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I turn now to the ratification of treaties, which is already subject to a parliamentary convention introducedI am pleased to sayby the first Labour Government, in 1924. For the cognoscenti, it is known as the Ponsonby rule, after the man who introduced it. According to the convention, and with certain
exceptions, the Government must lay a treaty as a Command Paper before Parliament for a minimum of 21 sitting days before ratification. It is then for Parliament to determine which treaties it wishes to debate.
The Government believe that there may be value in putting the convention on a statutory footing, to establish better Parliaments right to decide and to show that the actions of the Government are subject to the will of the peoples representatives. The paper seeks views on how that can best be done, including on the detailed and important questions of exceptions to the existing convention, which include bilateral double taxation agreements, how a debate and vote on a treaty should be triggered, and how the 21-day period could be extended in special circumstances.
As Lord Chancellor, I am responsible for upholding and defending the independence and integrity of the judiciary, which is essential to the functioning of a free and democratic society. Our system of appointing judges must be, as I believe it is, wholly devoid of party politics; it must be transparent, accountable and capable of inspiring public confidence. Under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, with the establishment of the Lord Chief Justice, not myself, as head of the judiciary, we have already made significant reforms to the way in which judges are appointed in England and Wales. The most fundamental was the creation of an independent Judicial Appointments Commission. The consultation paper published today outlines other possible options for additional reform, on which the Government would welcome views.
The final consultation document published today concerns protest in Parliament square. The framework in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 in respect of such protests raised concerns from campaigners and other citizens and, separately, from Members of the House. The purpose of the consultation is to listen to those concerns and review the provisions, to see whether there is a better way to both uphold the right to protest and manage individual protest appropriately.
Holding the Government to account for the way in which they spend public money is one of the most important functions of the House. I and my colleagues pay tribute to the work of the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office in supporting the House in that task. The House will be pleased to know that following a joint request to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister from my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), the Father of the House, and the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), space will be made available in the forthcoming constitutional reform Bill for any agreed changes to the governance of the National Audit Office emerging from the review that they have announced.
It is right to consider the circumstances in which we open up more information for debate before the House. Even in the most sensitive spherenational securitywhere everyone agrees that some safeguards have to be in place to respect confidentiality, we should always consider where we can do more, so starting next month, the Government will publish annually, for parliamentary debate and public scrutiny, our national security strategy setting out for the British people the threats we face and the objectives we pursue.
Additionally, new rules will govern a more open approach to the working of the Intelligence and Security Committee. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has agreed with the Chair of the ISC that Parliament should have a clear role in the appointment of members to the Committee. More details about the new rules and that role will be announced in due course.
In keeping with the Governments commitment to ensure that the public can access the information they need, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a speech later today announcing that we will not tighten the charging arrangements for freedom of information requests. A consultation on whether to extend the Freedom of Information Act to a range of organisations that perform public functions, although theoretically some of them may legally be in the private sector, and a review of the 30-year rule will be established.
These days, huge amounts of personal data are held by the public and private sector. The scale of those holdings has moved on significantly since the passage of the Data Protection Act 1998. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have therefore asked the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, and Professor Mark Walport, the director of the Wellcome Trust, to review the way in which we share and protect personal information in the public and private sector.
The freedom of the media to investigate and report is a key issue in the use of information. We consulted last year on restricting media access to the coroners courts. In the light of the responses to that consultation, I can now confirm that we will not be proceeding with any proposals to limit such access.
Proposals to ban media payments to criminals have been under consideration for some time. None of us wants to see criminals profiting from publishing books about their crimes. While ensuring that the freedom of the press to investigate and report is maintained, we will bring forward proposals to make sure that criminals cannot benefit in that way.
As provisions in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill make clear, we are also concerned about the misuse of personal data. However, the new rules proposed in the Bill have raised concerns that they might impede legitimate investigative journalism, so the Information Commissioner, in consultation with the Press Complaints Commission, will produce clear guidance to ensure that rights to investigate are not impeded.
There is often a lack of clarity in the balance between an individuals freedom and the role of the state. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been examining this issue in relation to existing police powers of entry to consider whether there should be a single readily understandable code. My right hon. Friend will widen the scope of the review to include all powers of entry available to other public authorities. She will also lead a consultative review to consider whether improved guidance is needed for police officers in the exercise of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000stop-and-search powersto ensure that trust is preserved in the use of the powers.
For the sake of completeness, may I tell the House that in respect of reform of the House of Lords, discussions are proceeding inside the all-party talks? We are arranging for two meetings of the working group before Christmas.
These consultation documents and the other measures are all in part concerned with the right to freedom of expression and its facilitation. The right is specifically protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, but it has existed in the UK for a very long time. Because of its fundamental importance in our democracy, I shall be considering how, as all future legislation is developed, it can be carefully audited for any explicit or unforeseen restrictions that that might unnecessarily place on that freedom of expression.
I hope and believe that the House will agree that the matters that I have raised go to the heart of exactly where power should lie in our country and how it should be exercised. We now look forward to hearing the views of both parliamentarians and citizens on the proposals. I commend the statement to the House.
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I thank the Lord Chancellor for giving me a brief early sight of his statement and for the delivery of the documents to my office this morning. I congratulate him on pulling rank over his right hon. and learned Friend the deputy leader of the Labour party and the Leader of the House by making his statement ahead of the business statement.
The Lord Chancellor says that this is about changing how Britain is governed, and strengthening Parliament. Will he confirm that the Prime Minister will be making a speech shortly on the Human Rights Act outside the House, as has been widely reported in the press this morning, not least on the front page of The Guardian? The press has clearly been briefed. Will the Lord Chancellor tell the House how, when the Prime Minister makes such an important speech outside the House and prevents us from being able to debate it, that constitutes the strengthening of Parliament?
In our Opposition day debate on 15 May, we called for the strengthening of parliamentary approval of international treaties. Our democracy taskforce, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), proposed that international treaties be exempt from the royal prerogative, and be required to be laid before Parliament, together with an explanatory document. Why do the Government believe that statutory change is necessary, when a resolution of the House of Commons would be adequate? The consultation document says that proposals on parliamentary approval would relate to new international treaties, but what about existing ones? The House will have a chance to vote on the EU constitutional treaty, signed by the Prime Minister in Lisbon last week, but none the less it will not be put to a vote of the people. Is that the way to rebuild the publics trust?
Given the frequency of deployments and the controversy that that has created, there is growing consensus in this country that the decision to go to war requires democratic legitimacy. We have already said that parliamentary assent, for example through a resolution of the House of Commons, should be required to commit troops to war, international armed
conflict or peacekeeping activity. We favour that being done through the development of a parliamentary convention. The consultation paper proposes that, apart from informing the House, there be no requirement for any further parliamentary procedure, but if the Government really want to strengthen Parliament, should not the House be able to have a decisive say if the Government make a wrong call? Of course there are serious issues relating to the potential for a negative vote when troops are already in the field, but there should be no blank cheque. In matters as critical as a major deployment in an emergency, why should there not be an opportunity for retrospective approval, not just an obligation for the Prime Minister to inform Parliament?
It is right that the House should vote before troops are committed to military action overseas, but we had a vote when the war in Iraq was declared, and the House was not given a full and accurate account of the position. Does the Lord Chancellor not appreciate that what has caused a haemorrhaging of public trust in Government is not the failure to give Parliament a votethere was a votebut the fact that the Government for whom he was Foreign Secretary misled the public on the issue?
We welcome the measures to allow protests around Parliament. Indeed, when the reprehensible legislation on the subject was passed, I said that it was more appropriate to Tiananmen square than to Parliament square. [Interruption.] Will the Lord Chancellor explain exactly how such a flagrant attack on freedom of expression was not found to be incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998? Was that not an example of the way in which the Act interferes with our ability to deal with terrorists and serious criminals, but fails to protect essential civil liberties? [Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. I must call on the Front Benchers. It is unfair; the hon. Gentleman is asking questions. I asked for temperate language yesterday. I also asked for silence, and that is what I am looking for.
Nick Herbert: It is unfortunate that the Government find themselves trying to ensure greater independence in the appointment of judges, as only recently they have done far more to threaten the independence of the judiciary by forcing judges, without prior consultation and still without their agreement, into a Department where their budget is imperilled by the prisons crisis. Will the Lord Chancellor tell the House when he will be able to make a statement on negotiations with the judiciary to protect their independence in the new Ministry of Justice? We welcome measures to limit political involvement in judicial appointments. Does the Secretary of State for Justice now accept that ensuring judicial independence is far more important than gestures such as moving the judiciary to a different building on the other side of Parliament square? The Government now admit that that will cost more than £100 million to set up, and £12.3 million a year to run, although the current arrangements cost virtually nothing.
Independence is not the only principle that guides judicial appointments. It is quite right that judges should have to be competent, diligent and people of the utmost integrity. Above all, as the consultation paper says:
Linked to independence is the principle that judges should be appointed on merit.
How does the Lord Chancellor reconcile that principle with the commitment to ensuring that judges are drawn from diverse communities? Can he rule out any suggestion of any kind of quotas or positive discrimination in judicial appointments?
All three of the consultative documents that the Government have published today are welcome, and we will engage fully in debate on them. The Governance of Britain Green Paper says that the Government want to forge a new relationship between Government and citizen, but does the Lord Chancellor not understand that there will be no such new relationship until trust is rebuilt? Talking about strengthening Parliament will count for nothing if Parliament is undermined, as it was when the Prime Minister cynically made his announcement of troop withdrawals to the press.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I called on Government Ministers to limit their statements to 10 minutes. That happened in this case, and I do not expect an Opposition spokesperson to go over the limit. The hon. Gentleman has used up his time, and I must stop him, because I have Back Benchers to call. That is important to me.
Mr. Straw: Let me try to deal briefly with those points. I regret the first point that the hon. Gentleman made about the order of the statements today. When I was Leader of the House, and in the case of every predecessor, there were a number of occasions when it was for the convenience of the House and colleagues that I, as Leader of the House, made my statement after a ministerial statement. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House on this occasion.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is indeed making an important speech. My statement was intended to ensure that in advance of that speech, the House was informed of all substantive developments that he will speak about.
The fact that we are proposing a British Bill of Rights and responsibilities and developing such a Bill has been made very clear in the House on a number of occasions. When the consultative document, which I am currently working on, is ready to publish, it will be published first to the House.
The hon. Gentleman made some extraordinarily muddled comments about the ratification of treaties, and about war powers. I always do my best to ensure that Opposition spokespeople have documents like the ones under discussion as soon as possible. That I tried to do this morning. As for the European treaty, the
Ponsonby rule does not apply to that. Why? Because there is a far better procedure in respect of all EU treaties. They are the subject of line-by-line examination by a separate Bill.
On war powers, I do not know what the hon. Gentleman was going on about when he talked about retrospective approval. There are paragraphs in the document, as we have made clear, about where retrospective approval should apply, and how we could have retrospective approval without undermining the armed forces.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we should prevent recommendations for membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee from being influenced by the Government Whips. That is well above his pay grade and mine. If he is proposing that we get to a situation in which the Government Whips exert no influence whatever on the membership of Committees, I look forward to that time arrivingbut I am not sure that that will be while he or I are in the House.
On protests about Parliament, I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that references to Tiananmen square are completely misplaced. I heard the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) saying from a sedentary position, but not sotto voce, that what the hon. Gentleman said about that was rubbish. Provided that that is parliamentary, Mr. Speaker, I agree with it. I am making a serious point to the hon. Gentleman. People died in Tiananmen square. [Interruption.] His language was very intemperate indeed.
On the judiciary, again the hon. Gentleman was profoundly muddled. Nothing has been imperilled by the creation of the Ministry of Justice. The protection of the judiciary remains. I have made it clear that I have no intention of undermining its budget. The case for a supreme court has been widely supported across the country.
The hon. Gentlemans last point was extraordinary, suggesting that if we sought a more diverse judiciary, somehow it would be less well qualified. I hope that that is not the official position of the Opposition. The House has been strengthened by the introduction of more women and more black and Asian Members, and it will be more strengthened still by more women and black and Asian Members. Exactly the same applies to the judiciary.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry to trouble the Secretary of State, but his Department has put out copies of the statement that are not complete. There are odd pages missing. Can that be rectified as soon as possible?
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