Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 140-159)


3 JULY 2008

  Q140  Sir Alan Beith: ---but it is confusing, giving guidance on how we would like people to live and how society is improved if people behave responsibly towards each other and confusing that with rights that cannot be taken away and can be enforced. If you cannot enforce responsibilities, what are they doing packaged up with rights?

  Mr Brown: In some cases you can enforce responsibilities—that is what I am referring to—whether it is the Health Service patient who abuses the goodwill of the Service by refusing to turn up for appointments that they have made, or whether it is the anti-social tenant that you have referred to who refuses to be a good neighbour and disrupts the life of their neighbour—

  Q141  Sir Alan Beith: I said a bad-tempered neighbour.

  Mr Brown: ---then it is right for us to insist that these responsibilities be enforced by them being penalised in one way or another.

  Q142  Sir Alan Beith: I did not say bad tenant, I said the bad-tempered neighbour who just does not get on with people and does not do very much in society?

  Mr Brown: There are ways of describing that behaviour, but when that behaviour becomes in an extreme form, really hurting the whole neighbourhood, action should be taken.

  Sir Patrick Cormack: I would like to move on to my very good neighbour. Yesterday you were somewhat perplexed as to how he should be rewarded. He has been rewarded by being given the opportunity to ask you some questions today.

  Q143  Keith Vaz: I do not know whether that is being short-changed!

  Mr Brown: He is not, however, sending me letters on this occasion!

  Q144  Keith Vaz: I want to ask you about your counter-terrorism proposals. Some have argued quite strongly that the proposals that have been put forward by the Government will affect the constitutional settlement of this country, because for the first time Parliament and the Home Secretary will be asked to be involved in a judicial process once it has begun. What is your answer to that?

  Mr Brown: I do not accept that. The Home Secretary would come to the House with the support of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the police and say, "A terrorist incident has occurred. It is of a grave and exceptional nature and, on that basis, she wishes to trigger the commencement order for the legislation." It is as straightforward as that. She is not involving herself in the action on the individual case, which is a matter for the courts and a matter for the police in relation to the courts, but she is telling the House that there is a grave and exceptional terrorist incident.

  Q145  Keith Vaz: But do you not feel that the safeguards that the Government has put in place are not going to be sufficient in order to guarantee that constitutional settlement?

  Mr Brown: No, I think the safeguards are sufficient. I believe the safeguards, by the way, for the individual are sufficient because the worry had been, when we put forward the proposal for up to 90 days, that essentially people were arguing that you would put someone in a cell and throw the keys away. That is not the case. In the case of going beyond 28 days, not only has the action to be approved by the Director of Public Prosecutions and by the police, but there has to be an independent legal opinion put before the House of Commons, she has to inform the Chairman of the Human Rights Committee and yourself, as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, and the Intelligence and Security Committee, she has to come before the House, obviously, and get the approval of the House for nominating this incident as exceptional and grave. At the same time, the independent reviewer is brought into play. He has got to look at the individual case, not generally report on the work of this Act, and every seven days that person has to come before a judge. So the protection for the individual is there. The Home Secretary will be very careful not to go beyond what is stated in the Act.

  Q146  Keith Vaz: Liberty have made it very clear, and they were in discussions with you during the progress of the legislation, that they feel that the compensation arrangements announced by the Home Secretary are totally unworkable. Are they legally sound?

  Mr Brown: The Home Secretary has said she will bring before the House proposals about compensation. You have got to remember that the argument that we had with the organisation Liberty was that they wished to use the Civil Contingencies Act in these circumstances, and they would have wanted us to come before the House and declare what was effectively a state of emergency that gave powers far greater than we were asking for in the Anti-terrorism Act. These powers would have concluded preventative detention as well as the detention that we are talking about, and these powers, in my view, would have given the oxygen of publicity to terrorists so that an individual terrorist incident would be leading to, effectively, a state of emergency in a way that would give massive publicity to a terrorist organisation.

  Q147  Keith Vaz: Prime Minister, with hindsight, you are going to amend the Civil Contingencies Act anyway with these proposals. Why did not the Government, right at the start of this process, decide that that was the best way forward, to amend the Civil Contingencies Act, rather than to bring these other goals to the fore?

  Mr Brown: Because, if I may say, the Civil Contingencies Act contains a whole range of other powers and a whole range of other circumstances in which the civil contingency measures can be triggered. We were dealing specifically with terrorism and only terrorism. We were dealing, not simply with a terrorist incident, but with a grave and exceptional set of terrorist incidents. This is a power that will be rarely used, but it is a power that I wanted us to have without having to declare a state of emergency and give the oxygen of publicity to terrorists and a power that was in place long before we had the sort of terrorist incident that would trigger it. I do not want to have to come to the House and say that a terrorist incident has occurred that is of such a nature that we need to trigger greater powers than we have at the moment. To do this in a period of calm where we could have a reflection on what has happened was by far the best way of doing it.

  Q148  Keith Vaz: We have heard those arguments put forward, but you put yourself forward, quite rightly, as the Prime Minister of the whole nation. The fact is that these measures will disproportionately affect members of one community, the Muslim community. Is that not the case?

  Mr Brown: I do not accept that either. I think the support for these measures in the Muslim communities will be as high as the support in other communities. The reasons is that they too want protection against both terrorist incidents and the action of individual terrorists; and I do not usually go through these things, but I believe from what I can see, there is a large amount of support right across the nation for these proposals, and I was actually sorry that we could not achieve an all-party consensus on these proposals. I tried very hard to get that consensus, and so did the Home Secretary. We approached the other parties, we talked to organisations like Liberty and, in my view, what separated us was not sufficient to have justified the major attempt to destroy the legislation.

  Q149  Keith Vaz: You only got your legislation through by nine votes. Is it the case that you authorised or offered any backbench member of Parliament a peerage or a knighthood, even the governorship of Bermuda, in order to vote for your legislation?

  Mr Brown: Not at all. Nor do I recall sending any letters to anyone.

  Q150  Keith Vaz: What about the Ulster Unionists? Did you offer them anything?

  Mr Brown: I think the criticism of the DUP has been totally misplaced. If there was any party in the House of Commons that knows what terrorism can do and what is its impact on our society it is the Ulster Unionists, and many members of that party have suffered themselves, or their families, at the hands terrorism, and I think those parties that are criticising the DUP should instead be listening to what they say about how terrorism can cause such damaging and deleterious effects.

  Keith Vaz: Thank you Prime Minister.

  Q151  Sir Patrick Cormack: I am sure that will strike a chord with Northern Ireland. Last year, in those giddy days in June when you were forming your ministry of all the talents, you decided Parliament did not have quite everybody you wanted and so you looked outside. Those appointments that you made, Lord Digby Jones, Lord West, et cetera, how have they worked out? What is your report on their year's progress?

  Mr Brown: I think the performance of these ministers has been excellent, and I think they have done a very good job for the country. Digby Jones, of course, spends a great deal of time going round the world making sure that our trade relations with so many of the countries with whom we want to have good relations are, indeed, very good. Admiral West is doing an excellent job in security. Mark Malloch Brown is just back from the work that he has done with the African Union in trying to make sure that we have a better outcome in Zimbabwe and has been much involved in what is happening in Burma, and I think people have seen the benefits of Lord Darzi's report only in the last few days.

  Q152  Sir Patrick Cormack: So three cheers for the House of Lords.

  Mr Brown: I think those people who can be brought into the Government to support the executive responsibilities that governments have got to discharge and can bring a wealth of experience from the outside world are to be welcomed.

  Q153  Sir Patrick Cormack: I could not agree more, and, therefore, is it not a good thing if you have got somewhere to put them?

  Mr Brown: That is the position at the moment. There are other ways, of course, by which you can add to your government.

  Q154  Sir Patrick Cormack: As that is the position at the moment, I do not want to get bogged down whether we should finally have an elected House or anything like that, but as for the foreseeable future, Prime Minister, even Mr Straw would agree that we have what we have; would it not make sense to deal with some of the anomalies at that end of the corridor? I have raised this with you before and you gave a half-hearted reception, but you did not totally dismiss it. What about dealing with the things in Lord Steel's Bill, bringing to an end the absurd by-elections for hereditary peers? What about having a statutory appointments commission, which would fit in well with the other things you boasted about earlier today? What about these things? Why not give this Bill a fair wind in the next session?

  Mr Brown: There are proposals about to come from the Government on the promise that we made when the House of Commons voted on the reform of the House of Lords, and some of the things that you mentioned will be part of these proposals. I do not think it is for me to presume what is going to be published quite soon, but we are aware of both the Steel proposals about the statutory appointments and about by-elections and so on, but we are also aware that we have got to honour our promise to the House of Commons that we will bring forward proposals about the reform of the House of Lord based on the decisions and the votes of the House of Commons at the time.

  Q155  Sir Patrick Cormack: You do know, of course, do you not, that when those votes took place, the majority of your own party voted against 80:20, the majority of the Conservative parliamentary party voted against 80:20 and what gave a good majority, with 100 per cent elected, was the tactical vote of the Labour members who wanted to throw a spanner in the works and did not want any elected members at all, and you know that to be the case as well as I do. So, building this White Paper on this fiction is a bit daft, is it not?

  Mr Brown: I do not think so. We have got to honour the promise that we made at the time. There is going to be a lengthy debate about the future of the House of Lords. There always has been. We did say we would bring forward proposals in our election manifesto. Let us see what these proposals lead to in terms of the debate that takes place in the country. I am aware that there are immediate issues that might be able to be addressed, but I am also aware that we have got a responsibility to honour the votes of the House of Commons.

  Sir Patrick Cormack: May I bring in Dr Tony Wright?

  Q156  Dr Wright: Thank you very much. I am one of those who do welcome the Constitutional Renewal Bill, not least because some of us were involved in some of the ingredients of it. Could I follow Sir Patrick and just ask about the House of Lords? I have devoted far more time than is good for me thinking about House of Lords reform. When I hear again that we are going to do this after the next election on the basis of consensus, I have great doubts about it. What I do know is that there are things that we could do now. We issued a report after the "cash for peerages" affair, saying there are things we could do now, and we could do it without legislation, just to clean up the place. After ten years of progressive government, we have still got a raft of hereditary peers. Why do we not just do a bit of cleaning up and at least do what we can do now?

  Mr Brown: I have said before that the House of Lords should be both accountable and it should not remove the primacy of the House of Commons in so many different areas. As far as these individual changes that you are talking about are concerned, I think you have got to wait until we put forward our proposals in the next period of time and then let us have the debate about what we can and what we cannot do immediately to make sure that the democratic process works better. I have a great deal of sympathy with your proposal about the hereditary peers, but let us see how we can move these things forward. As you know, the reason why people talk about consensus is that proposals need normally to get through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

  Q157  Dr Wright: Your predecessor was not keen on elections to the Lords; he was in favour of an appointed House. I do not quite understand what your sense of the balance between election and appointment should be?

  Mr Brown: As you may know, I voted for the 80 per cent myself. I think there are very good arguments in the modern world for those chambers that have responsibility for legislation and the ultimate power with the House of Commons to decide what is legislated in our country and have a very substantially elected element, but I am also aware that we have got to deal with this other issue, and that is that the House of Commons, in my view, should have primacy.

  Q158  Dr Wright: People quite like the idea of a cross-party non-party element in the House of Lords, do they not?

  Mr Brown: Yes, but I think you will find that the House of Lords can be pretty political as well.

  Q159  Dr Wright: Let me ask you a couple of different things. There is a lot of talk at the moment about the English question. Do you think there is an English question?

  Mr Brown: I think you are dealing with a constitution in the United Kingdom where 85 per cent of the population, 85 per cent of the representations in the House of Commons, the representatives, are from one country: England. So the pressure in recent years has been for special arrangements that can guarantee the position of the minorities. That is why the pressure for devolution arose in Scotland and then in Wales, and that is why, of course, for nearly 90 years we have tried to find the best way of governing in a democratic way in Northern Ireland. In a constitution where 85 per cent of the population come from one country and a very small number, eight or nine percent, from another, five from another, three from another, the pressure has always been, I think, in recent years, to find a position that would protect, reflect and give attention to the rights of minorities. Now, of course, we have got devolution in Scotland, we have got a Scottish Parliament, we have got devolution in Wales, we have got the Welsh Assembly, devolution is working in Northern Ireland with, as you will know, the policing justice issues still to be dealt with in a second stage of devolution, but it is working, and I think people see it as a success. People will then look at what is the position of those people in England in a United Kingdom Parliament. One of the ways that we have sought to deal with that issue is to enhance the power of the regions of England, and therefore you have got regional ministers now that we did not have before and these proposals for regional committees in the House of Commons that will give greater voice to the English regions, particularly so when you have regional offices of government. As far as the issue of voting in the House of Commons itself on what is seen as English legislation, first of all a lot of the legislation that is seen to be simply English has repercussions for the rest of the United Kingdom, so that has got to be understood. Secondly, English votes for English laws would, in my view, in the end, split the United Kingdom; it would divide the United Kingdom fundamentally. So if we are looking for better solutions for the future, having recognised the rights of the minorities, having seen that there are issues affecting England, I think we have got to look for solutions in a way that is not along the headline: English votes for English laws. I think that would inevitably mean for the Executive to have to draw its power from both the United Kingdom representatives and from the English representative, and that would be an unstable situation. I think you would probably agree with that.

  Dr Wright: I would have hoped you would have said that we might take a serious look at the governance of England after devolution to see what devolution now means for England, and I would urge you to do that. We have just had the new Equality Bill, which I think we all welcome. You mentioned the word "prerogative" earlier on. It seems to have an exemption for the Royal Family. We have still a royal family which manages to practise religious discrimination and gender discrimination, and there was some suggestion that this might be covered by the Equality Bill, but it does not seem to have been.

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