Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:55 pm on 13th May 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Bolton Baroness Taylor of Bolton Chair, Constitution Committee, Chair, Constitution Committee 2:55 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Merron on her very heartfelt maiden speech. I have known her for many years, and I know she will make a significant contribution to this House. All I can say is that I am very glad she did not take her mother’s advice to stay clear of politics, and we must welcome her.

As the Constitution Committee of this House, which I have the privilege of chairing, is conducting an inquiry into the future governance of the UK, I do not intend to talk about the future of the union—tempting though that is. I want to mention a few of the issues outlined in the Queen’s Speech. I think they fall into the description of “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Let me start with the good—or at least, the potentially good—which is the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. We should be honest from the start and acknowledge that this was never really introduced as a constitutional measure. It was simply part of the political deal between David Cameron and Nick Clegg, and so I welcome its repeal. But as the Constitution Committee pointed out in its report, you cannot simply repeal it because you would leave a vacuum in other areas.

This morning I received a letter from the noble Lord, Lord True, giving more detail on this five-clause Bill. Some aspects will not be controversial, such as providing a maximum parliamentary term of five years. However, the noble Lord, Lord True, goes on to say that the Bill will revive the Crown’s prerogative power to dissolve Parliament and restate the long-standing position that the exercise of the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament is non-judiciable. The Minister is confident that that will be watertight. I fear that other legal opinion will not share his confidence. It is essential that, whatever is in this Bill, it is absolutely watertight in respect of the role of the monarch. The Minister also says in his letter that this will be underpinned by a set of non-legislative constitutional conventions. That is an interesting concept, and we will look forward to the detail on how this is going to be achieved. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, will have a lot to say on that.

I wish the Minister well with his Bill, but I think its passage may not be as easy as he anticipates, and maybe the Commons, having been given the taste for a say in the timing of elections, will not be quite as willing as he thinks to relinquish that role. So that was the good.

The bad is simply the irrelevant proposal about free speech and universities. In opening, the Minister said that we should not be divisive, but that is exactly what that Bill is.

The ugly Bill is also divisive, and here I refer to the voter suppression Bill, because I think that is the title it deserves. I do not often agree with David Davis MP, but he described this measure as “pointless” and a “waste of time”. Photo ID for voting is just not necessary, and I speak as someone who approves of the principle of ID cards. It is not the problem that Ministers are suggesting it is. Ministers have said they want to protect our democracy; is this what they think is the main problem of our democracy at this time?

We have heard the figures: there have been two convictions and, in the trials, 819 people were denied votes. You have to think about who will be affected by this—it is very clear. We probably all know someone with no driving licence or passport; they will often be on a low income. I do not see why we should make it more difficult for people who do not enjoy our comfortable lifestyles to exercise their democratic right to vote—a right just as valuable as anyone else’s. A better use of Parliament’s time would be to drop this Bill and for the Government instead to adopt my noble friend Lord Grocott’s Bill to end by-elections for hereditary Peers.

Finally, I will mention one phrase that caught my attention, as it did that of others in this debate. The Government have written that they will

“restore the balance of power between the executive, legislature and the courts.”—[Official Report, 11/5/21; col. 3.]

These are fine words, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, pointed out. My question is: are they a promise or a threat? I fear the latter. Reversing the increasing domination of the Executive should be a theme for us all in this Session.