Constitution: Gracious Speech — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:20 pm on 25th June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Taylor of Bolton Baroness Taylor of Bolton Labour 1:20 pm, 25th June 2015

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Wills on initiating this debate. I was going to congratulate him on his timeliness, but this debate would have been timely at any point during the last Parliament and probably any time during this one as well, such is the pace of change that this Government are introducing and have introduced in the past.

We have heard today that there is very little in terms of a common approach from the Government regarding constitutional change. There is one common thread, in that most of these changes are botched, fragmentary and not thought through. Many of them, as my noble friend said, are determined by political advantage, which is not a good driving force for constitutional change. During the last Parliament, we had the AV referendum, although I disagree with my noble friend

Lord Lipsey on electoral reform. We had the referendum not because the Government as a whole wanted to consider electoral reform but for the wrong reason—because of the coalition deal.

Then we had the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which certainly suited some in terms of political advantage at the time, although I am not sure that the electorate were enamoured of it when it came to that very long election campaign. I wish my noble friend Lord Grocott well in his attempt to repeal that Act. We also had the boundary changes, which several colleagues have talked about today. They were blatantly political. The idea of creating constituencies regardless of the natural boundaries in an area is dangerous. It makes the link between a Member of Parliament and their constituency all the more difficult. Any such constitutional change that has cutting the cost of politics as its purpose is going in the wrong direction. We should be defending the need for an effective representative democracy and not making cheap jibes in order to curry favour.

Nobody has mentioned the House of Lords reform that Nick Clegg introduced. That sank very quickly so perhaps it is best not to do dwell on it. But we saw other changes, such as voter registration. My noble friend produced figures that show that 8 million people will now be off the register. That is a serious situation, not just for our democracy but for our society. It will increase the alienation of many people, which is the last thing this country needs at this particular time.

Many noble Lords spoke about the Scottish referendum, of course. Many noble Lords in this House worked very hard to ensure that the result of that referendum was the right one—a vote for “better together”. However, our efforts were somewhat undermined when, after everyone had rejected the idea of a second question about devo-max on the ballot paper, we then had that vow—the panic measure a couple of days before, on the part of all parties—that undermined all that we had been trying to do.

Then, as others have said, it was even worse after the result, when separation had been rejected. Instead of making a statement consolidating the union, the Prime Minister, as my noble friend said, exploded a time bomb outside Downing Street in the morning, stoking up problems with his announcement about English votes for English laws being such a priority. As my noble friend said, you do not counter Scottish nationalism by fanning the flames of English nationalism— so much for the Government’s apparently enduring settlement aim, which totally contradicts what the Prime Minister did on that day.

It has been said that the purpose of EVEL is to harm the Labour Party. I am not sure that it will as much as people say, but some of that is in our own hands. I am sure that that was the motive behind what the Prime Minister said. Everybody within Parliament should be concerned that the Prime Minister is going to try to change our constitution by introducing English votes for English laws by changing the Standing Orders in the House of Commons, which could be done—and he wants to do it within 100 days. That is rather a fundamental change to go through simply on the basis of changing Standing Orders in another place. It is very serious indeed.

We have seen lots of piecemeal changes. Mention has been made today of the possibility of a constitutional convention, conference, convocation, commission or whatever—call it what you will. I do not think that the name matters. Maybe there should be a Joint Committee of both Houses. We need to know how all of these changes will knit together or I fear that we will have a ridiculous and unnecessary situation with many tensions and challenges, and too many times the courts will end up making decisions and not Parliament. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton: we need to step back, not to try to write a new codified constitution but to clarify the framework and get a coherent approach.

I want to make a final point about one type of creeping constitutional change that has not so far been mentioned: the increasing use—would say abuse—of Henry VIII powers in legislation. Sweeping changes are now being made by regulation and no proper indication is being given about the nature of those changes at the time that the legislation goes through—even in Committee and on Report. As Ministers we have all tried to push the boundary on that a little, but we used to have in government a legislation committee—a Cabinet committee—that actually looked at how legislation was fit for purpose and fit for being introduced. One of the tests of that was whether the statutory instruments that were being proposed were proportionate. We have got well away from SIs being proportionate. It is almost as if Ministers are competing to see who can get away with the most—on my count the noble Lord, Lord Nash, is winning at the moment. This House probably needs to look at whether we need a new mechanism so that it does not reject or accept an SI but has some powers of delay. That would be very helpful.

I congratulate my noble friend. He is right that we should keep returning to this issue and keep asking the questions about how the constitutional changes will fit together. He reminded the House that part of our role is to be a constitutional long-stop. This House has to take that responsibility very seriously indeed.