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25 Mar 2008 : Column 22

Part 4 makes it a statutory requirement that treaties must be laid before both Houses of Parliament before ratification. If this House were then to vote against the ratification of a treaty, the Government could not proceed to ratify it. Although it is obviously a matter for Parliament, the White Paper suggests that a valuable role could be played by Committees of either or both Houses in the scrutiny of treaties prior to ratification. I should just say, Mr. Speaker, that none of these proposals affects the current arrangements for European Union or tax treaties, which are already the subject of elaborate statutory procedures.

Part 5 will for the first time put the civil service on a statutory footing by enshrining the core values of the civil service—impartiality, integrity, honesty and objectivity—into law, as well as the historic principle of appointment on merit. The Bill makes provision for special advisers and the civil service commission. The Bill has benefited from detailed comments on the draft Civil Service Bill in 2004 and from the work of the Public Administration Committee, for whose help I am very grateful.

I now turn to the other key proposals in the White Paper. The first is war powers. There was a widespread welcome in July for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s proposals that the Government should limit the Executive’s powers to deploy Her Majesty’s armed forces into conflict situations. As well as from those who responded to the consultation document, we have benefited from earlier Select Committee reports from both Houses. In the event, there was significant support for the recommendations from the House of Lords Constitution Committee.

What we are proposing is that Parliament’s role should be both enshrined and guaranteed by a resolution of this House. A detailed draft of that resolution is set out for consideration on pages 53 to 56 of the White Paper. It would require the Prime Minister of the day to seek this House’s approval before deciding to commit forces to armed conflict abroad. It would also require him to lay a report before the House in advance of any decision, setting out the terms of approval sought and information about the objectives and legal matters relating to the proposed armed conflict. Exceptions are proposed in respect of emergencies and operational secrecy, with a requirement in such cases to inform, but not to seek retrospective approval. Special forces would be exempt from any of those provisions. Those changes, if agreed, would define for the first time a clear role for Parliament in the most critical of all decisions to face a nation, while ensuring that our nation’s security was not compromised.

Last July’s “The Governance of Britain” Green Paper contained proposals on increasing parliamentary scrutiny of some key public appointments. Since then, that matter has been considered by the Liaison Committee and we will respond to its recommendations shortly. On the dissolution and recall of Parliament, proposals have already been made to the Modernisation Committee, and we look forward to hearing its views in due course.

Last Wednesday, in his statement on the national security strategy, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:

The White Paper sets out the proposed arrangements.

There are other matters relating to Executive prerogative powers, the first of which is passports. The Government are committed to reviewing the prerogative power with regard to issuing passports, and draft legislation will soon be published. We are also reviewing the remaining Executive prerogative powers—for example, the prerogative to grant mercy. The Government will consider the outcome of that work and how we plan to proceed, and obviously, we will inform the House.

The Government remain profoundly committed to the establishment of the Church of England and greatly value the role played by the Church in our national life. Appointments to senior Church positions will continue to be made by Her Majesty the Queen, who should continue to be advised on the exercise of her powers by one of her Ministers, usually the Prime Minister. We are very grateful to the General Synod for its proposals at its February meeting on how new appointments procedures should work, and we are discussing future long-term arrangements with the Church.

The Government received more than 300 responses to the consultation on the flying of the Union Flag—

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): All from my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell).

Mr. Straw: Not all of them were from the hon. Member for Romford, but as the House knows, I was extremely happy to join him in his campaign, and have made my own contribution to it.

In line with the majority of responses, we have decided that the interim change made to the guidance to allow Government Departments to fly the Union flag from their buildings whenever they wish should now become permanent. There are no plans to change the arrangements for flag flying in Northern Ireland.

Good law is imperative for accessible and modern constitutional arrangements. For 40 years the Law Commission has played a vital role in that respect, but I intend to strengthen its role by placing a statutory duty on the Lord Chancellor to report annually to Parliament on the Government’s intentions regarding outstanding Law Commission recommendations, and providing a statutory backing for the arrangements underpinning the way in which Government should work with the Law Commission. Those changes sit alongside those announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House last week, which will strengthen the scrutiny of laws after they have been enacted by Parliament.

Discussions in the cross-party working group on reform of the House of Lords are proceeding well, and we are on track to publish a White Paper before the summer recess. In the coming months we will publish a Green Paper on a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and on the values that should bind us together as citizens.

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As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced today, Professor Sir Kenneth Calman has agreed to serve as chair of a commission to review the Scotland Act 1998. Such a commission was proposed in, and approved by a majority of, the Scottish Parliament. The Government welcome their support for the aim of strengthening devolution and securing Scotland’s place in the Union, and we are giving our full backing to the cross-border, cross-party review.

The proposals in the White Paper and the draft Bill go to the heart of how power should be exercised in a modern democracy. They are not a final blueprint, but part of a much wider Government programme to secure a new constitutional settlement. They will strengthen the role of Parliament in our democracy, for it is Parliament, the seat of our democracy, that is central to this programme of constitutional renewal.

I commend my statement to the House.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for Justice for early sight of his statement. There is much in the Government’s proposals with which we can agree. We welcome measures to strengthen the autonomy of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and to place on a statutory basis the rules governing ratification of treaties. We also welcome—seven years after the Government’s commitment to it—legislation to put the civil service on a statutory footing, as recommended by our democracy taskforce, but why will the Government not go further and place a statutory cap on the number of special advisers? And, although pre-appointment scrutiny hearings by Select Committees would be welcome, should not Parliament be strengthened further, not least by the ability to set its own timetable, so that we can scrutinise legislation properly?

The decision to commit troops to conflict is one of the most important that a nation can take. Last May we tabled a motion to require parliamentary approval for substantial deployments of troops into conflict. I welcome the fact that the Government now accept that principle, but when prior approval cannot be sought, why should there not be a mechanism for securing retrospective approval?

In a democracy, citizens should have the right to make their views known peacefully to those who govern them. The Government’s laws restricting the right to protest around Parliament caused widespread disquiet, and we welcome plans to repeal them, but can the Government say more about how they plan to ensure that while peaceful protest is protected, demonstrations that disrupt the operation of Parliament are not?

We welcome the commitment to introduce greater clarity into the relationship between the Attorney-General and the prosecution directors, but it is also proposed to end the requirement for the Attorney-General to give consent for a wide range of prosecutions. How is accountability to be preserved if that role is removed from the Attorney-General?

An independent judiciary is at the core of our liberty. Reducing the influence of the Executive on judicial appointments is welcome, but does the Justice Secretary agree that the principle of judicial independence is harmed when Ministers seek to influence the sentencing
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decisions of judges and magistrates—for instance, by urging them not to imprison offenders because the jails are full?

In a newspaper article today, the Prime Minister said that the Justice Secretary would today be “consulting throughout the country” on a statement of values and the British Bill of rights and duties—but in his statement the Justice Secretary said that a Green Paper will be published over the coming months. Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify when this process will begin? Will it do so today, as the Prime Minister suggested, or over the coming months?

Will the Justice Secretary also tell us whether, as was reported yesterday, he plans to consult on alternative voting systems for the Commons, and compulsory voting, and if so, when? Does the Justice Secretary agree that the electoral system should never be reformed for partisan political purposes?

The Prime Minister also wrote today in support of the Union, but is it not the case that unbalanced devolution has unleashed the forces of nationalism? So far, the Government’s answer has been to fly flags on Government buildings. Will the Calman commission, announced today, address the real issue of concern, which is the still unanswered West Lothian question?

When the Prime Minister announced his ideas for constitutional reform last July, he spoke about rebuilding trust in democracy. Since then, he has refused the referendum that he promised on the EU constitution. How can trust be rebuilt if such important promises are broken? Is it not the case that the relationship between the people and politicians is seriously damaged, and that it will require more to repair our broken politics than the measures announced today?

When more and more decisions are being taken centrally—not here in Parliament, but in Whitehall—is not the real need to return power to individuals and communities, so that people have a genuine say over decisions that affect them? Why are we not giving citizens the power to initiate debates in this House and have new laws tabled? Is there not a pressing need both for measures to ensure transparency in how we as politicians account for ourselves and our spending to the electorate, and to put an end to the culture of spin, which has so gravely undermined trust in politics? If the Government continue to shy away from real change, is not the danger that measures such as those announced today will be seen as worthy but inadequate?

Mr. Straw: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the welcome he gave to the proposals, but let me say in response to his slight chiding—that civil service reform has taken a little time, for example—that we have acted on a vast range of constitutional changes, in contrast to the Conservative Administration, who over 18 years did absolutely nothing in respect of any such changes. Also, on the issue of the Union, his history is wrong. The devolution settlement in 1998 was to bind the Union and provide legitimate transfer of power from this place to the devolved Administrations of Scotland and Wales. It was not the devolution Acts in 1998 that drove nationalism; it was the poll tax in 1987, which fuelled it to an astonishing extent and led to a situation in which Scotland became a Conservative-free zone,
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although the Conservatives had had 50 per cent. of the votes and seats some decades before.

The hon. Gentleman asked me some specific questions; for example, he asked about special advisers. The draft Bill is for consultation by this House; we have a view about whether there should be a limit, but let us hear what the House has to say.

As for retrospective approval where there has been an operational need for a decision to go into armed conflict to be made in secrecy, or where other operational matters have been involved, we have thought about that a great deal. Ultimately, it should be a matter for this House, but there are genuine problems—for example, if, when troops have already been committed to a theatre, there is then a big question about whether the action will subsequently be approved. We hope that, aside from operations by special forces, occasions when there is a total emergency and this country needs to undertake major armed conflict in secrecy are likely to be very few and far between. I cannot think of any such example over the past 20 years. That was why we came to the judgment that we did, but let us hear what the House has to say.

All I would say about access to this House is that the Sessional Orders used to work very satisfactorily. When I was organising demonstrations myself a few years ago, they were certainly enforced by the public order office in respect of the organisations for which I was responsible. [Interruption.]

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): He was arrested!

Mr. Straw: No, I was never arrested.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) raises an important point on consent to prosecutions, but we cannot have it both ways. It is proposed that the requirement for the Attorney-General to give consent to a series of prosecutions should, in general, be removed. If we want to make prosecutors more independent, we must bite that bullet. Ultimately, the choice will be one for this House and the other place, but we cannot have things both ways. The Attorney-General will still be accountable for the broad operation and management of the prosecution service, and I think that that is appropriate.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about voting systems. I think he was directly quoting me, because although I claim no monopoly on the view, I have always said that we should never change the voting system for partisan purposes. That has been the practice in one or two European countries, usually with disastrous consequences for the parties doing the proposing. We published a review of voting systems. Personally, I am profoundly committed to single-Member constituencies. I have always thought that there is much to be said on both sides, whether we are talking about first past the post or the alternative vote, particularly as we now have multiple candidates, as opposed to the situation in the 1950s when there were normally simply two candidates.

Let me make it clear that we are against making it a criminal offence not to vote. We need to address the issue of how we can raise turnout at elections, and there is a case for there to be a general non-enforceable duty for people to vote, as part of their understanding of their responsibilities as citizens; we are consulting
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on that. On citizens’ powers, I merely say to the hon. Gentleman that when I was Leader of the House we put forward radical proposals to the Procedure Committee for improving how the petitions system works so that matters could be triggered in this House. It was a matter for the Procedure Committee that they came to a different view from some of us on the Modernisation Committee.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, particularly his comment that this is not the final blueprint. I ask him to include provision for the abolition of the Act of Settlement, because it discriminates directly against Roman Catholics. That is legalised sectarianism, which has no role to play in the 21st century.

Mr. Straw: Let me say to my hon. Friend that I speak on behalf of the Prime Minister: because of the position that Her Majesty occupies as head of the Anglican Church, this is a rather more complicated matter than might be anticipated. We are certainly ready to consider it, and I fully understand that my hon. Friend, many on both sides of the House and thousands outside it, see that provision as antiquated.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement. Will he acknowledge that although some aspects of it are welcome—for example, the abolition of the absurd restrictions on demonstrating around Parliament—much of what he has said will be seen as tentative first steps and half measures?

It is right that the Attorney-General should not give direction on individual prosecutions, and should give only general policy guidance that is open and on the record. However, does the Secretary of State not accept that as long as the Attorney-General retains a broad, unaccountable power to stop prosecutions on grounds of national security, the public will not be reassured about, for example, the shameful events surrounding the dropping of the BAE Systems case? Why will the Attorney-General still have a power to stop prosecutions related to terrorism? Is it not important to fight terrorism on the basis of fighting crime, in a context that has nothing to do with political decisions?

The proposals on not releasing the Attorney-General’s legal opinions are especially poignant, given that later today we will debate the Iraq war. There is a strong case for confidentiality while policy is being formulated, but when the Government rely on that legal advice in a parliamentary debate, Parliament should see the real thing. It is not enough for the Government merely to promise not to mislead Parliament.

On treaty ratification, the Government are again taking a step in the right direction, but given their tight grip on the business of the House, does not the proposal mean that there will be a vote in the House only if the Government want one?

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