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Gordon Brown's Speech on Constitutional Reform

by cam Wed Jul 4th, 2007 at 05:16:09 AM EST

These are excerpts from the UK Chambers' Hansard of Gordon Brown's speech on Constitutional Reform.

Promoted by Colman -- So what do you think of the prospects for one of the EU's important leaders? I caught some of his speech on TV yesterday and he didn't seem cut from the same cloth as Blair. He seems to be proposing to undo some of Blair's Presidential changes and reduce the power of the executive.


Brown outlines twelve areas where power will devolve from the executive to the legislative:

The route map seeks to address two fundamental issues: to hold power more accountable and to uphold and enhance the rights and responsibilities of the citizen.

While constitutional change will not be the work of just one Bill or one year or one Parliament, I can today make an immediate start by proposing changes that will transfer power from the Prime Minister and the Executive.

For centuries, they have exercised authority in the name of the monarchy without the people and their elected representatives being consulted, so I now propose that in 12 important areas of our national life the Prime Minister and the Executive should surrender or limit their powers, the exclusive exercise of which by the Government of the day should have no place in a modern democracy.

These are: the power of the Executive to declare war; the power to request the dissolution of Parliament; the power over recall of Parliament; the power of the Executive to ratify international treaties without decision by Parliament; the power to make key public appointments without effective scrutiny; the power to restrict parliamentary oversight of our intelligence services; power to choose bishops; power in the appointment of judges; power to direct prosecutors in individual criminal cases; power over the civil service itself; and the Executive powers to determine the rules governing entitlement to passports and the granting of pardons.

I now propose to surrender or limit these powers to make for a more open 21st-century British democracy which better serves the British people.

He is arguing for checks and balances between the Executive and Legislative. Which is very wise and makes for a more deliberative process. It should be noted that Australia lacks several of these too.

I did not realise that parliament could appoint bishops, surely in a republican system, secularism is the goal and parliament, or politics, should play no role in the appointment of clergy. I am aware that the UK is not a republic, and that the Queen is the head of the church as well as state, but surely it could just be gotten rid of and the church told to deal with it themselves.

It is also interesting to note, particularly with the issues in the US, that Brown wants to devolve power, or oversight for pardons into the legislative. In the Washington system the President has absolute authority in this area. It is supposed to be a check and balance against arbitrary judicial decisions, not a political get out of jail free card.

On the issue of dissolution of parliament, under these reforms there must be a majority for the dissolution rather than just the executive council deciding it. This would probably be better handled by fixed terms. The executive calling the election date gives too much incumbent advantage anyway.

Brown seeks to make the Attorney-general have less political intrusion into cases:

The role of Attorney-General, which combines legal and ministerial functions, needs to change. While we consult on reform, the Attorney-General has herself decided, except if the law or national security requires it, not to make key prosecution decisions in individual criminal cases.

Seems wise. There is also a requirement for the public service to be governed by legislation rather than executive procedures. There is also a decoupling of politics and civil service by not allowing special advisors to give orders to the civil servants.

This has been an issue in Australia and has allowed the "I don't know, no-one told me" type get out of jail free cards to Government Ministers. IIRC Bob Brown tried to pass a private member bill in the Senate seeking to stop this practice in Australia.

Gordon Brown also argues for 'citizen juries'. He didn't embellish on them so not sure how they compare to Segelene Royal's 'citizen juries' policy:

The first is powers of initiative, extending the right of the British people to intervene with their elected local representatives to ensure action, through a new community right to call for action and new duties on public bodies to involve local people.

The second is new rights for the British people to be consulted through mechanisms such as 'citizens juries' on major decisions affecting their lives. The third is powers of redress, and new rights for the British people to scrutinise and improve the local delivery of services. The fourth is powers to ballot on spending decisions in areas such as neighbourhood budgets and youth budgets, with decisions on finance made by local people themselves.

He is also seeking to reduce the age of enfranchisement to lower than seventeen. Ultimately Brown wants it all wrapped in a written constitution (like Australia, but not like Tasmania or Western Australia):

In Britain we have a largely unwritten constitution. To change that would represent a fundamental and historic shift in our constitutional arrangements. So it is right to involve the public in a sustained debate about whether there is a case for the United Kingdom developing a full British Bill of Rights and duties, or for moving towards a written constitution.

Because such fundamental change should happen only when there is a settled consensus on whether to proceed, I have asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to lead a dialogue within Parliament and with people across the United Kingdom by holding a series of hearings, starting in the autumn, in all regions and nations of the country, and we will consult with all the other parties on this process.

This is an important speech, which, ironically, because Australia shares a Westminsterish system (Australia is federalist and mixes Westminster and Washington systems, sometimes known as the Washminster-mutation) and is deficient in many of the same areas, will probably have political ramifications in Australia too.

Very interesting.

x-posted

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I did not realise that parliament could appoint bishops, surely in a republican system, secularism is the goal and parliament, or politics, should play no role in the appointment of clergy. I am aware that the UK is not a republic, and that the Queen is the head of the church as well as state, but surely it could just be gotten rid of and the church told to deal with it themselves.
And Bishops sit in the House of Lords, too.

Anyway, thanks for this diary. And, as you say, very interesting.

The next thing Brown will surprise us with is the introduction of proportional representation so that making the dissolution of parliament depend on the parliament itself is a meaningful reform (under the westminster system hung parliaments are the exception, whereas under PR goverments tend to be based on coalitions).

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 07:15:48 PM EST
 
whereas under PR governments tend to be based on coalitions

Which is what makes life up here in Scotland so much more interesting now that the SNP are in a "minority" government.

I suspect that I may have underestimated Brown just as much as I have underestimated Salmond.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 07:29:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
being able to sit in the house of lords. Another argument for making that house democratic.

If even half this stuff comes off, it will be an improvement IMO. That speech is a pretty wide ranging statement for constitutional advancement.

cam

Freedom, Liberty, Equity and an Australian Republic

by cam on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 08:03:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Whoa.
...But while we will listen to all proposals to improve our constitution in the light of devolution, we do not accept the proposal for English votes for English laws, which would create two classes of Members of Parliament--some entitled to vote on all issues, some invited to vote on only some. We will do nothing to put at risk the Union. I am reminded--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I want hon. Members and right hon. Members to listen to the statement. Obviously, there will be a chance for hon. Members to ask a supplementary question.

The Prime Minister: I am reminded of the statement in 1999 by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the shadow Home Secretary, who said that English votes for English laws would cause constitutional chaos.

And then
... Disengagement is too often reflected in low turnout in elections. Britain is unusual in holding elections on weekdays, when people are at work, and the Secretary of State for Justice will announce a consultation on whether there is a case for voting at weekends.
and
... While balancing the need for public order with the right to public dissent, I think it right--in consultation with the Metropolitan police, Parliament, the Mayor of London, Westminster city council and liberties groups--to change the laws that now restrict the right to demonstrate in Parliament square.


Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 07:29:43 PM EST
He's off to a good start, I think.

He could have led on terrrrrrrism, but instead we get this for a maiden speech.

If he can be persuaded to drop some of the euro-scepticism and remove the marketista nonsense from the NHS, we might be onto a good thing.

Likely? Probably not. But still - he doesn't seem to have staked out a claim on being actively evil like Blair was.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 08:03:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So far this is all window dressing. Having a House, in which a single party government has a majority, decide things is (in most cases) going to be no different from the executive (controlled by the same party) deciding them.

What is needed is proportional representation, fixed term Parliaments, a written constitution and bill of rights which can be used to overrule both the executive and the legislature and probably a large dose of direct rather than representative democracy.

Gordon Brown has made a start, but only a timid one.

by Gary J on Wed Jul 4th, 2007 at 06:05:01 AM EST
the westminster system has such poor separation of powers between the executive and legislative, and party discipline, while less in Britain than in Au, will mean that the executive will get their way in all but a full back-bench revolt.


If there is to be true separation of powers it means a separate executive - and that means adopting some permutation of the washington system.


cam

Freedom, Liberty, Equity and an Australian Republic

by cam on Wed Jul 4th, 2007 at 04:34:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Very interesting, thanks. Here is one point others haven't noted:

the power of the Executive to ratify international treaties without decision by Parliament;

For me this reads as coded word for further hindering Britain's EU integration. Later he talks about a British Bill of Rights, whatever happened to the EU one.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jul 4th, 2007 at 07:59:19 AM EST
Or a way of avoiding referendums on treaties by appealing to the priniciples of representative democracy.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Jul 4th, 2007 at 08:19:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Frankly all I knew about Brown's politics is that he is a bit more Eurosceptic, used to be a minister of finance so probably cares about keeping the accounts balanced, and is said to be a tiny bit too the left of Blair. Never held him for a constitutional reformer.

Even without PR (which I'm all for) these reforms will have more of an impact than they might appear to on the first glance. If a Parliament can decide on something, there is always more debate and more scrutiny than when it is a decision by the Executive alone. And by giving up recall and dissolution, Parliament's independence is increased.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Wed Jul 4th, 2007 at 08:04:28 AM EST


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