Falconer shrugs off charges of cronyism

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the new Lord Chancellor and a close friend of the Prime Minister, shrugged off accusations of cronyism yesterday, insisting he should be judged by his performance in the post.

During his first full day in the job - with the brief of driving through a wide-ranging programme of constitutional reform - he surprised peers by taking his place on the Woolsack dressed in the formal regalia of the ancient post that is about to vanish.

As opposition parties and Labour MPs expressed concern over the messages sent out by his appointment, he said: "I have got to be judged on my merits. I have been in the Government for six years and I am just as entitled as anybody else in the Government to be given an opportunity to show what I am capable of doing. Let me be judged on that basis."

He also dismissed charges that the historic overhaul had been introduced without proper consultation. "I remain Lord Chancellor because the office can only be abolished by statute. I have the Great Seal, but the time has come for that to change. Parliament needs to pass an act to deal with that. There will be full consultation as it goes through Parliament," Lord Falconer said.

He said: "The detail will be widely consulted on, but it is the choice of the Government to introduce a very, very far-reaching reform in this area."

But Robert Marshall-Andrews, a Labour backbencher and QC, sitting beside him in the BBC Radio 4 Today studio, claimed the changes had been worked out by Tony Blair on the back of an envelope. He said: "What we have here is a botch, which looks as though it has been put together in panic. It totally lacks coherence and clarity.

"It is completely wrong for Charlie [Lord Falconer] to say he should be judged on his merits. His merits are enormous, but it doesn't overcome the single fact that he is not elected, he is a creature of patronage and is not answerable to the House of Commons."

In the Commons, Sir Patrick Cormack, a veteran Tory MP, complained that the abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor - an "announcement of enormous constitutional significance" - had been slipped out on television news. "I don't know whether the Queen was informed, but certainly the Lords was not informed and nor were we, that the Government was intending to abolish one of the great offices of state."

Lord Strathclyde, Tory leader in the Lords, denounced the package of "trendy reforms cobbled together". He said: "It shows the cavalier arrogance of this Government that such sweeping change to Parliament and the courts could be pulled out of the hat without a shred of consultation."

Lord Falconer's first appearance as Lord Chancellor in the upper chamber was a surprise as many peers had assumed he would not be performing Woolsack duties. But with his predecessor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, on the back benches, Lord Falconer remained in place for 18 minutes.

The Bar Council reacted cautiously to the proposed changes. It said it "strongly supports any measures that strengthens the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession" but added that it awaited more details.

Mark Littlewood, a spokesman for the civil rights group Liberty, said: "Some may lament the abolition of a position which has an even longer history than that of Prime Minister. But a modern democracy needs to be based on sensible and logical rules, not on anachronistic traditions."

Alan Beith, a Liberal Democrat MP who chairs a Commons committee examining the Lord Chancellor's role, said: "These are fundamental and potentially valuable reforms. But they seem to have been worked out on the back of an envelope, with none of the debate and consultation they require if they are to be carried through successfully."

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