Constitution: Gracious Speech — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:47 pm on 25th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 1:47 pm, 25th June 2015

My Lords, what a fantastic debate this has been, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wills, on securing it. He is quite right, I did read history at Oxford, but sadly, I clearly was somewhere else—maybe somewhere involving alcohol and thinking about things. It is another sign of my misspent youth; for example, when they were trying to teach us about Aristotle, I missed it.

When I was told there was to be a short debate on the constitution I looked at my officials in bemusement and asked whether this was not a contradiction in terms or actually a physical impossibility. This debate has been excellent; we have covered a lot of ground. I feel as if I have just been hit by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, with a tidal wave of questions about the constitution.

I remind your Lordships that Walter Bagehot began his seminal work on the constitution by quoting John Stuart Mill, who said that,

“on all great subjects, there still remain many things to be said”.

Of no subject is this more true than the British constitution. Much more remains to be said but I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, creating what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, described as a constitutional cornucopia, from which I shall try to pluck some of the fruits.

Trying to sum up is a little daunting. I feel like I am facing one of those test papers in that great source of insight into the British constitution, which I am sure noble Lords know well—1066 and All That—where students face questions such as:

“Examine the state of mind of (1) Charles I, half an hour after his head was cut off (2) Charles II, half a moment after first sighting Nell Gwyn”.

As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, the exam question before us today, and for me to try to answer, is to note the implications of the constitutional changes proposed in the gracious Speech.

Let me start by rehearsing the intention behind those measures. As has been said, including by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, the Government intend to govern in the interests of one nation. This was a clear theme of the gracious Speech. What does that mean? In practice it means ensuring that our constitution, the institutions and the democratic processes that underpin our nation create a stable polity. Let me try to address my noble friend Lord Norton’s excellent exam question: this means that we need a constitutional settlement in which Parliament is sovereign and which is characterised by the principles of giving power to the people—a point that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, made so well. It is also a fair settlement and one that has a pragmatic recognition—two words that I emphasise—of the unique nature and characteristics of the different parts of our union. I am unsure that that answers my noble friend Lord Norton’s question, but I would be happy to debate with him further on it.

What does this mean in practice? We have rehearsed a number of these points today. It means that we will meet our commitment to deliver further powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It means—a critical point here on giving power to the people—a referendum on this country’s continued membership of the EU. It means, in the interests of fairness, that we will address the English question through the introduction of English votes, a point that I will return to. Further, it means that we will introduce a Bill of Rights, which will uphold fundamental human rights while protecting against the abuses of the Human Rights Act, a point that I will also return to. To answer my noble friend Lord Norton’s question about the machinery of government, clearly my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has oversight of all government policy, while my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster co-ordinates the constitutional reform programme.

I turn to the constitutional convention, or convocation, or however others might like it. I applaud the speech on this by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed. He spoke eloquently, as always. I shall answer this not by being coy, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, suggested; I shall address it head on. The Government do not plan to establish a constitutional convention. Instead, our focus must be on delivering the commitments that we made to the people of the United Kingdom. The Government were elected with a mandate to deliver the commitments that I have listed and that should not be delayed, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said in his powerful contribution.

There is nothing to suggest that the public want a constitutional convention. Instead, I point out that they were offered one at the last election by the Labour Party. It was one of the policies that was rejected and no doubt went the same way as the “Ed stone”. Instead, I argue that the British people want the Government to get on with the job they were elected to do. It might seem odd to quote Elvis Presley in this context, but I kept thinking of his song, “A Little Less Conversation”—a little more action. That is what I think the British people want on this point.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, has been keen on such a convention for some time. Indeed, I read his pamphlet back in 2006. He proposed that a convention might consist of 300 members who would be elected at a general election. They would look at everything: from devolution to an issue that I know matters to your Lordships—age restrictions on Peers—the whole gamut. Their contributions would be put to the public in a referendum. I should add that the noble Lord suggested that no one who ever stood for election would be able to serve on this convention, so that includes himself and a number of your Lordships.

I mention this not to put in lights the noble Lord’s contribution to the debate, but really to make the point that every person who wants an official convention has their own particular view as to who should be on it and what it should do. To get any agreement, I suspect that we would need a convention on a convention. Furthermore, international experience shows the challenges that lie in dealing with the outcomes of such conventions and then securing public and political legitimacy for their conclusions. In Ireland, of the 18 recommendations made by its constitutional conventions, just two were put to a referendum. In British Columbia and in Ontario the public rejected the outcomes.

Rather than go down this route, I argue that we must press ahead with the package of reforms that we have set out and scrutinise them vigorously, as a number of noble Lords have said. If others wish to look at these issues in a broader context, either here in Parliament or elsewhere, or even to set up their own convention, they are more than welcome to do so. Let a thousand flowers bloom, I say; knowing that your Lordships are not shrinking violets, I am sure they will. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, implored, your Lordships should do this as we are the best placed to do the job. What we cannot afford is an expensive talking shop that would delay, rather than deliver, reform. If we are really to listen to the people, kicking this issue into the long grass is not the answer. Those are not my words, but those of Margaret Hodge. For once, I entirely agree with her.

I turn to the reforms. Through the measures that we are introducing in this Parliament, the Government will deliver some of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. I dispute with those noble Lords who contend that there is not a programme here. It is important that those increased decision-making powers be accompanied by enhanced accountability to ensure that the devolved Administrations are responsible to the people who elect them.

On Scotland, I dispute what some of your Lordships have said: that the approach the Government are adopting is partisan. The Scotland Bill delivers the Smith commission agreement, on which there was cross-party agreement, in full. We are providing extensive new powers and more control over tax and spending. As set out in the St David’s Day agreement, we will devolve additional powers to Wales over areas such as transport, energy and the environment, and empower the Assembly to manage its own affairs. For Northern Ireland, the Stormont House agreement offers the prospect of a more prosperous, stable and secure future. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is meeting the parties again today, having held a series of bilaterals with all parties over the last week.