Law Officers

Oral Answers to Questions — Solicitor-General – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 26th April 2007.

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Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Labour, Bishop Auckland 10:30 am, 26th April 2007

What the Government's policy is on whether the Law Officers should be parliamentarians.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Solicitor General, Law Officers' Department

As was the case under previous Administrations, the Government's position is that Law Officers should be Members of one of the Houses of Parliament so that they are accountable to this House and the other place for decisions that are reached and may be questioned about them.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Labour, Bishop Auckland

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Obviously, there are arguments on both sides, but I understand that the Solicitor-General has come to this House on three occasions to answer questions about the controversial decision not to prosecute British Aerospace. Had he not been a Member of this House, who would have been able to answer our questions about that problem?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Solicitor General, Law Officers' Department

My hon. Friend makes a good point. As soon as the Serious Fraud Office took its decision to halt the investigation regarding BAE Systems, I came to the House—the Attorney-General went to the House of Lords—to explain the decision in person. There have been three debates in this House and three in the other place on that decision in which we have participated. We have corresponded with a large number of Members of both Houses. That happens only because the Law Officers are Members of Parliament, directly accountable to it for the work of the Serious Fraud Office and the other main prosecuting authorities. That would be lost if the Law Officers were taken out of the picture and out of Parliament.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I agree entirely with the Solicitor-General. In the circumstances, would he care to comment on the views held by the Minister of State at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has been advocating that the Law Officers should be taken out of Parliament altogether and should cease to be Members of the Lords or the Commons?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Solicitor General, Law Officers' Department

The Government have set out our position with clarity.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I take a different view entirely. I think that all Ministers, not only Law Officers, should not be Members of the House. That is part of the problem. If I am the Minister for paper clips and statues, the only thing that I can talk about is paper clips and statues. If I am a Government Whip, I cannot say anything at all—I tell a lie; I could move that the House adjourns. We want Ministers out of the House, but we want to bring them to account in the House for their stewardship, whether they are Law Officers, Foreign Office Ministers or Home Secretaries.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Solicitor General, Law Officers' Department

My view is that Ministers should be accountable in this House. They should be able to answer questions from Members such as my hon. Friend. The Law Officers have to decide on controversial issues and we want to ensure that they have to come to this House and the other place to answer questions on them. It is all about accountability. In a sense, people can pay their money and take their choice, but accountability is important in this place and we can provide it.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I, too, agree that accountability to this House on the part of Law Officers is extremely important. In that context, the Attorney-General has, rightly, made it plain that were the dossier from the Director of Public Prosecutions on the cash-for-peerages investigation to be passed to him for decision, he would take independent counsel's advice. In light of the accountability of the Attorney-General to the House, will he make that advice available to Members, either immediately if no prosecution takes place, or, if it does, on a Privy Council basis until such time as the trial would not be prejudiced by the contents?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Solicitor General, Law Officers' Department

It is premature to speculate on precisely what will happen in this case. The police file has gone to the CPS, and the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the fact that the Law Officers have not yet seen any of the evidence. The Attorney-General has said that if he is consulted he will take advice from senior independent counsel. He has undertaken to consult Opposition spokesmen for the Law Officers' role on the choice of counsel. He has said that if the decision is taken not to prosecute, he would wish to publish counsel's advice in so far as it is in accord with the principles of justice. That will ensure that the whole process is as objective and transparent as possible.