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Office of Lord Chancellor (Constitution Committee Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:19 pm on 7th July 2015.

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Photo of Lord Lang of Monkton Lord Lang of Monkton Chair, Constitution Committee 5:19 pm, 7th July 2015

My Lords, such has been the high quality of every speech in this debate, and so close to uniformity has been the range of comment, that my task is mercifully brief. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and my noble friend Lord Faulks have responded specifically to a large number of points, for which I thank them both. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester, somewhat blushingly for his personal compliment, which was reprised by my noble friend Lord Lexden, but I demur. I am happy to regard myself as an ordinary member of the committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, figured some of us were because we are non-lawyers. In this distinguished company today, it has been a privilege to hear the legal views that have come into the debate, to great advantage.

Kind things have been said about the committee. I welcome that and thank colleagues who have complimented it. However, the fact is that the committee is only as good as the witnesses who appear before it and the evidence submitted to it, and we have had a very high quality of evidence, both verbal and written, in preparing this report. I am very pleased that the report has been recognised as a useful contribution on the subject that it addressed.

Virtually every speaker complained, some robustly, about the Government’s response. A number of new points were made. In particular, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, made reference to the fact that splitting responsibility for constitutional matters could undermine what we are seeking to achieve, and possibly achieve the exact opposite. That is a point that had not otherwise been made and should be considered further. We also enjoyed a similarly authoritative speech from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers. We are not in a happy situation at the moment—the noble and learned Lord drew attention to this—when the Government can welcome a report as they did and then reject almost everything that it recommended. That suggests not careful consideration but rather indifference, which worries me. I believe it takes us into a dangerous place.

The debate’s near unanimity in reaction to the report, together with the criticism of the Government’s response, suggests that they really should take the report away again and have another look at it. After all, the Government of the moment are not the same as the coalition Government to whom we submitted the report and from whom we got the original reply. I thank my noble friend Lord Faulks for his thorough and courteous response and for the way he treated seriously all the points that were made—even though he did live up to his promise at the outset and was largely disappointing on the detail. Nevertheless, he came very close to saying that he would take it away and have another look, and I would urge him to do that. He also quoted with approbation the mellifluous words of my right honourable friend Michael Gove, the new Lord Chancellor, on the merits and importance of the rule of law. However, one swallow does not make a summer—not that a swallow is the first bird I would think of in alluding to my right honourable friend Michael Gove.

The debate has been extremely useful but I still get the feeling that the Government have not understood and have not adequately considered the specific points that we made. They were made after very careful research and, as I said, on the basis of very high-quality evidence. I conclude by returning to the two issues that I raised myself—which go wider than just the role of the Lord Chancellor, although they flow from it—in saying that the rule of law and the protection of our constitution are to democracy, justice and order as the air we breathe is to life. They are indispensable and we neglect and spoil them at our peril.

Motion agreed.