Page last updated at 16:06 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 17:06 UK

In full: Constitution proposals

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made a wide-ranging statement on proposed changes to Britain's constitution and voting system. Here is his statement in full and the response of other parties at Westminster.


With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Government's proposal to invite the House to agree further democratic reform including legislation - before the House rises for the summer - on the conduct of MPs.

The last few weeks have shown us that the public require - as an urgent imperative - higher standards of financial conduct from all people in public life and an end to the abuses of the past. There is no more pressing task for this Parliament than to respond to this public demand.

I believe that most members of Parliament enter public life so they can serve the public interest. I believe also that the vast majority of MPs work hard for their constituents and demonstrate by their service that they are in politics not for what they can get but for what they can give.

But all of us have to have the humility to accept that public confidence has been shaken and the battered reputation of this institution cannot be repaired without fundamental change.

At precisely the moment when the public need their politicians to be focused on the issues which affect their lives - on fighting back against recession, and keeping people in their jobs and homes the subject of politics itself has become the focus of our politics.

Mr Speaker we cannot move our country forward unless we break with the old practices and the old ways. Each of us has a part to play in the hard task of regaining the country's trust - not for the sake of our different parties, but for the sake of our common democracy.

Without this trust there can be no legitimacy - and without legitimacy, none of us can do the job our constituents have sent us here to do.

Mr Speaker we must reflect on what has happened, redress the abuses, make sure that nothing like this can ever happen again and make sure the public see us as individual MPs accountable to our constituents.

It will be what we now do, not just what we say, that will prove we have learnt and that we have changed.

First, Mr Speaker, transparency. All MPs' past and future expenses should and will be published on the internet.

Second home claims submitted by MPs from all sides of the house over the last 4 years must be scrutinised by the independently led panel. This will ensure repayment where it is necessary, and lead to discipline where there have been inappropriate claims.

And, Mr Speaker, I know that you are working to conclude the reassessment process urgently. We must now publish the past four years' receipts and start and conclude the scrutiny process as quickly as possible.

This House has already agreed to restrict expenses further to those needed for parliamentary duties alone; to cap the costs for housing; to require all spending to be receipted and to ensure that incomes from second jobs are fully accounted for.

All parties have committed themselves to accept the further recommendations of the independent Kelly Committee once they are received later this year - provided these proposals meet the tests of increased transparency, accountability and reduced costs for the taxpayer.

But Mr Speaker, these steps to sort out the expenses crisis are necessary but not sufficient. We need to go further.

At its first meeting yesterday, the Government's democratic council decided to bring forward new legislative proposals before the summer adjournment, on two issues which have been the subject of constructive cross-party discussion.

First, we propose that the House of Commons - and then subsequently the House of Lords - move from the old system of self-regulation to independent, statutory regulation. This will mean the immediate creation of a new parliamentary standards authority with delegated power to regulate the system of allowances.

No more can Westminster operate in ways reminiscent of the last century where the members make up the rules and operate them among themselves.

The proposed new authority would take over the role of the fees office in authorising members' claims; oversee the new allowance system - following proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life; maintain the register of members' interests; and disallow claims, require repayment and apply firm and appropriate sanctions in cases of financial irregularity. Mr Speaker, I welcome the cross-party support for this proposal.

I believe that the whole House will also wish to agree as part of this process that the new regulator should scrutinise efficiency and value for money in Parliament's expenditure.

And ensure, as suggested to Sir Christopher Kelly, that Parliament costs less.

Second, the House will be asked to agree a statutory code of conduct for all MPs, clarifying their role in relation to their constituents and Parliament - detailing what the electorate can expect from their MPs and the consequences that will follow for those who fail to deliver. It will codify much more clearly the different potential offences that must be addressed and the options available to sanction.

Mr Speaker, these measures will be included in a short selfstanding bill - on the conduct of members in the Commons - which will be introduced and be debated before the summer adjournment. Mr Speaker, this will address the most immediate issues about which we know the public are most upset - but it will only be the first stage of our legislation on constitutional renewal.

The current system of sanctions for misconduct by members is not fit for purpose and does not give the public the confidence they need that wrongdoing will be dealt with in an appropriate way.

The last person to be expelled from this house was 55 years ago - in 1954 - and it remains the case that members can be sentenced to prison for up to a year without being required to give up their parliamentary seat.

The sanctions available against financial misconduct or corruption have not been updated to meet the needs of the times.

This is not a modern and accountable system that puts the interests of constituents first. It needs to change.

There will be consultation with all sides of the House to come forward with new proposals for dealing effectively with inappropriate behaviour, including potentially the options of effective exclusion and recall for gross financial misconduct identified by the new independent regulator and the House itself.

And the House of Lords needs to be reformed too. So following a meeting of the House Committee of the House of Lords, and at their request, I have today written to the senior salaries review body to ask them to review the system of financial support in the House of Lords to increase accountability, transparency and reduce cost. For the first time there will also be legislation for new disciplinary sanctions for the misconduct of peers in the House of Lords.

We must also take forward urgent modernisation of the procedures of the House of Commons. So I am happy to give the Government's support to a proposal from my righthonourable friend the Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee - that we will work with a special parliamentary commission comprising members from all sides of this House, convened for a defined period to advise on necessary reforms - including making select committee processes more democratic, scheduling more and better time for non-Government business in the house, and enabling the public to initiate directly some issues for debate.

And given the vital role transparency has played in sweeping away the decrepit system of allowances, and holding power to account, I believe we should do more to spread the culture and practice of freedom of information.

So as a next step, the Justice Secretary will set out further plans to look at broadening the application of freedom of information to include additional bodies which also need to be subject to greater transparency and accountability. This is the public's money. They should know how it is spent.

I should also announce that, as part of extending the availability of official information and as our response to the Dacre Review, we will progressively reduce the time taken to release official documents.

As the report recommended, we have considered the need to strengthen protection for particularly sensitive material and there will be protection of Royal Family and Cabinet papers as part of strictly limited exemptions. But we will reduce the time for release of all other official documents below the current 30 years, to 20 years.

And so that Government information is accessible and useful for the widest possible group of people, I have asked Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who led the creation of the world wide web, to help us drive the opening up of access to Government data in the web over the coming months.

Mr Speaker, in the last 12 years we have created the devolved administrations, ended the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, and introduced the Freedom of Information Act and the Human Rights Act.

But just as through recent changes we are removing ancient Royal prerogatives and making the Executive more accountable to Parliament, so, to establish and renew its legitimacy and status, Parliament itself must now become more accountable to the people.

And Mr Speaker, democratic reform can not be led in Westminster alone. Rather it must principally be led by our engagement with the public. It cannot be top down. That is part of the lesson of the last month. The public want to be, and should be, part of the solution. So we must build a process that engages citizens themselves, people of all parties and none; of all faiths and no faith; from every background and every part of the country.

So over the coming weeks the Government will set out proposals for debate and reform on five major issues.

First, we will move forward with reform of the House of Lords.

The Government's White Paper published last July, and for which there is backing from other parties, committed us to an 80% or 100% elected House of Lords. We must now take the next steps as we complete this reform. The Government will come forward with published proposals for the final stages of House of Lords reform before the summer break - including the next steps we can take to resolve the position of the remaining hereditary peers and other outstanding issues.

Second, setting out the rights that people can expect but also the responsibilities that come with those rights as a British citizen is a fundamental step in balancing power between Government, Parliament and the people. Mr Speaker, it is to some people extraordinary that in Britain we still have a largely unwritten constitution. I personally favour a written constitution but I recognise that changing this would represent an historic shift in our constitutional arrangements so such proposals will be subject to wide public debate and ultimately the drafting of such a constitution would be a matter for the widest possible consultation with the British people themselves.

Third is the devolution of power and engagement of people themselves in their local communities.

The house will be aware of the proposals for the completion of devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland.

Next week the Caiman Commission will report with recommendations on the future of devolution in Scotland within the union. The Government's 2006 act permits further devolution in Wales.

And my right honourable friend, the Communities and Local Government Secretary will set out how we will strengthen the engagement of citizens in the democratic life of their own communities as we progress this next level of devolution in England - so we must consider whether we should offer stronger, clearly defined powers to local Government and city regions and strengthen their accountability to local people.

Fourth, Mr Speaker, last year we published our review of the electoral system and there is a long-standing debate on this issue. I still believe the link between the MP and constituency is essential and that it is the constituency that is best able to hold MPs to account. We should only be prepared to propose change if there is a broad consensus in the country that it would strengthen our democracy and our politics by improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of both Government and Parliament; and by enhancing the level and quality of representation and public engagement. Mr Speaker, we will set out proposals for taking this debate forward.

Fifth we will set out proposals for increasing public engagement in politics. To improve electoral registration we will consider how we increase the number of people on the register and help to combat fraud. And on receipt of the Youth Citizenship Commission Report - and having heard from young people themselves - we will set out the steps we will take to increase the engagement of young people in politics - including whether to give further consideration to the voting age.

Mr Speaker, as we come forward with proposals, in each case the Government will look to consult widely. And all proposed reforms will be underpinned by cross-party discussions. Our proposals will also be informed by leading external figures including academics and others who command public respect and have a recognised interest or expertise in the different elements of democratic reform. I expect to conclude in time to shape the Government's forward legislative programme and to feed into the Queen's Speech.

Mr Speaker, in the midst of all the rancour and recrimination about expenses, let us seize the moment to lift our politics to a higher standard. In the midst of doubt, let us revive confidence. Let us stand together because on this at least I think we all agree: that Britain deserves a political system equal to the hopes and

character of our people. Let us differ on policy; that is inevitable. But let us stand together for integrity and democracy; that is now more essential than ever. And I commend this statement to the House.


The Prime Minister has spoken a lot about constitutional change and innovation.

But of course, isn't the real change we need not really much of an innovation at all?

Isn't the answer to our discredited politics, to our disillusioned country and to our desperately weak Government a General Election?

Two years ago, the Prime Minister didn't call an election because he thought he'd win it.

Three weeks ago, he said he didn't want one because it would bring chaos.

Lord Mandelson, the man who now runs the Government, says Labour are against one because they might lose it.

How many more excuses will they come up with before recognising it's time for the people to have their say?

Let me turn to the proposals themselves.

The country is too centralised.

Parliament is too weak.

And the Government is too top-down, too secretive and too unwilling to give up power.

Above all, isn't the real problem that people feel shut out of decision making, unable to control the things that matter to them?

There is much in this Statement that we support - not least because it is taken from the comprehensive case for reform that I made to the Open University.

They have at least mastered the power of copying things.

More power for local government. We agree.

But let's not stop there. Why not abolish the regional quangos that have taken so much power away from local government?

We support greater independence for select committees, which gets a mention today.

But why can't the Prime Minister say today that these watchdogs should be freely elected and not appointed by the whips office?

I accept this is a difficult decision for him. In a way it's a difficult decision for me because it means giving up patronage. But I'm prepared to do it. Is he prepared to?

We will back a Parliamentary Standards Authority to supervise all matters relating to MPs' pay and expenses.

But there are still serious questions to answer.

Not least how it relates to this House and to whom it will be ultimately accountable.

The problem is Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister has promised constitutional change countless times before.

He promised it when he launched his leadership for the Labour Party two years ago.

Again in his first statement as Prime Minister to the House.

Again in his speech on liberty in the autumn of 2007.

He promised it in two Queen's Speeches when he specifically pledged a Constitutional Renewal Bill.

That Bill was first mooted in November 2007.

Then again in December 2008.

Why has it taken so long?

If you look at the things he's proposed in the past - a British Day, an Institute of Britishness, a Bill of Rights, a written constitution, reform of the Lords, all endlessly launched and relaunched but nothing ever happens.

It's not so much a Government strategy; it's a sort of relaunch distraction strategy to try to give the Prime Minister something to talk about when he's in desperate straits.

The Prime Minister's latest brainchild - you can't make this one up - the National Council for Democratic Renewal. It sounds like something out of North Korea.

But let us be clear about what this is.

It's not some outward-looking convention open to the public.

It's not even cross-party.

It's just a bunch of Ministers talking to themselves.

Mr. Speaker, what these proposals fail to address is the central question that we believe should lie behind any program for constitutional reform.

How do we take power away from the political elite and give it to the man and woman in the street?

Let me give him some real ideas.

Isn't it time to allow people the opportunity to put forward a proposition and have it voted on in a local referendum? Shouldn't we introduce so-called Citizens' Initiatives?

Isn't it time to give local people the right to stop excessive taxation? Shouldn't we give them the right to hold a referendum on massive council tax rises?

And when we as democratically elected politicians promise a referendum, as we all did on the European Constitution, shouldn't we stick to it?

Isn't it things like that that really sap the faith that people have in politics?

At the heart of any program of constitutional reform should be proper taxpayer transparency.

Isn't it time to publish all public spending, national and local, online - so each taxpayer can see precisely how their hard-earned money is being spent?

If the test of effective constitutional reform is pushing power downwards, then isn't it the case that nothing fails more than Proportional Representation?

Let me reaffirm. We believe this is a recipe for weak coalition governments.

Instead of voters choosing their Government on the basis of manifestos, doesn't it all too often mean party managers choosing Governments on the basis of backroom deals?

Our view is clear.

We should not take away from the British people the right to get rid of weak, tired and discredited Governments.

The most powerful thing in politics is not actually the soapbox or the despatch box, it's the ballot box - particularly when it leads to the removal van.

And I have to say to the Prime Minister: won't people conclude that he's only started talking about proportional representation because he fears he's going to lose under the existing rules?

If we want an electoral system that is fairer, shouldn't we be considering making sure each constituency has equal worth?

Right now some constituencies have twice as many voters as others, putting a premium on some votes.

Isn't it time to ask the Boundary Commission to re-draw boundaries to make them the same size?

At the same time, shouldn't we be reducing the size of the House of Commons?

Mr Speaker, isn't it the case that it's not the Alternative Vote people want right now; they want the chance to vote for an alternative Government?

Aren't these proposals a pretty sorry attempt to distract attention away from a Prime Minister who has lost his authority; a Cabinet full of second preferences; and a Labour Government that has led this country to the brink of bankruptcy?


I welcome this deathbed conversion to political reform from the man who has blocked change at almost every opportunity for the last twelve years.

"Everyone knows the Labour party will lose the next General Election. So any reforms must be in place before the election if they are to mean anything at all. Anything else would be a betrayal of the British people, who are angry and demanding we change our rotten political system for good.

"Doesn't he see this is no time for more committees, more reviews and more consultation - we've been debating these issues for decades - isn't it now time to get things done?

"I strongly welcome the Prime Minister's commitment to moving towards an elected House of Lords.

"But will the Prime Minister give us a date by which this reform will be complete? We've already voted on it in this place: there should be no more delay.

"I also strongly welcome the move towards a Parliamentary Standards Authority and a MPs Code of Conduct. These changes should be implemented immediately with no more delay.

"So will he ask this House to forego its summer recess so that we can push through all the necessary changes to clean up politics?

"And will he make sure his immediate proposals include the right for people to sack their MP if it has been shown that they have done something seriously wrong?

"I am dismayed that the Prime Minister is completely silent on the issue of party funding. How on earth can he possibly justify it? We cannot allow our politics to go the way of America's, where elections have become a contest of advertising budgets, not ideas.

"Why delay when he could just implement the Hayden Phillips recommendations in the Party Funding Bill that's already being debated in another place? The way forward's been agreed - so will he now act?

"Turning to electoral reform, I welcome any movement away from our discredited system. A system which gives his government untrammelled power when only one in five people voted for them. A system which gives MPs safe seats for life. As Robin Cook recognised, as his new Home Secretary realises, this can't go on.

"So why is he seeking to restart a debate on electoral reform? We've had the debate. Roy Jenkins' report, the independent Power Inquiry. We can't afford to wait for a cross-party consensus because the Conservatives will never want to change this cosy Westminster stitch-up.

"We don't need to wait for his Cabinet to make its mind up. It's not up to them to decide how our democracy works. People should now be given a say. So will the Prime Minister now call a referendum, this Autumn, to give people a choice?

"A choice between the bankrupt system we have now. The timid option of Alternative Vote, a baby step in the right direction. And serious proposals for reform like Roy Jenkins' AV+ or better still the Single Transferable Vote?

"He has nothing to lose. This is no time for his trademark timidity. Just get on with it. Will he now cancel the recess? Pass the legislation we need? And give people the say they deserve?


The timing of Mr Brown's announcement will have raised a lot of eyebrows as it comes right before the Plaid and SNP motion which will be debated this afternoon.

The proposed reforms are overdue but at least this is a start and I'm pleased that the impetus is now there to get things moving. We will repeat calls this afternoon for the dissolution of Parliament and a General Election. Reforms need to be implemented but through an inclusive and wider discussion process.

Plaid have emphasised the need for a referendum to give the public a say on important democratic issues including: the present voting system, the power of the Whips, the Royal prerogative and calling for a fixed term parliament.

Even if we lose the vote tonight, we will have sparked a debate about the wider constitutional issues as Mr Brown has already demonstrated. Real electoral and expenses reform at Westminster is long overdue, but by addressing these measures we can begin to rebuild the public's trust.


Gordon Brown is not so much the great reformer as he is the late reformer. He has had twelve years to make proposals for reform but has waited until his government is on the ropes and his party is in meltdown before suddenly sparking into action.

Real electoral reform at Westminster is long overdue, but we first need a General Election so that we have a House of Commons that commands trust.

This debate comes at a crucial moment for Westminster, and in the rush by the UK parties to bring forward proposals for reform, they would do well to look to the model of the Scottish Parliament. Most ideas being suggested to reform Westminster have been up and running at Holyrood for ten years - fixed terms, PR, a strong committee system, and total disclosure and transparency of expenses.

Until Scotland secures independence, Holyrood may have fewer powers than Westminster, but it is abundantly clear that the Scottish Parliament provides the gold standard in setting new standards of democracy.

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