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Clause 2 — Protocol about the Law Commission's work

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:55 pm on 16th October 2009.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice) 1:55 pm, 16th October 2009

I congratulate Emily Thornberry on introducing the Bill. The Opposition support it. We think it is long overdue, but are disappointed that the Government have not used an existing Bill over the past couple of years or so to accommodate its contents. As the hon. Lady pointed out, Lord Gardiner, who was Lord Chancellor in the mid-1960s, was the architect of the Law Commission. Its key functions were to update the law, to advise on repealing old laws and to make recommendations for new ones.

At the time, Lord Gardiner's vision was considered fairly radical, imaginative and almost revolutionary. In the early years, the Law Commission was afforded great respect by the Government. However, as hon. Members have pointed out, one problem was that too many reports were simply parked on shelves and left to gather dust. Some good examples have been given. I shall not repeat them all, but I remember feeling quite strongly about the recommendations on mental capacity, which took 10 years to reach fruition in the Mental Capacity Act 2005, the inauguration of the Office of the Public Guardian and other new arrangements.

David Howarth and I were members of the Public Bill Committee that considered the Coroners and Justice Bill, and we dealt at length with its provisions on homicide. I agree entirely with what he just said about that. Cohabitation, on which the Law Commission also produced a report, has been mentioned. The commission believes strongly that legislation is needed to afford new rights to cohabitees in certain circumstances, yet the Government have not moved on that at all-extraordinarily, they have not even produced a consultation paper. All too often, therefore, the Government ignore the Law Commission.

Under the Law Commissions Act 1965, the Lord Chancellor must lay before Parliament programmes prepared by the Law Commission that he has approved, as well as proposals for reform. The Law Commission must make an annual report to the Lord Chancellor, who must then lay it before Parliament. However, under existing rules, the Lord Chancellor is not required to lay before Parliament his own report on the implementation of Law Commission proposals. He does not have to set out plans for dealing with any such proposals that are not implemented, nor provide the necessary reasoning behind his decision. That was a serious flaw in the Law Commission's armoury and is why we support the first part of the Bill.

Hon. Members have asked whether that is necessary, because colleagues can table parliamentary questions and hold Ministers to account. I agree that hon. Members can use written parliamentary questions to mine data and information from the Government, but that presupposes that Ministers are prepared to co-operate and enter into the spirit of the exercise. All too often, we might feel very strongly about something one day, but events move on quickly and things are easily forgotten. In terms of the equality of arms, therefore, all the power is on the side of Ministers, and it requires very tenacious Back-Bench Members to push them to give the right information. The new arrangements in the Bill would therefore be an important and welcome step forward.

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