Smith demands new deal between people and state

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Indy Politics
AN END TO the 'fundamentally undemocratic' secrecy that precedes the annual Budget was called for last night by John Smith, the Labour leader, as part of a new constitutional deal between the people and the state.

'The secrecy that precedes the annual Budget, and the absurd period of purdah into which the Chancellor of the Exchequer disappears before the statement to the House of Commons, is almost entirely designed to maximise the political convenience of the government,' Mr Smith said in a speech on the British constitution to a Charter 88 reform group meeting in London.

While drawing extensively on commitments in the 1992 Labour election manifesto, Mr Smith's play for the Government's Citizen's Charter territory was the boldest of any Labour leader for decades, while managing to avoid the issues of voting reform - still being discussed by the Plant commission - and the clamour for a written constitution.

Last night, he called for a Human Rights Act to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights into British law and which should also include a provision requiring that any other Act intended to introduce laws inconsistent with it must do so specifically and in express terms.

A Human Rights Commission would assist the courts to take on their new human rights responsibilities and help individuals to make claims, Mr Smith said. Ensuring the observance and promotion of human rights throughout the courts and justice system would also be an important function of a new Ministry of Justice.

In the absence of a written constitution - the only means of 'entrenching' basic individual freedoms - the proposal is the nearest approximation to a Bill of Rights, a notion that was consistently opposed by the former shadow Home Secretary and deputy leader, Roy Hattersley.

Mr Smith also finally laid to rest long-standing opposition to devolution articulated by Neil Kinnock, the former leader, with a call for 'a new tier of government' for Scotland, Wales and the English regions. There needed to be a 'renaissance' of local government to replace the 'new tier of unelected quangos' that were the flip-side of removing local government power, he said.

On the freedom of information theme, Mr Smith reflected provisions in the Right to Know Bill sponsored by the Labour MP Mark Fisher, when he called for a 'parallel agenda of consumer rights' alongside reforms to the machinery of government.

Citing last year's Cadbury report on corporate governance, Mr Smith said few British companies disclosed details of directors' pay. The report had recommended that shareholders receive clear statements of directors' benefits.

Mr Smith said he shared the widespread desire in the Labour Party to see the House of Lords replaced with an elected second chamber.

He said: 'I can see no possible merit in the continuance of a system which allows people to participate in the passing of legislation on the basis of a hereditary principle dating from the Middle Ages.'

Andrew Marr, page 17