Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:32 pm on 13 May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Conservative 2:32, 13 May 2021

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness and to be the first to congratulate her on an excellent and moving maiden speech. It may sound counterintuitive but this is the second time I have listened to her maiden speech, having been in my seat in another place on 3 July 1997, when the noble Baroness again spoke eloquently on a range of subjects and strongly criticised the rail service to Lincoln, for which I had had ministerial responsibility only a few weeks before.

I first met the noble Baroness when she and I both sat on the Committee of Selection in another place, when she was a Government Whip. The proceedings were carefully scripted, with the usual channels reading out a list of names hand-picked for party loyalty. The meetings lasted seconds rather than minutes, so there was little opportunity for anyone to display talent. But subsequently, the noble Baroness was promoted and held seven different government jobs in 10 years, demonstrating the skill, stamina and versatility needed on the Opposition Front Bench in your Lordships’ House, to which she has rightly been promoted.

In her gap years between the other place and here, she gave strong leadership to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, addressing, among other issues, the anti-Semitism in the Labour Party at the time. She was popular and respected on both sides of the House in the other place, and I know the same will be true here. We all bid her a warm welcome.

On the constitution, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act clearly has not worked, whatever the theoretical benefits. The last Parliament had “Do not resuscitate” at the end of its bed, but the Act officiously kept it alive. It has to go. The dominant issue now is the future of the United Kingdom, as Brexit adds momentum to the centrifugal forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I have three points. First, we should learn the lessons from the excellent report by the UCL Independent Commission on Referendums:

“Referendums are best suited to resolving major constitutional issues, such as those relating to sovereignty. They work best when they are held at the end of a decision-making process to choose between developed alternatives … It is of utmost importance for the proposals put to a referendum to be clear and for voters to know what will happen in the event of a vote for change. Hence, the Commission considers standalone pre-legislative referendums to be highly problematic.”

Developed alternatives were not present in either the EU referendum or the referendum on Scottish independence. If a referendum is to be held, the UK Government, whose consent will be required, should make it a condition that clear answers to the questions of currency, fiscal balance and borders should be given first.

Secondly, there are reports that we are going to love-bomb Scotland with public money to combat the threat of the nationalists, but this risks aggravating the existing imbalance between public funds for Scotland and for England and is fraught with moral hazard. The SNP will argue that any fresh influx of funds has come about only because of its success in the recent election and that, if the influx is to continue, voters should continue to vote for the SNP. This is 21st-century Danegeld.

Thirdly, following the excellent point made by my noble friend Lord Forsyth, it is worth looking again at whether the franchise for any referendum should be extended to Scots living in other parts of the UK. This would follow precedent. When we held the EU referendum —again, an issue involving sovereignty—UK citizens living overseas were given a vote. I believe the case is even stronger for Scots living in other parts of the UK if they have been on the register in Scotland during the previous 15 years.

Finally, there is one conspicuous omission from this year’s Loyal Address. The last one said:

“A Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission will be established.”

That was also a manifesto commitment:

“In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission”.

That commitment has been ditched, but in its place we move straight to legislation to

“restore the balance of power between the executive, legislature and the courts.”

In his wind-up speech, can my noble friend shed some light on what is proposed? If we are not to have the promised commission, will there be a Green Paper or a draft Bill before any legislative button is pressed? What is proposed for your Lordships’ House?

I end with this question. Over the past 12 months, the Executive have taken unprecedented powers away from the legislature and the courts. Any balance that needs restoring now should reverse that, but is that what the Government have in mind?