Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill

Part of Nato – in the House of Commons at 6:10 pm on 20th October 2009.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase 6:10 pm, 20th October 2009

My hon. Friend tempts me to go wider than I am already going, and I think that I am going quite wide enough. Some little plans are being hatched to do something else about the balance between Parliament and the Executive, however, and I hope to be able to say more about them in the near future.

Against that background, I want to extend a particular welcome for what I take to be the central part of the Bill. It is an issue that I have been engaged with for as long as I can remember-probably too long-which is to try to put the civil service on a statutory basis. The Committee that I chair produced its own Bill to do so in 2004. I think that was the first time in the modern period that a Select Committee has produced its own Bill. We did so because we had become frustrated by our inability to make progress on the issue. It was something that had been much promised, but never delivered.

Everyone had accepted the arguments for putting the civil service on a statutory basis. They grew out of Northcote-Trevelyan and it was viewed as an anomaly that this had not already happened. Northcote-Trevelyan had suggested that we needed only a few clauses to do it, but those few clauses never seemed to be put in place. I read my way through all the debates on the issue under the last Conservative Government, when the old Treasury and Civil Service Committee used to recommend that this should be done. The argument then was, "Well, we think this may be a good idea in principle, but we have worries about doing it." Some of those worries were very proper ones: it was said that the change should not be done in a way that would become a source of controversy between the parties and that it should be done only if political consensus could be gained. It was in the same spirit that the civil service itself approached these issues. It wanted this done, but it wanted an assurance that it would be done in a spirit of political consensus.

I take some pleasure in the fact that, after all this time, we have now reached a point where this can safely be done for the civil service. We can safely do it on the basis of genuine consensus across the parties. What we are doing is something that everyone understands we ought to do, which is to try to define what we think the core values of our civil service are and to put them into statute, as we have done with other things. Secondly, we need to put into statute the core institutional machinery necessary to ensure that those values are delivered. That is the key point about the Civil Service Commission.

This may not seem to be an exciting moment-indeed, it may seem a prosaic moment in the scheme of things-but it is constitutionally an extremely important moment. I very much want this Government to have this reform as one item on the long list of actions they have taken to change the operation of government in this country. With a bit of luck and a fair wind, they will achieve that. That is my main welcome for the Bill.

Let me share another rather general thought, which is that I do not know whether we are approaching a time that could be described as a serious constitutional moment-one in which we want to examine in a more fundamental way how we are governed-but I doubt whether we can go on for ever simply making it up as we go along. I shall not resort to the cliché that every disaster is an opportunity, but there is perhaps a moment that arises out of the catastrophe that has overwhelmed this institution of Parliament, which has got people to begin to think, talk and discuss how they want to be governed-whether they are governed in a satisfactory way and whether it can be improved. Such a discussion is happening on a number of fronts.

Shortly after I entered the House, I remember trying to introduce a Bill on fixed-term Parliaments, but I could not get a hearing for that proposition. Another prerogative power was involved; I recall being much taken by the fact that I had to write to the Palace to get permission to introduce a ten-minute Bill on fixed-term Parliaments. Now, however, it is becoming accepted that it is right to move in the direction of having fixed-term Parliaments. It is increasingly viewed as absurd that nearly every other Parliament operates to some fixed cycle, but our Parliament does not.

The argument that we need to examine our electoral system is being heard with greater force now-and not necessarily for the old reasons. Arguments about strict proportionality or the mathematics of voting are less relevant; the important thing now is that the electorate has changed. The first-past-the-post system, with all its rough edges, did not matter very much when, on the whole, there were defined blocks in the electorate that delivered their votes for parties and took their turn now and again. The electorate is not like that now; it is far more differentiated and variegated. Governments may be elected now on the basis of a very small minority of the vote and yet enjoy all the power that is accorded to Governments in this country. At some point, we have simply got to address that issue because when our circumstances change, we have to revisit our arrangements.

Beyond all that, I hear a developing argument these days that asks whether we need to revisit some of the fundamentals of our governing arrangements. There is far more interest now in whether we should begin to separate out more clearly the Executive functions from the legislative ones. It was interesting to see recently that a former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Turnbull, had written an article in the Financial Times advocating the separation of powers as the only way he thought we could get the skills that we needed into government and also provide the sort of parliamentary scrutiny that was needed. The fusion of power in our system is damaging on the one side, but also damaging on the other side.

It is interesting to see that even Prime Ministers nowadays want to push out the boundaries by bringing more people in from outside. We have heard in exchanges this afternoon about proposals to bring people into government who may not have to be members of either House of Parliament or even to be elected. It is suggested that such people can come and be Ministers for a while. It may be a good idea. The Committee I chair is looking at some of these proposals at the moment, but if we go down that route, we have to think it through. If we are changing the nature of the Executive, we may want to change the nature of Parliament, including its scrutiny function. The principle should be that strong Government, which is what we all say we have had in this country-and in many respects, we have-has to be matched by strong accountability, but we have not seen that.

My conclusion from all this is that interesting discussion and argument is going on about the very nature of our system of government. My view is that we need some mechanism to carry all this forward. When the Government came to power in 1997, instead of simply working through our shopping list of reforms, we should have had something like a constitutional commission, which could have looked at all the parts of the argument in the round, ensuring that one bit was consistent with another, while also providing a reservoir of expertise on constitutional matters. It could even have engaged the public-an issue I feel even more strongly about now.

It is no good simply having discussions or putting forward ideas about how the system could change; if we are approaching a constitutional moment, we must have a mechanism to carry it forward that engages the public, too. I would favour something like a democracy commission. I know that we are busy abolishing every body in sight at the moment, but we need a place in our system-other countries have it-where we can think about the nature of our governing arrangements on a continuing basis. If we find ourselves arriving at a moment when we will have to make some big constitutional choices, we would then have some means of doing so.