Clause 3 — Legal qualifications

Part of Orders of the Day — Constitutional Reform Bill [Lords] — 1st Allotted Day – in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 31st January 2005.

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Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough 9:45 pm, 31st January 2005

I largely agree with the thrust of what my constituency neighbour, Keith Vaz, said a few moments ago. The reasons that he gently put forward reinforced what I said at the outset of our debate this afternoon—that there is a growing gap between the law in its wider sense and Parliament, which is much to be regretted.

The closer the understanding between the law and Parliament—those who make the law and those who have to apply and interpret it—the better it is for the people of our country. Too often, the House passes laws that make very little legal sense when they come to be applied in the courts in particular cases, whether civil or criminal, and particularly in the field of criminal law. If the Government have their way today and remove clause 3 as they did clause 2—the two clauses are very much of a piece—the greater will be the distance between the two institutions and it will grow to our mutual disbenefit.

Under the new regime, the Lord Chancellor will not really be a Lord Chancellor—he will be no more than another head of a public Department. Just as the Secretaries of State for Health, for Transport or for Defence do not have to be qualified doctors, lorry drivers or soldiers, so it will be perfectly possible under the modern regime for the next so-called Lord Chancellor—whether he or she is, as I hope, in the House of Lords or in the Commons—to carry out the work of arranging the divisions of various circuits, for example. However, that rather misses the point of the value of the Lord Chancellor's office, which is being wholly undermined and destroyed by the Bill.

I believe that it is important for the Lord Chancellor not to be just another jobbing Secretary of State. I happen to believe that the office of Lord Chancellor has traditionally been accorded rather greater importance than that, and that we are devaluing it and the work that the office holder does by the arrangements that the Government are implementing through the Bill. It is a regrettable step that we are having to witness.

As I said when we debated clause 2, I am aware that I do not have at my disposal the necessary power in numbers to defeat the Government's intentions, so I shall have to await another opportunity to put this right, but it is not right for the Government to inflict this wrong without Opposition Members expressing their concerns about the damage that will be inflicted.

I fully accept that my argument will not appeal to many, if any, Labour Members, and still less to the Chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee. He is an eminent parliamentarian and Chairman of his Committee, and not a member of either of the two legal professions in this country. However, I am less worried about that argument than about the downgrading and diminution of the office of the Lord Chancellor. I am concerned that the office is being turned into something else. The Government are trying to fool us into thinking that the office of Lord Chancellor will be maintained in its previous state simply because the name will be retained. However, that is rather like unscrewing the name plate from a Rolls-Royce, sticking it on a lesser vehicle and claiming that the lesser vehicle is none the less a Rolls-Royce—that was perhaps not the best example, but I hope that it made the point that I wished to get across.

I regret that I am powerless to persuade the Committee, due not so much to the Government's arguments, but to their numbers. I repeat my worry that there is a growing gap between the institutions of Parliament and the law. Despite what has been said one way or another, I think that the judiciary look to someone with authority whom they respect to speak up for them in the councils of Government. The Lord Chief Justice will take over that role, and under clause 6, which we were not able to discuss because of the guillotine, he will be able to present a written representation to Parliament. However, that is not quite the same as having a Lord Chancellor who is well versed in the eccentric, yet none the less valuable, traditions of the legal establishment and able to speak up for the law, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary at the Cabinet table and in the Chamber of the House of Lords because of his professional and political upbringing.