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My right hon. Friend spent a large part of his speech talking about a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. The Government remain fully committed to the universal declaration of human rights made by the United Nations on behalf of the free world at the conclusion of the second world war. Those rights are also reflected
in the European convention on human rights and in the Human Rights Act 1998, which brought them back to this country and made them justiciable here. However, times change, and legal norms must be continuously reassessed against changing circumstances. The Government have always said that the 1998 Act was a first step on the journey towards a full articulation of fundamental rights and responsibilities for people in the United Kingdom.
We are now about to launch a debate about how to go forward, focusing on the way in which our commitment to these fundamental rights and responsibilities can help to bind us together and how we can make their application more transparent and accessible to the public. In particular, we wish to explore how we can make more explicit the way in which these rights are mirrored by the duties that citizens owe to the state and to society and the underpinning concepts of proportionality, legitimacy and necessity in the way the Act is implemented. In considering how that might be done, we believe that one possibility would be the passing of a new Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. We will listen very carefully to what people say to us as we embark on the consultation process throughout the country, and we will use the information that we derive from that process to work out an appropriate way of achieving those goals.
Of course, some, like my right hon. Friend, want to go further than that and to ensure that our constitution is fully codified. The campaign for such a written constitution has a long and distinguished history in this country, with many supporters on both sides of the House. Most countries have codified written and embedded constitutions; the United Kingdom does not, for all sorts of historical reasons. Instead, our constitution has four principal sources: statute law, common law, conventions and works of authority. Unlike other countries, since the end of the 17th century there has been no key event, war or revolution that has led to the need for one document setting out the rules that govern the political system and the rights of citizens and Government.
Keith Vaz: I am sorry to raise the point during this part of the Ministers speech, but I was interested in his decision to go around the country and meet groups. Does he have any format in mind for those meetings, and will the cities and towns he chooses have a particular profile? It is important that wherever he chooses to go is truly representative of the United Kingdom. Of course, we would love to see him in Leicester.
Mr. Wills: My right hon. Friend is right to suggest that we should employ a variety of mechanisms; that is what we intend to do. I shall talk a little more in a moment about the British statement of values and how we intend to realise that.
We shall use a wide variety of mechanisms, such as citizens juries, in which representative bodies of citizens come together to deliberate on particular issues. We intend to use online consultation widely so that people who cannot be part of the physical consultation process for whatever reason will be able to engage fully in debating these important issues. That will apply across the piece. We are consulting widely on the Constitutional Reform Bill, which concerns the surrendering and limiting of the Executives powers. We will consult on the possibility of a new Bill of Rights and Duties, and consult widely on the British statement of values, to which I shall come in a moment.
I would like to comment again on a point to which my right hon. Friend referred in his remarks. If we are to consider going down the route of a fully codified constitutionsomething that would be a radical departure from constitutional practice in this countryit is important that we do so on the basis of a settled consensus. That can be achieved only through extensive and wide consultation. If we do not do it on that basis, I fear that it would not be sustainable. It is important that when we embark upon constitutional change, particularly potentially radical change, we should approach it not as an engineer approaches a blueprint, but as a physician, healing what needs to be healed, but not going beyond that. We need to approach the matter with care and caution, but we must recognise that the issue is a live one, and one with which we must engage.
Underpinning everything that we have talked about is our desire to find the things that bind us together as a nation. We have proposed, therefore, the development of a British statement of values. When I say we, I refer to the British people as a whole, not to this Government. The process that we are proposing, as the Prime Minister has made very clear, will not involve the Government
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am afraid that interventions from the Opposition Front Bench are not permitted in these Adjournment debates. I am sure that the hon. Lady was not seeking to break the convention.
We have made it clear that decisions on whether there should be such a British statement of values, on the form it should take and on the uses to which it should be put, will be taken by a citizens summit. It will be a representative body of British people, probably selected randomly, but demographically representative of the country as a whole. They will deliberate on these
questions and come to a decision, which will then be put to Parliament for the final say.
That brings me to a very important point. In all the proposals that we have introduced that are embodied in the Green Paper, The Governance of Britain, our system of parliamentary, representative democracy will remain at the heart. My right hon. Friend asked what position Parliament would have in the process, and I can tell him that it will remain absolutely at the heart of it. For all the measures that are being consulted on, and all the measures of direct democracy, we are not proposing to replace our system of representative democracy or go towards in any way a plebiscitary democracy. We believe that our system of representative democracy is fair and effective and it will remain central to the process.
We must recognise that the system of representative democracy, which has served the country well, may need to change for changed circumstances. The British people, their aspirations and political behaviour have changed and it is right and proper that our constitution should adapt to reflect that. It always has doneone of the great virtues of the British constitution has been its flexibility. In the 19th century, it went through enormous upheaval, with three great reforms of the suffrage, which were as radical as our current proposals.
Keith Vaz: It is fascinating to hear my hon. Friends comments. Obviously, he must consult the British people first, but is there any particular country, which he has studied or from which he has received evidence or reports of its written constitution, to which he is attracted?
Clearly, we are studying what has happened in other countries. However, we would not try to replicate other constitutional arrangements in this country because constitutions arise from the specific circumstances of each country. They are products of specific histories and societies. We believe that what we have in this country is specific and unique and we want to formulate our own proposaland we want the British people to be central in that processrather than importing practice. However, we have examined ways in which other countries try to engage their populations in constitutional change. For example, we have considered Australia and British Columbia, which conducted an interesting experiment
with a citizens summit. In formulating the debate, we will learn from the custom and practice that other countries have adopted, but we need to work out ways in which to adapt specific constitutional mechanisms for ourselves as a people.
My right hon. Friend asked where we would go in the country. I can safely say that we will look everywhere and that we are especially conscious of the importance of Leicester as a representative town. We shall seriously consider conducting at least one event nearby, if not in Leicester. I hope that that satisfies my right hon. Friend for the time being.
We will be able to reveal much more detail in the coming months and I hope that there will be plenty of opportunity to debate those matters in the House. The process will not be short and many of our discussions will take place over not only months but years. We are starting that process and we want to engage parliamentarians in it. Todays debate is rather sparsely attendedI hope that we can get more of our colleagues to participate in future. The debates are important and will inevitably have an impact on the way in which Parliament works.
Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend has been generous in giving way. I note from the newspapers that he has decided to give up his ministerial car. I hope that his transport arrangements will enable him to travel around the country.
Mr. Wills: I am grateful for the care with which my right hon. Friend follows press coverage of my movements. However, there will be no hindrance to getting around the country. The Lord Chancellor and I will travel around the country, probably by public transport more often than not.
We will try our best to ensure that we reach everybody in this country who wants to participate in the debate. It is not always easy. We want to go beyond the usual voices that contribute to such discussions. We are trying to construct mechanisms to do that and I hope that my colleagues in the House today will participate in the process. We will invite all parliamentarians to join us in the debate. It is not the prerogative of one party, but something that should belong to every Member of the House and every citizen of the country. It is an important process and, if we can do it together on a non-partisan basis, we have a good chance of achieving a radical constitutional settlement, which will serve the country well for many years.