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Government and Parliament: Relationship with Courts

Volume 685: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2020

What plans he has to review the relationship between Government, Parliament and (a) the Supreme Court and (b) other courts; and if he will make a statement. (909920)

As set out in our manifesto, we are looking at the broader aspects of our constitution, including the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts. Our independent courts and legal system are respected around the world, and I would like to protect our world-class judiciary from being drawn into political matters. I am interested in reviewing the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, and I will update the House on arrangements in due course.

My right hon. and learned Friend will share with me—indeed, I suspect the whole House will share with me—the respect we have for our Supreme Court and its judgments. Nevertheless, it is called in from time to time to look at issues that are highly political and highly contentious. Does he not agree with me that we urgently need to establish some sort of framework so that we can decide precisely what the Supreme Court should be looking at and what issues are perhaps beyond or different from its remit?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I understand the concern that he outlines. Of course, the Supreme Court does not of its own volition investigate matters. It hears cases and answers the questions before it on arguable points of law of general public importance. However, as I have already said, I think it is important that we look again at the balance. As a full-throated supporter of an institution that brings together the three jurisdictions of our United Kingdom, I want to make sure that its future is indeed a secure and a bright one.

The terms of reference for the Government’s review of the Human Rights Act 1998, which were announced yesterday, include the relationship between domestic courts and the European convention on human rights. But of course human rights themselves, as opposed to the Act, are not a reserved matter, and Scotland’s courts play an important role in supervising human rights protections under the Scotland Act 1998. So can the Lord Chancellor give me a cast-iron guarantee that the British Government are not planning to interfere with the competence of the Scottish Parliament in respect of human rights and the jurisdiction of Scotland’s separate legal system in enforcing human rights protections?

I am happy to assure the hon. and learned Lady that the terms of reference have been carefully couched to make it clear that we have distinctive contexts and natures in each of the jurisdictions, and that they will be considered where that is necessary. I am also content that where there are particular questions on devolved matters or of a devolved nature, the independent review will be approaching or inviting engagement from all appropriate parties. Of course, it is only the first stage in making recommendations. I can assure her that any proposals that will come forward will of course involve the fullest consultation with the devolved Administrations and, indeed, of course the fullest respect for the devolved settlement.

Can I welcome the tone of my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement and his very clear commitment to supporting the independence of the judiciary? That is an absolute and fundamental principle of our constitution, and should never be undermined by anyone. Can I also welcome the terms of reference of the review, which are balanced and measured in relation to the Human Rights Act and, in particular, the quality of the panel that has been appointed? I happen to have known Sir Peter Gross throughout my professional career, and he is known as both a man and a judge of the highest independence and integrity, as are the other members of the panel. Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend can reassure us that they will have a completely free hand to act as they think is appropriate within the terms of reference, without any pressure on their independence from any quarter.

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Justice Committee is absolutely right to highlight the impeccable credentials of the chair, Sir Peter Gross, not only as a distinguished former Lord Justice of Appeal, but of course as the judge responsible for international relations: he understands very well the issue of judicial diplomacy, which is very much at the heart of this review. I am glad that the geographical representation also includes an academic from the Republic of Ireland, because it is my fundamental belief that we need to look at the position in all parts of our islands to respect not only the human rights settlement, but the Belfast agreement.

The independent review of the Human Rights Act will have an enormous impact on the basic rights and freedoms that British citizens enjoy. The Government caused outrage by failing to publish submissions to the independent review of administrative law. Transparency and accountability are fundamental parts of our democracy. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that both the submissions to the human rights review and the review itself will be published in full?

I think perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is to be forgiven for his descent into hyperbole when it comes to the ambit of this review. It is all about the mechanism, and comments about fundamental rights being affected are way wide of the mark. First, with regard to the process in the review, it is a matter for the review as to what precise submissions it publishes, but I can assure him that the outcome of the review and the Government’s position will of course be published in full, so that he will be able and others will be able to digest it and we will be able to debate the matter.