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
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
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
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
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