The Constitution

– in the House of Commons at 1:59 pm on 22nd December 1988.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North 1:59 pm, 22nd December 1988

I believe that we need a constitutional convention to equip ourselves to create a new democratic system that will take us into the next century and prepare us for the challenges that lie ahead. The most obvious aspect of our democracy is a ballot held once every five years. For many people, it is their only participation in the democratic process. Even that ballot takes place after scant preparation in a four or five-week campaign. Thereafter, it is business as usual. After the fairly sharp impact of the democratic process, Governments of all colours, once elected, become anti-democratic because they must get their political programmes through. They force through what they want and everything that stands in their way, regardless of political colour, is regarded as an obstruction.

Without delving too deeply into current party politics, it is true to say that the Prime Minister has done us a great service, not because she originated the problem but because she exemplifies it. Her Government have thrown into sharp relief the complete dominance of the Executive over the legislature. The great service that that has rendered to our democracy is that more and more people are becoming aware of the reality of our political position and recognise the weakness of our other political institutions faced with an unrestrained Executive.

In that new climate, broader constitutional matters are being debated far more than they were two of three years ago. Unfortunately, the debate rarely takes place in the House, and there is hardly a packed House for this debate. That shows that there has been no serious debate on the constitution, our democracy or the role of Parliament. Of course, the Government do not believe that Parliament should talk in depth about such matters—Parliament is here to pass the Government's programme—but I believe that we should have a wider debate and that Parliament has failed in its duty by not being the forum for that debate.

Unfortunately, Parliament is a political expedient that meets the needs of the Government of the day. A clear example of that—there have been many this week—was the Official Secrets Bill, on which the Minister spoke yesterday. That is an example of how the Government will try to impose their will on Parliament. Another classic example was on Tuesday. Referring to the proposed Scottish Select Committee, the Leader of the House said: The Standing Orders of the House are the basis on which the House proceeds, unless the House resolves to do something different."—[Official Report, 20 December 1988; Vol. 144, c. 340.] It is not the House that resolves to do something different, but invariably the Government of the day who want something different, either to meet their own needs or to placate opposition within their ranks or on the other side of the House. Sadly, a Leader of the House from any party could have made that statement.

We cannot rely on the Government to be the ultimate defender of our liberties. It is a matter of some debate whether we can so rely on Parliament as it is so under the sway of Government, as all Parliaments this century have been.

I have been privileged to receive a personal education over the past 18 months—as a naive newcomer, I have found the extent of control exercised by the Executive over the House a revelation—but unfortunately most outside the House have not. The concepts about which we speak are often arid, academic and theoretical, and it is difficult to convey to people the reality of political power in the United Kingdom. We need to think more deeply about our democratic politics, but such thought is not given, whatever party is in control, and we become lazy about thinking of democracy. I freely admit that, had recent Labour Governments boldly laid down some of the building blocks of democracy, many of the worst excesses of the Government would have been impossible. The Labour party is at least as conservative as the Conservative party in this regard.

There must be democratic forms in our society that are wholly independent of Government if we are to be genuinely democratic. The first step is knowledge, not merely for a few insiders but for everyone, so that they are aware of their individual rights and the role and powers of our political institutions. The right to know is crucial, and each child should be able to leave school with a knowledge of the political institutions that will govern his or her life rather than vague feelings of deference, trust or a view that politics is irrelevant or unimportant.

If democratic values and practices are genuinely to be built into our society and values and practices, the key educative tool is a democratic constitution—a physical document, a written constitution that would be the property of every member of society. People would feel more competent to judge issues for themselves rather than regard talk of rights and liberties as irrevelant to their lives and those of their families. The creation of such a democracy would be governed by and cross-referenced against people's understanding rather than political expedient, which all too often dominates in the House. That would be the only safeguard against politicians.

Hon. Members who were defeated on the abortion issue have discovered what nonsense the use and abuse of the private Member's Bill procedure can be. Those who are unable or unwilling to organise the victory of ideas or ideals look for short cuts and salvations, the latest of which is proportional representation. Those new converts to a "democratic constitution" are to be welcomed warily. When serious change is adopted as a fad, it will just as easily be dropped and a new solution adopted. It could leave the wider cause of serious, democratic constitutional reform discredited and the political system destabilised. If we do not have the inoculation of a deeply rooted, aware democracy, the virus of Fascism could flourish in such a destabilised political system.

One day there should be a written constitution but, ever eager to compromise, I should be more than happy to accept immediately merely a Bill of Rights, endorsed by referendums and entrenched beyond the reach of fickle and simple majority in the House of Commons. As one small contribution, I have today given notice that on the first day we return in January, I shall present to the House a Bill of Rights based on the European convention first presented by Sir Edward Gardner in 1978.

A written Bill of individual and collective rights removes the arguments flowing from the will or whim of the Government or their servants. Some may argue persuasively that such a Bill merely transfers the arbitrary interpretation of civil rights from the desks of colourless bureaucrats or colourful politicians to an expensive and often class-riddled judicial system. Having tasted the legal system and the partiality of the judiciary through trade union legislation, I can understand why that argument has neutralised many otherwise progressive people into defeatism. This can be overcome only by a deep-seated reformation of the judiciary, a nettle which even proponents of a Bill of Rights have not grasped but which must be grasped, or the constitutional conservatives in the Opposition parties will immobilise us again.

The constitutional convention would need to complete the picture by examining the Commons and the second Chamber. After the abolition of the House of Lords, an elected second Chamber—let us call it the House of Representatives—could exercise independent and legitimate scrutiny and oversight of the Government in the Commons. Once again, the powers of such a second Chamber would need to be entrenched and to be separate from those of the Commons and other institutions. The Commons would then be seen for what it is—the place where Governments propose and carry their business, with a Government-in-waiting on the Opposition Benches. [Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) wish to intervene? He is shaking, or nodding, his head in agreement—I am not sure which.

Without the Commons losing any of its alleged powers, the serious job of accountability would gravitate towards the elected second Chamber. This is a recipe for conflict, the constitutional conflict of debate, of education and of growing public awareness of the nature of the decisions which face us. It is a recipe for a democracy, one fit to take this nation into the next century.

As we approach Christmas, I am tempted to put the shopping list, which I have hurriedly detailed, up the chimney. Rather than Santa Claus, I shall call upon that equally improbable figure, but one in whom all Members of Parliament believe, Mr. Speaker himself, to convene a constitutional convention to appraise these issues beyond the heat of electoral battle.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon 2:14 pm, 22nd December 1988

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) was conversational in style and thoughtful in tone, which I appreciate. Also, he was political only from time to time. I propose to answer the debate in the same fashion.

The hon. Gentleman has not been in the House very long, but I was elected only a couple of elections before him. I have never talked to the House about constitutional reform, and this is the first chance that I have had to do so.

I admire the hon. Gentleman for his daring in that, after his 18 months' apprenticeship, he is giving the House his views in constitutional reform. Not satisfied with the debate, he now tells us that he will introduce a Bill of Rights in January. That is a formidable pace of constitutional change and we look forward to reading the Bill, which I understand is based on the Bill of Sir Edward Gardner.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North

Does the Minister agree that perhaps the longer one is in the House, the less likely one is to assess it as an outsider? Does he agree that we need to assess it, given the changing needs of our democracy?

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I hope that my political arteries have not hardened too much after 10 years in this place. As my contribution to open government I can give a report of my recent medical check-up. I have the blood pressure of a boy of 18 and the electrocardiogram showed an almost horizontal line. The kind doctor said that it demonstrated what he had always known about Ministers—that they have no heart. My blood pressure is no worse or better than it was a few years ago, and I am as keenly interested in constitutional matters as ever.

Most hon. Members—certainly my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport—are keenly interested in reform. That is why I was surprised that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said that Parliament was a place for the political expedient. That is wrong. Together with Mr. Enoch Powell and a number of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, I believe that the Chamber is the crucible of the nation where we hammer out our disputes and, happily, sometimes forge agreement.

The hon. Gentleman has been remarkably unobservant during the past couple of weeks. He has been present during debates on two substantial constitutional measures. He has barracked me through two successive wind-up speeches. I know that he has been there, because I have heard him muttering across the Chamber. The first measure, the Security Service Bill, was debated as recently as last Thursday. The hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten that significant constitutional measure. Last night, we discussed the Official Secrets Bill, and I spoke at the end of the debate.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North

It was an excellent speech.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I am grateful for the kind bipartisan compliment.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North

It is important to put on record the excellence of the Minister's speech yesterday. Despite excellent speeches by Ministers and hon. Members on both sides of the House, will the Minister tell us how many such debates have resulted in any serious change to the Government's proposals? Has not the House, even during my brief 18 months here, rubber-stamped almost every item of legislation put to it?

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman listened carefully to the debate on the official secrets White Paper on 22 July. Last night, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary demonstrated clearly how much the Government listened to that debate and how, in four significant areas, the proposals in the White Paper published last July were changed when the Bill was drafted.

Constitutional reform of various sorts has been debated in the Chamber, even though it may not have appeared on the Order Paper under the headline "Constitutional Change" or "Constitutional Reform". The hon. Member for Nottingham, North has given us his reasons why he seeks reform. There are others who seek reform. For example, the noble Lord Blake in the other place has long advanced constitutional reform from the Tory Benches. I have to say to the House, which is filling up, that constitutional reform is usually suggested by those who see it as the only route to power. I do not believe that many of those who promote constitutional reform do so for any other reason. It is normally argued by those who see the chances of sitting on the Government Benches receding into the far distance. It is normally put forward by those who see that they are losers.

We have put in front of us the nostrums of an organisation that is called Charter 88, which attempts to bring forward a measure of constitutional reform. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is a supporter of it; I have seen a list of apparently important signatories to the organisation. I hope that my name will never appear in one of the self-seeking lists of supporters of this or that which appear in our great national newspapers. It is my intention never to add my name to such lists. Generally speaking, those who support such organisations never bring about the changes they seek by securing expensive pages of advertising in national newspapers.

Charter 88 is a loser's charter. Those who support it realise that, with present progress, they will never achieve power. That is because they have no big idea. They have no major political concepts to put before the country such as those—here I move slightly into party politics—introduced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when she was Leader of the Opposition in 1975 and thereafter. I think that everyone, including the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who is not in his place this afternoon, has recognised that those concepts have brought about major and significant changes to the political landscape of the United Kingdom. That is real political change.

Political change is advocated by those who do not like the way that the Conservative Government are running the country, but they will have to come forward with big ideas and market them, and they will have to be ideas for which the British people will vote. Political change will not come about as a result of phoney and self-seeking charters such as Charter 88. Nor will such changes come about through electoral reform—of which more in a moment, after the hon. Member for Nottingham, North has intervened.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North

I am delighted that the Minister is taking up my argument about political expediency. I talked about a substitute set of proposals being put forward, with those responsible for it not being prepared to go out to the public to fight and win over their ideas. I believe that the Prime Minister won some credit because she put forward a big idea, as the Minister has described it. I should add that I do not agree with that big idea. Long-term, deep-rooted constitutional change that is based upon democracy is a bigger idea than any relatively big idea which emanates from either political party. I hope that that concept will win support throughout the House.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

I believe in democracy, which is why I have given way so often to the hon. Gentleman. In the interest of trying to answer all the issues that he has raised before my time is up, I shall not be able to give way to him again.

We on the Government Benches are entirely against electoral reform. We believe that it is a recipe for weak and divided government. There is enough evidence of that around the globe to persuade us that in no circumstance will a Conservative Government be promoting electoral reform via proportional representation. That is something on which the hon. Gentleman and I can agree. I wish to make it clear to the House that what I have stated remains our intention.

I regret the hon. Member's attack on the judiciary. I winced when I heard it. The appointment of judges is a matter for my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor in another place. The Government are fully satisfied with the independent and disinterested performance of the judiciary, which we value. I must urge on the hon. Gentleman the simple fact that judges are selected solely on the basis of personal merit and fitness for the job. There is no convincing evidence that the Bench is biased.

If the hon. Gentleman stays longer in public life, he may come to feel that he did not quite get it right when he talked this afternoon about the judiciary. In fact, he got it very wrong. I would use a stronger term but I feel that it would be inappropriate to do so, given the tone that the hon. Gentleman has set in the debate.

Much of the debate on the constitution seems to proceed on a false premise. It is thought that our unwritten constitution does not guarantee specific rights. It leaves constitutional arrangements to the whim of the party in power. That point was made by the hon. Member. On the other hand, he and others might argue that, with a written constitution, the rights of citizens are fully protected because they have an easily accessible written constitution or Bill of Rights and can invoke them against the Government of the day. That is a mistake.

I may be caricaturing the argument for the sake of illustration, but the truth is that the mere existence of a constitution—written or unwritten—guarantees nothing. Everything depends on how it is interpreted and applied in daily life. Some of the most oppressive countries on earth have written constitutions or Bills of Rights. They guarantee nothing, just as proportional representation would guarantee governmental chaos in many parts of the globe.

Equally, we have recently seen some extraordinary examples of improvements in civil rights across the globe, which have come, not through the application of constitutional nostrums such as proportional representation, written constitutions and Bills of Rights, but from the will and ability of individuals to implement existing constitutional guarantees or to use the existing constitutional system to greater democratic ends. We see that movement sweeping across eastern Europe at the moment.

I would not seek to have our unwritten constitution altered in any way. I would rather see it evolve. This week's Official Secrets Bill and last week's Security Service Bill have shown the evolution of constitutional safeguards. The justification for our unwritten constitution is simply that it works and is responsible for the degree of personal liberty and general well-being for which this country has long been renowned. We have constitutional safeguards which are second to none.