Clause 2

Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 15th March 2007.

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Senior President of Tribunals

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

Taken together, this clause and schedule 1 create the post of senior president of tribunals. They set out the procedure for filling that post and provide for him to represent the views of tribunal members—an important provision. We indeed have a “him” designate at the moment, although his post rather than his gender is designated and we hope to turn it quickly into a reality. As I am sure everybody knows, Lord Justice Carnwath is the senior president designate. The clause and schedule closely follow Sir Andrew Leggatt’s recommendation that the leadership of the tribunals system should promote

“by leadership and co-ordination, both consistency of decision-making and uniformity of practice and procedure”.

The senior president will be a free-standing senior judicial official who will oversee the tribunal judiciary, and his powers and duties are set out in the Bill. Furthermore, not only is his office clearly independent of the Executive, but in carrying out his functions, the senior president will not be subject to the direction of the chief justices responsible for the courts. Clause 2 places a duty on the senior president to ensure that tribunals are accessible, that proceedings are fair and are handled quickly and efficiently, that members are expert and that innovative dispute resolution methods are developed in respect of the type of cases that come before tribunals. Those criteria are based on the long-standing principles underlying the jurisdiction of tribunals which go back to the Franks report in the 1950s.

The White Paper “Transforming Public Services: Complaints, Redress and Tribunals” signalled that the senior president would

“provide a clear single voice able to speak for the tribunal judiciary collectively.”

Paragraphs 13 and 14 to schedule 1 enable the senior president to do just that—represent tribunal members’ views to Parliament, to the Lord Chancellor and to  Ministers of the Crown generally, giving the tribunals a distinct, unified voice for the first time.

It is crucial to ensure that the right person of the right calibre is appointed. Schedule 1 provides two possible routes by which any vacancy for the senior president position may be filled. The first will be when the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the Lord President of the Court of Session and the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland all agree on the nomination of a lord or lady justice of appeal, or a member of the inner house of Court of Session, as a suitable candidate.

As an alternative, the Lord Chancellor wouldask the Judicial Appointments Commission to selecta candidate for recommendation for appointment.The process for doing that follows as closely as is appropriate the process under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 for appointing heads of division.

The successful candidate will be appointed by Her Majesty the Queen. To underpin the independenceof the role, the senior president, unless disabled by a permanent infirmity or incapacitated from resigning, may be removed from office only by Her Majestyon an address presented to her by both Houses of Parliament.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

We certainly support this part of the Bill. The hon. and learned Lady made a point about the Judicial Appointments Commission. We supported the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 because one ofthe key principles behind it was the separation of powers—that is, that the process of judicial selection should be totally separate from the Executive. Obviously, taking the power away from the Lord Chancellor and putting it into the hands of the commission was an important part of that Act.

I have a question about the clause. Obviously, the Lord Chancellor himself will appoint the person tothe office of senior president. I take on board the Minister’s point about the default position in respect of the Judicial Appointments Commission, but may I ask how that ties in with the 2005 Act?

I want to make another quick point. We support the whole essence of trying to bring the tribunals together into one consolidated organisation. However, how will Parliament be involved in scrutinising how the new process works? Obviously, we can question Ministers; the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs will call evidence at different times in different inquiries. However, will the Minister comment briefly on how Parliament will be able to scrutinise how the new process will work?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

The initiative is welcome. Bluntly, the Tribunals Service has long lacked both coherence and co-ordination, and somebody should be seen to be leading it. As we all know from our communities and constituencies, that is an important part of the process. The Tribunals Service probably has more people going through its doors than the courts, and certainly more than the non-criminal courts. Given that some tribunals are territorial, and limited to either England and Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, I assume   that the implication is that the president looks after and speaks on behalf of all of them. Is it envisagedthat someone will be chosen, who will come under the president, whose particular role will be to speak for the Northern Ireland, Scotland or England and Wales tribunals? In other words, if a particular issue arisesin one of the jurisdictions within the UK, is there someone within the process who will lead on that?

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs 9:15 am, 15th March 2007

The appointment is not made by the Lord Chancellor under either route; it is made, on his recommendation, by Her Majesty the Queen. The purpose of outlining the first way forward to the appointment of a senior president is that if an obvious candidate emerges from the judiciary and consequently comes from that independent source, it might be appropriate for the Lord Chancellor, having been consulted, to sanction that appointment. In default of absolute consensus among the judiciary—essentially a proposal coming from the judiciary—it is appropriate that the appointment should be made in the ordinary way by the Judicial Appointments Commission.

If I have understood the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk correctly, he is asking how the Judicial Appointments Commission will be scrutinised by Parliament. My understanding—I shall write to correct it if I am not accurate—is that the commission will prepare an annual report that will be presented to Parliament and debated.

To answer the territorial question asked by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, the position is that it will be the senior president’s role to make representations on behalf of the tribunals, and he will serve all the jurisdictions. Therefore, he is the voice of the Tribunals Service.

I hope that that has dealt with the questions asked by Opposition Members, and that the clause will stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

The question that I asked about parliamentary scrutiny was not so much about the appointments process as about the operations of the whole Tribunals Service, and what DCA Ministers will be doing to keep Parliament informed of the new working arrangements.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

The new working arrangements are pretty inchoate at present. There will be extensive consultation as they proceed. A detailed policy statement has been put into the Library. It spells out our intentions regarding the next steps, and states that there will be consultation at every stage. It seems to me to be correct to say that there needs to be some formula by which working practices, once they emerge, can be checked by Parliament to ensure that they are functioning accurately. However, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman now specifically how that will occur beyond a Member who is troubled raising it in the ordinary way on the Floor of the House. Some provision must be put in place, however, and that will be part of the consultations that will follow.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons)

I should like to go back to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk. The  post was created on the recommendation of Sir Andrew Leggatt, who wanted more unified leadership within the tribunals’ judiciary. My concern is that if we are introducing major changes to the tribunals system, the only people who will see them will be us as Members of Parliament. How is there a connection between us being able to scrutinise those changes to confirm that they have met the objectives that have been sought and to make any adjustments that might be required in six months or a year’s time?

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I think that I now fully understand the cause of concern that both the hon. Gentleman andthe hon. Member for North-West Norfolk have raised. I think that I can reassure them by referring toclause 39(3), which states:

“The Lord Chancellor must annually prepare and lay before each House of Parliament a report as to the way in which he has discharged his general duty in relation to the tribunals”.

That will facilitate scrutiny of the kind that is being referred to.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons)

That is very helpful. Would that report lead to a debate on the Floor of the House?

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

There is no reason why it should not, and it would be wise, particularly in the early years of the tribunals, if it could, because this will be an emerging structure and set of powers, so it will be worth keeping it under close scrutiny.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons)

Subject to the usual channels, I suppose.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I am sure. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is a usual channel, I understand.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1 agreed to.