Lord Falconer of Thoroton: You Ask The Questions
The Lord Chancellor on whether he is the last Blairite in Britain, and if he will repeal the human rights act
Monday 29 May 2006
Is it right for someone who has never had a vote cast for them in a public election to sit in Cabinet and run a government department? DR MARTYN COBOURNE, GUY'S HOSPITAL, LONDON SE1
Any government depends for its existence on elections to the House of Commons. Governments are always formed as a result of elections to the Commons. All but two of the full members of the Cabinet now are chosen from the Commons. But it is right that the Prime Minister can select a small number of Cabinet members and other government ministers from a wider pool than the Commons. To do so does not affect the democratic accountability either of the Government, or of my department, the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has three ministers in the Commons.
Does taking part in a formal procession to get to work every day get boring after a while? KEITH VOGLER, LONDON E8
It hasn't so far.
You said Labour will never repeal the Human Rights Act. So what was Tony Blair talking about when he said it was to be reviewed? JEREMY BRIGGS, GREENWICH
The Act incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into our domestic law. We will not remove the Convention from our domestic law. Nor will we leave the Convention. So we will never repeal the Act. But the Act needs to be reviewed in the light of our experience of the effect incorporation of the convention has had in practice. For example, in the case of Anthony Rice, who murdered Naomi Bryant, whilst released on licence from a life sentence, the Chief Inspector of Probation in his review of the case said that public officials, while considering what to do with Rice, could have been distracted from public safety considerations by human rights arguments. We need to consider whether the Human Rights Act is having this sort of effect. If so then we need to respond by making it clear through political leadership, through guidance and training, and, if necessary, by legislation, that this is not the effect of the Act or the Convention. The Act now provides for a balance to be struck between public safety and people's rights. That is right: but where public safety is threatened, public safety must come first.
Why is this Labour Government so depressingly authoritarian and so contemptuous of our civil liberties? ANDY STEWART, MANCHESTER
It isn't. Freedom and our civil liberties are vital to this Government. But freedom takes a number of forms. For example, we have an obligation to defend the public from credible threats to life and limb. We have sought to do this, in the context of preserving the values of our country. Those values allow a strong response to terrorism. Our response has led to the characterisation of the Government as authoritarian - unfairly, especially to a government which introduced the Human Rights Act. We remain amongst the most free countries in the world - because we have always stood up to threats to our freedom robustly. We will continue to do so.
Having been the flatmate of the Prime Minister, how much has it helped your career? PETER TALLENTIRE
So far it's not been held against me.
What was it like sharing a house with Tony Blair and did he do his share of the washing up? MARCELLA WILLIAMS, BRIGHTON
Best draw a veil over that period.
Are you the last remaining Blairite in Britain? KEVIN MACDONALD, LONDON
Tony Blair's Government has been elected once, and re-elected twice, the last time a year ago. He's led a Government which has done many things which were controversial, and some of which were unpopular. But most people judge him on the overall picture of what he and his Government have achieved. That judgement is much more balanced and favourable than the judgements passed in some parts of the media.
What did you say to Lord Goldsmith on 13 March 2003, when you and Baroness Morgan met him to discuss the legality of the war with Iraq? D A MOLONY, RUSSELL SQUARE, LONDON
It was a private conversation.
Is it true that you didn't become a Labour MP as you knew no constituency would pick you after you sent your children to private schools? TESSA BUNCOMBE, SOMERSET
You'd have to ask the people that didn't select me why not. My children have all gone to private schools.
Did you ever consider practising law in Edinburgh? F J MCKINNON, EDINBURGH
Yes. I always thought I would. My father and grandfather had been solicitors in Edinburgh. I always thought I would return to do the same. As it turned out, life took a different course.
The separation of the judiciary from the legislature/executive in Britain remains woefully imperfect. What can be done to give the law lords the teeth enjoyed by the US Supreme Court? FRANK GRAY, HAM, RICHMOND
The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 sets up a Supreme Court for the UK. It takes the final court of appeal for the UK jurisdictions out of the House of Lords. Rightly so. The final court of appeal should be identifiable as a court and not as a committee of one of the chambers of the legislature. That change, which we have introduced and will come into effect in 2009, means there will be a proper separation between legislature and courts. But our Supreme Court should not be like the US Supreme Court, which can strike down primary legislation. We are committed to parliamentary sovereignty. On issues like abortion or the death penalty we want our politicians, not our judges, to decide. So we want a strong and distinguished court but not one which challenges the sovereignty of Parliament.
Gordon Brown claims he enjoys the Arctic Monkeys. David Cameron has a soft spot for 'Ernie'. What's your guilty pleasure, music-wise? GUY DURNING, TUFNELL PARK
Pink Floyd, The Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin.
Do you think Gordon Brown will be the next PM? Would you prefer John Reid? F WALSTONE, CAMBRIDGE
It's far better to concentrate on working for the public good under the current Prime Minister, than be distracted into what may happen on some non-specific date in the future.
Will you sign my copy of the Hutton report? J BUTLER-LLOYD, MANCHESTER
Why do you want to abolish the 1,400-year-old post of Lord Chancellor? LUCY PILKINGTON, BURY ST EDMUNDS
We have not abolished the office. We have changed what he does, very fundamentally, because it was no longer either sensible or practical to have one person appoint the judges, be a judge and head of the judiciary, be the Speaker of the House of Lords, and be a cabinet minister in charge of over £3bn-worth of expenditure. All four roles suffered. We thought the best way to deal with the issue was to abolish the office, and divide the four roles between the new Judicial Appointments Commission, the Lord Chief Justice, the soon-to-be-elected Speaker of the House of Lords, and the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. The policy is right, and has been enacted in the Constitutional Reform Act, but with one major change. Whilst all the jobs have been separated in the way described, the office of Lord Chancellor has been retained in the Cabinet, a cabinet minister only, and not the other jobs as well, but with a special statutory responsibility to protect the independence of the judges, and the rule of law. It was sensible to preserve the authority, and historical weight of the office to perform that critical function in the executive.
Is it fair that Lord Archer retains membership of the Lords after being convicted of a criminal offence when an MP would have lost his seat? MATTHEW MILLER, OXFORD
No, I don't think it is. But to effect change in the position of those peers who are convicted of a criminal offence and sent to prison for a significant period of time requires legislation.
Why are you against a wholly elected House of Lords? LAYLA AHMED, ORPINGTON, KENT
I am in favour of a significant elected element in the Lords. But I think there is a place for people in the Lords who are independent of politics, but have valuable experience and wisdom which they can give to the legislative process. To achieve that some part of the Lords needs to be appointed. People from outside politics will not normally either want to stand for election, or have any chance of winning if they stand as genuine independents. So I think there is a place for the independent element.
Are lawyers overpaid? S DALTON, CLEY, NORFOLK
Some most certainly are. And indeed in the recent past some of the most overpaid lawyers have been those doing long criminal cases. We are changing that. But not all lawyers are overpaid. There are very many lawyers who serve their local communities in a whole range of problems, receiving very little remuneration but doing it because they are committed to helping people.
Does the fact that your wife is a successful QC mean that you will never abolish this legal title described by the Office for Fair Trading as having "questionable value"? BARBARA EVANS, HOVE, SUSSEX
What's it like on the Woolsack? IVOR BROWN, SURREY
Very comfortable, thanks.
Do you like wearing a wig and tights? L BYRNE, GUILDFORD
Not really. History and an understanding of it is important. I think we could understand and respect history and relax the dress requirements for the person on the Woolsack. I hope that will be reflected in less onerous dress requirements for my successor.
Do you intend to change the law so that divorcing couples no longer have to cite a matrimonial cause (adultery, unreasonable behaviour or irreconcilable differences) to get a quick divorce? NEIL THORNTON, GUILDFORD, SURREY
Have you ever been tempted to strip the wallpaper in the River Room and give the place a makeover? JANINE RAFTER, ST IVES
Yes, but I always conclude it's better to leave things well alone.
Do you agree that MPs should receive exactly the same pension rights as the people that they represent? If not, why not? JOHN SHERRESS, LISKEARD, CORNWALL
The state pension should apply the same rules to everyone. But people who through their work or their saving make additional provision should be entitled to the benefit of it. The MPs' pension scheme is an occupational scheme to which they contribute, and which pays a pension which is determined by the number of years served. It is a fair scheme which reflects many occupational pension schemes.
You have been critical when the House of Lords, as an unelected body, has chosen to obstruct legislation. But as an unelected minister, do you see no hypocrisy in taking this position? ROBERT BOTTAMLEY, HEBDON, EAST YORKSHIRE
The Commons is the chamber which is elected. Whilst the Lords can revise legislation, and ask the Commons to think again, the decisions of principle should be made by the Commons. There is nothing hypocritical about being a minister and holding this view. It is, I think, a view shared by the majority of the members of the House of Lords.
We know (and eventual release of secret papers will prove) that your chum lied his way into the disastrous war in Iraq. He has also presided over a terrible erosion of our civil liberties, and all that prevents us being called a police state is the inefficiency of the Home Office computers. How do you both sleep at night? LIONEL BEALE, NEWBIGGIN-ON-LUNE, CUMBRIA
He did not lie before the war. He told the facts. He led the country into the Iraq war because he believed, as did the Government, that Saddam had broken UN resolutions and that to leave the resolutions broken and Saddam seeking to intimidate the region would be bad for the region and the world. As a Government, we have robustly sought to combat the terrorist threat in this country. We have done so within the framework laid down by human rights law. We have faced the worst terrorist attacks on the UK for years. We have preserved our values in the fight against terrorism. We remain free in this country. We will remain free as long as we remain true to our values, and are confident enough to defend ourselves against attack. The burden rests on government to deliver that protection within our values. We would not deserve to remain in government if we had not been prepared to make the necessary decisions to protect the public.
Was the Dome Tony Blair's biggest cock-up? If not, what was? KEMAL GUL, LONDON
The Dome cost too much. But it regenerated the Greenwich peninsula. It brought work, housing and economic revival to one of the poorest parts of London. It will become one of the great concert venues in London. I wish it had cost less. But it brings long-term benefit.
You always seem quite cheery, no matter what nonsense you're defending. What makes you cross? MARTHA RYAN, HUNGERFORD
Unfairness and prejudice.
You are a tireless cheerleader for Tony Blair. But even you must now accept he is doing Labour no favours by clinging on as leader. WILLIAM LEDWITH, BATH
Tony Blair has delivered time and time again for the people of this country - the minimum wage, real improvements in health and education, significantly more police, devolution to Scotland and Wales, economic stability, low mortgage rates, jobs, the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Civil Partnerships Act. That is only a partial list. Our country has been changed for the better by Tony Blair and his Government. People are well able to judge him and the Government on all of its achievements, rather than on the bits they may individually disagree with. We in the country and the party benefit from his leadership and his experience. Now and in the future.
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