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Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend makes a suggestion that an independent judicial appointments commission could well take forward. It would be a matter for it, in its wider work, to examine new ways of ensuring that applications were brought forward from as wide a range of potential judges as possible. There are issues in the consultation paper that would help to bring forward the extra diversity that my hon. Friend seeks.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Whatever the merits or otherwise of these proposals, does the Minister understand that as someone who had the privilege of working as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the last Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, I find it particularly difficult to accept that the last Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, has been particularly effective in ensuring the quality and probity of the judiciary? I would draw a very different conclusion from the Minister, and it is this: if even Lord Irvine could ensure the quality and probity of the judiciary, the system ain't broke and don't need fixing.
Mr. Leslie: That is a somewhat circuitous argument from the hon. Gentleman. It seems easy for Conservative Members to take pot-shots at the former Lord Chancellor. Actually, he was responsible for a number of major constitutional advances that I think all hon. Members on cold reflection would recognise and appreciate. We are taking new steps to modernise the constitution, and the House should welcome that.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): I warmly welcome the Minister's statement. I congratulate him and the Secretary of State on these proposals, which have been proposed after the short period that they have had in office.
First, I heard what my hon. Friend said about elected judges, but if the weight of opinion on consultation favours an election to the commission, will the Government stand in the way of that idea being initiated? Secondly, will my hon. Friend confirm that there will be a new organisation, and that it will not merely be a case of the judicial appointments part of the old Lord Chancellor's Department moving over to the new judicial appointments commission, otherwise, it would be the same people making the recommendations?
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Do not these changes, involving the separation of powers, mean that the judiciary and Parliament will become ever more separate from each other? Was it not a thoroughly good thing, and the reason for the system working over the centuries, that the two were linked through the Lord Chancellor? They were also linked because some of our most senior judges in the land were exposed to the pressing issues of the day by sitting in the House of Lords. Does the Minister agree that these changes are likely to lead to further conflict between the judiciary and Parliament, and will not that ultimately be to the detriment of the British people?
Mr. Leslie: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. One of the models posed in the consultation document is for the independent judicial appointments commission to recommend a shortlist of one or a number of names to a Minister of the Crown so that, while the Minister is taken out of the selection process in sifting applications and so forth, the constitutional convention of having a Minister make recommendations to the Crown and then be accountable to Parliament for such recommendations could be preserved. At this stage, we are in favour of a recommended commission model but, again, we wish to consult on it further.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): I assure my hon. Friend that for the real radicals, the proposals are not only warmly welcome but long overdue, particularly if they result in fewer judges who went to Oxbridge and public school[Interruption.] I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs Campbell). However, on the supreme court for the United Kingdom, while I encourage my hon. Friend to consult the Scottish Executive and other interests in Scotland, he should take account of the fact that parochialism and self-interest affect some parts of public life in Scotland. In fact, I am beginning to believe that girning is becoming the national sport of Scotland. If there were Olympic medals for girning, the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) would be in line for the gold.
Mr. Leslie: My understanding is that the sport of girning requires its participants to have false teeth, and I would not want to suggest that any hon. Member is in that position. I do not believe that the description of parochialism fits the Scottish public at large, but I accept that we must pay particular care and attention to important and delicate issues affecting the devolution settlement, especially as they apply to the United Kingdom supreme court. I shall certainly bear my right hon. Friend's recommendations in mind.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): In September 1998, the Lord Chancellor's Department introduced new guidelines on the appointment of lay magistrates, saying that the Bench must reflect an area's voting pattern as evidenced by the last two general elections. Given that history, how can we have any confidence at all that the Government will not seek to politicise appointments to the judiciary as well?
Mr. Leslie: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that issue about the magistracy because, again, the consultation paper looks at the role of the current Lord Chancellor in the appointments process of the magistracy. We envisage retaining local input in the selection process, but in our view that is best done via a judicial appointments commission, independent of Ministers. The hon. Gentleman made an important point about political balance, which we would not want to upset.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): These are excellent proposals and the Government deserve a pat on the back. I hope that Queen's counsel will be done away with. We do not have queen's surveyors or dentists. QCs are an anachronism and ought to be done away with. Let the market decide.
May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister about the judicial appointments commission? I take it that it will report annually to Parliament, setting out the criteria that it uses to recommend appointments to the Bench. How long will individuals serve on that commission? I hope that they will not have a lifetime appointment.
Mr. Leslie: The paper includes a recommendation in response to a question about how long members may serve on a judicial appointments commission. There will be mechanisms in place so that such an independent body is accountable through reports to Parliament. On the question of QCs, the Government do not have predetermined answers to the questions that we have set out, but we feel that the rank of QC needs strong justification. If it is to remain, it needs to be of demonstrable benefit to the users of legal services, and such benefit has to outweigh the disadvantages with which the House is familiar.
Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Is the Minister proud of the way in which he has cynically excluded the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament from the proposals, thus reinforcing the view that the Scottish legal system has been relegated to a footnote in the Government's proposals? As conflict resolution is increasingly common in post-devolution UK, can he address the point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran)? Exactly how will the Government ensure that there is adequate representation for Scottish judges in the new United Kingdom court?
Mr. Leslie: There are proposals in the document to ensure that we have the right numbers of Scottish and Northern Irish judges in the supreme court and the panels within that. I am surprised to hear those on the Conservative Benches crying for greater consultation with the Scottish Executive and Scottish Parliament, but I heed the hon. Gentleman's comments. We will continue to work closely with both those institutions as we develop the proposals.
Vera Baird (Redcar): I congratulate my hon. Friend on these overdue proposals, which will bring the worst aspects of our legal system screamingbelieve me, they will scream, and my hon. Friend should not weakeninto the modern world. The suggestion from the Opposition Front Bench that diversity in the judiciary will endanger quality is an insult to those many women and ethnic minority lawyers who work hard now and who do not get promoted. It is not a sign that the system is working perfectly or that it ain't broke when there is not a single woman judge in the highest court in our country, though there are three good ones, but only three, in the Court of Appeal and six good ones, but only six, in the Queen's Bench Division. Does not the dearth of women and ethnic minorities reflect the secret sounding system whereby white male Oxbridge-educated judges inevitably recommend clones of themselves? QCsmay I turn to that?