My Lords, I too am delighted that we will hear from two women as new Peers today, the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, and my noble friend Lady Merron. They both bring wide and deep experience to our House, and we look forward to hearing from them.
As my noble friend Lady Smith said on Tuesday, we had expected from this gracious Speech—coming after perhaps peacetime’s greatest challenge—an ambitious programme to improve the country, making it safe, secure and healthy for all, tackling insecurity and inequality, safeguarding the union, protecting national institutions and improving our democracy. Heeding the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, that good government stems from good opposition, we will seek to provide that as we examine how the Speech measures up to the Government’s responsibility for good governance, preserving the union and respecting the view of the Financial Times that:
“The ability to hold an elected government to account is a central pillar of a democracy.”
I was bemused—perhaps others were—to read Jacob Rees-Mogg extol Parliament as
“indisputably the nation’s supreme lawmaking body” which
“now wields the full power of its sovereignty … again”,
when, in fact, we have seen the Executive wielding more power than Parliament and a Government uniquely unwilling to be held to account. Witness the Prime Minister’s reluctance to answer questions at PMQs; his contempt for a court which enforced the rule of law; the abandonment of televised press conferences once he realised that it meant answering questions; and his disdain for the decisions of this House, such as over giving an additional role to the parliamentary ISC, when his Commons majority simply and blindly trumped the wise words from some of the most respected Members of your Lordships’ House.
Similarly, we fail to understand the Government’s ill-conceived attack on judicial review, a process whereby courts simply ensure that the Government’s decisions are lawful and fair. A Government shy of legal scrutiny fail to understand that our independent judiciary is a strength, not a weakness—something which my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer will address further later on.
Democracy depends for its support on good governance, which means fair lobbying rules, obedience to the Ministerial Code, and open and fair recruitment to decision-making bodies—not something much in evidence, leading Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, to report the Government for actively seeking
“to appoint allies to … public bodies”,
“the close engagement of 10 Downing Street.”
We have seen it even in the charity field, with attempts to restrict charities’ ability to speak out for beneficiaries even in the midst of the pandemic when their own resources, and perhaps futures, were at stake, while the PAC inquiry showed that political advisers were at the heart of deciding where taxpayers’ funding should go.
Good governance needs firm red lines between party and government when decisions are taken by Ministers. This is clearly not understood by some, with Covid contracts awarded to friends and HMT giving £700,000 worth of contracts to a lobby company with close Conservative links. Incidentally, this firm was busy lobbying Ministers at the very same time on behalf of its clients, including a meeting with the Chancellor—the head of the very Treasury that was then awarding those contracts worth £700,000.
it is vital that we safeguard these and have effective laws about lobbying, plus codes about ministerial behaviour, integrity and conflicts of interest. That includes full disclosure of who pays for the Prime Minister’s holiday or apartment, so we can see to whom he might be beholden.
Notably absent from the Speech was legislation to amend our ridiculously weak lobbying rules, which allowed the Chancellor to be lobbied by former Prime Minister David Cameron, who, I hear, contacted Ministers 56 times on behalf of Greensill, and whose own wishy-washy Act gave free rein to in-house lobbyists, meaning that, for example, if the TUC or CBI hires a public affairs agency to lobby Ministers, it must be disclosed, but if it does it itself, it need not be. That does not make sense. It is time for every Minister to disclose all lobbying approaches in a timely, open and transparent manner. If there was one thing I wanted from this gracious Speech, it was a re-committal to good governance, high standards, openness and democracy.
I turn to two other aspects of our country’s future and our democracy: the proposals outlined on election law and the future of the union.
First, on voting, we will have the absurd position that, even as 16 and 17 year-old citizens whose futures will be decided by elections are denied the vote, the Government want to give the vote to people who have long since left these shores, may never return, and do not pay our taxes, contribute to our economy or depend on the services that those elections then produce. Why? Is it really to give them the vote, given how few of those currently able to vote at the moment under the 15-year rule actually do, or is it that it allows these long-term ex-pats suddenly to become “permitted donors”, able to fund a UK political party with unchecked sources of wealth, no checks on their bona fides, and no questions asked? They can simply mail in a ballot paper signed by who knows whom, from who knows where, and that makes them a permitted donor. Indeed, it is hard to know how they will be able to prove their bona fides. They will be able to choose in which constituency to cast their vote, and, unlike the rest of us, whose addresses are checked and who will need to prove our identity when we vote, they will simply be able to put theirs in an envelope, no questions asked.
Reverting to Peter Oborne again—noble Lords can see what I have been reading during the recess—he writes that, as Conservatives lost millions of members, small donations dried up:
“Financiers were alert to this and a new class of private donor began to emerge … Party funds were increasingly provided by a new group of super-rich. Many of them were based offshore, secretive about the financial arrangements and obscure about their motives … In return for their money, these donors gained access to power.”
So a major part of the electoral change will be to increase such offshore funding. If this is not the rationale for the change, and it really is to give our wonderful Labour member and war veteran in Rome, Harry Shindler, the vote, let us exclude overseas voters from being permitted donors. Speaking on behalf of the Labour Party, we will forgo Harry Shindler’s largesse if the Conservatives do the same with their overseas voters.
Meanwhile, very seriously, the ID requirement will reduce some people’s access to the vote. Three and a half million electors have no photo ID—predominately the young, whose votes we are trying to encourage, the less well-off and some of the very aged. In addition, this is on the back of no history of voter fraud—there was just one conviction after the 2019 election. The Prime Minister, who promised to eat any ID card that he was asked to show, is now demanding from voters that they produce one to exercise their democratic right to vote.
Perhaps the most serious issue facing us is the very continuation of the union—I think the Minister called it the precious union; it is certainly the most successful one we know of—and indeed of cross-UK devolution. As the Minister said, we have at last seen the Dunlop report, but there were no concrete proposals in the Speech for enriching devolution to Wales, Scotland and indeed London and our major towns, cities and regions.
Reading the background notes on the Speech that cover the union, they were virtually all about increasing the UK government spend in the other nations. The Minister himself referred to the financial assistance power in the UK Internal Market Act, which allows the Government to provide direct expenditure in areas of devolved competence. That is an issue of great concern, as it raises the question: if this money is available to devolved areas, why can it not be spent by the devolved authorities? The notes also list what sounds like largesse to the devolved nations, emphasising how much has gone there by way of furlough and other national expenditure.
Do not get me wrong—I am very happy for increased public expenditure to come to Wales, and I am sure our Scottish colleagues would say the same for Scotland. However, devolution and the future of the union are about the distribution of power and decision-making, not simply about taxpayers’ moneys. It is about strengthening the union by strengthening its component parts. Levelling up is not simply about funding. As the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, has argued, Whitehall must give powers to regions or admit that levelling up means nothing.
The case for devolution has never been stronger. All of us saw over the recent elections that voters are increasingly aware of the disconnect between themselves and London. The elections showed how people trusted local decision-makers. We should build on that trust, which will pay off in terms of the outcome of decisions as well as for the future of the union.
Prosperity follows democracy. We need both for the sake of the whole country. This gracious Speech fails to protect, much less enhance, our democratic traditions.