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Business: Private Notice Question

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2001

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My Lords, I rise to ask the noble Baroness the Leader of the House a question about the business today of which I have given notice.

Often at this time of the afternoon, we see the Government Chief Whip approach the Dispatch Box and announce that a Statement will be made. Today he has not done so. Yet, outside this House, the headlines and bulletins are dominated by an issue of national importance; namely, the story of the fund-raising dinner which took place at the Atlantic Bar and Grill on 7th February and the role of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in what has become known as the cash for wigs scandal.

But in this House, we are not allowed to debate it, question it or even receive a Statement. So will the noble Baroness confirm that she refused a Private Notice Question from me yesterday which would have given us the opportunity, early on, to discuss those matters? Will the noble Baroness confirm also that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will reply to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, at Question Time tomorrow morning? Will she explain why she believes that a topical Question tomorrow is any substitute at all for the Government, in the shape of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, coming forward with a fully prepared Statement to deal with the most serious allegations being made about the noble and learned Lord? Will she give the noble and learned Lord the opportunity to explain himself here in this House rather than allowing those stories to run outside which now, inevitably, raise the whole question of the position and future of the role of the office of the Lord Chancellor, which I believe has served us so well?

My Lords, I must say to the noble Lord that I can only do what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister did at the Glasgow conference at the weekend and say that I am very surprised that the Opposition take all their views from the newspaper delivery boy. It really is a high level of opportunism to raise the matter in this way this afternoon.

As the noble Lord himself has mentioned, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will ask a Question tomorrow on this matter to which I am sure my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor will respond very fully. It is obviously the case that that is the appropriate moment for this Question to be answered. The noble Lord is aware that, if he had a concern about the Private Notice Question on this matter which he tabled yesterday afternoon, he should have raised it yesterday afternoon. He did not.

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness one further question. She must be aware that many people are using this issue to raise wider issues, such as whether the role of the Lord Chancellor should be changed, whether he should lose all his judicial functions, or whether, indeed, there should be a ministry of justice—none of which I approve of, I might say. It would be highly desirable, if only to clear the air, to get back to discussing the real issue as to whether the Lord Chancellor was lacking in judgment in getting involved in fund raising, rather than being diverted, as all the newspapers are today, to far wider questions of whether there should be a ministry of justice, and so on.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord raises some interesting questions that are worthy of debate. However, a Private Notice Question is probably not the appropriate forum in which to do that. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who says that he does not agree with the theoretical questions that are being raised about the potential role of a ministry of justice, and so on, would agree with the opinions of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, who said on the radio this morning that he believed that the present Lord Chancellor had acted with the utmost probity in fulfilling his functions.

My Lords, I became a student of Lincoln's Inn as long ago as 1929. Apart from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Shawcross, I am the most senior Queen's Counsel in England and Wales. I, therefore, have memory of these matters, going back some 70 years. May I say that during that time there has never arisen such an occasion as this.