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Is it not the case that it is not the alternative vote that people want now, but the chance to vote for an alternative Government? Are these proposals not a pretty sorry attempt to distract attention away from a Prime Minister who has lost his authority, a Cabinet full of second preferences, and a Labour Government who have led this country to the brink of bankruptcy?
The Prime Minister: All MPs sitting in this Chamber must know what their constituents are telling them, but I do not think the Leader of the Oppositions statement reflects what they are saying to him. Nearly 70 per cent. of people did not vote in the elections of last week, and 40 per cent. voted for parties other than those represented here, and we have to accept that people want us first to clean up our politics quickly. I would have thought he would make more mention of that in his response to the statement.
We want all-party support for the new code of conduct and the parliamentary standards commissioner, and also for the way we deal with issues of exclusion from the House of Commons, which is something that has not been faced up to before. The precondition of any debate about the future of our democracy must be our determination to recognise, with humility, that this House has got to clean up its affairs as a matter of urgency, and every Member of Parliament shares a responsibility for doing that. Before we get into the different issues that divide our party [Interruption.] Before we get into the different issues that divide the parties, I think the Conservative party [Interruption.]
The Leader of the Opposition is quite wrong about the Constitutional Renewal Bill. It has been discussed by Committees of both Houses, and it was published in draft form some time ago. We have been debating it so we can get it absolutely right. It will come before the House of Commons for its Second Reading very soon, but before that we have to deal with the expenses crisis. The Constitutional Reform Bill removes the royal prerogative in key areas: the ability to declare peace and war is no longer a matter just for the Prime Minister or the Executive; it is a matter for the House of Commons, as are the declaration of treaties, the selection of people and pre-appointment hearings. There are a range of areas where the Executive have surrendered power to the House of Commons, and will continue to do so.
The time is also right for Parliament to make its affairs more accountable to the public. I think I am the first Prime Minister to propose a review to ensure that Select Committees can work in a new way, and I hope everybody will take up the opportunity to discuss that. I am also proposing that we look at means by which the public petitions that now come to No. 10 could come to Parliament in such a way that they could be debated.
As for the devolution of power, let us be clear that we devolved power to Scotland and Wales against the views of the Conservative party, and we also put forward constitutional proposals, including on freedom of information, which are now being seen to be changing our political system as a result of transparency. We want to expand that. The Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposal is to open up information more widely, and if we do that the Leader of the Oppositions proposal about information about money can be put on the internet. There are, therefore, a range of proposals.
On electoral reform, I think it is fair to say that before the Leader of the Opposition asked me questions at Prime Ministers Question Time, he had sight of the statement that I was to make to the House of Commons
The Prime Minister: He had sight of the statement I was to make to the House of Commons, and it was therefore clear to him what I was proposing and what I was not proposing, and it is clear from what I have said that the debate is to be one in which we take into account the relationship between the constituency and the Member of Parliament; that is something we want to do. We are not going to turn our back on any discussion of reform; I suspect that only the Conservative partynot the Liberal party, nor other partieswant to do that now.
The Leader of the Opposition must also wake up to the fact that many systems of representation are already used in the United Kingdom. He did not reply to our proposals on the House of Lords. I take it that he still favours 80 or 100 per cent. elected representation in the Lords, and that he favours the proposals we are going to put forward to reform the House of Lords. The House of Lords has also got to face up to its responsibilities in that its discipline procedures and procedures for dealing with its finances are not good enough, and that is very much part of the measures we are putting forward.
Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. Of course everyone agrees that the political crisis requires big changes in the way we do things, so I welcome this deathbed conversion to political reform from the man who has blocked change at almost every opportunity for the last 12 years. Everyone knows that the Labour party will lose the next general election, so any reforms must be in place before the election if they are to mean anything at all. Anything else would be a betrayal of the British people, who are angry and demanding that we change for good the rotten way we do politics. Does the Prime Minister not see that this is no time for more committees, more reviews and more consultation? We have been debating these issues for decades; is it not now time to get things done?
I strongly welcome the Prime Ministers commitment to moving towards an elected House of Lords, but will he give us a date by which this reform will be complete? We have already voted on it in this place; there should be no more delay. I also strongly welcome the move towards a Parliamentary Standards Authority and an
MPs code of conduct. These changes should be implemented immediately with no more delay, so will the Prime Minister ask this House to forgo its summer recess so that we can push through all the necessary changes to clean up politics, and will he make sure that his immediate proposals include the right for people to sack their MP if it has been shown that they have done something seriously wrong?
I am dismayed that the Prime Minister is completely silent on the issue of party funding. How on earth can he possibly justify that? We cannot allow our politics to go the way of Americas, where elections have become a contest of advertising budgets, not ideas. Why delay when he could just implement the Hayden Phillips recommendations in the party funding Bill that is already being debated in another place? The way forward has been agreed; why does he refuse to act?
On electoral reform, I welcome any movement away from our discredited system: a system that gives the Prime Ministers Government untrammelled power when only one in five people voted for them; a system that gives MPs safe seats for life. [Interruption.] Thats why they like it. As Robin Cook recognised, and as the Prime Ministers new Home Secretary realises [Interruption.]
Mr. Clegg: As Robin Cook recognised, and as the Prime Ministers new Home Secretary realises, this cannot go on. So why is the Prime Minister seeking to restart a general debate on electoral reform? We have had the debate: we had Roy Jenkinss report and the independent Power inquiry. We cannot afford to wait for a cross-party consensus because the Conservatives will never want to change this cosy Westminster stitch-up. We do not need to wait for the Cabinet to make up its mind; it is not up to it to decide how our democracy works. People should now be given a say, so will the Prime Minister now call a referendum this autumn to give people a choicea choice between the bankrupt system we have now and serious proposals for reform which finally put the people in charge, not politicians? The Prime Minister has nothing to lose. This is no time for his trademark timidity. Just get on with it. Will he now cancel the recess, pass the legislation we need, and give people the say we deserve?
The Prime Minister: First, let me say where we agree. We agreeI am glad the right hon. Gentleman has said this explicitlythat we will all support the new Parliamentary Standards Authority; we will move from self-regulation to statutory regulation. We can therefore do that very quickly; it can be enacted very quickly to start almost immediately. We will all agree to the code of conduct, which means that the conditions under which MPs may be excluded from the House of Commons will be set down for them. We will modernise the means by which we deal with those issues where exclusion or recall is a possibility; I think there should be a debate on that over the next few weeks. We have got to make sure first of all that the country sees us dealing with the changes that are necessary, and I think that the mood of the House today still does not sufficiently recognise the gravity of the problems we face with our constituents and that we have got to deal with as a matter of immediacy.
As for the summer adjournment, I hope we can make progress, but I must ask the leader of the Liberal Democrats not to perpetuate the myth that for 12 or 14 weeks during the summer and autumn MPs do absolutely nothing. MPs are in their constituencies, and working there, and let us not perpetuate a myth that is not the correct story. Most MPs I know are working very hard indeed in their constituencies. That deserves to be said so that people understand that that is the case.
On the other issues, we agree about the reforms within Parliament, and there will be a chance for a group of people to look at those under the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee. On House of Lords reform, we agree about what needs to be done. The reason that reform of the Lords has been blocked is not the House of Commons, but the House of Lords itself.
As far as party funding is concerned, we have been looking, on an all-party basis, at how we can improve and reform party funding, and it is very much on the agenda. On electoral reform, I gave my statement to the leaders of the other parties before questions, and it made my position clear. I am sorry that some people misinterpreted that position during Prime Ministers questions, but my position is the clear position that I put to the House when I read out my statement. Other Members did not have a copy, but the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats had it before questions.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has made an important announcement today that may even turn out to be historic. Will he consider adding one item to the list? It is an item on which I was elected in our manifesto in 1992, and I introduced a Bill on it eight years ago. It is an item that most people in the House now seem to have signed up to, and it is the proposition that we should have fixed-term Parliaments. May I ask him to signal his commitment to fixed-term Parliaments by announcing now the date of the next general election? May I suggest that 6 May 2010 would be an excellent date?
The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend, whom we are asking to undertake new responsibilities in this review, has strong views on these issues, including fixed-term Parliaments, which would be part of the discussions on a written constitution. He will understand why I am making no specific announcements today, and I do not propose to do so. It is more important to get on with the work that we have set out, both in cleaning up the politics of this country and in making the reforms that he, to his credit, has been proposing for years in this House.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): There is much in what the Prime Minister has said that I welcome, but his suggestions for a statutory code of conduct for Members of Parliament, enforceable in the courts, have enormous implications for all of us, our relationship with and accountability to our constituents, as well as the role of the House as the supreme court of Parliament. May I ask that this particular section of his proposals is not rushed through the House?
The Prime Minister: As the distinguished Chairman of the Committee that deals with the conduct of MPs, the right hon. Gentleman will be consulted on this issue, but there are many other legislatures that have a statutory code of conduct. Once in a generation a crisis builds upit has happened in Australia, Canada, the United States and Germanyand people who should probably have taken action earlier to deal with it had to take action to reassure the public that everything possible was being done. A code of conduct is a necessary means by which the public will know that the behaviour of MPs will be regulated. That can be set down in many ways, but we cannot evade our responsibility to do it. We can discuss how it can be done and, at the same time, we will have to modernise how we deal with issues of suspension and exclusion from this House. As I understand it, only three people have been excluded from this House in a century and, given all the scandals in that time, that might sound strange to people. A person can be imprisoned for a year or in detention for six months, but still not be expelled from the House of Commons. We have to consider how our 19th( )century procedures line up with the common sense of the public in the 21st century. We will have discussions about this, but a statutory code of conduct is something that most of the country now wants to see.
Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): It is appropriate for the Prime Minister to remind the House that during June we will publish the redacted receipts for expenses for the past four years, and we will also have the Kelly committees recommendations. It is also appropriateand I speak as a member of the House of Commons Commissionthat the House authorities work with my right hon. Friend and the Government on procedural reforms. Is it also not appropriate that, by the end of the present Session of Parliament, we will have a new statutory code of conduct so that we can all go back to our constituents and tell them, We have understood you.?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his work on the Commission. He does a very good job and he should be applauded for the time that he gives to discharging his responsibilities. He is right: there is no way that the public will accept that this House has dealt with the problems that have been revealed unless we can pass that legislation as quickly as possible, and unless the review of the expenses of the last four years is confirmed by an independent auditor who has assessed the regularity of Members expenses. We should have the humility to recognise that that has to be done as a matter of urgency. The sooner that the audit can be doneand the publication of the full expenses can be made, as ordered by the courtsthe better.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does the Prime Minister accept that it is not the Governments job to decide how the House of Commons should use its time in examining Government legislation? Will his reforms allow a body in which Back Benchers play a stronger role to be at the centre of the Houses decision-making on its timetable?
The Prime Minister:
That is exactly what the group convened by the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee will want to look at. The Government need
to be able to get their business through, but there is also non-government time, and that can be discussed in more detail by a group of people who are experienced and have views on this issue. It will make recommendations to see what can be done. That is one way in which we can make progress on the government of this House.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Since my right hon. Friend became Prime Minister, he has spoken of a new settlement with the British people. I welcome his commitment to a written constitution. He will accept that this process will take a long time, but there is no excuse for not starting it. Does he agree that it is essential that as we write this new constitution, it is not just law-makers, parliamentarians and the good and the great, but members of the public, who are directly involved in writing what will be the most important document in our constitution?
The Prime Minister: We have at the moment a consultation on a Bill of rights and responsibilities. My right hon. Friend is rightas I said in my statement, any written constitution would have to involve the widest possible consultation with the people. Let us be clear where our constitution is at the moment. It is not unwritten, in the sense that there are no written documents and no pieces of legislation. We have devolution to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which in a sense creates a written constitution for those parts of the United Kingdom. There is the European Union legislation, which in a sense creates the conditions in which we operate as members of the EU. The Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act and other Acts guarantee equality, including the Equality Bill before us at the moment. There is no shortage of legislation that defines some of our rights and some of the responsibilities of institutions. It is a fact that we have not brought those elements together coherently and cohesively, nor have we set down a statement of objectives and aims as other constitutions do, and that is the subject for our debate. We should recognise that the circumstances in which the debate about a written constitution should take place are completely different from where we were 20 years ago, when there was no devolution, when we did not have the same relationship with Europe and when we did not have human rights or freedom of information legislation. Things have changed fundamentally in the last 20 years.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The Prime Minister has said many things in his statement that are entirely acceptable to my party and its sister party, and to others. He referred in passing to the imbalance between the power of the Executive and of Parliament. That is very detrimental to this Parliament. May I suggest that the daily abuse of guillotines is a farce? Bills come back on Report and 80, or even 100, amendments are passed on the nod without discussion. That is undemocratic and wrong, and it has to stop.
The Prime Minister:
We have always got to get the balance right between a manifesto commitment that has been made by a party that is in government and the legislation that is necessary to get it through. If we are truly accountable to the people, a manifesto commitment that involves legislation is something that we have a responsibility to enact. Of course, time permitting, there
must be the maximum [ Interruption. ] Someone says it is a feeble excuse when I say that people should implement their manifestos. I think that we will remember that when Opposition Members talk about manifestos in the future. The governing party makes a commitment to implementing its manifesto and, at the same time, there is the commitment that we want to give for the maximum possible consultation, but that depends on the time available in the House of Commons.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Why on earth do we allow tax exiles to bankroll political parties? My friend talked a lot of sense about the Constitutional Renewal Bill, but on Monday the Lords will be discussing the Political Parties and Elections Bill on Report. Will he take that opportunity on Monday to close the Ashcroft loophole?
Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): May I, in the kindest possible way, suggest that todays statement is a rag-bag of ill-considered proposals brought forward in the last 11 months of this Parliament by an exhausted Prime Minister. That is no more apparent than in regard to his proposals for a written constitution. He knows that although much of our existing law is written, one thing that has made our democracy evolve in such a vibrant and straightforward fashion has been the conventions that have enabled change to be made without the rigidities associated with a written constitution. May I ask the Prime Minister whether he agrees that it would be premature for his Government to commit themselves to a written constitution until some proper deliberation has taken placenot just on what a written constitution might say, but on whether it is desirable in the first place?
The Prime Minister: The problems of this House of Commons and the workings of our political system being ad hoc and evolutionary have been revealed in the expenses scandal in the House of Commons. It is absolutely clear that a gentlemens club, operating with its own rules and its own powers of discipline, has proven unsatisfactory and inadequate to meet the needs of the times. I believe that there are other areas in our constitution whereby our inability to be straight about what we are trying to do and to put that down in legislation means that we sometimes fail the public. I said that there is a debate to be had about a written constitution, and I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman took my words carefully. There is a debate to be had on it. It is a major decision for our country, and he is clearly against it. Given that so much of our constitution is now written for the different parts of the United Kingdom, for different areas of policy and for the relationship between individuals and the state, it is worth considering putting that into one written constitution.
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