New Clause 21 — Chief executive of the Supreme Court

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 4th November 2009.

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'(1) The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 is amended as follows.

(2) Omit section 48.

(3) Omit subsection (2) of section 49.

(4) In subsection (1) of section 51, for "chief executive" substitute "President".

(5) In subsection (1) of section 54, for "chief executive" substitute "President".'.- (Mr. Bellingham.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice) 3:45 pm, 4th November 2009

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 21 relates to the Supreme Court. Again, I declare an interest as a barrister. The background to the establishment of the new Supreme Court was due entirely to the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the relevant section of which made it clear that the Supreme Court would be set up. Section 48 refers to appointing a chief executive.

This reform was part of a wider package, which we discussed in detail on earlier new clauses, and I do not want to repeat those discussions. It is worth pointing out, however, that the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords-the Law Lords, as they were known-did a first-class job. No one complained that they were not doing a good job. No one complained that their location in any way inhibited or restricted their professionalism or their work. They started off, many years ago, in the main Chamber of the House of Lords, but as pressure on business increased they were exiled to a Committee room on Committee corridor.

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Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Labour, Rossendale and Darwen

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing whether to have a chief executive of the Supreme Court. I would be grateful if he restricted his remarks to that.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I will come on to that quickly, and I am grateful to you, Mrs. Anderson, for that reminder. Obviously, it is difficult to explain what the chief executive is about without looking at what the chief executive does, which is preside over the Supreme Court on which the former Law Lords are judges.

Although one might well have taken the view that it was quaint, quirky, anachronistic and so on to have Law Lords sitting in a small Committee room, the arrangement worked very well. However, it was decided that they should be moved across to the new Supreme Court. Obviously, that decision was taken at a time when the economy was booming, and no one worried too much about the costs. The original estimated cost was £30 million, which then went up. As we know, the ultimate capital cost of the Supreme Court came in at £58.9 million: a vast amount of money to locate those judges in a new building when they had a perfectly good place to sit already. I believe that only one Law Lord agreed, and publicly stated, that it was a good idea to move across to the Supreme Court. The other Law Lords were all opposed to the move. They felt that the existing arrangements worked extremely well.

I will not dwell on the capital costs, however, because I want to consider the current costs of running the new Supreme Court. Let us consider the previous arrangements that were in place in the House of Lords. Of course, it is difficult to work out exactly what the costs were, but the cost of the Clerks, the Librarian and the other officials who serviced the Law Lords amounted to roughly £600,000. That was not a huge sum, and I think that it represented very good value for money. Back in July it was announced in a written parliamentary answer that the running costs of the new Supreme Court would be £12.3 million. That is a pretty staggering figure compared with £600,000. The new chief executive, who is the subject of new clause 21 -

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but is he absolutely confident that he is comparing like with like? I think it important for the Committee to know the answer to that question.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am certainly confident that I am comparing like with like. The actual costs of running the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords amounted to £600,000.

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am sorry to intervene on the hon. Gentleman again, but I want to be absolutely clear about this. He knows for a fact, does he, that the costs have escalated twentyfold as a result of the move from the House of Lords?

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Yes-the actual administrative costs: the running costs. As Hansard shows, in 2005 the Minister replying to the debate in the House of Lords agreed that the actual costs amounted to £600,000. Obviously the costs of the salaries and pensions of the Law Lords were additional to that. The original figure given for the running costs of the Supreme Court back in July was £12.3 million, to which must be added the salaries and pensions of the Law Lords. Between July and September, that figure rose to £13.5 million. May I ask the Minister who is in charge of these costs? Who is controlling them?

Six full-time staff serviced the Law Lords, and I think that they did a very good job in looking after their interests. There are 39 people in the new Supreme Court. The other day I tabled a parliamentary question asking

"how many employees of the new Supreme Court earn more than (a) £50,000, (b) £75,000 and (c) £100,000 a year."

The reply was as follows:

"The Supreme Court has 39 employees. Of those 39 employees, four earn between £50,000 and £75,000, one earns between £75,000 and £100,000, and one earns more than £100,000."-[ Hansard, 2 November 2009; Vol. 498, c. 747W.]

The employee who earns more than £100,000 is the chief executive.

I take on board what the Minister has said about the separation of powers, but I disagree with it profoundly. I have always taken the view that we do not have an American-style separation of powers in this country. Our judiciary has always been entwined with the legislature: that is one of the great strengths that our constitution has had for many years. Do we really need 39 employees to run the Supreme Court in that fantastic building across the way? Do we really need a chief executive who is paid a salary of more than £100,000? Perhaps it is £140,000; I do not know. Certainly it is far more than the Minister earns. Why do we need a chief executive?

The new clause seeks to make a start-a small start-on reducing the costs of the Supreme Court. I do not think that there is any justification for increasing the number of staff from six to 39, or for appointing a chief executive. What will the chief executive do? What will the director of finance do? What will the director of communications and the other directors do? Why cannot the Supreme Court be run with a senior Clerk, perhaps a few caretakers and a couple of librarians? Let us get the cost down to a sensible level.

As the Minister well knows, the Conservatives would not have gone down the Supreme Court route. On the other hand, we are pragmatic politicians. We are not going to simply scrap the arrangement and spend a lot of money on reversing these changes. What we do want to do, if we win the election, is ensure that the court works more efficiently and gives better value for money. We do not believe that a cost of more than £13.5 million, and probably rising, represents good value for money.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

I am now a little concerned by the hon. Gentleman's argument, because it seems to me that it means that, whatever the current tasks of the chief executive, under the new clause those tasks will be transferred to the president of the court. Has the hon. Gentleman made any estimate of the increase in the president's work load arising from his proposal, or is he assuming there would be none?

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

The hon. Gentleman is a distinguished academic and we have debated such issues many times. He will remember that when he and I started out on our legal careers, judges ran their own courts. Long before Her Majesty's Courts Service-employing 20,000-plus people-judges ran their courts, and they exercised control of all aspects of their administration. Those judges would run large combined courts, employing substantial numbers of people and manage a very complex case load-and they would also manage large numbers of litigants, solicitors and barristers who came before the court on a daily basis.

On the Supreme Court, I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says. We do not want its president to be bogged down with a huge amount of administration and a lot of minor detail. That is why he needs to have a staff, but does he need a staff of 39, and does he need a chief executive? I suggest that this modest proposal of removing the post of chief executive would be a very good start, because it would send a signal to the Supreme Court that it must deliver value for money and be run efficiently.

Furthermore, let us take another look at the Department's budget, which is under immense pressure. There are court buildings that need to be repaired, the legal aid budget is in crisis, there is a crisis over access to justice, law centres and advice centres are closing by the dozen, legal aid deserts are appearing, and young lawyers are forsaking publicly funded work, and all because tiny amounts of money are being taken out of the legal aid budget. Yet here we are looking at the running costs of the ultimate appeal court in the land going up from about £600,000 to almost £14 million, employing a chief executive on a very large salary in a post that my party thinks is superfluous to requirements. The new clause has been proposed in the spirit of trying to get better value for money and making sure that the delivery of justice in this country is more streamlined and efficient-which is exactly what the Minister said that he wants too.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I was expecting a totally different argument from Mr. Bellingham. I thought he was going to present an argument with which I have a degree of sympathy. Indeed, given the words on the amendment paper, I can still make his new clause fit my aspirations-but for the wrong reasons, it would appear. I thought he was trying to make sure that the role of the chief executive and the running of the Supreme Court were transferred solely to the authority of the president of the Supreme Court, thus cutting out the middleman, the Lord High Chancellor, who is responsible at present for the staffing levels the hon. Gentleman has described and for the salary enjoyed by the chief executive. At present, the whole shebang is nothing to do with the president, other than in a consultative capacity. It is all down to the Lord High Chancellor, who has made his decisions about the proposals.

I thought the hon. Gentleman would express support for the ongoing process of separating out the legislature and the Executive from the courts by giving the courts proper responsibility for running their own affairs in this discrete aspect. I have heard the arguments, however, and I now understand that he wants to do exactly the opposite. He wants this House to interfere with the running of the Supreme Court and its president to undertake a new raft of functions that involve making sure the lights are switched off and the boiler is mended. I am not sure that that is a sensible use of the time of the president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk believes that it is, but his argument in favour is based on costs that sounded rather speculative to me. He cited some figures-I shall be interested in what the Minister has to say about those-but the comparison being made did not seem to be exactly like for like; I did not note, for example, any property costs in terms of housing the Law Lords in the House of Lords. That apparently costs nothing at all and is, thus, not to be used as a comparator, and I suspect that some of the hon. Gentleman's other arguments are not entirely accurate.

However, the hon. Gentleman has a point, in that having the building across the road and running two buildings, rather than one, entails an increased cost. I think that that cost is justified. I was one of those who always argued for a supreme court and who always argued that it was an extraordinary anomaly that the Law Lords sat within our legislature, thus making it very difficult for us to defend our position compared with most modern political and judicial systems. I was one of the first to suggest the Middlesex Guildhall as a suitable venue -[Interruption.] Yes, it was my fault; I accept responsibility. I thought it was a good building to put the Supreme Court in and, having seen it, I remain of that view. With the exception of the carpets, it is a marvellous adaptation of a very suitable building for its purpose.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene on the subject of carpets.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

The hon. Gentleman obviously never appeared before a Crown court judge in that building when it was a Crown court. It was a lugubrious, grotty building then, but I agree that the work has been done to a very high standard, and the architects need congratulating. Obviously, as £60 million has been spent, one would expect a Rolls-Royce building, and that is what we have got.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

We have got an excellent building. Those who represent the top of this country's judicial processes deserve an appropriate building. Far from being lugubrious, I suspect that it is now a rather good place to work. It has retained the best features of the Middlesex Guildhall intact; I am particularly pleased that the building contains a very prominent portrait-there might be two in the building-of John Fielding of Somersetshire, who did so much to establish our modern judiciary and the role of modern courts.

I am a great supporter of the Supreme Court and of how it has developed. Should it be for the Lord Chancellor now to have any involvement in the day-to-day running of that court? My answer to that is no. However, although I thought that I could have couched the hon. Gentleman's new clause in more felicitous terms, it would achieve a result that I could support. That leaves me in a great dilemma were he to call a Division, because were I to support him it would be for reasons almost diametrically opposed to those for which he believes his proposal is necessary. I would be tainted by association with his arguments and I do not want that, nor do I want my hon. and right hon. Friends to be so tainted.

I hope that the Minister will advance such a strong argument in rebuttal that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his new clause. I also hope that on another occasion we will look at properly strengthening the role of the president of the Supreme Court, not by making him empty the dustbins, but by allowing him to appoint his own staff. He should make the dispositions on staffing and any other arrangements of the Supreme Court that he thinks best, rather than come back to the Lord Chancellor to ask for permission. I would support amendments along those lines, because having set up this new body, with which we should be very pleased, now is the time for the Lord Chancellor to let go.

That takes us back to the debates that we had earlier this afternoon and the reluctance, it would seem, of the Executive entirely to let go of matters that are within their power. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that in the long term that is precisely what the Government intend to do.

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Again, we have had a very interesting debate. Mr. Bellingham is an adornment to this House, and I hope that he will preserve that status by withdrawing this amendment.

I shall set out my reasons. The hon. Gentleman quite rightly raises the point that all public institutions have to be efficient and cost-effective, and they do, but he has to be careful that he does not take Oscar Wilde's definition of modern people as people who know the value of nothing and the price of everything and attach it to the modern Conservative party.

These institutions have great value and tribute has been paid to the building. This is the apex of our judicial system and one of the cornerstones of our constitution. No one would have said that the Palace of Westminster should never have been built with its wonderful decoration. It is a Palace of Westminster that belongs to the British people in the same way, ultimately, as the Supreme Court does. However, the hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the question of cost-effectiveness, although, of course, public institutions never waste money.

My problem is that it is very difficult to compare costs. I intervened on the hon. Gentleman and, perhaps rashly, he insisted that he was comparing like with like. I ask him to think again. It is very difficult to make reliable comparisons for exactly the reason that has been given by Mr. Heath. There is no like-for-like comparison that we have been able to find.

If the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk can produce such a comparison for me, line by line, in a way that a chartered accountant would recognise, I would be happy to consider it and, if we can find savings, I would be happy to make them on that basis. However, the increase in the number of staff, for example, includes security, the library and catering, all of which were previously provided by the House of Lords infrastructure. There was no space to expand, even though sometimes it was needed. It is very difficult. Anyone who has tried to find out the true cost of catering in the Houses of Parliament runs up against the same problems of how we cost the building and its running costs. There are all kinds of intricacies that I have never been able to get to the bottom of. If he can, and if he can produce genuine like-for-like comparisons between the two buildings, I will happily look at them.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

The Minister has challenged me, and I shall investigate this fully, but surely the point is that the Law Lords shared our security, which was in place anyway to protect the many thousands of people who use this Palace, and our facilities. One would often see Law Lords going down to the Terrace cafeteria for a snack. The cost was obviously heavily subsidised, because they were one-or 12-of a large number of people using the facilities. Now they have their own dedicated facilities, and of course it costs much more.

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

When I say like for like, I know that the running costs are not exactly the same and that of course there will be savings in both cases. The Supreme Court is a new building and will almost certainly be far more energy-efficient than this building. Of course, capital costs go into that and they have to be amortised over a certain period of time. These calculations are highly complex but for a relatively small institution the difference in the running costs-it is just a matter of common sense-is unlikely to be that great. There would be savings in some areas if it were to remain here and savings in others if it were transferred to a more modern building with all the efficiencies that come with such buildings, as compared with largely unrefurbished great historic buildings, such as this one, where it is a patch and mend job all the time. I urge the hon. Gentleman to use some common sense, because the actual differences are unlikely to be very significant.

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Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

I take the Minister's point about the Supreme Court's being the apex of our judicial system, but most members of the public who have to access our judicial system tend to do so at the lower end-in the magistrates courts and family proceedings courts. When they see their magistrates courts in a poor state of repair and, on occasions, see them closing, it makes it even more important that the cost of the Supreme Court-every penny-is justified. When we hear sums for running costs in the region of £13 million, compared with what it would cost to run a local magistrates court, it is important that that case is made clearly and forensically. I suspect that that is the point that my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham is trying to make, to ensure that we are getting value for money.

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Of course we must get value for money, which is exactly what I said. As I shall describe in a moment, that is one of the functions of the chief executive.

The Supreme Court has been established in a proper and effective way, with the staff that it needs to discharge its essential function in our constitution. All the rest of the judicial system depends on it, as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk well knows. It is not a question of either/or: we continue to invest in the court service, and it is well known that magistrates courts close for whole complexes of reasons. The needs of the justice system change, and that is a key reason why magistrates courts change. Magistrates courts are not having to close because of the establishment of the Supreme Court, but of course there has to be value for money.

If the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk can justify his claim that costs have increased twentyfold, of course I will look at it, but I confidently assure him that they have not. The equation is complex, and I do not want to mislead the Committee. We have to give the figures out in accordance with the highest standards of accountancy, and the way that costs have been amortised in this building renders that difficult.

I am not sure whether it is worth going to the effort of translating the entire argument down into the costs equation, as in the end this is a political debating point. I believe that the difference in running costs is unlikely to be large, and I suspect that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk thinks so, too.

The new clause is technically defective-

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

No, as I want to come to the real burden of my remarks. We have spent quite a lot of time on what even the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said was a modest proposal, so I would like to make the main points of my argument against it. If Mr. Heald still wants to intervene after I have made some progress, I will of course give way to him.

The main problem with new clause 22 is that it still fails the separation of powers test. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said-although I am not sure that he really meant it-that he welcomes how the legislature has become tangled up with the higher reaches of the judiciary. I accept that there has been a certain entanglement, but I certainly do not welcome it, and I think that the British people do not want it. One of the greatest protections of their liberties is that the legislature and the judiciary are not entangled. We are continuing the process of disentangling them as far as we possibly can, and that is the purpose of the establishment of the Supreme Court. I do not want to rehearse all the arguments again, but it is very important that we set out exactly what the chief executive does, as that is the core of the problem.

The statute says that it is for the chief executive to manage the non-judicial functions of the Supreme Court, so that its resources are used to provide an efficient and effective system to support it in carrying out its business. I think that everyone should accept that there is a function there to be performed. The chief executive works under the President of the Supreme Court, and again I hope that everyone accepts that, if there is to be a chief executive, that is the correct way for the arrangement to operate.

The new clause would increase substantially the time that the President of the Supreme Court must spend managing the non-judicial aspects of the court's functions, thereby reducing the time that this individual-ex officio, they will be talented, skilled and experienced-has to spend on the crucial judicial work that is the court's core role.

The new clause also would undermine the very independence that the Supreme Court was founded on. I believe that it is very important that we have a Supreme Court, and that its independence is protected. In the first Constitutional Affairs Committee report of the 2003-04 Session, the Law Lords made it clear that they unanimously regarded it as essential that the court enjoyed corporate independence. They said that

"the independence of the judges requires not only that they be free of extraneous pressure but also that the court be institutionally free of administrative pressure".

To that end, the court has been established as a non-ministerial department with its own chief executive, who is also the court's accounting officer, to ensure that there can be no question of interference by the Executive in its day-to-day running. The chief executive, which the new clause would abolish, plays a key role in managing appropriate relationships between the court and branches of Government throughout the UK and assuring proper accountability for the use of public resources-of course, there must be such accountability.

If the function were abolished, the Lord Chancellor would have to provide support along the lines of sections 1 and 2 of the Courts Act 2003, which set out the general duty on the Lord Chancellor to ensure that there is an efficient and effective system to support the business of the senior courts, county courts and magistrates courts, and that appropriate services are provided for those courts.

Since the new clause does not remove other related provisions of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, such as section 50, which requires the Lord Chancellor to provide accommodation and other resources, the removal of the chief executive role would bring all those financial accountability responsibilities back to the Lord Chancellor and the Ministry of Justice, compromising the independence of the Supreme Court, cutting right across the justices' own requirements for managerial and financial independence, and re-entangling the legislature and the Executive with the judiciary in precisely the way that we think it is right that they should be disentangled.

Finally, the amendment is defective as it leaves intact section 51 of the Act under which the chief executive is responsible for ensuring that

"the Court's resources are used to provide an efficient and effective system to support the Court's business".

For all those reasons, I hope Mr. Bellingham will withdraw the new clause.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

The Minister, in his usual charming way, has been extremely persuasive. Although he made some good points, we do not in any way resile from the arguments that we advanced. Our point is simple: the chief executive post at such expense is a huge luxury. What is wrong with a senior clerk or a manager on a much lower salary carrying out those admin roles? That is what we would like to see, but because of the Minister's charm and persuasion, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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