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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 Queens 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.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): 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 adjustmenta ritualistic changeas 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?
Mr. Straw: The Governments 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. Friends remarks and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) as strong representations that there should be such legislation.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): 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?
Mr. Straw: 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.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): 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?
Mr. Straw: Significant changes to the security of postal voting were made in the Electoral Administration Act 2006. I well understand, however, the concerns that further tightening of the procedures is needed, and we are giving that urgent consideration.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): 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?
Mr. Straw: 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.
Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): 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?
Mr. Straw: 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.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): 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?
Mr. Straw: We have proposed to the Modernisation Committee that where the Prime Minister proposes the dissolution of Parliamentthat is the system that we have, and it is the system in most parliamentary democracies, though not allhe would have to receive a vote on that by this House before it could go ahead.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): 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?
Mr. Straw: 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 Governmentand also, I think, for previous onesI 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 commissions 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.
Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): 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?
Mr. Straw: I am not the Home Secretary, but we will leave that minor matter aside. I do not share the hon. Gentlemans 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.
Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): 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 Churchor, indeed, the Church of Scotland, which is also excludedto 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.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I was extremely concerned to read in yesterdays 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?
Mr. Straw: 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.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): 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?
Mr. Straw: Part of the troubleand it has been ever thusis 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.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): 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.
Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): 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?
Mr. Straw: We have not, as it happens, but there is a case for that, as there would be in respect of the other place. It has not so far been part of our constitutional arrangements, but there is a case for it.
Alan Simpson, supported by Mr. Tim Yeo, Julia Goldsworthy, Colin Challen, Mr. Elliot Morley, Mr. Michael Fallon, Mr. Michael Meacher, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Jim Dowd, Steve Webb, John Battle and Mr. David Drew, presented a Bill to promote energy efficiency; to require specified bodies to publish sustainable energy plans; to make provision for the transfer of functions to principal councils; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed. [Bill 92].
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): We now come to the Opposition Day debate on the Iraq inquiry. I have to announce to the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. There is also a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.
That this House calls for an inquiry by an independent committee of privy councillors to review the way in which the responsibilities of Government were discharged in relation to Iraq, and all matters relevant thereto, in the period leading up to military action in that country in March 2003 and its aftermath and to make recommendations on lessons to be drawn for the future.
The passing of the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war brings us naturally to consider once again the need for a high-level and wide-ranging inquiry into its origin and conduct. When we last debated the issue on 11 June last year, I think it is fair to say that a consensus emerged across the House that such an inquiry would be necessary at some point. Those of us who voted for the invasion of 2003, just as much as those who voted against it, expressed the view that the length of the conflict, the difficult and controversial nature of the decisions leading up to it, the extreme difficulties encountered afterwards, and the sheer immensity of the decision and of its consequences were all so great that a major inquiry would be unavoidable. The Government accepted that argument in principle, but argued that the appropriate time had not been reached.
The case that I wish to put to the House is that the nation expects, our troops deserve, and the facts lead to a fresh conclusion that the time to commence such an inquiry has now been reached. The passage of time, the urgent need to learn for the future, the need to reinforce the credibility of future decision taking, and the diminished role in Iraq of British forces all point to that clear conclusion. In a letter to the Prime Minister of 11 February, the Fabian Society put the case very well. It said:
Iraq has been...the most controversial and publicly contested episode in British foreign policy for half a century, since Suez.
An inquiry cannot change the course of events since 2003. But...A full inquiry would ensure that a rounded assessment of the pre-war diplomacy, the intelligence failures...the conduct of the war itself, and the difficulties of post-war political and economic reconstruction could inform future policy.
the right time for the government to set out plans to ensure the lessons from Iraq are learnt and inform the future of British foreign policy.
This Government has already acknowledged there will come a time when it is appropriate to hold an inquiry. But...we believe that is not now.
That statement was treated by some as a new development in Government policy, but in fact it brought us no nearer to an inquiry than at any time in the past 18 months. In the debate on this issue of 31 October 2006, which the nationalist parties initiated, Ministers did indeed refuse to concede the case for any inquiry, but the Defence Secretary then announced to the television cameras waiting outside:
When the time is right, of course there will be such an inquiry.
Mr. Hague: If the motion were carried, it would amount to Parliaments insisting on such an inquiry. The hon. Gentleman is entirely at liberty to vote with usas he seems to do on an increasingly regular basison this issue.
Simon Hughes: Given that discussions on Privy Council terms with leaders of his party and other parties took place before many of the crucial decisions, would the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is right that the Conservative partys role and views throughout the proceedings should equally be the subject of the inquiry?
Mr. Hague: I am sure that no Opposition party would object if an inquiry wished to have access to any of its papers or records of its deliberations. The hon. Gentleman might not want to set that precedent in the case of his own party; if he is relaxed about it we may have inquiries in future on parties that promise things in elections and do not deliver them in opposition, but that is another matter.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman go along with the idea that whenever an inquiry is held, it will be useless unless witnesses are obliged to swear an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? We have learned that from painful experience. The inquiry should afford support to witnesses who want to tell the truth but are being leaned on by superiors and people we do not see to be ambiguous or economical with the truth. For an inquiry to have any veracity, it is a prerequisite that people give evidence under oath.
Mr. Hague: There is no reason why that should not be built into an inquiry. If we were to carry the motion, the practical effect would be that the Government would have to come back with their own proposals for an inquiry. I am sure that they would want to build such a requirement into them.
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