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10 Jun 2009 : Column 795

Constitutional Renewal

12.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Government’s proposal to invite the House to agree further democratic reform, including legislation before the House rises for the summer on the conduct of Members of Parliament.

The past few months have shown us that the public require, as an urgent imperative, higher standards of financial conduct from all people in public life and an end to any abuses of the past. There is no more pressing task for this Parliament than to respond immediately to this public demand. Like every Member here, I believe that most Members of Parliament enter public life so that they can serve the public interest. I believe also that the vast majority of MPs work hard for their constituents and demonstrate by their service, whatever party they belong to, that they are in politics not for what they can get but for what they can give.

But all of us have to have the humility to accept that public confidence has been shaken and that the battered reputation of this institution cannot be repaired without fundamental change. At precisely the moment when the public need their politicians to be focused on the issues that affect their lives—on fighting back against recession and keeping people in their jobs and homes—the subject of politics itself has become the focus of our politics. We cannot move our country forward unless we break with the old practices and the old ways. Each of us has a part to play in the hard task of regaining the country’s trust, not for the sake of our different parties but for the sake of our common democracy. Without that trust, there can be no legitimacy; and without legitimacy, none of us can do the job our constituents have sent us here to do.

We must reflect on what has happened, redress the abuses, ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again and ensure that the public see us as individual MPs accountable to our constituents. It will be what we now do, not just what we say, that will prove that we have learned and that we have changed. So first, all MPs’ past and future expenses should and will be published on the internet in the next few days. Home claims submitted by MPs from all parts of the House over the past four years must, as we have agreed, be scrutinised by an independently led panel. That will ensure repayment where it is necessary and lead to discipline where there have been inappropriate claims. I know that you are working urgently to conclude this reassessment process, Mr. Speaker. We must now publish the past four years’ receipts, and start and conclude the scrutiny process as quickly as possible.

The House has already agreed to restrict expenses further, to those needed for parliamentary duties alone, to cut the costs for housing, to require all spending to be receipted and to ensure that incomes from second jobs are fully accounted for. All parties have committed themselves to accept the further recommendations of the independent Kelly committee, once they are received later this year, provided these proposals meet the tests of increased transparency, accountability and reduced costs for the taxpayer. Those steps to sort out the expenses crisis are necessary, but I think we all know that they are not sufficient. We need to go further.

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At its first meeting yesterday, the Government’s democratic council decided to bring forward new legislative proposals before the summer Adjournment on two issues that have been the subject of constructive cross-party discussion. First, we propose that the House of Commons—and subsequently the House of Lords—move from the old system of self-regulation to independent, statutory regulation. That will mean the immediate creation of a new Parliamentary Standards Authority, which will have delegated power to regulate the system of allowances. No more can Westminster operate in ways reminiscent of the last century, whereby Members make up the rules and operate them among themselves.

The proposed new authority would take over the role of the Fees Office in authorising Members’ claims, oversee the new allowance system, following proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, maintain the Register of Members’ Interests, and disallow claims, require repayment and apply firm and appropriate sanctions in cases of financial irregularity. I welcome the cross-party support for these proposals, which will be contained in the Bill that we will introduce very soon. I believe that the whole House will also wish to agree that, as part of this process, the new regulator should scrutinise efficiency and value for money in Parliament’s expenditure, and ensure, as suggested to Sir Christopher Kelly, that Parliament costs less.

Secondly, the House will be asked to agree a statutory code of conduct for all MPs, clarifying their role in relation to their constituents and Parliament, detailing what the electorate can expect and the consequences that will follow for those who fail to deliver. It will codify much more clearly the different potential offences that must be addressed, and the options available to sanction. These measures will be included in a short, self-standing Bill on the conduct of Members in the Commons, which will be introduced and debated before the summer Adjournment. This will address the most immediate issues about which we know the public are most upset, but it will be only the first stage of our legislation on the constitution.

The current system of sanctions for misconduct by Members is not fit for purpose. It does not give the public the confidence they need that wrongdoing will be dealt with in an appropriate way. The last time a person was expelled from the House was 55 years ago, in 1954. It remains the case that Members can be sentenced to up to one year in prison without being required to give up their parliamentary seat. The sanctions available against financial misconduct or corruption have not been updated to meet the needs of the times. This is not a modern and accountable system that puts the interests of constituents first. It needs to change.

There will be consultation with all sides of the House to come forward with new proposals for dealing effectively with inappropriate behaviour, including the potential options of effective exclusion and recall for gross financial misconduct, identified by the new independent regulator and by the House itself.

The House of Lords needs to be reformed, too. Following a meeting of the House Committee of the House of Lords, and at its request, I have today written to the Senior Salaries Review Body to ask it to review the system of financial support in the House of Lords, to increase its accountability, to enhance its transparency and to reduce its cost. For the first time, there will also
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be new legislation for new disciplinary sanctions for the misconduct of peers in the House of Lords.

We must also take forward urgent modernisation of the procedures of the House of Commons, so I am happy to give the Government’s support to a proposal from my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee that we will work with a special parliamentary commission comprising Members from both sides of this House, convened for a defined period to advise on necessary reforms, including making Select Committee processes more democratic, scheduling more and better time for non-Government business in the House, and enabling the public to initiate directly some issues for debate.

Given the vital role that transparency plays in sweeping away the decrepit system of allowances and holding power to account, I believe that we should do more to spread the culture and practice of freedom of information. So, as a next step, the Justice Secretary will set out further plans to look at broadening the application of freedom of information to include additional bodies which also need to be subject to greater transparency and accountability. This is the public’s money, and they should know how it is spent.

I should also announce that, as part of extending the availability of official information, and as our response to the Dacre review, we will progressively reduce the time taken to release official documents. As the report recommended, we have considered the need to strengthen protection for particularly sensitive material, and there will be protection of royal family and Cabinet papers as part of strictly limited exemptions. But we will reduce the time for release of all other official documents below the current 30 years, to 20 years. So that Government information is accessible and useful for the widest possible group of people, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who led the creation of the worldwide web, has agreed to help us to drive the opening up of access to Government data on the web over the coming months.

In the last 12 years, we have created the devolved Administrations, ended the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, and introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Human Rights Act 1998. Just as, through recent changes, we are removing ancient royal prerogatives and making the Executive more accountable to Parliament on central issues such as the declaration of peace and war, appointments and treaties, so, too, we want to establish and renew the legitimacy of Parliament itself by its becoming more accountable to the people.

Democratic reform cannot be led in Westminster alone. It must be led by engagement with the public. That is part of the lesson of the last month: the public want to be, and should be, part of the solution. So we must build a process that engages citizens themselves, people of all parties and none, of all faiths and no faith, from every background and every part of the country. So over the coming months, the Government will set out proposals for debate and reform on five remaining major constitutional issues.

First, we will move forward with reform of the House of Lords. The Government’s White Paper, published last July, for which there is backing from other parties, committed us to an 80 or 100 per cent. elected House of
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Lords, so we must now take the next steps as we complete this reform. The Government will come forward with published proposals for the final stage of House of Lords reform before the summer Adjournment, including the next steps we can take to resolve the position of the remaining hereditary peers and other outstanding issues.

Secondly, setting out the rights that people can expect as a British citizen, but also the responsibilities that come with those rights, is a fundamental step in balancing power between Government, Parliament and the people. It is for many people extraordinary that Britain still has a largely unwritten constitution. I personally favour a written constitution. I recognise that this change would represent a historic shift in our constitutional arrangements, so any such proposals will be subject to wide public debate and the drafting of such a constitution should ultimately be a matter for the widest possible consultation with the British people themselves.

Thirdly, there is the devolution of power and the engagement of people themselves in their local communities. The House will be aware of the proposals for the completion of the devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland. Next week, the Calman commission will report with recommendations on the future of devolution in Scotland within the United Kingdom. The Government of Wales Act 2006 permits further devolution in Wales, on which discussions are taking place. My right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will set out how we will strengthen the engagement of citizens in the democratic life of their own communities as we progress the next stage of devolution in England. So we must consider whether we should offer stronger, clearly defined powers to local government and city regions and strengthen their accountability to local people.

Last year, we published our review of the electoral system and there is a long-standing debate on this issue. I still believe that the link between the MP and constituency is essential and that the constituency is best able to hold its MP to account. We should be prepared to propose change only if there is a broad consensus in the country that it would strengthen our democracy and our politics by improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of both Government and Parliament and by enhancing the level and quality of representation and public engagement. We will set out proposals for taking this debate forward.

Fifthly, we will set out proposals for increasing public engagement in politics. To improve electoral registration, we will consider how we increase the number of people on the register and help to combat fraud. On receipt of the youth commission report, and having heard from young people themselves, we will set out the steps we will take to increase the engagement of young people in politics, including whether to give further consideration to the voting age.

As we come forward with proposals, in each case the Government will look to consult widely. All proposed reforms will be underpinned by cross-party discussions. Our proposals will also be informed by leading external figures, including academics and others who command public respect and have a recognised interest or expertise in the different elements of democratic reform. I expect this to conclude in time to shape the Government’s forward legislative programme and to feed into the Queen’s Speech. [Interruption.]

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In the midst of all the recriminations, let us seize the moment to lift our politics to a higher standard— [Interruption.] I do not think the House is behaving well today when it is debating its own future and how the public see what we do. In the midst of all the rancour and recriminations about expenses, let us seize the moment to lift our politics to a higher standard. In the midst of doubt, let us revive confidence. Let us also stand together because on this, at least, I think we all agree—Britain deserves a political system that is equal to the hopes and character of our people. Let us differ on policy—that is inevitable—but let us stand together for integrity and democracy. That is now more essential than ever, so I commend this statement to the House.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, but I have to say that he read it so quickly that I am not sure he convinced even himself. He has spoken a lot about constitutional change and innovation, but is not the real change we need not much of an innovation at all? Is not the answer to our discredited politics, to our disillusioned country and to our desperately weak Government a general election?

Two years ago, the Prime Minister did not call an election because he thought he would not win it; three weeks ago, he said he did not want one because it would bring “chaos”; and Lord Mandelson, the man who now runs the Government, says that Labour is against one because it might lose it. How many more excuses will they come up with before they recognise that it is time for people to have their say?

Let me turn now to the proposals themselves. The country is too centralised, Parliament is too weak, and the Government are too top-down, too secretive and too unwilling to give up power. Above all, is not the real problem the fact that people feel shut out of decision making and unable to control the things that matter to them?

There is much in the statement that we support, not least because it is taken from the comprehensive case for reform that I made to the Open university. The Government have at least mastered the art of copying things. We agree with giving more power to local government, but let us not stop there. Why not abolish the regional quangos that have taken so much power away from local government? We support greater independence for Select Committees, which got a mention today, but why cannot the Prime Minister say today that these watchdogs should be freely elected and not appointed by the Whips Office? I accept that it is a difficult decision for the Prime Minister, and in a way it is a difficult decision for me, because it means giving up patronage. However, I am prepared to do it. Is he prepared to do it?

We will back the establishment of a Parliamentary Standards Authority to supervise all matters relating to Members of Parliament’ pay and expenses, but there are still serious questions to be answered, not least about how it will relate to the House and to whom it will be ultimately accountable.

The problem is that the Prime Minister has promised constitutional change countless times before. He promised it when he launched his campaign for leadership of the Labour party two years ago, he promised it in his first statement to the House as Prime Minister, and he promised it in his speech on liberty in the autumn of
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2007. He promised it in two Queen’s Speeches, when he specifically pledged the delivery of a Constitutional Renewal Bill. That Bill was first mooted in November 2007, then again in December 2008. Why has it taken so long?

Let us consider the things that the Prime Minister has proposed in the past. He has proposed a British day, an institute of Britishness, a Bill of Rights, a written constitution and reform of the House of Lords. They are all endlessly launched and relaunched, but nothing ever happens. It is not so much a Government strategy as a relaunch distraction strategy, intended to give the Prime Minister something to talk about when he is in desperate straits.

The Prime Minister’s latest brainchild—you could not make this one up—is a National Council for Democratic Renewal. That sounds like something out of North Korea, but let us be clear about what it is. It is not some outward-looking convention that is open to the public. It is not even cross-party. It is just a bunch of Ministers talking to themselves.

What these proposals fail to address is the central question that we believe should lie behind any programme for constitutional reform: how do we take power away from the political elite, and give it to the man and woman in the street? Let me give the Prime Minister some real ideas. It is not time to allow people the opportunity to present a proposition and have it voted on in a local referendum? Should we not introduce so-called citizens’ initiatives? Is it not time to give local people the right to stop excessive taxation? Should we not give them the right to hold a referendum on massive council tax rises?

When we, as democratically elected politicians, promise a referendum, as we all did on the European constitution, should we not stick to our promise? Is it not things of that kind that really sap people’s faith in politics? At the heart of any programme of constitutional reform should be proper taxpayer transparency. Is it not time to publish all public spending, national and local, online, so that each taxpayer can see precisely how his or her hard-earned money is being spent?

If the test of effective constitutional reform is pushing power downwards, is it not the case that nothing fails more than proportional representation? Let me reaffirm our belief that it is a recipe for weak coalition Governments. Rather than voters choosing their Governments on the basis of manifestos, does it not all too often mean party managers choosing Governments on the basis of backroom deals? Our view is clear: we should not take away from the British people the right to get rid of weak, tired and discredited Governments. The most powerful thing in politics is not actually the soapbox or the Dispatch Box but the ballot box, particularly when it leads to the removal van. I have to ask the Prime Minister this: will not people conclude that he has started talking about proportional representation only because he fears he will lose under the existing rules?

If we want an electoral system that is fairer, should we not consider ensuring that each constituency is of equal worth? At present some constituencies have twice as many voters as others, which puts a premium on some votes. Is it not time to ask the Boundary Commission to redraw boundaries to make them all the same size? At the same time, should we not be reducing the size of the House of Commons?

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