Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:23 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat 6:23 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, we have a new Lord Chancellor. He is somebody I know and respect, but we should remind him of two challenges that he faces. The first is that he must uphold and promote the rule of law and the independence and quality of the judiciary. I believe that he intends to do this. However, as well as being ready publicly to defend the judiciary, he has got to be ready to address the problem of morale and recruitment which currently exists in the senior judiciary such that it is becoming difficult to fill some of the vacancies that arise while maintaining, as it is right to do and as we must do, the high-quality standard that we insist on for the judiciary. We may have to look at the retirement age again. It is becoming more illogical to enforce the retirement age of 70 if we are to deal with the situation in the short term—but, in the longer term, there are many more things to be done. When referring to the rule of law, he also has to recognise his responsibility to the integrity and quality of the law. When the Brexit process really gets under way, I hope that he will play a role in insisting that it is done properly and that Parliament scrutinises properly and adequately the vast corpus of law that will be transferred.

His second major challenge has been referred to by my noble friends Lord Dholakia and Lord McNally and by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in powerful speeches. It is the situation in the prisons, where the level of violence, suicide and self-harm is appalling, where prison officers are being put at far too high a level of risk from violence and where reoffending levels are far too high—yet Ministers pretend that prison numbers are not an issue. The gracious Speech at one point hints at further intervention to lengthen sentences. Prison is a very expensive resource, and the more it is overused, the less effective it is, because conditions inside prisons are not then rehabilitative. The absence of the prisons element of the former Prisons and Courts Bill is an unfortunate signal to have given. There is a lot that can be done without legislation, but it would have been better to have had a positive signal that that Bill was still on the road.

I can create some space for the Lord Chancellor to do these things because there are a number of things that he does not need to do. He does not need to mess around with the civil rights of British citizens by making changes in our adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights. He is going to have to lock Mr Dominic Raab in a room somewhere in the Ministry of Justice for further extensive study of the matter, but no proposals need to come forward.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, pointed out, the Lord Chancellor should not abolish the Serious Fraud Office. That proposal was not in the Queen’s Speech, and I hope it has been buried. It is an improved organisation, not a perfect one. It is a prosecuting agency in a field where successful prosecution is extremely difficult. It would not fit in the National Crime Agency, which is a police-led investigating body—so I hope that this proposal is a dead parrot, to quote an old phrase. However, it might be an opportunity to look again at the funding model of the Serious Fraud Office which is frankly bizarre. More than half of its spending does not come from its annual budget because the Treasury approves its major prosecutions on a one-off basis. It is not an ideal arrangement and it leads to short-term decisions about the recruitment of legal support for the prosecutions that it undertakes.

Finally, looking beyond the MoJ, and with the welcome presence of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, who I know will try to answer my question—and if he cannot do it tonight will do it by letter—I want to refer to growth deals. The Conservative manifesto contained an interesting commitment to bring forward a borderlands growth deal, including all councils on both sides of the border, to help secure prosperity in southern Scotland. Since the early 1970s, I have been arguing for cross-border working of this kind. Does that fall within the commitment in the gracious Speech that it will be a priority,

“to build a more united country, strengthening the social, economic and cultural bonds between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales”?

I presume that that phrase was not written to refer to the £1 billion deal that so many noble Lords have referred to—but that is the only deal that has emerged over recent days. Is there any substance or serious commitment to a borderlands growth deal, which would be quite complex to bring into existence? What discussions are planned between the authorities involved on both sides of the border—in the Scottish Borders, Northumberland and Cumbria for example? I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, will seek to find an answer to that question.