Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 121-139)


3 JULY 2008

  Chairman: Welcome again, Prime Minister, on your second appearance before the Liaison Committee. As we did with your predecessor and as we did with you last time, we told you in advance what the themes were to be, but, of course, you have no knowledge of what the questions are to be. Today, again, we have four themes. We start with your special interest, constitutional renewal, which will be led by Sir Patrick Cormack, then we go on to global economic issues, oil food and energy, led by Malcolm Bruce, then managing the economic slow down, led by John McFall and international flashpoints, led by Mike Gapes. Shall we go straight into the first theme? Patrick.

  Q121 Sir Patrick Cormack: Prime Minister, good morning. When you came before us last time I ended the session by asking you if you were enjoying things. Have they got better?

  Mr Brown: This is the best job in the world, and it is the best job in the world because plenty of other people are wanting this job.

  Q122  Sir Patrick Cormack: Tell us who they are!

  Mr Brown: Perhaps I should start by paying a tribute to our colleague Gwyneth Dunwoody. I think everybody recognises that she was a great parliamentarian. That was proven by what she achieved on this committee, and I think she will be sadly missed in all parts of the House.

  Q123  Sir Patrick Cormack: Thank you for that, Prime Minister. I am sure we would all echo those words, as she was a much-loved colleague. She had a zest for life: she believed in enjoying herself and she believed in sleep and she believed in holidays. We understand that you do not have much of the former and do not want much of the latter. Is that right?

  Mr Brown: I get plenty of sleep, only occasionally interrupted my young children, and as far as holidays, I am looking forward to a holiday. I hope everybody else is.

  Q124  Sir Patrick Cormack: I hope you will take one. Prime Minister, you made this business of constitutional reform top of your agenda, and you have stressed often enough that you really believe that Parliament should be central to the nation's affairs, but this does not really sit terribly happily with your continued support of the Government control of the parliamentary timetable and on the insistence that every bill is timetabled. How do you square that particular circle?

  Mr Brown: There is a legislative programme that arises from a political party's manifesto. We have got an obligation to the people of this country. If we put forward proposals in our manifesto, if the public then vote for that manifesto, as they have, then we have a duty to move these proposals to the House of Commons.

  Q125  Sir Patrick Cormack: That is okay so far as it goes, but until 1997 if a government wished to timetable a bill, it did it individually, it brought its motion to the floor of the House, it sought to justify things after there had been a long committee session. Now, immediately after the second reading, we are told what the timetable is going to be, and that is determined by the Government. That does not really fit easily with a Prime Minister that wants to put Parliament back in the centre?

  Mr Brown: It is determined in the end by the consent of Parliament. I think you know that.

  Q126  Sir Patrick Cormack: Come off it, with a large majority!

  Mr Brown: I think over the last year we have proven that we wish Parliament to take more responsibility. We are changing the power of the Executive to declare war, we are changing the power of the Executive to request dissolution, the power over the recall of Parliament, the power to ratify international treaties, the power to keep public appointments, pre-scrutiny of those people who are holding major public offices. I think there are 60 such appointments that are going to be before the House of Commons. The power to choose bishops has been taken away from the Government, the power of appointment of judges. So I think we are proving that the Executive is capable of devolving substantial power, and I think we are reinforcing the role of Parliament in areas where for too long the Executive, through a royal prerogative, exercised power. Parliament will now have a far bigger role, and I think you would be wrong to undervalue the changes that have been announced in the last year and the changes that have been made.

  Q127  Sir Patrick Cormack: The proof of the pudding, and so much of it is window-dressing—

  Mr Brown: I do not accept that.

  Q128  Sir Patrick Cormack: Of course you do not, but there we are. Let me move on, if I may, to Sir Alan Beith.

  Mr Brown: Is it not clear that when there are major public appointments being made, previously simply made by government, now there is scrutiny by the House of Commons, that that is an improvement in the House of Commons' position? Equally, when it is matters of peace and war, the Intelligence and Security Committee's work to give Parliament more authority in this is important. Of course Parliament must prove, both through its committee system and through the work in the Chamber, that it is prepared to exercise these responsibilities in a way that commands support in the country.

  Q129  Sir Patrick Cormack: I will say briefly there, you are the Executive, Parliament is not the Executive, but Parliament calls the Executive to account, and you are preventing the Executive being called fully to account if you persist with your timetable motions.

  Mr Brown: I do not accept that the changes in the last year have done anything other than reinforce the power of Parliament. Whether it is in the Constitutional Renewal Bill or whether it is in the changes in the organisation of the Intelligence and Security Committee or the ways that we will determine Parliament's right to exercise its opinion on peace and war and the ratification of treaties, this is an improvement in the position of the Legislature in relation to the Executive.

  Sir Patrick Cormack: We note all that, Prime Minister. Let us move on to Sir Alan, because he has some questions on those points he would like to ask.

  Q130  Sir Alan Beith: Let me start, Prime Minister, with one of the things that is in the Bill, and that is the role of the Attorney General. The Attorney General combines a ministerial role with an independent one, deciding on prosecutions, giving legal advice to the Government, for which a measure of detachment is required. Why, contrary to previous practice, have you decided that the Attorney General should attend all Cabinet meetings?

  Mr Brown: The Attorney General is not a member of the Cabinet. He attends Cabinet meetings.

  Q131  Sir Alan Beith: In your case you have asked her to attend all Cabinet meetings.

  Mr Brown: The Attorney General does so in her capacity as the legal adviser to the Government, but let me just explain, Sir Alan, what the major change is.

  Q132  Sir Alan Beith: I want you to answer the question why you have asked the present Attorney General, which has not been the practice hitherto, to attend all Cabinet meetings throughout?

  Mr Brown: If I may say so, the previous Attorney General did attend most meetings of the Cabinet, and I do not believe it is the case that in the last ten years the Attorney General has rarely attended the Cabinet. The Attorney General has mainly attended the Cabinet.

  Q133  Sir Alan Beith: Previous attorneys (and they have given evidence to this effect) attended Cabinet meetings on request to deal with specific issues. You have told the Attorney General, and she told my committee this, that you would like her to attend all Cabinet meetings. That is a shift in the balance between the independent, legal role and the political role of the Attorney General.

  Mr Brown: I do not see that as a major shift at all. I think you are drawing the wrong conclusion. She is there in her position as the legal adviser to the Government. If she is called on to give that advice, she does so, and I have invited her to attend the meetings on that basis, but previously, I think, you will find that the prior Attorney General attended the Cabinet fairly regularly.

  Q134  Sir Alan Beith: One of the consequences, though, is that the Attorney General, if this persists, will be seen, even more than now, as part of the political leadership of government, and that makes it very difficult for the public to see the Attorney as acting independently over issues like stopping investigations by the Serious Fraud Office, for which in future the Attorney will have a statutory power that does not now exist under your bill, on issues like deciding whether a minister should be prosecuted, or whether the Government is open to legal proceedings. It is much more difficult to see the Attorney as independent if the Attorney is part of the very political leadership which may be in question.

  Mr Brown: Again, I do not accept the presumption of your question, because we are changing the role of the Attorney General quite significantly. There is a very significant change to the status quo. The Attorney General will cease to have any power to take decisions in individual cases, except in cases related to national security. That is the big change that has been proposed and I think people should recognise that as a significant change. It would only be in cases of national security that the Attorney will have the power to take decisions.

  Q135  Sir Alan Beith: Why do you not take responsibility for those decisions? After all, you are the person, not the Attorney, who knows about the national security issues and you are accountable to Parliament on national security. The Attorney General has a quite different and legal role. Are you not, again, in danger of muddling the legal and the political?

  Mr Brown: If I may say so, you are starting from a presumption that the Attorney General should have nothing to do with the political system. I do not accept that. The Attorney General is still the legal adviser to the Government, but where individual cases are involved, except in the case of national security, he or she will cease to have any power to take these decisions. I think that is a major change and I do not think in your questions you are recognising it to be such as it is, and I do think that it is right that the person with the legal expertise takes these decisions.

  Q136  Sir Alan Beith: You cannot avoid the fact that there has been in other cases a perceived conflict of interest, including in national security cases, and in other walks of life conflicts of interest either have to be removed or dealt with with special transparency arrangements. You are not doing that.

  Mr Brown: I do not know if these microphones are working well enough, but, if I may so, the Attorney General will only intervene in cases where national security is paramount. She will have to report to Parliament when she does so. She will give an annual report to Parliament on the exercise of her power. So I think we are not only narrowing the scope for the action of the Attorney General, and strengthening, therefore, the independence of the prosecution authorities, but we are creating a system that is more transparent in the manner in which Parliament is both formed and giving an annual report on these matters. I think that is a very significant change and I hope that the committee will come to recognise it to be so.

  Q137  Sir Alan Beith: Let us turn to another of your big interests in this bill, which is rights and responsibilities. If you behave irresponsibly by breaking the law, by drunk driving, for example, and you face a penalty, you lose an element of rights because you get a ban or a prison sentence. If you persistently refuse job offers, you lose benefit, but beyond that are there any responsibilities involved in not being a good citizen which will lead to loss of rights under your concept of balancing rights and responsibilities?

  Mr Brown: I think you have just seen the publication in the last few days of the constitution for the National Health Service, which talks about both rights and responsibilities. If someone has a time for an appointment and then fails to take that up, then they cannot automatically be expected to be governed by the guarantees that apply to everybody else that they should have an 18-week gap between the time they go to a doctor and receiving the treatment they want. So rights and responsibilities are embedded also in the new National Health Service constitution.

  Q138  Sir Alan Beith: Let us move out of the area of public service and look more generally at rights and responsibilities. If you are a bad-tempered recluse who does not get on with the neighbours and will not help at the village fête, you are not being a responsible member of society, but you are not suggesting, are you, that there are rights which people can lose because they are not good citizens as we might like them to be?

  Mr Brown: I think, in the case of anti-social tenants, there are, indeed, rights that they could lose if they are bad tenants and destroy the peace or harmony, the serenity of life of their neighbours.

  Q139  Sir Alan Beith: Those are crimes or legally defined forms of anti-social behaviour, are they not?

  Mr Brown: Yes, they tend to be set down in the legislation, but, again, I am talking to you about how we have gradually moved towards a situation where we do talk about the responsibilities that people have that they have to exercise as good citizens.

  Sir Alan Beith: Is not the danger in all this that you dress up what is really, in the end, preaching about how we would like people to behave, and there is nothing wrong with that, I am the last person to complain about preaching—

  Sir Patrick Cormack: He does it all the time!

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