Parliamentary Standards Bill and Constitutional Reform and Renewal: Government Responses to the Committee's Seventh and Eleventh Reports of Session 2008-09 - Justice Committee Contents

Appendix 2: Government response (Constitutional Reform and Renewal)

I would like to thank you and your colleagues on the Justice Committee for your continued interest in the Government's constitutional reform programme, the most recent product of which is your report Constitutional Reform and Renewal, published on 21 July. I believe that this Government can be proud of its many achievements.

The Justice Secretary addressed many of these issues face-to-face at the evidence session on 14 July, but there are a number of points in your report to which I would like to respond further.

I note the Committee's comments on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, and I am grateful to the Committee for its detailed scrutiny of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill. I believe that the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill includes an important package of measures which will help to rebuild trust in our democratic and constitutional settlement by introducing greater transparency and accountability across government. The measures being taken forward in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill remain significant and worth legislating on, even if they do not include everything which was in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill.

We responded to criticisms of the handling of the Parliamentary Standards Bill during the passage of that Bill. Far from undermining public trust, we believe the public demanded an accelerated passage for the Bill to establish an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Moreover, I believe that Parliament was able effectively to scrutinise the Bill, which was the subject of lively debates in both Houses and reports by your Committee, the Lords' Constitution Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We listened to views expressed in Parliament and by the Select Committees, and the Bill was amended where it was appropriate to do so.

Beyond these individual points, I would like to comment on your interpretation of the overall position. The Government's response to the sea-change in public interest in constitutional issues following the alleged abuses of the MPs' expenses scheme was prompt, decisive, and based around cross-party agreement. I think the changes in the debate on constitutional reform have seen this Government show both the flexibility to accommodate immediate needs and the long-sightedness to pursue a consistent reform agenda over time.

You welcome the establishment of Tony Wright's Reform of the House of Commons Committee. I stand alongside you in welcoming the debate this Committee will facilitate, and look forward to the publication of its report on 13 November. I hope that MPs from across the political spectrum will engage positively with the new committee.

You make reference to the appointment of life peers as Ministers by the Prime Minister. This Government has already taken forward historic reforms of the House of Lords, including the removal of most hereditary peers and the establishment of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, as a result the House of Lords has become far more representative of the population at large. The Government's plans for further reform of the House of Lords are twofold. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill includes important measures to ensure that there is a robust disciplinary regime in the House Lords. Specifically the Bill will:

  • provide that Peers can be suspended or expelled from the House;
  • allow Peers to resign and disclaim their peerage;
  • provide that peers are to be disqualified from the House after being convicted of a serious criminal offence or being made subject to a bankruptcy restrictions order.

The Bill will also modernise the House of Lords by abolishing by-elections to replace the remaining 90 hereditary peers when they die. We are also committed to comprehensive reform to create a second chamber that has a democratic mandate and befits a modern democracy. We will bring forward draft legislation on a reformed second chamber in the coming months.

You note the Prime Minister's comments on a written constitution. I agree with you that moves towards such a written constitution would merit careful consideration of a number of fundamental issues, and I am sure you welcome, as I do, the Prime Minister's statement on 10 July that "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".

With reference to the Government's intention to extend the application of the Freedom of Information Act, the Ministry of Justice and the Information Commissioner have kept the resources available to the Commissioner's office under regular review, and will continue to do so. We note the Committee's restated view that the Commissioner should be an officer of Parliament, but the Government's position remains that the present arrangements are appropriate, providing for independent decision making by the Commissioner while permitting proper scrutiny of resources.

You also question the adequacy of means to take forward the Government's constitutional reform agenda in an appropriately consultative manner, making particular reference to the widespread consultation process around Building Britain's Future. While you are correct that the current climate has raised the profile and political significance of constitutional reform to new heights, we must remember that the Government's proposals form a continuous programme of constitutional reform designed to open up Government to greater scrutiny and increase accountability to Parliament and the people. Consultation has been at the heart of that process and the Government has utilised both traditional and innovative means to consult. Building Britain's Future has added fresh impetus at a crucial time, not to meet the timetable of a general election, but to address the concerns of British citizens.

I am grateful for the positive comments in the reports and I looking forward to engaging with the committee as we seek to implement our plans for constitutional reform.

Rt Hon Michael Wills MP

Minister of State

Ministry of Justice

29 September 2009

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