Leader of the House of Lords — Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 28th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Lang of Monkton Lord Lang of Monkton Chair, Constitution Committee, Chair, Constitution Committee 8:45 pm, 28th July 2014

My Lords, I begin by apologising to the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, for my excessive enthusiasm to participate in your Lordships’ debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, on behalf of the Select Committee on the Constitution, which I have the honour to chair, for quoting so effectively and powerfully from our report. I stand by everything that is in that report. I believe that it does its best to inform the House for the debate and I hope that the House will find it useful.

Regarding the Motion, however, I find I have a little difficulty because I agree with the first part, in which the noble Baroness congratulates my noble friend the Leader of the House, who I believe will be as formidable as she is fearless and will turn this event to good account in her negotiations with the Prime Minister and others in Cabinet. However, in the second part of the Motion, which criticises the Prime Minister’s decision, I think the noble Baroness underrates the extent to which my noble friend Lady Stowell is a prisoner of circumstances, deriving from some years ago. I will come back to that point shortly. That is not to underrate the serious nature of the diminished status under which your Lordships’ House now labours—in defiance, as the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, rightly said, of both Erskine May and the Companion to the Standing Orders.

Of course one welcomes the acknowledgement by the Prime Minister of the unacceptable nature of the present situation and his clear commitment to put it right as soon as he can. But to help that to happen, we should also acknowledge the nature of what he has inherited: namely, the gradual erosion, over time, of the constitutional standing of this House, which the current event continues. Indeed, I believe that there are two disquieting long-term trends that have contributed to the situation we now face.

First, there is the huge expansion since the 1970s that my noble friend Lord MacGregor spoke about briefly of the range and machinery of government. There are more departments and Governments are doing more, and that has required more Ministers and more Cabinet Ministers. That trend was visible 40 years ago when in 1975 the issue was last addressed and the paid number of Cabinet places was increased from 19 to 21, providing what the Government of the time thought was some spare capacity for future growth. They were too optimistic. Moreover, the Acts of Parliament that governed and sought through financial controls to discipline such expansion were left unamended. Instead, they have been circumvented.

The committee’s report illustrates the recent trend in this century of the concept of Ministers attending Cabinet. Prime Minister Blair used it. Mr Brown, as

Prime Minister, entrenched it at six, including two Parliamentary Private Secretaries—both of them, incidentally, his own. He then started recruiting Ministers from outside Parliament—those optimistically referred to as GOATS, or the Government of all the talents. He subdivided the supernumerary attendees to Cabinet into two different categories.

The blurring of government continued with the tsars and envoys and has continued under the present Government. Now, as has been pointed out, there are 11 ministerial attendees at Cabinet who are not Cabinet Ministers. We do not want our Leader of the House to be a member of that second XI. We know that she is first XI material, and I do not doubt for one moment that she will fight as though she is a first XI person.

The second trend is the gradual and perhaps inadvertent downgrading by government of the centrality to decision-making of this House. We are the secondary Chamber, but we have a part to play. Incidentally, I noted that while 4% of Ministers in the Commons are unpaid Ministers, 33% of Lords Ministers are unpaid Ministers. That is in itself unfair—but the solution is not to rebalance it but to ensure that every government Minister is properly paid from government funds at all times.

I do not believe that this is a party-political issue. Both parties carry a certain amount of blame. But it is a constitutional one of fundamental significance that has now left us without a Member of this House in the Cabinet. The change to the role and status of the Lord Chancellor in 2005 forms part of the undermining of the standing of this House—and a very substantial part, as has been commented. It was an object lesson in how not to make changes to the constitution, and I am glad to say that your Lordships’ committee is at present undertaking an inquiry into that role.

Our report does not make recommendations as to the way forward, but it is clear that the amending of the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975 could offer one possible way forward, although I believe that it would need primary legislation. Our report indicates three possible options for amendment if that is the chosen route. I care deeply about the place of the House of Lords in our constitution. To me, the central issue concerns the bicameral nature of our legislature. That, as our report states, is a core part of our constitution. It is also a core part of our constitution that Ministers are drawn from the legislature. That must include this House at Cabinet level. Those basic principles of our parliamentary system have been blurred and neglected for some time. The restoration of the Leader of the House to full Cabinet membership will be but the first essential step to restoring our bicameral parliamentary system.