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1997 Onwards - Sir John Major’s Article in The Times on Constitutional Reform

Below is the text of Sir John Major’s article in The Times on Constitutional Reform, written jointly with The Lord Hurd of Westwell [Douglas Hurd], published on 11th July 2009.


SIR JOHN MAJOR:

The row over Parliamentary expenses and the Cabinet crisis have triggered a much wider debate about Parliament and Government. The expenses system must be thoroughly cleaned out and overhauled; but it is also the right time for fuller discussion of the health and reputation of our political system. Within a few months, at the latest, we will have a General Election. Both the main parties are in the market for ideas, the Conservatives preparing for government, Labour searching for a formula which might give them a fourth term. This is a good moment for all of us outside the Party leaderships to put in our word.

The Prime Minister’s statement on 10th June was deeply disappointing. It added nothing of substance to the debate. At present, Parliament seems to sit fewer days each year. Working hours have been shortened. Debate on legislation is routinely curtailed with much of it poorly (sometimes never) debated. Unelected spokesmen have moved from the backroom to the limelight, often with more influence than Ministers. All of this weakens Parliament. We need a House of Commons reduced in size, as David Cameron has suggested, and galvanised with greater efficiency.

As for Government, Gordon Brown’s reshuffle was forced on him by the disintegration of his team. But for weeks the commentators had confidently predicted a reshuffle as a tactical diversion away from the Prime Minister’s other difficulties. The possibilities were analysed in the narrowest possible terms. Is he or she a Brownite or Blairite? How does their expense sheet look? How do they stand within the Labour Party?

This is all trivia. No-one has been speaking up for change to improve the quality of Government as a whole. No one asks the critical question: who is best for this particular job? It is as if the actual daily work of Ministers - the analysis of advice and taking of decisions - is peripheral, whereas it should be the point and purpose of their existence.

The result has been poisonous for the quality of decisions. Defence is the striking example. The Armed Services of the Crown are under formidable strain. For years, they have endured Secretaries of State who were left in Office hardly long enough to learn the ropes. Prisons are another example; we have had eight prison ministers in nine years. This is frivolous government. Of course a Prime Minister must be free to make changes when necessary; but his obligation must always be to secure the best available leadership for each department of State.

There are too many Ministers. The total could be reduced by about one-third. Only Cabinet Ministers need Parliamentary Private Secretaries. The Treasury should remain with two Ministers, both in the Cabinet. DFID should be reunited with the Foreign Office, likewise with two Cabinet Ministers. Thus, the number of Junior Ministers could be reduced significantly. We support the recent expansion of overseas aid, but believe that Britain’s aid programme has become dangerously divorced from British foreign policy.

Recent changes have substantially weakened the Home Office, which ought to be one of the great Offices of State. It, too, would benefit from a second Cabinet Minister and fewer Junior Ministers. This would enable us to reunite all elements of the criminal justice system, police, probation, courts and prisons, under one roof. The current system, as established by the Labour Government, is simply not working.

Once these simplifying changes have been made, and the Cabinet appointed, we would hope that - short of disasters - the Prime Minister would leave the structure of government in place, and - subject to competence - give each Cabinet Minister a clear run of two or three years.

Within the total number of Ministers, there are now too few with experience of life outside politics. Almost all Ministers rise through the Commons, and nowadays most MPs of all parties have moved straight from further education into some form of professional politics. The ambition of professional politicians also weakens the ability of Parliament to hold the Executive to account. More outside experience would strengthen Parliament and Government. Conservative and Labour Prime Ministers have tried to remedy this by bringing businessmen and professionals into Government through the House of Lords. This device can work well, but there is a defect of accountability which limits its use. We would look for a way in which all Ministers in the House of Lords could appear at the Despatch Box to answer to the House of Commons as a whole, and not just to Select Committees.

We would make a more adventurous experiment in the same direction: a Prime Minister could appoint a small number of unelected Ministers of State, who would be answerable to Parliament without being members of either House. This is, of course, a device borrowed from the United States, France and other democracies which practise the separation of powers. It could deepen the quality of Ministerial government without undermining the principle of accountability to Parliament.

The same narrowing of skills and experience needs to be remedied in the House of Commons itself. Somehow, we have to persuade talented individuals to come forward, and constituencies to accept candidates, from a wider range than at present. We have in mind professional people who have succeeded in their chosen career and have years of energy and good health ahead of them which they could use, not as Ministers but as backbenchers, to control the government of their country. The conditions of service have to be tolerable to such individuals, which bears on the issue of salaries and expenses. More important, such men and women have to feel that they can be effective Parliamentarians. Useful proposals to this end have already been made. The Select Committees should be totally freed from the control of the Whips. We would favour Parliament scrutinising and approving a two year Government policy programme. The Commons must re-establish the ability to scrutinise legislation, both domestic and European. This will mean looking again at Parliament's not particularly vigorous hours of work, and compelling Government to limit the quantity of legislation to the Parliamentary time available for proper scrutiny.

Out of these and other changes should emerge a Parliamentary career structure in parallel to the structure of Government. The Chairmen of Select Committees should be paid the same as Ministers of State, and emerge as nationally known figures. The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee should have the salary of a Cabinet Minister. The Speaker would stand at the apex of this parliamentary career, universally known as the spokesman and champion of a Parliament of which its electors could be proud. We are some way from that now, but the time is ripe for reform. Such reform must extend beyond correcting abuses, and centre upon ensuring that the quality of Government improves, and the Executive is held to account more effectively than in recent years.

The necessary elements are there in our history. Those of us who have been privileged to serve Parliament, in both Houses, have a duty to breathe new life back into the ceremonies, traditions and magnificent buildings of which we have been so proud in the past. Such a debate is vital to secure its future.

 

The Rt Hon Sir John Major, KG, CH

The Rt Hon The Lord Hurd of Westwell, CH, CBE, PC

London SW1

11th July, 2009