Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do consider the Selection of the President of Welsh Tribunals Regulations 2017.
By way of background, there are seven devolved tribunals that are the responsibility of the Welsh Government: the Mental Health Review Tribunal for Wales, the Special Educational Needs Tribunal for Wales, the Agricultural Land Tribunal for Wales, the Adjudication Panel for Wales, the Residential Property Tribunal Wales, the Welsh Language Tribunal, and a tribunal covering the registered school inspectors appeals panels and the registered nursery education inspectors appeals panels.
There are 41 judges currently appointed to those tribunals. Each tribunal has its own judicial lead but these judges have limited access to senior judicial leadership within Wales, which is inconsistent with other judicial officeholders in England and Wales. Sir Wyn Williams, a retired High Court judge, has been undertaking an informal leadership role, but he does not have any statutory powers.
To address this, Part 3 of the Wales Act 2017 created a new post: the President of Welsh Tribunals. The president has responsibility for making arrangements about the training, guidance and welfare of Welsh tribunal members, as well as for representing their views to Welsh Ministers and other Members of the National Assembly for Wales. The president will also be able to give practice directions and will be responsible for deploying tribunal members between the different Welsh tribunals, as well as between the UK-wide tribunals and the Welsh tribunals.
The president will also be responsible for establishing and communicating the judicial strategic direction for the Welsh tribunals. He or she will provide leadership and build effective relationships with the judicial leads of the Welsh tribunals, as well as with the Welsh Government’s Welsh Tribunals Unit, the Lord Chief Justice, the Judicial College, and Ministers and officials in the Welsh Government, relating to policy issues affecting the Welsh tribunals.
Paragraph 2 of Schedule 5 to the Wales Act 2017 provides two routes for the appointment of the President of Welsh Tribunals. The first is by agreement between the Lord Chief Justice, the Lord Chancellor and the Welsh Ministers with regard to a person who is, or has been, a judge of the Court of Appeal or the High Court. The second route, in default, is following selection by the Judicial Appointments Commission.
If agreement cannot be reached between the Lord Chief Justice, the Lord Chancellor and the Welsh Ministers on the appointment, paragraph 2 of Schedule 5 to the Wales Act 2017 requires the Lord Chief Justice to make a request to the Judicial Appointments Commission for a person to be selected for appointment to the office of President of Welsh Tribunals.
Elements of the procedure for appointment by the Judicial Appointments Commission are set out in the Act itself. These include that the Judicial Appointments Commission must appoint a selection panel which must include at least two members who are non-legally qualified, at least two judicial members and at least two members of the Judicial Appointments Commission.
The Lord Chancellor is also required to make additional provision about the process to be applied. That is what these regulations do. In particular, they specify that the selection panel should consist of five members and make further provision about the appointment of people to that panel, including that the chairperson of the panel is to be a person designated by the Lord Chief Justice who holds, or has held, office as a judge of the Supreme Court, a Lord Justice of Appeal or a puisne judge of the High Court.
The regulations also make further provision relating to consultation during the process and to the reporting of the panel’s selection to the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chief Justice’s options when deciding on that selection. In order to be consistent with the relevant primary legislation and the nature of the new office, the appointment process closely reflects that which applies to the selection of the Senior President of Tribunals.
The Wales Act 2017 established the role of the President of Welsh Tribunals and the requirements for the appointment of a judicial officeholder to that office. These regulations allow that appointment to be made. I therefore commend the regulations to your Lordships and beg to move.
My Lords, I very much welcome these regulations, although I hope that the machinery that they set up will not be used, because of course the alternative way is by agreement between the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and Welsh Ministers.
At a time when the independence of the judiciary has been under attack, when we have heard expressions in the press such as, “Enemies of the people”, and when the press has questioned the impartiality of judges in many ways and the degree to which they are in touch, it is very important that the independence of the judiciary in Wales should be emphasised. In most of these tribunals, one of the parties concerned will almost certainly be the Welsh Government or local government, and it is very necessary that the administrative tribunal should be seen to be impartial.
I am very pleased that my old friend Sir Wyn Williams has been acting in an informal capacity as President of Welsh Tribunals—we used to meet on many a rugby field in our youth. Hopefully, he will continue in that role, and maybe he will be a candidate for president. I could not imagine the independence of the judiciary being in better hands to give leadership and direction. So many of the 41 judges who are sitting on these tribunals are lay persons without necessarily any lengthy experience in the law, so it is important that they should be properly trained and properly led. I am sure that that has been done under Sir Wyn Williams and that it will continue under these regulations.
My Lords, I will be very brief as I do not have a tenth of the background that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has with regard to legal operations in Wales. But I can from my own knowledge, and by reputation, endorse the comments the noble Lord made about Sir Wyn Williams.
I have one specific question, relating to the Welsh language. As noble Lords will be aware, and as I am sure the Minister has been made well aware, the Welsh language has full official status in Wales now, as it has since the legislation six or seven years ago. From 1967 onwards, it had equal validity, and the 1993 Act gave it equal status with English. That being so, operations of the law in courts and tribunals may take place in Welsh. That is the normal state of affairs in Wales. Proceedings may or may not take place in Welsh, but the choice is there and it is equal handed—as the noble Baroness in the Chair well knows.
In the specifications that have been put down, at Regulation 3(13) there is a list of the characteristics that are “desirable” for the members of the selection panel, including that members should be,
“both men and women … drawn from a range of different racial groups”—
—both fair enough—and have,
“an understanding of the administration of justice in Wales and Welsh devolution arrangements”.
That too is fine. But why is there no paragraph there about having at least some knowledge of the Welsh language, particularly as that will arise from time to time in the work that is being undertaken? I do not object to the instrument in itself, but that should have been covered, unless there is some explanation of which I am not aware.
My Lords, I have a very brief, possibly technical question, which is probably because I am not legally qualified or an expert in this matter. Paragraph 3.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum says that,
“the territorial application of this instrument includes Scotland and Northern Ireland”.
Further down, under “Extent and territorial application”, it says:
“The territorial application … is the whole of the United Kingdom”.
I was curious why those two provisions were there and whether it is a standard phrase that appears in all these things. It just seemed a little odd.
My Lords, I of course defer to the experience of the two noble Lords from Wales, who clearly have a greater insight into the position than either the Minister—with due respect—or I could have. Of course, I join them in welcoming the instrument. However, according to the Explanatory Note, the consultation process was very limited, as it was apparently confined to officials of the Welsh Government and the Lord Chief Justice. Was there any consideration with the professions in Wales about this? Presumably many members of the legal profession would have an interest in the matter.
On the concern about diversity, I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord is in a position to say—if not, perhaps he could subsequently advise me—what is the present composition of tribunal membership and chairs of the tribunals in terms of gender and ethnicity. Clearly there is an implicit aspiration at paragraph 12.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum to promote diversity. I would be interested to know what the starting point is. Although the question of developing a baseline against which progress can be measured is apparently still incorrect, it would be helpful to see where we are starting from, if not today by a note to those Members present.
This is clearly a welcome step forward. One hopes that it will work well and in particular that the diversity issue will be addressed properly and in a timely way. I join other noble Lords in welcoming the regulations and trust that their impact will be beneficial.
I am obliged to noble Lords and to the noble Baroness for their contributions. I begin with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. I entirely agree with his observations about the importance of maintaining the independence of the judiciary and, equally, of defending the judiciary from inappropriate attack. There is an important distinction to be made between what can be regarded as justified criticism and what is tantamount to abuse. We have to underline that distinction if we are properly to defend the judiciary. Of that there can be no doubt.
On the question of whether these powers should be used, I again entirely agree with the noble Lord. This is the alternative mechanism to be employed, but it is contemplated that it will be employed only in circumstances where there is a breakdown in agreement between various parties. It is not something that is contemplated, but because the Act makes provision for this alternative mechanism it is only appropriate that we should have regulations in place so that, if necessary, it can be employed.
On the matter of who will be the president of the Welsh tribunals and his role so far as defence of tribunal members is concerned, remembering that some of those tribunal members are lay members, it is doubly important there is somebody there who can advise and defend their interests. One of the responsibilities of the President of Welsh Tribunals will be not only the training and guidance of members of the tribunals, but consideration of their welfare. That again is important.
On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, on the Welsh language, of course we recognise the importance of the Welsh language in the context of proceedings in Wales, but we have to remember that we are making an appointment to the judiciary of England and Wales. While the proceedings of those tribunals may take place in Welsh as distinct from English, it is not considered appropriate that we should extend the criteria for the appointment of this post to include the Welsh language itself.
I hear what the noble and learned Lord says. There are numerous bodies that have responsibilities that go beyond the borders of Wales where the status of the Welsh language is recognised. I would not have been surprised if there had been no provision at all for equality here on the basis that other legislation covers it, but if we are writing the equality of men and women and racial equality into this, surely it is not unreasonable to write the language in because some of the work will be undertaken in Wales, if not all of it.
With respect to the noble Lord’s observations, language is not an equality issue in that context in the same way as the other criteria he alluded to. It is a matter of context. Of course it is important we recognise that the use of English and Welsh have equal demands on any tribunal process in Wales, but that is quite distinct from how you go about the appointment criteria.
I am sorry; I do not want to labour this unduly. The language question has, to a large extent, been put to rest in Wales over recent decades after there was a lot of strong feeling about it on the basis that there was recognition of language being an equality criterion. I do not know whether it is technically so in the legal framework here but, surely in terms of the spirit of what is being done here, it should be accommodated.
With respect, there is no issue about whether an individual applicant would be prejudiced whether he spoke only Welsh or only English or both. That is why I say, in this context, it does not arise for the purposes of this schedule. If an applicant came forward who did not speak English but spoke only Welsh, there would be no issue about that applying to the suitability of his appointment.
May I help the Minister? I do not want to see issues like this boiling up to become another bullet in a language war, as it were. It is the sort of thing that we need a harmonious approach towards. Equality is regarded as being relevant in a language context, as in other contexts, and therefore, if it is necessary to write it into the terms as they are here, I cannot see why they are not broad enough to encapsulate language, but I have made my point.
If I can make one short addition, it is that these regulations are concerned with the technical operation of judicial appointments and therefore, again, our view is that the question does not arise in this context.
I turn to territorial application. My understanding is that technically, in the context of tribunal appointments, we are looking across the UK and not just at England and Wales, which is why the regulation extends as it does. There are circumstances in which tribunal membership can move between the various jurisdictions.
On the consultation process and diversity in particular, diversity is of course taken extremely seriously. I believe that we have some figures with regard to tribunal membership. I am not sure that I have figures with regard to the chairmanship of tribunals. As regards male and female membership, about 40% of tribunal members are female. In the senior courts, the figures are of course different but, for tribunals, the figure is as high as it is anywhere. As far as BAME in tribunals is concerned, the number is about 10%. Interestingly, perhaps, we even have a figure for those who are of a non-barrister background. I am not quite sure what a non-barrister background amounts to, but 66% of tribunal judges come from a non-barrister background. On whether that is regarded as a good thing or a bad thing, I will not comment. If the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, wishes to have figures about the chairmanship of tribunals, and their gender mix, I can undertake to write to him, if those figures are available. I do not know if they are; I know that the overall figures are there, as I have just mentioned. That, I hope, addresses the points that noble Lords have raised.
Committee adjourned at 6.43 pm.