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On the proposal to put the civil service on a statutory footing, there will be quiet rejoicing in many discreet quarters, butagain, on the day of a debate on Iraqwhy are the Government to make an exception so that MI5 and MI6 officers will not be bound by duties of impartiality
and objectivity? Surely one central lesson of Iraq is that never again should Government policy dictate intelligence.
On the limiting of the Prime Ministers power to call early elections, which was given short shrift in the statement, I invite the Government to clear up the whole mess by supporting my Fixed Term Parliaments Bill.
Is not the main problem with the statement that it is nibbling at the edges of constitutional reform? Our political system is broken and people are losing faith in politics. That means that if we do nothing about it, they will lose faith in democracy itself. This House is at the heart of the problem, being elected in so unrepresentative a way that all Governments start out as unpopular, and usually get worse. As in 1832, and many times since, reform must start with the way in which this House is elected.
Mr. Straw: I do not accept the hon. Gentlemans criticisms of the changes. These are major and significant changes, and it has fallen to this reforming Government to introduce them, when no changes of any constitutional significance were introduced by the previous Administration.
In response to the hon. Gentlemans points about the Attorney-General, it is our judgment that it is appropriate and proper, and in the national interest, that there should be a power for someone to make difficult and sometimes unwelcome decisions to protect national security. It is important that whoever is in that position should be accountable. Far from the Attorney-General being unaccountable, our proposals mean that they would be more accountable than they are today, and there would be greater clarity about their distinctive role.
On the issue of the Attorney-Generals legal advice, my belief is that, as with any legal advice in any circumstances, it has to be given on the basis of legal professional privilege, but there is certainly a caseas referred to in the draft resolution on pages 53 to 56 of the proposalsfor the Prime Minister of the day to be required to provide information on the legal issues relating to any proposal for armed conflict, and that is what we propose.
On treaty ratification, there will have to be a vote. We are not proposing to use the negative resolution procedure. Either the treaty will be approved on the nod or there will be a vote. If there is a vote against a treaty ratification the treaty cannot be ratified by the Government, and that is a major shift of power to this House.
I wondered how long it would take the Liberals to get on to proportional representation as a solution to all our problems. They have been banging on about that ever since the 1923 election, when they ceased to be the second party and became the third party. Before they became the third party, they were in favour of first past the post and single-Member constituencies. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman examine other countries that have proportional representation, because they have more problems with the operation of their democracy than we do.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab):
Can my right hon. Friend elaborate on the proposals in the White Paper for the accountability of the Intelligence
and Security Committee? As he knows, at the moment it is appointed by the Prime Minister and reports to the Prime Minister. Is it intended that it should be appointed by this House and report to this House?
Mr. Straw: These arrangementsas my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spelled out, they are in advance of any legislative changesare set out at the back of the White Paper. The proposed changes would be consistent with the provisions of the Intelligence Services Act 1994, so that under the proposal, which is a halfway house, it would be for the Committee of Selection to make recommendations about the Members of each House who should sit on the Committee. They would then have to be approved by the Prime Minister of the day, however, because that is what the Act says. The implication is that, as an interim measure, that would give this House and the other place much greater control over membership of the Committee than they have now.
Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): I welcome proposals to reform the Crown prerogative. Too many powers that should rightfully rest with elected members of this legislature have come to reside with unelected officials and with the quango state. Will the Bill allow Select Committees to ratify with public hearings the appointments of senior civil servants and quango chiefs, and if not, why not?
Mr. Straw: The proposals on public appointments of key officials are not in the Bill. They are proposed for non-legislative changes through discussions with the Liaison Committee, but this is a consultative process, and we are happy to hear opinions from all parts of the House.
Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): May I refer to the issue of judicial appointments? Is it not a fact that, like this country, nearly every other major country has significant political input in the appointment of judges, either from the legislature or the Executive, for the very good reason that public opinion needs to be able to influence the culture of the judiciary? Is not the alternative to have lawyers appointing judges, which would be quite unacceptable? We would have a self-perpetuating, out-of-touch, arrogant oligarchy in the judiciary, which would be very damaging to public confidence in the judiciary and in democracy.
Mr. Straw: It is rare for me to demur from my right hon. Friends opinions, but on this occasion I do so. I do not accept his description of todays judiciary. In 2005 the House agreedand so did the other placemajor changes to the appointments of the judiciary so that the role of Lord Chancellor was very much diminished, and quite right too. [Interruption.] Not in every sense. There is now an independent Judicial Appointments Commission, which has the primary role. Judges are also, funnily enough, human beings. They are members of society and are acutely aware of the responsibility that they bear to society.
Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD):
Although I welcome the fact that the Government have moved much closer to the position of the former Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs on the role of the Attorney-General, why is the Attorney-General to retain the
power to stop on grounds of national security not merely prosecutions but investigations by the Serious Fraud Office? Will the Attorney-General also retain the consent to prosecution under the honours legislation of the 1920s? As those were the two issues that most inflamed debate on the Attorney-Generals role, is that not a bit too much of a coincidence and too much like back doors being deliberately left open?
Mr. Straw: On the latter point, I do not think that that is the case, but I shall certainly look at the matter. The aim of all of us involved in the discussions has been to reduce the Attorney-Generals discretion over prosecutions and investigations to a necessary minimum that is basically to do with national security.
On the point about BAE Systems, it is worth reminding the House that it was the head of the Serious Fraud Office who decided to withdraw from the investigation, not formally the Attorney-General. We all accept that there must be clarity, but I also believe that the case for the Attorney-General to have a power to make decisions in the national interest, on the basis of national security, is important.
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): So far, so excellent, but will my right hon. Friend also include in his constitutional proposals the improvement of the Executives accountability to the legislature? In particular, will he put in place arrangements to ensure that Select Committee members are elected by secret ballot among non-Executive Members from across the House, in accordance with party quotas? Will he also ensure that Select Committees reportsor at least some of them, by agreement with the Liaison Committeeare debated and voted on, on the Floor of the House on a substantive motion?
The way in which Select Committee members are chosen has been debated often. Having been involved in the other process from time to time, I am not sure that it produced more balanced Select Committees or provided more opportunity for those who sometimes disagree with their party Whips than the current arrangements. The process that my right hon. Friend sets out would need the most contorted and complicated system of proportional representation for each party. No doubt that would be welcomed by the Liberal Democrats, but it would not be welcomed by anyone else.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): The House will have heard that the Justice Secretary believes that, when it comes to flag flying, the people of Northern Ireland should be treated as children of a lesser god. Will he tell the House the rationale behind the Governments decision on this matter? Does he believe that the flag may not be universally cherished in Northern Ireland? If so, will that have implications elsewhere in the kingdom?
Mr. Straw: The reason for the Governments decision is obvious, and it is not the one that the hon. Gentleman mentions. As everyone knows, the two communities in Northern Ireland have been seriously divided. The best advice that we received was that we should maintain the current arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): This is a welcome and important package of measures that will play an important part in our constitutional history. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that it would be greatly enhanced if the Government added to it parliamentary confirmation of important executive offices? Among the obvious candidates for that confirmation would be the chief executives of the Child Support Agency and the Benefits Agency, the chairman of the BBC, the Governor of the Bank of England, and the members of the Monetary Policy Committee.
Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his broad welcome for the proposals. A procedure is already in place whereby the Treasury Committee considers Bank of England appointments. The current proposals are non-statutory, as I said a moment ago, but we will listen carefully to what hon. Members of all parties say. I should also have said that we have proposed that a Joint Committee comprised of Members of both Houses be set up to scrutinise the Bill that will be introduced.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As one who believes that this Executive have done more to sideline Parliament and the legislature than any other in recent history, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will take at least one step to dismiss our scepticism to some degree? Will he give an undertaking that, in future, Bills will not be timetabled automatically, at the Governments diktat?
Mr. Straw: I am sorry to say that I cannot oblige the hon. Gentleman in that regard. I have been here almost as long as he has, and I do not accept that the House is less active than it used to be. It is much more active than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, although the fact that no Government since the 1970s have had a small majority has inevitably changed the nature of the House. There is also hugely more in the way of scrutiny today. Select Committees were established by the Conservative Government of the 1980s, but they have been strengthened by us and are much more active. There are also many more parliamentary questions: there were 6,000 written questions a year in the 1960s, but there were 90,000 last year. There is much greater scrutiny of Government than there ever was in the past.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I welcome the greater scrutiny of public appointments, but there is one particular appointment that I suggest should be not only scrutinised but voted on in the House: the appointment of the EU Commissioner.
Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con):
I welcome the further statement on policy on war powers, but does the Justice Secretary agree that in practice we need to know all the details of the new process before we can know whether there has been any significant shift of authority to this House, or new constraints on the Government, particularly with regard to whether parliamentary approval will be asked for at a time when events can still be influenced? Does he accept that
recent practice has been to deny until the last possible moment that any decision has been taken to enter into conflict, while vast deployments of troops are made and undertakings are given to allies? Will the resolution provide that as soon as a decision is taken to move troops to an area of potential conflict, where conflict is one of the options, it will be necessary to get parliamentary approval?
Mr. Straw: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. I hope that he will examine the draft resolution, and I hope that the Joint Committee that we propose to establish will do so, too. In my judgment, the resolution will move the role of the House beyond existing conventions, such as that which we sought to establish on Iraq, and will change the way in which the Government will operate, internally, where there is consideration of an armed conflict. That is what I want, personally, not least as a result of my experience in respect of Iraq and Afghanistan. The purpose of putting this set of proposals before the House todaythis also applies to the draft Bill, although the proposal in question is in the White Paperis to have them tested properly by the House and the other place, so that we can see whether they will fulfil the purpose we describe.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I welcome the range of proposals in the White Paper, particularly those that strengthen the role of Parliament. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the legitimacy of Parliament depends on how and when elections are conducted. In The Governance of Britain Green Paper, it was suggested that there would be consultations on weekend voting. Is it his intention that the consultations will result in the inclusion of the possibility of weekend voting in the legislation that will be brought forward?
Mr. Straw: The answer is that we are consulting on weekend voting. There is much evidence that if voting takes place over a more extended period, turnout is likely to be higher, all other things being equal. I cannot give my hon. Friend a firm commitment that the measure will be in the Bill when it comes before Parliament in its final form, but we are looking for an early legislative opportunity, if the measure is what the public want.
Mr. Cash: Will the Secretary of State confirm that part 4 of the Bill wraps up the discussions and exchanges that we had about a year ago on whether or not treaty can prevail against statutein other words, that treaty cannot prevail against statute? Secondly, why did he say in his statement, If this House were then to vote against the ratification of a treaty, the Government could not proceed to ratify it? Does that exclude the House of Lords? Of course, I am not thinking of any particular treaty.
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman and I have bored for Britain on the interesting issue that the Karlsruhe federal constitutional court raised called competence versus competence. The proposal will at least ensure that any treaty is ratified by a statutory process of this Parliament. The current proposal is that, since we have to allow for the possibilityhopefully remoteof a stand-off between this place and the other place, it should be the elected House that decides.
Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): The Canadian Parliament debated and voted on the decision to send 2,500 troops to Helmand province. In a non-emergency situation in April 2006, we decided to send what is now 7,800 troops to Helmand province without a debate or a vote in Parliament. In the spirit of the very welcome document before us, is it not time that we debated the mission in Helmand?
Mr. Straw: I will certainly pass on to my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House my hon. Friends specific request. To return to the question asked by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), it is in respect of such conflict in Helmand that the change, if accepted by the House, would in my judgment make a significant difference to decision making in the Government and to the Houses authority.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I am quite surprised that there is so little about Scotland in the constitutional paper, given the unanswered West Lothian question and the ridiculous remarks by the Prime Minister in The Daily Telegraph today. We have learned that Sir Kenneth Calman is to chair the constitutional commission, but how can the Scottish people have any faith in an initiative that ignores the central question of Scottish independence, and bypasses legitimate Scottish government? As a democrat, surely the Justice Secretary agrees that anything proposed by the commission must be tested by the Scottish people with all other constitutional options.
Mr. Straw: It might be a good idea if the hon. Gentleman recognised the legitimacy of the majority of the Scottish Parliament, who voted entirely voluntarily to establish the review; all the Unionist parties voted in favour of it. We are responding to that request from a democratically elected Scottish Parliament.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Is there anything in the draft Bill that addresses the scandal of tax exiles serving in Parliament? If not, will the Justice Secretary lift the relevant clauses from my private Members Bill, and incorporate them in his Bill?
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The right hon. Gentlemans proposals that the Executive should yield power to Parliament would be even more impressive if the votes in the House were a free, unwhipped expression of opinion. Does he not concur with the advice that I give all my Back-Bench colleagues that all votes in the House are free? Furthermore, when the Whips seek to impress on me their own will, I tell themand I hope that he agreesthat it is none of their business, and they should not interfere with the constitutional duty of Members of Parliament to vote in accordance with their own judgment.
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