Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Quesitons 40-59)


13 DECEMBER 2007

  Q40  Mr Dismore: So the suggestion that seems to come out of The Governance of Britain and other documents that social and economic rights are effectively off-limits in this debate is wrong?

  Mr Brown: I do not think they can ever be off-limits in a debate and I think when people look at what does hold Britain together, some of the social changes that happened in the 20th century are seen by people to be of such importance that they accord them the status of rights in the way they talk about them, as you have rightly said about the National Health Service. The question however is whether, if you are setting down in legislation rights, are you setting them down so that people can take legal action on the basis of enforcing them or not?

  Q41  Mr Dismore: Ultimately, you can have checks and balances, as we see in other constitutions. Can I come back to the point you were also making about Britishness? Rights are universal. What particular rights are British and will they only be applied to British citizens as opposed to everybody who is resident within the UK? What is so special about certain rights that other people should be excluded from them?

  Mr Brown: If I put it this way, I think the rights and responsibilities of citizenship will be distinct in different countries. I used the example of being able to carry a gun as being a right that people would think important in America but not think so important in Britain. I think there is another set of rights in all sorts of different areas where some countries accord them importance and a country like ours may not think that they are as important as other rights, like the right to health care. I think there are rights and responsibilities that go with citizenship and, because responsibilities go with citizenship, then becoming a citizen is an important act because people are getting rights but in return for that they have to accept responsibilities. So if someone comes to our country, I think it is right to say also that if they are applying for citizenship of our country, or even the right to be a permanent resident, they also have to accept responsibilities. That is why, for example, I have said that you should be able to speak the English language, you should be able to understand and be able to explain and talk about British cultural traditions. I think there are other responsibilities that perhaps we can consider for the future that people who apply to become citizens of our country should be expected to assume and discharge. I think that is a very important part of the debate about a modern world where you have massive global mobility. It is a completely changed world in the sense that a population the equivalent of Brazil is moving round the world seeking new countries every year, and we have to insist that people who come to this country accept responsibilities as well as ask for rights either of residence or citizenship.

  Q42  Mr Dismore: For people who are within our jurisdiction human rights are universal. Will there be rights that they are not entitled to? Effectively, do you have to speak English to access your human rights under this?

  Mr Brown: If you wish to apply for citizenship or permanent residence in this country—and there is a debate about what the distinction between these two is, of course—you should be expected to and have the responsibility to learn our language.

  Q43  Mr Dismore: Will visitors to the UK not have the same rights?

  Mr Brown: No, visitors to the United Kingdom are people who come as tourists, not planning to stay here and not therefore demanding the same sort of rights as other people who are permanent residents can. Students of course are in the same position because they are coming for a short period of time and then leaving.

  Q44  Mr Doran: Prime Minister, the Green Paper acknowledges the position of the devolved administrations and in some areas it is quite clear, for example, a Bill of Rights or new powers for local authorities, that in the case particularly of Scotland there would need to be legislation, so there would need to be agreement between the Westminster Parliament and the Scottish Parliament on some laws. Can you say a little bit more about the process that you envisage in that debate and, in particular, if we look at the situation at the moment, there is no guarantee that agreement could be reached. I may be wrong about that. Could you say a little about how your goal of a shared national purpose for all the people of the UK would look if we could not reach agreement with the Scottish Executive and people in some parts of the UK had different rights from people in other parts of the UK?

  Mr Brown: This is a United Kingdom constitution and the powers that are devolved are powers that are actually devolved by Parliament to the Scottish Parliament and there are areas where it is the right of the Westminster Parliament to legislate and it is not within the power of the Scottish Parliament to legislate. I think sometimes people have forgotten that this is devolution. It is not a form of federalism; it is a form of devolution. If you look at the relationships between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, we should not forget the shared identity. When the Act of Union was signed only 3% of Scots had relatives in England. Today 50% of Scots have relatives in England so the bonds of family relationships that hold the United Kingdom together are a lot stronger than they were in the past. The bonds of economic interest that hold the United Kingdom together are far stronger as well. There is hardly a business in Scotland or in Wales that does not have trade or relies upon a market that is broader than Scotland and Wales, if it is in the big industry category. The financial services industry: most of its services in Scotland are to the rest of the United Kingdom. The bonds that hold us together are actually growing stronger over the years and I think that has to be increasingly recognised in this debate about the future of the United Kingdom.

  Q45  Mr Doran: Do I take it from that that what you are saying is that, for the purposes of the Green Paper, Westminster will legislate?

  Mr Brown: Where the powers have not been devolved to the Scottish Parliament or to the Welsh Assembly or indeed to the Northern Ireland Assembly, these are powers that Westminster continues to hold and acts in a way that is consistent with that. So the future of the issues that I am dealing with—there may be some but most of them are entirely within the province of the UK Parliament and have not been devolved.

  Q46  Mr Doran: Can I be even more parochial? The constitutional debate in Scotland is not about the Green Paper; it is about the SNP idea, for example, of independence, which you have rejected, and, on the other hand, the debate about increasing powers to the Scottish Parliament. Has the Government got a position in this debate? At the moment nobody seems to be arguing for the status quo.

  Mr Brown: The debate about the Welsh Assembly is happening, the debate about the Northern Ireland Executive and police and judicial powers is happening. There will inevitably be a debate, whether it is about the Scottish Parliament or about the other devolved parliaments about what future powers and responsibilities they have. I do say to people that on all the evidence two-thirds of the population of Scotland wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. There is no evidence of any great increased support for independence. I have just mentioned the fact that in an increasingly inter-dependent world the bonds of belonging have actually strengthened over recent years, and whatever the day-to-day politics and the day-to-day calculations of politicians are, I think you will find that people see in the United Kingdom and in the British identity that they have a great deal of strength over the years to come. I think when the debate happens about independence rather than just about people's verdict on one particular administration, two-thirds of Scottish people, in the same way as large numbers of Welsh people, do not want independence, they do not want separation and they feel the Union is of benefit to them.

  Q47  Mr Doran: The poll seemed to say that Scottish people want more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Does the Government have a position on that?

  Mr Brown: It depends what you are actually talking about. This will be a debate that will continue to happen. It always has been a debate about whether in devolution of Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland you should tidy up in different ways, but the central question that has to be addressed is whether people want to be part of the United Kingdom. Two-thirds of the population want to be part of the United Kingdom and there are very good reasons why people in Wales and Scotland want to be part of Great Britain.

  Dr Wright: You have not mentioned England. The man from the Borders here wants a word about that.

  Q48  Mr Beith: Do you recognise that there is an English question? After all, support for independence for Scotland, although limited in Scotland, appears to be rising in England.

  Mr Brown: That is not the result of the latest poll, if I may say so.

  Q49  Mr Beith: Is it worrying you though? Does the English question worry you?

  Mr Brown: If I may say so, the Sunday Telegraph—and I do not usually quote newspapers individually—had a poll on Sunday saying that the support in England for being part of a Union that included Scotland and Wales was very high indeed. Contrary to what you have said, I think within the whole of the United Kingdom there is a recognition of the importance of being part of the United Kingdom. Why is that the case? Because we have common interests, we have shared values, we have shared institutions, we have shared economic interests, and we have a form of shared citizenship.

  Q50  Mr Beith: So there is no problem for England in a devolution system in which England remains a very highly centralised country and sees powers exercised in Scotland and Wales which are exercised wholly centrally in England?

  Mr Brown: The sentiments of every part of the United Kingdom, and particularly in this case the English people, always have to be recognised but I am suggesting to you that the most recent evidence is that people want to be part of the wider Britain, indeed, the wider United Kingdom, and people see their future as best guaranteed being part of that. Of course, in a single island, if you are talking about Scotland, Wales and England, when you come to environmental issues or when you come to issues related to terrorism, as we saw in the summer, the advantages of us working together are even clearer in future years than they were in the past. We have to tackle climate change together. There is no Scotland-only or Wales-only or England-only solution to climate change.

  Q51  Mr Beith: But there is Scotland-only free personal care for the elderly, there are Scotland-only provisions on a wide range of issues which my constituents and those of other English Members here say, "We don't have this in England. Our taxes are paying for it in Scotland. Some of the reasons we don't have it in England rest with having a Prime Minister who actually comes from Scotland and does not give to us in England what his constituents in Scotland have." What is your answer to those people?

  Mr Brown: You, as you know, are a member of a party that is a supporter of very extensive devolution and not against it. I would make two points to you. First of all, all parties have supported not only devolution in recent years but also the Barnett formula, which is the distribution of funding between the different constituent parts of the United Kingdom. The second thing is within these budgets, if more money is spent on, for example, personal care, then less money is spent on something else. If, as happened yesterday, there was a police award in Scotland, it is at the cost of employing more police officers and that was recognised by the fact that the plan to employ 1,000 police officers was dropped and only 500 police officers were employed.

  Q52  Mr Beith: There is a cost to police morale in England as well.

  Mr Brown: You can come back to that later, because the whole issue of police pay, if I may say so, goes back to the question that Barry Sheerman asked at the beginning about the state of the economy. If you believe, as I do, that inflation has always been a problem for the British economy that can only be dealt with by taking decisive action whenever inflation threatens to return, then the action that we took earlier this year, when inflation started to rise as a result of oil prices, and then as a result of utility price rises, and inflation moved beyond its target of 2% to threatening to go above 3%, then it was right to take decisive action to deal with the inflationary pressures in the economy. That is why, while I would love to pay the police more, as I said yesterday in the House of Commons, and while I accept that all the different public sector groups have a case to be made, and some have particular cases that they are right to put forward, it was in the interests and still is in the interests of the national economy that we tackle inflation and do not allow a return to the stop-go problems of the past. No policeman would thank me if their pay rise was wiped out by rising inflation that we could not control and we ended up in a situation of facing global financial turbulence where we could not cut interest rates because, as was true in the early 1990s and the early 1980s, inflation was out of control. The reason for the public sector pay policy is not to save money in particular areas, although that is an argument that you can have at any particular point in time. It is to bear down on inflation in our national economy so that we do not have the problems that we cannot react to global financial conditions by cutting interest rates at a time because inflation is rising.

  Dr Wright: If I may say so, the Committee may want to come back to that later on. We have a couple of final questions in our section.

  Q53  Sir Patrick Cormack: Prime Minister, as you well know, there are a variety of opinions in all parties, particularly in yours and mine, about the ultimate shape and composition of a second chamber. You have made it plain that that really is for the next Parliament and I do not want to press you on that today but I think most people would agree that there are certain tidying-up things that need doing in the other place at the moment. There is the absurdity of the by-elections. There is the question of statutory appointments. There is the question of the size of the House of Lords. Lord Steel of Aikwood, with all-party support in the other place, has introduced a modest Bill that would address these three issues and, by signing up to that Bill, one is not in any sense cutting across ultimate ambitions, whether you want to see ultimately a wholly elected, a partly elected or an appointed second chamber is a matter for the future but this is a matter for the present. Is it a measure that will have your personal support?

  Mr Brown: I think Jack Straw said that we will look at this. Obviously, there is an issue about legislative time and obviously there is an issue about amendments to any legislation that would come forward that people may wish at that stage to put forward and therefore the difficulties of getting that legislation through. I do not think the three proposals that you are putting forward are so contentious but I do say that people are looking for a House of Lords that achieves two things. One is that it is accountable and secondly, that the House of Commons remains the body that is regarded by the people as the more important part of the legislature. Nothing should affect the position of the House of Commons by changes that take place in the House of Lords. That is the way I see it.

  Q54  Sir Patrick Cormack: But you will look carefully at these three proposals?

  Mr Brown: I think Jack Straw said that we will. I do suggest to you that we look at the Bills before Parliament this year but there is an issue about legislative time and whether, given that you were producing a Bill that was a constitutional reform Bill related to the House of Lords, people might not wish, because of the controversy surrounding the House of Lords, to bring a large number of amendments to it, which you, as an expert in the constitution, will understand.

  Q55  Dr Wright: Just one final question. There are some excellent proposals in this Governance of Britain paper which many of us have been arguing for for a long time, not least, from our Committee's perspective, the proposal to legislate on the civil service. There are good things but, inevitably, I will ask you right at the end about omissions. There is one thing in particular which I had hoped to see there because when I was elected in 1992 our manifesto had a ringing commitment to fixed-term parliaments. It said, "Although an early election will sometimes be necessary, we will introduce as a general rule a fixed parliamentary term." Is it just an omission that it is not in there or have we changed our position on this?

  Mr Brown: I do not think that was in the 2005 manifesto. I think the one change we recommended in The Governance of Britain was that to hold an election generally Parliament should legislate to see whether we should go to the House of Commons before we actually make that decision. Fixed-term parliaments have not been in our manifesto since we lost that election in 1992. The public did not endorse that particular proposal. I am not sure that was the reason why we lost!

  Dr Wright: It was worth a try!

  Chairman: We go straight to John Whittingdale and the third section, on migration and community cohesion.

  Q56  Mr Whittingdale: Prime Minister, you will be aware that in recent years there has been growing public concern about the level of immigration into this country and the impact that that is having on community cohesion and on the demand for public services. Obviously, we need to handle this issue carefully but, at the same time, we cannot ignore that public concern. Can I put it to you first, in the last four or five years the level of net migration into the UK has been approaching 200,000 people a year. Do you think that that figure is too high?

  Mr Brown: I think that the rules we apply to immigration are really what matters and I think you will find that, as a result of what has happened and what seems right for the future, we are introducing probably the biggest changes in policy to immigration for 30 or 40 years, and that is to introduce a points system for people coming into the country in the future. That would mean that highly skilled workers, of course, would continue to come into the country, subject to the needs of the economy to have them but it would mean, as Jacqui Smith said only a few days ago, that people without skills would be unlikely, outside the European Union, to be able to come into the country. It is a recognition that more and more people are travelling round the world looking for the country of choice. We as a country have a responsibility to set the rules by which we wish to offer people the chance to come to our country, and that is why the big change is the points system, which will be backed up by far tougher measures to deal with people coming into the country illegally, including—although it is contentious—ID cards for foreign nationals coming into our country. These are the changes that we propose to make.

  Q57  Mr Whittingdale: Do I take it from that answer, the fact that you feel it is necessary to take these actions, that you do think that the levels we have had in the last few years are unsustainable?

  Mr Brown: No, I am not going to say that. What I am going to say is that we now know that there are far more people in the rest of the world looking to come to different countries, either to offer their skills or because they find that a more convenient or acceptable place to stay. It is incumbent upon us, with 200 million people a year looking for different countries of residence, to set the rules that we, Britain, wish to apply for the future and, therefore, the rules that we wish to apply for the future include a points system that is going to be far tougher than what has happened in the past and include far bigger and stronger controls to deal with the problem of people coming unlawfully into our country and I believe the ID card for foreign nationals is one form of protection that I would have hoped there could be all-party support for.

  Q58  Mr Whittingdale: So the points system that you are introducing is intended to reduce the net level of immigration?

  Mr Brown: The points system we are introducing is to give us a choice as to who we wish to accept into the country in the circumstances of people coming here to work. If you take the City of London, 200,000 people are working in the City of London who have come from other countries of the world, many from America, Europe, and many also from Asia, some from Africa and other parts of the world. That has been a benefit to the City of London. There is nobody I meet who says that the City of London has failed to benefit from large numbers of people coming from different countries with particular skills. In general, the growth rate of the economy has been higher as a result of people that we have attracted to our country who have wanted to work here but we are dealing with a new situation where larger numbers of people are wanting to have, if you like, a citizenship of choice. We as a government and as a country must therefore set the rules that we think are appropriate for us in the future, bearing in mind our responsibilities as a member of the European Union, bearing in mind our responsibilities under a whole series of arrangements we have made in the past about spouses and about children but bearing in mind also that we have a right to be able to say that there are skills that are suitable to our economy that we want to attract and there may be skills that we no longer think are as important as we thought they were previously.

  Q59  Mr Whittingdale: All of us would recognise that we will benefit from immigration of skilled workers but a lot of the concern actually revolves around relatively unskilled people coming to this country. The Government Actuary's Department has recently produced projections which suggest that the overall figure for the population is likely to increase to around 70 million in the next 25 years and could reach 90 million in the next 50 years. Do you have a view of what is the maximum size of population that this country can accommodate?

  Mr Brown: These figures cannot be on the basis of the policy changes that are being made and I have said they are the biggest policy changes that have been made for many years. These are projections without taking into account the policy changes. Some people are saying that there should be a total cap on migration into our country but then they have to accept when they say that that they are not proposing a cap on people coming from the European Union, they are not proposing a cap on people coming as dependants, they are not proposing a cap on students, for example, who come to the country. The cap would, of course, as a result of being a blanket cap in relation to those people they can exclude, exclude skilled workers. I do not think that is the right decision. We need some of these skills but, obviously, we do not need some of the unskilled workers who may wish to come to our country but under the points system will have the right to say that is not what we need at the moment, that is not what the future of our country requires and that is why the points system is going to be brought into operation. I think it has worked quite well in Australia. It is similar to some of the things that other countries do and it is a major change for us to introduce it. So any projections do not take into account the changes that we are actually making.

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