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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:22 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Lang of Monkton Lord Lang of Monkton Conservative 6:22 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I begin by paying tribute to two maiden speakers, my noble friends Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay and Lord Davies of Gower, for maiden speeches which certainly enhanced the quality of our debate today.

I will make some comments on the constitutional measures, which this year have had unusual prominence in this debate. In particular, I welcome in the gracious Speech the words:

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

It was good to hear the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, who sadly is not in his place at the moment, condemn that Act from the Opposition Front Bench and call for its repeal. He used the word “ineffective”, but I fear that it was much worse than that. The Act has always been a piece of constitutional illiteracy. It sought to destroy a fundamental principle of our constitution that, subject to the outer limit of five years, a Government may remain in office for as long as they command a majority in the House of Commons. The consequence of blocking off that principle was months of chaos, as certain parties broke their pledges to the electorate, paralysed government and yet resisted the holding of an election that was so badly needed. No Act of repeal has yet been listed for the FTPA, but it should be straightforward to revert to the status quo ante. The folly of the present Act has now been proved. Its underlying motive can only have been more coalitions and, therefore, confusion, indecision, instability, and endless haggling within government—the kind of terrain which can bring only cruel comfort to minority parties. So long as it remains on the statute book, the Act constitutes a monstrous carbuncle in the great gut of our unwritten constitution, and it should go soon.

Another outstanding issue, of which no mention was made in the gracious Speech, but of which my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham has already spoken most tellingly, is the need for the implementation on a population basis of new boundaries for parliamentary constituencies. This is a matter of fairness and justice, over which paralysis has sat in recent years, and I agree with his comments. Matters of this kind, if not attended to, end up nowhere.

The noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, who has also, sadly, just left his place, complained that there were only 16 words in the gracious Speech about the union and devolution; the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, also had some strong words to say about it. I agree with a lot of what each of those noble Lords said, but it seems to me that much action is in fact afoot. The new “Department for the Union”, with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in charge of it, suggests the potential for progress opening up. The tone in recent press coverage of devolution and the union is encouraging, speaking as it does of viewing all policy through the prism of the union, and of levelling up, connecting and embedding devolution into everyday business as part of the daily drumbeat of government activity.

Perhaps these are just straws blown with the wind, but this now apparently prevailing tone, if fulfilled, perfectly enshrines the change of mindset throughout government, and the more proactive approach to the devolved Administrations that your Lordships’ Constitution Committee called for in two of its reports some three or four years ago is now finding favour. Abandon the slogan “devolve and forget”, was one of our cries. But for years it seemed to be our languishing reports that were being forgotten. It now seems that the tide is with us. I noticed the other day that Professor Vernon Bogdanor has joined the cry. We do not need more throwaway, ad hoc devolution; we just need better government and better intergovernmental relations. I much look forward to the forthcoming report by my noble friend Lord Dunlop on a review of UK Government union capability, not least because, like other noble Lords, I am not certain what that implies. It is yet another initiative of the Government, taking action to meet with this serious problem.

This is sensitive territory. It will not be easy, but if we can get it right and change the tone, we can then look forward not only to a stronger United Kingdom but to a much-needed improvement in the quality of government in all its parts.