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Prime Minister: Oversight

Volume 691: debated on Monday 16 April 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What oversight exists of (a) the advice given by the Prime Minister on the exercise of the royal prerogative; and (b) the exercise of the Prime Minister’s executive powers.

My Lords, the Minister’s Answer was not terribly helpful; nevertheless, I thank him most sincerely. Will he please comment on reports that Cabinet meetings under the present Prime Minister are much briefer than those under previous Prime Ministers and that often vital Cabinet papers are not circulated in advance to his Cabinet colleagues, so enabling him to adopt a presidential style rather than remembering that his power has been described as primus inter pares?

My Lords, although I was not privileged to be in any previous Prime Minister’s Cabinet, I can tell the noble Baroness that the Cabinet meetings conducted by the present Prime Minister are round-table. Business is conducted efficaciously.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord said that Prime Ministers were responsible to Parliament for the vast majority of their decisions. For what decisions are they not responsible to Parliament?

My Lords, certain decisions would have to be kept secret for reasons of national security. Inevitably, Prime Ministers do not bring all those before Parliament.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this does not sound the same as the doctrine of collective responsibility, which is at least turning up at the edges?

My Lords, there is absolutely no inconsistency between what I have said and collective responsibility: an efficient, effective Government, all agreeing on the sensible issues, discussing them beforehand, reaching agreements and then standing by them.

My Lords, is not the time ripe for Britain to complete the new constitutional settlement, apt for the 21st century, embodied in a written constitution, reflecting the will of the people, in which, furthermore—unlike the arrangements in the 18th century, which we have inherited—by virtue of the royal prerogative, in accordance with the enacted will of the people, the Government’s actions are subject to the advice and consent of Parliament in all circumstances?

My Lords, that was quite a contradictory question. I am not in favour of a written constitution because I believe that the will of the people is expressed through Parliament, as the question implied. If you have a written constitution in the true sense, you have a document that is superior to Parliament, which means that the judges, whom I admire in every single respect—I am looking around at the number of judges—could express views about whether particular Acts were lawful. Our system, with judges able to ensure that the law is properly applied but Parliament able to pass the law, is the right one. I have no problem with our values being expressed in a document, but not in one that is superior to parliamentary sovereignty.

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord recollect that when the Prime Minister tried to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor, it was discovered that this House could not meet unless there was a Lord Chancellor? Was that discussion around the Cabinet table thorough and vigorous?

My Lords, happily, the Lords met very quickly thereafter. The announcement involved accepting that there would have to be a Lord Chancellor during the transition. I am still, as noble Lords can see, in a transitional phase. After detailed consideration by this House and another place, the essential policy changes that underlay that announcement were given effect to.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord mentioned the judges and especially the Law Lords. The House will recall that in the discussion of Law Lords’ place here, which is to end, he delivered extended speeches, if not homilies, on the separation of powers. In other jurisdictions, the separation of powers is understood to mean some division between the Executive and the legislature. Does the noble and learned Lord think that attention need not be paid to that division, which is recognised elsewhere?

No, my Lords; our system, where the Executive are drawn primarily from the elected House of Commons, works extremely well. A separation that everyone would accept is that judges and legislators should not be in the same body. I apologise for the length of my speeches, and I apologise if they sounded like homilies, but that was the essential point in creating a Supreme Court.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord did not make much of a fist of his answer to my noble friend. Was there any discussion in Cabinet before it was announced by way of a press release that the office of Lord Chancellor was to be abolished?

My Lords, may I bring the noble and learned Lord back to the issue of the royal prerogative? In his stout defence, quite rightly, of accountability to Parliament, would he not agree that the fact that Parliament has no voice whatever on the treaties signed by Her Majesty’s Government is a very substantial problem in a modern democracy? Does he agree that it is high time that the two Chambers of our Parliament began to set up machinery to enable Parliament to be heard on the issue before the signing of significant treaties?

No, my Lords, I do not agree with that proposition. The noble Baroness is right to some extent, in that it is for the Executive to conduct the foreign policy of this country. If they conducted foreign policy that went beyond that which was acceptable to Parliament, they would quite quickly lose the confidence of the Commons. Secondly and separately, if after a treaty has been signed it is intended to make it part of the law of this country, Parliament needs to make that happen, and that requires parliamentary approval.