Constitutional Reform and Renewal - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 60-79)


14 JULY 2009

  Q60  Dr Whitehead: Do you see any constitutional significance at all in the fact that, as you said yourself, we would amplify the fact that we were citizens rather than subjects? Indeed, you have mentioned the idea that this would lead to the adoption of the people in Parliament rather than, you might say, the adoption of the King in Parliament?

  Mr Straw: I do and I think that there is a constant challenge in our society—and I think it is replicated in other societies as well for different reasons—to encourage people to be confident about their rights as citizens and their responsibilities, but, above all, their rights in a democracy to have control of their lives. Although we have moved on a long way in the last 50 or 60 years in the practice of our democracy, we still have a long way to go. All of us are elected politicians and I think all of us here, if I may say so, are active and seek to engage with our constituents. Speaking personally I certainly do and it is relatively straightforward in a single town constituency like mine, but I am also continually struck by what amounts to a distance between the institutions of governance and citizens and I would like to see that distance and that gap closed.

  Q61  Dr Whitehead: So would you see a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and certainly a written Constitution, as being unamendable by Parliament and if it was unamendable by Parliament by whom might it be amendable?

  Mr Straw: That is why I say there are two models for a written Constitution. A Bill of Rights and Responsibilities as such would be a matter for Parliament because there is no other way of putting it through. There are two models of a written Constitution. One is a text which seeks to bring together the fundamental principles, sometimes called conventions, of our constitutional arrangements, the most important of which is that Parliament is sovereign, but also to bring in other texts as well, which include things like the Parliament Acts, a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities and so on, basic texts which add up to the arrangements which we have today. So that is one model; a sort of summary and codification of the existing arrangements. The second model is an entrenched and overarching Constitution which is more powerful than Parliament. That is what many other countries do. If you go down that route you would have to have some special means of endorsing that text, and probably generating it as well through some kind of constitutional convention. It would have to be endorsed by Parliament and then by a referendum and you would also have to have a special process for amending it as well. Typically in other countries that is a combination of either special majorities in the Parliament, two-thirds and so on, and/or a referendum. I am not in favour of that. I think however seeing whether we can get to a single text which better describes our arrangements would be a good thing.

  Q62  Dr Whitehead: But a single text would presumably be judiciable?

  Mr Straw: It depends on its status. We have discussed this issue of justiciability in the Green Paper on Rights and Responsibilities, but I do not think that discussion about whether you have a single text should be stalled simply because on some reading the text might end up being justiciable. There are quite a lot of myths around about whether the judiciary want to take over from Parliament. They do not on the whole. It is absolutely right that there should be review by the courts by judicial review of decisions made by the Executive, by secretaries of state, because some of the decisions we make have a profound impact on individuals. If I get it wrong over whether or not to grant somebody parole which affects their liberty or a planning minister decides they are going to plonk a housing estate in somebody's backyard, and it is thought that the minister has acted improperly or irrationally, it is absolutely right that that should be reviewable by the courts otherwise the power of ministers becomes oppressive. That is different from whether the rights of Parliament should be reviewed by the courts. In practice, the courts do not want that power and would not seek it. In any case, whether it is reviewable, we famously have Article IX of the Bill of Rights.

  Q63  Alun Michael: Can we turn to the relationship and the powers of local government. Building Britain's Future promised stronger, more clearly defined powers for local government. What is the timetable for dealing with that issue?

  Mr Straw: I would need notice of that question, Mr Michael. I simply do not know is the answer. I suppose one pays for not having direct ministerial responsibility for that. I do not know. I can write to the Committee or get Mr Denham to write.

  Q64  Alun Michael: That would be helpful. Of course it is another part of the constitutional agenda which is the reason for asking the question. I suppose one of the questions is as far as you and as far as the Government's approach is concerned, will that strengthening of the powers of local government and the proposals in respect of city regions in some way answer the English question which we have looked at in a recent inquiry?

  Mr Straw: I think that maybe the stronger that local government and city regional government is the less bothered people may be about the so-called West Lothian question. I also happen to believe that if the Calman Commission proposals are implemented, which are designed as you know to produce a better balance between the responsibilities of, in this case, the Scottish Parliament to raise money and its power to spend, then this concern may become a lesser order one. Interestingly enough, certainly in my constituency, it ebbs and flows on the issue. It has not been raised with me for quite so time but sometimes it pops up. I am in favour of stronger local government. I was just thinking good local authorities are now enjoying quite an extensive degree of autonomy. There is very, very little ring-fencing of funding and even when I happened to think as a departmental minister of really good reasons for ring-fencing this funding or that funding, it met with a very hostile response from the DCLG as well as from the local authority associations. These multi-area agreements in which my authorities are taking part give a further level of autonomy.

  Q65  Julie Morgan: We have mentioned the Calman Commission and obviously there is a recommendation that the Barnett Formula should be reviewed, and there has been a Committee in Wales that reported last week, the Holtham Commission. That reported last week which I think also has asked for a review and this Committee has asked for a review. How do you propose to respond to these calls?

  Mr Straw: To these proposals for reform of the Barnett Formula? They are being actively considered at the moment. I have not seen the Holtham review. I am obviously aware of it and I have seen and read the proposals from Kenneth Calman and we welcome those. They are under active consideration. As far as the Barnett Formula is concerned, people sometimes have a pop at it, and indeed Joel Barnett himself said it was not intended to be there 30 years later.

  Q66  Julie Morgan: He gave evidence to the Committee.

  Mr Straw: I am sure he said that.

  Alun Michael: It was quite entertaining.

  Q67  Julie Morgan: Very strongly.

  Mr Straw: He should be flattered that a scheme which has immortalised his name should have lasted for so long because although it is easy to criticise the formula it is much more difficult to find something that is acceptable to go in its place, and that is the challenge. There is a level of elementary justice about the formula which is why despite complaints from time to time people have gone along with it.

  Q68  Julie Morgan: What would be the process now?

  Mr Straw: The normal process: listening to what people have to say about it and then there will finally be judgments made. I do not know of any other process.

  Q69  Julie Morgan: I was going to ask about the voting age and the fact that the Youth Citizenship Commission has now reported and has said that the voting age is a political decision and it has handed it over to the politicians. How is the Government going to respond to that Commission?

  Mr Straw: I do not think it is any great secret that there was no agreement within that Commission. What I thought was really interesting about the Commission report was that there was a majority of those whom they surveyed between the ages of 14 and 18 who were in favour of votes at 16, but not a big majority, and every other age group after that, including the 18 to 25s, were against lowering the age. The honest truth is—and I do not mean to put words into the mouth of the Commission but this is the perception that I have drawn from their excellent report—that their view was this was not a top-line issue, and that is certainly my perception. I myself would take a lot of persuading to be in favour of lowering the age to 16. I think the arguments in favour of lowering it to age 18 were very different. I was very actively involved in campaigning both for the establishment of the committee under Mr Justice Latey which reported in 1968 and then getting it implemented when I was involved in the National Union of Students, but, as I say, the argument for 18 was different. Personally I am sceptical about lowering it to 16.

  Q70  Julie Morgan: I take a different view, but the Government is going to come forward with a response, is it?

  Mr Straw: It will come forward with a response to the overall consultative Youth Commission proposals, but the truth is—and this is confirmed both by the lack of agreement within the Commission and by their polling evidence—there is not a consensus behind lowering the age to 16; there simply is not. That was a very clear message from the Commission as well. It can do all sorts of other things to raise the participation of young people in politics. That is really the message from young people, which is why I am so keen on the UK Youth Parliament.

  Q71  Chairman: They would like the voting age lowered, would they not, the UK Youth Parliament?

  Mr Straw: I cannot say for certain.

  Q72  Alun Michael: This is obviously going to be an interesting discussion. I personally think the case for lowering the age to 16 is overwhelming, but there we are.

  Mr Straw: Against or for?

  Q73  Alun Michael: Could I try to mop up a few issues to get clarity across the board on a couple of remaining issues? I think you clarified earlier the timetable for the publication of the Constitutional Renewal Bill.

  Mr Straw: My aim and intention is for it to be published before the recess. Nothing is certain in politics until it has happened.

  Q74  Alun Michael: But if you have said the same thing twice in the same session, that is a useful confirmation. The second thing is the delay in response to the Committee's report on the provisions relating to the Attorney General.

  Mr Straw: Our response would be published alongside the Bill.

  Q75  Alun Michael: At the same time?

  Mr Straw: Yes.

  Q76  Alun Michael: Then the reform of the House of Commons. Is there consideration being given to two particular proposals? Firstly, allowing Committees to propose legislation or vote on their recommendations on the floor of the House and, secondly, mechanisms by which ministers who are members of the House of Lords can be questioned in the House of Commons in some way on the floor of the House in addition to being questioned by Select Committees?

  Mr Straw: The Wright Committee, once it gets going, will have to develop its own agenda and fast, but it is certainly the case that the proposal that Select Committees should have power to put forward amendments to legislation has been around and I think is attractive. The second one?

  Q77  Alun Michael: Voting on such recommendations on the floor of the House?

  Mr Straw: You would need to; that would have to follow. What would drive people mad is if these things were vacuously symbolic and did not have an effect. All I would say, and I say this to parliamentary colleagues, is that the House could sit for maybe one week or two weeks more than it does at the moment, but not much more given the weight of constituency responsibility. People forget the dramatic change in the last 20 years—and still more the 30 years that you and I have been sat in the House—has been the burden of constituency responsibilities, which I think the Westminster press simply have not properly digested; it is huge. Okay, it could sit for a couple of weeks longer, that would be perfectly feasible, but if you want the House of Commons to be more active then two things will happen. There will be less time spent on general debates on quite a lot of non-governmental business, aside from the Opposition Days, which are sacrosanct, and the hours would have to be extended.

  Q78  Chairman: We are running short of time. I want to make sure you answered the other question Mr Michael put which is, what about the Transport Secretary and the Business Secretary being able to be heard on the floor of the House of Commons; questioned on the floor of the House of Commons?

  Mr Straw: I personally do not have a problem about that at all; I can see the case. I can remember when Lord Young was appointed—

  Q79  Chairman: You probably made the argument!

  Mr Straw:—as a Lord Mandelson figure back in the mid-1980s and Kenneth Clarke had to be his gofer, we were making the same argument. So I can see the case. It is a matter ultimately for the House of Commons.

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