MPs to produce constitutional reform blueprint by summer
Cross-party talks to discuss fixed-term parliaments and removal of members
Emergency cross-party talks on rebuilding trust in the political system will begin within two weeks, it was announced yesterday.
They will discuss sweeping overhaul of Commons procedures, as well as the power to remove unpopular MPs and the case for introducing fixed-term parliaments. Reflecting the urgency of the crisis facing politics since the expenses scandal erupted, the aim will be to produce a blueprint for reform by the summer. However, there is no prospect of the talks discussing changes to the voting system.
The talks, to be chaired by the Justice Secretary Jack Straw and the Commons Leader Harriet Harman, will be attended by senior representatives of the Tories, Liberal Democrats and the minor parties.
The moves emerged after all the leaders of all three main parties, writing in The Independent, called for a radical shift of power from politicians to electors. Gordon Brown pledged to make "political elites" more accountable, while the Tory leader David Cameron warned that voters felt "on the periphery of power" and Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats demanded an end to the House of Lords.
Further ideas for radically reforming Britain's democracy are set out in today's paper by 10 parliamentarians from across the political spectrum. They include lowering the voting age to 16, strengthening the role of backbenchers in the Commons and introducing proportional representation.
The issue of constitutional reform has surged up the political agenda since the expenses furore rocked Westminster. There are growing signs of a consensus on the need to act rapidly. The new talks will discuss whether to design a system of "recall" for corrupt and incompetent MPs whereby they have to face a new election if enough of their electorate back the move.
The Independent disclosed yesterday that Mr Brown was sympathetic to the principle of recall as long as safeguards were in place to prevent MPs falling victim to malicious campaigns to oust them. A government source added: "Jack Straw is interested in the idea."
Mr Cameron is said by party sources to have "not ruled out" the recall idea. But – like the Prime Minister – he believes it should only happen in the most exceptional circumstances.
The arguments for and against fixed-term parliaments will also be thrashed out. Mr Cameron has said he will "look carefully" at removing from the prime minister the right to dictate the timing of elections, while Mr Brown wants the subject discussed. Supporters of the move say it would remove the in-built advantage enjoyed by sitting governments, although critics warn that ways need to be found for dealing with situations where administrations are elected with tiny majorities that might not survive for the term of a parliament.
Detailed alterations to Commons procedures will also be discussed by the parties. Ideas to be examined include whether select committees should be strengthened by removing the power of the party whips to nominate their chairmen and members. That move is winning widespread support across the main parties.
They also agree on the need to find fresh ways of making proceedings in the Commons more relevant to the public. The parties will discuss whether petitions signed by large number of people can trigger debates, as well as making it easier for backbench MPs to win parliamentary time for private members' bills.
The Government source said: "Part of the reason we have had a problem with expenses is because of a culture which has become divorced from the electorate. But we believe there is a willingness on all sides to make progress on this."
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said Mr Brown was "open to any proposal" for political reform. He said the Prime Minister believed politicians should not lose sight of the fact they were sent to Parliament to "address the everyday concerns of those who had elected them". He said there were "pros and cons" over the issue of fixed-term parliaments which Mr Brown was happy to debate.
The Prime Minister has called for an independent regulator of the Commons expenses system. The Government will either add the proposal to the Constitutional Renewal Bill going through Parliament or include it in an emergency stand-alone Bill. The Bill is aimed at giving MPs more power to scrutinise treaties, streamlining the role of the Attorney General and reducing the Lord Chancellor's role in appointing judges. It also eases the restrictions on demonstrations in and around Parliament Square.
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