Conclusions and recommendations |
Constitutional Reform and Renewal
1. We recognise the appetite in many quarters for fundamental constitutional change and welcome the Government's renewed focus on constitutional reform and renewal in response to this. We are surprised by the limited provisions in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, and fear that this may be a missed opportunity to make progress in some areas of reform. Any programme introducing fundamental change should be carefully constructed and aimed at a coherent outcome taking into account the widest possible range of views.
The Parliamentary Standards Bill
2. We particularly note the removal of clause seven, which set out IPSA's enforcement powers, from the Bill, the insertion of a sunset clause and the Government's commitment to post-legislative scrutiny. The Government needs to set out the basis on which post-legislative scrutiny will be carried out.
3. We welcome the main provisions in the Bill in relation to the creation of an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and note that the removal of clause six and the defeat of clause ten have addressed concerns set out in our previous report in regard to the constitutional implications for free speech in Parliament and the comity between the courts and Parliament.
4. While we acknowledge the need for urgent action in order to respond to public anger, we agree with the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution that the Parliamentary Standards Bill was rushed through its stages and that inadequate thought had been given to the broader potential constitutional implications of the Bill. We also agree that allowing insufficient time for adequate scrutiny of the legislation may have a detrimental effect on public trust.
5. There are broader lessons to be learnt from this in terms of both parliamentary and constitutional reform. First, that the inappropriate handling of bills and proposals for reform specifically designed to restore public trust may further undermine that trust. Second, although the Bill had the support of the party leaders, it also had potential constitutional consequences which they had not identified and were not identified by the Government. This should serve as a warning about the dangers of undertaking reform too quickly, and without adequate consultation to enable a full and thorough investigation of the constitutional implications. It also illustrates the danger of party leaders, however much they are responding to the public's appetite for immediate and radical action, engaging in a bidding war on reform.
Select Committee on Reform of the House Of Commons
6. We welcome the establishment of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons to examine these matters, and we particularly applaud the change in the terms of its remit that will allow the Committee to consider the scheduling of government, as well as non-government, business. We believe that three key areas for the re-consideration of existing practice by this Committee are:
- the near total control of the Order Paper which determines the House's business each day;
- the dual role of the Leader of the House as the main channel for all House business and as a member of the executive; and
- the fact that the House itself has no mechanism for introducing effective motions relating to business and timing other than through the Leader of the House.
7. Any government is entitled to use its majority to create opportunities to give an account, and secure the passage, of its legislative programme and to ensure that it has the parliamentary time to present that programme to the House. The right of the elected majority to make effective progress with its business is well accepted but equally the House must hold the executive to account and, in doing so, make sure that legislation is adequately examined and amendments properly considered. There is widespread concern over the current balance between how the House, as a whole, perceives and articulates its priorities for the way time in the Chamber is spent, and how the executive responds in managing arrangements. The House and the executive need a mechanism, not dominated by the latter, through which the timetabling of bills and other debates can be determined. The House needs its own 'voice'. We expect that the new committee will examine the case for a business committeewithout an automatic government majorityto carry out this function.
8. We acknowledge the short time-frame within which the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons is expected to report, and urge it to bear in mind the broader constitutional implications of any recommendations it makes for parliamentary reform, which we will consider when the proposals are published.
House of Lords reform
9. The present Prime Minister has appointed 11 people to be life peers so that they could serve as ministers or as an adviser to the Government, some of whom have already given up ministerial office but remain members of the House of Lords. These measures accentuate a trend towards an appointed second chamber, contrary to the view expressed by the three main parties and by the House of Commons. Moreover, it is likely to lead to a continuous trend in future governments appointing peers in order to rebalance the numbers and this is unsustainable.
A written constitution
10. The Prime Minister has raised the issue of a written constitution. This involves fundamental issues about the sovereignty of Parliament, the nature of the monarchy, the role of the judiciary and the rights of the citizen, which merit careful and close examination. We would welcome a thorough debate.
Freedom of Information
11. We welcome the Government's intention to extend the application of the Freedom of Information Act to a wider range of bodies exercising public functions, but we also recognise the implications for the workload and resources of the Office of the Information Commissioner. We remain of the view that the Commissioner should be an officer of Parliament, like the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Ombudsman, funded by Parliament rather than the Executive.
12. The Government appears to be setting an over-optimistic timetable if it assumes that this process can be appropriately undertaken in time for November of this year. If the Government intends to conduct a genuine consultation process, this timetable is insufficient. If this timetable is to be met, we fear the consultation and consideration would lack substance. In any event it would be wrong to allow the timing of the general election to drive the process.
13. We welcome the Government's commitment to a wide ranging discussion of a broad spectrum of proposals for major constitutional reform. Getting this right is crucial. We are not satisfied that the process for constitutional reform outlined in Building Britain's Future is adequate for changes of such magnitude and significance. A more systematic and established process is required, which could include, for some changes, a constitutional convention to work through the more complex issues, and a referendum on fundamental changes.