Constitutional Reform and Renewal - Justice Committee Contents


Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)

RT HON JACK STRAW, MP

14 JULY 2009

  Q1 Chairman: Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State, welcome.

Mr Straw: Thank you very much.

  Q2  Chairman: Who is running this show? We have got constitutional reform on the agenda in quite a big way but is the lead being taken, in terms of officials particularly, by the Ministry of Justice or by Downing Street?

  Mr Straw: The lead in terms of officials is entirely by the Ministry of Justice, with some assistance from the Cabinet Office. Officials work very co-operatively with those in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office.

  Q3  Chairman: So is Number 10 driving the agenda and sending over messages that it wants this, that or the other included in the constitutional reform programme or is the process rather the other way?

  Mr Straw: It is a collaborative process. It has been going on for as long as the Government has been in place but this particular process has been going on for two years. The basic agenda, leaving aside the Parliamentary Standards Authority Bill which is slightly different, was set in the statement that the Prime Minister made in July 2007. As you know, a whole series of things have followed from that.

  Q4  Chairman: What has happened to the Constitutional Renewal Bill?

  Mr Straw: The Constitutional Renewal Bill is ready, in fact—I have not published it yet—I have a copy of the text here and I hope to publish it very shortly.

  Q5  Chairman: Very shortly: this week, next week?

  Mr Straw: Very shortly. These matters, as you know, are in the hands of business managers but very shortly.

  Q6  Chairman: What about the process for consulting on and delivering constitutional reforms, starting with this extraordinarily named Democratic Renewal Council? That is just a Cabinet Committee, is it not, like you have had before?

  Mr Straw: It is a Cabinet Committee, that is for sure, the difference is that unlike most Cabinet Committees which are chaired by senior members of the Cabinet but not the Prime Minister, this particular one is chaired by the Prime Minister. I chair a parallel one which is called CN, which deals with the more prosaic agenda. I have found it extremely helpful to have the Prime Minister chairing this because inevitably it ensures high level attendance and more effective decision-making.

  Q7  Chairman: Are you saying there are two committees existing side by side?

  Mr Straw: There are two committees. There is CN which deals with day-to-day matters. Let me say there are plenty of things which come within the ambit of the constitution. If you want me to take one example, take the Political Parties and Election Bill, for which we had the Commons consideration of Lords' amendments yesterday. The policy for that was set a long time ago but it is still necessary to get clearance within the Cabinet Committee structure for amendments and so on. Those, and plenty else like that, are dealt with through the standard CN and Legislative Committee, that is the L Committee that the Leader of the House chairs in parallel. The Democratic Renewal Council there is to deal with over-arching policy but it actually works very well and it is Cabinet government as well, contrary to myth.

  Q8  Chairman: Why on earth did you give it a name so redolent of dictatorships and coups?

  Mr Straw: I do not think it is redolent of dictatorships and who did you say as well?

  Q9  Chairman: Coups. When military rulers take over a country they normally establish a national democratic renewal council.

  Mr Straw: Yes, but they try and steal the lexicon of people who are genuine democrats. If that is what happens, I do not mind, there is nothing wrong with having a Democratic Renewal Council.

  Q10  Chairman: Is it part of the remit of the Democratic Renewal Council to engage with the wider public in some way and, if so, how?

  Mr Straw: It is not part of the function of the Democratic Renewal Council per se to engage in a wider scheme of participation but it is certainly part of the Government's policy to do so and that is what we have been trying to do over the past two years. The next question is, how do you do it? I think it is pretty straight forward, you talk to people in all sorts of forum, including the kind of forum I use in Blackburn, which is very straightforward and very cheap. You stand on a box.

  Q11  Chairman: You stand on your box in Blackburn?

  Mr Straw: Yes, and you talk to people, and listen to what they have got to say. I did that to the surprise of the residents in Brighton the other day. People enjoyed it. The local vicar sent me a letter to say, "Thank you very much for taking our questions for an hour", and it works. There are plenty of other ways you can do it. One of the things I am particularly interested in is engaging with young people through the agency of the UK Youth Parliament. It is a very unsung aspect of democratic renewal but what the UK Youth Parliament has been able to do over the last few years has been fantastic. In my constituency, and this is not unusual, you are now getting a higher level of turnout for the youth MPs for the areas than you do in local elections. It may be the case in others as well but it is quite extraordinary the level of enthusiasm, interest and commitment, which suggests to me that politics is not dead. It is up to us lot to try and make formal politics a bit more interesting.

  Q12  Chairman: Welcome as all these processes are, and they all contribute to the Government's thinking and that of Opposition MPs about these issues, I think you have to have various kinds of more formalised consultation in which the Government sets out rather more precisely what its proposals are, gives time to get a broad reaction to them and then sets out how it is going to respond to that?

  Mr Straw: We have done that because we published The Governance of Britain paper in July 2007.

  Q13  Chairman: The Prime Minister has advanced the agenda since then, within the last month he has made statements in which he imports new elements which surely deserve a similar process.

  Mr Straw: Which ones were you thinking about, Chairman?

  Q14  Chairman: He has started talking about electoral reform, for example, and I will come to that later. I am not making any complaint about this, he raised a series of issues which went beyond those on which the consultation had taken place.

  Mr Straw: He raised the profile of those issues and in respect of parliamentary standards he raised a new issue, one which, for reasons everybody understands, is having to work pretty swiftly, without the usual level of consultation. There has been a huge amount of consultation on all of the issues that were raised in The Governance of Britain Green Paper two years ago. There has been a formal consultation process in which the views of the public have been sought. We have had the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill. This volume is just the report, the evidence volume is a great thick volume and it took evidence from a wide range of sources. The parliamentary processes generate their own level of public interest and public consultation. You will recall that your Committee produced one on the Attorney General, so did the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords and the Public Administration Select Committee produced one on the Civil Service.

  Q15  Chairman: We have all contributed to the discussion about this.

  Mr Straw: Chairman, you consult and consult and consult, and certainly no-one can accuse us of rushing the Constitutional Renewal Bill. There has been a pretty steady deliberative process on it. In the end the Government has got to come to some decisions on it, and then they are put before Parliament and it is up to Parliament.

  Q16  Chairman: Do you then see a place for the referendum in relation to major constitutional changes and, if so, is there a set of principles which govern when a referendum would be appropriate rather than mere expediency?

  Mr Straw: I have never thought a referendum was simply a matter of expediency, let me say. My own view is—and there was a great debate about this in which, I think, from recollection, Chairman, you participated ten years ago when we had the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act—that you have a referendum for major constitutional change which is going to alter the fundamental landscape of our constitutional arrangements. We have used those for deciding on devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, to London as well—bear in mind that was also determined by a referendum. We, as a party, the Labour Party, are committed, and we repeated it again in our 2005 manifesto, to a referendum in respect of any change in the electoral system to the House of Commons, because it is from that this opportunity arrives and I regard that as an absolutely fundamental point of principle. I have quite often repeated this during the course of debates on party funding, you have to be very, very careful, even if you have a clear point of view as a party and a government, not to try and change the ground rules for partisan advantage and to build up the widest range of consent.

  Q17  Chairman: An exception to this pattern as you have conceded, perhaps for good and compelling reasons, was the introduction of the Parliamentary Standards Bill because that was done by a very rapid process, an accelerated timetable and this Committee reported on the Bill and on its parliamentary privilege and some other constitutional implications. In fact, from the front bench in the Lords, Baroness Royall referred to the fact the Government had listened to and responded to what the Committee said by changes in the Bill. I am not sure we would have got them all if we had not secured a defeat in the Government on clause 10 of the Bill, though clause 6 was withdrawn by the Government's own decision. Are there not some lessons from this process, that if you get into really difficult complex areas of constitutional significance, like free speech in Parliament, there is an enormous danger about rushing it?

  Mr Straw: Of course there are risks in proceeding speedily, if I may use more neutral language, but I just remind the Committee, Chairman, if I may, that all three party leaders on behalf of their parties said they wanted this done with some speed, and your party leader, Nick Clegg, was as explicit in the House about the importance of getting this done before the summer recess as the Prime Minister was. The Leader of the Opposition, it is fair to say, kept his tinder dry a bit more on the precise timescale but Mr Clegg was absolutely explicit about this. There seemed to be general agreement, approbation, for the Prime Minister's timescale when he set it out on 10 June. Of course, I prefer to take more time but I happen to think that the benefits, the advantages, of having this Bill on the Statute Book this side of the summer, for the governance of the country and to try and draw a line for the benefit of Members of Parliament as a whole and the reputation of Parliament as soon as possible and to try to get this body established as quickly as possible, those benefits outweigh the risks. People can say, "Well, you got defeated on that", I do not feel I have been defeated, what I feel as though is that I have taken part in a collaborative, iterative process. People cannot have it both ways. What I sought to do all the way through was to listen to people. Harriet Harman and I set up this cross-party group which has met now five times in the large ministerial conference room underneath the Commons Chamber. Each party has had two representatives there and the staff that they want. It has had to be on Chatham House rules because if you had a Hansard reporter down there you would not get the same kind of collaboration. We have discussed and debated in detail what was in the original Bill, and I am not saying everybody signed up to it but there was pretty broad consensus behind it. Then, as things have gone on, it has been changed. On some issues like clause 6, I recognise the strength of the argument. I was frustrated in respect of clause 10 by the shortage of time, and I think had there been a bit more time to discuss clause 10—because there was no time if you recall—I might have tipped three people the other way. One of the ironies of the carve-out from Article 9, to which people were taking such exception, is that with the amendments I had already indicated to the House that I was going to accept from Sir George Young, that carve-out would have then been in the same terms as the House has already in practice endorsed in terms of the carve-out in the Bribery Bill. Anyway, it is in no sense the end of the world. As I think I have explained to the House, we had a debate downstairs and a debate in my Department about whether in respect of parliamentary privilege we brought the Parliamentary Standards Authority wholly within the ambit of parliamentary privilege or excluded it. There was a debate both ways. As it happens, because of other changes now being proposed to the Bill, which I can take the Committee through, we are managing to get around that provision in other ways.

  Q18  Chairman: For the record, this Committee reported that it saw no problem about getting the body set up to administer allowances and expenses, our issues were with those clauses which impinged particularly on the Bill of Rights and on some of the other constitutional aspects of the Bill. I agree with you that the process has produced an improved Bill and I recognise that you were ready to do that. I just wonder if we had got our way on clause 10 though, if you would not have been defeated, although you may have had to face the same decision in the Lords I think?

  Mr Straw: It is not meant as a truism but I have not had a single Bill in the last 12 years, and I have had quite a lot, which has not been improved by the parliamentary process at both ends, and so it should be. It would be astonishing arrogance. I am serious about this. Also, bearing in mind the speed, however long it takes, the way in which modern legislation develops, I happen to think that the more extensive the scrutiny within Parliament the more effective ministers can be as well. I have sometimes been irritated by particular votes, particularly in the other place, which I have not welcomed, but the overall part of the process is your arguments are tested and, in general, if you have got a strong argument in favour of something, it will win the day and if you have not, well you need to change.

  Q19  Mr Tyrie: After all those years in Parliament, what a refreshing optimism about the strength of argument in determining the structure of legislation. I would like, first of all, to clarify on the Parliamentary Standards Bill whether it is still the Government's intention to move forward with something like this, if not exactly this Bill, that would be applicable to the Lords?

  Mr Straw: We have made it clear the answer is no to that. What the Lords want to do is a matter for the Lords on an all-party basis.


 
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