Tuesday, 3 July 2007

An Important Day in Britain's Constitutional History

The Prime Minister has made a very significant statement on Constitutional Reform (available at http://www.pm.gov.uk/output/Page12274.asp and the Ministry of Justice has produced a Green Paper (Consultation Paper) called 'The Governance of Britain' giving further details. It is available at http://www.pm.gov.uk/files/pdf/TGoB_print.pdf

Many of the proposals will be familiar to those who follow the American system

  • (paragraph 25) There are few political decisions more important than the deployment of the Armed Forces into armed conflict. The Government can currently exercise the prerogative power to deploy the Armed Forces for armed conflict overseas without requiring any formal parliamentary agreement.
    (26) The Government believes that this is now an outdated state of affairs in a modern democracy. On an issue of such fundamental importance to the nation, the Government should seek the approval of the representatives of the people in the House of Commons for significant, non-routine deployments of the Armed Forces into armed conflict, to the greatest extent possible. This needs to be done without prejudicing the Government’s ability to take swift action to protect our national security, or undermining operational security or effectiveness. The Government will therefore consult Parliament and the public on how best to achieve this.
    US Constitution Article I Section 8. "The Congress shall have power to ... To declare war" - see also The War Powers Act of 1973 (Public Law 93-148)

  • (31) Every year, the UK becomes party to many international treaties. These result in binding obligations for the UK under international law across a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues. It is right that Parliament should be able to scrutinise the treaty making process.
    (32) The Government’s ability to ratify treaties is currently constrained in two ways. Treaties that require changes to UK law need the enactment of prior legislation which, of course, requires the full assent of Parliament. Examples in recent years have included the Statute of the International Criminal Court6 and European Union accession treaties. Many other treaties are covered by a convention, known as the Ponsonby Rule...
    (33) The Government believes that the procedure for allowing Parliament to scrutinise treaties should be formalised. The Government is of the view that Parliament may wish to hold a debate and vote on some treaties and, with a view to its doing so, will therefore consult on an appropriate means to put the Ponsonby Rule on a statutory footing.
    US Constition Article II Section 2 (The President) "shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, ..."

  • In addition there are proposals for

Confirmation style hearings - paragraphs 74-78

A National Security Strategy - paragraph 97

A National Security Committee - paragraph 98 "to ensure that its policies and their delivery are coordinated and appropriate to the changing nature of the risks and challenges facing us in the 21st century. The Committee will meet regularly, under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister, and omprise senior Cabinet colleagues from relevant departments, supported by relevant senior officials and a secretariat in the Cabinet Office"

The Prime Minister said to the House of Commons "In Britain we have a largely unwritten constitution. To change that would represent a fundamental and historic shift in our constitutional arrangements. So it is right to involve the public in a sustained debate whether there is a case for the United Kingdom developing a full British Bill of Rights and Duties, or for moving towards a written constitution."

There's much more in the Green Paper - and many consultation papers to come. How much will Westminster learn from Washington?