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Proposals for a Written Constitution

Volume 464: debated on Wednesday 10 October 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Siobhain McDonagh.]

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to raise the Government’s proposals on a written constitution in this Adjournment debate. This debate follows on from the debate on 22 May initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) in the light of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer’s commitment to introduce a constitutional reform Bill.

I am delighted to see the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), on the Front Bench. His willingness to consult as widely as possible with the public and key groups on the issues of British identity and constitutional reform is well known, and I am pleased that he has been given responsibility for this very important matter. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to provide the House with greater detail since the Prime Minister’s statement on constitutional reform on 3 July. I know that the House is keen to know how we can progress towards a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities and possibly a written constitution. Some consider matters of constitutional reform dry subjects for academic lawyers. I disagree. I believe that this is one of the most exciting areas of Government policy and I am sure that the Minister agrees.

This issue is of course part of a historic process of constitutional reform that began on this island almost 800 years ago with the Greater Charter of Freedoms—the Magna Carta—codifying the rights of the individual against the power of the state. Even today, the Magna Carta informs current key political debates, and I am sure that the Minister has a copy of it with him for this debate.

The Charter speaks to us through centuries of history. Its 29th clause states:

“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned...or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed...We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land.”

I apologise for the lack of political correctness, but it is a direct quotation from the Magna Carta.

That principle, which this country has defended against internal and external threats for centuries, is still a matter for profound political debate. Only yesterday, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, appeared before the Home Affairs Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, to make the case for powers to detain people before charge for more than 28 days. That is one of the many issues that, as I will outline, lead me to be a strong supporter of a single Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. How do we ensure that this issue is discussed not only by the elite, but by representatives of groups from all over the country?

Constitutional reform has been one of the major achievements of the Government since 1997—devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, a Mayor and Assembly for London, the process of removing hereditary peers from the House of Lords, the creation of a Ministry of Justice, the creation of a Supreme Court, the creation of a body to appoint judges independently, and the incorporation of the European convention on human rights via the Human Rights Act 1998. This has been the collective work of the Government. However, I should like to recognise in particular two Ministers who have been at the forefront of the process—Lord Irvine of Lairg and Lord Falcolner of Thoroton, who were both distinguished Lord Chancellors.

All these reforms have been substantive changes to our unwritten and ancient constitutional tapestry, and have been remarkably successful. Even more remarkable is the lack of attention that these reforms attracted. That is, perhaps, a measure of their success. It is difficult to imagine rolling back devolution or re-installing the hereditary peers, although I understand that the Conservative party is committed to scrapping the Human Rights Act, despite presumably remaining part of the European convention on human rights.

The convention is one of the greatest accomplishments of the finest British legal minds. While some look back to regressing into a constitutional settlement that never was, the Government and the Prime Minister are right to look forward to continuing the path towards constitutional modernisation. In his first major statement to the House, the Prime Minister proposed a number of constitutional changes to improve our democracy and governance. These reforms include the removal of the royal prerogative in 12 areas, including the power to declare war, appoint judges and even choose bishops. Parliament should warmly welcome its empowerment on these and other key issues.

However, my focus in this debate will be the suggestion by the Prime Minister that we move away from our largely unwritten constitution and towards a single document that codifies the rights and responsibilities of those living in Britain. With reference to other countries with unwritten constitutions, I understand that only New Zealand, Canada and Israel share the United Kingdom’s status.

I am a strong supporter of such a document. Britain’s last Bill of Rights was forged in 1689. For the 17th century, it was a remarkable text limiting the powers of the monarch and setting out the great freedoms that we as citizens still enjoy today, such as the freedom from cruel and unusual punishments, the freedom of speech in Parliament, the freedom from taxation by royal prerogative, and the freedom to elect Members of Parliament without interference from the sovereign. These were great and fundamental freedoms, of special importance to the development of the House, but more than 300 years have passed and it is time for a new Bill of Rights, such as a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and for us to take the steps towards a full written constitution.

The people of Britain hold a great sense of civic purpose, but it is not clear enough to the individual where his or her rights and duties lie, and where the Government’s begin. In an age of concern about antisocial behaviour and crime, we need a document embodying the guiding values that we share as a nation. Above all, a constitution would clarify not only the collective power of the Government, but the powers of a neighbourhood, community group or family to correct antisocial behaviour. We are all stakeholders in civic society on a national, regional, local and street level. A fear is expressed in the tabloid media that the European convention on human rights is an alien document and a danger to our country. It is time to incorporate the European convention on human rights into a British written constitution, in effect bringing the convention back home.

A constitution would allow British citizens to point to a single document containing the values, principles, rights and responsibilities that all in Britain must follow. It could be used to provide new British citizens from other countries with a sense of British identity and an understanding of British values, which is close to the heart of the Minister who has campaigned on the issues of identity and Britishness for many years.

A constitution would state the responsibilities that go alongside those rights. To take the classic example, it would make it clear that the right to free speech goes alongside the responsibility not to incite racial hatred between groups. Beyond that, a single document could encompass the reforms, which have occurred and which will continue to occur, to our constitution. We have been fortunate that in recent memory our parliamentary process has not had to face strains and extremism that other countries have experienced to their detriment.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who is the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, has announced the consultation with the British public, and he has said it will begin in the autumn as requested by the Prime Minister. I am sure that his consideration of the great range of opinion will be examined carefully and thoroughly. In a recent New Statesman interview, however, he ruled out an actual written constitution in the short term:

“I'm not against a written constitution, but I think you’ve got to get the building blocks in place before you get there.”

The Minister has been entrusted—in my view rightly—with the onerous responsibility of putting those important building blocks in place. Although I am keen to ensure that there is no unnecessary foot-dragging in planning the way forward on such a radical innovation for the United Kingdom, I agree with the principle that the process should not be rushed before the public, the political establishment and, above all, the machinery of government are ready for such a change. It is vital that we take the British people with us.

The consultation process is not the most important issue. I have just spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, who told me that people should e-mail the Minister. Millions of people could e-mail the Minister about what the new constitution should look like, but at the end of the day somebody must edit those suggestions. I hope that the Minister will clarify the key question of who will sit down and edit this great constitutional project. I believe that history proves that a national constitution works most effectively when the ultimate drafters—the wise men and women—hold legitimacy in the eyes of the country. The American constitution, for example, which was forged by the energies of the war of independence, was drafted by high-profile figures of many different political orientations and ambitions, and none, who moved towards a consensus. Even that great constitution was not perfect for a number of reasons—slavery remained—but it endowed legitimacy on a nation that developed a great civil society. That legitimacy is needed today and for future generations. I would be grateful if the Minister were to state who will be involved in the early stages, who will be involved in the later stages and what Parliament’s role will be.

In 100 years’ time, when many of today’s policy debates and manifesto commitments—even talk of a general election on 1 November—are long forgotten, I know that this Government’s constitutional reform programme will be long remembered. I believe that that will be the key thing that people remember about these years. Is the Minister ready to be remembered as the Benjamin Franklin of a future British constitution?

The Government have achieved much—with not enough recognition—in bringing Britain’s constitution into the 21st century, so I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government plan to secure the historic achievement of a written constitution. “We, the people of the United Kingdom, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice and human rights, ensure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, and promote the general welfare of the British people”: those few words are my version of how we should start the constitution. I look forward to hearing what the Minister’s version will be.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) on securing this debate on a very important subject for this House and for the people of this country. He will not be surprised to hear that I share his view on the importance of these issues. He has brought to the debate a wealth of experience and distinguished service to this House and to this Government. I am grateful for the way in which he set out the arguments, because he covered most of the issues that we will have to confront and deal with as we embark on the programme that the Prime Minister set out to the House on 3 June this year.

This is part of a process. Since 1997, the Government have been embarked on a radical programme of constitutional renewal. The next stage, which is set out in the Green Paper, “The Governance of Britain”, seeks to forge a new relationship between Government and the citizen and to continue the journey towards a new constitutional settlement that entrusts Parliament and the people with more power. It is important to note that the Green Paper is not a blueprint but a route map that we will navigate in conversation with the British people. We are planning a far-ranging programme of consultation involving a whole range of mechanisms that we hope will produce a settlement which, as my right hon. Friend suggested, will be owned by the British people themselves; it will not be sustainable unless we do so.

My right hon. Friend spent a large part of his speech talking about a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. The Government remain fully committed to the universal declaration of human rights made by the United Nations on behalf of the free world at the conclusion of the second world war. Those rights are also reflected in the European convention on human rights and in the Human Rights Act 1998, which brought them back to this country and made them justiciable here. However, times change, and legal norms must be continuously reassessed against changing circumstances. The Government have always said that the 1998 Act was a first step on the journey towards a full articulation of fundamental rights and responsibilities for people in the United Kingdom.

We are now about to launch a debate about how to go forward, focusing on the way in which our commitment to these fundamental rights and responsibilities can help to bind us together and how we can make their application more transparent and accessible to the public. In particular, we wish to explore how we can make more explicit the way in which these rights are mirrored by the duties that citizens owe to the state and to society and the underpinning concepts of proportionality, legitimacy and necessity in the way the Act is implemented. In considering how that might be done, we believe that one possibility would be the passing of a new Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. We will listen very carefully to what people say to us as we embark on the consultation process throughout the country, and we will use the information that we derive from that process to work out an appropriate way of achieving those goals.

Of course, some, like my right hon. Friend, want to go further than that and to ensure that our constitution is fully codified. The campaign for such a written constitution has a long and distinguished history in this country, with many supporters on both sides of the House. Most countries have codified written and embedded constitutions; the United Kingdom does not, for all sorts of historical reasons. Instead, our constitution has four principal sources: statute law, common law, conventions and works of authority. Unlike other countries, since the end of the 17th century there has been no key event, war or revolution that has led to the need for one document setting out the rules that govern the political system and the rights of citizens and Government.

I am sorry to raise the point during this part of the Minister’s speech, but I was interested in his decision to go around the country and meet groups. Does he have any format in mind for those meetings, and will the cities and towns he chooses have a particular profile? It is important that wherever he chooses to go is truly representative of the United Kingdom. Of course, we would love to see him in Leicester.

My right hon. Friend is right to suggest that we should employ a variety of mechanisms; that is what we intend to do. I shall talk a little more in a moment about the British statement of values and how we intend to realise that.

Order. May I just say to the Minister that it is helpful if he speaks towards the microphone? Otherwise, those reporting our affairs have some difficulty.

Of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will address my remarks to you as well—my apologies.

We shall use a wide variety of mechanisms, such as citizens juries, in which representative bodies of citizens come together to deliberate on particular issues. We intend to use online consultation widely so that people who cannot be part of the physical consultation process for whatever reason will be able to engage fully in debating these important issues. That will apply across the piece. We are consulting widely on the Constitutional Reform Bill, which concerns the surrendering and limiting of the Executive’s powers. We will consult on the possibility of a new Bill of Rights and Duties, and consult widely on the British statement of values, to which I shall come in a moment.

I would like to comment again on a point to which my right hon. Friend referred in his remarks. If we are to consider going down the route of a fully codified constitution—something that would be a radical departure from constitutional practice in this country—it is important that we do so on the basis of a settled consensus. That can be achieved only through extensive and wide consultation. If we do not do it on that basis, I fear that it would not be sustainable. It is important that when we embark upon constitutional change, particularly potentially radical change, we should approach it not as an engineer approaches a blueprint, but as a physician, healing what needs to be healed, but not going beyond that. We need to approach the matter with care and caution, but we must recognise that the issue is a live one, and one with which we must engage.

Underpinning everything that we have talked about is our desire to find the things that bind us together as a nation. We have proposed, therefore, the development of a British statement of values. When I say we, I refer to the British people as a whole, not to this Government. The process that we are proposing, as the Prime Minister has made very clear, will not involve the Government—

Order. I am afraid that interventions from the Opposition Front Bench are not permitted in these Adjournment debates. I am sure that the hon. Lady was not seeking to break the convention.

Thank you Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would be happy to carry on the conversation with the hon. Lady after the debate.

We have made it clear that decisions on whether there should be such a British statement of values, on the form it should take and on the uses to which it should be put, will be taken by a citizens summit. It will be a representative body of British people, probably selected randomly, but demographically representative of the country as a whole. They will deliberate on these questions and come to a decision, which will then be put to Parliament for the final say.

That brings me to a very important point. In all the proposals that we have introduced that are embodied in the Green Paper, “The Governance of Britain”, our system of parliamentary, representative democracy will remain at the heart. My right hon. Friend asked what position Parliament would have in the process, and I can tell him that it will remain absolutely at the heart of it. For all the measures that are being consulted on, and all the measures of direct democracy, we are not proposing to replace our system of representative democracy or go towards in any way a plebiscitary democracy. We believe that our system of representative democracy is fair and effective and it will remain central to the process.

We must recognise that the system of representative democracy, which has served the country well, may need to change for changed circumstances. The British people, their aspirations and political behaviour have changed and it is right and proper that our constitution should adapt to reflect that. It always has done—one of the great virtues of the British constitution has been its flexibility. In the 19th century, it went through enormous upheaval, with three great reforms of the suffrage, which were as radical as our current proposals.

Whatever we do, we shall do it with great care to ensure that our system of parliamentary democracy remains central. We will use almost every method that we can to engage the British people.

It is fascinating to hear my hon. Friend’s comments. Obviously, he must consult the British people first, but is there any particular country, which he has studied or from which he has received evidence or reports of its written constitution, to which he is attracted?

Clearly, we are studying what has happened in other countries. However, we would not try to replicate other constitutional arrangements in this country because constitutions arise from the specific circumstances of each country. They are products of specific histories and societies. We believe that what we have in this country is specific and unique and we want to formulate our own proposal—and we want the British people to be central in that process—rather than importing practice. However, we have examined ways in which other countries try to engage their populations in constitutional change. For example, we have considered Australia and British Columbia, which conducted an interesting experiment with a citizens summit. In formulating the debate, we will learn from the custom and practice that other countries have adopted, but we need to work out ways in which to adapt specific constitutional mechanisms for ourselves as a people.

My right hon. Friend asked where we would go in the country. I can safely say that we will look everywhere and that we are especially conscious of the importance of Leicester as a representative town. We shall seriously consider conducting at least one event nearby, if not in Leicester. I hope that that satisfies my right hon. Friend for the time being.

We will be able to reveal much more detail in the coming months and I hope that there will be plenty of opportunity to debate those matters in the House. The process will not be short and many of our discussions will take place over not only months but years. We are starting that process and we want to engage parliamentarians in it. Today’s debate is rather sparsely attended—I hope that we can get more of our colleagues to participate in future. The debates are important and will inevitably have an impact on the way in which Parliament works.

My hon. Friend has been generous in giving way. I note from the newspapers that he has decided to give up his ministerial car. I hope that his transport arrangements will enable him to travel around the country.

I am grateful for the care with which my right hon. Friend follows press coverage of my movements. However, there will be no hindrance to getting around the country. The Lord Chancellor and I will travel around the country, probably by public transport more often than not.

We will try our best to ensure that we reach everybody in this country who wants to participate in the debate. It is not always easy. We want to go beyond the usual voices that contribute to such discussions. We are trying to construct mechanisms to do that and I hope that my colleagues in the House today will participate in the process. We will invite all parliamentarians to join us in the debate. It is not the prerogative of one party, but something that should belong to every Member of the House and every citizen of the country. It is an important process and, if we can do it together on a non-partisan basis, we have a good chance of achieving a radical constitutional settlement, which will serve the country well for many years.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Eight o’clock.