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Governance of Britain

Volume 465: debated on Thursday 25 October 2007

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about our programme of constitutional renewal. With this statement, three consultation documents are being published. The first, jointly by my right hon. Friends the Foreign and Defence Secretaries and myself, is in respect of parliamentary approval for war powers and treaties; the second, by me, is in respect of judicial appointments; and the third, by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, is in respect of protests in Parliament square. Copies of the documents are available in the Vote Office and on my Department’s website.

In his statement to the House on 3 July to launch the Green Paper entitled “The Governance of Britain”, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out his vision of a renewed relationship between Government and citizen. Among other things, he identified 12 areas in which

“the Prime Minister and Executive should surrender or limit their powers, the exclusive exercise of which by the Government should have no place in a modern democracy.”—[Official Report, 3 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 815.]

Two of the most important prerogative powers are the power to deploy the armed forces overseas and the power to commit the nation to international legal obligations through the ratification of treaties.

I turn first to war powers. On 15 May, the Government supported a motion in this House that declared that it was “inconceivable” that the precedents set in 2002 and 2003, when the Government sought the approval of this House for military action in Iraq, would not be followed in the future. The same motion called on the Government

“to come forward with…detailed proposals”

on how that convention should be entrenched. Today’s consultation paper therefore explores a range of options, each aimed at formalising Parliament’s role. It suggests that that might be achieved through a convention or legislation, or a combination of both. The consultation paper discusses the critical issues that any system would have to accommodate. It is essential that any new arrangements should not damage morale or hinder us in meeting our international obligations. They should not inhibit operational flexibility and the need for secrecy, nor inhibit our need to act in emergencies. In addition, of course, no members of our armed forces should be placed under any legal liability as a result of any new arrangements.

The Government welcome views on how those objectives can best be achieved, and also on related questions. For instance, what is the role of the House of Lords in contributing to decisions by this place? How should we define “armed conflict” and “armed forces”? What information ought to be supplied to Parliament, and at what stage?

I turn now to the ratification of treaties, which is already subject to a parliamentary convention introduced—I am pleased to say—by the first Labour Government, in 1924. For the cognoscenti, it is known as the Ponsonby rule, after the man who introduced it. According to the convention, and with certain exceptions, the Government must lay a treaty as a Command Paper before Parliament for a minimum of 21 sitting days before ratification. It is then for Parliament to determine which treaties it wishes to debate.

The Government believe that there may be value in putting the convention on a statutory footing, to establish better Parliament’s right to decide and to show that the actions of the Government are subject to the will of the people’s representatives. The paper seeks views on how that can best be done, including on the detailed and important questions of exceptions to the existing convention, which include bilateral double taxation agreements, how a debate and vote on a treaty should be triggered, and how the 21-day period could be extended in special circumstances.

As Lord Chancellor, I am responsible for upholding and defending the independence and integrity of the judiciary, which is essential to the functioning of a free and democratic society. Our system of appointing judges must be, as I believe it is, wholly devoid of party politics; it must be transparent, accountable and capable of inspiring public confidence. Under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, with the establishment of the Lord Chief Justice, not myself, as head of the judiciary, we have already made significant reforms to the way in which judges are appointed in England and Wales. The most fundamental was the creation of an independent Judicial Appointments Commission. The consultation paper published today outlines other possible options for additional reform, on which the Government would welcome views.

The final consultation document published today concerns protest in Parliament square. The framework in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 in respect of such protests raised concerns from campaigners and other citizens and, separately, from Members of the House. The purpose of the consultation is to listen to those concerns and review the provisions, to see whether there is a better way to both uphold the right to protest and manage individual protest appropriately.

Holding the Government to account for the way in which they spend public money is one of the most important functions of the House. I and my colleagues pay tribute to the work of the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office in supporting the House in that task. The House will be pleased to know that following a joint request to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister from my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), the Father of the House, and the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), space will be made available in the forthcoming constitutional reform Bill for any agreed changes to the governance of the National Audit Office emerging from the review that they have announced.

It is right to consider the circumstances in which we open up more information for debate before the House. Even in the most sensitive sphere—national security—where everyone agrees that some safeguards have to be in place to respect confidentiality, we should always consider where we can do more, so starting next month, the Government will publish annually, for parliamentary debate and public scrutiny, our national security strategy setting out for the British people the threats we face and the objectives we pursue. Additionally, new rules will govern a more open approach to the working of the Intelligence and Security Committee. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has agreed with the Chair of the ISC that Parliament should have a clear role in the appointment of members to the Committee. More details about the new rules and that role will be announced in due course.

In keeping with the Government’s commitment to ensure that the public can access the information they need, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a speech later today announcing that we will not tighten the charging arrangements for freedom of information requests. A consultation on whether to extend the Freedom of Information Act to a range of organisations that perform public functions, although theoretically some of them may legally be in the private sector, and a review of the 30-year rule will be established.

These days, huge amounts of personal data are held by the public and private sector. The scale of those holdings has moved on significantly since the passage of the Data Protection Act 1998. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have therefore asked the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, and Professor Mark Walport, the director of the Wellcome Trust, to review the way in which we share and protect personal information in the public and private sector.

The freedom of the media to investigate and report is a key issue in the use of information. We consulted last year on restricting media access to the coroners’ courts. In the light of the responses to that consultation, I can now confirm that we will not be proceeding with any proposals to limit such access.

Proposals to ban media payments to criminals have been under consideration for some time. None of us wants to see criminals profiting from publishing books about their crimes. While ensuring that the freedom of the press to investigate and report is maintained, we will bring forward proposals to make sure that criminals cannot benefit in that way.

As provisions in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill make clear, we are also concerned about the misuse of personal data. However, the new rules proposed in the Bill have raised concerns that they might impede legitimate investigative journalism, so the Information Commissioner, in consultation with the Press Complaints Commission, will produce clear guidance to ensure that rights to investigate are not impeded.

There is often a lack of clarity in the balance between an individual’s freedom and the role of the state. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been examining this issue in relation to existing police powers of entry to consider whether there should be a single readily understandable code. My right hon. Friend will widen the scope of the review to include all powers of entry available to other public authorities. She will also lead a consultative review to consider whether improved guidance is needed for police officers in the exercise of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000—stop-and-search powers—to ensure that trust is preserved in the use of the powers.

For the sake of completeness, may I tell the House that in respect of reform of the House of Lords, discussions are proceeding inside the all-party talks? We are arranging for two meetings of the working group before Christmas.

These consultation documents and the other measures are all in part concerned with the right to freedom of expression and its facilitation. The right is specifically protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, but it has existed in the UK for a very long time. Because of its fundamental importance in our democracy, I shall be considering how, as all future legislation is developed, it can be carefully audited for any explicit or unforeseen restrictions that that might unnecessarily place on that freedom of expression.

I hope and believe that the House will agree that the matters that I have raised go to the heart of exactly where power should lie in our country and how it should be exercised. We now look forward to hearing the views of both parliamentarians and citizens on the proposals. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Lord Chancellor for giving me a brief early sight of his statement and for the delivery of the documents to my office this morning. I congratulate him on pulling rank over his right hon. and learned Friend the deputy leader of the Labour party and the Leader of the House by making his statement ahead of the business statement.

The Lord Chancellor says that this is about changing how Britain is governed, and strengthening Parliament. Will he confirm that the Prime Minister will be making a speech shortly on the Human Rights Act outside the House, as has been widely reported in the press this morning, not least on the front page of The Guardian? The press has clearly been briefed. Will the Lord Chancellor tell the House how, when the Prime Minister makes such an important speech outside the House and prevents us from being able to debate it, that constitutes the strengthening of Parliament?

In our Opposition day debate on 15 May, we called for the strengthening of parliamentary approval of international treaties. Our democracy taskforce, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), proposed that international treaties be exempt from the royal prerogative, and be required to be laid before Parliament, together with an explanatory document. Why do the Government believe that statutory change is necessary, when a resolution of the House of Commons would be adequate? The consultation document says that proposals on parliamentary approval would relate to new international treaties, but what about existing ones? The House will have a chance to vote on the EU constitutional treaty, signed by the Prime Minister in Lisbon last week, but none the less it will not be put to a vote of the people. Is that the way to rebuild the public’s trust?

Given the frequency of deployments and the controversy that that has created, there is growing consensus in this country that the decision to go to war requires democratic legitimacy. We have already said that parliamentary assent, for example through a resolution of the House of Commons, should be required to commit troops to war, international armed conflict or peacekeeping activity. We favour that being done through the development of a parliamentary convention. The consultation paper proposes that, apart from informing the House, there be no requirement for any further parliamentary procedure, but if the Government really want to strengthen Parliament, should not the House be able to have a decisive say if the Government make a wrong call? Of course there are serious issues relating to the potential for a negative vote when troops are already in the field, but there should be no blank cheque. In matters as critical as a major deployment in an emergency, why should there not be an opportunity for retrospective approval, not just an obligation for the Prime Minister to inform Parliament?

It is right that the House should vote before troops are committed to military action overseas, but we had a vote when the war in Iraq was declared, and the House was not given a full and accurate account of the position. Does the Lord Chancellor not appreciate that what has caused a haemorrhaging of public trust in Government is not the failure to give Parliament a vote—there was a vote—but the fact that the Government for whom he was Foreign Secretary misled the public on the issue?

We welcome moves to strengthen the Intelligence and Security Committee—but will the Lord Chancellor confirm that appointments to the Committee will not be in the gift of the Government Whips?

We welcome the measures to allow protests around Parliament. Indeed, when the reprehensible legislation on the subject was passed, I said that it was more appropriate to Tiananmen square than to Parliament square. [Interruption.] Will the Lord Chancellor explain exactly how such a flagrant attack on freedom of expression was not found to be incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998? Was that not an example of the way in which the Act interferes with our ability to deal with terrorists and serious criminals, but fails to protect essential civil liberties? [Interruption.]

Order. I must call on the Front Benchers. It is unfair; the hon. Gentleman is asking questions. I asked for temperate language yesterday. I also asked for silence, and that is what I am looking for.

It is unfortunate that the Government find themselves trying to ensure greater independence in the appointment of judges, as only recently they have done far more to threaten the independence of the judiciary by forcing judges, without prior consultation and still without their agreement, into a Department where their budget is imperilled by the prisons crisis. Will the Lord Chancellor tell the House when he will be able to make a statement on negotiations with the judiciary to protect their independence in the new Ministry of Justice? We welcome measures to limit political involvement in judicial appointments. Does the Secretary of State for Justice now accept that ensuring judicial independence is far more important than gestures such as moving the judiciary to a different building on the other side of Parliament square? The Government now admit that that will cost more than £100 million to set up, and £12.3 million a year to run, although the current arrangements cost virtually nothing.

Independence is not the only principle that guides judicial appointments. It is quite right that judges should have to be competent, diligent and people of the utmost integrity. Above all, as the consultation paper says:

“Linked to independence is the principle that judges should be appointed on merit.”

How does the Lord Chancellor reconcile that principle with the commitment to ensuring that judges are drawn from diverse communities? Can he rule out any suggestion of any kind of quotas or positive discrimination in judicial appointments?

All three of the consultative documents that the Government have published today are welcome, and we will engage fully in debate on them. “The Governance of Britain” Green Paper says that the Government want to forge a new relationship between Government and citizen, but does the Lord Chancellor not understand that there will be no such new relationship until trust is rebuilt? Talking about strengthening Parliament will count for nothing if Parliament is undermined, as it was when the Prime Minister cynically made his announcement of troop withdrawals to the press.

Talking about giving people more power will count for nothing if the Government put party interests ahead of voters’ interests, as the Electoral Commission found that they did—

Order. I called on Government Ministers to limit their statements to 10 minutes. That happened in this case, and I do not expect an Opposition spokesperson to go over the limit. The hon. Gentleman has used up his time, and I must stop him, because I have Back Benchers to call. That is important to me.

Let me try to deal briefly with those points. I regret the first point that the hon. Gentleman made about the order of the statements today. When I was Leader of the House, and in the case of every predecessor, there were a number of occasions when it was for the convenience of the House and colleagues that I, as Leader of the House, made my statement after a ministerial statement. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House on this occasion.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is indeed making an important speech. My statement was intended to ensure that in advance of that speech, the House was informed of all substantive developments that he will speak about.

The fact that we are proposing a British Bill of Rights and responsibilities and developing such a Bill has been made very clear in the House on a number of occasions. When the consultative document, which I am currently working on, is ready to publish, it will be published first to the House.

The hon. Gentleman made some extraordinarily muddled comments about the ratification of treaties, and about war powers. I always do my best to ensure that Opposition spokespeople have documents like the ones under discussion as soon as possible. That I tried to do this morning. As for the European treaty, the Ponsonby rule does not apply to that. Why? Because there is a far better procedure in respect of all EU treaties. They are the subject of line-by-line examination by a separate Bill.

On war powers, I do not know what the hon. Gentleman was going on about when he talked about retrospective approval. There are paragraphs in the document, as we have made clear, about where retrospective approval should apply, and how we could have retrospective approval without undermining the armed forces.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we should prevent recommendations for membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee from being influenced by the Government Whips. That is well above his pay grade and mine. If he is proposing that we get to a situation in which the Government Whips exert no influence whatever on the membership of Committees, I look forward to that time arriving—but I am not sure that that will be while he or I are in the House.

On protests about Parliament, I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that references to Tiananmen square are completely misplaced. I heard the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) saying from a sedentary position, but not sotto voce, that what the hon. Gentleman said about that was rubbish. Provided that that is parliamentary, Mr. Speaker, I agree with it. I am making a serious point to the hon. Gentleman. People died in Tiananmen square. [Interruption.] His language was very intemperate indeed.

On the judiciary, again the hon. Gentleman was profoundly muddled. Nothing has been imperilled by the creation of the Ministry of Justice. The protection of the judiciary remains. I have made it clear that I have no intention of undermining its budget. The case for a supreme court has been widely supported across the country.

The hon. Gentleman’s last point was extraordinary, suggesting that if we sought a more diverse judiciary, somehow it would be less well qualified. I hope that that is not the official position of the Opposition. The House has been strengthened by the introduction of more women and more black and Asian Members, and it will be more strengthened still by more women and black and Asian Members. Exactly the same applies to the judiciary.

Order. I am sorry to trouble the Secretary of State, but his Department has put out copies of the statement that are not complete. There are odd pages missing. Can that be rectified as soon as possible?

May I apologise for that? and I will ensure that it is rectified as soon as possible. I must add that in one passage in the middle of the statement, I busked.

I very much welcome the statement by my right hon. Friend and the documents that accompany it. One of those relates to changes in royal prerogative. Is it my right hon. Friend’s intention to continue to review the question of the royal prerogative, particularly how Parliament uses it, or does he consider that the documents that we have this morning constitute that review?

The documents are part of the review of the royal prerogative. We have been much informed by the report of the Public Administration Committee of about three years ago, and we continue to examine other aspects of the royal prerogative.

May I also say that in response to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, (Nick Herbert) I got one point wrong? The EU reform treaty will be subject to the Ponsonby rule, but in addition, it will be subject to detailed parliamentary scrutiny.

I, too, welcome the statement, and I would have welcomed early sight of the papers accompanying it. In his announcement today, the Lord Chancellor has given the strong impression that he is running to catch up with the statements of the Prime Minister outside the House. Nevertheless, I welcome many of the proposals in the statement.

The changes to the royal prerogative on war-making powers are long overdue. It is extremely pleasing to hear the support from the Government Benches and from the Conservatives for something that they flatly rejected when it was proposed by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) not long ago. Even with the provisos that were already in that Bill about morale, operational flexibility and legal liability, it seemed impossible for those on either Front Bench to support even the principle at that stage, so the conversion is welcome.

With reference to the royal prerogative on treaties, I invite the Lord Chancellor to provide a further gloss on what he said about European Union treaties. Where no change in domestic law is required by the treaty, it does not receive line-by-line scrutiny in the House. Some of us believe that any treaty should be subject to the oversight of the House.

On the independence of the judiciary, I welcome the discussion paper on separation of powers—almost, as it would seem, as an academic subject. The large number of examples from other jurisdictions have sparing relevance to our system, but if we can further cement the independence of the judiciary, that is extremely important. What new thinking is apparent on the Government’s part since the last time we visited the issue? After all, we have only just put in place new provisions to strengthen the role of the Lord Chief Justice.

On the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, I note what the Lord Chancellor says about concerns among campaigners and other citizens, and we need to listen to those concerns. May I suggest an innovation to him: that this House actually listens to Members when they raise concerns in the context of the Bill? We fought every inch of the way on the provisions, because we knew exactly what the consequences would be. We would have welcomed the support of those on the Conservative Front Benches in both Houses all the way in arguing against those provisions, but unfortunately we did not receive it. We would apparently have received the support of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) if he had been in the House at the time. His observations, presumably made in his bathroom at home, are extremely welcome in that respect. This legislation is working to suppress the right of free speech and demonstration, and if one wants illustration of that fact, one has only to look at the case of Maya Stevens or the march that took place only the other day with on-off permission from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the threat even to hon. Members of this House that they would not be able—

Order. I thought that I left the stopwatch when I left Rolls-Royce, but I am on a stopwatch now. I must stop the hon. Gentleman, as he is over his time, and be fair to everyone concerned.

Let me just say in respect of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman that the EU treaty will be the subject of both the Ponsonby rule and line-by-line examination, because it does affect our domestic law. The European Communities Act 1972 requires that we examine such Acts in detail.

On the independence of the judiciary, I hope that the House will find international comparisons very interesting. When the document was originally drafted, it was short on discussion of the separation of powers, and it is important that we can put our system in the context of other comparable countries.

On protests around Parliament square, I understand the controversy and I hope that we can reach a better consensus than we have done before, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is not the case that the legislation has been working to “suppress protests”. Notwithstanding that legislation, it is a fact to which I can bear testament that, compared with the time when I was organising quite a number of demonstrations in and around London as president of the National Union of Students, there is far greater freedom in practice to demonstrate around Parliament square while Parliament is sitting—and we still had quite a good time protesting.

On the last point about new thinking in respect of judicial appointments, I think that most of the arrangements set out in the 2005 Act will stand the test of time, but some may need changing.

I welcome the announcement that we will not restrict media access to coroners’ courts, which will certainly be welcomed by Birmingham coroner’s court, which has been arguing for that.

Without having had the benefit of reading the specific contents of the document, I wonder whether the Lord Chancellor can tell me whether he is also considering affirmation hearings on appointments, such as those of high commissioners and ambassadors, carried out by Select Committees, to strengthen accountability to Parliament.

We do not make specific proposals on that issue in these documents. There are proposals, which I discussed with the Liaison Committee not so long ago, for some pre-confirmation hearings in respect of a positions ombudsman, for example. So far there have been no proposals for pre-confirmation hearings in respect of ambassadors and high commissioners.

I welcome the Government’s acceptance of the Constitutional Affairs Committee’s view that freedom of information should not be restricted by new charges and that confirmation hearings for judges would be a bad idea, but why does the consultation paper not take account of the wide extent to which judges, from the Lord Chief Justice down to local magistrates, now appear before the Committee and give valuable evidence? Why was it more urgent to revisit a judicial appointments system that has just been set up than to look at issues such as the post-devolution governance of England, on which the Committee will be taking hearings in the near future?

We look forward to hearing from the right hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee; I think that he would have been complaining if we had pre-empted its sage consideration. As I discussed with his Committee, there are changes, albeit second-order changes, that need to be made in the appointment of the judiciary, not least to slim down the current statutory requirement on me for various decisions which neither I nor the Lord Chief Justice think are necessary.

Does the Lord Chancellor agree that there is all the difference in the world between orderly, peaceful protest in Parliament square, which all of us should uphold, and having a permanent, squalid encampment in Parliament square?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is indeed a difference. Whether the provisions will continue to permit, one way or another, such encampments remains to be decided.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s remarks about a more widely drawn judiciary, but I would like to focus my question on the proposals that he makes in relation to the intelligence and security strategy and the Intelligence and Security Committee. How can we ensure that Parliament focuses more carefully on these issues than it has to date? He is aware, as I am, that the debates are often poorly attended. Has he proposals to ensure better parliamentary scrutiny of these issues, on top of what we heard about in his brief statement?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made proposals for change, particularly to give, as it were, a greater impression of legitimacy to the people who serve on these committees. In my experience of appearing before the Intelligence and Security Committee over a nine-year period, it is in fact a very independent body of parliamentarians. We are ensuring that more information is made available, but ultimately it is for Members of this House to make better use, if I may say so, of the opportunities that are available, including a full day’s debate each year, in respect of the ISC’s work.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that any proposed changes to the governance of the National Audit Office will be proceeded with on a cross-party basis, so that we can ensure the integrity and absolute independence of the Comptroller and Auditor General?

On the day when Sir John Bourn has announced his retirement from his post, may I thank him for 20 years’ unstinting support of the Public Accounts Committee, which I think has ensured that we now have more effective oversight of public moneys than ever before in our history?

I want to endorse the hon. Gentleman’s last remarks. The answer to his first question is yes.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and particularly the announcements about freedom of information. I also welcome the fact that there will be a review about protests in Parliament square, because I think that it is important that the Government recognise that there has been an issue about them. Does he agree that how the consultation is carried out is very important? If we are to change the nature of the relationship between the citizen and Parliament, and between Parliament and the Government, is it not important that the citizen is involved in the consultation right from the beginning? Does he have any new ideas about how we can reach out to citizens to get them involved in this process?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of involving people better in the decisions. There are proposals that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced on 3 July, which we are developing and some of which we have already used, for formal arrangements. I know that they are the subject of some mockery by the Opposition, but they can work and have done so, as I have personally seen in relation to citizens juries, for example, which really can make a difference.

I also say to my hon. Friend that each of us has our own responsibility to talk to our constituents about these matters and to seek their views. I do that on a regular basis, not least in my open air meetings in the centre of Blackburn, where I did so last Saturday and two weeks before. I am happy to give Members on both sides of the House advance notice of when I will be there, and to entertain them with a cup of coffee after they have listened to me. They can have the same rights as citizens of Blackburn to put me to proof on any issue that they wish. I find that there is real appetite, surprisingly enough, for discussing issues about how our democracy should work better, not least among the young. The development of youth parliamentarians and youth MPs in every constituency has been very encouraging indeed.

My right hon. Friend made brief mention of the progress of the discussions on the reform of the House of Lords. Will he give more detail on how they are going and an indication of when he expects them to conclude? So that we do not lose the impetus of the overwhelming vote in this House for elections to the House of Lords, will he ensure that if we do not get agreement in the all-party discussions, the matter will be brought back to the House early so that we can move things further forward?

I made a detailed report to the House in an oral statement just before the summer recess. The all-party talks are taking place against the background and in the context of the clear decisions, made on an all-party basis in this House in early March, in favour of an 80 per cent. elected or 100 per cent. elected House of Lords and against all other options. That is the clear decision of this House. In that context, and given that all three parties support a wholly or mainly elected House of Lords, I hope that we can reach agreement on the many issues that make up the dossier.

May I put it to the Lord Chancellor that although his occasional busking at the Dispatch Box is attractive, constant noise from protesters in Parliament square is not? I underline what my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said: there can surely be a happy compromise between the freedom to demonstrate in Parliament square—that is essential—and not having a permanent protest site. I ask the Lord Chancellor to stress to the Home Secretary that the consultation period should be relatively brief and that legislation should be brought forward as quickly as possible. I would strongly support appropriate legislation.

I should have said that the consultation period on all the documents ends on 17 January, so it is pretty brief. I entirely understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. My rooms have always faced Parliament square, and I find it difficult to conduct some meetings. I applaud the right to protest; as the House knows, I have used it myself on many occasions.

How does the hon. Gentleman know that? I shall give him my biography later. I have protested rather more recently than that; we regularly marched against the terrible Conservative Government. I have not marched against this Government, however.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point and hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary does too.

Are we actually at war in Iraq? The Lord Chancellor says that he wants to look at extending the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to a range of organisations that perform public functions. No greater public function is performed than that by the media. Does he think that the 2000 Act should be extended generally to the media, so that we can get an answer to the famous question: quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Indeed; I once wrote a long essay on that, but it was in English.

The document makes it clear that the last time that we formally declared war was in 1942, although we have been involved in many armed conflicts since the second world war: 16,000 British service personnel have lost their lives since. The document deals with the issues about the definitions. Plainly, the rights of this House to make decisions on armed conflict go beyond any formal declaration of war.

Given the Government’s keenness to involve the citizen in the wider debate, does he see merit in the proposal to build on the experience of citizens juries and create a citizens convention supported by Members on both sides of the House? Given the parallel debate on the constitutional future of Scotland and Wales, launched by the respective First Ministers, will the Government involve the devolved Administrations in the wider debate about the future governance of Britain?

The answer to the second question is yes. I gave advance information about the contents of the document “The Governance of Britain”, although not of these documents, to the First Ministers and colleagues in Northern Ireland on 3 July. We are actively seeking the views of the devolved Administrations—the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. There is no question about that.

Earlier this week, I spelt out to the House of Lords Constitution Committee why we are not in favour of a citizens convention to determine such matters. There is no direct parallel with the convention that did important work in Scotland and the parallel consultations in Wales. The Scottish convention was necessary because at the time there was no Scottish Parliament. There had to be some legitimated but necessarily informal body to do the job that would otherwise be done by the Parliament; the situation was similar in respect of the arrangements for Wales.

We have a people’s convention; it is called the British House of Commons. It is vital that any key decisions on our constitutional arrangements be made here. I do not believe that we should subcontract decisions to a parallel Parliament. However, the decisions that in the end we have a responsibility to make should be far better informed by vigorous debate and pressure from outside—from British citizens.

The Lord Chancellor makes a great deal of democracy. Does he agree that given the reform treaty—[Interruption.] Oh yes, indeed. Given the reform treaty or any other that creates substantial constitutional change, does the Lord Chancellor agree that another convention should be applied? Not only should such a treaty go through Parliament—where, of course, it will be rammed through by the Whips—but it should be subject to a referendum of the people as a whole, for we hold our position on trust from them.

I have a bet at Ladbrokes, with extremely generous odds, on whether at any stage in the next 10 years the hon. Gentleman will ask any question of the Treasury Bench that does not mention the word “Europe”. Sadly, despite the generous odds, I have still not collected any winnings, because I have never heard him ask any question whatever that does not get on to the issue of Europe. Public conveniences in Staffordshire would—[Interruption.] The answer to the question—[Interruption.] Well, I have given the hon. Gentleman so many answers to the question and I never satisfy him; it is very sad. The hon. Gentleman knows the answer; I do not know why he asked the damn question. I apologise; I withdraw that intemperate word.

Yes, I do. It is that we are the party that pioneered the use of referendums in particular circumstances. We do not believe that that one is appropriate for the EU reform treaty. The only thing that would satisfy the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is a decision made by this House; if he got his party on board and it won an election on such a manifesto, it could happen. I am talking about a decision to repeal the European Communities Act 1972. This House and the other place made the decision to join the European Union; this House and the other place, with or without a referendum—I suggest that one would be useful and desirable in such circumstances—could make a decision to withdraw from the European Union. That is the hon. Gentleman’s policy, not that of those on the Conservative Front Bench. That is his problem.

Does the Lord Chancellor recognise that many hon. Members on both sides of the House would not have voted for the war on Iraq if they had known then what we know now? As we consider our war-making powers between now and the end of the consultation period in January, should the House not have an opportunity to debate how we can avoid collectively misdirecting ourselves again in that way, and how the House can be better informed about such decisions before we again erroneously commit people to war?

We will have to have another occasion to debate the justification for military action in respect of Iraq on 18 March 2003. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman, who voted for it, I think—I certainly did; if he did not, I apologise—that the House as a whole voted for it by a very large majority.

I have thought about this a very great deal. As far as I am concerned, on the basis of the information that was then available, which was the only information that could have been available at the time, the decision to take military action was justified. I am happy to discuss that in another place. Whatever criticism is made of the Government and their decision, every effort was made to involve this House, not on one occasion but on four, through substantive motions. I believe that we have to learn lessons from what happened, one of which is how much more detail should be available about both the intelligence and the defence case for any military action. Also the House has to come to a view about whether, and in what circumstances, it needs formal written legal advice, and if so from whom, if there is any question of a challenge to the legality of any proposition for military action.

Does the Lord Chancellor accept that when we exercise our right to free speech, whether in this Chamber or in public places such as Parliament square, that does not confer an unlimited right to shout and bawl one’s message using amplification equipment in a deliberate attempt to disturb other people? Is he aware that when that happens, in breach of the over-generous permission already given to the protesters by Westminster council, there is nothing the police can do about it other than retrospectively take the perpetrators to court? That is because the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 removed the power of the police to cross the road, take the equipment away and stop the people from breaking the rules. Will he address that loophole?

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will indeed address that issue. If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman makes a rather important and wider point. I commend a lecture that I am giving at the university of Cambridge later on today.

I think that the hon. Gentleman may have discovered that on his desk there is a little box called a computer; if it is working, I will send him an e-mail.

The point that I make in my speech, which is by no means original, is that rights have to go with obligations, and privileges with duties, and that we need to do more to ensure that that side of the equation is better understood.

I thank the Lord Chancellor for his statement. I particularly welcome his comment that his motivation for much of his activity as a student was enjoyment—I always thought so, as did many others, and I am grateful for his honesty.

When I wrote to the Home Secretary about Parliament square and the insulting behaviour thrown at Members as they leave this place, particularly at the then Prime Minister, I was told that local government powers stood very much in the way of taking further action. The Lord Chancellor will obviously take that into account. Will he talk to local government people to ensure that they do not get in the way of the actions that he wants to take on this occasion?

I understand and am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments, which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, whose happy task it is to conduct this review, will certainly bear in mind. Having been Home Secretary when we had the Stop the City protests, which were very violent and disruptive—on one occasion people dug up the whole of Parliament square—I discovered that the legal ownership of that piece of land is a nightmare, as different bits of it belong to different owners with different rights in respect of it. If I might make my own suggestion to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, one of the things that we have to ensure is that any new legal framework in respect of demonstrations there takes proper account of those legal ownership issues.

The Lord Chancellor said that the Prime Minister is making a statement elsewhere about the freedom of information request, and that the charges will not be tightened. If it is not a secret, could the Lord Chancellor tell us what were the pros and cons of that decision?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is indeed making a speech elsewhere shortly. One reason why I made this statement in advance of his speech is his concern, and mine, that this House should be the first to know of the substance of what he says—not the whole speech, as that would run over the allocations that we have agreed with Mr. Speaker.

On freedom of information fees, there was a proposal that the definition of excessive time taken should be extended, and that some relatively minimal fees should be introduced in respect of data protection. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will announce, as a supplement to the announcement that I have made in this House, that we are not intending to proceed with those restrictions, nor with the fee.