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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 November 2006, 18:07 GMT
Falconer 'wrong' over ancient job
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

State opening of Parliament
Lord Falconer wants to keep the 'finery' of the state opening
Lord Falconer has said he now "regrets" campaigning for the historic role of Lord Chancellor to be abolished.

The peer had always hoped to be the last to hold the title, ending 1,400 years of tradition.

He was forced to do a U-turn in 2005 to get the government's constitutional reforms - including the creation of a supreme court - through Parliament.

But he has now said he is glad the title has been preserved and said he was "wrong" to call for its abolition.

Despite no longer being head of the judiciary, and no longer appointing judges, the Lord Chancellor still had a role to play in defending the independence of the courts, said Lord Falconer.

'Shut up'

And he revealed he "recently" had to warn a government minister about publicy criticising a judge's decision.

He said ministers should only comment on sentencing if they planned to appeal against a decision or change the law.

Lord Falconer
I was keen to walk backwards, but was told I could not because all the other people now walked forwards
Lord Falconer on the state opening of Parliament

Otherwise, he added, they should "shut up".

But he also warned judges against straying into politics by publicly criticising government policy, saying they should only make such comments in private.

Abolishing the Lord Chancellorship had been the centrepiece of the government's constitutional reforms, but it turned out the role could not be scrapped without complex legislation.

Lord Falconer, who had always hoped to be the last Lord Chancellor, told the Lords constitutional affairs committee he now realised it made sense to keep it alive.

Not only that, he told the peers, he was keen to preserve the pageantry and pomp surrounding the job and its central role in the state opening of Parliament.

'Crazed'

He even joked about reinstating the traditional practice - abolished by his predecessor Lord Irvine - of making the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshall walk backwards ahead of the Queen to show respect.

"I was keen to walk backwards, but was told I could not because all the other people now walked forwards and I would look like a crazed... I would be a very, very odd Lord Chancellor on that basis," Lord Falconer said.

Lord Falconer said he now combines the job of Lord Chancellor, head of the court service, with that of Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, in charge of areas such as devolution, human rights and data protection.

And he urged future governments to continue with the same arrangement.

"I've still got two titles - in my view rightly. There is still a very big job to do. If, however, you separated out those things which I do under my heading secretary of state for constitutional affairs, there is not very much in those."

'Wrong'

Holding an "historical office" had proved particularly useful in Cabinet, he told the peers.

"It was perfectly obvious that in being a defender of the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law within government you are greatly assisted by holding a great historical office.

"In those circumstances, whilst I strongly believed, and believe, that the role of the Lord Chancellor should change - in particular, no longer being the head of the judiciary - I think there is no benefit whatsoever in abolishing the office if one of the things the office has got to do is defend judges within government."

He added: "I was wrong, and I made that clear throughout, and I regret being wrong."

Impressive-looking'

He also said he thought the Lord Chancellor should continue to dress in traditional robes at the State opening of Parliament and hand the Queen's Speech to the Monarch.

"The Lord Chancellor has been doing it as a government minister for however many hundreds of years that ceremony has been going - I could see absolutely no reason to change it because there is no different symbolism in it," he told peers.

Asked what would happen if the constitutional affairs minister happened to be a member of the House of Commons, he said: "If he is not the Lord Chancellor, he can't dress up in the finery that you saw me wearing."

It was a matter for the "house authorities" and constitutional experts to decide what robes future holders of the role would wear in such circumstances, said Lord Falconer.

But he added: "From the point of view of the ceremony, I was very keen that it should be the most impressive-looking event and the symbolism has not changed by the change in role of the Lord Chancellor."


SEE ALSO
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