Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Conservative 9:30 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, in this wide-ranging debate, I will focus my remarks on the need for good and competent government. I start with one example where I believe government failed to rise to the occasion, the implications of which we are seeing today. I am referring to last year’s European referendum.

In a general election, the voters elect a Parliament and Government and so delegate to politicians the responsibility for taking complicated decisions. In a referendum, it is the other way round. Politicians delegate to the voters the responsibility for taking a complicated decision. Let me be clear that I am not for a moment criticising the decision to hold the referendum, but I am criticising the failure of the then Government to set out for the voters in a clear way the practical implications and challenges of remaining in the EU and of leaving the EU. More lamentable still was the failure of the Government to undertake any contingency planning, even though the option of leave was put on the table as a deliberate act of government policy, so there was a 50:50 chance of the country voting leave. Towards the end of a Parliament, the Cabinet Secretary initiates discussions with the main Opposition party to carry out preparatory work on that party’s programme were it to form the next Government. That is rightly done in the interests of good government. In the case of the EU referendum, no such work was done for leave.

Last Thursday, my noble friend the Leader of the House and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister both spoke of the need for government to consult and listen. I hope that when my noble friend the Minister winds up he will complete the sentence and assure us that, having consulted and listened, the Government will then respond and act. I welcome that there will be more Green Papers and discussion papers on, for example, the thorny question of social care. One positive by-product of so much Brexit legislation in this two-year session of Parliament is that it provides the Government with plenty of time for thinking and consulting, ready for well-developed policies to be introduced in year three of what I hope and expect to be a full five-year Parliament.

I make one short plea about consultation. It should be more than a box-ticking exercise. What matters is the quality of the responses and getting input from people with the relevant expertise. That brings me to how the Government could benefit more from the expertise in this House. I am thinking in particular of the many excellent reports produced by committees here. These are often debated on the Floor of the House and the Minister will of course be unfailingly courteous, but the substance of the speech will often be formal and formulaic. I have always thought that it would be far better for the relevant Minister, whether from the Commons or the Lords, to appear before the committee and be asked which proposals have been followed and which have been ignored. A little bit of pressing and prodding would be good because it is, after all, to Parliament that Ministers are responsible.

I want to say a final word about the role that special advisers can play in creating good government. Their job is to oil the wheels of government and to be a lubricant in the system, not grit. A good special adviser can help officials better understand and achieve the Minister’s policy objectives, but special advisers should never overreach themselves. The dictum should always be this: advisers advise and Ministers decide.

I believe that the gracious Speech is honest and straightforward. It sets out practical and achievable objectives, and I welcome it.