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Criminal Justice Policy

Volume 407: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2003

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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.