Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:00 pm on 13th May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland 1:00 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, it is a privilege and pleasure to open the second day of debate on Her Majesty’s most gracious Speech. I am delighted to be joined by my noble friend Lord True, who I know will do a brilliant job of closing what promises, as ever, to be a debate packed with lively and robust contributions. I look forward greatly to the maiden speeches of my noble friend Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and to all the wide-ranging contributions from noble Lords, which I am confident will reflect the breadth and wealth of knowledge and experience represented on all sides of the House.

With our focus on our great union and constitutional affairs, we have the opportunity to explore some of the overarching themes of the gracious Speech, including the proposals to restore tried and tested constitutional arrangements to the Dissolution and calling of this Parliament, and the vital job of protecting our democracy. Before I introduce the specific elements of legislation for our debate, however, I will briefly go back in time to events shortly before the pandemic and provide some vital context, in my view, for today’s discussions.

While the impact of coronavirus has inevitably monopolised the nation’s attention for a little over a year, let us not forget how proceedings in this House and the other place were previously dominated by wrangling over the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. It was a long, fraught process, not without moments of rancour, yet for those of your Lordships who savour the idiosyncrasies of parliamentary affairs it would be hard to think of a more rewarding period in our recent history. In the context of democracy, though, the referendum vote was the largest democratic exercise ever conducted in the history of this country. The British people voted for change in 2016, and again in the 2019 election to make sure that change was delivered. Now, as we look to recovery and renewal, and to tackling longer-term, cross-cutting challenges such as climate change and the road to net zero, we can enjoy the fruits of our freedom and flexibility outside the European Union’s institutions, the single market and the customs union.

The UK’s independent vaccine programme is leading us out of lockdown. Outside the common agricultural policy, we will reward sustainable farming practices so that, in England, farmers can produce healthy food at a profit without subsidy, while also taking steps to improve the environment, reduce carbon emissions and improve animal health and welfare—win, win and win again. Outside the common fisheries policy, we can revive our coastal communities around the United Kingdom and take steps to improve our marine environment. Under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the UK secured tariff-free access for fisheries products and a substantial transfer of quota equivalent to 25% of the value of the EU’s historical catch in UK waters, worth £146 million over five years. Last but not least in respect to our Brexit dividend, we can send our money not to Brussels but to the parts of the country where we know it is needed most to help citizens and communities come back from Covid and to improve productivity in all parts of the United Kingdom.

It was evident during the pandemic that the interests of people across the country were best served when we worked together as one United Kingdom. Now that we are turning the corner, the same is true: we are learning from one another to achieve the best outcomes for all the people of our great nation. Now is not the time to stoke old divisions, but to throw ourselves into what unites people across the UK—recovering from the pandemic. People want their politicians focused and working together, improving people’s lives as we engineer a sustainable recovery, building back better, fairer and greener, ensuring communities and businesses have the support they need and making the levelling-up agenda a reality.

The union of the United Kingdom is the most successful political union in history, the foundation on which all our businesses and citizens can thrive and prosper, standing up for, and embodying in its institutions, liberty under the law, respect for all, fair play, free trade, parliamentary democracy and material progress. This Government are committed to protecting and promoting the strengths of this union, building on the hundreds of years of partnership between the regions of our country to ensure that the institutions of the United Kingdom are used in a way that benefits people in every part of our country, from Aberdeen to Aylesbury, Belfast to Brecon. We are committed to strengthening that union and the common prosperity it brings, but even more important than the material wealth that can flow throughout the union is recognising and, where we can, fostering the deeper strength of our partnership. It is a strength that arises out of the millions of relationships that bind together people of good will throughout the union: yes bonds of trade and common endeavour, but more fundamentally yet the ties of affection, of common heritage, of friendship, of love. These ties are countless in number and increasing all the time.

When we work collaboratively as one team UK we are safer, stronger and more prosperous, and far better able to tackle the shared challenges that all parts of the UK face together, from defending our borders and our waters and fighting national cybersecurity threats, to delivering the furlough scheme and ensuring that every part of the United Kingdom has received its fair share of one of the world’s largest and most diverse vaccine portfolios. That is why the Prime Minister has invited the First Ministers of Scotland and of Wales, and the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland, to a summit meeting in the coming weeks to address the shared challenges of recovery from the pandemic. In March, the Government also published a status update on the joint review of intergovernmental relations. The significant progress made has been well received by academics and experts alike, reflecting closely, as it does, the recommendations of my noble friend Lord Dunlop in his excellent report. We are committed to seeing new structures established at the earliest possible opportunity.

In addition to the Government’s £2.9 billion commitment to fund 20 city and growth deals across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Brexit means that we can put more money into communities that might hitherto have felt overlooked or left behind. In 2021-22 that means the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund and the £220 million UK community renewal fund being invested in local areas, both of these using the financial assistance power in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act passed last year, ahead of the launch of the UK shared prosperity fund in 2022. Yes, for the first time in decades the Government can provide the kind of direct financial support that people can see and feel transforming their daily lives, regenerating town centres and high streets, improving local transport links and infrastructure, and boosting cultural, sporting and economic development to help level up the whole country. The Government will, of course, continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations, as well as with other public authorities and stakeholders across the country, to ensure that money is targeted to deliver the maximum impact and benefit for all citizens.

I now move on to the constitutional elements of the gracious Speech, providing increased legal, constitutional and political certainty around the process of dissolving Parliament, while providing flexibility for exceptional circumstances. The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will deliver the Government’s commitment to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The Bill makes express provision to revive the royal prerogative powers relating to the dissolution of Parliament. We will return the country to tried and tested constitutional arrangements, where the Prime Minister is able to request a dissolution from the sovereign.

In repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, we will restore the essential link between confidence and dissolution, enabling critical parliamentary votes once more to be designated as matters of confidence. The Government are grateful for the thoughtful and meticulous work of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the Lords Constitution Committee and the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in considering how that Act operated and for the scrutiny of the Government’s draft Bill. We have listened to the advice of the Joint Committee, and your Lordships will see that it has informed our approach.

I turn now to the elections Bill, which will deliver the Government’s commitment to protecting our democracy, as promised in the 2019 manifesto. We have a world-leading democratic heritage and the Government have a unique role to play in respecting and sustaining it, ensuring that it continues to flourish. The measures introduced by Her Majesty’s Bill are guided by the Government’s determination to ensure our democracy is secure, fair, modern, inclusive and transparent. These measures seek to encourage participation by British citizens in our elections by increasing transparency, strengthening protections for those who participate, and better supporting voters with a disability to cast their ballot.

Respect for our democracy is also rooted in the public having confidence in our systems and approach. That is why the potential for voter fraud in our current system strikes at a core principle: your vote is yours, and yours alone. Any breach of this is inexcusable, as is any suggestion that voter fraud is a victimless crime. Any instance of, or potential for, electoral malpractice damages the public’s faith in our democracy. Allegations must be taken seriously and acted upon.

The introduction of voter identification, therefore, is the best, common-sense way to prevent voter fraud and strengthen public confidence in the integrity of our elections. This will bring the United Kingdom into line with Northern Ireland, which has required voters to show paper identification since 1985 and photographic identification at polling stations since 2003, without adverse effect on participation. I can absolutely assure the House that everyone eligible to vote will have the opportunity so to do.

The overarching themes set out in Her Majesty’s gracious Speech underpin this Government’s ambition to seize the opportunities arising since leaving the EU as they build a sustainable recovery from Covid. The constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom is vital to the long-term prosperity and security of all its parts, and increases opportunities for everyone to succeed. The steps we are taking to protect our democracy will strengthen our resilience and enhance our reputation and international standing. Over the coming weeks and months, I look forward to debating with your Lordships the many measures I have outlined today.