» Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Constitutional Reform

The Prime Minister’s Spokesman began by highlighting to Lobby the key points in the document:

On limiting powers of the executive, the important points were the measures relating to deploying troops abroad and requesting the dissolution and recall of Parliament. We were also saying that we would reform the role of the Attorney General, with the Attorney General saying today that she will not play a role in any individual criminal prosecution cases, except where there was specific legislation or where national security concerns arose.

On making the executive more accountable, there were significant reforms to the Intelligence and Security Committee, allowing them to appoint an independent investigator, and moving towards a more consultative process for selecting members for the Intelligence and Security Committee. The Prime Minister said at the weekend that he had been talking for some time about publishing a national security strategy, and we were saying today that this would be overseen by a new national security committee, chaired by the Prime Minister.

On statistics, there were two measures. First, we were going to appoint the Chairman of the Independent Statistics Board on the basis of a vote on the floor of the House. It was his understanding that the only two other appointments made in this way were the Speaker and the Controller and Auditor General. We were also limiting the pre-release of official statistics to 24 hours before publication.

On reinvigorating democracy, we would consult on moving voting to weekends and on lowering the voting age.

On the whole question of constitutional reform, the Secretary for Justice would be leading a series of consultations on a number of issues around a potential new statement of British values, perhaps leading to a British Bill of Rights and Duties, and opening up a debate on a written constitution, whilst recognising, as the Prime Minister had said in his statement, that this would represent a fundamental change, and we could only go ahead if there was a full consensus.

Asked when the 12 powers that the Prime Minister would relinquish would take effect from, the PMS replied that most were subject to consultation, full details could be found in the document. A number would come into immediate effect, such as what was happening with the Attorney General for example.

Asked if this meant that the Attorney General would not be involved in something like the cash for honours investigation, but in the case of British Aerospace, where there were arguably issues of national security, the PMS replied that we had said that this would not apply to issues relating to national security.

Asked who would now appoint Bishops of the Church of England, the PMS replied that The Queen appointed Bishops of the Church of England, acting on advice from Ministers. The current process involved two names being put forward by the Crown Nominations Commission of the Church of England. We would consult fully with the Church on moving towards a system where they would only put forward one name.

Asked about the Bill of Rights, and were we simply talking about a declaratory set of rights and duties, or some kind of document that would have legal force, the PMS replied that this would all be something that was subject to a full consultation process, led by Jack Straw.

Put that the UK had managed without Bill of Rights for hundreds of years, and why did we suddenly think we needed one now, the PMS replied that one issue we had not discussed was citizenship – what it meant to be British and a British citizen. This was something that had evolved over time, and when you looked at this and tried to understand the rights that pertained to citizens, and the rights that pertained to residents, it was not really clear what the rationale for the distinction was. Lord Goldsmith would be leading a review on citizenship, to look at the set of issues around what were the particular rights and responsibilities that were associated with British citizenship. In this diverse society we lived in, it would help create some clearer sense of what it meant to be a British citizen, and would help deliver social cohesion.

Asked what the next steps were, the PMS replied that we would need to legislate for a number of the measures, and there would be legislation being brought forward in the next session, for example the core elements of the Civil Service Act, which would be part of the legislative package. Issue by issue these would now be taken forward in slightly separate ways. But in terms of a bigger debate around a Bill of Rights and written constitution, this was a process being led by the Secretary of Justice. In terms of the overall package, it would be taken forward by the Ministry of Justice.

Asked if there was any thinking that this could potentially replace the Human Rights Act, the PMS replied that there was some language on this in the document around pages 60-61. The effect of repealing the Human Rights Act would be to prevent British citizens from exercising their fundamental rights in British courts, and lead to British citizens needing to appeal to Strasbourg to assert their rights. But we go on to say that the Human Rights Act should not necessarily be regarded as the last word on the subject.

Asked if this was related to the Bill of Rights, the PMS replied that part of the consultation was how a British bill of rights and duties might sit alongside the Human Rights Act. Asked what the thinking would be, the PMS replied that the thinking would be developed by the Secretary of Justice over the weeks and months ahead.

Put that the Security Services were particularly exercised about the deportation of convicted terrorists, and asked to explain more on what would happen on that front, the PMS replied that this was a separate issue. It was an issue about the interpretation of the current Human Rights Act. But this was something that was much more longer term, and was not about any specific issue. Clearly all of these issues would have to be looked at as part of the consultation. Any concerns or reservations that the Security Services or others had, then this would be something that would be looked at as part of the consultation led by the Justice Secretary.

Put that this issue was now urgent and imperative, the PMS replied that his understanding was that the Government was currently contesting the House of Lords judgement on this particular issue. We could have a separate discussion about that particular issue, on which there were specific concerns that the Government had and were trying to address thorough the legal process, but that was a rather different issue than the much broader longer term issue that we were talking about today.

Asked if the Ministerial Code was essentially the same code or had it been substantially rewritten, and was it the case that the Prime Minister would still require the independent body to do any investigation, or would they be able to launch their own investigation, the PMS replied that the ministerial Code was set out on page 39. On the independent advisor, this was at the Prime Minister’s request as he would be ultimately accountable for the conduct of his Government. The other change was that the independent advisor would publish an annual report and a list of members interests. The annual report would be laid before Parliament, and Ministers wishing to take up outside appointments on leaving office, would be required to seek the advice of the advisory committee and business appointment laws.

Put to him that we already had an independent advisor who carried out investigations at the request of the Prime Minister, the PMS replied that the previous Prime Minister had his advisor, this Prime Minister would appoint his own advisor, but we were adding that the independent advisor would publish an annual report, which would outline the investigations he had made. We were also requiring Ministers to publish a list of their interests in the way that members of the House publish interests.

Asked who would ultimately decide if the Ministerial code had been breached, the PMS replied that it would be the Prime Minister, as he was the person who was accountable for the conduct of his Government.

Asked if the independent advisor had the right to decide whether or not there should be an investigation, or was this still a matter for the Prime Minister, the PMS replied that it was a matter for the Prime Minister to ask the independent advisor to investigate particular issues.

Asked when we expected the Prime Minister’s independent advisor on the Ministerial Code would be announced, the PMS replied that we expected to make an announcement shortly.

Asked what the Prime Minister’s view was on voting at weekends and voting at 16, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister was in the market for listening to views. If the Prime Minister thought it was a complete non-runner, we would not be putting this out there as an idea for consultation.

Asked when we expected the process to complete, the PMS replied that there were lots of different issues here, some that came into effect immediately, some that would require legislation within the next year, some that would require legislation over a slightly longer timetable, and then the whole issue of discussion and consultation around the Bill of Rights and written constitution. There was not any single timetable.

Asked if electoral reforms would be brought in before the next election, the PMS replied that electoral reform would represent a very big step. In this Parliament we were committed to a review of voting systems that had been in place since 1998.

Asked if weekend elections could happen by the next election, the PMS replied that this would depend on the process on consultation that Jack Straw would undertake.

Asked if the National Security Council would be a body similar to the Council in the US, and how would members be appointed, and who would head up the Council, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister would chair the National Security Council. It would incorporate a number of Cabinet committees that already existed. It would be a cross-governmental body that would meet on a regular basis with a secretariat.

Asked if we were talking about men (or women) in uniform as well as men in suits, the PMS replied that we already had men of uniform in the Government.

Put that since the split of the Home Office, the Prime Minister did chair a monthly meeting, and asked how was this different, the PMS replied that those meetings related to one particular issue. What we were talking about here was something much broader.

Asked for an example when Parliament did want to be recalled, and how could Parliament vote to recalled if it was not sitting, the PMS replied that there would have to be a mechanism in place, either through petition or some other way, as there was no current obligation for representations of MPs to be acted on.

Asked if any of the powers relinquished by the Prime Minister would have to go to vote, the PMS replied that some of them would have to go to vote. For example, if we were going to reform the role of the Attorney General, that would require legislation. The details were all in the document. For example, on deploying armed forces abroad, we were saying there would be a Parliamentary resolution that would set out criteria on which a Parliament vote would be necessary on each individual case.

Asked if the Civil Service Act would be introduced next year, the PMS replied that it would be introduced in the next session as part of the wider legislative package. Not necessarily a separate Bill in its own right.

Asked on petitioning Parliament, and would there be a trigger figure on which something had to be debated, the PMS replied that this would be looked at as part of our consultation.

Asked if the House of Lords reform would move forward before the next election, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister said there would be an updated statement from the Justice Secretary before recess.

Asked which demonstrations in Parliament Square we did not like, the PMS replied that as far as the Prime Minister was concerned, if people wanted to hold rallies within the vicinity of Parliament, then this was a perfectly legitimate thing to do in a democracy. If there was anything that prevented that, or made it difficult, then that should be looked at. Although there were clearly security issues that needed to be looked at as well. This was about allowing people to exercise their legitimate right to rally around the vicinity of Parliament.

Asking if the vetting of appointments would be done by select committees, and would they have the right to veto without any ministerial say so, the PMS replied that the specifics of this were in the document.

Asked on the peace and war issue if we were more or less where we were before, with the Prime Minister still exercised the royal prerogative to declare a state of war, there would usually be a vote in Parliament on that, but there would always be circumstances where action need to be taken without that, the PMS replied that that was the point, who had the discretion to decide? What we had in mind was a Parliamentary resolution that clearly set out what the criteria might be. Clearly there would be circumstances where for operational reasons this was just not practical. We wouldn’t want to do anything that would put our armed forces at risk.

Asked to confirm that technically we were not ceding the royal prerogative power on this, and that there would then be a confirmatory resolution in the House that might set limits on what we could do, the PMS replied that this was correct.

Put that the Prime Minister retained the right to declare war or send troops into action, but at a later stage would put the whole thing to a vote in the House of Commons, the PMS replied that we were saying that we wanted to move to a position where there was agreement with Parliament about what the circumstances might be in which there would be a vote, and what the acceptable circumstances might be where a vote might not be possible. Obviously we would not want to do anything that would put operational capability at risk.

Put that Britain’s ability to go to war would not be down to a vote in Parliament, the PMS replied that it would depend on the circumstances. In principle, yes it would be subject to a vote in Parliament, unless there were particular issues relating to operations or troops, where to do so would put the security of the nation and our troops at risk. This was why we needed to have a proper consultation with the armed forces and other to make sure that we got this right.

Put that trust in politicians would not be restored by voting on the appointment of Bishops, and that his mum wouldn’t be interested in 99% of what had been announced today, the PMS replied that appointing Bishops was just a small part of this. The journalist’s mum presumably cared about whether or not politicians could be trusted to do the job which they had been elected to do. This was about addressing some of those concerns.

Asked if the Prime Minister had ruled out a referendum on the EU treaty, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister had made his position clear on that today and in recent days.

Asked if this was not an admission of defeat as the Prime Minister continually said he was handing power away because no one trusted him, and wasn’t this the political class giving up, the PMS replied that this was not the case at all. A lot of this was about strengthening the role of Parliament.

Asked why when so many things had been thrown out to debate in consultation, a debate about Scotland and its constitution had been ruled out, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister and the Government were quite clear on this, we did not want to be in the position where we had two classes of MP, as this would threaten breaking up the Untied Kingdom.

Briefing took place at 15:00 | Search for related news

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