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Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab):
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. Friends 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?
Mr. Straw: 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.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): 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 powersalmost, 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 Governments 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
Mr. Speaker: 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.
Mr. Straw: 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 sittingand we still had quite a good time protesting.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I welcome the announcement that we will not restrict media access to coroners courts, which will certainly be welcomed by Birmingham coroners 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.
Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I welcome the Governments acceptance of the Constitutional Affairs Committees 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?
Mr. Straw: We look forward to hearing from the right hon. Gentlemans 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.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): 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?
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of States 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?
Mr. Straw: 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 days debate each year, in respect of the ISCs work.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): 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?
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friends 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?
Mr. Straw: 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.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op):
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?
Mr. Straw: 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.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): 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 squarethat is essentialand 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.
Mr. Straw: 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. Gentlemans 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.
Mr. Straw: 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.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): 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?
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.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Given the Governments 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?
Mr. Straw: 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 Administrationsthe 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 peoples 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 outsidefrom British citizens.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): 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 Parliamentwhere, of course, it will be rammed through by the Whipsbut it should be subject to a referendum of the people as a whole, for we hold our position on trust from them.
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