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Supreme Court (Running Costs)

Volume 499: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2009

4. When he next expects to meet the chief executive of the new Supreme Court to discuss its running costs. (298567)

My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary will meet the president and chief executive of the Supreme Court on at least an annual basis to discuss both the resourcing and the work of the court. The next such meeting is due in spring 2010.

I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. Given that it is widely reported that the decision to set up a Supreme Court was taken by Tony Blair and Lord Falconer over a glass of whisky, and that the annual cost of running the Supreme Court is some £14 million whereas the cost of the previous arrangement was £3 million a year, does the Minister agree that it has proved to be a very expensive glass of whisky?

No, I do not agree, and I counsel the hon. Gentleman—and I suspect his colleagues who will follow on shortly—that they must be very careful to ensure that they compare like with like. If I may, I will give the hon. Gentleman a few figures. The figures he quotes are roughly right, but they do not include all the costs incurred in the running of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, as they were not included when we looked at the costs of the Supreme Court. Let me just give an example. The costings he has quoted go back to 2002-03, I think. Inflation since then and the costs that cannot be separated out precisely from the running of Parliament, such as those for rent, security, IT, catering, library services, cleaning and non-cash items, amount to about £7 million. So when the hon. Gentleman looks at these figures and genuinely tries to arrive at a like-for-like comparison, he will find there is no significant difference. If I may, I will give him some comparative costs for elsewhere in the world. [Interruption.] Well, I will do so, because he is worried about cost efficiency. The costs of running the Supreme Courts in Canada and the United States are £23 million and £53 million respectively.

The Master of the Rolls, Lord Justice Neuberger, has said in relation to the Supreme Court that

“you muck around with a constitution…at your peril because you do not know what the consequences of any change will be”.

Why are the Government still mucking about with the House of Lords and introducing measures to allow Lord Mandelson to return to this place?

With all due respect, I think the hon. Lady is confusing the two functions of the House of Lords. Of course she is right to say that we muck around with the constitution at our peril, but we are not mucking around with the constitution, as she so inelegantly puts it. What we are doing is pursuing a fundamental principle of our constitutional arrangements, which go back centuries. That principle is the separation of powers and that is what lies behind the setting up of the Supreme Court. I would have hoped that she would welcome that, instead of criticising it.

Order. May I just say to the Minister that he must not be led astray by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) into a disquisition that he would not otherwise have authored?

I am hesitating because I am not sure that I understood what you just said, Mr. Speaker.

When the Minister meets the chief executive to discuss the running costs, will he consider whether it is good for democracy that an individual has to spend £350 just to see the documents at the Supreme Court?

Of course I accept your strictures, Mr. Speaker, and I will try very hard not to be led astray by any hon. Member. In return, I ask the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) not to be led astray by inaccurate press reports. If he would like to take the trouble to ascertain the actual facts, he would be less worried than he appears to be. The actual facts are that there is no change in the current proceedings: there have always been charges for making these documents available in this way. The release of the court record is a formal procedural process; it is not a simple matter of just releasing the documents—it requires vetting and ensuring that no sensitive details are released. That has always been the case, there has always been a charge for it and that will continue to be the case.

I stress that this is not a case that relates to documents that might be accessed by a freedom of information request—it is nothing to do with that. The documents referred to in the newspaper report—the source of the hon. Gentleman’s question—are not documents about the running of the Supreme Court. They are formal court records that relate to individual cases before the court.

In the six years since its announcement, the projected cost of the Supreme Court has risen from £32 million to £56 million. Included in that are the costs of very lavish carpets designed by Sir Peter Blake, who also designed the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover. Could the Minister say whether the then Prime Minister’s project, which was gained with a little help from his friends, still represents excellent value?

Everyone can have a view about how effectively the money has been spent—we will all have our views on that. Everyone who has seen the building realises that it represents a masterpiece of renovation and is a precious asset to the architectural environment of these particular Houses of Parliament. Its costs, amortised over 30 years, are about £2 million to £3 million a year. My hon. Friend will realise that that is value for money in terms of rent for any other comparable building. What is fundamental to this is the purpose of setting up the Supreme Court, which is to do with the separation of powers. That is a precious constitutional principle and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not welcome it more fully.

Does it not concern the Minister a little that a court that sat in a Committee Room upstairs, shared the Palace’s facilities at minimal cost and employed six people now employs a staff of 40, including a chief executive on more than £100,000? Will he examine its running costs of £14 million? In particular, will he consider replacing the chief executive with a manager on half that salary? Surely that would be a better way to save money than removing legal aid from vulnerable constituents and closing magistrates courts.

I will respect your strictures not to venture down those paths along which the hon. Gentleman has just tempted me, Mr. Speaker. I say to him again—we had an exchange about this last week on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill—that he needs to compare the figures like for like. He still is not doing so. I refer him to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) a few moments ago, and I ask them both to compare like for like. We will constantly review this: as I said in my earlier answer, there will be regular meetings—on at least an annual basis—to review the running costs. Of course all public institutions must run in a cost-effective way, and the function of the chief executive is precisely to ensure that this precious new institution that we have established functions in an effective and efficient way. That is what the chief executive is for.