reason for doing so.

House Of Commons

The Leader of the House was asked

It Equipment

40.

To ask the Leader of the House what plans he has to widen the standard range of IT equipment made available to hon. Members and their staff in constituency offices. [121031]

Mr Speaker's Advisory Panel on the Members' Allowances keeps the level of provision under review. As hon. Members will know, the Information Committee provides advice on the equipment available. If my hon. Friend has suggestions, the best way forward might be to submit them to the Information Committee or the Advisory Panel.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. In my six years as a Member of Parliament, the volume, range and complexity of data that floods through the average constituency office has increased to such a degree that we need improved facilities. In particular, we would benefit from the wider availability of broadband, as well as the increasing use of video facilities and equipment. Both are essential for modern parliamentarians.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. The House may be interested to know that the Information Committee is at present reviewing the equipment provided to take on board some of the points that he has made. All hon. Members will recognise that the complexity of the information technology that is available can improve the service that we give to our constituents. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is committed to doing exactly that.