Lord Wolfson of Tredegar debates involving the Cabinet Office during the 2019 Parliament

Standards of Behaviour and Honesty in Political Life

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Excerpts
Thursday 23rd June 2022

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morse, for introducing this debate about standards of behaviour and honesty in political life. It is a pleasure to follow someone who has worked so hard to maintain those standards in public life. However, I note that, in the terms of the Motion, we are talking about political life and not public life. That seems to me correct. We do not, and cannot reasonably, expect from our politicians the standards of behaviour we would expect from, for example, our faith leaders. I am not a faith leader, nor do I really consider myself a politician. I am a lawyer, and it is from that vantage point that I approach this important topic.

One of the fundamental principles that underpins standards of behaviour and honesty in political life is that of the rule of law. Noble Lords may be aware of a letter I sent to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister earlier this year on this topic, which gained, let me say, some degree of publicity. In that letter, I noted that the rule of law means that everyone in the state, and the state itself, is subject to the rule of law. This is an ancient principle; it appears not only in the work of Dicey in the 19th century and Locke in the 17th century, but even as far back as the writings of Aristotle, who wrote:

“It is more proper that law should govern, than any one of the citizens”.

Although the rule of law is therefore a central feature of our constitution and plays an essential role in maintaining the highest standards of behaviour and honesty in political life, noble Lords may be surprised to learn that the judicial oath does not refer to the rule of law at all. Judges swear

“to do right by all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will”,

but there is no reference to the rule of law itself. In fact, that is not really surprising, because the rule of law is not a law but a constitutional principle. I suggest, given the terms of this debate, that it is a principle that underpins high standards of behaviour and honesty in political life.

While judges do not take an oath which refers to the rule of law, there is someone who does, and that is the Lord Chancellor. I should state clearly that what I am about to say is said from a position of principle, and is not directed at any individual Lord Chancellor, let alone the current officeholder. I worked closely with Sir Robert Buckland, the previous Lord Chancellor, and the Deputy Prime Minister, who now holds the office. Both are lawyers for whom I have a great deal of respect. My focus is on the position of Lord Chancellor and our current constitutional settlement.

The Lord Chancellor takes an oath with three distinct parts. The first references respect for the rule of law; the second underpins the independence of the judiciary; and the third deals with the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts. Those three parts are of course interlinked. The rule of law becomes fragile to the point of invisibility if the independence of the judiciary is not respected and, when necessary, defended—and that may mean defended in public and in unambiguous terms. The rule of law will become mere words without any content if the resources made available are inadequate to enable the courts to fulfil their function.

A lot changed with the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which declared in Section 1 that nothing in the Act adversely affected the existing constitutional principle of the rule of law. So far as constitutional theory is concerned, I am prepared to accept that. But I regret that the same Act, which denuded the position of Lord Chancellor of significant parts of its historic and political authority, did adversely affect the practical and day-to-day implementation of the principle of the rule of law. I do not want to tread on the toes of the Constitution Committee, which is looking at the position of the Lord Chancellor and the law officers. Suffice it to say, as the committee puts it on its own website, the 2005 Act “fundamentally altered” the role of the Lord Chancellor—and, I would suggest, not for the better.

Historically, the Lord Chancellor wore three hats: he was the head of the judiciary and presided over the appellate committee of this House, which was the Supreme Court until it crossed Parliament Square. He was a member of the Cabinet, and headed a department dealing with the courts, legal aid and constitutional affairs. He was also a Member of this House, and sat, if I may put this somewhat anachronistically, as the Speaker. I am prepared to accept that reform was needed. In this day and age, I do not think you can really have a member of the Cabinet as a sitting judge. But it is undeniable that the reforms in the 2005 Act led to a diminution in the role of Lord Chancellor. The creation of the role of Justice Secretary two years later, in 2007, while understandable, further undermined that office. This is compounded by the statutory requirements for the person who holds the position of Lord Chancellor, who need not be a lawyer at all, never mind a senior lawyer.

The undeniable consequence, it seems, is that the role of Lord Chancellor has changed from being an office which would conclude a career—a destination job, if I may put it that way, or a grand terminus—to being little more than an intermediate station stop, a resting point before the political journey continues on to greater things. I do not suggest that we can return to the status quo ante. That metaphorical train, unlike many real trains today, has left the station. But I do not think that we have gained from a system in which you can be Lord Chancellor on Monday, but then be promoted—and it will be seen by many as a promotion—to be Secretary of State at Defra or DCMS on Wednesday. I have nothing against Defra or DCMS, but the fact is that the Secretary of State at neither department takes an oath to respect the rule of law, and it is the rule of law which underpins standards of honesty and behaviour in public life.

I would like us to consider returning to a system in which the Lord Chancellor is again one of the great things in our constitutional settlement. The role could encompass responsibility for the rule of law, the judiciary, our constitutional settlement, devolution, human right and international law—all things, in other words, which are part of the rule of law in its broadest sense and underpin our constitution. An enhanced and reinvigorated role for the Lord Chancellor would for those reasons be a helpful and important step in maintaining what we all want: the very highest standards of behaviour and honesty in political life.