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Dr. Tony Wright, MP

(Chairman, Public Administration Select Committee)


'Taming the Prerogative'

Wednesday 10th December 2003



Dr. Wright began by describing the work of the Public Administration Select Committee, the chief function of which is to act as a scrutinizing agency in Parliamentary and public matters.  He acknowledged the irony of the fact that a committee with a duty to monitor the actions of government is composed of members appointed by Ministers.

Currently, the committee is trying to work up a proposal for a Civil Service Bill.  This follows rather belatedly the (Northcott & Parsons?) reform of 1853, which aimed to clean up the Civil Service and get rid of patronage.  The draft currently being prepared by the Committee addresses the question of whether or not the Civil Service should be regulated by Statute, and deals with matters of integrity, roles, and appeals both for regular civil servants and for those brought in by governments to perform quasi civil service functions.

Turning to prerogative powers, the speaker reminded the meeting of the gradual process by which powers that used to belong to the Crown have gradually been transferred to Ministers, rather than directly to Parliament.  This was neither planned nor systematic, it has simply happened.  With no major disruptions, civil wars, or political breakdowns, there was nothing to prompt thought about the process.


Because of this background, it is not possible for Parliament to get a statement from the Executive about precisely what powers belong to which body.  Examples of this are:


The power to declare war, or as now seems to be the case, to engage in armed conflict without declaration of war.  Do we need a War Powers Act to clarify who it is who can do this?  However, the politics of the Iraq conflict demanded that there should be a parliamentary debate, and this may have provided a precedent, which would have to be followed in future.


Treaty making powers are also not clearly attributed, and there is no formal ratification process.  The speaker argued that Parliament should be given a formal role, and treaty making powers put within a formal parliamentary framework.


Questions and Discussion


Michael Smart asked what difference a Civil Service Act might make to the civil service.


A.      Such an Act would enshrine in statute what the key factors are: it would need to be explicit about political impartiality, neutrality, the role of special advisors (what they can properly do or not do).


Institutionally, there should be a constitutional body reporting to Parliament.


Arthur Hockaday asked whether there would be much difference in practice between what happens now and what would happen if reforms were made.  For example, on Iraq, the whipping system ensured that the P.M. got the majority he needed.  Would that not continue to be the case?


A.      The speaker partially agreed, and affirmed the importance of political accountability.  Accountability only at election times is not enough.  Governments need to be more directly accountable when they are in power.  The whipping system is a consequence not a cause of the present lack of clarity.


Roland Smith, asking whether we need a written Constitution, pointed out that our system relies on conventions that do not foresee the unexpected.  For example, a good system should provide bulwarks against a government rigging an election.


A.      We are moving in that direction.  The present government has made considerable progress in writing down more things, e.g.: the Wales and Scotland legislation; the Human Rights Act, which has made a huge difference - previously, there were no rights of citizenship.  Legislation for political parties has been introduced, requiring registration and rules about funding.  There is legislation about freedom of information.


Our Constitution is not unwritten, but uncodified.


Brenda Bailey suggested that codification requires loopholes to allow for development and progress.  Were not the speaker's suggestions putting shackles on people's freedom to advance?


A.      It is a question of balance.  A government is entitled to set down axial principles, but should not over prescribe.  For example, in civil service legislation, appointment by merit should continue to be a principle, but we should not try to define that in too much detail.


Brian Wicker referred to the Iraq conflict, and asked whether the speaker's committee should be doing something to clarify how governments should respond to such issues.


A.            The speaker thought the debate on the war 'a good parliamentary moment'.  The objection of many Labour rebels was not to the war as such, but to going to war without U.N. approval. And underlying the question of whether or not to take action in such circumstances is the problem of nation States providing the criterion of action in present day situations.



Brenda Bailey: But has the United States not thrown principles out of the window?


A.      It would be good if our principles did not conflict, but what if the US were doing the right things for the wrong reasons?


David Hills raised several related points about civil service reform.


a)             Changes of government lead to drastic changes in what civil servants are doing.  Civil servants now change departments and roles less easily than hitherto.  Departments are now individual baronies.

b)               Is there not a need for trust when governments have to make great decisions on war and treaties?


A.      On (a) - If one lot proposes, the other lot will oppose.  There is far more consensus in other European governments.  Our adversarial system produces discontinuity.  One possible answer is to have integrated public services, in which civil servants, health, education, etc., are working in more co-ordinated ways.  On (b) There is merit in the US system's requirement of Congressional approval for war.  But there are signs of progress.  The Hutton Enquiry is one - the nature of the Enquiry will have more enduring importance that the findings of the Enquiry, and will show that getting information out is always the best policy.


Peter Bishop suggested that the current apathy about government and politicians reflects a frustration caused by a failure to address the great long term issues: the environment; the legitimacy of war as policy; whether Britain belongs essentially to the European or American sphere of influence.  On these matters there seems to be little to choose between possible alternatives.


A.        Yes, but in politics choices come in packages, rather like the contents of supermarket trolleys.  The voter must choose one or the other, even though she will not like all the contents.