Public Administration Select Committee: Press Notice

Wednesday 4 June 2008

PASC offers broad welcome to Constitutional Renewal Bill, but says proposals fail to transfer key powers away from No. 10.

In a report published today, the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) gives a broad welcome to the Government’s constitutional renewal proposals. However, the Committee says that more is needed to protect the core values of the civil service and that proposals to transfer key powers like war-making to Parliament are “disappointingly limited”.

Tony Wright MP, Chairman of the Committee, has called on the Government to live up to the Prime Minister’s undertaking last July that more power should be entrusted to Parliament and the British people. He said:

“Of course we welcome these proposals from the government. At first glance they read like a back catalogue of our recommendations. But when we looked into the detail, we started to get concerned. The Prime Minister said that he wanted to entrust more power to Parliament, but the proposals don’t show much trust. Every time the government proposes a parliamentary safeguard, there’s a loophole for ‘exceptional circumstances’ to allow the government to go ahead regardless.”

On the civil service: “The government deserves credit for bringing this forward. It’s shocking that for 150 years there has been nothing in the law to protect the impartiality of the civil service and the principle of recruitment on merit. But the bill needs to be watertight if it can provide any protection against the kind of government that might try to undermine the service’s core values-and that scenario is the whole purpose of civil service legislation.”

On war-making powers and treaties: “We’re glad the government has come forward with proposals in these areas, where it exercises unfettered power right now. But when you look at the detail of the proposals, Parliament is essentially being asked to let things continue as they are. It isn’t right for the Prime Minister to have complete discretion over the information Parliament is allowed to see when deciding whether to support a decision to go to war. And Prime Ministers shouldn’t be able to avoid a parliamentary vote when a conflict is too urgent or too secret to seek Parliament’s permission in advance. This is what democracy is about. As for treaties, the government’s proposals are far too hedged about. Wars at least are sometimes genuinely urgent and unexpected. We don’t see any need for the loopholes and exceptions which are there at the moment around Parliament having a say on treaties”.

The Committee’s specific proposals include:

For the civil service:

  • Appointment and promotion on merit as a guiding principle for all civil service posts, including senior diplomatic positions and Crown appointments.
  • Greater clarity about the powers of special advisers. They should not be able to spend public money, manage civil servants or exercise statutory powers.
  • Stronger safeguards for the independence of the Civil Service Commission, which is being set up to protect the core values of the service.
  • A parliamentary vote on major reorganisations of Whitehall.

For war-making powers:

  • Independent endorsement of information provided to Parliament on decisions over peace and war.
  • A retrospective debate and vote in the Commons after urgent or secret deployments. The Government worries about the consequences of a vote against an operation which is already underway, but the Committee describes this as “the price of democracy”.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Notes:
1.  The Government’s proposals were published as The Governance of Britain - Constitutional Renewal, Cm 7342 (3 volumes).
2.  PASC has considered only those parts of the proposals within its remit. A Joint Committee has been set up to scrutinise the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill in its entirety.

Committee Membership: Tony Wright (Chairman) (Lab) (Cannock Chase), Mr David Burrowes (Con) (Enfield, Southgate), Paul Flynn (Lab) (Newport West), David Heyes (Lab) (Ashton under Lyne), Kelvin Hopkins (Lab) (Luton North), Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Con) (Bridgewater), Julie Morgan (Lab) (Cardiff North), Mr Gordon Prentice (Lab) (Pendle), Paul Rowen (Lib Dem) (Rochdale), Charles Walker (Con) (Broxbourne), Jenny Willott (Lib Dem) (Cardiff Central)

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