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Political and Constitutional Reform Committee - The Coalition Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform - Minutes of EvidenceHC 178
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
The Coalition Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform
Thursday 19 April 2012
Rt Hon Nick Clegg and Mark Harper MP
Evidence heard in Public Questions 170 - 208
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
on Thursday 19 April 2012
Mr Graham Allen (Chair)
Mr Christopher Chope
Mrs Eleanor Laing
Mr Andrew Turner
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP, Deputy Prime Minister, and Mr Mark Harper MP, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, Cabinet Office, gave evidence.
Q170 Chair: I would like to move on to more general questions around the Government’s programme. I know Chris had a query on the UK Bill of Rights, and a number of other things. Before I do that, Deputy Prime Minister, I wonder if you would like to set the scene as to how you see the recent past and the things that are going to happen in the future.
Nick Clegg: Just to make one point, which flows very naturally from part of our earlier discussion, which is where the Chairman said that there is a feeling in the Committee that things have changed since the last General Election. It is important to recall that of course things change. We have had some important events in the debate around political and constitutional reform over the last year or two, not least the referendum last year. Of course, the central mission and purpose of this Coalition Government is primarily an economic one. All of those things are true, but I think it is very important that we don’t lull ourselves into thinking that somehow, for that reason, the political and constitutional reform agenda is no longer important, or that there is any less resolve on the part of this Coalition Government to press on, in a consistent and business-like manner, with a wide range of reforms, because the need to try to update and modernise our venerable democratic institutions is just as important now as it was at the time of the General Election.
In the Coalition Government’s view it is very important that we try to do more to devolve power from what remains-certainly, by international comparison-a highly centralised system of governance. There are demands, not least because of information technology and because we no longer live in a culture of political diffidence from the public towards people in authority, for greater accountability, greater transparency and greater legitimacy. All of those needs remain just as strong today, even though of course economic issues, quite rightly, are at the forefront of our considerations, both as a Government and as a country. Let us consider what we have done since we last did a joint turn here almost a year ago. Since then, obviously we have published the White Paper on law reform, and we are looking forward, in the coming days, to the report from the Joint Committee. We passed the Localism Act to devolve more power to local communities, giving them the power for local referendums and so on, giving local authorities a general power of competence.
The political parties right now are in serious discussions on party funding reform, and I am very much hoping that we can try to finally find this elusive cross-party agreement on some kind of breakthrough on party funding reform. We made real progress with the Scotland Bill, which-much though it is not widely recognised as such, not least by the SNP administration north of the border-is the biggest transfer of fiscal power and authority from London to Scotland, well, ever. That is a big constitutional step. We have passed the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, stopping Prime Ministers from playing around with General Election timetables. We have published a White Paper on individual electoral registration, and of course this Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny has been very important in forming our views on those final proposals. We brought forward proposals on recall, which we have just discussed. We have established the Silk Commission on further devolution in Wales, and the McKay Commission on the consequences of devolution of the House of Commons. The list goes on. But I think it is quite important to reiterate, if I may, that we are absolutely resolved to persist consistently, thoroughly-perhaps sometimes quietly-in pushing forward a broad range of reforms, in order to make sure that our democratic institutions and processes are as accountable, as devolved and as transparent and legitimate as they can be.
Q171 Chair: Minutes before you came in, the Committee agreed to conduct its next big inquiry into the need for a constitutional convention for the United Kingdom. That is really as a response to events in Scotland, but also the push on devolution, which I think many would agree has been quite successful in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. We have set ourselves a task of meeting various people in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but then there is a question mark: who do we meet to discuss England and England’s future in some coherent settlement? What is your view on that? Do we come to you, Deputy Prime Minister, which we are very pleased to do? Do we go to local authorities? There is actually not a regional structure of any description now to be able to consult with, so I am just anxious that our consultations are balanced and that England gets its fair share of input into our inquiry. Where do you think we should go on that, particularly?
Nick Clegg: The first thing I would say is that I strongly share what sounds like, at first glance anyway, the underlying motive of any such initiative, namely, that while there is a great deal of debate and focus on devolution to the nations of the United Kingdom, there is this big issue, which does sometimes get overlooked, which is how we decentralise power within England itself. As someone who is an absolutely passionate believer in further decentralisation, I would welcome greater focus on that. Of course, the way these things tend to happen can be quite piecemeal. I think that is true. For instance, at the moment-and I am overseeing this in government-we are negotiating a number of city deals with the eight largest cities in the country, which will give the cities unprecedented powers over money, welfare provision, education, skills and capital investment in transport and infrastructure. I don’t think we have shouted about it nearly enough. It is really quite a big, bold thing. We basically said to the eight largest cities in England, "Come here and look at the Whitehall cupboard and tell us which powers, which hitherto have been hoarded by Whitehall politicians and civil servants, do you think you could make best use of to promote growth, prosperity and innovation in your communities?"
I had a meeting yesterday with a number of colleagues, cross-party councillors, MPs and others, from Cornwall, saying, "Well, hang on a minute, if this is for the cities, why is it not for Cornwall?" It is just a small, good example of one step always leading to another. We are certainly not doing it according to some pre-planned blueprint, so any kind of more holistic thinking would always be welcome. The only other thing I would say is that, over the last couple of years, we have moved relatively fast to introduce new powers-this is particularly about local authorities-which haven’t been properly or fully deployed yet. They include not just the Localism Act, not just the referenda, not just the general power of competence, but-in the financial field-the localising of business rates, which is probably the biggest step in devolving an over-centralised tax system for a very long time, introducing something called tax incremental financing. That is something I have been pushing through government, which is an idea we first saw in North America, where we would basically allow local authorities to borrow against the anticipated future revenues to invest in capital.
I only go on about this because we have a number of new powers on the statute that have not been fully deployed yet, so we also need to take care that we don’t try to run before people have even been invited to walk in this halting move towards greater decentralisation in England.
Chair: Mark, do you want to come in?
Mark Harper: All I would add is just to say it is more complex in England, because England is so much larger than the other component parts of the United Kingdom, so I think the answer to your question is there isn’t a single Mr or Mrs England for you to talk to. It is a range of people. It is the leaders of the big cities-we hope more of them will be directly elected mayors. It is the leaders of shire authorities. It is a range of people, and they won’t be the holders of the same offices in different parts of the country, so it is a more complex picture and I think there is nothing wrong with that. I don’t see any problem with different parts of England moving at different speeds. The direction of travel is one way, which is power being moved more locally and closer to the public, but I don’t think there is a problem if different parts of England move at different speeds. It is bound to be more complex, just because England is around 85% of the population of the UK. In fact, it would be wrong if there were a single individual or a single body in charge of the whole of the country.
Chair: I know colleagues want to come in but, forgive me, the Committee is full and our agenda is full, so I am going to be rather strict with colleagues to stick to time limits.
Q172 Mr Chope: Can I ask the Deputy Prime Minister about the Bill of Rights Commission? Just over a month ago one of the members of that Commission resigned and, in resigning, he challenged the independence of the Commission saying that, effectively, the Commission had a role of trying to undermine the Prime Minister. Can you comment upon the circumstances of that person’s resignation and explain why, in responding to Parliament about it, you didn’t thank him for his work or give any comment upon the grounds he had given for his dissatisfaction with the Commission? I think you were the person who appointed him originally.
Nick Clegg: If I didn’t thank him, then that is my omission. Of course, I thank any member of the Commission for the work they have done on a very important issue. The Commission is independent. It is not a plaything of politicians. Myself, the Prime Minister, Ken Clarke, we are not peering over its shoulder trying to micro-manage its work. The Commission has made it very clear, and I just refer you to their statements, that on the specific point that was at stake then-in other words, whether the Commission is looking with sufficient rigour at the issue of parliamentary sovereignty and what is technically called override-they have gone to great lengths to look at that very issue, have taken a great deal of evidence and have spent a great deal of time on it. So frankly, there is just a difference of opinion, never mind between government and the Commission. I have met members of the Commission on two occasions now, and they have made it very, very clear to me that they don’t feel in any way hampered in their work, they don’t feel in any way constrained in their independence and they don’t recognise the allegation that they somehow have not dwelt enough on this one issue, which is admittedly a controversial issue, but it is only one among a range of issues that the Commission are looking at.
By the way, I should stress that the Commission-I think all of the members, and they have certainly all been invited-are all down in Brighton right now for the meeting of the 47 member countries of the European Convention on Human Rights. As you know, under our chairmanship we are pushing forward with a number of reforms, which we hope to agree with all of the member countries. The initial report by the Commission into how we can reform the Court, so that it really addresses the issues that only the European Court can address and it doesn’t get clogged up with a lot of subsidiary issues that really shouldn’t occupy the time of the Court, has been immensely influential. It has partly been immensely influential not just in government but also among other governments, other signatories to the Convention, precisely because the membership of the Commission is very distinguished on all sides of the debate, and it is highly, highly independent and it is widely recognised as such. I have spoken to a number of ministers from other governments, who have really drawn on the excellent work of the Commission, so I thank all of the members of the Commission for that work alone.
Q173 Mr Chope: I was also hoping to be in Brighton for this conference, but I chose to be here so that I could ask the Deputy Prime Minister some questions.
Nick Clegg: I am honoured.
Q174 Mr Chope: Can I ask about this issue where you refer to modernisation and greater transparency. Has there been a change within the Government on the principles of collective responsibility, and the convention that you can’t ask freedom of information requests in relation to government policy-making because government policy-making and the process of it is secret? Has there been a change in the approach of the Government on these issues?
Nick Clegg: No.
Q175 Mr Chope: In that case, how is it that you can be saying that you are going to wait until just before the General Election and then you are going to spill the beans and identify the coalition policies that you regard as Tory-inspired, and the other ones that you had successfully blocked, and that you are going to try to win votes by publishing the secret deals inside the coalition and blaming the Conservatives for the policies that you dislike? How does that fit in with these-
Nick Clegg: When have I ever said that?
Mr Chope: I quoted exactly from reports in-
Nick Clegg: When have I said it?
Mr Chope: I did not hear you say it.
Nick Clegg: When have I said it?
Mr Chope: I did not hear you say it, but I am quoting from reports in Monday’s Daily Telegraph.
Nick Clegg: Oh, that oracle of truth on what I think and feel. I do not want to state the obvious, but I really would rest your case on what I say rather than what the Daily Telegraph claims I might think. I am a very, very staunch defender of the ability of a coalition government, while it is composed of two different parties, nonetheless to act coherently. I think we have defied the critics over the last two years and, notwithstanding the differences between the two coalition parties, we have nonetheless been able to act with great resolve, great courage on a number of very serious issues, and remain collectively-dare I say it-in many respects much more collectively coherent than some of the venal personality conflicts that may have disfigured single-party governments in recent political living memory. I am sorry, Mr Hamilton, I do not mean to sound as barbed as it may have come across. I simply do not recognise the characterisation at all, and I reject it utterly.
Q176 Mr Chope: Are you telling us that you will not, under any circumstances, disclose to the public internal Cabinet discussions and the areas where you and the Cabinet collectively have-
Nick Clegg: Members of the public, as it happens, will not be particularly interested or wildly impressed with a very forensic blow-by-blow account of who said what and when several years ago. I will tell you what I do believe in, which I think is just mature politics. If you are in a coalition, it seems to me both members are entirely entitled-and I am, certainly, not only as Deputy Prime Minister but as leader of the Liberal Democrats, just as the Prime Minister is as leader of the Conservatives-to talk about the different values of the parties and the different priorities within government.
Clearly, you have a coalition. The clue is in the name. It is a coalition of different interests that come together with different instincts, which they try to make mutually compatible with each other. We set it out very clearly and overtly in the Coalition Agreement. You do not need a PhD in politics to discern which parts of the Coalition Agreement reflect the particular preferences of one party and the other. I do not think you need to reveal secret discussions for that to be flamingly obvious to the British public.
Chair: If we go back to some of the very detailed and important reports that this Committee has written, rather than quotes in the Daily Telegraph, we will probably make a bit more progress. One of the best ones we have done is about boundaries, and Eleanor had a question on that.
Q177 Mrs Laing: Deputy Prime Minister, you are absolutely right of course that it is very important that we-that everyone knows what you actually say rather than what you are reported to have said. I for one very rarely believe anything I read in the papers at all. Therefore, I would like to take your mind on to something else that has been reported on the issue of boundaries. In the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, the two parts of that Bill do not naturally sit together but were deliberately put in the same Bill. My understanding was that the deal in the Coalition Government was that each part would be supported by both parties in the coalition, even though one party wanted one part and one party wanted another part. It is now being reported that the Liberal Democrat party, as part of the coalition, will not continue to support the boundaries legislation unless House of Lords reform is passed in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Is that the case?
Nick Clegg: How can I put it? It just does not work like that. There is no sort of "You do this. I’ll do that. You do this. I’ll do that". One just has to look at each of these things on their own merits and in their own terms. We legislated as a government very logically on those two issues at the same time, because we felt that we wanted to get on with the issue of the referendum on the electoral system as quickly as possible, so we needed to legislate in the early stages of the Parliament. In order to complete the boundary review and then submit the conclusions of the Boundary Commissions to both Houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, in time to make those changes before the General Election, we needed to legislate early as well. That is why they were both decanted into the same Bill.
I have said that I do not recognise this idea that there are links between one bit of what is actually, as I have described earlier, quite a long list of constitutional political changes we are making, and another. We are trying to press forward on all of them, and we are trying to do so-in fact, I think we are successfully doing so-in keeping with the commitments we both made, both coalition parties, in the Coalition Agreement.
Q178 Mrs Laing: Thank you. I am pursuing this point, Chair, because when it is looked back upon, the work of this Committee in considering the political and constitutional reform in respect of the workings of a coalition government will be of great interest to those who examine these matters. Because I entirely agree with you about hearing what you actually say rather than what is reported, can we take it then that the further progress of the boundaries reform legislation is not dependant for its support by your part of the coalition upon the-
Nick Clegg: There is no formal link between the two. I will tell you where I accept maybe some suspicions-if that is not too strong a word-have been provoked. I have been asked in the House of Commons a number of times about, "Why you are wasting your time?" I have to be blunt, this is often asked by members of the Conservative party, "Why are you wasting your time pushing forward with House of Lords reform?" I then made a rhetorical response, in which I said, "In exactly the same way that I assume people who defend the boundary review, which is not the top of the electorate’s concerns by any stretch of the imagination, would justify they are wasting their time on that". I am just making a generic point, which I have always made about constitutional and political reform, whether it is individual electoral registration, whether it is House of Lords reform, or whether it is boundary reform. All of these issues are not issues that come up on the doorstep a great deal. They certainly have not in the last few days when I have been canvassing in my own constituency for the local elections; of course not. It does not mean they are unimportant. In the same way, the reform of the World Trade Organization never comes up on the doorstep, but that is important. That is only the point I have made, and perhaps I have used two illustrations to make that point in ways that have been laden or invested with a degree of complex suspicion, which I don’t think is warranted.
Mrs Laing: I could not agree with you more in the point you make about doorsteps, but of course this Committee cares about constitutional reform.
Nick Clegg: Of course; as do I.
Q179 Mrs Laing: I never think it is a waste of time. Therefore, is it the case that the reports that your party’s support for further progress on boundaries legislation is dependent upon progress on House of Lords reform legislation are wrong?
Nick Clegg: Of course, there is no reliance on our support for a Coalition Agreement commitment for progress on unrelated or other significant parallel constitutional formations. I have said that. There is no link; of course, there is no link.
Mrs Laing: Thank you.
Chair: If I can just remind colleagues, if we can reference some of the work we have done and some of the marvellous reports we have done, referencing the word "political" in the title of Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is not enough. We need to just bring it back a little bit to why we are here to scrutinise the Deputy Prime Minister and his Department. We will stick with Boundary Commissions; Fabian, a quick one on that.
Q180 Fabian Hamilton: I would like to make a very, very brief point. I quite understand the Government’s desire to want to equalise the number of voters in each constituency. I guess that was the principle behind part of this Act, which is reorganising all the boundaries as well as, of course, reducing the number of Members. My concern is that, for decades, if not longer, the Boundary Commission, as long as it has existed in England, Wales and Scotland, has worked on a consensus that the definition of constituency boundaries will include, where possible, not crossing county boundaries or local authority boundaries-obviously, there have to be exceptions-and keeping communities cohesive, taking account of a whole number of factors, such as physical divides like rivers and so on.
What it seems to be happening now is that all those have gone out of the window because of the one criterion that the Government has judged is the most important, which is equalising numbers of electors. The result of that, in some cases, are constituencies that are far from cohesive, that bring in so many disparate elements across county boundaries, physical boundaries, local authority boundaries, as to be almost unrepresentable, or at least in any equal form. So you have sacrificed cohesion-and community cohesion especially-within particular local authority areas for the equalisation, which is an important principle.
Nick Clegg: I will let Mark elaborate, but I would just say two things, some mechanical things if you like. Firstly, we made it very clear in the legislation that local council wards are the building blocks of the boundary changes, so we are not being completely arbitrary in some of the existing-
Fabian Hamilton: Sorry, may I just interrupt you on that, Deputy Prime Minister, because the Boundary Commission has said-taking what you have just said-that they will not divide boundaries. Yet, in certain local authority areas, the best way by far to maintain the least possible disruption and the most cohesion is to split certain ward boundaries. In Leeds, for example, as in Sheffield, our wards are huge; 16,500 electors. So if you divide those up-
Nick Clegg: There is some discretion on that, but I will let Mark-
Fabian Hamilton: I am sorry to interrupt you on that.
Nick Clegg: The second point I would say is I think people tend to forget that the criterion of having constituencies of similar size, in terms of the number of electors, is not a new criterion. We are not imposing some alien concept onto the legislation governing the Boundary Commissions, because it is actually listed in the existing legislation that it has to be a consideration, among others, for the Boundary Commissions. What we are doing, technically speaking, is elevating that criterion, but retaining the others as well. It is quite important to remember that. I think sometimes people have conveniently forgotten that this is already a requirement of Boundary Commissions, to seek to reflect the need to have more equally sized constituencies in their work.
For one reason or another that has not happened, and the discrepancies and the differences between the sizes of constituencies have got bigger and bigger and bigger as, by the way, over time has the size of the House of Commons, which is now by almost any international measure an oversized lower Chamber. So what we are doing is not as alien to the system, and certainly not as unfamiliar to the Boundary Commissions as is sometimes suggested.
Mark Harper: Let me just develop that. The fact is these two things, the size and the other factors, are a balance. It was always the case that the Boundary Commissions were supposed to aim for constituencies to be broadly the same size. When that was just one of the factors, the fact is that discrepancy was too wide. Constituencies where you have one that has 40,000 electors and one that has 95,000, is just too big a gap, so what we said in the legislation was that the focus on the size needed to be more important than it had been in the past. Some people advocated that we should make the seats practically exactly the same size, and we said, "No, that would be taking the balance too far in the other direction". There is still quite a tolerance. It is a 10% band, plus or minus 5%. That is a difference in size of seats of around 8,000 electors, but the Boundary Commissions can absolutely take into account all of the things you have mentioned.
It is worth saying they have published their initial proposals, and I think it is important to say their "initial proposals". We are now going through the process of people having the opportunity to comment on them, to feed back concerns like the ones you have just outlined. They will now take all of that into account and produce, where they think it is appropriate, revised proposals where they will be able to balance their first crack at doing the job against what people think about it.
Q181 Fabian Hamilton: Are you confident they will be able to do that?
Mark Harper: If you look at the way they have done it in the past-and I know the responses they have received, just looking, for example, at my own area, have been very thorough-the test for them will be how well they balance all of those responses with what they come out with. Of course, there are going to be areas where some people are dissatisfied. That was always the case in the past, where people thought that something should have been in the constituency and something should not. It is how well they do it in the round and, looking at the responses over all, they have done a pretty good job. There are areas where there has been controversy and we will see how they have dealt with it.
On your specific point about wards, that is an important point. There is nothing in the legislation that stops or says the Boundary Commission in England can’t split wards. I think I am right in saying that the main reason why in most cases they have not is a technical one, in the sense that their technical IT systems have not enabled them to do that. If you take the Boundary Commission for Scotland, for example, they have a much more sophisticated system and actually they have split wards a lot, as they did when they have done previous boundary reviews. In England, they have adopted the policy-it is their policy-that other than in exceptional compelling circumstances they have used wards as building blocks.
Your point is very well made. In urban areas, some of those wards are very large. One of the things they will have to take into account when they are producing revised proposals is feedback from people that say, "To come up with that right split, we think you are going to do that better if you split wards", and it is absolutely within their power to do that if they think that delivers on the statutory requirements more comprehensively.
Q182 Chair: With the advent of individual voter registration, there will be a significant fall in the number of electors. Do you accept that that will mean, after the next General Election, there will be another very significant redistribution of parliamentary boundaries and parliamentary seats, which again will add to this sense of Members of Parliament beginning to represent numbers rather than places, Deputy Prime Minister?
Nick Clegg: Can I just let Mark start, because he wants to just-
Nick Clegg: I will, then.
Mark Harper: We don’t accept your premise that the introduction of individual registration will lead to a drop in the number of voters.
Q183 Chair: At all?
Mark Harper: Well, in the response that we made to the Committee, the important thing with the research that we commissioned the Electoral Commission to do, which they published last December, the evidence suggests that the current register is not in as great a shape as some people had-perhaps complacently-thought it was. The evidence is, if you look at Northern Ireland where they have introduced individual registration for a number of years, the level of completeness of the register, the percentage of eligible voters on it there, is broadly the same as it is in the rest of Great Britain. Particularly with what we have announced in response to your Committee’s excellent report, in pre-verifying, in using the existing register, checking those details against the National Insurance database and moving we think probably two-thirds of electors automatically, having checked their details, on to the new register, I actually think we don’t run a risk of a significant noticeable drop in completeness at all, so I would not accept the premise of your question.
Q184 Chair: Therefore, there will not be a fundamental review again of parliamentary boundaries. They will be pretty much as they will be under the new ones?
Mark Harper: Yes, I don’t think the introduction of individual registration is going to cause that dislocation that people fear.
Nick Clegg: Can I just emphasise the point that Mark has made? We really have pulled out the stops over the last couple of months-not least in response to the report from this Committee-to ensure that we put in every sort of belt and braces system we can to stop any unintentional kind of loss of voters on the register. As Mark quite rightly says, the existing register is not nearly as complete as it was conventionally held to be. We have only learnt that relatively recently. We have learnt new things as we’ve done our own research about how we can make sure that people automatically appear on the new register under the individual voter registration system, not least by, in effect, just literally transferring three-quarters of those on the register from one existing database on to another.
That is a very, very big step, which guarantees that it will simply not go down as far as some of the ludicrous scaremongering-in my view-that has gone on about this has suggested.
Chair: Before we go on to the House of Lords, which I know is something that interests many Members on the Committee, I am going to ask Andrew, briefly. He has a question on West Lothian.
Mr Turner: I was going to ask a further question on the Boundary Commissions, if that is acceptable?
Q185 Mr Turner: I was just going to ask what a Liberal Democrat spokesman is.
Nick Clegg: This the political bit of the political and constitutional affairs?
Mr Turner: Yes. What is the Conservative opposite number, do you know? I am not very clear, because Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay-who lives in my constituency, he says-says that he wants to ensure that, if the House of Lords reform does not proceed, then it will be much less likely that we will have the Boundary Commission. I am not quoting directly; I am quoting reported speech, but I saw him say it on television.
Nick Clegg: Two things. Firstly, Lord Oakeshott is not a spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. He is a Liberal Democrat peer, but he is not a spokesperson on constitutional affairs. He does not hold any formal office. I lead a political party. I do not run a sect. I can’t impose a Trappist vow of silence on people in a free society, so if you are asking me to somehow ask Lib Dem peers, or any other member of the Liberal Democrat party, not to speak in public I am afraid that is beyond either my wish or remit.
The second point I would make is this. As I said earlier to Mrs Laing, of course there are no formal links between one bit of the constitutional reform agenda and the other, but there is a commitment, a shared political commitment on behalf of both of the coalition parties to proceed on a broad waterfront of issues, all of which are spelt out in the Coalition Agreement and many of which, like House of Lords reform, are spelt out in both of our manifestos. Of course, there is no formal link, but there is an understanding that we are going to proceed on all of these things. We are not going to start picking and choosing the bits we like and the bits we don’t like. We have made a commitment in this Government to proceed on House of Lords reform, on individual voter registration, on party funding and so on and so forth.
It is obvious that certain parts of the parties in the coalition are more excited and interested in certain parts of that than others. That is just stating a political reality. I can’t change that political reality. I am certainly not going to seek to change people’s opinions about it. It is obvious. The formal political commitment that the coalition parties have made to each other is that we will, in an open and consistent manner, push forward. If I can just spell it out-if you really want me to-individual voter registration is not something that my party has been particularly animated about in the past. It was something that-and I need to check-I am pretty sure the Conservative party brought to the negotiations and the Coalition Agreement, and Mark and I are now, as politicians from different parties, dutifully implementing that Coalition Agreement.
Although, I have to say to you, if this was just a Liberal Democrat Government, do I really think that would be right at the top of our list of constitutional laws; probably not. All I have said in previous debates is I expect the same civility and consistency from all sides in this Government coalition to press forward with all the issues, whether people like them or not.
Chair: Thank you. I am now going to move on to the reform of the House of Lords. I don’t know whether it might be helpful, given that there is a report on the way, if you want to say a few words before I call lots of Members, Nick?
Nick Clegg: No, I am very happy.
Q186 Tristram Hunt: Deputy Prime Minister, one of the conversations we had in the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform was the relationship between the executive and the legislature, both in terms of the Lords and the Commons. Is it still Government policy, having reduced the size of the Commons by 10%, also to reduce the size of the executive by 10% for the next Parliament?
Nick Clegg: I think there is a strong case-and perhaps not precise-to have an approximate symmetry. In general, in terms of size of legislature, size of executive, it is not a precise science. The executive has its own needs. As a general rule, I believe if you can pare back on the size of the executive, as in one sense we are already very materially doing, because we are reducing the central headcount of civil servants in Whitehall very considerably and radically, I think we should do so. My general view is-
Tristram Hunt: Sorry, Deputy Prime Minister, strong case and general rules are one thing. You, as the Deputy Prime Minister of the Government, having plans to do so is another. Do you have plans to do so?
Nick Clegg: As I say, we are reducing the size of the executive already.
Tristram Hunt: But in terms of ministers?
Nick Clegg: In terms of ministers, we have said that once the smaller House of Commons comes into effect-
Q187 Tristram Hunt: It is post-that?
Nick Clegg: Well, yes, it has to coincide with it, so it would be for the next Government, wouldn’t it? It would be for the next Government and the next Parliament to cut their cloth-the executive that is-to suit the new size of the register. We are very open about the fact that that is something we think whoever is in power in the next Parliament would seek to do.
The only point I am trying to make to you is I think there is not a mathematical formula that imposes exact equivalence on the ratio of the reduction in the size of one House in the legislature and one part of the executive. As a general principle, we have been very open about this already that we would expect the next Government to reflect those altered circumstances in the way in which it is composed.
Q188 Tristram Hunt: Thank you. You have spoken very passionately this morning about power being moved to the public, direct democracy and local referenda on all sorts of interesting things. Do you regard, as press reports suggest, that if the Joint Committee comes out with a proposal for a referendum, on what will be one of the most dramatic pieces of constitutional reform in generations, that there should be a referendum before the Bill becomes an Act, in terms of House of Lords reform?
Nick Clegg: First, can I just admit to something that might sound counter-intuitive? I don’t think it is nearly as dramatic as you suggest. I think the principle of electing people who make the laws of the land is a fantastically familiar and unsurprising democratic principle, which most people-and opinion polls show this-think should be bog-standard practice in any democracy. We have been talking about it for 100 years, so I have to say my own view is that rather than hyping this up as some great revolutionary moment rather than what it is, which is completing a natural process of greater democracy and greater legitimacy in a law-making body like the House of Lords, we should keep that in perspective.
My own view is that those who may advocate or have advocated the use of a referendum-I don’t know what has been before the Joint Committee, and of course we will look at it very carefully and we will consider every single recommendation-would have to work hard to make the case that the public should be asked to spend millions of pounds on a referendum, which, unlike the referendum last year, is the subject of complete consensus between the parties. We all have manifesto commitments to deliver House of Lords reform. It has been debated for hundreds of years. As I say, when the public is asked, the public seems to me to shrug its shoulders and say, "Of course, people who make the laws of the land should be elected by the people who have to obey the laws of the land". Personally, I think, if that is going to be the recommendation-of course we will listen to it, we will debate it-the onus should be on people who want to tie up the public, in terms of expense and time, in a referendum on something where all the political parties say they agree, and where the public basically thinks a smidgeon of democracy is a fairly good idea.
Q189 Tristram Hunt: You are playing an interesting game. Democracy is something that is very familiar, but if you are suggesting that reform of the House of Lords and, as a result of that, a necessary increase in the democratic legitimacy and powers of the House of Lords will have no effect on the Constitution of the United Kingdom, that seems a rather perverse position to play.
Nick Clegg: No. I am not saying that, of course. By the way, the only people who have anything to fear from that process are not the British public. It is the executive. One thing I keep saying about our whole reform agenda is the people who should be anxious about all of this are people sitting in positions, like Mark and I occupy at the moment, the people who wield power on the executive because all the reforms we are introducing create greater legitimacy, create greater accountability, enforce greater transparency, and so hopefully mean that people who wield power have to do so under greater scrutiny. Anything that strengthens the collective hand of Parliament at the cost of the executive I would have thought has to be a good thing.
Chair: Last one, Tristram.
Q190 Tristram Hunt: If it is my last one, I will move quickly. The Government has launched an extraordinary attack on the Church of England, with the addition of VAT to alterations to places of worship. Would you be happy with the reduction, as press reports suggest, of bishops in the House of Lords of 25 to 12, or do you want to slice another 20% off that?
Nick Clegg: First, your description of this particular budget move is colourful, partial and inaccurate. But let’s not dwell on that.
Tristram Hunt: That is the political side.
Nick Clegg: No. Obviously, the political side is looming large this morning, Chair. We have said if what we end up with-and if this is what the Joint Committee and others were to congregate around-is a hybrid House of 80% of Members elected and 20% not, then clearly the number of bishops as a proportion of that 20% would in absolute numbers mean that there would be a reduction in the number of bishops in the reformed House of Lords. Mark, do you remember exactly what the figures are?
Mark Harper: It is going to be taken down to 12.
Nick Clegg: From-
Mark Harper: From 26.
Nick Clegg: Yes, so it is from 26 to 12, so it is just over half.
Q191 Tristram Hunt: You are content with that, if that was the proposal?
Nick Clegg: We would not have advocated it otherwise.
Chair: It is not always the case.
Nick Clegg: Well, it is-
Q192 Andrew Griffiths: Deputy Prime Minister, could you point to a time when the House of Lords has failed to properly scrutinise legislation that has been before it, or has failed to improve the legislation that our House has sent it?
Nick Clegg: The House of Lords is an effective revising chamber, but its efficacy is hampered by its lack of legitimacy.
Q193 Andrew Griffiths: So that is a, no, never? You can’t point to anything?
Nick Clegg: I am sure I can come up with examples, but my view, and I think the view of the vast majority of people who consider this, is that the issue is not whether the current House of Lords is deficient in seeking to dutifully fulfil its role as a scrutinising and revising chamber. No, I think it does on the whole a good job, but it would be considerably strengthened in that important job if it were to enjoy the legitimacy of the British people.
Q194 Andrew Griffiths: Do you believe that the Members of the House of Lords that have come from our House, who have been previous elected parliamentarians, are better at their job of scrutinising and improving that legislation than those that have been appointed?
Nick Clegg: Look, I am not going to start indulging in a sort of beauty contest about which Member of the House of Lords I think does a better job, because I don’t think it works like that. I will tell you what I personally think. Personally, I think there is something structurally flawed about a revising scrutinising chamber in which over 70% of its current members are there, in effect, because of political patronage. If we were to scrutinise other democratic systems and were to provide our own analysis from afar of the virtues and vices of a legislative chamber that has-this is the great change over the last 20 years-increasingly become the plaything of party political leaders, I think we would be quite trenchant in our criticism. That is the great change in the House of Lords over recent times as incremental reforms have been introduced, in 1958 the removal of the peers and so on. There has been an increasing party politicisation of the House of Lords. That is where I personally think that some of the descriptions of the House of Lords as a totally disinterested, almost apolitical body, populated by nothing other than objective experts-
Andrew Griffiths: You said in your previous answer they have done a good job.
Nick Clegg: -misreads the very radical change in the composition of the House of Lords already. If I can just finalise on this point, it slightly goes back to my response to Mr Hunt. The reforms that we are introducing are reforms of the composition of the House of Lords. The composition of the House of Lords has already changed very dramatically indeed over the last decade or two, without a referendum and without a great deal of brouhaha. What we are saying is, instead of having this kind of incremental, bit-by-bit, change in the composition of the House of Lords, where it has become more party political, let’s do it through the front door and allow the British people a say on who on earth sits there in the first place.
Mark Harper: It is just worth adding, if I may, Mr Griffiths. If you look at the existing composition, at what we are trying to do-and we made this very clear in our White Paper on our draft Bill-there are a number of things that the present House of Lords does very well, and the way we crafted our reforms was to capture and retain what the House of Lords does well. That is partly why, for example, we suggested retaining Cross Benchers. There is a role for people who don’t participate in party politics, although they are involved in politics. We retain that, but with the legitimacy that comes with electing people.
I very much agree with the Deputy Prime Minister; saying that people who make laws ought to be elected is not a controversial proposition. You can tell this because, when you challenge Members of the House of Lords about this, they don’t actually try to disagree with that concept. What they try to do is pretend that, in some way, they don’t make laws, that all they do is offer the Commons just gentle advice, which the Commons is free to take or leave, and they really are not terribly engaged in making laws, which I don’t think is an accurate reading of their role. I think they have an important role. It is a role we want to make sure they do with the legitimacy that comes with being elected. Our proposals, hopefully formed by the Joint Committee’s thoughts, will achieve that objective.
Q195 Andrew Griffiths: Minister, with due respect, what I would say is I have seen you at the Dispatch Box very forcibly rejecting those amendments that have been made in that other place, because you had the democratic legitimacy to do so, because you were elected on a manifesto. Gentlemen, would you not agree, though, that by electing the House of Lords we will lose some of the expertise that is currently within that House and is so important to the quality of the debate and the quality of the legislation that they send back to us? Do you not accept that captains of industry, professors, surgeons, sportsmen and women, who have something to offer to the debate, would not stand for elected positions?
Nick Clegg: I say a number of things on that. Firstly, the 80:20 split-80% elected, 20% not elected-those who advocate that hybrid model, one of the points they make, with some legitimacy, is that at least allows a significant part of a reform of the House of Lords to be populated by experts and other people, of independent character and turn of mind, who don’t want to go through the hassle of being elected. That is one of the arguments perhaps for that model of reform.
The second point I want to make is let’s not see the current House of Lords through sepia-tinted spectacles. It is not a chamber populated wall to wall with entirely disinterested experts. It is increasingly stuffed with people who are put there by people like me. That is the fact. I just think we have to be candid with each other about what the current status quo is and not describe the House of Lords as it might once have been or might once have been portrayed as being. It is a highly politicised place, increasingly populated by people who have been placed there through political patronage.
The third thing I have to say is-and I hope some members of the Committee would agree with this-I slightly balk at the idea that, if you are elected, you are somehow bereft of any expertise or wisdom whatsoever. Can I just modestly make a case for the idea that you can be expert in some things and draw on experiences in your pre-elected, pre-political life, and retain some of that wisdom and expertise even once you have been elected. This idea that being elected means we are all dumbing-down, I just don’t agree with it.
Chair: One very quick one.
Q196 Andrew Griffiths: Just to pick up on something that you said earlier, Deputy Prime Minister. You said that you would not accept spending the millions of pounds on a referendum in relation to House of Lords reform. You thought that was a waste of money. Do you not accept that, according to David Lipsey, between 2015 and 2020, an elected chamber would cost £433 million extra?
Nick Clegg: To say these are all academic is to put it politely. These are all highly speculative figures, because we don’t know what the reform would look like. We don’t know what the total number would be. We have advocated 300. I read in the press that the Joint Committee-I have not seen the report-might suggest that they want it to be larger. There is this issue as well, which I know the Joint Committee has been discussing, as Mr Hunt and his colleagues on the Joint Committee asked us about it when we gave evidence to the Joint Committee, about whether Members of a reformed House of Lords are able to continue in other paid work or not. Of course, that would have a bearing on their remuneration. All of these things are simply undecided.
The point I was making by the way, all I was saying is those who advocate a referendum, given that this-unlike the issue where we had a referendum last year-is the subject of cross-party manifesto consensus, it seems to me they would have to meet a much higher hurdle of trying to explain why in this instance, on an issue where the public is not really very troubled or divided, in that case you would ask the taxpayer to spend millions of pounds. I was just saying I think the onus is on the people who want to advocate a referendum in that context.
Q197 Fabian Hamilton: I am interested that you don’t believe the House of Lords to be any sort of committee of experts. That is not my experience. Leaving that aside, my question is this. Once the House of Lords or its reformed version becomes a democratically elected accountable legitimate body, in the terms you have described, which is a very good ambition to achieve, is there not the danger of legislative sclerosis because the Lords will say, "We insist that you do it this way; the Commons is entirely wrong and we have the legitimacy to insist upon that"? Therefore, in the past, where we have in the Commons said, "We simply refuse to accept the amendments and we have democratic legitimacy to do so", we have been right. Surely, the only way forward is actually to have a proper written constitution for this country that lays out the powers of each part of the state, including both Houses of Parliament?
Nick Clegg: I am sure Mark will want to add to this as well. But first, just to be absolutely clear, I did not say there are no experts in the House of Lords. I am just saying the description of the House of Lords as being populated exclusively by disinterested experts is just simply not the case. We can all have lots of different views about the issues, but let’s at least first agree on the facts. The facts are rather different, in terms of the current composition of the House of Lords, than often portrayed. That is my only point.
Let’s just start with the evidence. The evidence in bicameral systems in other democracies is that you can have an asymmetry where one chamber prevails over another, even if both chambers are either wholly or largely elected. The fact of election to the House of Lords, in and of itself, I believe will not lead to the gridlock that you suggest, because it is entirely possible to make sure that the basic pecking order between House of Commons and House of Lords prevails. We have gone out of our way in our proposals to make sure that is so by, for instance, suggesting there should be a different electoral system for the elected component of the House of Lords; that they should not be representing constituencies, so should not be treading on our toes as MPs and try to act as surrogate MPs; that there should be a cooling off period, that they can’t just leap from being elected in the House of Lords to then seeking election in the House of Commons; and crucially, that they would have long non-renewable terms. Those are very considerable changes that make the difference between one and the other place very, very clear indeed.
For instance, some academics and commentators have suggested that, to make this absolutely crystal clear, we should somehow reflect the Parliament Acts on the face of the Bill. Lord Pannick and Lord Goldsmith have provided very expert legal opinions on that, as Mr Hunt will know. We have said that they may well have a case. We will look at that with an open mind, just to provide absolute reassurance that not only is there-how can I put it- this imbalance even in a reformed House of Lords compared to a House of Commons, for all the reasons I have described, but also that the statute itself would reflect the existing conventions and practices enshrined in the two Parliament Acts. I don’t know if, Mark, you want to add anything?
Mark Harper: I would say there are two things. There is the political argument about which House is more legitimate. The way we have crafted our proposals makes it clear that a reformed House of Lords would be more legitimate than it is today, but it would still be not as legitimate as the House of Commons. Secondly, even if one did not accept that political argument, the statutory underpinning of the Parliament Acts makes it quite clear that the House of Commons can ultimately get its own way. Some people have said, "The House of Lords has lots of power that it currently does not exercise because it stands back".
That relationship may change, but the ultimate check on that, from the point of view of the House of Commons, is that with the Parliament Acts the House of Commons can unilaterally rewrite the rules. The fact that it can is the check that will, I think, govern that relationship. The relationship between the two Houses will change-we have absolutely accepted that-but not in a way that affects the primacy of the House of Commons. That is what, for colleagues in the House of Commons, should enable them to be comfortable with this reform, making the House of Lords more legitimate. I think it will strengthen Parliament as a whole. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, it will make life more difficult for the executive.
As a Conservative and I think this is also true of the Liberal Democrats, we don’t think you increase human happiness necessarily by passing lots of legislation through Parliament. If the way of making the world better was to have lots and lots and lots of laws, the last Labour Government would have been remarkably more successful. If I can just say, we were given perhaps a little piece of advice when Her Majesty addressed both Houses of Parliament, when she drew attention to the 3,500 Bills to which she had been asked to affix her signature. I did just detect that there was perhaps a sense that fewer Bills, which are better drafted, going through Parliament would probably improve the sum total of human happiness.
Chair: I am going to leave the House of Lords there, although Members around the table are all very keen to jump in. I am going to move on now to party funding and Stephen.
Q198 Stephen Williams: Chair, rather than refer to reports, I will just refer to a meeting that the Committee had jointly with the Committee on Standards of Public Life back in November. It was a day or so after they published their report on party funding, their independent report with lots of recommendations on how we can discharge the coalition’s agreement on taking big money out of politics and having a reformed way forward. Can I ask the Deputy Prime Minister, do you regret pulling the rug from underneath the Committee by saying now was not the right time for even a modest amount of state funding?
Nick Clegg: The first thing I would say is on the issue of party funding reform, which of course has been a cloud hanging over the political class for a long period of time, that party funding scandals have affected every single party. No one can be pious about this. The science of it is now well established. We had a Kelly committee report recently. Before that, we had the Hayden Phillips process. We all know the ins and outs of what a deal might look like. It really just is now a question of leadership and political will. To that extent, it is immensely important that the talks that are now going on between representatives of the three political parties are forcefully backed by all the political leaders, and I can certainly speak on my behalf. That is something that I am doing very actively on my side, and I know that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have said that they are very committed to it as well. It will require compromise. There are difficulties, but it really is a question now about political leadership.
On the issue of state funding, it is very important to remember there is a considerable amount of state funding for political parties already, in fact, I think far, far greater than the public appreciate. So I just think one needs to be a little bit cautious about saying that there is a magic wand solution to this at a time when there are so many cuts happening elsewhere, when millions of people are finding that their tax credits are being frozen, that their benefits are being changed and that their living costs are going up. In this context, when we are still in a period of painstaking fiscal austerity, to write out another cheque for political parties when political parties already enjoy several million pounds of taxpayer largess, my own judgment is-was then and remains now-that that would be an ill-judged thing to do and make it very difficult to convince the public that we were doing the right thing. That doesn’t mean that you rule it out forever. I just think it makes it very clear that, for this phase of fiscal austerity-and, as I say, when there is already a considerable amount of public money provided to parties-it should not be at the top of the shopping list of reforms that we introduce right now.
In my view, it doesn’t mean that you can’t move on the broad waterfront, broadly speaking, of the recommendations made by the Kelly Commission, which I think was an excellent commission. I think in most other respects it was absolutely-excuse the pun-bang on the money, and I regard it in very general terms as the kind of template that we should be trying to move towards. I just think that particular element of it, of increased state funding now, is just highly unrealistic.
Q199 Stephen Williams: I am glad you said it requires political leadership, and perhaps a bit of courage as well to move this forward by all three parties. The phrase I remember Christopher Kelly using to the Committee members, when we met with him and the other commissioners, was that their report should not be cherry-picked because there were lots of parts of it that might be uncomfortable for political leaders of different parties in different ways, but as a package it would work and would lift all of us out of this embarrassment and mire into which different parties at different times have been plunged, and state funding has to be part of that. The Labour Party are going to be asked to give up their millions from Unite, the Conservative Party are not going to have embarrassing supper parties in the flat at No. 10 Downing Street, and we are not to have donors who occasionally embarrass us as well. All the three parties have had this. We are going to move on from that, and it does require leadership. The Daily Mail and the other popular press are never going to accept at any time, whether it is now or in a golden economic future, that political parties should have some state funding and all they proposed is 50p per elector, so it is very modest. So, could we have a bit more courage and leadership now?
Nick Clegg: Of course I totally accept, acknowledge and respect that Christopher Kelly wants to present his package as a pristine package that cannot be altered in any respect whatsoever. That is exactly what I would do in his position. That is what people who lead these commissions do; they ferociously defend their reports as the biblical truth. I don’t regard it as a tablet of stone, and I don’t think it should be regarded as such. As I said, I think it is a general template that in broad terms has the right elements of a deal. But actually, as it happens, the one thing that the Commission did not look at is whether we should consider whether the very substantial existing subsidy, which goes from the taxpayer to political parties, is administered in a logical and efficient way.
All I am saying, unsurprisingly and perfectly reasonably, is before immediately lurching towards more state subsidy should we not first-which was not really dwelt on by the Commission at all-consider how the money is provided from the public to parties already because it is quite higgledy-piggledy. You get subsidies for your election addresses, you get subsidies for your public election broadcasts, you get subsidies for policy work, and they have all built up in a rather illogical, haphazard way over many years. I think it is perfectly reasonable for us to say, "Look, a big blank cheque from the taxpayers to the parties surely is not realistic or acceptable now; it might be at some time in the future but not at a time when we are doing this exercise in fiscal austerity, therefore let’s look at the way in which money is presently distributed from the public purse to parties as part of the possible deal that, with a bit of leadership and political will, I agree with you is possible".
Mark Harper: Just to add on that particular point about state funding, I think that is shared by all three party leaders. The sense that you would say to the voters, when we are having to make really difficult decisions, one of our priorities-because that is what we would be making it for public funding-was to take money from the taxpayer to give it to political parties. I just think the public would find that unacceptable, however you could say that per head cost was. In terms of a sense of priorities, the public would think that was slightly out of kilter. It is about looking at how much we spend in total, how you spend existing taxpayer funding, and also being more innovative about how we collect money. There are examples from around the world about collecting smaller donations. There are things you can do, and you have to remember what we are about here, which is about campaigning on behalf of the public. Perhaps when you get reports from people who don’t have to get elected, they sometimes don’t always think about the reaction on the doorstep when you are asked about your sense of priorities. I think the public would think they were slightly askew.
Q200 Stephen Williams: The last question leads neatly into that. The Deputy Prime Minister, while being Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, also of course has cross-cutting responsibilities right across government. One of the controversial things in the Budget proposals is Gift Aid, which you are partially responsible for, by quite rightly trying to block tax avoidance, or using the tax system to skew and hypothecate where your tax contribution goes, which effectively is what Gift Aid is. So, if we are going to restrict people’s ability to hypothecate their tax to the Forest of Dean Donkey Sanctuary, or whatever it is, rather than into the Health Service why couldn’t we perhaps look at a mechanism for hypothecating people’s tax contributions to a political party of their choice, so it is no extra-
Nick Clegg: How?
Stephen Williams: Maybe via their tax return or some other mechanism. When they next go to vote-all these suggestions have been made before-I am sure they could tick something on the ballot paper that says, "I want 50 pence of my tax to go to the-"
Nick Clegg: Personally-and I can’t stress enough this is my own personal view-I am much more open to the proposal, which I think was first put forward by the Power Commission a few years ago, of giving individual voters, individual taxpayers, at the same time as they are voting, the right to tick a little box saying, "Here is a little slice of Gift Aid for the party of my choice". It might not even be the party they have supported in the ballot box. Then at least it is in the control of the taxpayers and the control of the public. What really sticks in the throat for me is an unasked-for demand on the taxpayer, on behalf of the political class, for a greater subsidy.
Can I just say on this, because I think it is important to remember-I certainly, and I know the Government as a whole-we have no aversion at all to the idea that you use the tax system to incentivise philanthropy and generosity. It is just a question of degree. It is just a question of whether it is unlimited or not. It is very unusual in the developed world now to have tax reliefs on charitable donations, which are infinite, which are unlimited. I think only Australia has that. We can have a debate about whether we propose to set the limit at the right level, but it is not removing incentive altogether. In fact, our initial proposal is that in effect up to 25% of your annual income can go towards charitable donations without paying tax. Other people say it should be higher. But it is not the idea that a tax incentive is wrong, it is the idea that if you have a tax system that has great big holes in it, because there is no cap at all, you create very distorting behaviour that can lead to some very, very wealthy people not paying their fair share.
Chair: I think the Deputy Prime Minister is straying, using the word "political" in our title for his own ends on that occasion. I have pulled him up for doing that. But can I say it is really helpful. As a Committee, we did not want to see Kelly’s report killed off. We are very pleased to hear that there are efforts among the three party leaders to make a sensible proposal. I would just add, from the Chair, the less people cut off options at this point before negotiations, the easier it will be to come up with something that everyone can agree with, and we wish you well in that.
Q201 Simon Hart: I have a feeling that my question might be ruled out of order because, firstly, it is slightly late in the day to raise about the Protection of Freedoms Bill; and secondly, I think you might say it is a Home Office matter anyway. The question is this-and I could not understand from the passage of the Bill-if you are a military commander in Afghanistan and you wish to deploy covert surveillance against the Taliban you have to obtain MoD ministerial sign-off. Courtesy of the Freedoms Bill, if you are a public body you have to have RIPA approval in order to engage in covert surveillance against a UK citizen. But if you are a private body, you don’t need any of that kind of stuff. You can go on to somebody else’s property. You can obtain evidence covertly-or, indeed, not evidence; you can obtain material covertly. Then, what seems perverse to me, you can supply that evidence to a public body that can then use it. To me, in a sense it encourages public bodies to say, "Okay, we don’t have to have RIPA approval, we just sub-contract that particular role to a private body and we get around the law". There does seem to be an anomaly. I suspect it is too late and you will probably say, "Home Office matter, not my problem, guv". Does that seem to you to be an anomaly, as it seems to be, and if so how can we rectify it?
Nick Clegg: I am in the privileged position of not having to look at things in departmental compartments, so everything is in a sense my problem. Let me look into that. As you know, as originally designed, RIPA was far too open-ended and unqualified. It allowed, in the way that it was introduced by the previous Labour Government, an astonishing array of public servants just to scoop up data information on people without any say-so or permission. We have significantly tightened that up in the Freedoms Bill, by requiring those officials from local authorities to have to prove why it is warranted that they are doing what they are seeking to do. I think what you are referring to is something slightly different which, if I may, I would really like to look into. You are saying that private-sector bodies that fall outside RIPA altogether can, in an unconstrained way, scoop up information about families, residents, individuals, and make that available in a way that evades some of those checks in RIPA on public authorities. I just don’t know the answer. I am a longstanding critic of the unqualified approach that was taken by the previous Government to the RIPA powers. We constrained them in the Freedoms Bill, but if I can look at that particular aspect, I will do so and get back to you.
Q202 Simon Hart: It did seem curious to me that in the Home Office’s defence of its position it said that any changes might encroach on the ability of organisations, like the News of the World, to go about their business, which I thought was an odd sort of sense of timing to use that particular example, but if I can take this up offline, that would be very helpful.
Nick Clegg: Yes. But can I just be clear; you are talking about information that would then be used by public authorities?
Simon Hart: Correct.
Nick Clegg: But that they have access to that information without having to seek the permission to do so under the statutory provisions, which clearly would not apply to journalists and-
Simon Hart: For example, if a local authority wanted to check that you were not lying about your origins, for the purpose of where you might send your child to school, they could use covert surveillance in order to work out where you lived and where you were taking them. They would have to have RIPA authorisation to do that. However, if a nosey neighbour, or indeed an organisation, for example, wanted to acquire that information they could then supply it to the public body, or to the local authority, that could then use it in exactly the same way as had they obtained the material themselves but without the need to go through RIPA.
Nick Clegg: Can I look into it?
Simon Hart: Yes, absolutely.
Nick Clegg: I am sure there is detail there that I am not aware of that I need to look into.
Simon Hart: Yes; thank you.
Q203 Sheila Gilmore: I was going to touch on the statutory question. There are many. Of course, obviously this has a constitutional angle and it has a political angle. In my opinion, the constitutional angle in respect of where powers lie is quite clear but we do run into a political issue. The devolution settlement of 1997-the reason the foundation of the Scottish Parliament was so successful-was that there was a very considerable period of cross-party work, not just political parties but other institutions, the churches in Scotland, the trade unions in Scotland, and various other people who came together and worked through a process. At the moment we appear to have one consultation that has been carried out in the UK. We have an ongoing consultation in Scotland at the moment, which is being carried out by the Scottish Government. I suspect they are going to come to very different conclusions. Have you any suggestions as to how we can move to resolve this?
Nick Clegg: It is very difficult to anticipate without really knowing what the outcome of the Scottish administration’s own consultation will be. You will be familiar with the outcome of the consultation that we conducted, which was overseen by the Secretary of State for Scotland, Mike Moore, which had some very unambiguous responses from the thousands who did respond, notably on the need for clarity and simplicity in the question, and the need to move as quickly as possible on this. I genuinely don’t know whether the Scottish Government’s consultation is going to yield very different results, not least because you will know better than I do, but certainly both the polling evidence and the anecdotal evidence that I come across, speaking to friends from Scotland, visiting Scotland, is that there is this increasing wish to resolve this whole question by way of a referendum, sooner rather than later, and I hope that would be as fully reflected in one consultation as it has been in another.
Q204 Sheila Gilmore: We seem to be in the position where there is apparently popularity in Scotland for something that is called variously "devolution max" or "devolution plus", or whatever. One of the arguments has been that, if that is what people want, why shouldn’t that form part of a referendum. That is not necessarily my opinion but that is obviously a strong opinion that has been put forward.
Nick Clegg: As it happens, I lead a party that has always believed in home rule. In fact, we have set up, under the chairmanship of Ming Campbell-the Liberal Democrats, that is, the Scottish Liberal Democrats-a group that was looking at what "home rule" means in a modern context. I don’t think devolution is an end point. It is a process, and the Scotland Bill is a very important step in that process.
The problem is you can’t really have a discussion across party about what the next step in devolution is-whatever you call it; call it home rule, call it Mary Jane, call it devo plus, whatever-unless you first establish whether Scotland is going to be part of the United Kingdom or not. It seems to me a rather logical chronology between first establishing whether Scotland is going to be part of the United Kingdom or not, but only once you resolve that question, I hope in favour of Scotland remaining within the family of nations of the United Kingdom, only then can you move onto the next question, which is how you devolve further power to Scotland.
If you mix those two entirely distinct questions up, you are really mixing apples and pears. It is actually quite unfair on the Scottish people to present it as a multiple choice of options, when of course it is the SNP whose whole purpose in life is to deliver independence, and I just think they shouldn’t now balk at the chance of putting that to the Scottish people. They should have the courage of their convictions and put the simple question: yes or no, to independence of Scotland? But not at the last minute-maybe for fear that they will not get the right answer-provide lots of other intermediate options.
Let’s have the debate about further devolution of Scotland. I certainly would always advocate greater devolution of powers to Scotland. But do it once we have established that Scotland will remain-as I hope it will-a part of the United Kingdom in the first place.
Mark Harper: There is one other important point. We have been very clear that the decision about whether Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom is a matter for the Scottish people. How you change the devolution settlement is partly a matter for the Scottish people, but it is also a matter for the rest of the United Kingdom because those decisions will have implications for the rest of the country. Those decisions will have to involve not just the Scottish people but the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament and the UK Government, and indeed the other parts of the United Kingdom which will be affected as well.
The idea that you can put those things on the same ballot paper, I just don’t think is very sensible. You need to establish that Scotland stays in the United Kingdom first and then we can have a proper, comprehensive discussion about what fiscal powers, if any, are appropriate and any of the other arrangements. But those questions are rightly a question for everybody in the United Kingdom, not just for Scots. Independence is a matter for the Scottish people; we have been very clear about that. I think they are distinct questions and you can’t deal with them all in one referendum.
The SNP themselves say that they favour a single question. They try to say that there are these other people that want to deal with it on the ballot paper that they might feel they have to facilitate, but certainly the response to our consultation was very clear. Most people want a single question. They want it asked sooner rather than later. They want the Electoral Commission to be involved, so there is some impartial judgement on the question, and they are pretty clear that the existing franchise for people who vote in the Scottish Parliament elections is the right one. It will be interesting to see whether the people that respond to the Scottish Government’s consultation come up with the same clear, overwhelming view and then we can get on and have the debate about the substance rather than the debate about the process. I am confident that the Scottish people will make the decision to stay as part of the United Kingdom, where I think Scotland is stronger and the UK is stronger. Then we can have this debate about where the right balance of powers lies, both in Scotland but also, as the Chair said, how we look at how the rest of the United Kingdom is governed as well.
Q205 Sheila Gilmore: Is this the opportunity to think seriously about things like a written constitution and how the different parts of the United Kingdom fit together?
Mark Harper: Thinking about what the Deputy Prime Minister set out about the whole range of things, we do have a written constitution. We just don’t have one that is all conveniently put into one document. We have a range of things going on with the Silk Commission looking at devolution in Wales; the McKay Commission looking at the implication that devolution has for legislating on things that particularly affect just England. We have a whole range of things going on that will change how our constitutional process works. I think localism, and the level at which you take decisions and the changes we have already taken that are put into law, but have not yet been used through the Localism Act, will of course change.
My own view is that actually trying to have one super document, where you put all that in one place, you might start with if you were starting with a brand new country, but I think our history and tradition has been more evolutionary than revolutionary. I think we will keep evolving all of these things and get to a better position for the future, but whether you need to have it all into one tidy document I am not sure that is necessarily the right way to go.
Nick Clegg: I believe in a written constitution. There are general differences between the parties, but what I would be very reluctant to do is to allow a debate about a written constitution to delay or hinder progress on a whole bunch of things that we can just get on with. I think there will be a tendency to arrest constitutional political progress in any number of other areas. It may in fact be the other areas that we talked about here, whether it is voter registrations, boundaries, party funding reform or House of Lords reform. If you said, "Let’s scoop it all together into some sort of great big jumbo exercise called the new written constitution", it might feel neat, but it might also be fearfully slow.
Chair: You will be very pleased to know that this Committee is, on both your behalves, taking this forward by collating the arguments for and against a written constitution, and what that constitution might look like were people in your positions ever to feel the need for it. You can carry on amending piecemeal Britain’s unwritten constitution while we will carry on digging with very large spades.
We are desperately short of time, and I know I have been rather harsh with colleagues coming back in but two very quick points from Andrew and Eleanor; very quick points please.
Q206 Andrew Griffiths: I am sticking completely to the topic so as not to be ruled out of order. You said, in relation to the referendum on Scottish independence, that we had to know whether Scotland was in or out before we bothered with any of the other elements of devolution and constitutional change. Doesn’t that also apply to House of Lords reform; that we shouldn’t press forward with House of Lords reform until we know whether Scotland will be part of it or not?
Nick Clegg: Firstly, I would say, by the way, one of the many virtues of a reformed House of Lords is you can rely on a more reliable representation of people in the House of Lords from the regions, communities and nations of the United Kingdom. I have not looked at the analysis recently, but there used to be a very heavy preponderance of appointees to the House of Lords, particularly, from the south east of England. At least with the majority elected, or wholly elected-and better still if one believes, in principle, in 100% election-then the Scottish people would know they would reliably have Scottish representatives in the House of Lords, elected by the people of Scotland. In the event that Scotland were to be independent, the effect on the House of Lords would be only one of a multitude of much more complex arguments. What do you do with the banking system? What do you do with our debt? What do you do with our currency? What do you do with defence bases? I just think we can’t arrest life waiting for this. The House of Lords would be a relatively minor part of a long shopping list of highly complex decisions that we would need to take as the United Kingdom would then, in effect, be unravelled.
What I find frustrating about the responses so far from the Scottish Administration is that you would have thought, if you were a party whose sole purpose in life is the independence of Scotland, you would have spent a little bit of time over the last seven decades working out what on earth it means in practice, and really elementary questions such as what it would mean for the currency. What would it mean for debt? What would it mean for representation in the European Union? What would it mean for the banks that have gone belly up that are based in Scotland? What would it mean for the constitutional arrangements? I tend to draw a blank on everything, and I just think the people of Scotland are entitled to know, under this great banner of independence, what it would actually mean.
What would it actually mean for energy bills, for instance? There has been objective evidence produced recently, that it would almost certainly lead to higher energy bills for Scottish families. If I were voting on this, I would really want to know how many extra pounds or pence are going to be put on my energy bill to fulfil Alex Salmond’s dream. With respect, the House of Lords is an issue, but it is one of only many issues that you would need to unravel.
Chair: I know Mark would love to come in, but I am going to let his colleague, Eleanor, jump in very quickly.
Q207 Mrs Laing: I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister most unusually, yet again.
Nick Clegg: Do you? Can we just stop there?
Mrs Laing: Some Scots tend to be ruled by their head not by the heart, and I speak as one.
A very quick question on the process of the referendum in Scotland. The Secretary of State for Scotland has said that the franchise for a referendum will be the same as the franchise for the Scottish parliamentary elections, but can I ask you if you will please look seriously at that issue, because the Scottish parliamentary elections were a moment in time and the results last for years. The referendum is not just a moment in time, it is forever, and the results of the referendum will affect forever. So, will you please look at the franchise because there are people who are Scots, who don’t live in Scotland-this is not a personal plea, no, no, no-who, for example, are in the Armed Forces or for other reasons temporarily outside of Scotland, while people who are temporarily in Scotland would have a vote. This is not a personal pleading. Will you please look at that?
Mark Harper: It is a good point. But I think the point we made in our consultation document-and which received strong support from the public who responded-was that you need a franchise that is settled and is clear. You also need not to choose a franchise, I think, to suit a particular event-we had this debate when we were doing the vote on the AV referendum-because then people will accuse you of having selected the audience to get a particular result. Of the franchises that exist, the one for the Scottish Parliament is the best one. It is not perfect, but it is the best one that balances certainty and clarity. If you start thinking through it for a few moments, trying to define who is Scottish, other than based on their residence in Scotland, opens up a whole range of questions about people’s ancestry and where they are from. It is just very complex. So we settled on the franchise used for the Scottish Parliament. The public who responded to the consultation have endorsed that-not perfection, but the best-that is our starting position, and that is what we will do in terms of our discussion with the Scottish Government.
Q208 Chair: Thank you, Mark. I am sure that can be taken up further in the lobby. One quick question on behalf of Mr Flynn, who had to leave because of staff illness, about the House Business Committee. Is it still the intention of the Government to bring forward a House Business Committee as promised at the time of the election?
Mark Harper: It is. The Government’s commitment is to establish a House Business Committee during the third year of the Parliament, which is about to begin. I know there has been some debate that the Leader of the House has had, about the time within that year that it would happen, with some people pressing him for it to be at the beginning rather than the end. That commitment remains; he has been very clear about that.
One of the things we want to do is use the lessons from the operation of the Backbench Business Committee. There has been some work going on at the Procedures Committees looking at that. The Committee itself is going to look at it in the first session’s experience, and we are absolutely committed to taking that on board. The Backbench Business Committee has been a good experiment and has strengthened Parliament, and we are committed to improving the arrangements going forward. So, yes, it is a continuing commitment of the Government, and the Leader of the House obviously has lead responsibility on delivering it.
Chair: Can I thank both of our witnesses? Amazingly we have still not touched Sunday trading, local government, e-petitions, police and crime commissioners and many other issues.
Nick Clegg: Let’s do another couple of hours.
Chair: In addition, I was harsh with colleagues, who I normally can have a little bit more freedom with, in order to accommodate everyone. But it has been a very interesting and informative session. Thank you both very much for your time.