Brown seeks written code on relationship of MPs and executive

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown has concluded that in order to wield power he must give some of it away. He compares the decline in political trust with the collapse of economic credibility after Britain's withdrawal from the exchange rate mechanism in 1992.

The Chancellor and likely next Prime Minister is speaking on the day the independent Power commission launched its report that calls for changes to the way Britain is governed.

During a frantic day that includes a flight from his Scottish constituency, the launch of the new report on women and work, meetings in Downing Street and the Treasury he breaks off to express his alarm at the disengagement of voters, reflected in yesterday's report.

Mr Brown wants a national debate on the "changes we need to the political system", citing low turn out at elections, declining membership of political parties and what he calls "the long term decline in trust" as reasons for urgent reform.

Evidently he is contemplating some big changes in the way we are ruled as he deploys a vivid parallel to make his point.

"When we came to power in 1997 there had been a loss of trust in economic policy. Trust had been destroyed after Britain's departure from the exchange rate mechanism. Most specifically, the Government was not trusted to set interest rates for the benefit of the country rather than for short-term political ends. We rebuilt trust in economic policy by making the Bank of England independent. We have also done it by reducing executive power over competition policy and in several other areas."

The newly granted independence of the Bank of England was arguably the biggest change in economic policy since 1997. It was also a political act, aimed at restoring trust specifically in Labour as a party that could run the economy. New rulers were seen to be giving away power in order to restore credibility.

Now he highlights several areas that require action to restore political trust. One is in relation to patronage. Prime Ministerial powers of patronage are immense and nearly always a source of seething controversy. Mr Brown says voters must be shown that power is not "exercised arbitrarily". He suggests that more appointments must be made "independent of the executive in a way that will help to restore trust".

Secondly, he wants to formalise the right of Parliament to have a vote before the country is taken to war. He says the Government granted MPs a vote before the war against Iraq, but it was not compelled to do so.

More widely he enthuses about a recommendation from the Power commission in which a written "concordat" between Parliament and the executive is established. Such a concordat would allow MPs to hold ministers more rigorously to account and in a context in which the powers of both were more clearly defined.

"The relationship between the executive and Parliament should be clearly defined and written down".

I suggest this would be, in effect, a written constitution. He does not accept the definition, although the practical distinction is not clear. "The relationship would be written down, but that is not the same as a written constitution. I am very interested in the idea of concordats between the legislature and the executive and between central and local government."

He is also keen on the proposal from the commission that people can initiate legislative processes. "We need a whole new series of trigger points for people to express their dissatisfaction. At the moment - to take one example - people can petition their MP and that petition is merely noted. I am keen on the idea that if a sufficient number of people sign a petition it must be debated in Parliament."

On some of the other proposals from the commission Mr Brown is wary. Contrary to some reports yesterday he has not decided in favour of reducing the voting age to 16. Instead he notes the "disengagement of young people" and looks to a more rounded political approach. He says it is necessary to address anti-social behaviour as the Government is doing, but he highlights a second dimension. "As I travel the country I see also in some parts a dearth of services and amenities for young people". He plans to follow up a proposal in the pre-Budget report in which young people would be able to vote on the way youth services were developed at a local level. Possibly he sees this form of engagement as a preliminary step before a reduction of the voting age in other elections.

In relation to the House of Lords he hints only at a radical reform. He says that the "key principle to a second chamber, that does more than give advice, is accountability". He does not rule out electoral reform stating that he wants to keep the issue "under review, looking at the experiences of the devolved bodies. But I believe that in any system the relationship between the constituency and local MP must be preserved".

I ask Mr Brown about his personal interest in constitutional reform given that he has a reputation of being a mighty control freak, interested only in getting his own way. "Thirty years ago before I was even a Labour candidate I campaigned actively for devolution when it was an unpopular policy within the party and beyond. To paraphrase Aneurin Bevan the 20th century was about elected governments taking power away from vested economic interests. The 21st century must be about governments giving power to the people."

He reflects on the conversations he had with the late Robin Cook towards the end of Mr Cook's life. "We spent some time discussing the question: how is it that if a politician delivers a speech for nothing at a political meeting there is no interest, but if exactly the same speech is delivered in a theatre or a non-political context the venues are packed? We talked a lot about how we addressed the disengagement from conventional politics."

Quite a lot of this is mood music. Mr Brown is signalling as strongly as he can that he seeks to be a constitutional reformer if he becomes Prime Minister. He will not go as far as the Power commission wants, but in inviting comparisons with Bank of England independence he clearly plans to go some way. Mr Brown never acts without a longer- term strategy. He would not raise expectations moderately now if he intended to do nothing when he acquired the throne. He would have to act fast as well. New Prime Ministers tend to have an interest in giving powers away until they start getting used to exercising them.