Second Reading

Part of Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:39 pm on 24th March 2010.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 3:39 pm, 24th March 2010

My Lords, much of the Bill crosses familiar territory for your Lordships. It was preceded by the Government's draft Constitutional Renewal Bill which was published in March 2008 for pre-legislative scrutiny. The draft Bill was also put out for public consultation in the Government's draft legislative programme. In total this Bill has been preceded by 18 consultations and publications. Many of its parts have been extensively debated by your Lordships over the years.

Perhaps, therefore, it is appropriate at this time for me to put on record again the Government's gratitude to the Members who served on the Joint Committee on the draft Bill. I also thank the Constitution Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee for their work in scrutinising the draft Bill and this Bill.

The Bill that is before us today goes much further than the draft Bill, and I make no apology at all for that. The Bill before your Lordships is a historic package of measures forming part of a wider obligation, crossing all party divisions, to rebuild trust in our democratic and constitutional settlement and to reinforce the principles of transparency, accountability and probity across government and Parliament.

The Bill has been progressing through Parliament against the backdrop of an unprecedented crisis of confidence in politics. The additions we have made to the Bill are a direct response to that. It is testimony to the seriousness of the situation we face that, for example, the provisions to implement the Kelly report, the 30-year rule for public records, and the tax status of parliamentarians all have cross-party support. Let me deal briefly with each part of the Bill.

Part 1 deals with the Civil Service, which has hitherto been established under the royal prerogative. The Government are of the view that it is now time to put the role, governance and values of the Civil Service onto a statutory footing, to give Parliament and the public confidence that an impartial Civil Service will be maintained for the future. Our Civil Service is admired across the world for its professionalism and impartiality. By placing the key values of the Civil Service on a statutory footing, we will be safeguarding the aspects of the Civil Service which we might take for granted. Your Lordships' Constitution Committee has highlighted this as one of the most significant parts of the Bill.

Part 1 will establish the Civil Service Commission on a statutory footing, thus guaranteeing its independent status. It also provides for the Civil Service and the Foreign Secretary's general power to manage the Civil Service and the Diplomatic Service respectively to be delegated, as now, to the head of the Civil Service and the permanent heads of department.

Part 1 also lays down a requirement for the Minister for the Civil Service and the Foreign Secretary to prepare and lay before Parliament a code of conduct for the Civil Service and the Diplomatic Service respectively. The codes must include the key Civil Service values of integrity, impartiality, objectivity and honesty. The codes will form part of the terms and conditions of civil servants.

Clause 7(2) provides that the Civil Service and Diplomatic Service codes must require civil servants who serve an Administration, mentioned in Clause 7(3), to carry out their duties for the assistance of the Administration as it is duly constituted, whatever its political complexion. The Administrations in question are Her Majesty's Government and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales. This does not affect civil servants who are on loan to or directly employed by bodies such as the Supreme Court, the Scottish Court Service or arm's-length bodies, whose duty is to serve the organisation they are seconded to or employed by, and not the aforementioned Administrations.

Clause 8 provides for the publication of a code of conduct that prohibits special advisers from authorising expenditure, managing permanent civil servants and exercising statutory powers. This prohibition was added by the Government as an amendment in the other place and is consistent with the recommendation made by the other place's Public Administration Select Committee. The Bill provides that all appointments to the Civil Service, subject to limited exceptions, must be on merit, on the basis of fair and open competition. Civil Service Commissioners are required to publish a set of principles which will be applied to appointments into the Civil Service. The Minister for the Civil Service and the commission may agree that the commission can carry out additional functions in relation to the Civil Service. In response to issues raised by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, I confirm that this power would not be used to confer functions on the commission that are already conferred by statute on some other person or body.

Part 2 places the Ponsonby rule in statute and for the first time gives legal effect to a negative vote by either House on the ratification of international treaties. The Ponsonby rule requires the treaty to be published and laid before both Houses for a minimum of 21 sitting days prior to ratification. Although the Ponsonby rule is well established, it is based on constitutional convention rather than law and, formally, Parliament has no ability to veto a ratification. I mentioned that this part gives legal effect to a negative vote of either House, but the legal effect is different, depending on which House is concerned. Negative votes by the other place could ultimately block ratification by the Government. If there is a negative vote by this House, the Government could nevertheless proceed to ratify the treaty after laying a formal statement before both Houses to explain why. This variation is an appropriate reflection of the primacy of the other place as the elected House.

I turn to Part 3 and the referendum on voting systems. These provisions were approved by a very large majority in the other place of some 178. They provide for a referendum to be held on changing the voting system for elections to the House of Commons to the alternative vote. If approved, the referendum will be held by October 2011; the Bill also provides for the practical and procedural aspects of the referendum and the referendum campaign. I look forward to hearing the views across the House on these provisions.

To anticipate one question that may arise-why now?-as I indicated in my opening remarks, in the past 12 months we have seen a crisis of confidence in our political system and our politicians on a scale that perhaps none of us has witnessed in our political lifetimes. Trust has been profoundly damaged; I do not think that that is an overstatement. The Government have already taken action to deal with the issue of MPs' expenses, but the crisis of confidence runs much deeper than that. We must do all that we can to rebuild that trust in politics, and the electoral system has to form some part of that process. We believe that this is a credible alternative which would go with the grain of what the British people value in our current system and build on those strengths-particularly on the single-Member consistency, the directness and depth of the relationship between constituents and their representatives and the majoritarian system that is right for the House of Commons. This is clearly a significant change, so it is appropriate to put it to the people in a referendum.

On Part 4 and parliamentary standards, this part of the Bill includes measures to implement recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its report on the MPs' expenses scheme. The key provisions strengthen the enforcement regime in respect of the MPs' expenses scheme and transfer responsibility for determining MPs' pay and pensions to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Happily, the provisions in this part of the Bill enjoy cross-party support and have been agreed with Sir Christopher Kelly and Sir Ian Kennedy, respectively the chairmen of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. None of the substantive provisions in Part 4 apply to your Lordships' House as currently constituted.