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Royal Prerogative

Volume 459: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2007

As I said on 30 January, the Government keep policy in that area under review but do not see the case for a wide-ranging consultation exercise at this time.

The BBC recently described royal prerogative powers as

“A series of historic powers, officially held by the Queen, that have, in reality, been passed to politicians.”

Royal prerogative powers allow decisions to be taken without the backing of or consultation with Parliament. Does the Minister agree that in a democracy, decisions taken without the backing of or consultation with Parliament should be illegal? May we have a review to address that anachronistic anomaly once and for all?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor provided a statement on the Government’s position on this in the House of Lords on 7 February this year, at Hansard column 705. Moreover, the Prime Minister is very keen to ensure that Parliament has its views known, and he has made statements to that effect in recent months. In 2003, for example, there was a substantive motion in Parliament on the Iraq war. We are of course prepared to legislate to constrain the prerogative powers when it is appropriate to do so.

Given that in 2004 the Select Committee on Public Administration said that

“the case for reform is unanswerable”,

as we come to the end of 10 years of Blair-led Labour Government where ministerial Executive power remains as great as ever, will the Minister accept that making peace and war, making treaties such as the extradition treaty and taking away passports from British citizens in Guantanamo Bay are matters that should be governed not by Ministers but by Parliament, and that unless the Government move on this they will remain a Government who seem to be more keen on retaining power than sharing it?

We should be cautious in this field; let me give an example of why. We must be careful about introducing legislation in some of these areas where we would then have the undesirability of their being overseen by the courts, which would not necessarily be a good thing. Indeed, it should be for Parliament, rather than the courts, to comment on some of these issues. The Government have to be accountable to Parliament for their decisions, including decisions on the deployment of armed forces. Parliament’s rights are therefore fully protected under the existing arrangements. That does not mean to say that the Government are not prepared to look at prerogative powers again. We have done that in the past and we are still prepared to do so. We will continue to listen to views on the subject, although at the moment we see no reason to do anything different from the present situation.

I agree most strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern). Would it not be useful for my hon. Friend the Minister to look at other parliamentary democracies, especially those with constitutional monarchies such as our own, to see how they do things and perhaps to make some progressive reforms in the light of that?

It is difficult to translate specific constitutional arrangements from one country to another. Procedures in the United Kingdom must reflect our constitutional arrangements. There are occasions when the Executive’s ability to take decisions quickly and to be flexible in using the prerogative powers remains an important cornerstone of our constitution. I am not sure that one can easily transfer what may be good in one country to make it fit here. However, as I say, we constantly keep all these matters under review.

Does the Minister agree that the most important royal prerogative is that of taking this country to war? Can she conceive of a situation whereby we would take this country to war without the endorsement of this House? If so, would she consider changing the royal prerogative in this respect?

The hon. Gentleman asks whether I can conceive of a situation arising in relation to going to war. In order to reassure him, let me quote what the Prime Minister said:

“I cannot conceive of a situation in which a Government…is going to go to war—except in circumstances where militarily for the security of the country it needs to act immediately—without a full parliamentary debate”.

That sums up the Government’s position very well.

I am pleasantly surprised to be called. The Under-Secretary said that she would listen carefully to representations. May I draw it to her attention that nobody has spoken in favour of her conservative position on the matter? There is a case for root and branch review of the power of the monarchical institution, including the prerogative powers, which are not always exercised only by Government. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) drew attention to the fact that no Catholic has been made a member of the Order of the Thistle for hundreds of years—that is royal prerogative. It is unacceptable. We need to re-examine the whole monarchical institution.

Although I may have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s example, I have said repeatedly—today and on other occasions—that we keep such matters under review. I shall take the specific example back for further consideration.