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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:43 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 6:43 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, one of the great traditions of this House that the noble Lords, Lord Parkinson and Lord Davies, will quickly become aware of is that when the Government plan to do something ever so slightly dodgy, they send along the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, like the village policeman, to give one of his, “Move along: nothing interesting to see here” speeches. That only underlines a worry I have which was brilliantly exposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, my noble friends Lord Tyler and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. It is It is the grave suspicion that a Government who campaigned on “taking back control” will use the proposals for a constitution, democracy and human rights commission to claw back to the Executive the powers they have lost in recent years to Parliament, the courts and the individual citizen. Indeed, the Conservative manifesto was very clear about its intention to clip the wings of individuals or institutions who frustrate or slow down the revolution on which we are about to embark. This House has a special duty to safeguard our democratic freedoms and civil liberties from the abuses of what the late Lord Hailsham described so magnificently as our “elective dictatorship”.

Today I will concentrate on another matter, which the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, has prepared for me. Another of our great institutional bulwarks against political abuse and one of 19th century liberalism’s greatest gifts to our 21st century democracy is a Civil Service that is recruited on merit and politically neutral. I was one of the early political appointments when the system of political advisers was introduced by the Labour Government in 1974. My own experience of public servants during five years in the Foreign Office and No. 10 from 1974 to 1979 and during the seven years I spent in the Ministry of Justice between 2010 and 2017 was of their dedication and commitment, which I held in the highest regard.

Of course it is necessary to bring in new skills and fresh thinking to our public services, but we should not have to find out the hard way that simply rubbishing the Civil Service and bringing in “weirdos and misfits” is not a solution to the challenges that face us. We will not get the response we want from our public servants by belittling them or claiming that there is some miracle cure for real or imagined shortcomings that is ready to be applied. The truth is that many of Dominic Cummings’s saner aspirations can be found in the 1968 Fulton report, yet in No. 10 we seem to have reached a stage similar to that depicted in “Little Shop of Horrors,” where Dominic Cummings is ready to gobble up the Northcote-Trevelyan principles and 150 years of good governance.

I hope that Mr Cummings has read and digested the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which puts strict limitations on the role of political appointees such as himself in relation to civil servants and that he understands and respects the specific protections and safeguards for public servants contained in that Act. Certainly, it is the duty of both Houses of Parliament to scrutinise proposals for Civil Service reform and that must include Mr Cummings appearing in person before the responsible committees of both Houses. Prior to that, the Prime Minister, as Minister for the Civil Service, should make a Statement to the House of Commons explaining the extent of the powers Mr Cummings enjoys and their compatibility with the existing rules covering the powers of political appointees.

For those of us who were hoping for a period of tranquillity following the recent turmoil, I fear that the gracious Speech contains too many threats to our freedoms for that to happen. As for Mr Cummings, I recommend a reading of the lives of Robespierre and Trotsky, with their reminder that revolutions have a habit of devouring the revolutionaries.