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5.47 pm

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I shall be brief, but perhaps not as brief as one former Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, of whom it was once said that he would never use one word when none would do. Mr. Attlee would not survive for five minutes in today's world of soundbite and spin, but that is our loss and not his. He would disapprove strongly of the Bill. He was the quintessential Cabinet chairman, who said and believed that a Prime Minister must remember that he is only the first among equals. However, with people like Ernie Bevin, Herbert Morrison and Nye Bevan at the Cabinet table, that was a reminder that was unlikely to be necessary.

I turn to the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) is a dangerous man. He has written a seditious tract, which he has been disseminating among a gullible public, and now he introduces a subversive Bill. It may seem innocuous enough. It claims only to constitutionalise the position and powers of the Prime Minister, now to preside over his own Department. The fact that it blows a hole through Cabinet government is the least alarming aspect of what is being proposed. My hon Friend's real intention is to engineer nothing less than a constitutional revolution, though he is not honest enough to say so.

The House will begin to understand why I describe my hon. Friend as a dangerous man and why this is a subversive Bill. He believes that the power of the personal executive has increased, is increasing and should not be diminished but recognised. That is what the Bill would do. That is surely outrageous enough. It makes a mockery of all our preoccupations about whether there are too many special advisers in No. 10, whether the Cabinet Office has been annexed to a Prime Minister's Department and whether Cabinet government is now dead. How dare he mock our concerns in this way. How can we go on warning of the dangers of a Prime Minister

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becoming a President when my hon. Friend has the nerve to suggest that a British Prime Minister with a secure majority and a unified party already has far more unchecked power than an American President could ever dream of?

But it gets much worse. My hon. Friend seems to believe that a system of strong government needs a system of strong accountability. Again, that may sound reasonable, but does the House understand that it means an end to Parliament as we know and love it? We would have to stop being happy hamsters on a wheel and become eager beavers, required to think for ourselves in holding the Executive to account and debating the great issues of the day; nobody would write our press releases for us and there would be no collective line to save us the effort of thinking. Instead of representing Parliament to the people, we would have to start representing the people to Parliament.

The parliamentary pantomime would have to close down and parliamentary sketch writers who lampoon us would be out of a job. Lazy journalists who are interested in us only if we depart from the script would have to start taking us seriously. Do we really want to go down that road? That only begins to touch on the enormity of my hon. Friend's proposals. We depend on the Executive. We may call ourselves a legislature, but we know that our secret dream is to join the Executive; that is what having a job in this place means. We sit by the Executive's table, hoping to touch the cloth and ready to catch any crumbs that fall. We may only become the Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Parliamentary Private Secretary, but that gives purpose to our lives.

My hon. Friend wants to deprive us of our dreams; he wants to take nanny away from us and turn us into grown-ups. The House will understand why he has to be stopped. What is all that nonsense about the separation of powers? In the 18th century, we may have told ourselves that that was how our Government worked, but it was the secret of good government. The Americans and others may even have believed it and acted upon it, but we soon took the precaution of abolishing it. The ultimate wisdom of that course of action stands revealed today in the multi-faceted personage of our illustrious Lord Chancellor, but it also stands revealed in the glories of a supine Parliament and a passive people. We believe in strong, unchecked and unencumbered government, which has taken all the old prerogative powers of the Crown and kept them for itself. That has given us the most concentrated system of unchecked power of any democracy in the world, and we love it.

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We pride ourselves on our strong Government; we believe in the idea of winner takes all as long as we are the winner. We do not intend to share power with anybody, certainly not a second Chamber. We like things the way they are; we like to be able to talk about the glory of parliamentary sovereignty while having the convenience of the Executive exercising it for us. If the Executive invite us to abolish habeas corpus in, say, an hour or an afternoon, we are happy to oblige. If they are kind enough to fix the membership of our Select Committees for us, it would be churlish to want to do that for ourselves. We may sometimes say that we would like things to be different, but the truth is that we need our comfort blanket and do not intend to give it up lightly.

We do not want the Executive to be taken away from us, as my hon. Friend proposes in his Bill. Of course, it almost was taken away. In 1701, exactly 300 years ago, the Act of Settlement decreed that henceforth no placeman of the Monarch—a Minister to us—could be a Member of Parliament and all advice given to the Monarch by the Privy Council should be seen by Parliament. The Whigs rightly had nothing to do with that kind of restriction on prerogative power, and the provision was repealed before it could be implemented. So we never had a separation of powers, and the legislature and the Executive became one.

Now the Bill wants to take us back 300 years and sever Parliament's dependency on the Executive. It does not have the courage to propose a written constitution, which is the inevitable end of the process. Fortunately, knowing the House of Commons as I do, I am confident that it will prefer to cling to the apron strings of Executive power and have nothing to do with my hon. Friend's dangerous and subversive Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Graham Allen, Mr. Nicholas Winterton, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Mr. David Curry, Donald Anderson, Mr. Michael Mates, Jean Corston, Mr. John Horam, Mr. Chris Mullin, Dr. Ian Gibson and Mr. Edward Leigh.

Prime Minister (Office, Role and Functions)

Mr. Graham Allen accordingly presented a Bill to define the office, role and functions of the Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury; to make arrangements for his appointment; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 July, and to be printed [Bill 60].

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Orders of the Day

Civil Defence (Grant) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

5.57 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is designed to apply the standard disciplines that cover public expenditure to a relatively small part of local government spending—the sum used to finance the administration of local authority emergency planning units totalling less than £20 million this financial year. It is important to stress at the outset that the Bill does not set the level of spending, but provides a mechanism for determining grants and the fair and equitable distribution of expenditure.

The Bill is a short, two-clause measure that will formalise the Government's practice of designating a formula to allocate resources, and allow Ministers to put in place a more effective strategic framework to manage the allocation of grants to local councils for emergency planning purposes under regulations made under the Civil Defence Act 1948. The Government are now engaged on their third comprehensive spending review, the purpose of which is to match public expenditure with our policy priorities so that we can achieve outcomes that make a real difference to the people of this country. Naturally, we want to be sure that the prioritisation process is reflected on the ground and can take effect. In short, we want the money to be spent for the intended purpose and allocated in a fair and reasonable manner.

The grants that we make to local authorities for the purpose of civil defence have always been intended for that specific purpose. The grant supports the local authority emergency planning units which prepare, train and exercise plans that guard against the risk of a variety of emergencies and disasters. Emergency planning officers ensure that local authorities, in conjunction with emergency services, are ready to respond effectively to every potential eventuality. To do so, local authorities need certainty and the ability to plan ahead. They need to know how much the Government are going to make available in support of emergency planning activities for each financial year, and need a clear indication of what will be available provisionally for future years. They need to know how the total is going to be allocated among them so that they can make their own calculation of their share of the cake.

With this knowledge, local authorities will be able to approach the task methodically and with a stronger commitment for the longer term, in a field which, by its nature, is all about planning ahead. Until this year, local councils had that certainty, but a recent legal challenge deprived them of it. The Bill will restore that certainty and the framework that allows local authorities to plan ahead with confidence.

Traditionally, the Government have always distributed the civil defence grant by a formula. Until autumn last year, each authority was given a set sum, with various additions, depending on the type of authority and population. However, last year, the Merseyside fire and

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civil defence authority lodged a judicial review to challenge its own formula allocation for that year, for which it obtained leave to move in the High Court.

It subsequently transpired that a lacuna exists in statute law, unusually inhibiting the Government's grant allocation powers in this small field of local government finance. Accordingly, the Home Office agreed to review its grant allocation to Merseyside for that year, so in the end the case did not proceed to a full judicial hearing. Nevertheless, the point had been made that the Government could no longer distribute the grant according to a pre-determined formula, and local authorities in England and Wales were thereafter able to claim any amount of money for emergency planning on an individual demand-led basis, rather than a national strategic basis.

That has caused problems for both local authorities and the Government, and the inability to plan ahead financially is clearly undesirable. The Government need to ensure that the civil defence grant is allocated on a national strategic basis according to a fair formula, and is not soaked up in a distorted or haphazard manner. That is the purpose of this short Bill. The House may find it helpful if I set the measure in the wider context of emergency planning and civil contingencies activities currently in operation.

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