Constitutional Reform and Renewal - Justice Committee Contents

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 that?

  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 to argument.

  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 then?

  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 did it.

  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 position.

  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 break.

  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 believe—and I try to be optimistic, Mr Tyrie—that 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 very long?

  Mr Straw: The other thing that has happened is that you have the House of Lords Appointments Committee.

  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.

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