With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about our programme of constitutional renewal. With this statement are published a White Paper, the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, and an analysis of the responses to our consultations. Copies of these are available in the Vote Office and on my Ministry’s website.
The accountability of Government is fundamental to the health of our democracy. Arbitrary action and lack of transparency can undermine that. But for decades the royal prerogative has been used by successive Governments to sustain Executive power. Last July, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced his determination that the Government he leads would reverse this process and surrender significant Executive powers to Parliament, or otherwise limit them. Following my right hon. Friend’s July statement and the accompanying “The Governance of Britain” Green Paper, five consultation papers were issued. I am grateful to all who responded to them. We have taken account of their views in the White Paper and in the draft Bill.
The draft Bill is in five parts. The first relates to protest around Parliament. In July, the Prime Minister undertook to consult widely on managing protests around Parliament to ensure that the people’s right to protest was not subject to unnecessary restrictions. Accordingly, in the light of the consultations, clause 1 of the draft Bill proposes the repeal of sections 132 to 138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. Our view is that Parliament itself is best placed to decide what needs to be secured to ensure that Members of both Houses are able freely to discharge their responsibilities. We invite the views of Parliament on whether additional provision is needed to keep open the passages leading to the Palace of Westminster and to ensure that, for example, excessive noise is not used to disrupt the working of Parliament.
Part 2 of the Bill deals with the Attorney-General. It sets out major reforms to the role of the Attorney-General and to the management of prosecutions, to make the arrangements more transparent and to enhance public confidence. The proposals involve recasting the relationship between the Attorney-General and the prosecuting authorities. In particular, the Attorney-General will cease to have any power to give directions to prosecutors in individual cases, save in certain exceptional cases which give rise to issues of national security. The Attorney-General will have to report to Parliament on any exercise of that power. Under clause 3, a protocol will set out how the Attorney-General and the prosecuting authorities are to exercise their functions in relation to each other. This will be laid before Parliament, as will an annual report. We do not propose changing the Attorney-General’s role as chief legal adviser to the Government, or his or her attendance at Cabinet.
Part 3 builds on the significant reforms introduced by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Falconer to reinforce the independence of the judiciary. The Bill proposes to remove the Prime Minister entirely from the making of judicial appointments, and the Lord Chancellor from making appointments below the High Court.
Part 4 makes it a statutory requirement that treaties must be laid before both Houses of Parliament before ratification. If this House were then to vote against the ratification of a treaty, the Government could not proceed to ratify it. Although it is obviously a matter for Parliament, the White Paper suggests that a valuable role could be played by Committees of either or both Houses in the scrutiny of treaties prior to ratification. I should just say, Mr. Speaker, that none of these proposals affects the current arrangements for European Union or tax treaties, which are already the subject of elaborate statutory procedures.
Part 5 will for the first time put the civil service on a statutory footing by enshrining the core values of the civil service—impartiality, integrity, honesty and objectivity—into law, as well as the historic principle of appointment on merit. The Bill makes provision for special advisers and the civil service commission. The Bill has benefited from detailed comments on the draft Civil Service Bill in 2004 and from the work of the Public Administration Committee, for whose help I am very grateful.
I now turn to the other key proposals in the White Paper. The first is war powers. There was a widespread welcome in July for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s proposals that the Government should limit the Executive’s powers to deploy Her Majesty’s armed forces into conflict situations. As well as from those who responded to the consultation document, we have benefited from earlier Select Committee reports from both Houses. In the event, there was significant support for the recommendations from the House of Lords Constitution Committee.
What we are proposing is that Parliament’s role should be both enshrined and guaranteed by a resolution of this House. A detailed draft of that resolution is set out for consideration on pages 53 to 56 of the White Paper. It would require the Prime Minister of the day to seek this House’s approval before deciding to commit forces to armed conflict abroad. It would also require him to lay a report before the House in advance of any decision, setting out the terms of approval sought and information about the objectives and legal matters relating to the proposed armed conflict. Exceptions are proposed in respect of emergencies and operational secrecy, with a requirement in such cases to inform, but not to seek retrospective approval. Special forces would be exempt from any of those provisions. Those changes, if agreed, would define for the first time a clear role for Parliament in the most critical of all decisions to face a nation, while ensuring that our nation’s security was not compromised.
Last July’s “The Governance of Britain” Green Paper contained proposals on increasing parliamentary scrutiny of some key public appointments. Since then, that matter has been considered by the Liaison Committee and we will respond to its recommendations shortly. On the dissolution and recall of Parliament, proposals have already been made to the Modernisation Committee, and we look forward to hearing its views in due course.
Last Wednesday, in his statement on the national security strategy, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:
“We will…immediately go ahead to introduce a resolution of both Houses—in advance of any future legislation—that will enshrine an enhanced scrutiny and public role for the Intelligence and Security Committee.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 926.]
The White Paper sets out the proposed arrangements.
There are other matters relating to Executive prerogative powers, the first of which is passports. The Government are committed to reviewing the prerogative power with regard to issuing passports, and draft legislation will soon be published. We are also reviewing the remaining Executive prerogative powers—for example, the prerogative to grant mercy. The Government will consider the outcome of that work and how we plan to proceed, and obviously, we will inform the House.
The Government remain profoundly committed to the establishment of the Church of England and greatly value the role played by the Church in our national life. Appointments to senior Church positions will continue to be made by Her Majesty the Queen, who should continue to be advised on the exercise of her powers by one of her Ministers, usually the Prime Minister. We are very grateful to the General Synod for its proposals at its February meeting on how new appointments procedures should work, and we are discussing future long-term arrangements with the Church.
The Government received more than 300 responses to the consultation on the flying of the Union Flag—
Not all of them were from the hon. Member for Romford, but as the House knows, I was extremely happy to join him in his campaign, and have made my own contribution to it.
In line with the majority of responses, we have decided that the interim change made to the guidance to allow Government Departments to fly the Union flag from their buildings whenever they wish should now become permanent. There are no plans to change the arrangements for flag flying in Northern Ireland.
Good law is imperative for accessible and modern constitutional arrangements. For 40 years the Law Commission has played a vital role in that respect, but I intend to strengthen its role by placing a statutory duty on the Lord Chancellor to report annually to Parliament on the Government’s intentions regarding outstanding Law Commission recommendations, and providing a statutory backing for the arrangements underpinning the way in which Government should work with the Law Commission. Those changes sit alongside those announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House last week, which will strengthen the scrutiny of laws after they have been enacted by Parliament.
Discussions in the cross-party working group on reform of the House of Lords are proceeding well, and we are on track to publish a White Paper before the summer recess. In the coming months we will publish a Green Paper on a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and on the values that should bind us together as citizens.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced today, Professor Sir Kenneth Calman has agreed to serve as chair of a commission to review the Scotland Act 1998. Such a commission was proposed in, and approved by a majority of, the Scottish Parliament. The Government welcome their support for the aim of strengthening devolution and securing Scotland’s place in the Union, and we are giving our full backing to the cross-border, cross-party review.
The proposals in the White Paper and the draft Bill go to the heart of how power should be exercised in a modern democracy. They are not a final blueprint, but part of a much wider Government programme to secure a new constitutional settlement. They will strengthen the role of Parliament in our democracy, for it is Parliament, the seat of our democracy, that is central to this programme of constitutional renewal.
I commend my statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for Justice for early sight of his statement. There is much in the Government’s proposals with which we can agree. We welcome measures to strengthen the autonomy of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and to place on a statutory basis the rules governing ratification of treaties. We also welcome—seven years after the Government’s commitment to it—legislation to put the civil service on a statutory footing, as recommended by our democracy taskforce, but why will the Government not go further and place a statutory cap on the number of special advisers? And, although pre-appointment scrutiny hearings by Select Committees would be welcome, should not Parliament be strengthened further, not least by the ability to set its own timetable, so that we can scrutinise legislation properly?
The decision to commit troops to conflict is one of the most important that a nation can take. Last May we tabled a motion to require parliamentary approval for substantial deployments of troops into conflict. I welcome the fact that the Government now accept that principle, but when prior approval cannot be sought, why should there not be a mechanism for securing retrospective approval?
In a democracy, citizens should have the right to make their views known peacefully to those who govern them. The Government’s laws restricting the right to protest around Parliament caused widespread disquiet, and we welcome plans to repeal them, but can the Government say more about how they plan to ensure that while peaceful protest is protected, demonstrations that disrupt the operation of Parliament are not?
We welcome the commitment to introduce greater clarity into the relationship between the Attorney-General and the prosecution directors, but it is also proposed to end the requirement for the Attorney-General to give consent for a wide range of prosecutions. How is accountability to be preserved if that role is removed from the Attorney-General?
An independent judiciary is at the core of our liberty. Reducing the influence of the Executive on judicial appointments is welcome, but does the Justice Secretary agree that the principle of judicial independence is harmed when Ministers seek to influence the sentencing decisions of judges and magistrates—for instance, by urging them not to imprison offenders because the jails are full?
In a newspaper article today, the Prime Minister said that the Justice Secretary would today be “consulting throughout the country” on a statement of values and the British Bill of rights and duties—but in his statement the Justice Secretary said that a Green Paper will be published over the coming months. Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify when this process will begin? Will it do so today, as the Prime Minister suggested, or over the coming months?
Will the Justice Secretary also tell us whether, as was reported yesterday, he plans to consult on alternative voting systems for the Commons, and compulsory voting, and if so, when? Does the Justice Secretary agree that the electoral system should never be reformed for partisan political purposes?
The Prime Minister also wrote today in support of the Union, but is it not the case that unbalanced devolution has unleashed the forces of nationalism? So far, the Government’s answer has been to fly flags on Government buildings. Will the Calman commission, announced today, address the real issue of concern, which is the still unanswered West Lothian question?
When the Prime Minister announced his ideas for constitutional reform last July, he spoke about rebuilding trust in democracy. Since then, he has refused the referendum that he promised on the EU constitution. How can trust be rebuilt if such important promises are broken? Is it not the case that the relationship between the people and politicians is seriously damaged, and that it will require more to repair our broken politics than the measures announced today?
When more and more decisions are being taken centrally—not here in Parliament, but in Whitehall—is not the real need to return power to individuals and communities, so that people have a genuine say over decisions that affect them? Why are we not giving citizens the power to initiate debates in this House and have new laws tabled? Is there not a pressing need both for measures to ensure transparency in how we as politicians account for ourselves and our spending to the electorate, and to put an end to the culture of spin, which has so gravely undermined trust in politics? If the Government continue to shy away from real change, is not the danger that measures such as those announced today will be seen as worthy but inadequate?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the welcome he gave to the proposals, but let me say in response to his slight chiding—that civil service reform has taken a little time, for example—that we have acted on a vast range of constitutional changes, in contrast to the Conservative Administration, who over 18 years did absolutely nothing in respect of any such changes. Also, on the issue of the Union, his history is wrong. The devolution settlement in 1998 was to bind the Union and provide legitimate transfer of power from this place to the devolved Administrations of Scotland and Wales. It was not the devolution Acts in 1998 that drove nationalism; it was the poll tax in 1987, which fuelled it to an astonishing extent and led to a situation in which Scotland became a Conservative-free zone, although the Conservatives had had 50 per cent. of the votes and seats some decades before.
The hon. Gentleman asked me some specific questions; for example, he asked about special advisers. The draft Bill is for consultation by this House; we have a view about whether there should be a limit, but let us hear what the House has to say.
As for retrospective approval where there has been an operational need for a decision to go into armed conflict to be made in secrecy, or where other operational matters have been involved, we have thought about that a great deal. Ultimately, it should be a matter for this House, but there are genuine problems—for example, if, when troops have already been committed to a theatre, there is then a big question about whether the action will subsequently be approved. We hope that, aside from operations by special forces, occasions when there is a total emergency and this country needs to undertake major armed conflict in secrecy are likely to be very few and far between. I cannot think of any such example over the past 20 years. That was why we came to the judgment that we did, but let us hear what the House has to say.
All I would say about access to this House is that the Sessional Orders used to work very satisfactorily. When I was organising demonstrations myself a few years ago, they were certainly enforced by the public order office in respect of the organisations for which I was responsible. [Interruption.]
No, I was never arrested.
The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) raises an important point on consent to prosecutions, but we cannot have it both ways. It is proposed that the requirement for the Attorney-General to give consent to a series of prosecutions should, in general, be removed. If we want to make prosecutors more independent, we must bite that bullet. Ultimately, the choice will be one for this House and the other place, but we cannot have things both ways. The Attorney-General will still be accountable for the broad operation and management of the prosecution service, and I think that that is appropriate.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about voting systems. I think he was directly quoting me, because although I claim no monopoly on the view, I have always said that we should never change the voting system for partisan purposes. That has been the practice in one or two European countries, usually with disastrous consequences for the parties doing the proposing. We published a review of voting systems. Personally, I am profoundly committed to single-Member constituencies. I have always thought that there is much to be said on both sides, whether we are talking about first past the post or the alternative vote, particularly as we now have multiple candidates, as opposed to the situation in the 1950s when there were normally simply two candidates.
Let me make it clear that we are against making it a criminal offence not to vote. We need to address the issue of how we can raise turnout at elections, and there is a case for there to be a general non-enforceable duty for people to vote, as part of their understanding of their responsibilities as citizens; we are consulting on that. On citizens’ powers, I merely say to the hon. Gentleman that when I was Leader of the House we put forward radical proposals to the Procedure Committee for improving how the petitions system works so that matters could be triggered in this House. It was a matter for the Procedure Committee that they came to a different view from some of us on the Modernisation Committee.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, particularly his comment that this is not the final blueprint. I ask him to include provision for the abolition of the Act of Settlement, because it discriminates directly against Roman Catholics. That is legalised sectarianism, which has no role to play in the 21st century.
Let me say to my hon. Friend that I speak on behalf of the Prime Minister: because of the position that Her Majesty occupies as head of the Anglican Church, this is a rather more complicated matter than might be anticipated. We are certainly ready to consider it, and I fully understand that my hon. Friend, many on both sides of the House and thousands outside it, see that provision as antiquated.
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement. Will he acknowledge that although some aspects of it are welcome—for example, the abolition of the absurd restrictions on demonstrating around Parliament—much of what he has said will be seen as tentative first steps and half measures?
It is right that the Attorney-General should not give direction on individual prosecutions, and should give only general policy guidance that is open and on the record. However, does the Secretary of State not accept that as long as the Attorney-General retains a broad, unaccountable power to stop prosecutions on grounds of national security, the public will not be reassured about, for example, the shameful events surrounding the dropping of the BAE Systems case? Why will the Attorney-General still have a power to stop prosecutions related to terrorism? Is it not important to fight terrorism on the basis of fighting crime, in a context that has nothing to do with political decisions?
The proposals on not releasing the Attorney-General’s legal opinions are especially poignant, given that later today we will debate the Iraq war. There is a strong case for confidentiality while policy is being formulated, but when the Government rely on that legal advice in a parliamentary debate, Parliament should see the real thing. It is not enough for the Government merely to promise not to mislead Parliament.
On treaty ratification, the Government are again taking a step in the right direction, but given their tight grip on the business of the House, does not the proposal mean that there will be a vote in the House only if the Government want one?
On the proposal to put the civil service on a statutory footing, there will be quiet rejoicing in many discreet quarters, but—again, on the day of a debate on Iraq—why are the Government to make an exception so that MI5 and MI6 officers will not be bound by duties of impartiality and objectivity? Surely one central lesson of Iraq is that never again should Government policy dictate intelligence.
On the limiting of the Prime Minister’s power to call early elections, which was given short shrift in the statement, I invite the Government to clear up the whole mess by supporting my Fixed Term Parliaments Bill.
Is not the main problem with the statement that it is nibbling at the edges of constitutional reform? Our political system is broken and people are losing faith in politics. That means that if we do nothing about it, they will lose faith in democracy itself. This House is at the heart of the problem, being elected in so unrepresentative a way that all Governments start out as unpopular, and usually get worse. As in 1832, and many times since, reform must start with the way in which this House is elected.
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s criticisms of the changes. These are major and significant changes, and it has fallen to this reforming Government to introduce them, when no changes of any constitutional significance were introduced by the previous Administration.
In response to the hon. Gentleman’s points about the Attorney-General, it is our judgment that it is appropriate and proper, and in the national interest, that there should be a power for someone to make difficult and sometimes unwelcome decisions to protect national security. It is important that whoever is in that position should be accountable. Far from the Attorney-General being unaccountable, our proposals mean that they would be more accountable than they are today, and there would be greater clarity about their distinctive role.
On the issue of the Attorney-General’s legal advice, my belief is that, as with any legal advice in any circumstances, it has to be given on the basis of legal professional privilege, but there is certainly a case—as referred to in the draft resolution on pages 53 to 56 of the proposals—for the Prime Minister of the day to be required to provide information on the legal issues relating to any proposal for armed conflict, and that is what we propose.
On treaty ratification, there will have to be a vote. We are not proposing to use the negative resolution procedure. Either the treaty will be approved on the nod or there will be a vote. If there is a vote against a treaty ratification the treaty cannot be ratified by the Government, and that is a major shift of power to this House.
I wondered how long it would take the Liberals to get on to proportional representation as a solution to all our problems. They have been banging on about that ever since the 1923 election, when they ceased to be the second party and became the third party. Before they became the third party, they were in favour of first past the post and single-Member constituencies. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman examine other countries that have proportional representation, because they have more problems with the operation of their democracy than we do.
Can my right hon. Friend elaborate on the proposals in the White Paper for the accountability of the Intelligence and Security Committee? As he knows, at the moment it is appointed by the Prime Minister and reports to the Prime Minister. Is it intended that it should be appointed by this House and report to this House?
These arrangements—as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spelled out, they are in advance of any legislative changes—are set out at the back of the White Paper. The proposed changes would be consistent with the provisions of the Intelligence Services Act 1994, so that under the proposal, which is a halfway house, it would be for the Committee of Selection to make recommendations about the Members of each House who should sit on the Committee. They would then have to be approved by the Prime Minister of the day, however, because that is what the Act says. The implication is that, as an interim measure, that would give this House and the other place much greater control over membership of the Committee than they have now.
I welcome proposals to reform the Crown prerogative. Too many powers that should rightfully rest with elected members of this legislature have come to reside with unelected officials and with the quango state. Will the Bill allow Select Committees to ratify with public hearings the appointments of senior civil servants and quango chiefs, and if not, why not?
The proposals on public appointments of key officials are not in the Bill. They are proposed for non-legislative changes through discussions with the Liaison Committee, but this is a consultative process, and we are happy to hear opinions from all parts of the House.
May I refer to the issue of judicial appointments? Is it not a fact that, like this country, nearly every other major country has significant political input in the appointment of judges, either from the legislature or the Executive, for the very good reason that public opinion needs to be able to influence the culture of the judiciary? Is not the alternative to have lawyers appointing judges, which would be quite unacceptable? We would have a self-perpetuating, out-of-touch, arrogant oligarchy in the judiciary, which would be very damaging to public confidence in the judiciary and in democracy.
It is rare for me to demur from my right hon. Friend’s opinions, but on this occasion I do so. I do not accept his description of today’s judiciary. In 2005 the House agreed—and so did the other place—major changes to the appointments of the judiciary so that the role of Lord Chancellor was very much diminished, and quite right too.[Interruption.] Not in every sense. There is now an independent Judicial Appointments Commission, which has the primary role. Judges are also, funnily enough, human beings. They are members of society and are acutely aware of the responsibility that they bear to society.
Although I welcome the fact that the Government have moved much closer to the position of the former Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs on the role of the Attorney-General, why is the Attorney-General to retain the power to stop on grounds of national security not merely prosecutions but investigations by the Serious Fraud Office? Will the Attorney-General also retain the consent to prosecution under the honours legislation of the 1920s? As those were the two issues that most inflamed debate on the Attorney-General’s role, is that not a bit too much of a coincidence and too much like back doors being deliberately left open?
On the latter point, I do not think that that is the case, but I shall certainly look at the matter. The aim of all of us involved in the discussions has been to reduce the Attorney-General’s discretion over prosecutions and investigations to a necessary minimum that is basically to do with national security.
On the point about BAE Systems, it is worth reminding the House that it was the head of the Serious Fraud Office who decided to withdraw from the investigation, not formally the Attorney-General. We all accept that there must be clarity, but I also believe that the case for the Attorney-General to have a power to make decisions in the national interest, on the basis of national security, is important.
So far, so excellent, but will my right hon. Friend also include in his constitutional proposals the improvement of the Executive’s accountability to the legislature? In particular, will he put in place arrangements to ensure that Select Committee members are elected by secret ballot among non-Executive Members from across the House, in accordance with party quotas? Will he also ensure that Select Committees reports—or at least some of them, by agreement with the Liaison Committee—are debated and voted on, on the Floor of the House on a substantive motion?
I shall quit while I am ahead as far as my right hon. Friend’s compliments are concerned.
The way in which Select Committee members are chosen has been debated often. Having been involved in the other process from time to time, I am not sure that it produced more balanced Select Committees or provided more opportunity for those who sometimes disagree with their party Whips than the current arrangements. The process that my right hon. Friend sets out would need the most contorted and complicated system of proportional representation for each party. No doubt that would be welcomed by the Liberal Democrats, but it would not be welcomed by anyone else.
The House will have heard that the Justice Secretary believes that, when it comes to flag flying, the people of Northern Ireland should be treated as children of a lesser god. Will he tell the House the rationale behind the Government’s decision on this matter? Does he believe that the flag may not be universally cherished in Northern Ireland? If so, will that have implications elsewhere in the kingdom?
The reason for the Government’s decision is obvious, and it is not the one that the hon. Gentleman mentions. As everyone knows, the two communities in Northern Ireland have been seriously divided. The best advice that we received was that we should maintain the current arrangements for Northern Ireland.
This is a welcome and important package of measures that will play an important part in our constitutional history. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that it would be greatly enhanced if the Government added to it parliamentary confirmation of important executive offices? Among the obvious candidates for that confirmation would be the chief executives of the Child Support Agency and the Benefits Agency, the chairman of the BBC, the Governor of the Bank of England, and the members of the Monetary Policy Committee.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his broad welcome for the proposals. A procedure is already in place whereby the Treasury Committee considers Bank of England appointments. The current proposals are non-statutory, as I said a moment ago, but we will listen carefully to what hon. Members of all parties say. I should also have said that we have proposed that a Joint Committee comprised of Members of both Houses be set up to scrutinise the Bill that will be introduced.
As one who believes that this Executive have done more to sideline Parliament and the legislature than any other in recent history, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will take at least one step to dismiss our scepticism to some degree? Will he give an undertaking that, in future, Bills will not be timetabled automatically, at the Government’s diktat?
I am sorry to say that I cannot oblige the hon. Gentleman in that regard. I have been here almost as long as he has, and I do not accept that the House is less active than it used to be. It is much more active than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, although the fact that no Government since the 1970s have had a small majority has inevitably changed the nature of the House. There is also hugely more in the way of scrutiny today. Select Committees were established by the Conservative Government of the 1980s, but they have been strengthened by us and are much more active. There are also many more parliamentary questions: there were 6,000 written questions a year in the 1960s, but there were 90,000 last year. There is much greater scrutiny of Government than there ever was in the past.
I welcome the further statement on policy on war powers, but does the Justice Secretary agree that in practice we need to know all the details of the new process before we can know whether there has been any significant shift of authority to this House, or new constraints on the Government, particularly with regard to whether parliamentary approval will be asked for at a time when events can still be influenced? Does he accept that recent practice has been to deny until the last possible moment that any decision has been taken to enter into conflict, while vast deployments of troops are made and undertakings are given to allies? Will the resolution provide that as soon as a decision is taken to move troops to an area of potential conflict, where conflict is one of the options, it will be necessary to get parliamentary approval?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. I hope that he will examine the draft resolution, and I hope that the Joint Committee that we propose to establish will do so, too. In my judgment, the resolution will move the role of the House beyond existing conventions, such as that which we sought to establish on Iraq, and will change the way in which the Government will operate, internally, where there is consideration of an armed conflict. That is what I want, personally, not least as a result of my experience in respect of Iraq and Afghanistan. The purpose of putting this set of proposals before the House today—this also applies to the draft Bill, although the proposal in question is in the White Paper—is to have them tested properly by the House and the other place, so that we can see whether they will fulfil the purpose we describe.
I welcome the range of proposals in the White Paper, particularly those that strengthen the role of Parliament. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the legitimacy of Parliament depends on how and when elections are conducted. In “The Governance of Britain” Green Paper, it was suggested that there would be consultations on weekend voting. Is it his intention that the consultations will result in the inclusion of the possibility of weekend voting in the legislation that will be brought forward?
The answer is that we are consulting on weekend voting. There is much evidence that if voting takes place over a more extended period, turnout is likely to be higher, all other things being equal. I cannot give my hon. Friend a firm commitment that the measure will be in the Bill when it comes before Parliament in its final form, but we are looking for an early legislative opportunity, if the measure is what the public want.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that part 4 of the Bill wraps up the discussions and exchanges that we had about a year ago on whether or not treaty can prevail against statute—in other words, that treaty cannot prevail against statute? Secondly, why did he say in his statement, “If this House were then to vote against the ratification of a treaty, the Government could not proceed to ratify it”? Does that exclude the House of Lords? Of course, I am not thinking of any particular treaty.
The hon. Gentleman and I have bored for Britain on the interesting issue that the Karlsruhe federal constitutional court raised called “competence versus competence.” The proposal will at least ensure that any treaty is ratified by a statutory process of this Parliament. The current proposal is that, since we have to allow for the possibility—hopefully remote—of a stand-off between this place and the other place, it should be the elected House that decides.
The Canadian Parliament debated and voted on the decision to send 2,500 troops to Helmand province. In a non-emergency situation in April 2006, we decided to send what is now 7,800 troops to Helmand province without a debate or a vote in Parliament. In the spirit of the very welcome document before us, is it not time that we debated the mission in Helmand?
I will certainly pass on to my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House my hon. Friend’s specific request. To return to the question asked by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), it is in respect of such conflict in Helmand that the change, if accepted by the House, would in my judgment make a significant difference to decision making in the Government and to the House’s authority.
I am quite surprised that there is so little about Scotland in the constitutional paper, given the unanswered West Lothian question and the ridiculous remarks by the Prime Minister in The Daily Telegraph today. We have learned that Sir Kenneth Calman is to chair the constitutional commission, but how can the Scottish people have any faith in an initiative that ignores the central question of Scottish independence, and bypasses legitimate Scottish government? As a democrat, surely the Justice Secretary agrees that anything proposed by the commission must be tested by the Scottish people with all other constitutional options.
It might be a good idea if the hon. Gentleman recognised the legitimacy of the majority of the Scottish Parliament, who voted entirely voluntarily to establish the review; all the Unionist parties voted in favour of it. We are responding to that request from a democratically elected Scottish Parliament.
The right hon. Gentleman’s proposals that the Executive should yield power to Parliament would be even more impressive if the votes in the House were a free, unwhipped expression of opinion. Does he not concur with the advice that I give all my Back-Bench colleagues that all votes in the House are free? Furthermore, when the Whips seek to impress on me their own will, I tell them—and I hope that he agrees—that it is none of their business, and they should not interfere with the constitutional duty of Members of Parliament to vote in accordance with their own judgment.
He didn’t say that when he was a Whip!
The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) has taken the words out of my mouth. This is a latter-day Pauline conversion, because I remember the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) going around arm-twisting Conservative Members while taking the Queen’s shilling as a Government Whip. Now that he is an unguided missile on the Conservative Back Benches he has changed his opinion. He is entitled to do so, but government would be difficult to operate under any party without any whipping.
I do not understand what the Prime Minister said last week on the Intelligence and Security Committee, which was reiterated this afternoon by the Justice Secretary in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). It is a minute adjustment—a ritualistic change—as the nominated members have to go before the Committee of Selection, but they still have to be approved by the Prime Minister. I do not understand the problem: why does the Justice Secretary not legislate to create parliamentary oversight of security and intelligence, so that instead of a spook providing the secretariat, the Clerk of the House of Commons does so? All the members should be appointed on the same basis as members are appointed to the Select Committee on Transport, the Foreign Affairs Committee or the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. What is the problem? Why does he not trust Parliament?
The Government’s proposals are set out on pages 59 to 61 of the White Paper. Last Wednesday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that we would introduce a resolution of the House for change in advance of any future legislation. I take my hon. Friend’s remarks and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) as strong representations that there should be such legislation.
On part 1 of the Bill, although no one would object to orderly and peaceful demonstrations in Parliament square, many people object to permanent, unsightly encampments in the middle of a great, historic city. Will the Bill put that right?
I understand that there are strong feelings about that. Those encampments are unsightly, but they also represent people exercising a right to demonstrate. The changes in the law have not been conspicuously successful—[Interruption.] It is no good pointing at me; I am not the police. The changes in the law have not been conspicuously successful in dealing with the problem, and they have appeared to be pretty heavy- handed as well, so better arrangements are needed. Let us see what the House has to say about it.
I had hoped to hear more in the statement about electoral systems, including the possibility of compulsory voting in elections. May I ask the Secretary of State for Justice to look urgently at the issue of postal voting? In the last general election, between one in six and one in seven votes were by post. As was seen in Slough recently, where the Conservatives cheated and won a seat through fraudulent stuffing of ballots, existing legislation does not sufficiently protect us from such fraud. Will he use the Bill to consider whether we can put in new safeguards?
Do the proposals for the reform of the House of Lords, which the right hon. Gentleman referred to in his statement, entail the abolition of all or most of the unelected places in that House? If so, how would a Government deal with the likely No vote in the Lords to such changes?
The basic terms of reference, so to speak, of the cross-party group are the decisions of this House last March in favour of an 80 per cent. or wholly elected Chamber and against any alternatives, so as faithful servants of the House, that is what we are seeking to deliver. The proposals will, of course, have to go in legislative form to both Houses. We will have to see what happens, but I hope very much that when we present proposals, they will be approved.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the greater inclusion of Parliament in the ratification of treaties and in the long overdue system of post-legislative scrutiny. Does he agree that along with an ever wider and deeper commitment to pre-legislative scrutiny and improvements to the way in which European legislation is scrutinised in Parliament as a whole, the proposals provide us with a good opportunity for a thorough debate on the distinctive roles and responsibilities of the second Chamber, and that until we have a settlement and agreement on the roles and responsibilities of the second Chamber, major structural reform is premature?
The proposals do provide us with that opportunity, but I do not want in the statement to rehearse the arguments in favour of significant changes to the House of Lords, except to say that clear decisions were made last March and we are taking them forward.
Picking up a question that I was asked by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), I may have inadvertently misled the House about the contents of the White Paper as to whether it was a negative or an affirmative resolution procedure. Currently a negative resolution procedure is proposed, but I take what the hon. Gentleman and others said to be strongly in favour of an affirmative resolution procedure, and we will look at that.
Giving Parliament the power to vote on a dissolution will make no difference when a Government have an overall majority. The farce last autumn, when the Prime Minister dithered over the opinion polls and the decision whether to dissolve Parliament halfway through its term, would still be possible. How can the Lord Chancellor justify the continuation of a situation where the governing party could dissolve Parliament halfway through for no other reason than that it was ahead in the polls?
We have proposed to the Modernisation Committee that where the Prime Minister proposes the dissolution of Parliament—that is the system that we have, and it is the system in most parliamentary democracies, though not all—he would have to receive a vote on that by this House before it could go ahead.
Successive Governments have found difficulty in creating parliamentary time to deal with outstanding Law Commission reports. Last year the Government conceded to pressure in this House and the Lords when there was an attempt to find a means of dealing with outstanding reports through the Regulatory Reform Bill, as it was then. It is all very well having a report from the Lord Chancellor. What mechanisms do the Government intend to put in place to deal with important outstanding reports?
I understand the frustration that my hon. Friend has mentioned, and I repeat my great praise for successive law commissioners, who have done a terrific job. Speaking for this Government—and also, I think, for previous ones—I should say that Governments have not done enough to ensure that commissioners’ recommendations are brought in timeously.
We are proposing a change of procedure for non-contentious Law Commission proposals. The other changes that we are proposing would ensure that within Government the commission’s reports were not sometimes shelved on grounds of inconvenience. There would have to be a process within Government for taking forward Law Commission proposals that were broadly agreed.
Between 1965 and 1976, I was an election agent and was involved on numerous occasions in local, national and European elections. I assure the House that at that time the electoral system was credible, seen to be fair and in total receipt of the confidence of the British electorate. That is not the case any longer. I was hopeful that in his statement today the Home Secretary would give us hope that he would put the matter right. He has failed to do so. Will he now give me an assurance that he will recognise the mistakes that his Government have made in the last 10 years and do something about the situation?
I am not the Home Secretary, but we will leave that minor matter aside. I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view of the 1960s and 1970s; moreover, that view was not expressed by his party, which accused the House and the country of being ungovernable and our system of being in decay.
May I put forward an alternative point of view from that expressed in an earlier question about the Church of England? We should not encourage the Catholic Church—or, indeed, the Church of Scotland, which is also excluded—to come in. As we go further into the 21st century, this might be the time to separate state from Church, so that the Church is taken out of state business.
That is a point of view, but my view is that the established Church plays an important role in our constitution as well as in the faith of our society. It is significant that many of the Churches that are not members of the Anglican communion support the inclusion of Lords Spiritual in the other place, for example.
I was extremely concerned to read in yesterday’s edition of The Guardian that, according to its political editor, Ministers have already made a decision to introduce alternative voting systems. Can the Secretary of State give me a categorical assurance that that is not the case? Does he agree that he could introduce a new voting system only if he succeeded in a referendum of the British people on the issue, or if his party were re-elected at the next general election having included the issue in its manifesto?
I have already said on many occasions that one cannot use changes to the voting system as some kind of partisan tool. We are not proposing to do so. It is reasonable, however, for there to be a discussion about the alternative vote and we got that going when we published the review of voting systems about three months ago.
The Government will not be taken seriously in their supposed desire to return power to Parliament while they insist on keeping complete control of the timetable of parliamentary business. Does the Secretary of State not agree that they have made rather a bad start today in scheduling this important but not urgent statement in Opposition time, before an Opposition day debate?
Part of the trouble—and it has been ever thus—is that there is insufficient time on the Floor of the House. The Government Whips try to avoid statements on Opposition days; I think that the record on that in the past 10 or 11 years has been rather better than it was before. However, sometimes such things are unavoidable.
May I press the Lord Chancellor on one matter? In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), he did not clarify whether the Government would seek to change the voting system for electing Members of this House before or after the next general election.
In examining proposals for constitutional renewal, have the Government given any consideration to introducing a recall mechanism whereby in certain specific and exceptional circumstances constituents could remove their Member of Parliament during the course of a Parliament, not just at a general election?