Government Says Sorry

The Government apologised last night for the way it announced its planned constitutional reforms in 2003.

“We’re sorry it was done in that way,” the Lord Chancellor said at the Lord Mayor’s dinner for the judges in the City of London.

Jack Straw made his unscripted apology in response to a well-received speech from Lord Judge, speaking to the annual dinner for the first time as Lord Chief Justice.

As Lord Judge explained, the decisions to reform the position of Lord Chancellor and replace the law lords with a Supreme Court “were proclaimed without so much as the courtesy of a letter or even a telephone call to the Lord Chief Justice”. 

He continued: “The equally important structural changes of 2007 were proclaimed by a minister of the Crown in an article in a Sunday newspaper.”

Lord Judge recalled that the Statute of Proclamations had been repealed in 1547. He suggested that the judiciary should, at the very least, be consulted about proposed constitutional changes that might impact, directly or indirectly, on the role of the judiciary within the constitution.

But Mr Straw did not respond to the to the Lord Chief Justice’s most important point, that the Lord Chancellor’s Parliamentary Standards Bill might open the door to judicial review of internal parliamentary affairs.

“Our constitutional arrangements make it imperative that ultimate responsibility for the governance of Parliament should remain with Parliament,” Lord Judge said. 

“I remain concerned at the possibility of any kind of judicial review of any aspect of the governance of Parliament.  This would have the potential to bring the judiciary into conflict with Parliament and, in particular, the House of Commons.  This would be an unpalatable clash; and dangerous for our constitutional arrangements and the understandings which enable them to work.”

Lord Judge appeared to be referring to the concerns expressed by Dr Malcolm Jack, Clerk to the House, which I reported here.

But while the judges were enjoying the Lord Mayor’s ever-generous hospitality, the Government was backing down on one of Lord Judge’s concerns. At 10.30 pm, Lady Royall announced in the House of Lords that clause 7 of the Parliamentary Standards Bill would be dropped.

She said:

We have discussed in detail the amendments that the Government have proposed to the Bill, and which your Lordships have agreed, in relation to the enforcement regime. As a result of those changes, particularly the removal of any powers of IPSA [the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority] to direct an MP to repay allowances or to make an amendment to the Register of Interests, or to make any recommendation to the Standards and Privileges Committee about action that it might take against an MP, the need for the provisions of Clause 7 has fallen away, as it has for the safeguards that were specifically related to those powers.

Since IPSA will not be recommending sanctions of any sort, we judge that there is no need to have a protocol about how it will work with bodies such as the DPP. Since there is to be no reference to the sorts of disciplinary powers that might be appropriate, the provisions that spelt out those powers and the provisions that made it clear that these were not any sort of restriction on the inherent powers of the House were also redundant.

Earlier in the day, Mr Straw told me that the effect of the change would be to remove decisions affecting individual MPs away from IPSA. Instead, decisions would be taken by the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, which is not within the scope of judicial review.

The Commons Justice Committee, to which Mr Straw had just been giving evidence, was unaware of this change. A Conservative member of the committee, Andrew Tyrie MP, told me the concession appeared to “rip the heart of the Bill”. It showed the dangers of legislating in such a rush, he added.

But Mr Straw told the committee he needed the Bill on the Statute Book before Parliament rose for the summer break next week in order to start appointing members of IPSA. Even so, he did not think the new body would be operational before next January.

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