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Constitutional reform for the credit crunch era

Tom Griffin (London, OK): Democratic Audit's new report on the Constitutional Renewal Bill, Beating the Retreat (previewed here by Stuart Weir) was the starting point for a Westminster seminar on Wednesday which brought together parliamentarians, academics and campaigners to consider the government's retreat from constitutional reform.

Beating the retreat on constitutional renewal

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): It was a frustrating experience, giving evidence to the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill. The committee was packed with government and establishment figures, who disregarded the weight of expert wide-ranging evidence for real democratic renewal and defended the status quo.  It was also frustrating for four members of the committee – Conservatives MPs Andrew Tyrie and Sir George Young, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Lord Tyler, and the Labour peer, Lord Morgan.

They have just joined Democratic Audit in compiling, Beating the Retreat, a dossier of flaws and evasions in the draft Bill. This document is in effect a ‘minority report’ that details the disintegration of Gordon Brown’s bold promises to rebalance power between central government and Parliament.  There is to be a Rowntree seminar today, at which Peter Hennessy, Lord Tyler and Alex Runswick will discuss the broader issues which the government’s retreat raises.  The draft Bill itself has been relegated to the subs’ bench for the next parliamentary session.

Is there still hope for constitutional reform?

Tom Griffin (London, OK):At the start of Gordon Brown's premiership, constitutional reform was a major plank of his agenda.The extent to which it seems to have fallen by the wayside was highlighted in yesterday's attack on the Government by his former adviser on the issue, Lord Lester:

He said the government's failures to pursue constitutional reform were "why I decided, with regret, to cease to be a government-tethered 'goat' - that is, one of those flatteringly and misleadingly described as part of a government of all the talents". Lester is understood to be dismayed that Straw has allowed the constitutional reform bill not to find a firm slot in the Queen's speech, and fears the justice secretary is using his plans for a bill of rights and responsibilities to weaken rather than strengthen British commitment to human rights.

The Herald brings us a ray of hope, with a report that at least one profound constitutional change is under active consideration:

Progressive elements smuggled into Constitutional Renewal Bill

Andrew Blick (London, Democratic Audit): When the Constitutional Renewal white paper and draft bill were published earlier this year, Gordon Brown once again proved himself the master of the anti-climax. The centrepiece of the Governance of Britain programme to date, and the part of it most likely to be implemented this side of a General Election, 'Constitutional Renewal' primarily addresses the role of the executive with respect both to Parliament and the judiciary. When it appeared there was disappointment that it did not live up to its billing and was not a programme to 'renew' the constitution. As Graham Allen MP put it, 'perhaps our expectations either were raised too high or...those expectations have not yet been met.' More scathingly, Lord (Paul) Tyler has today called it a 'ragbag of retreats'.

Brown And Straw defend renewal

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): The Prime Minister appeared before the liason committee of chairs of Commons select committees this morning. Seems pretty sad. I am reproing below the blog account from the Guardian's Andrew Sparrow of the initial section of the proceedings on so-called 'constitutional renewal'. The question from Vaz is amusing. His reference to the governership of Burmuda is taken from Diane Abbott's speech in the 42 days debate, when she said that the House of Commons on the Labour side had been reduced to a "baazar". if you saw the clip after yesterday's PMQ when Vaz denied he had been offered a knighthood as his 'appropriate reward' but said there was still time, you may have noticed Abbott sitting right behind him - with an expression of grim satisfaction.

War plans

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): All right, Gordon Brown and his government are weak and dishonest in their protestations over rebalancing power between the executive and Parliamemt. Their whole agenda is shot through with evasions; their Parliamentary Resolution on war powers is an inglorious hypocrisy. I don't know what angers me most, the dishonesty or the idea that we are too dumb to notice. But we should still take the opportunity to press for real instead of apparent change.

Adam Tomkins, a law professor at the University of Glasgow, has given meticulous evidence setting out precisely (and elegantly) why Gordon Brown's proposal has no clothes. His most valuable contribution is however to have also spelled out with clarity a modest list of what needs to be done to clothe the war powers resolution properly. He points out that wherever there is a clash between constitutional accountability to Parliament and the government's interest in flexibility and control, Brown's proposals come down uncompromisingly in favour of the latter.

The point is that Tomkins's analysis gives those of US who care an agenda around which we can unite in encouraging parliamentarians to reject the Resolution as it now stands, beginning with the Joint Committee, and for lobbying both Houses should the draft Bill enter Parliament unchanged in the next session of Parliament.

Constitutional Renewal II: an independent judiciary?

This is the second in a series of posts by Andrew Blick on the Constitutional Renewal Bill. You can read the first post here.

Andrew Blick (London, Democratic Audit):
There is a crucial tension within the Governance of Britain programme. On the one hand it sets out to provide greater independence to the judiciary. On the other hand it proposes making the legal system more accountable to Parliament. On the strength of Tuesday's evidence session with the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, this problem needs closer attention than it is currently receiving.

In theory everyone should take an interest in they way they are governed and their rights – but in practice they don’t. For this reason the important issues raised by the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill are much more likely to achieve traction when they engage a particular interest group. Yesterday’s session of the Joint Committee was well-attended, because it attracted the interest of the legal profession, which is to its credit consistently the most likely to become involved in constitutional matters. (The government consultation on judicial appointments received 34 responses, compared to a paltry 11 for treaties.)

Tim Dutton QC, Chairman of the Bar Council, and Andrew Holroyd, President of the Law Society, were questioned about the Renewal proposals for judicial appointments. Vital principles are at stake here and it is a shame that time was wasted by one committee member, a solicitor, demanding to know why more solicitors were not appointed judges; and another making a rambling speech about the need to appoint judges on a basis of merit, which the witnesses assured us was the position already.

Constitutional Renewal I: the Joint Committee takes evidence

Andrew Blick (London, Democratic Audit): At the very end of a long and remote corridor, MPs and peers on the joint committee on the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill held their first evidence sessions on Tuesday. The importance of their work has been heightened by Gordon Brown's commitment to introduce a bill proper in the next parliamentary session, as part of his statement on the legislative programme. We will report regularly on their inquiries and the draft Bill’s provisions as they progress; meanwhile we attach a brief and opinionated guide to official progress on the government’s Governance agenda which, as Guy Aitchison wrote seems to have lost important elements. 

The first three witnesses, providing an overview, were Professor Stuart Weir of Democratic Audit (my boss); the Oxford academic (and David Cameron's former tutor) Professor Vernon Bogdanor; and Peter Riddell of The Times. The committee are a mixed bunch, ranging from those with real knowledge of constitutional issues to the more conservative minded, several of whom emphasised Britain’s long tradition of evolutionary change. It will be interesting to see what conclusions they can all buy into.

Constitutional reform features little in draft Queen's speech

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): The PM has just announced the Government's Draft Legislative Programme to the Commons. We hope to have more coverage on this and PMQs later but on first glance there seems little sign of the bold "new constitutional settlement" Brown called for last July. It appears the Bill of Rights and the citizens summit on the Statement of Values have both been put on hold. The only reference to these I can find is a vague promise to hold consultations on the Bill of Rights which will "give people in the UK a clear idea of what we can expect from public authorities and from each other, and a framework for giving effect to our common values." And expect yet another White Paper on the Lords.

Renewal I: The power to halt justice

Andrew Blick (London, Democratic Audit): The parliamentary joint committee on the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill (CRB) will soon begin taking evidence. I will be posting regularly about some of the debates and issues it should be taking into account, starting with the role of the Attorney General. Unfortunately the proposed legislation does not fully address and in some senses would worsen the very issues that brought reform of this office onto the agenda in the first place. Controversy has arisen in recent years over the role of the Attorney General that combines significant legal duties with government and party roles. In two major cases, there has been justifiable suspicion over Lord Goldsmith's revision of his advice on the legality of the Iraq War and government resistance to publishing that advice; and his part in putting pressure on the Serious Fraud Office to get it to drop the Al-Yamamah arms deal investigation. In both cases, it seems that he might have been leant on. Finally, there was considerable doubt about his potential role in deciding whether to prosecute over the 'cash for honours' investigation.

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