Skip to main content

Law Officers

Volume 462: debated on Thursday 28 June 2007

Questions 21 and 23 are identical, and I can imagine why they were tabled, although I think that today is a little bit early.

The future of the Law Officers will no doubt be decided by the new Prime Minister, and in so far as the Law Officers’ advice to Parliament is concerned, by this House. I understand that the Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently considering those issues, and we will read its report with interest.

The Solicitor-General will be aware that in his letter of resignation to the outgoing Prime Minister, the Attorney-General referred to “the host of challenges” that he had faced in that office. Does the Solicitor-General agree that those challenges are and have for centuries been inherent in that role and that the best way to deal with them is to meet them head on and not to use them as excuses for changing the nature of that office? If so, will he communicate that view to the new Prime Minister?

My noble Friend Lord Goldsmith has performed those duties by facing some of the difficult decisions that he has had to make on a series of issues head on. He has dealt with those decisions with a great deal of integrity. He has taken a lot of flak, particularly from those in certain galleries, about those issues, but he has done so with a level of integrity. In future, Law Officers will continue to display seriousness about the law, respect for the law and integrity in dealing with the law.

The Solicitor-General believes, rightly, that Law Officers should be accountable to the Houses of Parliament, particularly to the House of Commons, whereas the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), has taken a somewhat different view. We have discussed collective responsibility with the right hon. and learned Lady in the past—she was of course the Solicitor-General’s predecessor—and had disagreements. Now that she is deputy leader of the Labour party, chairman of the Labour party and reportedly going to be Leader of the House, whose view does he think may prevail?

As I have already said, we are looking forward with interest to the report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee. I think that my right hon. and learned Friend made some interesting and weighty contributions to the debate about the future of the Law Officers. We should remember that the Law Officers have a role in advising this House, and we will look to see what view the House and the new Prime Minister take on what their future should be.

Could my hon. and learned Friend clarify the constitutional conventions and rules of the respective Houses as to which House the Attorney-General should sit in and which House the Solicitor-General should sit in?

There is not really a convention about that—it is a matter of how the Prime Minister decides that he wishes to deal with these matters. I suppose that there are certain advantages in having one of the Law Officers in each House, but that has not always been the case. I remember that when I came into the House in the 1990s both Law Officers were in this House.

Will the Solicitor-General advise the new Attorney-General to give up the seemingly new practice of attending Cabinet as a matter of course? Does not that appear to put the Attorney-General in the position of being too close to the Government to advise objectively on matters such as the war in Iraq and the dropping of the prosecution of BAE?

That will be a matter for the new Attorney-General to consider. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Goldsmith took the view that there were certain advantages in his attending Cabinet because he was then aware of what was happening as it was happening and was able to use the opportunity to talk to other Cabinet members. However, the new Attorney-General will no doubt consider the issues and take a view on whether he should attend.

May I thank the Solicitor-General and the outgoing Attorney-General for their courtesy at all times during the previous Administration, whatever our differences of view on certain issues? Will he accept, and perhaps pass on, a couple of suggestions? First, if, in future, Law Officers give advice that is then prayed in aid in order to influence a vote here, that should become public, not be kept private. Secondly, while responsibility for prosecutions should of course remain with somebody accountable to Parliament, there should be an exemption if the prosecutions are of other parliamentarians or civil servants, because that requires an independent decision, not a political one.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, which I will certainly pass on to my right hon. and noble Friend. Ministers who go to a lawyer for legal advice want to know that that advice will be frank, accurate and confidential, as indeed does anyone. It becomes very difficult for people to go to their lawyer if they think that that advice will be immediately made public. In certain circumstances, it can be made public, but we need to consider that with a great deal of care. As for the role of Law Officers in relation to certain prosecutions, the safeguards in the way in which such decisions are taken will, I hope, prove in due course to be adequate.

May I first echo the Solicitor-General’s words about the Attorney-General and extend my thanks to him for the way in which he has communicated with me? I have always taken the view that the Attorney-General discharged his duties with integrity and fortitude. I thank the Solicitor-General, too, for what he has done and I hope that we may continue to see him at the Dispatch Box.

Let me consider the future role of the Law Officers. In response to questions on 26 April, the Solicitor-General made it clear that he believed that the Law Officers must be accountable to their several Houses of Parliament, whether they are in the House of Lords or the House of Commons. Does not it follow that, if there were any suggestion that that accountability should be removed, the Solicitor-General, if he is still in post, would oppose it and that, if it were forced through, his position would be untenable and he would have to resign?

The Constitutional Affairs Committee is examining those matters and we will consider its views with great care and listen to the arguments that its members present. Doubtless the new Prime Minister will take a view on the matter in due course. Those views will have to be given a great deal of weight and regard.