31 July 2008
Government’s constitutional reform plans a step in the right direction, but more progress needed, say MPs and Peers
A committee of MPs and Peers today commends the Government for taking the first steps towards its stated objective of making Government more accountable to Parliament. In its 100-page report, the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill recognises the Government’s Draft Bill is a first step in a wider programme of reforms, and encourages the Government to use this opportunity to make further progress. The Committee, however, finds it hard to identify the principles underpinning the Draft Bill, and recommends that the Government should reflect further on whether “Constitutional Renewal” is an appropriate title. Further work is required before the Bill will be ready for introduction in the next session of Parliament.
The Committee’s inquiry covered the five detailed policy areas in the Draft Bill and one issue included in the accompanying White Paper. The report contains 99 specific conclusions and recommendations. Its main conclusions are summarised below.
Protests around Parliament: The Committee agrees with the Government that protest must not be subject to unnecessary restrictions, particularly given the significance of Parliament Square as a place to express political views. But the right to protest must be balanced against the need for the police and other authorities to have adequate powers to safeguard the proper functioning of Parliament and protect the amenity value of Parliament Square as a cultural site of international significance. The Committee supports the removal of the legal requirement to obtain prior authorisation to protest in the vicinity of Parliament. Before sections 132-138 of SOCPA are repealed, further work needs to be done to create a framework to ensure the police have adequate powers.
The Attorney General and prosecutions: On balance, the Committee was not persuaded of the case for separating the Attorney General's legal and political functions: the Attorney should retain these two roles. The Committee also concluded that the Attorney should retain the power to give a direction in relation to any individual case, including cases relating to national security.
Courts and tribunals: The Committee concludes that it is too soon to propose significant reforms, only two years after the passing of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which among other things established the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC). The Committee, while acknowledging the short period of time in which the JAC has been operating, is disappointed with the lack of measurable progress towards increasing diversity at all levels of the judiciary.
Treaties: The Committee supports putting the Ponsonby Rule (under which treaties must be laid before Parliament for 21 sitting days before ratification) on a statutory footing. Giving the House of Commons an effective veto on the ratification of a treaty is a beneficial reform, although there should be a statutory mechanism for extending the 21 day scrutiny period in exceptional circumstances. The Committee recommends the establishment of a new Joint Committee on Treaties, formed of MPs and Peers, whose tasks would include sifting treaties laid before Parliament and enhancing the scrutiny of treaty-like documents not covered by the proposed legislation.
Civil service: The Committee supports putting the civil service and the Civil Service Commission on a statutory footing, 154 years after this was recommended by Northcote and Trevelyan. Ideally, the Committee prefer this to be done in a separate Civil Service Act, rather than as part of wider constitutional legislation.
War powers: The Committee agrees with the Government's case for strengthening Parliamentary involvement in armed conflict decisions and supports the proposed detailed resolution approach. But the Committee is concerned about the definition of "conflict decision" in the White Paper, and also recommends the Government take steps to ensure that ongoing deployments are subject to effective Parliamentary scrutiny.
The Chairman of the Joint Committee, Michael Jabez Foster MP, said:
"The Committee supports the Government's objective of making Government more accountable to Parliament and we welcome the Draft Bill as the first step towards achieving that goal.
"While we commend the efforts made by the Government, our report highlights those issues which in our view require further work before the Bill will be ready for introduction in the next session of Parliament.
"Pre-legislative scrutiny is vital to ensure due consideration is given to the detail of a Draft Bill. We welcome the opportunity to contribute to this process and look forward to the Government's response to our recommendations."
Notes for editors
1. Media inquiries: Becky Jones, tel: 020 7219 5693, mobile: 07917 488549
2. The full text of the Committee's report is available on the Committee website at
http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/jcdcrb.cfm , or from the Parliamentary Bookshop (12 Bridge St, Westminster, 020 7219 3890) or the Stationery Office (0845 7023474 reference HC 551-I and HL 166-I. Oral and written evidence taken during the inquiry will be contained in Volume II ( HC 551-II, HL166-II), to be published on Tuesday 12th August.
3. The Government's Governance of Britain Green Paper was launched in July 2007 with an aim to "begin the journey towards a new constitutional settlement - a settlement that entrusts Parliament and the people with more power". Building on the Green Paper, the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill and White Paper, published on 25 March 2008, set out proposals "to reform various aspects of our constitutional settlement". The Green Paper, the White Paper and the draft Bill are available at
4. The two Houses of Parliament established the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill to consider the draft Bill, and to report on it to both Houses. The Committee held its first meeting on 6 May 2008 and its inquiry proceeded in a similar way to those of other Select Committees. The Committee held hearings with 56 witnesses and received 80 written submissions.
The House of Commons Public Administration Committee and Justice Select Committee have also reported on aspects of the Draft Bill, available at
5. Membership of the Committee was as follows:
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster
Lord Campbell of Alloway
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie
Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen
Lord Hart of Chilton
Lord Maclennan of Rogart
Lord Norton of Louth
Lord Plant of Highfield
Lord Williamson of Horton
Mr Alistair Carmichael MP
Christopher Chope MP
Michael Jabez Foster MP (Chairman)
Mark Lazarowicz MP
Martin Linton MP
Ian Lucas MP
Fiona Mactaggart MP
Mr Virendra Sharma MP
Emily Thornberry MP
Mr Andrew Tyrie MP
Sir George Young MP