Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)|
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 factI have not published it yetI
have a copy of the text here and I hope to publish it very shortly.
Q5 Chairman: Very shortly: this week,
Mr Straw: Very shortly. These
matters, as you know, are in the hands of business managers but
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
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
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
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 isand 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
Actthat 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
wellbear 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 10because there was no time if you recallI
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
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.