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Mr. Grieve: I remember that there was discussion, and I see that the Minister of State is talking to the Secretary of State about it. My distinct recollection is that there was talk about whether we might need a new national anthem that brought us all together.
Mr. Wills: I do not want to interrupt the flow of the hon. and learned Gentleman's speech, but he must root it in facts. First, he should give us the source for this thing about the national anthem. Secondly, as he well knows, it is not a roadshow that we are embarked on in relation to a statement of values but properly mediated, deliberative events, to which he was invited. [Interruption.] Opposition Members may laugh, but such events are reputable and respected in the academic community and they are supported by all parties except the Conservative party. The hon. and learned Gentleman was invited to take part and refused. The events are under way, and he does not want to take part. That is a matter for him, but he should not accuse us of not doing something that we promised to do, because we are doing precisely what I have described.
Mr. Grieve: Yes, the Minister did invite me to take part. He rang me up and politely asked whether I would like to participate. I indicated that I did not wish to. He even asked me whether I would want to make a video clip that would be shown before the start of each roadshow explaining why people should not participate in it. I declined that politely, too. He then wrote me a rather extraordinary letter-I thought that our conversation was private at that time, not that I mind-setting out with considerable hysteria how dastardly of me it was not to wish to participate in the exercise. Be that as it may, I hope that he has an enjoyable time going around on this consultation process. It seems to me that if the number of his party's Back Benchers present this afternoon to consider this major piece of constitutional legislation is anything to go by, it does not have much mileage in it.
Meanwhile, confidence in our democracy drains away. The Prime Minister, who promised that Parliament would be given a say on the calling of a election, chose to cancel one in an interview with Andrew Marr. Then he skulked off to a Portuguese anteroom to break his manifesto undertaking on the European constitution, in the vain hope that by signing it when everybody else had left the building, nobody would notice what he was doing.
We then had a bizarre announcement, through the constitutional novelty of a YouTube video-I wondered at one stage whether that would be included in the Bill as a constitutional method of communication-that because some Members had broken the rules on parliamentary allowances, we could restore confidence by keeping the allowances and abolishing the rules. That idea did not last very long.
We also had an Opposition politician arrested on the back of grossly exaggerated claims by the Cabinet Office, and a disgraceful and vile campaign against Members of this House orchestrated from within the Prime Minister's office by Mr. McBride. I look forward to ensuring that the code of conduct on special advisers means that that never happens again. It is worth remembering that that story was leaked to a friendly journalist in an attempt to minimise the damage, but even when the details of the smear campaign became public, the Prime Minister's first response was not that of the Secretary of State-to say that something had to be done about this awful thing-but to keep his special adviser in post and defend him. I think that that was something to do with the Prime Minister's moral compass.
At every turn, therefore, there is a chasm between the Prime Minister's words and his actions. We have the National Democratic Renewal Council, but I am not sure what it does. Does it just sit and work out new headlines? One day the Prime Minister tells us that he will change the royal line of succession, but that is not in the Bill. He told the BBC that he is going to change the voting system, but that is not in the Bill either. Once the headline has been banked, it is left to the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor to try to get him off the hook and kick most of the proposals into the long grass.
Mr. Straw: The whole of this is serious. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will respond in detail to some of the hon. and learned Gentleman's points, but let us take, for example, the issue of war powers, which he mentioned. I was going to mention it in my speech, but as I had taken so many interventions and since it is not in the Bill, I decided not to do so. Just so the House can be informed-the hon. and learned Gentleman knows this very well-let me add that there was a serious debate in both Houses about whether provision on war powers, which everybody agrees ought to be exercised by this House, should be included in statute or would better be made by resolution. As it happens, I personally favoured putting the basic power in statute, although I was in a minority. Others took a different view, including the other place and the Committee of both Houses that examined the issue. It is therefore well known that we will deal with such matters by resolution. That measure is being drafted, and we aim to introduce it by the end of the year. What is wrong with that?
Mr. Grieve: I do not doubt the Secretary of State's sincerity. If I have been taking his comments in what I hope is a slightly light-hearted fashion, it is for the deliberate reason that we are a little way into the prime ministership of this Prime Minister, and it looks to me as if we are running out of time before the coming election for most of those extraordinary pledges to be implemented. When one looks at the promises that were made, in very specific terms, one is left with the impression that it was all just window dressing. That reflects very badly on how the Government conduct their business: it raises public expectations and they use grandiose phrases, but the mountain moves and out comes the mouse. That is all we have. The mouse may be beautiful and well formed, but a mouse it is nevertheless.
Mr. Straw: May I totally refute what the hon. and learned Gentleman says? Any single proposal, particularly one that has broad support and that is therefore not the subject of intense controversy, can be dismissed as prosaic, but the total adds up to something really significant.
The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot have it both ways. After my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made his announcement, we did not introduce legislation and try to bounce it through the House, as we could have done within the first 12 months of his Administration. Instead, we set up a deliberative process which, above all, involved consulting the House and the other place. Not one or two but three separate Select Committees, including Joint Select Committees, have considered the matter, and I pay tribute to everybody in both Houses who did so. It is true that some time has elapsed, but the proposals in the Bill are better for it, and there is much more widespread agreement. That is the main reason why the Benches on both sides of the House are not packed-people believe that there is consensus across the Houses on the measure.
Mr. Grieve: I thank the Secretary of State. In tribute to him, it seems that he has injected a note of reality into the fantasy world that was being manufactured two years ago. Of course, some of those other measures may be in the Labour party manifesto for the next election, but that is not to say that that will not also be fantasy.
I do not want to take up too much of the House's time, so in respect in constitutional renewal, I simply make this point: I notice that the long title of the Bill omits the words "and for connected purposes". If I were a suspicious individual, I would think that the Justice Secretary had done that to prevent hon. Members from tabling amendments on wider constitutional issues. I am sure that he will tell me that I am completely wrong about that. Perhaps it was thought unnecessary given that, in the words of the constitutional expert Robert Hazell, the Bill is more a constitutional reform (miscellaneous provisions) Bill. That is where the whole thing has gone off the rails.
I shall highlight the measures that we support. They include the measures that would put the civil service on a statutory basis, although I agree with the Joint Committee that that would have been better dealt with in a short, stand-alone civil service Bill. We will consider how the proposals can be improved, especially in adding a duty to manage taxpayers' money to the civil service's core values.
Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab): The hon. and learned Gentleman is making an entertaining speech, but it is short on the substance of what the Opposition actually believe in. In regard to the civil service and the renewal of commitments in the Bill, are he and his party definitely committed to the neutrality of the civil service?
Of course we are. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that anxieties over the extent to which the neutrality of the civil service has been eroded over the past 13 years have been a persistent theme in this House for those of us participating in debates. That has centred on several issues, including what happened in the run-up to the Iraq war and the way in which dossiers prepared by civil servants for impartial distribution
to this House appeared to have been tinkered with under political pressure. I could cite a large number of other examples.
Mr. Grieve: My impression is that the basic cause of leaks from the civil service has been the breakdown in trust between civil servants and Ministers about the accuracy of what Ministers say. It is apparent if one looks at how the civil service has operated for at least 100 years that Ministers took the rap for things that went wrong in their Departments-something that seems to have vanished almost entirely, as civil servants are hung out to dry while Ministers stay in office. That has probably had a very deleterious impact on civil service morale.
On several occasions, including some under the right hon. Gentleman's stewardship of the Home Office, civil servants have leaked information that diametrically challenged utterances by Ministers, who had been putting out material that was thoroughly misleading. Indeed, in some cases, ministerial careers have been ended on the back of that phenomenon.
Mr. Grieve: Well now, I have to be careful, because I admit that my memory may be at fault as to whether some of these incidents took place under the right hon. Gentleman's stewardship or that of his successor, and to that extent I am prepared for him to correct me. I seem to recollect the case of a civil servant based in Romania, who provided information about the way in which visas were being distributed that directly challenged what was said by Ministers in this House. That was a serious example of Ministers thoroughly misleading the public about what was going on.
Mr. Blunkett: The hon. Gentleman is right that that did happen in early 2004, and the Minister responsible resigned, even though the mistake was made by civil servants in the Department and another Department, not by her personally. He has underlined entirely the point that I was seeking to make. Ministers do not only take the rap, they take it for mistakes made by their own civil servants.
Mr. Grieve: The right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the Minister resigned, but it took rather a lot of doing on the part of Opposition Members-and indeed Labour Members-to persuade her to do so. [Interruption.] One of my hon. Friends says from a sedentary position, "Kicking and screaming." That is what I, too, recall about the incident.
Mr. Dismore: Earlier, I made an intervention about nationality discrimination rules within the civil service. If new clauses were to be introduced, would the Conservative party support them in principle, bearing in mind that it has adopted that position in relation to my many attempts, made through private Members' legislation, to deal with the matter?
Mr. Grieve: I see no reason why we would not adopt an approach similar to that which we have taken previously. I have not considered that exact point, and I would need to look at the hon. Gentleman's amendments, but he might recall that-this is my recollection-we made a distinction between civil service roles that clearly require a nationality qualification, because they are sufficiently high-ranking or linked to security or defence, and those that do not. That seems to be a sensible way to proceed, and I look forward to seeing his amendments in due course.
Dr. Wright: I seek some clarity about the theme raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). The hon. and learned Gentleman will know that there is much alarm in Whitehall about some of the utterances from Conservative Front-Bench Members about their intentions for the civil service. In particular, it is believed that people are being told that business people will be imported, through political appointments, to give orders to civil servants. Will he say categorically that that is not the case?
Mr. Grieve: That is complete rubbish. The hon. Gentleman should be wary about listening to all the copy churned out by propaganda departments-in his own party, I suspect. His suggestion is ludicrous. In view of my earlier answer about the politicisation of the civil service, I hope that our proposals for the civil service will include ensuring its impartiality. Putting it under political direction or outside control clearly cannot achieve that.
On transparency, the Bill proposes only to reform Supply estimates. We think that there needs to be a fundamental shift in the transparency of government, and at our party conference we outlined a number of proposals to increase openness, including publishing online the salaries of the 35,000 most senior civil servants, job descriptions for quangos, and all central Government expenditure over £25,000. We would like the Bill to include such measures, and will return to them in Committee.
We support measures to require the consent of Parliament before the ratification of treaties, but I am concerned about provisions in the Bill that would allow the Government to avoid the new scrutiny requirements in undefined, exceptional circumstances. We will need some clarification of what those exceptional circumstances, which are so neatly tucked into the Bill, amount to. It is troubling that the Bill does not cover treaties that do not require formal ratification, other forms of international agreements such as memorandums of understanding, or even such things as prisoner transfer agreements. Although there might be arguments for that, I hope that in Committee we have an opportunity to consider carefully where the boundaries are drawn. Otherwise there might be much disappointment that many things that this House ought to be considering are not being considered.
Mr. Grieve: I get ever more worried that we are moving into an Orwellian phase. I remember it as a distinct election pledge. Again, however, if the Secretary of State would like to write to me explaining why my suggestion-that that promise was made during the last election-is inaccurate, I will be only too happy to read the letter.
We support the repeal of restrictions on protests around Parliament. The right to protest is a fundamental part of our democracy, but that right needs to be balanced against the need to ensure that hon. Members, parliamentary staff, and above all the public, have access to this place. It is right, therefore, that the Bill ensures that protests can be regulated.
Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman, because I did not think that my memory was playing tricks. We said in the manifesto-[Hon. Members: "Here we go!"] Well, I am reading it, in the interests of greater accuracy. After stating what the constitutional treaty will ensure, the manifesto reads:
"We will put it to the British people in a referendum and campaign...for a 'Yes' vote".
The Conservative party is trying to say otherwise, but there is a world of difference between that constitutional treaty, which hit the dust, and the Lisbon treaty. That latter is simply an amending treaty to existing treaties, and no different in character from Maastricht or its predecessors, which the Opposition never put to the British people when they were in power.
Mr. Grieve: I am sorry, but that piece of casuistry takes some beating- [Interruption.] It was casuistry! First, I remember the Government telling us, when those utterances were made, that the constitutional treaty was no more than another Maastricht. In fact, as the Secretary of State well knows, the Lisbon treaty is, in almost all its particulars, identical to the constitutional treaty abandoned after the French referendum. For those reasons, the public know very well that they were given a promise and that it was reneged upon. That highlights the difficulty with such legislation. How can people have any confidence that procedures of any sort will not be abused by Ministers who break fundamental pledges that appear to be made in manifestos?
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