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5 Mar 2008 : Column 440WH—continued

10.54 am

Sitting suspended.

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Governance of Britain

11 am

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): I should like the Gordon Brown Government to be remembered as one who revitalised our democracy and returned power to our people, individually, locally and regionally; who finally ended the privilege of the unelected to vote in our legislature; who allowed people locally to run their own local affairs; and, finally, who enabled the people directly to elect not only their parliamentary representatives but their nation’s chief executive, as is commonplace in virtually every other western democracy.

The Blair Government did their best to pay their debt of honour to the democratic radicalism of John Smith, especially through Scottish and Welsh devolution, but we knew that in their heart they were not motivated by democratic change. They fatally—some say deliberately—delayed efforts to establish English regional government, which could by now be entering its second decade and be a stable part of our democratic arrangements. They were inconsistent on mayors and local cabinets. There was no rebuilding and refurbishment of the vital local party political infrastructure that is required by all parties. There was no tackling of issues around state funding to sustain our democratic parties, and we know the consequences of that: funding is not even at the level at which we rightly fund the BBC. Our parties, politics and democracy apparently are not even worth that amount of money.

That all betrayed a Government who, at heart, trusted Whitehall before the localities, and officers and bureaucrats before politics and parties. They preferred to manage the dance between the media and No. 10 that monopolises British politics, rather than re-engage directly with the British people. They presided over well-meaning, policy-light centralism, not the creative, liberated political entrepreneurship of the sort for which many of us hoped.

Ten years of massive majorities and unprecedented economic growth gave real space to transform our democracy, but the opportunity was not even seen, let alone grasped. Instead, we have empty shells of elected local councils, people who do not have written rights, an unelected second Chamber, and, perhaps above all, a Parliament that is seen at best as irrelevant, and at worst as the hapless, dependent lapdog of the Government. Parliament can now be popularly defined as the house of sleaze, individualised and greedy. We are pilloried on expenses, and not respected for representing political opinions. Parliament itself has the most to gain from democratic renewal and serious self-appraisal. It, instead of the media, should become the forum of the nation. The “Today” programme and “Newsnight” obviously occupy a good place in the pantheon of British democracy, but so should our Parliament.

Parliament should hold the Government to account, rather than be seen as rival supporters’ clubs. It should reach out to involve the electorate in law-making, rather than being a shabby rubber stamp. This is the best opportunity in my lifetime for democratic change. In our system, the grossly overdeveloped and
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unchecked Executive allow the Prime Minister to make change in a way that no other western democracy permits. That is a bad system. Its only advantage is that it enables our new Prime Minister to move forward with real pace and urgency on an agenda that he cares about, and to change for good the way in which we are governed. I have no doubts whatsoever about the Prime Minister’s sentiments on the issue, nor those of the Minister, whom I regard as an hon. Friend indeed.

In his leadership campaign, the Prime Minister made only one commitment to legislation, and that was on democratic reform. He chose to use his precious and unique first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister to outline a new democratic settlement for Britain. However, even with such prime ministerial resolution, the dead-weight of conservative culture, bureaucratic tradition and the soporific comfort zone of colleagues all combine to slow, soften, and suffocate his vision to spread democratic power.

I have called the debate today to enable the Minster to reassure those of us who want democratic change that we should keep the faith, and to enthuse and motivate those who wish our Government well in this endeavour. He has been working hard, but he knows that outside there are no torches lit, no passionate debates being held, no sense of this being Philadelphia in 1787. New technology should enable literally millions of people to take part in debates. The media should be abuzz with excitement around creating free-standing, independent local government, democratising the health and police services in regions with elected representatives, enabling taxation and bonds to be raised and spent locally in accord with the wishes of local people, being clear about the federal nature of the United Kingdom and the powers of the nations and the regions of our country, and defining our rights and responsibilities in a British Bill of Rights.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Allen: I gladly give way to my hon. Friend, who has a long and honourable record in local government and in democratising local government.

Mr. Turner: I apologise for the fact that I shall have to leave before the end of the debate, Mr. Benton. Unfortunately, in this place, we all have to be in two places at once.

Would my hon. Friend agree that the elephantine gestation period between the idea and the concept, let alone the concept and the implementation, of the regional Select Committees is far too long? Would he also agree that one of the good things that has happened is the appointment of regional Ministers, but that they cannot do their job properly if they are not properly scrutinised and supported by regional Select Committees? That change could be made fairly quickly, irrespective of some of the other ideas that are in the Government’s White Paper.

Mr. Allen: My hon. Friend makes sound sense, as always. I believe that we all welcome the fact that regional Ministers have been appointed, but that has to be just the first step. There must be proper parliamentary scrutiny of regional Ministers and
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power structures. Equally, regional Ministers themselves could form the nucleus of regional government, if they chose to bring in as an advisory board two or three people from each of the key parties and started to give responsibility to people in the regions, perhaps on the basis of variable geometry. Perhaps in the north-east they would want to go a bit quicker, whereas in my region, the east midlands, which does not have the same sort of identity, we would go a little slower. If we were to let those things blossom, and give regional Ministers the authority to push the envelope and push the boundaries back a little, incredible things would happen, not least in terms of proposals for democratising health, the police, transportation and several other services. That could happen and be supported by Parliament.

There seems to be a view that if Parliament holds the Government to account for anything, it diminishes government. My view is that it enhances government. It adds value and can often save money to have effective scrutiny by people such as my hon. Friend—I do not flatter him at all—who have experience in the field, who have passion and who care about such matters. They often have something to give from this place rather than merely going through a formulaic process. I, too, wish for Select Committees and more powerful regional Ministers with advisory boards to be established in the near future.

It should be possible to generate excitement around the writing of a British Bill of Rights, or the writing of a written constitution for the UK. We should seek to have millions of founding fathers and mothers eagerly participating in debates and drafting documents. Passion and excitement should be generated and provoked by a Government who are committed to profound change. Instead, if we listen carefully, we can hear the scratch of a quill pen somewhere in the bowels of Whitehall: worthy, workmanlike and carefully crafted, no doubt, but not in the same league as the Prime Minister’s original starburst vision that he gave us all and enthused us with so much last July. We need to recapture that as we proceed over the next few months and as we move towards a general election.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Allen: I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend, who has great experience in local government, before I come to the end of my remarks.

The Prime Minister must revisit the policy area of democratic reform, give the democratic plate a vigorous spin and restate his vision for our democracy, so that the time between now and the writing of the next manifesto is used to work out how we can fully involve and excite the British people. Without their full understanding and participation, whatever change is introduced will not be theirs and will not, therefore, command their allegiance.

Sir Peter Soulsby: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important and timely debate on issues that he feels powerfully about and on which he is speaking again today persuasively, as he has spoken and written in the past. I encourage him to say some
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more about the need in Britain for a Bill of Rights and a written constitution. Although the steps that the Government are taking at the moment are important, does my hon. Friend not agree that the vision that he is setting out for a much more democratised Britain can be achieved only in the context of such a Bill of Rights?

Mr. Allen: Sadly, this goes back to 1993, when I was the shadow home affairs spokesman in the future Prime Minister’s home affairs team. We wrote and agreed, and had endorsed by our party conference, not only that we should incorporate the European convention on human rights, but that the second stage would be a British Bill of Rights. Admittedly, that would come some 200 years after that of our compatriots across the Atlantic, but it is better late than never. We had, effectively, a draft of that Bill of Rights: I have a copy and there is, no doubt, one mouldering somewhere, perhaps on shelves in the Cabinet Office, that could be dusted down and used as a basis for debate.

Let every school and every sixth form debate what should be in a British Bill of Rights; let every Labour group, Conservative association and Liberal Democrat group in the localities debate what should be included in that; and let us do our job and pull together those thoughts, mediated properly through the Hansard Society, to form the core of what we would want to see in a British Bill of Rights. Those arguments are even more applicable to a written constitution.

If we have rights and responsibilities and a democratic framework in this country, let us write it down. What are we afraid of? Why should we have to engage in what John Smith called judicial archaeology to find out what are the responsibilities of a second chamber, a monarch or local government? Why can we not own this so that every schoolboy and schoolgirl, and every local councillor and Member of Parliament, can have it in their back pocket or purse? We could raise people with clarity about their rights under a written constitution.

One of the sad things about the current debate in the main Chamber is that a so-called constitution for Europe is so vague, woolly and amorphous, rather than being crisp, clear and inspirational and able to lead us to feel that we all want to be European and have our rights written down. Let us not make the same mistake in the United Kingdom. Let us start that debate in this place, start formulating our own written constitution and find out what we need to reform before we write it down.

Many things in our current unwritten constitution would be laughable in a written constitution. For example, it would not say: “There shall not be an election for the Prime Minister of the day; Parliament shall send the leader of the main party to Buckingham palace to be anointed as Prime Minister; there shall be an unelected second Chamber; there shall be no British Bill of Rights.” A written constitution could not be produced on the back of that without a lot of belly laughs from other countries around the world. We would need to get the parts in place and then write a written constitution. That is a fundamental thing that we need to do.

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The Prime Minister cannot kick-start a written constitution given the current state of debate. However, a debate needs to take place in the country and in Parliament in order that a written constitution can first be drafted and modelled. I am sure that that was the Prime Minister's intention in July last year and I hope that it remains his intention today. The opportunity for significant, democratic change has not been missed and has not passed us by, but it requires reinvigoration and reaffirmation from the top. I hope that my hard-working hon. Friend the Minister, who is labouring away in the depths of the Ministry of Justice on so many important and detailed issues, takes that message to the Prime Minister. We need the Prime Minister to reassert leadership of the democratic vision that can sustain our country for the next 100 years.

11.16 am

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to his many years of hard and creative work on building an increasingly democratic society. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Mr. Turner) and for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) for their contributions.

This is an enormously important subject. People often think that constitutional reform is a matter for a few parliamentarians locked away in the Library poring over old textbooks. That is absolutely wrong. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North has so cogently pointed out, this fundamentally concerns everyone in our society, because it goes to the heart of who we are. In the end, it is about power: where it resides in our society, how it is distributed and how it should be distributed better so that we have a healthy, vibrant politics and society. There is nothing more important.

People often talk as if this matter is remote from the concerns of everyday life and perhaps think that concerns about public services, health, education, traffic, and all such matters, really drive politics. However, none of those issues can properly be decided unless we have a fully functioning democratic society. That goes to the heart of my hon. Friend’s comments. This is an enormously important issue and I assure him that the Government take it seriously. There is no need for the Prime Minister to reassert his leadership in this matter, as my hon. Friend said, because he is demonstrating it every day. It is important to him and to the whole Government. We will move forward on that.

Before I set out some of the steps that we are taking, I should like just to say to my hon. Friend that he was a little bit hard on the first stage of constitutional reform that the Government have already undertaken. I think that when he looks back in a few years’ time on the period since 1997 he will see an enormously significant programme of constitutional reform. He would have to go back at least 100 years to find anything equivalent in our history.

I shall remind my hon. Friend of some of the reforms. For example, we have had devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London and a changed relationship with local authorities—perhaps that has not gone far enough yet and there is more to come—which is clearly dramatically different from 10,
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12 or 15 years ago. Let us consider the vibrancy of political debate, which is often difficult for this Government, in Scotland and London at the moment. Such vibrancy of political discourse would have been inconceivable without the devolution measures that the Government introduced. The Human Rights Act 1998 was fundamentally important in bringing home to the British people essential rights that define who we are. Those rights, which belong to all of us, have been brought home to the British people by this Government.

Freedom of information, another area for which I am responsible, has been given a new lease of life, and has been taken forward to bring transparency to the practice of government. One of the most important and empowering devices that we can offer to our citizens is to make government more transparent. The Government have implemented that Act and are taking it forward to the next stage of its development.

My hon. Friend mentioned House of Lords reform, which has been an intractable problem in the governance of our country for many years. My hon. Friend, with his deep and intimate knowledge of our constitutional history, will recall previous attempts to reform the second Chamber that have failed for a variety of reasons. The intractability of that problem has defeated Government after Government. Almost everyone knows where we need to end up—a few may disagree—and that we must have a wholly or largely democratic second Chamber for the governance of our country.

It is absurd to have the current system, which has persisted for so long, but this Government have brought the governance of this country to a stage at which we can imagine that democratic second Chamber. We are close to publishing our White Paper on our proposals, but my hon. Friend should not underestimate the enormous degree of hard work, passion and commitment shown particularly by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, who has worked tirelessly and met colleagues in the House of Commons and House of Lords endlessly to try to find a way forward. For the first time in our lifetime, we are at a stage at which can see a real prospect of a democratic second Chamber, and my right hon. Friend deserves credit for that enterprise.

My hon. Friend has been a little harsh about the achievements so far, but he is absolutely right that we must continue to move forward, and to drive forward. That is exactly what we are doing. I can offer him that reassurance. I understand his impatience, but constitutional change is an area, above all others, in which we must take people with us. We must prepare the ground carefully. That means that we cannot proceed energetically and publicly in a matter of weeks, and I understand my hon. Friend’s impatience about that. We must take months, but not years and years, and we will not take years and years.

This debate is timely, because we will shortly announce a whole raft of constitutional reforms, which, I hope, will encourage my hon. Friend. I assure him that we are not being suffocated as he fears. We are energetically working away, and it might reassure him if I take a few minutes to set out some of the areas in which we are moving forward.

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We shall shortly publish our draft constitutional renewal Bill, which will be available for pre-legislative scrutiny—another innovation that the Government have introduced—which my hon. Friend, as an eminent parliamentarian, will welcome. Proper scrutiny of legislation is crucial, and is an area in which the governance of this country has been deficient in the past. I hope that he agrees that that measure and others that we have introduced are improving the process.

We have consulted widely on the various measures that could go into the draft Bill. There has been extensive consultation on the role of the Attorney-General. The Prime Minister has said that reform is needed, and there will be significant reforms to that role. We have consulted on war powers and the ratification of treaties. We have consulted on judicial appointments. We have consulted on protests around Parliament, which is a particularly emotive and symbolic issue, as my hon. Friend is aware. We have consulted on flag flying, which is also an important symbolic issue for the cultural expression of our national identity. Those consultations have now closed, and we are considering the responses and will respond in due course. We will announce the Bill shortly.

In December, we established a concordat between the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Local Government Association, which will take forward our commitment to work with the Local Government Association to try to find ways of increasingly empowering local authorities, which, as my hon. Friends have discussed, is so important. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North emphasised that a Bill of Rights and duties is fundamentally important. We have made it clear that we intend to build on the Human Rights Act 1998, which has been an enormous achievement.

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor took the Human Rights Bill through Parliament, he made it clear that it was to be a floor not a ceiling. We are now in the process of building our approach to the next stage of this important reform. I hope that it will reassure my hon. Friend if I say a few words about our approach.

First, contrary to what some people are saying, we are not resiling from the Human Rights Act. It is important, and we want to build on it. We want to bring out more the responsibilities that are so integrally intertwined with the rights that citizens enjoy. That is important, and we believe that it will reassure people who feel that rights are for other people and not for them. That is an important strand of the work going forward.

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