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Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission: Civil Society - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 14th January 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 2:45 pm, 14th January 2020

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission has to engage with civil society.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the commission 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. We anticipate a wide degree of engagement, and the Government will ensure that civil society’s valuable role in informing the work of the commission is not overlooked. Careful consideration is needed on the composition and focus of the commission, and further announcements will be made in due course.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

I thank the Minister for his Answer. On the question of the commission’s focus, the City of London Corporation enjoys many special privileges and perks in the UK constitution. For example, the corporation has the unique right to propose private legislation via its own parliamentary agent, the remembrancer. Will the Minister commit that the constitution review will consider the position of the City of London—the last rotten borough, which gives so much power to our banking sector—and bring the City of London into line with all other local authorities?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I understand completely the noble Baroness’s desire for clarity on the issues she refers to. However, I am afraid that it is too soon for me to be able to provide her with answers, as much as I should ideally like to. No decisions have been taken on either the composition or the focus of the commission. Once we are able to make an announcement, we will do so.

Photo of Viscount Hailsham Viscount Hailsham Conservative

My Lords, may I suggest to my noble friend that, in order to enhance the status of the commission, it be made a royal commission? Alternatively—here I may be pre-empting a point to be made by my noble friend Lord Cormack—it might be made a subject of a Speakers’ conference, as suggested by my noble friend in his speech during the debate on the gracious Speech last week.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I have read my noble friend’s speech of last week, and the points he made have been registered. I can say again only that no decisions have been taken on the precise form that the commission should take. However, the most important thing is for it and the work that it does to command public confidence.

Photo of The Bishop of Worcester The Bishop of Worcester Bishop

My Lords, I have seen the disillusionment to which the Minister refers. Given that no plans have yet been made for exactly how the commission will work, as well as the success of citizens’ assemblies in Ireland and France in rebuilding trust in democratic institutions, might the Minister think it a good idea to involve such citizens’ assemblies in the commission’s work?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate, and that idea is certainly in the mix.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, the Minister quotes from the briefing on the Queen’s Speech on careful consideration being needed, which seems to suggest that very little thought has yet been given to this. Will the careful consideration on the composition and focus of this commission take place within government or in co-operation with other parties, or with interested groups outside government and politics altogether? Is that the wider consideration that is intended?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I wish that I could help the noble Lord, but it is simply too soon for me to be able to comment on that. As we heard in the debate in your Lordships’ House last Wednesday, the subject matter under the umbrella heading of the constitution is potentially very broad, so decisions are needed on exactly how broad the commission’s remit should sensibly be.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, since the remit is still unsure and has not yet been decided, will the Minister ask for the consideration of a federal constitution for the United Kingdom to be included in the remit, before we see the breakup and the removal of Scotland and Northern Ireland, which is imminent unless we have some kind of federal constitution?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I will make sure that the noble Lord’s point is duly noted.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Conservative

As my noble friend is aware, this commission generated some excitement in your Lordships’ House when we debated it last Wednesday. If, as my noble friend said, this project is still in its formative stage, can we at least have a debate in your Lordships’ House before it is set up so that your Lordships might influence its constitution and remit, and, I hope, make sure that it is a great success?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I shall be glad to inform the usual channels of my noble friend’s very good suggestion. However, I counsel on the fact that, at some point, the Government will give an indication of the scope and remit that they intend the commission to have; it would be best for your Lordships to present their views in that informed context.

Photo of Lord Morgan Lord Morgan Labour

My Lords, has not the main threat to democracy and human rights of late come from the Government, as in their attempt to silence this Parliament? What guarantee do we have, therefore, that this commission will not be an attempt to silence the courts and, further, to undermine the rule of law?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, if the aim of establishing a commission is to restore trust in our institutions and democracy, as is the case here, it is axiomatic that the commission will need to command public confidence through both its membership and the way it operates. The Government are wholly mindful of that.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the way he has answered these questions. Can he reflect on the fact that we recently elected a citizens’ assembly? It is called the House of Commons.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, the Minister has twice referred to restoring trust in our institutions. I put it to him that we do not restore trust just by changing the structures of institutions. It is about engagement. I endorse fully the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Young. However, although I appreciate that this in its early stages, we need to take into account the fact that our constitution hangs together through not just individual bodies, but how these institutions relate to each other and how changing the powers of one affects the others, whether that is local government and Parliament or both Houses of Parliament.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I do not disagree with the noble Baroness in the slightest. The commission will wish to engage with civil society, as I said earlier. The important thing is that that engagement is both wide and deep.