Here is the full text of Justice Secretary Jack Straw's statement to the House of Commons on 25 March, 2008, on his constitutional reform proposals:
With permission Mr Speaker I should like to make a statement about our programme of constitutional renewal. With this Statement are published a White Paper, the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, and an analysis of the responses to our consultations. Copies of these are available in the Vote Office and on my ministry's website.
Mr Speaker, the accountability of government is fundamental to the health of our democracy. Arbitrary action and lack of transparency can subvert that. But, for decades, the royal prerogative has been used by successive governments to sustain executive power.
Last July, my Right Honourable Friend, the prime minister announced his determination that the government he leads would reverse this process and surrender significant executive powers to Parliament or otherwise limit them.
Following my Right Honourable Friend's July statement and the accompanying Governance of Britain Green Paper, five consultation papers were issued. I am grateful to all who responded. We have taken account of their views in the White Paper and the draft Bill.
The draft Bill is in five Parts:
1. Protest around Parliament: In July the prime minister undertook to consult widely on managing protests around Parliament to ensure that people's right to protest was not subject to unnecessary restrictions.
Our view is that Parliament itself is best placed to decide what needs to be secured to ensure Members are able freely to discharge their responsibilities. Clause 1 of the draft Bill therefore repeals sections 132-138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. We invite the views of Parliament on whether additional provision is needed to keep open the passages leading to the Palace of Westminster and to ensure that, for example, excessive noise is not used to disrupt the workings of Parliament.
Part 2 of the Bill sets out major reforms to the role of the Attorney General, and the management of prosecutions, to make the arrangements more transparent and to enhance public confidence. The proposals involve recasting the relationship between the Attorney and the prosecuting authorities.
In particular the Attorney will cease to have any power to give directions to prosecutors in individual cases, save in certain exceptional cases which give rise to issues of national security. The Attorney will have to report to Parliament on any exercise of that power.
By clause 3 there would be a protocol which will set out how the Attorney and the prosecuting authorities are to exercise their functions in relation to each other. This will be laid before Parliament, as will an Annual Report. We do not propose changing the Attorney's role as chief legal adviser to the government or his or her attendance at Cabinet.
Part three of the Bill builds on the significant reforms introduced by my Right Honourable and Noble Friend Lord Falconer to reinforce the independence of the judiciary. The Bill proposes to remove the Prime Minister entirely from making judicial appointments, and the Lord Chancellor from appointments below the High Court.
Part 4 of the Bill makes it a statutory requirement that treaties must be laid before both Houses of Parliament before ratification. If this House were then to vote against ratification the Government could not proceed to ratify it.
Whilst this is obviously a matter for Parliament, the White Paper suggests that a valuable role could be played by committees of either or both Houses in the scrutiny of treaties prior to ratification. I should just say these proposals do not affect the current arrangements for EU and tax treaties which already have a statutory procedure attached to them.
Part 5 of the Bill will for the first time put the Civil Service on a statutory footing by enshrining the core values of the Civil Service - impartiality, integrity, honest and objectivity - into law, as well as the historic principle of appointment on merit.
The Bill makes provision for special advisers and the Civil Service Commission. The Bill has benefited from the detailed comments on the draft Civil Service Bill in 2004 and from the work of the Public Administration Select Committee. I am grateful for their help.
Mr Speaker, may I now turn to the other key proposals in the white paper.
There was a widespread welcome in July for my Right Honourable Friend the Prime Minister's proposals that the government should limit the executive's powers to deploy Her Majesty's Armed Forces into conflict situations. As well as from those who responded to the consultation document we have also benefited from earlier Select Committee reports from both Houses. In the event there was significant support for the recommendations from the Lords' Constitution Committee.
What we are now proposing is that Parliament's role should be both enshrined and guaranteed by a Resolution of this House. A detailed draft of this is set out in the White Paper (on pages 53 - 56). It would require the Prime Minister of the day to seek the approval of this House before deciding to commit forces into armed conflict abroad. It requires him to lay a report before this House setting out the terms of approval sought and information about the objectives and legal matters relating to the armed conflict.
There are exceptions to this in relation to emergencies and operational secrecy, with a requirement in such cases to inform but not to seek retrospective approval. Special Forces would be exempt from any of these provisions. These changes, if agreed, would define a clear role for Parliament in the most critical of all decisions to face a nation, whilst ensuring that our nation's security is not compromised.
Last July's Governance of Britain Green Paper contained proposals on increasing parliamentary scrutiny of some public appointments. Since then, this has been considered by the Liaison Committee. We will respond to their recommendations shortly.
On the dissolution and recall of Parliament, proposals have already been made to the Modernisation Committee. We look forward to hearing their views.
Last Wednesday in his statement on the National Security Strategy (Hansard col. 925-9) my Right Honourable Friend the Prime Minister said 'we will immediately go ahead to introduce a resolution of both Houses - in advance of any future legislation - that will enshrine an enhanced scrutiny and public role for the Intelligence and Security Committee.'
The White Paper sets out these arrangements in detail.
The government is committed to reviewing the prerogative power with regard to issuing passports. Draft legislation will be published in due course.
The government is also reviewing the remaining executive prerogative powers, for example the prerogative to grant mercy. The government will consider the outcome of this work and will consult on how we plan to proceed.
Mr Speaker the government remains committed to the establishment of the Church of England, and greatly values the role played by the Church in our national life. Appointments to senior Church positions will continue to be made by Her Majesty the Queen, who should continue to be advised on the exercise of Her powers of appointment by one of Her Ministers, which will usually be the Prime Minister.
We are very grateful to the General Synod for its proposals on how new appointments procedures should work and the government is discussing with the Church future long-term arrangements.
The government received over 300 responses to the consultation on the flying of the Union Flag. In line with the majority of responses we have decided that the interim change made to the guidance to allow Government departments to fly the Union Flag whenever they wish, should now become permanent. There are no plans to change the arrangements for flag flying in Northern Ireland.
Mr Speaker, good law is imperative to accessible and modern constitutional arrangements.
For 40 years the Law Commission has played a vital role in this regard. I intend to strengthen its role by placing a statutory duty on the Lord Chancellor to report annually to Parliament on the government's intentions regarding outstanding Law Commission recommendations and in providing a statutory backing for the arrangements underpinning the way government works with the Law Commission. These changes sit alongside those the Leader of the House announced last week which will strengthen the scrutiny of laws after they have been enacted by Parliament.
We are ensuring our constitutional arrangements are continuing to meet the needs of the public we serve. On reform of the House of Lords I should tell the House that discussions in the cross-party Working Group are proceeding well. We are on track to publish a White Paper before the summer recess.
Over the coming months we will be publishing a Green Paper on a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities and on the values which should bind us together as citizens.
And today my Right Honourable Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has announced that Professor Sir Kenneth Calman has agreed to serve as Chair of a Commission to Review the Scotland Act. Such a Commission was proposed in and approved by the Scottish Parliament.
The government welcomes that Parliament's support for the aim of strengthening devolution, and securing Scotland's place in the Union. We are giving our full support to this cross border, cross party review.
Mr Speaker the proposals in the White Paper and draft Bill go to the heart of how power in a modern democracy should be exercised. They are not a final blueprint, but part of the much wider programme towards a new constitutional settlement.
They will strengthen the role of Parliament in our democracy.
For it is Parliament, the seat of our democracy, which is central to this programme of constitutional renewal.
I commend this statement to the House.