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Democratic Renewal

Volume 495: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2009

4. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on co-ordination of Government policy on democratic renewal. (283139)

As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, there have been extensive ministerial discussions about democratic renewal. The Prime Minister has announced the creation of a new democratic renewal council to drive forward the Government’s commitment to further reform. We have already introduced the Parliamentary Standards Bill and published our draft legislative programme, which includes the Constitutional Renewal Bill.

The Minister mentioned the Prime Minister. Is she aware that he wrote two letters in March to Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, asking the committee to look into the whole question of Members’ remuneration, allowances and outside interests, covering what the Prime Minister called “the full picture”? Why then are the Government rushing through the House a Bill on the constitution that deals with precisely those matters before Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations? Is not this all about bad government and saving the Prime Minister’s political skin?

No, the Prime Minister’s sole concern is to restore public confidence in politics and the way in which this House and Members conduct their business. That is why he took the initiative, in the light of all the expenses revelations, to bring forward specific proposals. He has made it clear that Sir Christopher Kelly’s inquiry is independent and that we will accept its recommendations when they are published in the autumn. However, it was clear that the public wanted action now, and the Prime Minister and the Government have acted on that.

Does the Paymaster General agree that it is most unfortunate that Sir Christopher Kelly’s inquiry, ranging as it does across all aspects of the House, has chosen today to be in Northern Ireland, when it is Prime Minister’s questions and the majority of Members from Northern Ireland are likely to be here? I hope that it is not a harbinger of things to come in terms of Members’ access to the inquiry.

As Sir Christopher Kelly is the independent chairman of that independent inquiry, he is free to make the arrangements that he needs to make to take the views of the public in every area of the United Kingdom, and I am sure that we all welcome that. I am sure that he will learn a lot from the feedback of the people of Northern Ireland today.

Will my right hon. Friend, as part of this discussion about democratic renewal, include the abolition of the Act of Settlement, which is simply legalised sectarianism and has no role in the 21st century?

I do not think that I would be being candid with my hon. Friend were I not to say that that is not part of the provisions of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill.

While I welcome the Government’s new-found desire for democratic reform, the National Democratic Renewal Council—a closed Cabinet Sub-Committee made up solely of Labour Members and therefore neither national nor democratic—is possibly the worst way to do that. Will the new ministerial team reconsider that secrecy and, instead, set up a citizens convention to ensure the widest possible public involvement and support?

The National Democratic Renewal Council is part of the machinery of government, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that the relevant Ministers and Secretaries of State sit on it. However, it is associated with a wider, more extensive and deeper commitment to engagement with the public in debating these issues than has ever been the case before. I am quite sure that proper consideration will be given to the arguments not just for a citizens commission—an argument with which I am familiar—but for other forms of sustained public engagement that will shape the conclusions of the consultation.