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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lang for securing this debate and providing the opportunity for the House to consider and discuss the Constitution Committee’s report on the office of the Lord Chancellor. I fear that I may disappoint noble Lords, who have all provided great-quality speeches in the debate, in the sense that my response will contain rather few surprises.
However, what I can say, consistent with what my noble friend would say, is that the new Lord Chancellor is very much in listening mode. There is no question of complacency on the part of the Lord Chancellor or in the Ministry of Justice, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, suggested. I know that the Lord Chancellor will read the debate with considerable interest. I cannot guarantee what his response will be but I know that great heed will be taken of what has been said. Indeed, the committee’s report will be considered more carefully than it already has been. It is a comprehensive report and the Government recognise that the committee has assimilated a great deal of material collected from written submissions and oral evidence from a wide range of experts and practitioners, including Lord Chief Justices and Lord Chancellors.
The Government welcome the committee’s report, particularly its reaffirmation of the important constitutional role of the Lord Chancellor. However, we recognise that the committee has expressed disappointment at the brevity of the previous Government’s response to this report, and with two aspects of it in particular. I will endeavour to deal with those points. I fear that I will not be able to answer all the different points raised in the debate, including the EVEL debate, mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, or prisoner voting, which deserves a debate of its own. Of course, the comments are very much borne in mind by the Government.
First, I shall reflect on the current Lord Chancellor’s position on the rule of law. Noble Lords will, I am sure, be aware of his recent speech at the Legatum Institute, where he began to outline what he sees as a “one-nation justice policy”. He said:
“The rule of law is the most precious asset of any civilised society. It is the rule of law which protects the weak from the assault of the strong; which safeguards the private property on which all prosperity depends; which makes sure that when those who hold power abuse it, they can be checked; which protects family life and personal relations from coercion and aggression; which underpins the free speech on which all progress—scientific and cultural—depends; and which guarantees the essential liberty that allows us all as individuals to flourish”.
Noble Lords may think that those statements embody the core purpose of the justice system and indicate that he does not regard the law, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen, said, as “a mere appendage”. They bear careful consideration. No definition of the rule of law is likely to attract complete consensus, although Lord Bingham’s in The Rule of Law has quite rightly attracted widespread approval. Many countries boast of their adherence to the rule of law. In Russia there is a book that extols its virtues. China, which I recently visited, speaks consistently about its adherence to the rule of law.
The committee’s report comes at a time of considerable interest in the office of the Lord Chancellor. Among others, a recent publication by University College, London, on the politics of judicial independence concerned itself with the issue. That study reached a number of conclusions, including the fact that the judiciary and judicial independence emerged stronger from the 2005 changes with the inclusion of tribunals in the courts system, a more independent and visible Supreme Court, and greater autonomy of the Lord Chief Justice as the head of a more professional judiciary. The report recognised the change in the role of the Lord Chancellor and saw it as providing a political guardian of judicial independence with sufficient channels of communication to allow a new relationship to evolve between judges and politicians.
As to the role of the Executive, it is worth noting that the Lord Chancellor has specific duties under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 to respect the rule of law and to have regard to the need to defend judicial independence. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, told the House about the nature of the obligations, which were of course considered by Parliament not all that long ago. It is worth mentioning that all Ministers of the Crown with responsibility for matters relating to the judiciary or the administration of justice have a legal obligation to uphold the continued independence of the judiciary.
Upholding the rule of law and defending judicial independence is a shared responsibility. The rule of law plays an integral part in the policy and the operations that we develop, particularly through the administration of the courts and tribunals system. The Government believe in, and will fervently support, the independence of the judiciary. That independence has two facets: the institutional independence of the judiciary as a branch of the state; and the independence of an individual judge, who has the discretion to make the decisions they do in court according to law. We defend their right to take those decisions.
I know that the committee expressed disappointment that the Government do not agree with its suggestion that the Lord Chancellor is required, above all other Ministers, to ensure that the rule of law is upheld within Cabinet and across government, or that the Ministerial Code, Cabinet Manual and oath of office should be amended to reflect that requirement. The Ministerial Code and the Cabinet Manual already set out the way the Government comply with the rule of law. As I have already said, all Ministers have a duty to respect the rule of law, and of course the Prime Minister ultimately has responsibility for overseeing the constitution.
The Cabinet Manual, in particular, notes the role of the law officers in,
“helping ministers to act lawfully and in accordance with the rule of law”.
The Government agree with the committee on the important role played by the law officers in upholding the rule of law. This view has been shared by successive Governments. The law officers play this role in particular by advising on some of the most significant legal issues being dealt with by government through their significant public interest functions, such as bringing contempt proceedings, and through participating in the work of the Government as Ministers of the Crown. This includes the Attorney-General participating in Cabinet meetings. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lang, and others concluded that the Attorney-General should as a right attend all Cabinet meetings. I understand that the expectation is that he will continue to attend all Cabinet meetings but, ultimately, his attendance is a matter for the Prime Minister. Despite the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, the Government consider that the law officers are adequately resourced to fulfil their functions as they relate to the rule of law. An important function of those officers is keeping all ministerial colleagues informed of significant legal issues. The relationship between the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General is an important one; they meet regularly to discuss matters of common concern, including those that relate to the rule of law, and the expectation is that this will continue.
I know that the committee also expressed disappointment that the Government do not agree with its assertion that the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice needs to be legally qualified, or that the department’s top legal adviser needs to be appointed at Permanent Secretary level. It is a matter of some serendipity that the recent appointment of Richard Heaton as the Permanent Secretary has arrived in time for this debate. He is also First Parliamentary Counsel and undoubtedly has weighty legal experience. However, both the Lord Chancellor and Permanent Secretary, whether legally qualified or not, have access to high-quality legal services provided by the Government Legal Department, including direct access to the Treasury Solicitor and one of his deputies at director-general level, should it be needed. Advice can be sought from Treasury counsel, external counsel and the law officers, where needed. This provides the right level of legal support. Importantly, in addition to this, the Lord Chancellor is supported by, and has access to, a wealth of experience and expertise from civil servants, many of whom have long experience of courts and the administration of justice. I can give some evidence of this in response to the—