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Last Updated: Friday, 13 June, 2003, 12:00 GMT 13:00 UK
Controversy over historic changes
Lord Irvine
Lord Irvine's retirement makes way for a Supreme Court
Radical proposals to change the UK constitution sweeping away hundreds of years of history were one of the surprises of the cabinet reshuffle.

News that the ancient post of Lord Chancellor is to be abolished and a new ministry of constitutional affairs created under the charge of Tony Blair's old flatmate Lord Falconer were bound to be controversial.

Gone also are the old Welsh and Scottish departments which ministers say are no longer needed in the wake of devolution.

What we have here is a botch, which looks as though it has been put together in panic
Bob Marshall-Andrews

Lord Falconer has now confirmed that he is to be the last Lord Chancellor and that legislation will be passed to create a supreme court and an independent body to create judges.

Critics of the previous arrangement always attacked the fact the Lord Chancellor was both a member of the government and head of the judiciary with the power to appoint judges.

Unlike his predecessors, Lord Falconer will not sit as a judge or preside over the House of Lords.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Why should the Lord Chancellor's role go? Because the person who appoints judges should not be a member of the executive, a member of the legislature and involved as well as the head of the judiciary.

"It's about time it happened and that is the effect of the government changes yesterday."

Lord Falconer will retain the title of Lord Chancellor until it is abolished by statute.


Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews QC said: "If you are going to change 1,500 years of constitutional history, you do it carefully, you have consultation, a White Paper and experts, and then finally you bring it before Parliament, because Parliament decides the way we are governed, not the prime minister on the back of an envelope in Downing Street.

Lord Falconer
Lord Falconer is no stranger to controversy having been involved with the Dome
"What we have here is a botch, which looks as though it has been put together in panic."

In the Commons, Tory MP Sir Patrick Cormack accused the government of abolishing "one of the great offices of state" on television.

"Some of us care about these things and some of us care about the traditions and history of our country," he said.

Professor Robert Hazell of University College London said he welcomed the proposed changes.

He said that if anything the government should have gone further than abolishing the Welsh and Scottish Offices and created "a real department of the nations and regions".

On the proposed abolition of the Lord Chancellor's department Professor Hazell said it was "untenable" for one person to wear three hats.

Conservative spokesman Michael Howard said a thousand years of British constitutional history was being "torn up in a single press release".


Mr Howard said the British people were the losers in the changes to the judicial system in the wake of Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine's retirement.

We applaud the creation of the department for constitutional affairs, but we still need a written constitution
Karen Bartlett
But the decision to scrap the lord chancellor's post and establish a supreme court to replace the House of Lords as the UK's highest court was welcomed by civil rights campaigners.

And former law lord Lord Ackner told BBC News Online it made sense to separate the judiciary and Parliament completely.

The government is set to consult the public and legal experts about the setting up a supreme court.

The Bar Council said it "strongly supports any measures that strengthen the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession" but awaited more details.


Liberal Democrat deputy leader Alan Beith, who chairs the Commons committee examining the lord chancellor's role, feared ministers were rushing into the changes.

Mr Beith 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 which they require if they are to be carried through successfully."

But Mark Littlewood, of civil rights campaign 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."

Charter88 director Karen Bartlett said: "We applaud the creation of the department for constitutional affairs, but we still need a written constitution."

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12 Jun 03  |  Politics

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