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Let me return to summarising the Bill. Following the publication of the Green Paper, we established a programme of work to look at limiting Executive powers, to examine how the workings of Government could be made more
transparent and accountable, and to consider what we might do to reinvigorate our democracy. I have already said that we made significant changes, including to respective arrangements for appointing bishops and the granting of honours, and to further rules on the pre-release of statistics. Gone are the days-the terrible days-of the previous Conservative Administration, when the Secretary of State for Employment, now Lord Tebbit, was able peremptorily to change the definitions of unemployment, for example, 18 times to suit the Government- [Interruption.] Well, it is true. Let me provide a further example for the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie)-that of sitting on major recommendations for major changes in the crime statistics, which would have had the effect of increasing the number of crimes counted. I accepted those changes in 1998, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) accepted further ones in 2001, but the Opposition subsequently used them, quite preposterously, to suggest that violent crime had increased, when it was obviously the counting of violent crime that had increased. In any case, we have done that, just as we have established a Youth Citizenship Commission and published a national security strategy and the draft legislative programme-all those things in the Prime Minister's statement of 3 July 2007.
I deal now with the detail of the Bill. Ever since the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854 and the appointment of the first Civil Service Commission in 1855, the British civil service has been one of the best in the world, renowned for its professionalism, integrity and impartiality, and for its ability to serve successive Administrations of different parties with their confidence-but never before has the service been placed on a proper statutory basis, with protection for its values and its staff. The Bill does that.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I welcome the provisions in the Bill, but one small part is missing: the part that I have been promoting for a number of years in a private Member's Bill to deal with nationality discrimination in Crown employment. There have been many recommendations for dealing with the matter, and I think that the Bill has cross-party support, except from one or two of the backwoodsmen on the Opposition Benches.
The nationality discrimination that we operate is contrary to a number of the United Kingdom's international human rights obligations. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will consider whether it would be possible to introduce the three or four new clauses necessary to deal with the problem. That would ensure that if rules did require people to be United Kingdom nationals, those rules were genuinely needed and did not perpetuate long-standing discrimination that goes back 200 or 300 years.
I understand my hon. Friend's concern. I can tell him two things. First, he will have every opportunity in the course of what I believe will be a significant amount of time on the Floor of the House to table his own amendments. Secondly, I shall be happy to ensure that both the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), and I discuss the matter with him. I understand that proposals with which I used to be familiar-
[Interruption.] Did the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) say something sotto voce?
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): It is surprising that the Secretary of State does not understand the proposals in great detail, given that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) seems to present them every year.
Mr. Straw: I mean that I used to be completely familiar with them. I do not retain every last detail of every issue that I have ever examined in the House, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman would if he were in my place.
Part 1 of the Bill places the Civil Service Commission on a statutory footing, and reinforces its independence from Ministers. The commission's status, powers and reporting arrangements are contained in schedule 1, as is the fact that the commissioners are appointed by Her Majesty on merit following fair and open competition. Part 1 also sets out the power of the Minister for the Civil Service and the Foreign Secretary to manage the civil service and the diplomatic service.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Although it purports to be United Kingdom-wide, the Bill regrettably ignores the constitutional debate that is raging up in Scotland. The Secretary of State's party, along with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, engaged in the Calman commission process. That commission recommended that the appointment of chief civil servants should be devolved to Edinburgh. This is the first opportunity that the House has had to legislate for that. Why is such a measure not included in the Bill?
Mr. Straw: The Bill does not ignore that debate. Its purpose is to place the existing arrangements for the civil service on a statutory footing. If in due course it were generally agreed to devolve power over the United Kingdom civil service altogether to Scotland and Wales-Northern Ireland has long had a separate civil service-that could come before the House in due course, but as the hon. Gentleman, who I know is a partisan in this respect, will recognise, there is much to be said on both sides. Some of us believe that following a devolution settlement that transferred a significant amount of power from Whitehall and Westminster to Edinburgh, it is important to maintain some of the glue of the Union. While the hon. Gentleman's interest is in putting solvent in the glue, ours is in ensuring that the glue stays strong. I am pleased to note that the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who hails from Scotland, endorses what I have said.
The Government are committed to a civil service that is governed by the key principles of impartiality, integrity, honesty and objectivity. We believe those values should be enshrined in statute. Part 1 therefore requires the Minister for the Civil Service and the Foreign Secretary to prepare and lay before Parliament codes of conduct for the civil service and the diplomatic service, with certain minimum requirements. Those codes will form part of the terms and conditions of civil servants, and the Civil Service Commission will be able to investigate allegations that the code has been breached.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab):
I warmly welcome the proposals to place the civil service
on a statutory footing in terms of requirements for its practice, but is my right hon. Friend satisfied that those proposals extend to the full area that the civil service currently occupies? Following the Northcote-Trevelyan report, which resulted in an arrangement for an undifferentiated civil service, we have next steps agencies, non-governmental bodies and various agencies of the civil service which expand the definition of the civil service to a considerable extent. Is he happy that the Bill's provisions cover what we now regard as the civil service in its full, differentiated glory?
Mr. Straw: I hope they do, but as my hon. Friend raises this point let me add that I am happy to ensure that they do. There is an issue to do with the growth of next steps agencies and non-departmental public bodies, which have arisen since the reforms introduced by the previous Administration in the early 1990s. It is certainly of concern to me that NDPBs can appoint their own staff and that they are not public servants; that creates difficulties and can lead to unacceptable and unjustifiable levels of pay and wage drift, as well as other anomalies and conditions.
"Special advisers have a valuable role to play in advising and assisting Ministers on Government policy."
Mr. Straw: I thank the hon. Lady for that. I was about to say that I was one of the very first such advisers, back in 1974, but I know that the hon. Lady was too, and there may be others on both sides of the Chamber-such as the hon. Members for Chichester and for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns).
Special advisers add an important dimension to the advice available to Ministers while reinforcing the political impartiality of the permanent civil service by distinguishing from it the source of political advice and support. Before the introduction of special advisers, civil servants were sometimes placed in a compromising position where they were expected to undertake what were explicitly political roles. Before that, there had been quite a tradition of private secretaries of senior Ministers being appointed by the Minister on a personal basis, which meant they were, in a sense, in the same position as political advisers. I acknowledge that I am biased on this matter, but I think good political advisers can greatly assist not only their Ministers but the functioning of the civil service.
Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to hear the Secretary of State's view, and I have no doubt at all that special advisers can play an important role. The Bill puts the code of conduct for special advisers on a statutory basis, but why should we consider that that will make any difference when the code of conduct as it existed did not prevent Mr. McBride from behaving in the way he did in the Prime Minister's office?
I think that having the code on a statutory basis will make a difference to behaviour, because there is a difference in terms of the status and authority of a
code if it is on a statutory basis. I do not excuse what happened then in the least-nobody would-but codes may be broken under any Government, and where they are, appropriate and tough action must follow.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): May I put to the Lord Chancellor a point that I hope he will keep an eye on? In terms of our discussions in the House about whether the staff of Members should be employed by the House-there are quite good arguments for doing that-we risk getting a mismatch with what is happening in the Bill. If Members have on their staff a person who is essentially a political adviser, were he to be made subject to the civil service-like conditions of the House itself there would be a disparity between Back-Bench Members and Ministers. I hope the right hon. Gentleman recognises that, given his interest in the Bill, he should keep a continuing interest in those discussions.
Mr. Straw: We will, of course, keep a continuing interest in those discussions, but let me also say the following. I employed people under Short money when I was in the shadow Cabinet for 10 years and on the shadow Front Bench for 17 years. The truth is that those employed under Short money are subject to far fewer, if any, restrictions than special advisers. I know that to my certain knowledge. I should also mention that the amount of Short money available to the Opposition has trebled in the past dozen years, although they have not made much use of it.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): The Bill is about setting down some fundamental principles. We think that one such principle is that special advisers can "assist" Ministers-the Bill uses that term-but they cannot take Executive action or give orders to civil servants. The Bill does not specify that-does my right hon. Friend think that it should?
Mr. Straw: In practice, special advisers cannot do that; I am certainly ready to consider amendments to that effect. May I also just say-I have often reflected on this-that I was an adviser for three and a half years and I have appointed advisers for the past 12 and a half years, and in neither role would I have thought it remotely appropriate for a special adviser to have given instructions to a civil servant, but there are some exceptions, which need to be borne in mind? When he came into office, the Prime Minister decided to repeal the Order in Council, introduced in 1997, that allowed for Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell to be able to give such instructions. I think that the Prime Minister was right to repeal that, given the concern, but I do not necessarily think this is something that ought to be enshrined in statute; it may be better if it were in the code, because I do not remotely regard it as a hanging offence for a future Prime Minister to decide, for example, that the head of his office should combine both roles. That is a different role from that of any other special adviser, but we can discuss that when we consider the details of the Bill.
On the issue of treaties, every year, the UK becomes party to many treaties that result in binding obligations under international law. Treaties that come into force after the Government have expressed their consent to be bound through a formal act such as ratification are subject to the so-called "Ponsonby rule". It was named after Arthur Ponsonby, who was a member of the first Labour Cabinet, which sat for nine months in 1924. The rule requires the treaty to be published and laid before both Houses for a minimum of 21 sitting days prior to ratification, in order to give Parliament an opportunity to scrutinise it.
Although the Ponsonby rule is well established-it was quickly abandoned by the Conservative Administration who won the election in 1924, but it has been followed post-war-it is based on constitutional convention, rather than law, and Parliament has no ability formally to veto a ratification; it has been a Crown matter. As Foreign Secretary, I felt that that was simply wrong. One of the key roles of a Parliament is to decide whether or not to ratify international instruments; the power should be one for Parliament and, in particular, for this place; it should not be a power for the Crown. I am delighted, as Justice Secretary, to put that right. Part 2 of the Bill places the Ponsonby rule in statute and, for the first time, gives legal force to a negative vote in the Commons on the ratification of international treaties.
Where Parliament requires more time for scrutiny, the Bill enables a Minister to extend the 21-day period in respect of a treaty. Consistent with the Ponsonby rule, provision is made for flexibility in exceptional circumstances, and there are exceptions for specific categories of treaty that are already subject to other scrutiny arrangements. I am sorry not to see the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) in his place, because I was fully expecting him to rise to the bait in this Bill and say what an outrage it was that European Union treaties were not mentioned in it. For those who wish to take his place and foam at the mouth at the very idea of the European Union, I must say that EU treaties are mentioned. Colleagues will see that clause 24(1) states that this set of arrangements does not cover treaties that amend founding treaties of the European Union. That is because there is already more extensive provision requiring those to be ratified by this House and by the other place.
The third part of the Bill deals with the House of Lords. The House of Lords Act 1999 was an historic and long overdue reform that removed the majority of hereditary peers. Part 3 of the Bill contains a package of measures to continue along that path towards a more legitimised second Chamber. Colleagues will recall that when that legislation was going through the other place it ran into a roadblock set up by a Cecil, Viscount Cranborne. That family have five centuries, at least, of experience of disrupting government when they do not agree with it.
As a consequence of the roadblock, a deal was struck between those on the Opposition and Government Benches, under which 92 hereditary peers would remain. Two would remain ex officio: the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal. There is no argument about those positions continuing to remain hereditary as long as we have them. I would advise all colleagues, whatever else they feel about the House of Lords, not to get into an argument about the future of the Lord Great
Chamberlain or the Earl Marshal. They are both very good people who do difficult jobs and a great deal of work, which is mainly unsung.
Under the deal, the other hereditary peers had to form themselves into electoral chambers and elect from their number a total of 90. At the time-as I will perhaps be reminded-my noble Friend Lord Irvine said:
"I respond to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, by saying quite unequivocally to the House that that figure of 90 will be honoured by the Government throughout the period of the transitional House."-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 11 May 1999; Vol. 600, c. 1094.]
I could well be asked why we are changing that arrangement at this stage. First, we are not requiring any current sitting hereditary peer to resign his place in the Lords. They will remain until they depart this mortal coil or until further measures are introduced.
Secondly, as far as I am concerned, and, I think, as far as the House is concerned, 10 years ago there was no agreement whatsoever even within parties, still less between parties, about the future of the House of Lords. We had a royal commission, which did great work although its recommendations were not entirely accepted, and then abortive votes in this House in February 2003. We then had all-party talks between 2006 and 2007, the presentation of a White Paper in February 2007, which I was honoured to present to the House, and votes in this House that opted clearly, on an all-party basis, for an 80 or 100 per cent. elected Chamber and against all other alternatives. There was then an intensive period of further all-party talks that used that agreement as a template. I pay tribute to colleagues from all parties who took part in those talks. A further White Paper, published in July 2008, set out how that agreement would operate and further work is now being done-
Mr. Straw: In a moment. Further work is now being done to bring about a framework for and draft clauses of a Bill to implement that agreement. In my judgment, therefore, the transitional House that people had in mind 10 years ago is not what we envisage now. We are through that phase.
Before I accept the intervention from the hon. Member for Cambridge, let me just say that the by-elections have now reached a risible position. We are now electing people to the House of Lords who were not hereditary peers at the time that the House of Lords Act was passed.
Mr. Straw: They are the sons. I note the point that the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) makes, but because of the time that has elapsed the system of by-elections has been used not to weaken the hereditary principle but to maintain it.
We should look at the sort of electorates involved, as they flatter the electorates for the unreformed House of Commons before the Reform Act 1832. Dunchurch, which fell into the sea, had 32 voters: in the last election for a hereditary, there were just 27 voters-and 33 candidates. Moreover, one electoral chamber has just four electors.
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