Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:49 pm on 17 May 2022.

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Photo of Lord Etherton Lord Etherton Crossbench 6:49, 17 May 2022

The topic I wish to address is education, and in particular teaching about rights and responsibilities, and the constitution. I start with a question: what is it that binds the people of Britain together as a community? Yes, we have cricket, rugby and football, among others, as national sports. We have singers and entertainers of international repute and we have a wonderful National Health Service. Great Britain has a long history. None of these, however, can be said to be a defining feature of Britishness, in the sense of affecting and binding everyone in our community, whatever their background, ethnicity, cultural affiliations and personal outlook.

The one and only thing that binds us all is the collection of legal rights and responsibilities, and the institutions that together form or are derived from our unique constitutional settlement. They are the product of many things, including in particular the golden thread of our common law, the separation of powers between the legislature, the Executive and the courts, statute law and the international treaties to which we are a party. This is our unique heritage among the nations of the world, of which we should be very proud.

In December 2020 the independent review of the Human Rights Act, with Sir Peter Gross as its chair, was established by the then Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Sir Robert Buckland. The review’s report was submitted in October 2021 and was published in December 2021. The very first recommendation was that serious consideration should be given by government to developing an effective programme of civic and constitutional education in schools, universities and adult education, and that such a programme should particularly focus on questions of human rights and individual responsibilities. The report said that this was:

“A matter repeatedly and cogently emphasised in submissions and presentations to the Panel.”

The Government launched their consultation on Human Rights Act reforms and a Bill of Rights in December 2021, but they did not comment at all on that recommendation of the Gross review. That may be because such an educational programme requires interdepartmental co-operation between the Department for Education, the DCMS and the Ministry of Justice. The lead must surely, however, come from the Department for Education.

There is a high level of misunderstanding and a lack of knowledge among the general population, and indeed some public officials, about legal rights and responsibilities and our constitution. That lack of knowledge is a huge obstacle to public ownership of legal rights, which is what we should be aiming for in a properly functioning democracy. The Bar Council and the Law Society have promoted various voluntary educational initiatives, but what is in substance recommended by the Gross review, at least so far as concerns schools, is that there should be teaching about rights and responsibilities and the basic features of our constitution as part of the national curriculum in England. Discussions could no doubt take place with the devolved Administrations.

Will the Minister please say what is the Government’s response to the Gross report’s important recommended educational initiative and, if the Government do not yet have a view, will she give an assurance that the Department for Education will pursue the issue with such other Ministers and departments as may need to be involved?