With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 746, in clause 195, page 149, line 36, after “may”, insert “not”.
Amendment 860, in clause 195, page 150, line 18, at end insert—
“(e) the Commissioner is unfit to hold out office by reason of inability, neglect of duty or misbehaviour.”
Amendment 861, in clause 195, page 150, line 18, at end insert—
(a) the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales,
(b) the Lord President of the Court of Session,
(d) the Scottish Ministers, and
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. Clause 195 deals with the terms and conditions of appointment for judicial commissioners, and amendments 745 and 746 address the term of the appointment. The Bill provides for the judicial commissioners to be appointed for short terms of three years, subject to a potential rolling renewal. The amendments would extend the length of term served to six years and remove the prospect of renewal. The thinking behind that is that secure judicial tenure is designed and recognised as one of the key safeguards of judicial independence.
The provision for the judicial commissioners to be appointed by the Prime Minister and for their terms to be short and subject to renewal only at the discretion of the Prime Minister could pose a significant barrier to the commissioners’ functional or apparent independence. Three years is a very short term, and a judicial commissioner wishing to extend his or her term may be influenced in their behaviour by a desire to please the current Administration. In saying that, I take fully on board the fact that an extremely distinguished English judge, Lord Judge, has said that that is unlikely to happen, but he cannot speak for other judges or the future, just as this Government cannot speak for future Governments. That is why judicial independence is so important.
We may feel complacent about judicial independence at present. I do not mean to be pejorative about the English system, but I like to think we have proper judicial independence in Scotland—as I said earlier, judges are appointed by Her Majesty the Queen on the recommendation of the First Minister after they have consulted the Lord President and after the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland has made a recommendation. We have judicial independence under the current system in Scotland, but those judges are of course appointed for an indefinite term, until such time as they have to retire. Under the Bill, the plan is to have judges appointed by the Prime Minister. I have heard what the Government say, but without the further safeguards we have just been discussing, judges will be appointed for very short periods of three years, at which time their renewal will come up. If the amendments are made, the term of appointment will be six years, which is probably quite long enough to be doing this sort of important and taxing work, and there will be no renewal thereafter.
The six-year terms would allow the commissioners to develop their expertise and avoid any concerns about stagnation. Importantly, six-year terms would ensure that the judicial commissioners’ tenure does not undermine their crucial independence from the Government, and the perception of their independence from the Government and from the officers, agencies and public bodies they are monitoring.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.
The point of the three-year term is surely that the Government are hoping to recruit High Court judges at the very top of their game—High Court judges who have a long career behind them and ahead of them. The idea of the three years is to give them the choice to pop out of the High Court or the Court of Appeal and do their three years, and then if they wish to return to service in the courts, they have been out for only three years. It is an attempt to encourage judges to apply, rather than to count against it.
I hear what the hon. Lady is saying. Initially, I thought she was going to suggest that it would be for judges who were at the end of their judicial careers and would be coming up against retirement anyway. Her point gives me a difficultly with the six-year amendment, but not with the non-renewal amendment. If judicial commissioners are appointed only for three years with a renewal at the end, my fear pertains in so far as they would be there for a very short period of time. They would probably be anxious to stay on for longer, and could well tailor their decision making to guarantee a longer stay. That may not be a concern at present, as I have taken trouble to say, but that does not mean that it could not be a concern for the future.
The oversight of some of the most intrusive and far-reaching powers of the state is important work. Therefore, in tailoring the provisions for the appointment of the judges, we should look not so much to what might be convenient for judges, but to what is necessary to secure proper independence in the eyes of the public. That is about as much as I can say about amendments 745 and 746.
I am pleased to say that amendments 860 and 861 were suggested to the Scottish National party by the Law Society of Scotland, and we have decided to table them because we think they would improve the Bill. They deal with the circumstances in which a judicial commissioner may be removed from office. At present, clause 195 allows for the removal of a judicial commissioner who is bankrupt, disqualified as a company director or convicted of an offence. The clause does not permit the removal of the commissioner for being unfit by reason of inability, neglect of duty or misbehaviour. It is important, in the eyes of the Law Society of Scotland—I endorse its views—that the possibilities of unfitness for office by reason of inability, neglect of duty or misbehaviour are provided for in the Bill.
Very regrettably, it sometimes happens in Scotland—this has happened in my lifetime—that a judge, albeit of the lower courts, has to be removed for reasons of inability, neglect of duty or misbehaviour. I realise that we are dealing with judges at the very senior end of the spectrum, and I very much hope that such steps would never be necessary, but there is no harm in providing for such steps to be taken. Would it not be a very serious matter if a judicial commissioner dealing with the oversight of such far-reaching and intrusive laws were unfit for office by reason of his or her inability, neglect of duty or misbehaviour? We would want to be rid of them, in the best interests of everybody. I commend that aspect of the Law Society of Scotland’s amendments.
If amendment 861 were made, before removing a judicial commissioner the Prime Minister would be required to consult the Lord Chief Justice in England and Wales, the Lord President of the Court of Session in Scotland, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, the Scottish Ministers and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland. That additional safeguard of consultation with the heads of the UK jurisdictional judiciaries and the devolved Administrations would provide a check on unjustified attempts to remove the judicial commissioner.
The purpose of the amendments is to prevent unjustified attempts to remove the judicial commissioners and to add grounds for their removal if they were unfit for office by reason of inability, neglect of duty or misbehaviour. I am interested to hear what the Solicitor General has to say about the amendments.
Once again, the hon and learned Lady puts her argument succinctly and clearly. I am sure she will forgive me for characterising her as a guardian of independence of the judiciary. Although that is an admirable position to take, I do not think it is necessary in this instance.
I will deal first with the length of appointment. My hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle put it very well and I do not need to improve upon the argument. We need a relatively significant term—three years—to attract serving High Court judges, but not a term of such length that it would be difficult for them to return to High Court work in the normal course of events. That is why we think three years is an appropriate period. For retired High Court judges, we have to remember the constraints that we are under. A three-year period, with that renewal term, strikes the correct balance. The renewal term is there because this will be technical role, and knowledge and expertise will be developed by the commissioners. Allowing a reappointment will retain that expertise in a balanced and fair way. A six-year period would just be too long, bearing in mind the quality that we want to attract to fill these important and sensitive posts.
I will deal with the question of unfitness. I am sympathetic to the intention behind the amendments, but it might be argued that the proposed wording gave too much discretion to the Prime Minister to remove a commissioner. The conditions listed in clause 195 for removal from office are precisely the same as those for which a High Court judge can be removed from post. Since having held the position of a High Court judge is the qualification for office as a judicial commissioner, the reasons for removal from the two posts should be precisely the same. If a commissioner is demonstrably unfit to perform the role, he or she can still be removed from post if the Prime Minister and, importantly, both Houses of Parliament agree to the removal. That is an admirable check and balance, which deals with the point of competence and fitness to which the hon. and learned Lady quite properly points us.
On the need to consult the judiciary and others concerned in the appointment of commissioners before removing them, I do not think that is necessary because there are only two ways in which a commissioner could be removed from office: first, because the individual had failed to meet the standards expected of a High Court judge; and secondly, via the mechanism of Prime Minister and Parliament agreeing that that person is no longer fit. Those are adequate safeguards that stop the mischief of a commissioner being removed from post on the whim of the Prime Minister alone. I strongly reassure the hon. and learned Lady that there is absolutely no power for the Government—any Government—to remove a judicial commissioner just because they disagree with that commissioner’s views. I can say a Government would not do that, but I am able to go further and say that, on the basis of this framework, the Government simply cannot do that. That is absolutely right and fulfils the objectives that the hon. and learned Lady wishes to achieve through her amendment. On that basis, I urge her to withdraw it.