Orders of the Day — Solicitor-General (Salary)

– in the House of Commons at 8:19 pm on 24th June 1997.

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Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor Lord Privy Seal, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office) 8:19 pm, 24th June 1997

I beg to move, That the draft Solicitor General's Salary Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 12th June. be approved. Before I say a few words about the order, I should like to welcome the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) to the Opposition Front Bench in his new capacity. I am sorry that this debate is such a relatively minor event for his debut, but I am sure that there will be many fuller opportunities to discuss House affairs.

The draft order is straightforward. It provides for an increase in the Solicitor-General's salary, so that it is at the same rate as that of the Lord Advocate. The House will know that, following the general election, the Solicitor-General was appointed as a Minister in the other place, which created an unusual situation that had not previously applied.

The House will also know that the Top Salaries Review Body and the Senior Salaries Review Board have published reports that have supported the traditional arrangement of paying the Solicitor-General the same salary as the Lord Advocate when both have been in the same House. As both are now in the other place, the Solicitor-General's salary needs to be increased so that it is once again the same as the Lord Advocate's. I do not think that this issue is contentious: it is a simple, straightforward amendment to bring that salary into line. I hope that it will meet with the approval of the House.

The order, if it is accepted this evening, will come into effect on 27 June this year, and will determine the salary of the Solicitor-General to be £78,072, which is exactly the same as the salary that was recommended for the Lord Advocate in the 1996 SSRB report. I hope that this simple measure will find favour with the House.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Minister (Constitutional Affairs) 8:22 pm, 24th June 1997

I thank the right hon. Lady, the Leader of the House, for her gracious words of welcome. I immediately reassure her that, although the Opposition agonised long over this measure, we have finally come to the conclusion that it would be appropriate not to impede the passage of the order.

I expected the Government Benches to be full of disappointed lawyers. It is somewhat surprising that the Government could not find a lawyer in this House to occupy this position. When I glanced at Dod's, the invaluable guide to this new House of Commons, I saw that only two Members had registered an interest in jobs, both of whom are from the Government Benches but neither of whom is a lawyer. The only Member of the House of Commons who has indicated an interest in the law is the recently appointed Opposition Chief Whip.

I suppose that one can understand why the Government wanted to look elsewhere for their Solicitor-General. Perhaps this is a case of "it's not what you know, but who you know", although I fully accept that Lord Falconer is very learned in the law. I also accept that, in taking this salary, which may seem gargantuan to some of us, he is doubtless depriving himself of large fees.

The Government are clearly fortunate to have the services of such a learned lawyer. It would be churlish in the extreme for us to deny him this exceptionally modest salary. So I am delighted, in what the right hon. Lady referred to as my debut from the Dispatch Box, to welcome the order and urge the House to approve it.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 8:24 pm, 24th June 1997

I should begin by declaring an interest, in that I once appeared unsuccessfully against the new Solicitor-General in a tribunal hearing before the Civil Aviation Authority. I should also declare a further interest. Such is the nature of the village of Scots law that it was his father, an eminent practising solicitor in Edinburgh, who gave me my first substantial case after being called to the bar in Scotland.

I therefore have compelling reasons for not adopting the churlish attitude that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), making his debut, eschewed. I add my congratulations to those that have already been expressed. If I may respectfully say so, it was a matter of astonishment to many of us on the Liberal Democrat Benches that the hon. Gentleman did not have an equivalent responsibility at a much earlier date. I welcome him, and congratulate him warmly.

The Law Officers play a special role, because they give advice to the Government on legal matters affecting Government policy. Sometimes they have to stand aside from the Government. Some of us remember when Sir Patrick Mayhew, as Solicitor-General, had to threaten to put the Metropolitan police into 10 Downing street to get proper responses to inquiries that arose out of the Westland helicopter affair. On occasion, the Law Officers must exercise responsibilities in the public interest rather than on behalf of the Government.

It is right to say that there is great disappointment that there is no candidate from the House of Commons for the post of Solicitor-General for England and Wales. It is a double disappointment, because there is no candidate in the House of Commons to be Lord Advocate or Solicitor-General for Scotland.

The Scottish legal system is distinct and different, and, some would argue, in some respects a material improvement on the common law system of England and Wales. It is a civil law system: part of the exchange between Scottish scholars and the universities of Leiden and Utrecht in the middle ages. It is disappointing that it is not properly represented in this House. We are constantly told that this is a United Kingdom Parliament. It is a matter of great distress that hon. Members from Scotland do not have the opportunity to ask of a Law Officer from Scotland the questions that they are able to ask of Mr. Attorney.

My astonishment is, in some respects, based on my ignorance. I had not appreciated that it was being suggested that the lowly office of Solicitor-General is equivalent to the traditional and important office of Lord Advocate in Scotland. The Lord Advocate's office is of considerable age. About the time of the 1745 rebellion, the Lord Advocate, Duncan Forbes of Culloden, was, in effect, running Scotland. Before there were Secretaries of State for Scotland, the Lord Advocate was the Government's representative in Scotland.

I know things have changed a little, and the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Dewar) is the Secretary of State for Scotland. I take nothing away from his great ability, charm and aptitude, but it is slightly galling that the great office of Lord Advocate should be compared to this inferior office, not least because the Lord Advocate's responsibilities are substantial. Every prosecution in Scotland runs in the name of the Lord Advocate, who is ultimately responsible for its conduct. That burden is not placed on the shoulders of the Solicitor-General for England and Wales.

I am not renowned for quarrelling with the Top Salaries Review Body, but in this particular regard I do not think that its analysis of the respective importance of these two jobs is accurate and justified.

Finally, although I never did national service, there used to be an observation that applied to people who did not enjoy their national service, to the effect that, if they could not take a joke, they should not have joined up. If, on I May, the Solicitor-General did not consider that the salary was good enough, he need not have accepted the appointment. [Interruption.] A sotto voce voice, which I shall not identify lest it embarrass the individual in his chambers later, says that the Solicitor-General nearly did not take the job. That says quite a lot about public service and the high motivation that Ministers require to serve the nation in either House of Parliament.

I should also say that it is pretty soon for the Solicitor-General to get a pay rise. If it is awarded on the basis of productivity, one would have to work a little longer in a factory or in Sainsbury's before receiving such a pay rise.

The Leader of the House said that the debate was not controversial. It may not be controversial, but it does not stand proper comparison with the dignity of the office of Lord Advocate in Scotland. I wish that it were possible to amend the order, as I certainly would have tabled an amendment recognising the remarkable responsibilities of the Lord Advocate and the fact that he is poorly remunerated compared with what now appears to be generous provision for the Solicitor-General for England and Wales.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough 8:30 pm, 24th June 1997

At the outset of the remarks by the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), I was persuaded not to join my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), whom I congratulate on his appointment to the Front Bench, in teasing the Labour party about its failure to find within a huge parliamentary party a suitable candidate for Solicitor-General.

First, the point had already been made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire; secondly, I risked being ticked off by the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife, who is a learned member of the Scottish Bar and a fine advocate on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. However, the hon. and learned Gentleman then proceeded to make what I can only consider to be one of the most churlish speeches I have ever heard. I know that he was presumably speaking in jest and forensically, but it was an unhelpful speech because the Solicitor-General—in this House or in another place—needs to be properly remunerated.

I have to declare an interest, as I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the former Attorney-General and Solicitor-General at the same time. I consider that the Law Officers in the House are underpaid. Perhaps I am echoing the views of Mr. David Pannick, one of the leading lights of the English Bar, who wrote an article in The Times recently suggesting that the Attorney-General should receive the same salary as a Lord Justice of Appeal—some £140,000 a year.

English and Scottish Law Officers carry immense burdens. Their offices are undervalued by us mere politicians. They perform duties on behalf of the Scottish and English and Welsh legal systems that go far beyond the usual public recognition that Ministers of their seniority normally expect. They do not appear every night on "Newsnight" and other exciting programmes, but that is probably because they are still working in the House or in their Department at the behest of the Government.

In my view, the Government—of whatever complexion—get very good value for money, and not just from the individual Law Officers and their staff—including the Attorney-General, the Solicitor-General and the Scottish Law Officers and their predecessors under the Conservative Government.

The debate allows me to suggest that the law and Parliament have become two separate countries. That is much to be regretted. The myth persists that the House of Commons is overstuffed with lawyers. The lawyers who are here—I include myself—may well be overstuffed, but sadly the legal profession is not over-represented in the House. It is to the detriment of the law and the House that the preponderance of legal talent in the Houses of Parliament now rests in the other place.

The whole point of tonight's debate is to draw attention to the sad separation between two great institutions. The election result underpins the assumption that there must be an enormous number of Labour-supporting lawyers in the solicitors' profession and at the Bar, so why are they not attracted to public service in the House of Commons? Pay must play some part. I do not agree with the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife that those who are attracted into public service should not also be attracted by reasonable salaries.

People such as the Solicitor-General, the Attorney-General and their predecessors will have given up a great deal in financial terms in order to enter Parliament. They will have given up great and highly respectable practices at the Bar, for which they were properly remunerated. That must be a discouragement, as, by the time one attained sufficient seniority at the Bar to be worthy of consideration as a Law Officer, one would have to be a Queen's Counsel of some experience.

It is not in the interests of the House or the country to discourage well-qualified barristers from entering the House. I dare say that the difference between the £78,072 and £52,278 that we are now discussing will not begin to compensate the Solicitor-General for what he has given up.

The second reason why the law and the House have become two different countries relates to the lowering of public esteem for Members of Parliament. I shall not go in for a fascinating discussion about sleaze, as that would cause too much trouble on both sides of the House, but we as parliamentarians must recognise the lowering of public esteem. If the public do not think much of the House, why should members of the Bar wish to join it when they have a respectable occupation already?

Thirdly, there are fears at the Bar that, in future, Members of Parliament will be discouraged from continuing to practise at the Bar and that, either through exhortation or by changes in the rules of the House, it will become increasingly difficult for Members to maintain a practice or any other outside paid interest, so the House will shut itself off from a huge well of talent from which we should be able to draw law officers.

The hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife has already outlined the width, breadth and depth of the burden that falls upon the Lord Advocate, the Solicitor-General for Scotland, the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General, so I will not repeat them. I hope that the House will by acclamation pass the order, not just because the current Solicitor-General deserves his salary, but because all Law Officers deserve it. I hope that it will send a message to those practising at the Scottish or English Bar who might otherwise be discouraged from entering politics, and to do so with a will to discharge public service.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East 8:38 pm, 24th June 1997

Like other Opposition Members, I was rather surprised that it was not possible to find a new Labour lawyer in the House to take up such a responsible position. My mind went back to an article in The Independent last September, which reported: New Labour is awash with lawyers, all waiting for their rewards". It even said that the Society of Labour Lawyers had experienced a massive increase in membership. In just 12 months, it had increased to 800 members—an increase of two thirds in a single year. So why was Mr. Falconer, as he was at the time, selected?

The answer is a good and honourable one. Charles Falconer QC is an outstanding and gifted lawyer, and he has much in common with the Prime Minister. They have known each other since their schooldays, they have been friends for many years, they have great mutual professional respect, and they both send their children to fee-paying schools.

That is an important point to make when paying tribute to Lord Falconer, because he has taken an important salary cut. According to The Times on 8 May, in a decent year Lord Falconer could expect to make £500,000, which will fall to a derisory £78,000. Out of that, he will still have to find the £21,000 that he apparently spends sending his four children to private schools. I respect him greatly for taking a cut in his income of that magnitude, and my only sadness is that his children will not be joined at their private schools by the children of even poorer families, because of the abolition of the assisted places scheme.

I wish to draw attention to the gender discrimination that lies behind the treatment of Lord Falconer by the Government in comparison with the treatment of the new Minister for Women, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock), with whom I have crossed swords in a previous existence outside the House. We are reliably informed by The Guardian that there are no fewer than 101 Labour women Members, but the Minister for Women was appointed six weeks after all the other Ministers, and will not receive a salary—not even a minimum wage. That contrasts badly with the treatment of Lord Falconer.

I shall conclude on a positive suggestion, arising from the bible of the old Labour party—The Guardian—which today pointed out that the Government will send no fewer than 50 of its Members of Parliament at a time away from Westminster to keep them out of trouble—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Gentleman has strayed dangerously far from the confines of the order. He seems to be unrepentant. I wish him to return swiftly to the terms of the order.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

I merely wish to suggest that similar consideration should be given, as we approve the order, to other people in less prestigious posts. They should perhaps be remunerated by a tithe from those of their colleagues who will not be serving in the House for part of the time.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford 8:42 pm, 24th June 1997

Given that the Opposition will not oppose the order, my comments are independent, but I hope that they will make a contribution to the decision. Perhaps they will inform future decisions, so that they will be better made. To my mind, there is something of the 18th century about the way that the new Government have approached their responsibilities. They have an 18th-century style majority, and they are now distributing the largesse of office among their friends.

On the one hand, we heard time and again before the general election attacks by the Labour party on the powers and privileges of another place, although the ordinary members of another place receive merely a subsistence allowance for their daily attendance. On the other hand, when the Government choose to magic their new Solicitor-General—who has not taken part in any election, and who does not face the duties to his electorate that we face to ours—into office, they brazenly ask the House to give him a salary nearly twice the size of that of an ordinary elected Member of this Chamber.

I expect howls of anguish from Labour Members, and, perhaps, given the earlier comments by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Gamier), from some of my hon. Friends with a legal background, when they contemplate the huge fall in income that the Solicitor-General faces. Having accepted such a huge loss in his income, he would have shown a little more style if he had gone the whole way and accepted no income at all.

I believe it was said in the 18th century by one of the Treasury Ministers who served under Pelham and Walpole and other Prime Ministers of the day that, as Ministers of the Crown went to and from the House of Commons, they were passed their money "with a squeeze of the hand". Tonight, we will have a more open process to pass money to the Solicitor-General, and we must all be in favour of that. I believe it was an 18th-century Prime Minister who said that every man has his price, and some will say, perhaps mistakenly, that the price of the Solicitor-General is £78,000.

As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, the order is a stark contrast with the treatment of the Government of their Minister for women. It says much for the latent chauvinism of the Government that they cannot see the irony in paying an unelected male nearly £80,000, when they refuse to pay an elected female any money for her ministerial duties. At this rate, I fear that the effect of the order will be single handedly to reverse the great process that occurred under the previous Conservative Government, by which the wage differential between men and women narrowed to merely 20 per cent.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Riverside

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his comments are gross hypocrisy, given that the Conservatives now have fewer women Members than before the election, while the Labour party has many more? In view of that fact, the comments by Opposition Members tonight are grossly hypocritical, and do them little credit.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

I am grateful that the hon. Lady has drawn attention to the fact that there are now many lady Labour Members. I appeal to them to join me in criticising the difference between the treatment of the Solicitor-General and the treatment of the Minister for women. I regret that there are fewer women Conservative Members, and I believe that, at the next election, the electorate will vote in many more women Conservatives—and, indeed, many more male Conservatives—so that we return to government. We all look forward to that.

The Government have shown discrimination in advancing this much appreciated and well-argued case for money for the Solicitor-General, when the treatment of the Minister for women has been so shabby. I am surprised that a Labour lady Member should criticise me for hypocrisy, when the actions of her party have been hypocritical in this instance.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor Lord Privy Seal, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office) 8:48 pm, 24th June 1997

I confined my earlier remarks to the principles involved in presenting the order—and, having heard a couple of Conservative Members speak, I think that that was wise of me. I do not want to spend much time on some of the points that have been raised, but let me say a word about what was described as "gender discrimination".

I do not think that Labour Members need any lectures from Conservatives, who obviously found it difficult to bring themselves to allow women candidates to stand in winnable seats. This year, especially, when we have seen the election of the largest number of women ever, the vast majority of them on our side of the House, we need no lectures from Opposition Members.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

Would the Leader of the House care to comment on her own remarks in the context of women-only short lists? Might not those just possibly have had something to do with it?

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor Lord Privy Seal, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office)

I am not sure that that is relevant to the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's question. He ought to know that most Labour women Members were not selected from all-women short lists. That is a matter of fact, for the record.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock), who has recently been appointed to a junior position as Minister for women, to assist the Secretary of State for Social Security in representing the interests of women, needs no help from Opposition Members in defending her position. I am sure that she will enjoy debating such matters with them whenever they take an interest.

We heard some different views from Opposition Members about the exact level of salary appropriate for the Solicitor-General. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), who I understand was an investment banker before he entered the House, and may still be one, complaining that the suggested salary for the Solicitor-General was too high. I am not sure how that salary compares with the average salary of investment bankers, but it would be interesting to speculate what that might be.

It is also interesting that the hon. Gentleman claimed that my noble Friend would receive such a salary only because he was a friend of certain people in the Labour party, whereas the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Gamier) extolled his virtues. There is an interesting contradiction there.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

Surely the Leader of the House has come to the heart of the matter now. I have not recently been an investment banker, but we know that many people are prepared to give up large salaries in order to serve their country as Members of Parliament. I do not think that one should single out the legal profession above all others.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor Lord Privy Seal, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office)

Nor do I, but when we have an independent recommendation and the person appointed is, as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough said, well qualified to do the job, that person should be paid the rate independently recommended for that job by the SSRB. I feel strongly that, when the SSRB makes recommendations about the salaries of Members of Parliament and of individual Ministers, we should as a general principle act upon them. Otherwise, we would be saying that we as Members of the House should determine those salaries. I think that that would be dangerous.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor Lord Privy Seal, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office)

I am glad that the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman agrees on that matter of principle. I assure him that those of us who have been here for several years know that interfering with the principle can only cause hon. Members on both sides of the House many difficulties.

The hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who spoke for the Liberals, was uncharacteristically churlish—I must agree with the hon. and learned Member for Harborough that that is the appropriate word.

I speak as someone quite well versed in Scottish history, not only because I was born in Scotland but because my father was intent on ensuring that we all knew a good deal of Scottish history. None the less, I would not compare my knowledge of 1745 with that of the hon. and learned Gentleman, and I shall not go down the route that he suggested and debate whether the office of Solicitor-General is inferior to that of the Lord Advocate. However, I know that he accepts the principle that the SSRB makes recommendations that the House should accept.

It is on the basis of that principle that I recommend the order—not because the salary is one which I have plucked out of the air, or one which I think appropriate for the Solicitor-General, but because it is a matter of principle. The SSRB laid down a comparison, and I think it appropriate that we should stick to it as closely as possible.

I do not want to comment on the personality of the Solicitor-General. My earlier remarks were not personal, and the salary is being suggested because of the position, not because of the personality. None the less, I welcome the comments of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, another Queen's counsel, who tells us that my noble Friend is so well qualified for the position.

Finally, I shall put Opposition Members in the picture on the increase before us. In one sense, it is an increase, but the salary of the Solicitor-General in the Conservative Administration was £82,189 on 1 April 1997, and on 2 May, the last day of the previous Government, it was £96,138. So although there is a technical increase for the present Solicitor-General because he is in another place, the actual sum paid is significantly lower than that paid to the previous Solicitor-General.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

The right hon. Lady will, of course, wish to clarify the fact that the previous Solicitor-General, Sir Derek Spencer, was also a Member of Parliament, so part of the figure she mentioned included his salary as such.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor Lord Privy Seal, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office)

That is exactly the point, and that is why we had to introduce the order. The totality of the pay of the former Solicitor-General was significantly higher than the totality of the pay of the present Solicitor-General, because my noble Friend is in a different House. People who complain as if we were suddenly increasing the salary do not quite understand the situation, that the order arose directly out of the fact that the Solicitor-General is a member of another House, and directly out of the recommendation of the SSRB. I urge the House to accept it.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,That the draft Solicitor General's Salary Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.