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Against that background, I want to extend a particular welcome for what I take to be the central part of the Bill. It is an issue that I have been engaged with for as long as I can remember-probably too long-which is
to try to put the civil service on a statutory basis. The Committee that I chair produced its own Bill to do so in 2004. I think that was the first time in the modern period that a Select Committee has produced its own Bill. We did so because we had become frustrated by our inability to make progress on the issue. It was something that had been much promised, but never delivered.
Everyone had accepted the arguments for putting the civil service on a statutory basis. They grew out of Northcote-Trevelyan and it was viewed as an anomaly that this had not already happened. Northcote-Trevelyan had suggested that we needed only a few clauses to do it, but those few clauses never seemed to be put in place. I read my way through all the debates on the issue under the last Conservative Government, when the old Treasury and Civil Service Committee used to recommend that this should be done. The argument then was, "Well, we think this may be a good idea in principle, but we have worries about doing it." Some of those worries were very proper ones: it was said that the change should not be done in a way that would become a source of controversy between the parties and that it should be done only if political consensus could be gained. It was in the same spirit that the civil service itself approached these issues. It wanted this done, but it wanted an assurance that it would be done in a spirit of political consensus.
I take some pleasure in the fact that, after all this time, we have now reached a point where this can safely be done for the civil service. We can safely do it on the basis of genuine consensus across the parties. What we are doing is something that everyone understands we ought to do, which is to try to define what we think the core values of our civil service are and to put them into statute, as we have done with other things. Secondly, we need to put into statute the core institutional machinery necessary to ensure that those values are delivered. That is the key point about the Civil Service Commission.
This may not seem to be an exciting moment-indeed, it may seem a prosaic moment in the scheme of things-but it is constitutionally an extremely important moment. I very much want this Government to have this reform as one item on the long list of actions they have taken to change the operation of government in this country. With a bit of luck and a fair wind, they will achieve that. That is my main welcome for the Bill.
Let me share another rather general thought, which is that I do not know whether we are approaching a time that could be described as a serious constitutional moment-one in which we want to examine in a more fundamental way how we are governed-but I doubt whether we can go on for ever simply making it up as we go along. I shall not resort to the cliché that every disaster is an opportunity, but there is perhaps a moment that arises out of the catastrophe that has overwhelmed this institution of Parliament, which has got people to begin to think, talk and discuss how they want to be governed-whether they are governed in a satisfactory way and whether it can be improved. Such a discussion is happening on a number of fronts.
Shortly after I entered the House, I remember trying to introduce a Bill on fixed-term Parliaments, but I could not get a hearing for that proposition. Another
prerogative power was involved; I recall being much taken by the fact that I had to write to the Palace to get permission to introduce a ten-minute Bill on fixed-term Parliaments. Now, however, it is becoming accepted that it is right to move in the direction of having fixed-term Parliaments. It is increasingly viewed as absurd that nearly every other Parliament operates to some fixed cycle, but our Parliament does not.
The argument that we need to examine our electoral system is being heard with greater force now-and not necessarily for the old reasons. Arguments about strict proportionality or the mathematics of voting are less relevant; the important thing now is that the electorate has changed. The first-past-the-post system, with all its rough edges, did not matter very much when, on the whole, there were defined blocks in the electorate that delivered their votes for parties and took their turn now and again. The electorate is not like that now; it is far more differentiated and variegated. Governments may be elected now on the basis of a very small minority of the vote and yet enjoy all the power that is accorded to Governments in this country. At some point, we have simply got to address that issue because when our circumstances change, we have to revisit our arrangements.
Beyond all that, I hear a developing argument these days that asks whether we need to revisit some of the fundamentals of our governing arrangements. There is far more interest now in whether we should begin to separate out more clearly the Executive functions from the legislative ones. It was interesting to see recently that a former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Turnbull, had written an article in the Financial Times advocating the separation of powers as the only way he thought we could get the skills that we needed into government and also provide the sort of parliamentary scrutiny that was needed. The fusion of power in our system is damaging on the one side, but also damaging on the other side.
It is interesting to see that even Prime Ministers nowadays want to push out the boundaries by bringing more people in from outside. We have heard in exchanges this afternoon about proposals to bring people into government who may not have to be members of either House of Parliament or even to be elected. It is suggested that such people can come and be Ministers for a while. It may be a good idea. The Committee I chair is looking at some of these proposals at the moment, but if we go down that route, we have to think it through. If we are changing the nature of the Executive, we may want to change the nature of Parliament, including its scrutiny function. The principle should be that strong Government, which is what we all say we have had in this country-and in many respects, we have-has to be matched by strong accountability, but we have not seen that.
My conclusion from all this is that interesting discussion and argument is going on about the very nature of our system of government. My view is that we need some mechanism to carry all this forward. When the Government came to power in 1997, instead of simply working through our shopping list of reforms, we should have had something like a constitutional commission, which could have looked at all the parts of the argument in the round, ensuring that one bit was consistent with another, while also providing a reservoir of expertise on constitutional matters. It could even have engaged the public-an issue I feel even more strongly about now.
It is no good simply having discussions or putting forward ideas about how the system could change; if we are approaching a constitutional moment, we must have a mechanism to carry it forward that engages the public, too. I would favour something like a democracy commission. I know that we are busy abolishing every body in sight at the moment, but we need a place in our system-other countries have it-where we can think about the nature of our governing arrangements on a continuing basis. If we find ourselves arriving at a moment when we will have to make some big constitutional choices, we would then have some means of doing so.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I agree with the vast majority of what the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has just said-except for one thing. I think that we are already in a constitutional moment and that the current crisis is very serious, requiring a better reaction now than this Bill. I am afraid that it is inadequate to the present circumstances. There is nothing in it specifically bad or obnoxious, but nearly all of it needs improvement-some of it radically. What is really wrong with the Bill, however, is what it does not do and its lack of ambition, given the size of the problem. As the hon. Member for Cannock Chase pointed out, it does nothing to change the system of election to the House of Commons, which is not just corrupt and unfair but, as the hon. Gentleman began to explain, politically disastrous. It fails to get rid of the undemocratic absurdity of a wholly unelected second Chamber-a House of patronage-and, as the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) said in an intervention, it fails to do anything about the extreme centralisation of power in this country, which still remains after the devolution settlement. It fails to do anything to prevent big money control of our politics, and it even fails to remove the possibility of political interference in the criminal justice system.
There is a real crisis in British politics, but although all of us in the House know about it on a personal level, we do very little about it. It is a crisis of confidence in politics that threatens the cultural basis of democracy itself. Extremist parties are attracting support, and cynicism about politics and the people in politics is rife. I believe that confidence in Members of the House of Commons is now down to 14 per cent. The media are the only real political power in the land, but the media's own commercial difficulties mean that they use that power for increasingly shallow populist ends.
Over the past few weeks, I have been wondering whether the position is even worse than that. We live in a society that is obsessed with celebrity, and what we now see is the growth of an expectation that politics is, or should become, a kind of celebrity activity. We are seeing celebrity candidates for public office, not only in the United States but here. We are seeing TV celebrities elevated to ministerial office and places in the House of Lords. We are seeing political innovations, proposed or already in place, which, while they may appear superficially attractive, are in danger of turning into concessions to celebrity politics. Primaries, I believe, involve that danger; leaders' debates involve that danger; and elected mayors involve that danger-although I should perhaps add that the newly elected mayor of Bedford won his place without being a celebrity.
The serious question is, are we allowing a new system of government to develop out of the constitutional moment in which we find ourselves? Does the system that we are allowing constitute a kind of rule by the famous? The new system needs a name, and were we to give it a name it would be not a democracy but a doxocracy: the rule of celebrity. A new and urgent constitutional question about which the Bill does nothing is what we should do about that form of politics. One view is that we should simply go with the flow, give in to the celebrity politics that is developing and institutionalise its elements, such as primaries; but I believe that that will not end well. The sheer superficiality of celebrity politics will lead in the end not to greater engagement as its proposers hope, but to disappointment and to even more cynicism.
Mr. Drew: I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman regularly visits schools, and that, like me, he is pleasantly surprised at how interested young people are in politics-not party politics, perhaps, but issue-based politics. What they always tell me is that they have a thirst for knowledge: they want to know more about what we do in Parliament, and about what Government do. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is where we fail absolutely in this country? We have not engaged in real citizenship education at all.
David Howarth: I do agree, but that is a consequence of the great boundary that we have developed between people in politics and people not in politics. I believe that the position will become worse if we follow the celebrity politics route, along with the assumption that being in politics means having to be a different kind of person from everyone else.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase mentioned the expenses crisis. I think that we need to mention it, but one of the aspects of it that strike me as dangerous is that, just as celebrities in show business are expected to have some kind of physical perfection, political leaders are now increasingly expected to have moral perfection, and that is simply impossible. We are not gods; we are only people. In both forms of celebrity, we have developed a form of airbrushing. Photographs of celebrities are airbrushed, and before freedom of information we airbrushed what we were doing here. Exposure of that has, I believe, been fundamentally damaging. The alternative approach is to reject the whole idea rather than going along with it, and to aim to tear down the barrier that I see developing between politics and people outside politics. That is a difficult route, however, because it is one that the media would automatically oppose.
Mr. Straw: I am following the hon. Gentleman's interesting speech carefully. I do not think that he meant that the exposure of expenses itself had been damaging. It is what has been exposed that has been damaging. I share, as I am sure he does, the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) that, although this has been a very difficult period, we could not go on as we were.
David Howarth: I thank the Secretary of State for correcting me. What I meant was that we had been airbrushing the situation and that that had been exposed, quite rightly. We should not have been airbrushing it along the way.
What we need to do is think about how to persuade more people to participate in politics in order to break down the barrier-not just in the sense of having their views heard, although that is very important, but in the full sense of having responsibility for decisions and taking part in them. That means a decentralisation of power far more radical than what we have taken on so far. It also means putting barriers in the way of those who wish to control politics through money, which is incompatible with a democracy in which many people take part on an equal basis; and yes, it does mean representative bodies that reflect the political views of the people who are represented. The Bill does not address that either.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase was right to mention electoral reform, which is central to change in politics and, in particular, to the changing relationship between people in politics and people outside politics. A House of Commons that simply does not reflect the political views of the population will never command much respect. We have involved ourselves in the idea that the only purpose of a general election is to choose a Government. According to current doctrine, a general election is not about reflecting the political views of the public. The trouble with that view is that it loses all credibility when the winning party wins barely over a third of the votes. When the supporters of the Government are outnumbered by nearly two to one, it is not surprising that the Government are unpopular from the day on which they take office, remain unpopular after that, and are seen by the population as being alien to their own political views. We have to move away from the present system.
It is said that first past the post at least allows us to get rid of the rascals, but there is a fundamental problem with that. It allows us to get rid of an individual rascal, but only by voting for a party with which we may fundamentally disagree. The cry "Throw the rascals out" therefore cannot work simultaneously for individuals and for parties. The system fails because it is trying to do too much at once.
We also need to get rid of the idea of safe seats, because it is safe seats that lead us down the path to iniquity. We need competition, but we need a system that allows competition and allows the number of safe seats to be reduced, but does not allow us to give up the idea of the proportionality of the entire electoral system to public views. There is such a system: the single transferable vote multi-Member seat system. It puts power in the hands of voters, not party machines. Interestingly, in Ireland 40 per cent. of Teachda Dalas who lose their seats lose them not to members of other parties but to members of their own party. The whole point of that system is that it is possible to throw out individual rascals while retaining general proportionality and support for parties.
David Howarth: The STV system retains the constituency element; it just has larger constituencies. They would be about the same size as American congressional districts, or perhaps even a little smaller.
David Howarth: Until very recently it has certainly produced better economic management. As for the recent catastrophes, as someone once said, it is not a good idea to decide precedence between a louse and a flea.
David Howarth: I do not think it is a good idea to discuss this in detail now as the jury is still out. [Interruption.] Yes, the Speaker of the Dail is probably not the best person to talk about in these circumstances.
It is noteworthy that in the Bill the Government have completely ignored all the problems to which I refer and fail to engage in the debate. The Government's own proposals on reform of the electoral system of the Commons are mysteriously absent from the Bill. There was a proposal, which the Secretary of State has discussed, for the possibility of recall of existing Members of Parliament-a proposal that the Government stole from us. That proposal is not in the Bill. The Secretary of State has explained that it is very difficult to think about and that it will take some time. I do not think it is particularly difficult, however, and I believe we can get a move on with it if there is sufficient will and open discussion among the parties.
The Prime Minister recently put forward the proposal to hold a referendum in the next Parliament on moving to the alternative vote system, but that too is not in the Bill. The AV system is not a wholly proportional one. It can produce some rather eccentric results, but at least it is a preferential system, so from my party's point of view it is arguably a step in the right direction. The question the Government must answer is why that is not in the Bill. It is not a complicated system for them to design. I just put this thought to the Government: if provision in this Bill for a referendum in, let us say, autumn 2010 were to pass into law, it would be very difficult indeed for an incoming Government of any other party to repeal it in time to stop it happening, so why do the Government not include such provision now in this Bill?
The position in terms of the House of Lords is similar. If the Secretary of State is right-which I think he is-that Members in all parts of the House accept that we should move to a predominantly, or, as we would prefer, a wholly, elected Chamber, why do we have to wait until the general election to make a start on that? The Secretary of State says we need all parties to put that proposal in their manifesto as that is needed to overwhelm, in some kind of argumentative way, the obstruction of those in the other place who do not wish there to be any change. I cannot see how that is so. They already know the positions of the parties. They all know what will happen at the next election. It is inevitable that there will be the result that the Secretary of State talks about, so what is the point in waiting? Why do we not now try-we might not succeed-to include in this Bill a move to a more democratic, or a wholly democratic, House of Lords, which an incoming Government from another party would find very difficult to repeal? We have heard, however, remarks from Conservative Members
that imply a certain amount of delay. I think we should be acting now, in this Bill, to make sure that such delay is not effective.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is ranging widely on the omissions from the Bill. Does he agree that another omission is the failure to overcome the lack of fairness shown to British citizens who vote when they happen to be living, either temporarily or permanently, overseas? We are now one of only four countries in the whole European Union that have restrictive rights that disfranchise millions of our citizens overseas. Should not those people be taken care of in this constitutional reform Bill?
David Howarth: I would not argue as broadly as the hon. Gentleman does, and this might not be the right Bill in which to address that issue, but I think there is a problem, especially in terms of British citizens who work for international organisations, who seem to be discriminated against in an unfortunate way.
Mr. Wills: I wish to pick up on a couple of specific points. We are well aware that there is a specific problem for British citizens who work for international organisations. We are looking at it, and we hope to be able to make some significant progress. It is quite complicated, however, not least because given the vast number of such organisations, there are issues about whether they should all be included. I accept that there is an issue, however, and we are considering it.
Turning to the point made by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), he well knows that the House has regularly looked at the voting restrictions placed on British citizens who choose to live overseas. Of course most of them are able to vote in this country, but if they stay outside the country for longer than a specified time, restrictions apply, as they do elsewhere as well. The hon. Gentleman therefore has not quite got that right, and I shall write to him to correct his misunderstanding.
Let me make one final remark on the House of Lords. I would not want an opportunity for real progress to be thrown away because the Secretary of State is inherently conservative and the Conservative party is hesitant and wants to impose a first-past-the-post electoral system on any future elected House of Lords. That would be a disaster given that we could be making real progress.
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