Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:22 pm on 29th November 2004.

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Photo of The Earl of Northesk The Earl of Northesk Conservative 6:22 pm, 29th November 2004

My Lords, like other noble Lords I begin by congratulating and welcoming our maiden speakers—the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, and the noble Lord, Lord Gould. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, for her elegant introduction to today's debate.

As we all know this is the moment in the parliamentary year when pithy quotes about the Government's legislative programme drip from the pens of the commentators. We are spoilt for choice. I am especially drawn to that of Anatole Kaletsky in the Times last week, describing it as,

"a ragbag of 'eye-catching initiatives' and fidgety nanny-state measures—in many cases deliberately confounding the paranoia of Mr Blair's War on Terror with the public's justified anger about a breakdown of law and civility on Britain's streets".

Against that background it will not surprise your Lordships if I single out the identity cards Bill as my starting point. To my mind the most significant comment made so far about that is to be found in the summary of the Home Affairs Select Committee's report on its draft. It states:

"We conclude that objections of principle should not be lightly dismissed and that the Government's proposed scheme would represent a significant change in the relationship between state and individual in this country".

Both arms of this statement are exceedingly important. First, it implies that the Government are under an inescapable obligation to take seriously the concerns and anxieties of those of a lot more libertarian frame of mind than the Home Secretary. On current evidence—not least the recent remarks of the leader of another place—this does not look at all likely.

Secondly, the identification of,

"a significant change in the relationship between state and individual"— a matter spoken to so eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy—is manifestly accurate. I do not dispute that the draft Bill has been amended. Nor do I in any way underestimate either the nature or the extent of the threat we face from international terrorism and organised crime, which, at least in part, is touted as the utilitarian justification for the Bill.

Nevertheless, any Bill that introduces this sort of change—and most assuredly this Bill does—must be subject to the most intense scrutiny. For the avoidance of doubt, I have deep-seated anxieties—not to say objections—about the Home Secretary's proposals. However, I do not propose to enumerate them today. For the moment it is enough to say that in my judgment the proposition itself, let alone the actual Bill as introduced today, is riddled with flaws.

In passing, I am surprised by an omission from the gracious Speech, a revision of the Computer Misuse Act, something referred to by the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, last week. Given technological advances and developments since 1990, this is long overdue—the more so because of the work done on the matter by the All-Party Parliamentary Internet Group and because such an update would constrain the activity of organised crime and terrorism in a much more practical and immediate way than the ramshackle and woolly formulations about ID cards that the Home Secretary has brought forward. Moreover, it would chime with the insistence of my noble friend Lady Anelay that there are sensible and practical actions that the Government should be taking now.

Be that as it may, it is the concept of a changed and changing,

"relationship between state and individual", that has piqued my interest. In particular, I am intrigued by its constitutional context. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, put it:

"We have been going through a tremendous constitutional revolution in the past seven years".—[Hansard, 15/9/04; col. 1249.]

Some may see this as much-needed reform, others as unthinking vandalism. It matters not. We are where we are. What does matter is that the constitutional architecture and the culture of our polity have changed out of all recognition since 1997. And yet, as my noble friend Lord Patten put it, constitutional measures other than the Constitutional Reform Bill are the "dogs that didn't bark" in the gracious Speech. No doubt for some this is a source of disappointment.

Others, however, may feel relieved that the Government's relentless drive to "modernise" our constitutional architecture appears, for the moment at least, to have paused to catch its breath.

In truth, however, the presumption of an apparent moratorium on this administration's instinct to tinker mindlessly with the constitution is somewhat misplaced. While its hardware, its visible manifestations, are seemingly to be left alone for a while, fiddling with its software—what Peter Hennessy has called its "hidden wiring"—continues apace.

In reality, this should not come as too much of a surprise. After all, this "hidden wiring" is where much of the rightly acclaimed flexibility of our constitution resides. That is all to the good but at the same time it poses problems. In particular, whereas changes to the hardware are of necessity subject to the full gaze of scrutiny that our legislative and parliamentary system can bring to bear, the "rewiring" of its internal and hidden circuitry occurs invisibly, to all intents and purposes, beyond the reach of any accountability and transparency. It is conducted outwith the normal checks and balances of our system.

A glance at the chapter headings of Peter Hennessy's book bears witness to the cables and fulcrums around which this "hidden wiring" spins, thus: "Premiership: Shadow and Substance", "Cabinet: The Necessary Shambles", "Whitehall: Gyroscope of State", "Parliament: The Little Room", and so on. And, within this framework, the ways in which the constitutional circuit board can be tweaked and re-routed in ways that fundamentally change the relationship between the state and the individual are legion.

For my purposes today I shall focus on "Cabinet: The Necessary Shambles". Here Claud Schuster's description of the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Cabinet as,

"like the procreation of eels . . . slippery and mysterious", is an enduring image for me. It is difficult not to apply it to the ongoing saga of Prime Minister versus Chancellor that is so inextricably woven into the current administration. Those of the party of government might like to dismiss that as mere tittle-tattle. Indeed, there would be some justification for so doing if the strains in the relationship did not impinge so mercilessly upon the concepts of Cabinet government and collective responsibility.

Observation of how policy has been conducted in recent times invites speculation that, whatever the Prime Minister's perception of his style of government, the Chancellor has reserved to the Treasury virtual control of all economic and domestic matters, leaving the international stage to his nominal master. On occasion, for instance in relation to monetary union or reform of the public services, those tensions become all too apparent, with naked hostility between the Blairite and Brownite camps, not only within the parliamentary party but within the Cabinet itself, as is plainly evident. In other words, a fragmented and fractious duopoly sits at the core of the Government, and, in so far as that is accurate, it must militate against effective and meaningful collective responsibility.

That, in turn, feeds into a palpable sense in which the concept of Cabinet government has been downgraded and sidelined since 1997. Of course there are justifications for that, in the sense that in the modern world it could be seen as too cumbersome and top-heavy an institution to be able to deliver efficient decision-making. Moreover, I accept, as I must, that this presumption of a neutering of Cabinet-style government was not necessarily initiated when new Labour came to power. Nevertheless, one could be forgiven for imagining that the process has accelerated hugely since May 1997.

With hindsight, the now infamous Order in Council granting executive control over civil servants to Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell was a watershed in defining the Prime Minister's intent and preferred style of government. What has followed—the Prime Minister's apparent disdain for Parliament and its processes; the burgeoning growth of special advisers in Whitehall; the concentration on spin and media manipulation; what could be called back-of-envelope policy initiatives, the establishment of "sofa government" and so on—is a wholesale reshaping of the style of the executive and the relationship between the state and the individual. It suggests the establishment and solidification of the Prime Minister's power base and status as primus inter pares.

In turns, departmental Cabinet Ministers have been relegated to the second division, while the two big teams of the Cabinet squabble over the premiership title. Taking that logic a little further, there is, as Clare Short has argued, a legitimate case suggesting that the Prime Minister has shifted us towards a more presidential style of government. As she observed in her resignation speech in another place:

"In [Labour's] second term, the problem is the centralisation of power into the hands of the Prime Minister and an increasingly small number of advisers who make decisions in private without proper discussion . . . There is no real collective responsibility because there is no collective; just diktats in favour of increasingly badly thought through policy initiatives that come from on high".—[Hansard, Commons, 12/5/03; col. 38.]

Some may wish to imagine that, in that context, Clare Short is a less than reliable witness, not least because of her flouting of the principle of collective responsibility in respect of the war in Iraq in March 2003. But, as Graham Allen, writing in the Daily Telegraph, has observed:

"In permitting Clare Short to keep her Cabinet job, the Prime Minister has shown a willingness to put aside the longstanding convention regarding collective responsibility".

Evidently, that is a supposition with which Peter Hennessy agrees. His comments in response to the review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction carried out by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, are scathing. He cites a,

"failure to use the Cabinet system—the ultimate check and balance of British central government—properly", adding for good measure:

"The language [in paragraph 6.10 of the report] is measured . . . Never has there been an indictment to match this of a system's failure at the heart of British government".

I am well aware that that is not a universally held view. As the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, has observed, different Prime Ministers do the job in different ways, and constitutional practice has proved flexible in finding ways of enabling that to happen while ensuring that conventions are met.

In fact, the noble Lord makes my point for me. It is precisely because different Prime Ministers do the job in different ways that the relationship between the state and the individual is subject to change. We can, and do, differ on how acceptable each individual Prime Minister's way of doing things is. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the current Prime Minister's approach has shifted the relationship between the state and the individual manifestly.

At the heart of this lies a simple truism, expressed by Peter Hennessy in these terms:

"The constitution does not belong to the government of the day", but to the whole population of the country. In fact, Labour's 1997 manifesto acknowledged that:

"Our mission in politics is to rebuild this bond of trust between government and the people. That is the only way democracy can flourish. I pledge to Britain a government which shares their hopes, which understands their fears, and which will work as partners with and for all our people, not just the privileged few. This is our contract with the people".

Against the background of a collapse of public trust in the current administration resulting from the methodology used to justify the war in Iraq, the unedifying spectacle of Parliament wrestling with the Hunting Bill and the re-routing of the constitution's hidden wiring, we can, I think, be forgiven for supposing that that aspiration is tarnished and threadbare. Given the YouGov poll reported in today's Daily Telegraph, we have perhaps come full circle since the claim in the same document that,

"There is unquestionably a national crisis of confidence in our political system".

I have saved the last word for the forebear of my noble friend Lord Attlee. Writing in the Daily Telegraph in 1960, he suggested that,

"The essential principle of our British system is that of collective responsibility. Ministers are not mere creatures of the Prime Minister but, for the most part, elected representatives. Ministers [are] responsible to the Crown, Parliament and the electorate . . . An approach to one-man Government is in my view a mistake".

Those wise words may be more traditionalist than modernist and therefore not to the taste of those on the Benches opposite, let alone the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. Nevertheless, I cannot help feeling that they have particular relevance and resonate far more today than they would have done seven and a half years ago.