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Machinery of Government

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2007

22. If she will make a statement on the progress of her Department’s working group with senior members of the judiciary on the recent machinery-of-government changes. (143367)

We all know that this dreadful Labour Government have messed up the police service, and now they are about to do the same to the judiciary. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House whether, during those discussions with senior members of the judiciary, she has been able to reassure them that there is no constitutional problem, that their traditional independence will be preserved, and that they will not be compromised in terms of any sentencing?

There will be no messing up of the judiciary. Its independence is in statute passed by this House, under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, and nothing is going to change that.

Was it not disgraceful that the Lord Chief Justice heard about the Ministry of Justice from the pages of The Daily Telegraph, and does my friend feel at all embarrassed that the judiciary were not properly consulted, as they should have been? Finally, has my friend read the report from the Public Administration—

It was short, but there was more than one supplementary—that is the point that I am trying to make. Try to use good manners; it is important. The hon. Gentleman will learn something after a few years.

As soon as it was a serious proposal to go ahead with the Ministry of Justice, as my hon. Friend will know from looking at the evidence given by the Lord Chancellor to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee on 22 May, at that point arrangements were made to have a working group of the Lord Chief Justice, at which Department for Constitutional Affairs officials engaged in discussions in preparation for the Ministry of Justice. However, the most important thing is that section 1 of the Courts Act 2003 lays out the Lord Chancellor’s responsibility to ensure that there is an “efficient and effective” courts service, and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 ensures the independence of the judiciary. Moreover, a concordat sets out the agreement on relationships between Ministers and judges. I am sure that all those things will have the full support of this House.

As there is not even agreement with the judges on interim working arrangements, let alone a long-term solution to what the Lord Chief Justice sees as a serious constitutional problem, is the Minister prepared to allow a situation to continue in which there is a real divide between the judiciary and the Executive, even about the implementation of the concordat in the Act that she has described?

There are interim working arrangements in place. The courts are working and the judges are ensuring that justice is done in the courts. The Lord Chancellor and the Ministry of Justice are ensuring that the court system is operating. Of course there are operational issues that the judiciary raised with the Lord Chancellor’s Department and are now raising with our Department, and those are being considered. I have seen the evidence that was taken by the right hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee, and obviously there will always be discussions between the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice, but I cannot see any point in adding to the situation through hyperbole.

I welcome, of course, the assurances given by the Minister of State about the importance of the independence of the judiciary, and it is, of course, protected by statute. Following the evidence given to the Select Committee, has the Lord Chancellor spoken to the Lord Chief Justice about this issue, because Committee members felt strongly that that personal contact between them would break this logjam?

I can reassure my right hon. Friend and the House that the Lord Chancellor is in weekly, sometimes daily, contact with the Lord Chief Justice. They have regular discussions, and that will continue to be the case.

The Lord Chief Justice and his colleagues also gave evidence to the Select Committee to the effect that if there were to be any meaningful assurance of judicial independence, there should at the very least be a ring-fenced courts budget. Can the Minister and her colleagues assure us that we will have that vital safeguard, as requested by the Lord Chief Justice?

There are two separate issues here. One is the resourcing of the courts budget within the Ministry of Justice. The courts budget is some £1 billion, compared with the legal aid budget of £2 billion, to which is added the prison budget of some £2 billion. Obviously, it is the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor, under section 1 of the Courts Act, to ensure that there is an efficient and effective system to support the carrying out of the business of the courts, and that resources are dedicated to that. As for the independence of the judiciary, that too is enshrined in statute and underpinned by the concordat.