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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:58 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative 5:58 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, I so enjoyed the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and I know that there will be many other times to debate some of the issues raised in his analysis. What I want to discuss today is what an extraordinary few years it has been in Parliament: a seemingly never-ending Session, a Government brought before the courts, imaginative judicial judgments, breakdown of conventions and an unpleasant and unruly mood surrounding all our work, even here in your Lordships’ House—the worst atmosphere that many can remember. My wish for this decade is that we can put all that behind us and rediscover our more co-operative nature, which is absolutely necessary for this House to function in the way it should. We have been through an enormously acrimonious period in our national history. We appear to be more intolerant and judgmental as a society, but we in this House should act as an example of how we can accept difference but maintain a level of cordiality in debate.

Of course, the Government are not entirely without blame. Please, can we get back to proper annual Sessions of Parliament? There is a very good business management reason to do so. Annual Sessions provide a framework discipline for Parliament, for departments, for Government and for Opposition. It forces departments to have their Bills ready at the start of a Session, is a disincentive to their adding endless clauses halfway through the Session and provides an element of predictability for Government and Opposition alike. I hope that this Session will run until around Easter 2021 and that we will then have annual Sessions until the next election, whenever that might be.

The role of opposition is, of course, vital in this House. In so many respects Oppositions have more power than Governments, but they must use that power responsibly and sparingly. I should know a thing or two, having been Leader of the Opposition for 12 years. Most of us agree that this House is best when we revise, scrutinise and act as a forum for general, often expert, debate. Governments listen rarely to your Lordships, but are more likely to do so when we do not continually defeat the Government on endless issues but use our powers of persuasion on issues the Government might actually accept. In the 2016-17 Session of Parliament, the Government were defeated in the House of Lords in almost 50% of Divisions, an absurdly high figure. That is already far too much. In the last proper Session of Parliament, 2017-19, the Government won only 22.5% of all Divisions; they lost more than three-quarters. At this level of Peer activism, we cease to be a revising and scrutinising Chamber and become a House of opposition that Governments can happily ignore. This is not the way forward for us in the future.

The Government are always a minority in this House. That is why the responsibility for how legislation is handled falls so importantly to the Opposition. Remarkably, the Opposition have been very successful in being regularly able to sway even independent Cross-Benchers to come their way and vote against the Government. I know that we have been through a very unusual period over Brexit, but let us not retain the bad habits we have grown used to. The Queen’s business must be carried on and the Government have a right to believe that their legislation should not be needlessly held up in the Lords. It is time for us to return to normal practice. One part of normal practice, as other noble Lords have mentioned, is the welcome proposal in the gracious Speech that the time has come to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It was an experiment, it has not worked, and it is time to return to the ancient workings of the British constitution.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, kindly referred to me in her opening speech in this debate, before Christmas. She referred to my belief that the Lords needs to be more directly accountable to people. I stand by that. I also accept that this is a more Europhile House, but the people have spoken very clearly—again—on Brexit and we must listen to them, particularly as we are not elected. On the constitution, democracy and rights commission, I simply say “Good luck” to the Government. When the commission starts looking at this House, that will be the proper time to re-examine the role of the electorate, age, the size of the House and who should sit here, including hereditary Peers. This is a well-trodden path but there are new ideas around and we should all examine them constructively and with great care.