Examination of Witness (Questions 40-59)|
14 JULY 2009
Q40 Alun Michael: That is helpful.
Secondly, an issue that we have been concerned about arising out
of evidence that we have had in recent months is about the resources
of the Information Commissioner. We have obviously looked at it
in relation to freedom of information generally and of course
we interviewed the new Commissioner at the time of his appointment.
We have expressed concerns about the funding of the Office, particularly
in terms of the freedom of information aspects of the work on
the backlog of cases. Is there anything that you can tell us about
Mr Straw: Not offhand. We have
sought to put in some more resources for that side. The data protection
side is self-financing and because of the change in the fee structure
which is related to the size of the organisation
Q41 Chairman: We recommended it.
Mr Straw: That goes to show how
the select committee process is working, Chairman! My original
intention was that a modest fee should be charged for an FOI request
but that did not happen. That was what was in the Bill and nobody
argued about it either. There was a power to set a fee and we
thought it was going to be exactly the same as for data protection.
It is slightly odd that if I want to find out information about
you, Mr Michael, it is free but if I want to find out information
about me I have to pay £10. There is a case for saying it
might be the other way round, but anyway!
Q42 Alun Michael: I suppose it could
be about relative values!
Mr Straw: It could be. Continuing
discussions take place with the Information Commissioner about
his budget but all budgets are under pressure and we are open
Q43 Alun Michael: Thank you. The
reason for the question is because it is something that we as
a Committee have expressed concern about. The other aspect is
a question following on from the role of the Information Commissioner
and the view that has been expressed, again by this Committee,
that the Commissioner should be an officer of Parliament, like
the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Ombudsman, and therefore
have its pay and rations from Parliament rather than from the
Executive. Have you considered that and have you come to any conclusions?
Mr Straw: It is pretty nearly
that at the moment in practice. You frown but we had to get the
salary increase of the Commissioner agreed by Parliament.
Q44 Alun Michael: So you are saying
it would be a small step to accept the Committee's recommendation
Mr Straw: Richard Thomas deserved
a pay rise. The breadth of his responsibilities had risen and
he had not had an increase for some time. He was placed in a really
very embarrassing position where if he had been in any other equivalent
position in government or a local authority or a health authority
he would have got his rise without it having to be negotiated
with all parties in the Commons, but because it coincided with
anxiety about allowances for Members of Parliament it took a bit
of work to get this agreed. Anyway, it was in the end and it went
through nem con as I recall. So that salary is set by the
Commons. We would have to change the legislation, that is the
only point, Mr Michael. The other thing is that there is pre-endorsement
scrutiny of the appointment, as you know; I think your Committee
Q45 Alun Michael: We did it.
Mr Straw: Okay, you only had one
nomination but that is not unusual in the system, so I think we
are pretty close to what you are proposing in any event.
Q46 Alun Michael: Are you still considering
that final step then?
Mr Straw: I am considering it
but, as I say, it would require legislation, so is legislation
on the horizon for that? No, but I honestly do not think it is
a major issue.
Q47 Chairman: It makes a very big
difference as to whether Parliament or the Executive decides how
big his staff should be.
Mr Straw: There would be a different
issue about the control of staff, if we were to determine the
size of the budget as well.
Q48 Chairman: That is exactly the
Mr Straw: I am not sure I would
recommend that, Chairman, because it is confusing two sets of
functions. I could certainly see the case for having the Commissioner,
as it were, as a creature entirely of Parliament, although it
is getting on for that at the moment. I think that in terms of
pay and rations and efficiency and so on, you need to have an
organisation like that under the sponsorship of a government department.
Q49 Chairman: Tell that to the Comptroller
and Auditor General!
Mr Straw: You have raised that
but those members of the Committee who know the story about the
previous Comptroller and Auditor General will know that all I
have to do is refer to the fact that the House of Commons did
not cover itself in glory with its supervision of the work of
the previous Comptroller and Auditor General.
Q50 Mr Tyrie: I think that is a little
unfair. I was and am on the Public Accounts Commission. When it
was brought to our notice we dealt with it immediately
Mr Straw: I know you did, Mr Tyrie,
but you understand what I am saying.
Mr Tyrie: And furthermore we got an outsider
in to do an independent report on how to reform the structure
and we asked you for legislative time which was found by the Government
which has changed the arrangements to ensure that such a thing
cannot happen again.
Chairman: Having had two rounds on that
we will go to Dr Whitehead.
Q51 Dr Whitehead: Last week when
the Prime Minister announced proposals for the final stages of
reform of the House of Lords he said they would include the next
steps that we can take to resolve the position of the remaining
hereditary peers and other outstanding issues and that all those
published proposals would come before the House before the summer
Mr Straw: Yes.
Q52 Dr Whitehead: Should I be there
early on Thursday to hear these proposals?
Mr Straw: Thursday? The break
with luck will take place late next Tuesday, in a week's time.
Q53 Dr Whitehead: Okay. And when
those proposals arise is it your understanding, as is suggested
in the announcement, that the other outstanding issues will include,
for example, the question of how the primacy of the Commons can
best be ensured as far as the relationship between the two Houses
is concerned and the process of election?
Mr Straw: There are two sets of
things. One relates to membership of the existing House which
can be taken forward and with a bit of luck can be the subject
of legislation which goes through all its stages before the end
of this Parliament. The second is proposals for the major reform
of the House of Lords on which you rightly refer to the Prime
Minister's intention too that we move forward on that with proposals,
but there has not been a suggestion we could get through holus-bolus
a bill to set up a wholly or mainly elected chamber between now
and the General Election. In the first set of proposals nothing
is said or will be said to gainsay the Parliament Act which is
the fundamental basis of the relationship between the two Houses.
So far as the final stage of reforms is concerned, the White Paper
that I published last summer, based on all-party talks, suggested
that there was not a need to change the Parliament Acts. I think
it is an interesting and difficult issue because if you establish
a wholly or mainly elected second chamber, will the Parliament
Acts and the other arrangements including those in relation to
money which predate the Parliament Act be sufficient to ensure
the primacy of the House of Commons? I would like to think they
would be; they may not be. They certainly would ensure that even
if you had an elected or mainly elected second chamber that in
extremis the House of Commons will prevail. What I also think,
however, is that if we move down that path we will see a further
development of the process we have seen since 1999 which is of
a much more active second chamber, but I do not resent that at
all; I think it is a good idea.
Q54 Dr Whitehead: So if I can be
clear, what we will anticipate next Tuesday is essentially the
end of the hereditary peers and a signpost towards the creation
of a wholly elected second chamber and that is it?
Mr Straw: When people say that
is it, and you are not one of them, there are always people waiting
around to be disappointed. If you look back to where we were in
respect of the House of Lords 12 years ago, well over half the
Lords was hereditary and one party had an inbuilt majority. If
you look to see where we are today, the difference is absolutely
dramatic. Why is it that this House of Lords has been much stroppier
with the House of Commons than a predecessor House of Lords? Because
no party in the House of Lords these days has had a majority so
it has been very assertive. The proposals which we think we can
pass into law in the next nine months include those relating to
hereditaries and disqualification, resignation and suspension
of members and then there are the longer term ones.
Q55 Dr Whitehead: A number of people
have indeed expressed disappointment to the extent that the perfect
solution was never there as far as Lords reform was concerned
and indeed action which, as you say, removed a large number of
hereditary peers from the House of Lords was not a perfect solution
but nevertheless was the first thing that looked like a solution
for a century. The question I would like to put to you relates
to perhaps that argument of a perfect solution. Do you not think
that removing the remaining hereditary peers without, for example,
combining such a move with questions of how an election of the
House that would replace that with no hereditary peers in it,
and fully elected, might actually take place and how that House
for example might sit with the creation of the Supreme Court and
what that means in terms of the ending of the appointment of Law
Lords and indeed the question of the role of the Parliament Act
in making those wider changes would give rise to arguments that
actually these are partial arrangements yet again which do not
actually move us to the position that has been now set out in
the Prime Minister's statement and in the most recent White Paper,
that this indeed is the final stage of reform?
Mr Straw: First of all, on the
hereditaries, this is not an "off with your head" approach
but it is one which seeks to ensure that the hereditaries are
phased out. As I have already indicated, and I think you indicated,
Dr Whitehead, there are always going to be people who are disappointed,
but in addition given the slow pace of reform of the House of
Lords which has taken place in most of the last century this Government
has moved with dramatic speed. Indeed, we are the only party which
has made any reform to the House of Lords apart from the introduction
of life peers in 1958 and the Bill to help Tony Benn and as it
turned out Alec Douglas-Home in the early 1960s. In addition to
the 1999 changes I would just remind the Committee that we had
a Green Paper based on the work of a cross-party group which was
published in February 2007. Then there were votes in March 2007
which determined that the House was in favour of either an 80%
or 100% elected second chamber and not in favour of anything else.
There was then further work in the cross-party group for another
year which led to the publication of the White Paper last July.
Now we are going forward. I would like to believeand I
try to be optimistic, Mr Tyriethat by 2011, which after
all will be the centenary of the passage of the Parliament Act,
we might have been able to give some substance to the aspiration
in the preamble to the Parliament Act. I paraphrase it but it
was a temporary measure until we got long-term reform. We are
moving forward on that. On the Supreme Court I think it is a bit
of a red herring, if I may say so. That change is happening. I
have already signed the order bringing the Supreme Court into
effect on 1 October. I think it is symbolically very important
because it physically separates the Supreme Court from the legislature,
which I think is really important, and ends this confusion about
what the House of Lords is there for. It also sets out that justices
of the Supreme Court cannot sit in the House of Lords, although
they could be appointed there when they retire. I do not think
that is going to be an issue really at all.
Q56 Chairman: Surely the point is
that the Law Lords are going, the hereditaries are going and the
only group which is increasing is the ones appointed by the Prime
Minister, most of them to be ministers and not necessarily for
Mr Straw: The other thing that
has happened is that you have the House of Lords Appointments
Q57 Chairman: They are not able to
stop some of those appointments.
Mr Straw: There is a need for
ministers in the House of Lords. There always has been. There
would be, Chairman, even under a Liberal Democrat Government.
Currently the way you have ministers in the House of Lords is
you appoint them as peers so they can
Q58 Chairman: for the rest
of their lives.
Mr Straw: be members of
the House of Lords, that is true, for the rest of their lives.
That is the system. We could change it. There were various proposals
in the White Paper but meanwhile I think any Prime Minister is
entitled to use that system, which has operated quite successfully
for a long time.
Q59 Dr Whitehead: Could I move now
to another topic that was raised by the Prime Minister in his
statement and also by the paper which is the question of a Bill
of Rights and Responsibilities and the possibility of a written
Constitution. Would one or both of those moves make us citizens
rather than subjects?
Mr Straw: They would help that
process. We are citizens and not just subjects, but I think one
of the challenges in our society is to make people more self-
conscious about what it is to be a citizen. The reasons why we
are not so self-conscious are well-known. We have not had the
same kind of convulsions or fights for our liberation that other
societies have had. That in many ways has had great benefits for
our society but it also produces disadvantages. I think it would
help. We have already described in a paper what the components
of a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities could be, but with a
written Constitution there is a prior question that has to be
answered, which is does one see a written Constitution as a text
which summarises and encapsulates existing arrangements and the
balance of power between Parliament and the other institutions
and organs of the state or is one trying to move to establish
a basic or fundamental law which overtakes or supersedes the sovereignty
of the people in Parliament? My view is that we should concentrate
on the first and not the second.