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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:42 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Constitutional and Political Reform) 5:42 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Young, because he has of course been a long-term champion of parliamentary democracy in an unrivalled way. By contrast, Mr Dominic Cummings is not a Conservative and he certainly does not wish to conserve the UK constitution. Neither is he, we understand, a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party; indeed, he seems to be all too eager to unlock the union. Yet his personal agenda is all too evident in the 2019 Conservative manifesto and its sketchy reiterations in the gracious Speech.

The proposed

Royal Commission to review and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice process” raises vital issues of priority, principle and practicality. Noble Lords may query whether the emphasis is right. Efficiency and effectiveness are means to an end, but the purpose of the process is to ensure that justice is done for the citizen, not just for the convenience and funding constraints of the state.

However, at least this is to be a royal commission, with all the traditional virtues of independence of the Executive that it involves. This is not so, apparently, for the constitution, democracy and rights commission, to which the noble Lord, Lord Young, just referred. Given that the only example included in the gracious Speech under this heading is the threat to

“repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act”,

this may be a crass attempt by Mr Cummings to “take back control” to No. 10, rather than a genuine, independent, cross-party and long-overdue initiative to bring our representative democracy into the 21st century.

Incidentally, it is not straightforward, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, suggested. As Mr Cummings will discover, repeal of this Act would not just restore status quo ante. If the Government really want to take back from the Commons the dissolution decision, so that once again the captain of one political team would have the right to blow the final whistle whenever he or she thought that they were winning, this will require new legislation, otherwise it will not fulfil its purpose.

The manifesto promised to

“protect the integrity of our democracy.”

It has been the consensus across parties, and widespread in the body politic, that the most damaging threat has come from the failure of regulation and the regulators to transfer from the analogue to the digital campaign age, as has just been said. The investment of huge sums of money—much of it allegedly foreign and potentially illegal—in the 2016, 2017 and 2019 electoral campaigns by this means seems not to have been considered worthy of mention. We are still waiting for action on the various recommendations in 2019 to the Cabinet Office on this issue.

Some of the issues referred to specifically, such as

“the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts … the role of the House of Lords … the balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government”,

should certainly cause concern on all sides today—and well they may, given that the approach of Mr Cummings sounds like demolition rather than just better definition. We may well be drifting to a situation where No. 10 is trying to move towards an elective dictatorship; I see that the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, will speak later.

At St Margaret’s this morning, the order of service asked us to pray that the officers here

“may properly enable the work of government.”

Fortunately the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, was leading us at that point in the service and she firmly changed this to “the work of Parliament.” Since 1688 the Government have been answerable to Parliament, not the other way around. We may need to remind the present Administration of that at regular intervals in the next few years.

The greatest weakness in our democracy, displayed for all to see by last month’s election, was the extent to which its voting system cheats our citizens. Compare the number of votes it takes for them to elect a Green MP compared with a Scottish nationalist. The ratio of inequality is 33:1. The manifesto promises action:

“making sure that every vote counts the same—a cornerstone of democracy.”

The Government must make clear that this is impossible with the first-past-the-post system. To fulfil the promise of equal voting value, electoral reform must feature in the remit of the commission.

Dominic Cummings boasts of his insurrection against the metropolitan elite in Parliament and the Civil Service. Since he is a product of an unfashionable fee-paying school and read history at Exeter College, Oxford, just like me, I suppose that I should rejoice in his rebellious company. I do not deny the need for a radical reappraisal of our constitutional settlement. I am just not convinced that he truly believes in parliamentary democracy.