Prime Minister presents changes to parliament but rules out referendum

June 11, 2009 at 9:55 am 1 comment

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by Tony Grew

The House of Commons will give up its independence and submit to a new Parliamentary Standards Authority, the Prime Minister announced yesterday.

In a statement to MPs Gordon Brown laid out his plans for “renewing democracy” and announced changes before the summer recess.

“All of us have to have the humility to accept that public confidence has been shaken and that the battered reputation of this institution cannot be repaired without fundamental change,” he said.

“We propose that the House of Commons—and subsequently the House of Lords—move from the old system of self-regulation to independent, statutory regulation.

“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 Brown said there was “cross-party support for these proposals,” which will be contained in a bill that will be introduced “very soon.”

The Prime Minister told MPs that they 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 and the consequences that will follow for those who fail to deliver.”

There would be new proposals for dealing with inappropriate behaviour, “including the potential options of effective exclusion and recall for gross financial misconduct, identified by the new independent regulator and by the House itself.”

Mr Brown said that Lords reform would go ahead and he has asked the Senior Salaries Review Body “to review the system of financial support in the House of Lords, to increase its accountability, to enhance its transparency and to reduce its cost.

“For the first time, there will also be new legislation for new disciplinary sanctions for the misconduct of peers in the House of Lords.”

The Prime Minister said he is personally favour a written constitution.

“I recognise that this change would represent a historic shift in our constitutional arrangements, so any such proposals will be subject to wide public debate and the drafting of such a constitution should ultimately be a matter for the widest possible consultation with the British people themselves,” he said.

Leader of the Opposition David Cameron called for a general election.

“Two years ago, the Prime Minister did not call an election because he thought he would not win it; three weeks ago, he said he did not want one because it would bring “chaos”; and Lord Mandelson, the man who now runs the Government, says that Labour is against one because it might lose it.

“How many more excuses will they come up with before they recognise that it is time for people to have their say?

“Let me turn now to the proposals themselves. The country is too centralised, Parliament is too weak, and the Government are too top-down, too secretive and too unwilling to give up power.

“Above all, is not the real problem the fact that people feel shut out of decision making and unable to control the things that matter to them?

“There is much in the statement that we support, not least because it is taken from the comprehensive case for reform that I made to the Open University. The Government have at least mastered the art of copying things.”

Mr Cameron said he would back the Parliamentary Standards Authority but added there are ” serious questions to be answered, not least about how it will relate to the House and to whom it will be ultimately accountable.”

Mr Cameron also argued for reform of constituencies.

“At present some constituencies have twice as many voters as others, which puts a premium on some votes,” he said.

“Is it not time to ask the Boundary Commission to redraw boundaries to make them all the same size? At the same time, should we not be reducing the size of the House of Commons?”

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg told the Prime Minister 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 we deserve?

“As Robin Cook recognised, and as the Prime Minister’s new Home Secretary realises, this cannot go on. So why is the Prime Minister seeking to restart a general debate on electoral reform? We have had the debate: we had Roy Jenkins’s report and the independent Power inquiry.

“We cannot afford to wait for a cross-party consensus because the Conservatives will never want to change this cosy Westminster stitch-up.

“We do not need to wait for the Cabinet to make up its mind; it is not up to it 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 and serious proposals for reform which finally put the people in charge, not politicians?”

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Tory MP Kensington and Chelsea and a former Cabinet minister, said “in the kindest possible way” that the Prime Minister’s statement was “a rag-bag of ill-considered proposals brought forward in the last 11 months of this Parliament by an exhausted Prime Minister.”

“That is no more apparent than in regard to his proposals for a written constitution,” he said.

“He knows that although much of our existing law is written, one thing that has made our democracy evolve in such a vibrant and straightforward fashion has been the conventions that have enabled change to be made without the rigidities associated with a written constitution.”

Mr Brown said there is “a debate to be had” about a written constitution.

“It is a major decision for our country, and he is clearly against it. Given that so much of our constitution is now written for the different parts of the United Kingdom, for different areas of policy and for the relationship between individuals and the state, it is worth considering putting that into one written constitution.”

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