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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:36 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Conservative 5:36 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, I join others in commending my two noble friends for their high-quality maiden speeches. I follow up the point made by my noble friend Lord Parkinson. He pointed out that my party annexed a substantial number of votes from Labour in its heartlands—aspirational, patriotic, small “c” conservatives. My party may now need to annex some of Labour’s more sensible policies as well in order to secure those votes next time, notably putting public services before tax cuts for the better off. A good start has been made with the NHS, but we need to follow through with investment in social housing, regional policy and the reform of universal credit. The DNA of the Conservative Party is changing, and we should acknowledge that, as earlier generations have, to ensure its continuing success as a one-nation party.

I turn to the constitution. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act has had a bad press and has itself come to the end of its term. It was not, as some have claimed, a knee-jerk reaction to the formation of the coalition Government, preventing its unilateral dissolution by David Cameron at a time inconvenient to our partners. It was actually a manifesto commitment by both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats before the 2010 election that was generously, but perhaps ill-advisedly, adopted by my party. However, it has not worked, as we have seen, with the Government twice choosing when they want an early election.

The Loyal Address said:

“Work will be taken forward to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.”

But in the list of Bills published by the Leader in another place, there is no mention of what I assume is a straightforward repeal Bill. Can my noble friend shed some light on that?

Related to that is the manifesto commitment on boundaries. The last election that I fought was in 2010, using boundaries based on the electoral register drawn up 10 years earlier. Amazingly, those are the boundaries used in the three subsequent elections, last month’s being based on boundaries 19 years out of date. Without spending too much time on the reasons for that—glossing over the voting down by the Liberal Democrats of legislation introduced by their own Leader—the question arises what to do to prevent a repetition of this distortion of the democratic process. We have, to use the Prime Minister’s words, an oven-ready set of proposals, presented by the Boundary Commission in September 2018 that should have been laid before both Houses, in the words of the legislation,

“as soon as may be”,

but over a year later they have not been. Is it the Government’s intention to proceed with those, giving us a new House of Commons with 600 Members at the next election? Or is it their intention, as rumoured over the weekend, to revert to a House of 650 Members, which will require primary legislation to be introduced very soon if new boundaries are to be in place for the next scheduled election?

I turn next to voter ID, a commitment which I welcome. This has been portrayed as a sinister conspiracy by my party to disenfranchise our political opponents—see Owen Jones in last week’s Guardian. It is nothing of the sort. Compulsory ID was introduced by Labour for Northern Ireland and was recommended four years ago for the rest of the UK by the independent Electoral Commission, on which all three main parties are represented. It has repeated that recommendation several times since. The chair of the Electoral Commission has said:

“Unfortunately this proposal risks becoming a political football”— a sport unknown in your Lordships’ House. Can I ask when this legislation will be introduced?

I welcome the consultation announced in the Queen’s Speech on electoral integrity. I have often said, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, reminded us, that we have an analogue legislative framework in a digital age. Much of the groundwork is being done by the Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. His committee is in turn drawing on the 14 reports already issued on this subject. We now need a Minister in the Cabinet Office to drive this agenda forward urgently, perhaps taking the committee’s report in June as the basis for the promised consultation.

Finally, I turn to the proposed commission on constitution, democracy and rights. The briefing tells us this will

“examine the broader aspects of the constitution in depth and develop proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates.”

I hope its members will be youthful polymaths, as I suspect that to live up to its name it will have to sit for a very long time and cover a wide range of subjects, including the royal prerogative, judicial review, party funding, the voting system, the future of the union, the ECHR, the role of House of Lords, the freedom of the press, franchise for 16 year-olds and appointments to the judiciary, to mention but a few. It must be prioritised and broken down into component parts if it is to be manageable.

All this is a major programme of constitutional reform, which should, wherever possible, be secured by consent. As it passes through Parliament, I hope the expertise of your Lordships’ House can be applied to it so that any emerging reforms might last longer than the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.