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Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Have you received any indication from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that he intends to come to the House to correct what he said on Monday in his statement on foot and mouth? He said that compensation schemes in Scotland would be
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the responsibility of the Scottish Government. That is not correct; there is a 1999 concordat between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Scottish Executive, and the Scotland Act 1998 (Concurrent Functions) Order 1999 states that responsibility for compensation lies with the Secretary of State. Surely he should return to the House to explain what he intends to do to compensate Scotland’s livestock industry for the negligence of his Department.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I hear what the hon. Member says, and Members on the Treasury Bench will have done so, too, but I am in no position to respond in the affirmative to his point.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In May, the Government announced an organisational review of the Ministry of Justice. It is a fundamental review, and today the Ministry’s permanent secretary issued an update on that review, which could result in the splitting of the Ministry and in major changes to the National Offender Management Service. That update was given not to the House, and not by a Minister, but through an announcement on a website. What guidance can you give me about the appropriateness of that, bearing in mind the fact that the Ministry of Justice is charged with delivering the Prime Minister’s declared agenda of strengthening Parliament and the ability of the House to hold the Government to account? Is it not quite wrong that the statement was made by the permanent secretary, and on a Government website?

Madam Deputy Speaker: As the hon. Member will know, the Speaker expects Ministers to make statements to the House. Members on the Treasury Bench will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said. I can add nothing further to that.



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Family Justice System

7.30 pm

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I have an example of egregious behaviour by the family justice system to present.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Proposals for a Written Constitution

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Siobhain McDonagh.]

7.31 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to raise the Government’s proposals on a written constitution in this Adjournment debate. This debate follows on from the debate on 22 May initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) in the light of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer’s commitment to introduce a constitutional reform Bill.

I am delighted to see the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), on the Front Bench. His willingness to consult as widely as possible with the public and key groups on the issues of British identity and constitutional reform is well known, and I am pleased that he has been given responsibility for this very important matter. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to provide the House with greater detail since the Prime Minister’s statement on constitutional reform on 3 July. I know that the House is keen to know how we can progress towards a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities and possibly a written constitution. Some consider matters of constitutional reform dry subjects for academic lawyers. I disagree. I believe that this is one of the most exciting areas of Government policy and I am sure that the Minister agrees.

This issue is of course part of a historic process of constitutional reform that began on this island almost 800 years ago with the Greater Charter of Freedoms—the Magna Carta—codifying the rights of the individual against the power of the state. Even today, the Magna Carta informs current key political debates, and I am sure that the Minister has a copy of it with him for this debate.

The Charter speaks to us through centuries of history. Its 29th clause states:

I apologise for the lack of political correctness, but it is a direct quotation from the Magna Carta.

That principle, which this country has defended against internal and external threats for centuries, is still a matter for profound political debate. Only yesterday, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, appeared before the Home Affairs Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, to make the case for powers to detain people before charge for more than 28 days. That is one of the many issues that, as I will outline, lead me to be a strong supporter of a single Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. How do we ensure that this issue is discussed not only by the elite, but by representatives of groups from all over the country?

Constitutional reform has been one of the major achievements of the Government since 1997—devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, a Mayor and Assembly for London, the process of
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removing hereditary peers from the House of Lords, the creation of a Ministry of Justice, the creation of a Supreme Court, the creation of a body to appoint judges independently, and the incorporation of the European convention on human rights via the Human Rights Act 1998. This has been the collective work of the Government. However, I should like to recognise in particular two Ministers who have been at the forefront of the process—Lord Irvine of Lairg and Lord Falcolner of Thoroton, who were both distinguished Lord Chancellors.

All these reforms have been substantive changes to our unwritten and ancient constitutional tapestry, and have been remarkably successful. Even more remarkable is the lack of attention that these reforms attracted. That is, perhaps, a measure of their success. It is difficult to imagine rolling back devolution or re-installing the hereditary peers, although I understand that the Conservative party is committed to scrapping the Human Rights Act, despite presumably remaining part of the European convention on human rights.

The convention is one of the greatest accomplishments of the finest British legal minds. While some look back to regressing into a constitutional settlement that never was, the Government and the Prime Minister are right to look forward to continuing the path towards constitutional modernisation. In his first major statement to the House, the Prime Minister proposed a number of constitutional changes to improve our democracy and governance. These reforms include the removal of the royal prerogative in 12 areas, including the power to declare war, appoint judges and even choose bishops. Parliament should warmly welcome its empowerment on these and other key issues.

However, my focus in this debate will be the suggestion by the Prime Minister that we move away from our largely unwritten constitution and towards a single document that codifies the rights and responsibilities of those living in Britain. With reference to other countries with unwritten constitutions, I understand that only New Zealand, Canada and Israel share the United Kingdom’s status.

I am a strong supporter of such a document. Britain’s last Bill of Rights was forged in 1689. For the 17th century, it was a remarkable text limiting the powers of the monarch and setting out the great freedoms that we as citizens still enjoy today, such as the freedom from cruel and unusual punishments, the freedom of speech in Parliament, the freedom from taxation by royal prerogative, and the freedom to elect Members of Parliament without interference from the sovereign. These were great and fundamental freedoms, of special importance to the development of the House, but more than 300 years have passed and it is time for a new Bill of Rights, such as a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and for us to take the steps towards a full written constitution.

The people of Britain hold a great sense of civic purpose, but it is not clear enough to the individual where his or her rights and duties lie, and where the Government’s begin. In an age of concern about antisocial behaviour and crime, we need a document embodying the guiding values that we share as a nation. Above all, a constitution would clarify not only the collective power of the Government, but the powers
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of a neighbourhood, community group or family to correct antisocial behaviour. We are all stakeholders in civic society on a national, regional, local and street level. A fear is expressed in the tabloid media that the European convention on human rights is an alien document and a danger to our country. It is time to incorporate the European convention on human rights into a British written constitution, in effect bringing the convention back home.

A constitution would allow British citizens to point to a single document containing the values, principles, rights and responsibilities that all in Britain must follow. It could be used to provide new British citizens from other countries with a sense of British identity and an understanding of British values, which is close to the heart of the Minister who has campaigned on the issues of identity and Britishness for many years.

A constitution would state the responsibilities that go alongside those rights. To take the classic example, it would make it clear that the right to free speech goes alongside the responsibility not to incite racial hatred between groups. Beyond that, a single document could encompass the reforms, which have occurred and which will continue to occur, to our constitution. We have been fortunate that in recent memory our parliamentary process has not had to face strains and extremism that other countries have experienced to their detriment.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who is the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, has announced the consultation with the British public, and he has said it will begin in the autumn as requested by the Prime Minister. I am sure that his consideration of the great range of opinion will be examined carefully and thoroughly. In a recent New Statesman interview, however, he ruled out an actual written constitution in the short term:

The Minister has been entrusted—in my view rightly—with the onerous responsibility of putting those important building blocks in place. Although I am keen to ensure that there is no unnecessary foot-dragging in planning the way forward on such a radical innovation for the United Kingdom, I agree with the principle that the process should not be rushed before the public, the political establishment and, above all, the machinery of government are ready for such a change. It is vital that we take the British people with us.

The consultation process is not the most important issue. I have just spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, who told me that people should e-mail the Minister. Millions of people could e-mail the Minister about what the new constitution should look like, but at the end of the day somebody must edit those suggestions. I hope that the Minister will clarify the key question of who will sit down and edit this great constitutional project. I believe that history proves that a national constitution works most effectively when the ultimate drafters—the wise men and women—hold legitimacy in the eyes of the country. The American constitution, for example, which was forged by the energies of the war of independence, was drafted by high-profile figures of many different political orientations and ambitions,
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and none, who moved towards a consensus. Even that great constitution was not perfect for a number of reasons—slavery remained—but it endowed legitimacy on a nation that developed a great civil society. That legitimacy is needed today and for future generations. I would be grateful if the Minister were to state who will be involved in the early stages, who will be involved in the later stages and what Parliament’s role will be.

In 100 years’ time, when many of today’s policy debates and manifesto commitments—even talk of a general election on 1 November—are long forgotten, I know that this Government’s constitutional reform programme will be long remembered. I believe that that will be the key thing that people remember about these years. Is the Minister ready to be remembered as the Benjamin Franklin of a future British constitution?

The Government have achieved much—with not enough recognition—in bringing Britain’s constitution into the 21st century, so I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government plan to secure the historic achievement of a written constitution. “We, the people of the United Kingdom, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice and human rights, ensure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, and promote the general welfare of the British people”: those few words are my version of how we should start the constitution. I look forward to hearing what the Minister’s version will be.

7.45 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) on securing this debate on a very important subject for this House and for the people of this country. He will not be surprised to hear that I share his view on the importance of these issues. He has brought to the debate a wealth of experience and distinguished service to this House and to this Government. I am grateful for the way in which he set out the arguments, because he covered most of the issues that we will have to confront and deal with as we embark on the programme that the Prime Minister set out to the House on 3 June this year.

This is part of a process. Since 1997, the Government have been embarked on a radical programme of constitutional renewal. The next stage, which is set out in the Green Paper, “The Governance of Britain”, seeks to forge a new relationship between Government and the citizen and to continue the journey towards a new constitutional settlement that entrusts Parliament and the people with more power. It is important to note that the Green Paper is not a blueprint but a route map that we will navigate in conversation with the British people. We are planning a far-ranging programme of consultation involving a whole range of mechanisms that we hope will produce a settlement which, as my right hon. Friend suggested, will be owned by the British people themselves; it will not be sustainable unless we do so.

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