Press notice No. 42 of Session 2006-07
19 July 2007
ATTORNEY GENERAL'S ROLE "NOT SUSTAINABLE" SAYS COMMITTEE
Ancient office must be reformed now to restore public confidence
Current conditions make the tensions between the political and legal elements of the role of the Attorney General unsustainable and it must be reformed, says the Constitutional Affairs Committee in a report released today, Thursday July 19 2007.
Recent controversies over the ending of the BAE Systems fraud investigation and the Attorney General's potential deciding role in the "cash-for-peerages" investigation have "compromised or appeared to compromise the position of the Attorney General and raised serious concerns about how independence and impartiality in the role can be guaranteed. The Attorney General's role includes overseeing the UK's prosecution services and advising the Government on legal matters, combined with sitting in Government as a Minister who repeatedly attends Cabinet. It is also a duty of the role to "uphold the Rule of Law.
The Committee says there is "confusion about the overlap between the Ministerial aspects of the role, relating to criminal justice policy, and superintending the prosecution services. The responsibility for prosecutions has emerged as one of the most problematic aspects of the role. The Committee also suggests that the custom of the Attorney General not attending Cabinet unless invited for specific discussions should be revived.
The Committee concludes that "Allegations of political bias, whether justified or not, are almost inevitable given the Attorney General's seemingly contradictory positions...This situation is not sustainable.
The Committee says the "status quo is not an option and suggests that the office should be reformed so that "Parliament and the public can be clear about the basis on which decisions are taken. The purely legal functions could be carried out by a "career lawyer, not a political appointee, a politician or Member of Government. The ministerial functions would be carried out by a Minister in the new Ministry of Justice. Where a Minister instructs the independent head of the prosecution service on matters of public interest, the Secretary of State for Justice would be accountable to Parliament for that instruction.
The Committee questions former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith's claim of the need for a lawyer at the heart of Government. "The inept handling of the beginning of the process of reform which culminated in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, and the secretive process of establishing a Ministry of Justice, which was trailed in the newspapers before consultation either of the judiciary or the Lord Chancellor, were seemingly unaffected by the presence of lawyers within Cabinet.
The Chairman of the Committee, Rt Hon Alan Beith, said:
"Public confidence in the present system has been significantly affected by the issues around the Attorney's legal advice in the Iraq war, the ending of the SFO investigation into the BAE Systems/Al Yamamah case and the potential role of the Attorney in deciding on any "cash for honours prosecution. The heart of the problem of the Attorney General's role at present is the need for real and perceived independence in giving legal advice to Government, and making decisions about important and sensitive prosecutions that may involve Government, while sitting in that same Government as a Cabinet level office holder, appointed by the Prime Minister and taking the party whip.
"The issue of accountability is key. Parliament must be able to call to account those who make political decisions in this field, and there needs to be confidence that legal advice and decisions on prosecutions, are not being politicised. There are several proven models, through which an official can be held to account in front of Select Committees, as the Governor of the Bank of England is. We have suggested a restructuring of the role which can achieve both objectives. It is good that Gordon Brown and the newly appointed Attorney General have indicated their interest in reform, and I hope they will see this as the right direction to take.
The Committee is publishing the Report in typescript. It is the Fifth Report of the Committee of Session 2006-07 (HC 306). Copies of the Report will be emailed to all those who submitted evidence to the Committee. No advance or embargoed copies are available for this Report.
The Report will be issued, with all the evidence, by The Stationery Office on Thursday 26 July and will be available on our website on that date.
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2. Committee Membership is as follows: Rt Hon Alan Beith MP (Chairman), David Howarth MP, SiàÆn James MP, Jessica Morden MP, Julie Morgan MP, Robert Neill MP, Mr Andrew Tyrie MP, Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP, Dr Alan Whitehead MP, Jeremy Wright MP
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