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Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): 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
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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?

The Prime Minister: 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.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): 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?

The Prime Minister: 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.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): 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?

The Prime Minister: 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

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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.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): 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.

The Prime Minister: 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.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): 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- -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- -vis the Executive.

The Prime Minister: 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.

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Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I wish my right hon. Friend well—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I called Helen Jones; you are Lynne Jones.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): 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?

The Prime Minister: 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.

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): 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?

The Prime Minister: 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.

Lynne Jones: 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.

The Prime Minister: 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.

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David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): The Prime Minister did not respond to one of the questions asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (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?

The Prime Minister: 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.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): 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.

The Prime Minister: 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.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): 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?

The Prime Minister: 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.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): 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?

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The Prime Minister: 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.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): 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?

The Prime Minister: 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.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): 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?

The Prime Minister: 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.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): 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?

The Prime Minister: 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
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hope that he agrees that progress is made by our saying today that the dissolution of Parliament should be by vote of Parliament.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): 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.

The Prime Minister: 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.

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Pre-Nuptial Agreements

4.31 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): I beg to move,

The Bill would give legal effect to pre-nuptial agreements— [Laughter.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to be heard.

Mr. Davies: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I emphasise that the Bill is a purely permissive or enabling measure. We should be especially careful when introducing legislation that would impose obligations on the citizen, thereby constraining his liberty. My Bill does nothing of that kind and simply adds to the liberty of the citizen.

The measure will provide the citizen with an option in the conduct of his personal affairs that he currently does not have. It will make it possible for him, when he contemplates entering into a marriage—and, though the short title does not make it clear, when he contemplates a new relationship or he or she is in a relationship—to make an arrangement, which will subsequently be enforceable by the courts, to determine in advance the basis— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I know that the vast majority of hon. Members are courteous, but loud conversations are taking place. That is not good for the democracy that we hold so dear.

Mr. Davies: One or two Conservative Members are understandably sore about some home truths that I had to tell them the other day. I sympathise with that reaction, which does not entirely surprise me.

As I said, the object of the Bill is to give people an option that they do not currently have, thereby adding to the liberty of the subject. It means that, when people are in a relationship or contemplating a relationship or marriage, they can decide with their partner or potential partner the exact basis for the distribution of any assets or liabilities if the relationship fails. It is important to emphasise the voluntary aspect of the proposals.

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