Constitutional Reform

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 3rd July 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party 3:30 pm, 3rd July 2007

With permission, Mr. Speaker, my first, most important and most solemn duty is to pay tribute to the five members of our armed forces who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past week. Corporal Paul Joszko of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh, Private Scott Kennedy of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and my constituent Private Jamie Kerr, also of the Black Watch, were all killed on patrol last Wednesday in Basra. Captain Sean Dolan of the 1st Battalion the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters and Sergeant David Wilkinson of 19 Regiment Royal Artillery were killed at the weekend in Afghanistan. They served their country bravely, and the whole House will join me in sending our sincere condolences to their families.

May I also pay tribute, Mr. Speaker, to the professionalism of our police, emergency services and security services over recent days, and applaud the heroism and vigilance of ordinary members of the British public? We owe them all a great debt of gratitude.

All Members of this House and all the people of this country have a shared interest in building trust in our democracy, and it is my hope that, by working together for change in a spirit that takes us beyond parties and beyond partisanship, we can agree a new British constitutional settlement that entrusts more power to Parliament and the British people. Change, with a new settlement, is in my view essential to our country's future. For we will meet the new challenges of security, of economic change and of communities under pressure—and forge a stronger shared national purpose—only by building a new relationship between citizens and Government that ensures that Government is a better servant of the people.

Let me pay tribute to the contribution to our thinking—and to the wider constitutional debate—that has already been made by parliamentarians in all parts of the House. Because I want this process to be one in which we consult and involve not only all political parties but the people of this country, what I propose today is not, and should not be seen as, the final blueprint for a constitutional settlement, but a route map towards it.

The route map seeks to address two fundamental issues: to hold power more accountable and to uphold and enhance the rights and responsibilities of the citizen. Constitutional change will not be the work of just one Bill or one year or one Parliament, but I can today make an immediate start by proposing changes that will transfer power from the Prime Minister and the Executive. For centuries, they have exercised authority in the name of the monarchy without the people and their elected representatives being consulted, so I now propose that in 12 important areas of our national life the Prime Minister and the Executive should surrender or limit their powers, the exclusive exercise of which by the Government of the day should have no place in a modern democracy. These are: the power of the Executive to declare war; the power to request the dissolution of Parliament; the power over recall of Parliament; the power of the Executive to ratify international treaties without decision by Parliament; the power to make key public appointments without effective scrutiny; the power to restrict parliamentary oversight of our intelligence services; power to choose bishops; power in the appointment of judges; power to direct prosecutors in individual criminal cases; power over the civil service itself; and the Executive powers to determine the rules governing entitlement to passports and the granting of pardons. I now propose to surrender or limit these powers to make for a more open 21st-century British democracy which better serves the British people.

Let me set out the measures, the details of which are included in a Green Paper published today by the Secretary of State for Justice. Constitutional change should never limit our ability to deal with emergencies and should never jeopardise the security of our forces or any necessary operational decisions, but the Government will now consult on a resolution to guarantee that on the grave issue of peace and war it is ultimately this House of Commons that will make the decision. I propose, in addition, to put on to a statutory footing Parliament's right to ratify new international treaties.

We will also consult on proposals that this House of Commons would have to approve a resolution for any dissolution of Parliament requested by the Prime Minister and that, while at present members of Parliament cannot decide whether the House should be recalled, for the first time a majority of Members—and not just the Prime Minister—should have that right, subject to your authority, Mr. Speaker.

The House of Commons should also have a bigger role in the selection of key public officials. I propose, as a first step, pre-appointment hearings for public officials whose role it is to protect the public's rights and interests, and for whom there is not currently independent scrutiny. That includes the chief inspector of prisons, the local government ombudsman, the civil service commissioner and the commissioner for public appointments. For public offices where appointments are acknowledged to be market-sensitive, the Chancellor is setting out today how pre-commencement hearings will apply to new members of the Monetary Policy Committee, including the Governor of the Bank of England, and the chairman of the Financial Services Authority. I also propose that we extend pre-commencement hearings in this House to utility regulators and other regulators. I propose that we review too the arrangements for making appointments to NHS boards, and it is right that this House of Commons vote on the appointment of the chair of the new independent Statistics Board.

I can announce also that from now on the Government will regularly publish, for parliamentary debate and public scrutiny, our national security strategy. It will set out for the British people the threats we face and the objectives we pursue. I have said for some time that the long-term and continuing security obligations on us require us to co-ordinate military, policing, intelligence and diplomatic action—and also to win hearts and minds in this country and around the world. So following discussions over the last few months, I have decided to establish within Government a national security council, charged with bringing together our overseas defence and security, but also our development and community relations efforts, to send out a clear message that at all times we will be vigilant and we will never yield in addressing the terrorist threat.

As the security agencies themselves recognise, greater accountability to Parliament can strengthen still further public support for the work that they do. So while ensuring necessary safeguards that respect confidentiality and security, we will now consult on whether and how the Intelligence and Security Committee can be appointed by, and report to, Parliament. And we will start now with hearings, held in public wherever possible; a strengthened capacity for investigations; reports subject to more parliamentary debate; and greater transparency over appointments to the Committee.

The Church of England is, and should remain, the established Church in England. Establishment does not, however, justify the Prime Minister influencing senior Church appointments, including bishops. And I also propose that the Government should consider relinquishing their residual role in the appointment of judges.

The role of Attorney-General, which combines legal and ministerial functions, needs to change. While we consult on reform, the Attorney-General has herself decided, except if the law or national security requires it, not to make key prosecution decisions in individual criminal cases.

To reinforce the neutrality of the civil service, the core principles governing it will no longer be set at the discretion of the Executive but will be legislated by Parliament—and so this Government have finally responded to the central recommendation of the Northcote-Trevelyan report on the civil service made more than 150 years ago in 1854. The frameworks for granting pardons and for issuing and withdrawing passports should also be set not by Government but by Parliament. And I propose that we reduce the advance sight that Government Departments have of the release of statistical information from as much as five days currently to just 24 hours.

Even as we now reduce the power of the Executive, we will also increase their accountability. Following the decision to revoke the provisions that previously allowed special advisers to give orders to civil servants, I am also publishing a new ministerial code today that provides for a new independent adviser to supervise disclosure, whom I can ask to scrutinise ministerial conduct, including conflicts of interest. I propose that we reinforce the accountability of the Executive to Parliament and to the public with a statement in the summer, prior to the Queen's Speech, on the provisional forward legislative programme, and this will start this month. Annual departmental reports will be debated in this House.

But just as the Executive must become more accountable to Parliament, Parliament itself must become more accountable. Given the vote in this House in March for major reform of the House of Lords as a second and revising Chamber with provision for democratic election, a statement will be made by the Government before the recess as we press ahead with reform. A statement on the reform of local government will propose a new concordat between local and central Government. We will fulfil our manifesto obligation to publish our review of the experience of the various voting systems introduced since 1998, and the House will have a full opportunity to discuss in detail, and to vote here in this House on, the legislation that flows from the European Union amending treaty.

Just as we have appointed Ministers for each region of England, I propose that, to increase the accountability of local and regional decision making, the House now consider creating Committees to review the economies and public services of each region, and we will propose a regular Question Time for regional Ministers. But while we will listen to all proposals to improve our constitution in the light of devolution, we do not accept the proposal for English votes for English laws, which would create two classes of Members of Parliament—some entitled to vote on all issues, some invited to vote on only some. We will do nothing to put at risk the Union. I am reminded— [Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I want hon. Members and right hon. Members to listen to the statement. Obviously, there will be a chance for hon. Members to ask a supplementary question.

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I am reminded of the statement in 1999 by David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, who said that English votes for English laws would cause constitutional chaos.

The right of all the British people to have their voice heard is fundamental to our democracy and to holding public institutions to account. Britain is rightly proud to be the pioneer of the modern liberties of the individual. I think it right to make it a general rule that in these areas there is independent oversight of authorities and accountability to Parliament. I encourage the House to agree a new process for ensuring consideration of petitions from members of the public. Disengagement is too often reflected in low turnout in elections. Britain is unusual in holding elections on weekdays, when people are at work, and the Secretary of State for Justice will announce a consultation on whether there is a case for voting at weekends.

The Government will also bring forward proposals to extend the period of time during which parties can use all-women short lists for candidate selections, and to give more time for all parties in this House to take up this new right, if they choose. While balancing the need for public order with the right to public dissent, I think it right—in consultation with the Metropolitan police, Parliament, the Mayor of London, Westminster city council and liberties groups—to change the laws that now restrict the right to demonstrate in Parliament square.

The measures that I have just announced represent, in my view, an important step forward in changing the way we are governed, but it is possible to do more to bring Government closer to the people.

Although our system of representative democracy—local as well as national—is at the heart of our constitution, it can be enhanced by devolving more power directly to the people, and I propose that we start the debate and consult on empowering citizens and communities in four areas. The first is powers of initiative, extending the right of the British people to intervene with their elected local representatives to ensure action, through a new community right to call for action and new duties on public bodies to involve local people.

The second is new rights for the British people to be consulted through mechanisms such as "citizens juries" on major decisions affecting their lives. The third is powers of redress, and new rights for the British people to scrutinise and improve the local delivery of services. The fourth is powers to ballot on spending decisions in areas such as neighbourhood budgets and youth budgets, with decisions on finance made by local people themselves.

At the same time, we must give new life to the very idea of citizenship. All in this House would acknowledge that there are very specific challenges we must meet on engaging young people and improving citizenship education. I hope that there will be all-party support for a commission to review this and make recommendations. Although the voting age has been 18 since 1969, it is right, as part of that debate, to examine, and hear from young people themselves, whether lowering that age would increase participation. Consultation will take place with you, Mr. Speaker, and through the Leader of the House, with this House as to whether the Youth Parliament should be invited here in this Chamber once a year, on a non-sitting day.

What constitutes citizens' rights, beyond voting, and citizens' responsibilities, such as jury service, should itself be a matter for public deliberation. As we focus on the challenges that we face and what unites and integrates our country, our starting point should be to discuss together and then, as other countries do, agree and set down the values, founded in liberty, which define our citizenship and help to define our country. And there is a case that we should go further still than this statement of values to codify either in concordats or in a single document both the duties and rights of citizens and the balance of power between Government, Parliament and the people.

In Britain we have a largely unwritten constitution. To change that would represent a fundamental and historic shift in our constitutional arrangements. So it is right to involve the public in a sustained debate about whether there is a case for the United Kingdom developing a full British Bill of Rights and duties, or for moving towards a written constitution. Because such fundamental change should happen only when there is a settled consensus on whether to proceed, I have asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to lead a dialogue within Parliament and with people across the United Kingdom by holding a series of hearings, starting in the autumn, in all regions and nations of the country, and we will consult with all the other parties on this process.

So the changes that we propose today and the national debate we now begin are founded on the conviction that the best answer to disengagement from our democracy is to strengthen our democracy. It is my hope that this dialogue of all parties and the British people will lead to a new consensus, a more effective democracy and a stronger sense of shared national purpose. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Paul Joszko, Private Scott Kennedy, and Private James Kerr, all of whom died in Basra, and to Captain Sean Dolan and Sergeant Dave Wilkinson, who were killed in Afghanistan. They died serving their country. I join the Prime Minister, too, in his praise for the work of the police, the emergency services and the security services and also in thanking the public both for their bravery and for their vigilance.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement today. Let me begin by congratulating him on becoming Prime Minister. He has achieved his long-held ambition, and I hope that there will be opportunities for us to work together, not least on the issue of terrorism and the safety of our people.

The British system of government and politics needs real and lasting change. The country is too centralised, Parliament is too weak, Ministers do not give straight answers and people feel shut out of decision making. That is why we need change. We welcome much of what is in the statement: the national security council was in our policy review; confirmation hearings—one of our proposals; and neighbourhood budgets are in the Sustainable Communities Bill being taken through the House by my hon. Friend Mr. Hurd. But we have to ask this of the Prime Minister: he says he wants to decentralise Government, but is he not the one who has imposed 3,000 central targets on our public services and local government? He says he wants to strengthen Parliament, but how can we forget the 10 years that he has spent on new ways of trying to avoid Parliament, with his stealth tax changes not even mentioned in his Budget? He says he wants all his Ministers to give straight answers, but when he was Chancellor he did not answer a single question about the tax credit system for which he was responsible for more than two and a half years.

The Prime Minister says he wants to restore trust in politics, but surely he has to recognise that he has been at the heart of the Government who have done more than any other Government in living memory to destroy trust in politics. He says he wants to get to the truth. In that case, I have to ask him why he opposes holding an inquiry into Iraq where, above all, we must get to the truth. That is why, when it comes to restoring trust in politics, we simply do not see that the Prime Minister can be the change this country needs.

Let us look at the detail. There are three key relationships: between Government and Parliament, between different parts of the United Kingdom, and between politics and the people. On Parliament, in May last year I said that Parliament should vote on peace and war and on international treaties, so I am glad the Prime Minister will be introducing that; it has our full support. In June this year, I called for real power for Select Committees. The Prime Minister said a lot about the Intelligence and Security Committee, but there was little in the statement about other Select Committees. Will they be getting more power? Three years ago, we sponsored a Civil Service Bill. Can the Prime Minister confirm that what he was talking about in his statement is a full civil service Act?

Does the Prime Minister agree that in changing the relationship between Government and Parliament, we should go further? Is it not time to give the House of Commons the right to determine its own timetable? Is not that the absolute key to restoring power in Parliament?

I listened carefully to what the Prime Minister said about electoral reform. I have to say this: as a Prime Minister who was not elected by the British people, he must understand that any attempt to alter the electoral system without the consent of the people will be seen for what it is—an attempt to change the rules to suit one party's interests and to cling to power.

As the Prime Minister did, let us turn to the relationship between different parts of the United Kingdom. Today, the situation is that neither he, nor I, nor any Member of the House has the right to vote on hospitals, schools or housing in his constituency or in other parts of Scotland, yet he is able to vote on hospitals, schools and housing in my constituency. We already have two classes of MP. Is it not the case that the only effective way to solve that problem is to give MPs in English constituencies the decisive say in the House on issues that affect only England? The Prime Minister has had 30 years to come up with answers to the West Lothian question, and I have to tell him that Question Time for regional Ministers just does not cut it. Does he not see that the failure to answer that question is actually putting the Union at risk?

Now let us look at the third and most important relationship—that between politics and people. Part of the Prime Minister's answer will clearly be the Bill of Rights and duties, but surely at this most serious of times we need greater clarity about the Human Rights Act 1998. Is it not the case that it is now almost impossible to deport foreign nationals who may do this country harm? That is why we believe a proper British Bill of Rights should mean replacing the Human Rights Act.

On the subject of things that have sapped trust in politics, why have the Prime Minister's Government systematically taken more power from local councils and given it to unelected regional assemblies? The only people who were asked their views about that—people in the north-east—gave a resounding no, so why does he not recognise today that regional assemblies are costly, unnecessary and unwanted and should be scrapped?

Above all, how can the Prime Minister possibly restore trust in politics if he will not give the people the final say on one of the biggest constitutional questions of all—whether to sign up to what is in effect the European constitution? He talks about citizens juries. Why not have a jury of all our citizens and ask them to give their verdict on that issue?

However worthy, however sensible and however desirable some of the changes that the Prime Minister has outlined, let us not pretend that they are the answer to restoring trust in politics. Constitutional change is not the solution to broken trust, because the constitution is not the cause of broken trust. It is broken promises that are the cause of broken trust. A vote on Europe, no tax rises, fixing the NHS—these are broken promises and people will ask how the person who broke this trust can be the person to mend it.

Four vital questions go to the heart of this statement. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that real decentralisation must mean scrapping top-down targets? Does he accept that when there is constitutional change—transferring power from Westminster to Brussels—it should be put to the people in a referendum? Does he accept that real power for Parliament means the House of Commons—not the Government of the day—determining its own agenda? Does he not understand that real reform must mean answering the West Lothian question, which he failed to do today?

Now the Prime Minister tells us that he wants a proper debate in Parliament in which Ministers answer questions. He can start today—four straight questions needing four straight answers. We will engage in this constitutional debate, as we have for the last 18 months, but engagement must involve tackling the real reasons why people in this country are so disillusioned with their politics and the political process.

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

Let me thank the Leader of the Opposition for his welcome to me and also for the sentiments that he expressed about those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past week.

I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman has expressed the agreement of his Opposition party to a number of the proposals that we are putting forward—on the power of the Executive to declare war, on the power of the Executive to ratify international treaties and on the power to restrict parliamentary oversight of the intelligence services. I welcome that. I hope that he will, in time, agree with the other proposals that I have put forward to restrict the patronage of the Executive.

I remember the right hon. Gentleman saying when he became the Leader of the Opposition that he hoped the era of Punch and Judy politics was over. Where we agree with him, I hope that we can make progress, and I hope that all other parties will join us in doing so. Where we disagree, I hope that we can have a vigorous debate that will lead eventually to a consensus in this country.

I want to take up the issues on which the right hon. Gentleman has expressed his disagreement with us. First, he mentioned a British Bill of Rights and the question of whether we can deport people from this country. I can do no better on this matter than quote the chairman of his democracy commission, the man he appointed to do the job of looking at the reform of the constitution and who said that the Conservative proposals for a British Bill of Rights were "xenophobic and legal nonsense". I can only also quote the former tutor to the Leader of the Opposition at university. He said of him:

"I think he is very confused. I've read his speech and it's filled with contradictions. There are one or two good things in it but one glimpses them, as it were, through a mist of misunderstanding...I'd be quite happy to give him a few more tutorials on civil liberties."

Where we disagree on the European referendum, I can again do no better than quote the chairman of the democracy commission, who said— [ Interruption. ] We are seeking bipartisan agreement, but there is a case for some bipartisan agreement within the Conservative party itself. The chairman of the Conservative democracy commission said that the treaty referendum proposal put forward by the Conservative party was "Frankly absurd". He said:

"a lot of intelligent, well-educated...businessmen type constituents...would think I was dotty"

[ Interruption. ]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. Hon. Members should not shout down any Member when he is addressing the House. It should not be done.

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

As far as the European referendum is concerned—and we have discussed it in the last few days—there is no other country but Ireland that is putting forward a proposal to have a referendum. The last Conservative Government did not have a referendum on Maastricht; they never had a referendum on previous treaties. I believe that the Conservative leader is making a grave mistake if he believes that this constitutional debate about the future of the country and the relationships between legislature, Executive and judiciary should be overshadowed simply by a debate on an issue that we will investigate in detail in the House of Commons when the legislation comes before the House in the next few months.

As for the third point of difference—again, I believe that we should seek consensus in the House on this matter—I have said that although I look forward to a discussion about the implications of devolution for our constitution, I do not believe that English votes for English laws is the answer. If the Conservative party wishes to continue to push that, it has to take into account the fact that the Executive would owe their authority to two different groups of people: on one occasion, to all Members of the House and on another occasion, simply to some Members of the House. That is why the shadow Home Secretary said in 1999 that it would cause constitutional chaos and why Sir Malcolm Rifkind said only a few weeks ago:

"It would weaken rather than strengthen the United Kingdom."

Yes, we are prepared to look at proposals that will strengthen the United Kingdom in the light of devolution, but no, I do not believe that we will have a sensible debate if it is purely about English votes for English laws—something that would create two categories of Members in the House of Commons.

We will look carefully at all the other proposals that have been put forward by the right hon. Gentleman, but I hope that, on reflection, the Conservative party—which, in its democracy commission, has put forward proposals for the reform of the constitution—will see this as an opportunity for there to be common ground in this country about improving our constitution, making Parliament accountable to the people and renewing trust in our democracy.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Leader of the Liberal Democrats

I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence and the tributes that he paid at the outset of his statement.

This is indeed a comprehensive statement and it is therefore not possible to deal with it all in detail in the time available, but we will give a considered response to the Green Paper. My starting point is that reform of our constitution is long overdue and that the United Kingdom deserves a constitution that is fit for the challenges and standards of contemporary Britain. If we are to restore public confidence in our political system, we must be both innovative and inclusive. I therefore welcome the proposals with regard to the prerogative powers and the principle that they should rest with Parliament. However, the Prime Minister used the words "surrender or limit" when describing what he proposed to do, and there is obviously an issue about what is to be surrendered and what is to be limited, and in what way.

I support the Prime Minister's determination that Parliament should have the final word in issues of peace and war, but I notice that he observed that that should be done by way of resolution. Will he consider whether that should be put on a proper statutory footing? I also support the intention to establish a national security council, but from where will members of that council be drawn? Will they simply be drawn from the Ministries or will there be opportunities for Members of Parliament to serve on the council? I also believe— [ Interruption. ]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. It is unfair to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Leader of the Liberal Democrats

I also believe that we should all welcome the Prime Minister's intention to make the intelligence and security oversight much more transparent. As for Parliament square, it has been a source of great discomfort to many Members, on both sides of the House, that there has been such a limitation on legitimate protest so close to Parliament.

The Prime Minister did not mention in detail a strengthened Committee system. Does he have any proposals to strengthen the powers of Select Committees? He did not mention electoral reform—other than in the context of fulfilling a previous manifesto commitment. Does he understand that, for many people, the reform of the constitution in essence requires electoral reform? There should be fixed terms of Parliament. The best way in which to deal with those matters is through a written constitution.

On the issue of English votes for English laws, does the Prime Minister accept that once devolution is properly established in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it will be impossible to ignore the role of Members of Parliament from those three nations here in Westminster? That is an issue that simply cannot be dismissed. Finally, will the Prime Minister accept that if the public are to be properly engaged in the matters that he has outlined so comprehensively today, a constitutional convention would be the best and most effective way of ensuring it?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I agree with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said about the following issues. The first is the reform of the Intelligence and Security Committee—he supports us in that. The second is on the setting up of the national security council—I am glad that he is prepared to support us on that. The third is the reform of the right to demonstrate outside Westminster—I understand that he is prepared to support a change in the way that we carry that out. Fourthly, I believe that he supports all the measures that we are bringing forward that will change the royal prerogative. I say to him that the door is always open if he wishes to discuss other matters.

On the questions on which we are not wholly in agreement, of course there is a debate to be had about the future of Select Committees, and it can be led from within the House. Of course I am open to discussing the implications of devolution for our constitution, but I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would agree that English votes for English laws would mean that we would no longer have one United Kingdom. As for the constitutional convention that he proposes, let me tell him that a constitutional convention of the great and the good is not as good as hearings that will be held in all parts of the country, that will involve people in different communities of the country, and that will be led by the Secretary of State for Justice after consultation with the other parties. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will join us in supporting the nationwide debate on the future of the constitution.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a most remarkable document, but more particularly I welcome the proposals that he has put before the House on ensuring that the Intelligence and Security Committee, which I chair, will be more transparent and accountable. May I reassure him that all members of the Committee, from whatever party, look forward to examining the proposals to make the Committee more transparent, and particularly the proposals on holding more debates in this Chamber and the Chamber of the other place?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has been an excellent chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. He has led the way in suggesting that reforms can be made. I feel that the two functions of a Select Committee are first, to investigate, to interrogate and to examine events and what is happening in our country, and secondly, to persuade the country that important things are being done by the services that the Committees are monitoring. It is the second function to which we can now turn our attention. If we have a national security strategy, and if there is a debate on that both in Parliament and in the country, and if there is a power to call witnesses and to report on that, I believe that that second important job of a Select Committee, which is to inform the country of the good work that our services are doing, can be best achieved. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to take forward the proposals.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

I welcome the fact that in setting out his encyclopaedia of proposals the Prime Minister has made it clear that they are for debate and discussion, and are not the kind of instant constitutional change that the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs criticised following recent events. Will he show good faith by resolving the dispute with the senior judges about the arrangements for setting up the Ministry of Justice, and does he recognise that the transfer of power to Parliament will not be meaningful if the Government are able to wheel out their majority to suppress all dissent?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

The right hon. Gentleman plays a very important role as chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, and I hope that he will join in the discussions that we are having on the future of the constitutional arrangements about which he speaks.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice is holding discussions with the judges about the very issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised, and of course he will report back to the House on the resolution of them.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

On behalf of the Church of England, and as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, may I say that the Church congratulates the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Justice on the proposals put forward today? They will be given a fair wind and there will be a constructive, positive response from the Church. I also thank the Prime Minister for the prior consultation with the Church of England, and particularly with His Grace the Archbishop of York. Following today's publication of the Green Paper, will there be appropriate consultation with the Church, so that it can modify its internal procedures to encompass the Government's proposals?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The important role that he plays as a Church Commissioner is reflected in his contribution today. At the same time as he has been commenting on these issues, there has been full consultation, where possible, with the Church of England. I have met the Archbishop of York, the Government have been in touch with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and I hope that we can proceed with the changes by consensus. I know that they reflect the views of many in the House.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

If the Prime Minister truly believes in an effective bicameral Parliament, will he take steps to abandon the automatic timetabling of all controversial legislation, and will he not take steps to create a rival elected second Chamber at the other end of the Corridor?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I cannot assure the hon. Gentleman about the second matter, which is the subject of debate and where the will of the House of Commons has already been very clearly expressed. On the first matter, I know that it is the subject of discussions by the Modernisation Committee.

Photo of Robert Marshall-Andrews Robert Marshall-Andrews Labour, Medway

I congratulate the Prime Minister on his statement. At a time of change, nothing could be more significant than this abrupt departure from the past on central issues of civil liberty. Does he accept that although there may be problems with the letter of the statement, not least the West Lothian question, it is the spirit in which it is made to the House that will give many of us cause for considerable optimism?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

For any Prime Minister to be congratulated by the hon. Member is a unique occasion.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

I welcome many of the proposals that the Prime Minister has put forward, but in rejecting the case for English votes for English laws, he said that he did not want to create two classes of Members of the House. Is it not a fact, as pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, that we already have two classes of Members of the House—those who are able to vote on all measures affecting their constituents, and those who, on many measures, are able to vote only on measures affecting the constituents of others?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I disagree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman who, if he studies these matters, will note that devolution is devolution from this United Kingdom Parliament—a decision made by this United Kingdom Parliament and by all Members of the Parliament. I can only quote to him Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who said:

"Either you are a Member of Parliament or you are not. If you go ahead with this, you will have 100 MPs . . . who are second-class legislators."

That is the issue at stake.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Labour, Oldham West and Royton

I strongly commend my right hon. Friend's proposals, particularly his introducing them at the outset as the flagship of his new Administration. Does he accept that if Parliament is genuinely to hold the Executive to account, it must also have the right to set up its own parliamentary commissions of inquiry, where appropriate, into major issues that go beyond the resources and scope of current Select Committees, even in cases where the Executive may, for whatever reason, decline to set up its own investigation?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I am sorry that he was not able to join me in the contest for the leadership of the Labour party. It is a matter for Parliament to decide whether to set up its own committees on such matters. That is a matter for Parliament to vote on, but I hope that he agrees that the progress that we are making today, with my proposals for the Intelligence and Security Committee, shows that we are aware of the need for our Select Committees not only to be able to conduct investigations within the House, but to be able to tell the nation, through public reports for which they are responsible, about the work of services such as the security services. By all means, let my right hon. Friend put forward his proposals for the House to decide—but I hope that he will agree that we have made progress on the Intelligence and Security Committee today.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow Spokesperson (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

I congratulate the Prime Minister on his appointment, and I speak on behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party. In his statement, he referred to being beyond politics and partisanship, so in that spirit, will he review the convention whereby the Attorney-General's full legal opinion is not usually disclosed to the House of Commons? If not, does he envisage that at some time Parliament will be able to commission its own legal opinion?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's proposal to limit the prerogative powers, and we will do whatever we can to assist him in that in order to address the imbalance between the Executive and Parliament.

On devolution, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he will do all in his power to ensure that devolution in Wales—the unfinished business—will proceed accordingly and that eventually we will be able to put in place all the Richard commission's suggestions?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

The last point is a matter for the Welsh Assembly and this United Kingdom Parliament to discuss. We will publish a consultative paper on the future of the position of Attorney-General. The matter that the hon. Gentleman raises about the publication of the advice given by the Attorney-General will, among many other matters, be a subject of that paper, and I have just made a statement today about how the Attorney-General proposes to deal with individual criminal cases in the future.

Photo of Ronnie Campbell Ronnie Campbell Labour, Blyth Valley

Will that include consulting local people on local government reorganisation, as in Northumberland, where we do not know which way we are going, and where the people want two-tier local government but the Government seem to want one-tier local government?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

There is a process for examining the very issue that my hon. Friend raises, and today I suggested that it would be a good thing if there was a concordat between local and central Government, but he will have to wait for a statement by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the matter that he raises.

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

Will the Prime Minister assure the House that the measures that he has announced today will in no way prevent the British Government from discharging their fundamental obligation to act in defence of the British people? In particular, will he assure the House that these measures will not have the effect of impeding or delaying the conduct of military or anti-terrorist operations against those who are planning to mount or may already have delivered an attack on the United Kingdom?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify the position and to give more detail about what is contained in paragraphs 28, 29 and 30 of the document before him. That explicitly states that we

"would provide sufficient flexibility for deployments which need to be made without prior parliamentary approval for reasons of urgency or necessary operational secrecy. We would want to avoid any risk that members of the Armed Forces could be subject to legal liability for actions taken in good faith while protecting the national interest in such deployments."

It goes on to suggest how we, as a House of Commons, might debate these issues and come to a resolution of them. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman, both in the detail of my statement and in the detail of the document, that the position that he represents is properly safeguarded.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I warmly congratulate the Prime Minister on his splendid statement, which will reverse that damaging tendency of at least 50 years of concentrating more and more power in the hands of the Executive and the Prime Minister. I particularly welcome, on behalf of the 1,300 people who work in the Office for National Statistics in Newport, the news that the chairperson of the board, whoever he or she may be, will be elected by Parliament. That comes after the decision last night to accept the Lords amendments to the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, which will do a great deal to strengthen the validity of national statistics.

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. What we are proposing with an independent statistics board, with a chairman who is voted upon by the House of Commons, and with restrictions on the pre-release of statistics to Government Departments, is a major step forward in ensuring the independence of statistics in our country and will give greater confidence in the use of statistics in all areas.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee)

I welcome the scope of the debate that the Prime Minister has opened today with his statement, and if it concludes successfully I hope that he will feel personally comfortable if he is the Prime Minister in a more open, accountable, collective and democratic Government.

If the House of Commons is to be properly strengthened vis-à-vis the Executive, surely it is essential that it have more control over its timetable so that there is some ability to debate matters when they are still timely and events are unfolding and might be influenced, and that it should strengthen Select Committees by reviving the proposal of the former Leader of the House, Robin Cook, when he was in the Cabinet, that the Chairmen of Select Committees should be selected by secret ballot of every Member of the House. If the right hon. Gentleman embraced both those propositions, we would make a substantial step forward towards strengthening Parliament vis-à-vis the Executive.

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for some of the proposals that he put forward through the democracy commission, which he chaired. I hope that there will be common ground, despite some of the earlier comments on future constitutional changes. In particular, I agree with him about the royal prerogative. On Select Committees and the House of Commons, the Modernisation Committee has made some proposals and it is open to hon. Members to make additional proposals. Perhaps we can move towards a consensus in that area, too.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I wish my right hon. Friend well—

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones PPS (Rt Hon Dawn Primarolo, Minister of State), Department of Health

I do not know whether the conflation of the two of us is welcome or not.

What the Prime Minister has said today is welcome, particularly what he said about reviewing the way in which NHS boards are appointed. Will he provide an assurance that we will make NHS boards not only more accountable, but more representative of the communities that they serve, particularly in areas of health deprivation where people often have little or no representation on the boards that decide how the NHS should be conducted?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

The virtue of the process that we are starting is that the very issue that my hon. Friend has raised can be part of the discussion in moving forward. I know that there is concern in some areas of the country about both the accountability and the representativeness of the people who sit on boards and committees. During the course of the debate, we can consider whether some of those issues can be addressed. I look forward to debating them.

Photo of Douglas Carswell Douglas Carswell Conservative, Harwich

In order to make Parliament more accountable, does the Prime Minister envisage some form of popular initiative to allow voters to have a say in the legislative agenda of this House?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I have suggested that the House could consider how it deals with petitions from members of the public. In the Scottish Parliament, there is a special procedure for dealing with petitions. In the original European treaty, there was a special proposal for dealing with petitions from members of the public. It may be that in the light of the discussion, the House will want to introduce a trigger mechanism under which, if a certain number of people have signed a petition, it is the subject of debate either in Committee or on the Floor of the House. I encourage hon. Members to examine how we can respond more effectively to public concerns by using the willingness of members of the public to sign petitions as a signal for us to consider how to debate them.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I apologise, Mr. Speaker—I am going a little deaf. I am pleased that the Prime Minister is showing signs that his listening capabilities have improved. I wish him well in achieving his aim, which I am sure that we all share, of improving our democracy in this country. I am sure that he is right that we need to work together more effectively. However, patronage and partisanship are not only between parties but within parties. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has any ideas for dealing with that—I have a few suggestions.

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

The Government have just set up committees to look at the manifesto that we will produce for the general election, and my hon. Friend is welcome to contribute to them.

S

That is no comfort whatsoever, Mr Brown. Indeed, the Labour Party could well save itself a small fortune...

Submitted by S Hewlett Continue reading

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister (Energy), Trade & Industry

The Prime Minister did not respond to one of the questions asked by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Menzies Campbell—the one about electoral reform. Will he state his personal view on electoral reform for this House? Does he recognise that having a Government who are invariably elected by a minority among the voters of this country undermines the legitimacy of all Governments?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

The first stage of any future discussion will be the publication, soon, of the review of electoral systems, especially those that have been created since 1997. I hope that we can have a full discussion on the basis of that review.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

On behalf of the Public Administration Committee, which has over the years recommended a good number of the measures that he announced today, may I say to my right hon. Friend that this is a genuinely historic statement? It is not unusual for an Opposition to say that they want to introduce measures to make Parliament stronger, but it is most unusual for a Government to say that. May I also say that the manner of the announcement—it was made here first—has been good for Parliament, too? It is the first time that I have had journalists phone me to ask if I knew what was going on. This is good for Parliament: long may it continue.

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who does such good work as Chairman of the Committee. I believe that there is scope for bipartisan support for measures such as the ones that I have put forward. I have also suggested areas where the debate can move forward and where all parties should be involved. I know that his Committee, and the proposals that have come from it, will contribute to what final recommendations are made. That points towards a constitutional reform Bill, which I hope will, in the end, be capable of having all-party support.

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

The Prime Minister prefaced his remarks by saying that he wanted to give more power to Parliament. Would not Parliament have more power, and would not it do its job better, if the Committee that decides how to relate to the Executive was chaired by a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, not by a member of the Cabinet?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

That, again, is a matter for the Modernisation Committee. Obviously, we are willing to discuss these issues. However, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the proposals that we have put forward are a very significant transfer of power from the Executive to Parliament in all the areas that I have set out. The matter that he raises is one on which discussions can take place in this House.

Photo of Anne Snelgrove Anne Snelgrove PPS (Rt Hon Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State), Department for Transport

I welcome the depth and breadth of these proposals, especially those relating to local communities and young people. I also welcome the emphasis on regional communities and the regional committees. When my right hon. Friend sets up those committees, will he bear in mind that large communities such as Swindon often look across regional boundaries with regard to their economies?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

That must always be taken into account in considering the role of regional Ministers or of regional committees. I am saddened that the Opposition parties have not welcomed what we are suggesting on the regions. We have regional planning areas and regional development agencies. We have, in many areas of the country, very active regional organisations and regional offices of the Government. In the spirit that organisations that are doing a public job should be fully accountable where that can be so, I would have thought that there should be all-party support for regional committees and for forms of accountability that hold regional offices to account.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

The Prime Minister will of course be aware that there is much to welcome in his statement on both sides of the House. However, other issues will need to be looked at with great care and caution. If he is really serious about improving the opportunities of citizenship, especially for our young people, will he acknowledge that this is the only country in Europe, other than Iceland, that stops teaching history compulsorily before the age of 16? Does he understand that the teaching of history is extremely important for people to have an idea about the citizenship of the country to which they belong?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows my views about the importance of teaching history, both in citizenship courses in the curriculum and in history itself—and I have the Children, Schools and Families Secretary sitting next to me.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

The Prime Minister has given an awful lot of important portfolios to Members of the House of Lords. Does he recall how Aneurin Bevan used to draw the attention of the House to the need to speak to the organ grinder instead of the monkey? Can he ensure that we consider having Ministers who hold portfolios in the other House answering questions at this Dispatch Box and the other way around?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

That would indeed be a constitutional innovation. The Executive must have members in both Houses, and having good Ministers, such as those whom we appointed in the House of Lords, is important to the Government's functioning. Obviously, the future of the House of Lords and the status of election in it is a central question that must be resolved first.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Liberal Democrat, Northavon

From his statement, it is clear that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that it is wrong for the Prime Minister to be able to call a general election on a whim, possibly for party advantage. Does not that equally apply to the governing party's power in the Green Paper to do precisely that? Will he therefore seriously consider fixed-term Parliaments, starting with the current one?

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

The document proposes that the dissolution of Parliament cannot simply be at the Prime Minister's discretion but should be by a vote in this House. That is what we shall consider and debate. I will listen to the hon. Gentleman's comments, but I hope that he agrees that progress is made by our saying today that the dissolution of Parliament should be by vote of Parliament.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

May I, too, warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, especially the suggestion that the Security and Intelligence Committee be made accountable to the House? The Select Committee on Home Affairs, which I once had the honour to chair, recommended that some time ago. However, may I say to him that, if the past is anything to go by, he will meet considerable resistance during his consultation from the agencies themselves and possibly from members of the existing, appointed Committee? At that stage, an act of political will, not a consultation, will be required.

Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments, but I have to tell him that extensive discussion took place with the security services before the proposal was presented. As I said in my opening remarks, the security services recognise the strength that is given to their work if there is public support for their actions. As I reminded the House, Select Committees have two functions: one is to investigate events and the second is to win public support for the work of the services that they monitor. We should now direct our attention to the second function, and I believe that the security services will not only welcome, but benefit from, opening up the Committee in the way that is suggested.