Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:05 pm on 13th May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 6:05 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, I found the opening speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, extraordinary. There were more than 10 minutes on the wonders of Brexit and then three and a half minutes on the Government’s constitutional agenda, but this country faces a major constitutional crisis. Many noble Lords have talked about the threats to the union, and those threats are real and growing, but the Prime Minister’s casual dismissal of the conventions of constitutional behaviour, his insistence that as “the people’s Government”—based on 43.5% of the national vote in December 2019—he and his Ministers can push back parliamentary scrutiny and sweep aside reasoned criticism, is taking us away from constitutional democracy.

The measures in this Queen’s Speech betray the promise of the Conservative manifesto 16 months ago. Many of us, as the noble Lord, Lord True, will remember, welcomed the commitment that:

“After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the Courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords … In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions”.

There is no need for the noble Lord, Lord True, to confirm that the Government have ditched any idea of encouraging a wider or open debate about modernising our constitution and rebuilding public trust. This Queen’s Speech talks about renewing democracy and the constitution, but what it proposes is to tilt the bias of our electoral system further in favour of the Conservatives, to revive prerogative powers and to curtail judicial review.

Many noble Lords have noted the promise that the Government will

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

So I ask the Minister to tell us what he considers to be the proper constitutional balance between the Executive, the legislature and the courts. Which is the direction in which the Government think they should now tilt that balance—further towards the Executive, or further towards scrutiny? My noble friend Lord Tyler quoted Lord Hailsham’s warning of 45 years ago that the Prime Minister’s dominance over Parliament when there is a single-party majority is not constitutional democracy but “elective dictatorship”. Of course, Lord Hailsham said that when there was a Labour Government in power. Much of this Government’s behaviour—breaking the Ministerial Code repeatedly, making increasingly partisan public appointments, undermining the neutrality of the Civil Service, attacking the BBC and the universities as institutionally left-wing—makes sense only on the implicit assumption that the Conservatives will now be in power permanently. A Conservative Opposition would be outraged by this assertion of executive dominance by a Government of any other party.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, gave us another of his familiar lectures on why this House should not stand in the way of a Conservative Government. I remind him that the figures on Lords votes by Session between 1997 and last year show clearly that the highest proportion of government defeats came in two Sessions when he himself was Leader of the Opposition. What he is saying is that the Conservatives have the right to rule and others do not. So I ask the Minister to tell us what he understands by the term “democracy”. Are constitutional limits on executive power unnecessary checks on the people’s will, as interpreted by the Prime Minister, or are they an essential part of democracy? We know that young Boris wanted to become world king, but that does not justify giving him unaccountable power now.

There is nothing in the Speech about local democracy either. The Times leader on Tuesday voiced the almost unanimous expert view that

“the most effective response to regional inequalities lies in giving local politicians the power to set their own priorities.”

Yet Ministers hand out money from the centre to favoured constituencies, while local elected politicians are bypassed as brutally as local public health officers were in handling Covid-19. Does the Minister consider that local democracy is an important part of constitutional democracy or not?

Jacob Rees-Mogg, in the Telegraph on 10 May, celebrated

“a Parliament which now wields the full power of its sovereignty … again.”

To the contrary, the noble Baroness, Lady Stuart, who campaigned in the referendum to restore parliamentary sovereignty, wrote in the House magazine some weeks ago that

“the attempts by parliament in 2019 to claim sovereignty for itself” were “remarkable”, and that its

“reassertion by the entity that ultimately holds it in a democracy—the people—took place in the general election in December of that year”.

The Prime Minister asserts that he heads the people’s Government against the disaffected metropolitan liberal elite, to which Nicola Sturgeon replies that she represents the people of Scotland on 48% of those who voted there—a higher percentage than that which voted Conservative across the UK. So, it is a more legitimate claim, with one populist nationalist trumping another. If the SNP lacks a mandate, as several noble Lords have argued, then Boris’s mandate is weaker still.

I have just reread the Public Administration Committee’s 2004 report, Taming the Prerogative: Strengthening Ministerial Accountability to Parliament, which was critical of the Labour Government then in power. The noble Lord, Lord Hague, and Lord Hurd gave evidence in favour of limiting executive powers, including giving Parliament a much greater role in scrutinising public appointments and approving reorganisations in Whitehall. The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill takes us in exactly the opposite direction but then, of course, the Conservatives are back in power and intend to bend the rules further to remain so.

The Conservative manifesto promised to make sure

“that every vote counts the same—a cornerstone of democracy.”

The electoral integrity Bill will do no such thing. There are several million UK citizens missing from the register, predominantly young people—a far larger problem than voter fraud. Most votes in most seats are wasted under the least representative voting system in the democratic world. But the focus here is on discouraging people from voting, following American Republican tactics on voter suppression.

In some ways, the US Republican Party seems to have colonised much of the British right. The Government are also presenting a freedom of speech Bill, which closely follows recommendations from Policy Exchange. But the Policy Exchange publications rely heavily on US examples of university behaviour, including references to extreme right-wing US sources. This is cultural war, imported from the United States and, for all I know, partly financed from the United States, since Policy Exchange does not publish where its funding comes from.

President Biden, in his first and sober address to Congress two weeks ago, warned:

“The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent”.

He went on to say

“if we are to truly restore the soul of America—we need to protect the sacred right to vote.”

Democracies can decay or slide towards authoritarian rule. In the 1990s, I spent much time in Budapest as a visiting professor at Central European University. I met many young post-communist politicians; I even shared a platform with Viktor Orbán, then the bright hope of Hungarian liberals. Once he gained power, he found that attacking foreigners, immigrants and the European Union, capturing the public broadcaster and independent media, and bending the rules on political competition was the best way to stay in power and reward his friends with public contracts. It could not happen here, could it? But the American Republicans have almost abandoned any acceptance of constitutional democracy—a once- proud party, taken over by an egotistical narcissist—and too many Conservatives still follow the lead of the American right.

Constitutional democracy is a delicate construction. It requires careful checks and balances to limit executive power. It requires honest men and women in politics, particularly in the governing party, to insist that standards are upheld and rules not broken. This Queen’s Speech fails to address these broader aspects of our constitution. Yes, we need a commission on the constitution if we are to hold the UK together, to strengthen our democratic institutions and to regain the trust of our disillusioned electorate.