Saturday, 7 July 2007

The Governance of Britain - part one.

This is the first of four posts I will make on my reading of the green paper on The Governance of Britain issued earlier this month by the new Ministry for Justice.

I was originally going to produce a summary and then a commentary however as it all got mixed in together I am splitting it based on the sections the report is itself in (I have included the introduction in with section one "limiting the powers of the executive." if you want a pure summary, I would recommend reading the executive summary in the document itself.

Well the introduction is fairly innocuous, apart from the possibly controversial use of the term Universal Suffrage, which the United Kingdom doesn’t have and the claim that they have modernised the House of Lords, as opposed to the half baked, half finished efforts actually enacted. It only takes until point 12 to get to the West Lothian question, as the authors have to “hope” that the devolved administrations will implement any reforms that fall under their purview, while MPs from those territories will undoubtedly be part of pushing through any points that don’t quite get the consensus Gordon Brown wants. After Box 1’s potted history of the UK constitution, which serves to highlight the perversity of not celebrating the act of union this year, we get to the first section, limiting the powers of the executive.

Right off the bat the intent of the process is stated as ensuring that these proposals reinforce the flow of power from the people to the executive arm of government is through Parliament. As expected they are taking the opportunity while going through this process to try and clear out any prerogative powers that at archaic or otherwise no longer in use, like the right to impress into the Royal Navy. After a brief mention of improved insight of intelligence and security activities, the Green Paper moves on to the specific powers that will be transferred to Parliament. I will gloss over the explanations of the technical differences between the several types of “Royal prerogative powers” as the next section is the first that has got people excited, the restriction of the executive’s ability to deploy the Armed Forces into armed conflict to a narrowly defined set of national security and operational effectiveness criteria that require swift action. Outside of these specific circumstances it will be Parliament’s responsibility to “send a gunboat” or some such and the paper even proposes that Parliament itself develops the convention that these resolutions will be based on. The wording is also important in that the word “war” is not mentioned at any point in the section, for as other commentators have pointed out, it is a rare event these days for their to be a formal declaration of war. I would very like to see what the Chiefs of the Defence Staff or other forces based expert body propose for the “emergency” powers and how closely the MOD and then the government as a whole follow them.

The next item is formalising the procedures for Parliament to scrutinise and ratify treaties, hopefully this will, as well as the face value improvements in accountability lead to better handling of bilateral treaties that other countries don’t ratify but take full advantage off, such as the USA with respect to the Extradition Treaty of 2003.

Next up is dissolving Parliament, no mention of the possibility of introducing full and fixed terms, but instead just requiring that the Prime Minister seeks the approval of Parliament before going to ask the Monarch. Now, there is mention of protections against Parliament refusing to support the formation of a government yet not allowing dissolution. I think there is another situation where this could cause an issue, in the case of a coalition government based round a part with no overall majority; it could be prevented from dissolving by the MPs of its coalition partners if they believe that after fresh elections they wouldn’t be required. Now our system makes this quite unlikely and obviously such tactics could lead to the breakdown of the coalition anyway, it just seams like a possibility for continuing chaos.

The section on recalling Parliament suggest that the powers will just be an extension of the Speaker’s current ability to do so, the issue is the wording which says that the Speaker should consider it and it would be in the Speaker's discretion. I would be happier that this would be a worthwhile reform if there were specific triggers that enforced the recall so that overly politicised Speakers couldn’t block the recall. Another section I’ll gloss over at this stage, I am little qualified to comment on the operation of the civil service and a great deal of it is “wait and see”. One really good point in there however is that confirmation that the Order in Council that allowed three of the Prime Minister’s Special Advisors to step out of the restrictions on their role and give orders to civil servants. Similarly the section on the Attorney General basically says that the government can see the problems with the role, but there is already a select committee report in the pipeline so let us wait and see what that says.

On ecclesiastical, judicial and public appointments, there is the simple desire to reduce the involvement of the Prime Minister’s office in appointing the various flavours of churchmen required, while maintaining a full commitment to the church being established. So henceforth the appointments based on the Crown Nominations Commission will be altered so that the commission will be only putting forward one name for the Prime Minister to recommend to the Crown. No mention is made about any possibility of rejecting the single name if the commission goes overboard and starts nominating Robert Mugabe or some such. For appointments made in other ways the General Synod is due to make recommendations and there isn’t likely to be any alteration of the arrangements for Royal Peculiars. In a similar vein the consultation process will look at increasing the role of the Judicial Appointments Commission and adjusting the oversight of that body, perhaps making it directly responsible to Parliament.

The green paper states that there are 21,000 posts in “arms length” organisations such as Quangos, NDPBs and executive agencies that are in the patronage of ministers. The government and the House of Commons Liaison Committee will draw up a list of appointments that will be subject to pre-appointment hearings within the existing select committee system, the document includes some examples of posts that should be included. This is a section I expect to have more to say on when this process goes forward and we are close to or get a white paper.

The last subsection is about the honours system and does little but set out the current committee based system and reiterates that the Prime Minister and the Secretaries of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs accept the output of those committees without any additions or deletions. There are no recommendations for change here, whether this will change during the consultation process remains to be seen.

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