Counsellors of State Bill [HL] - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 3:52 pm on 21st November 2022.

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Lord True:

Moved by Lord True

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My Lords, I know that all noble Lords will be aware of His Majesty the King’s message to both Houses of Parliament and I am confident that there is a strong desire across your Lordships’ House to support His Majesty to undertake his ceremonial and constitutional duties at home and overseas.

As your Lordships will be aware, the sovereign performs a significant number of functions which form a key part of the machinery of government of the United Kingdom, including indicating assent to legislation. The sovereign also performs a similar role in relation to the Crown dependencies and the British Overseas Territories. It is essential that these functions, which are a core part of our constitutional arrangements, can continue to be performed if the sovereign is unable to perform them personally by reason of absence or otherwise. This Bill will add that necessary resilience by modifying the Regency Acts 1937 to 1953.

Therefore, I am sure that this Bill will commend itself to your Lordships as being an effective and simple provision supporting His Majesty’s Government to continue as required, and that noble Lords will share my belief that it is our honour and duty to be of service to His Majesty in this matter, which will enable him to give the fullest service to the nation.

Section 6 of the Regency Acts 1937 to 1953 provides for Counsellors of State, to whom royal functions can be delegated where the sovereign is absent from the UK or is ill. It has always been important to ensure that government business can continue in these circumstances. As Section 6(1) of the 1937 Act explains, this is

“to prevent delay or difficulty in the despatch of public business”.

I will briefly set out the functioning of the Acts specifically with regard to Counsellors of State. The delegation of royal functions is made by the sovereign through Letters Patent for the period of the illness or absence. The sovereign may revoke or vary the delegation by Letters Patent, which set out the statutory limitations of the delegation. The sovereign will also usually specify in them which functions are and are not delegated. In practice, the Letters Patent create a pool of all the Counsellors of State to whom functions can be delegated. Counsellors of State exercise royal functions jointly or by such number of them as may be specified in the Letters Patent.

Generally, Counsellors of State have acted in pairs. Those who are absent from the United Kingdom during the period of delegation may be excepted, as per Section 6(2) of the 1937 Act. The Counsellors of State are currently the spouse of the sovereign, if applicable, and the four persons who are next in the line of succession to the Crown, excluding those who are disqualified under the Act. Counsellors of State were routinely appointed when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth travelled abroad. In fact, they have been appointed over 30 times in the last few decades, and of course, as we recall, during the State Opening of Parliament earlier this year.

The functions Counsellors of State undertake can include, for example, indicating assent to legislation, formally approving appointments, and providing authority for the affixing of the Great Seal to documents, such as royal proclamations. The role can also include convening Privy Council meetings where necessary. The Bill represents a practical solution and safeguard to ensure that the machinery of government can continue. The Royal Household has confirmed that, in practice, working members—I repeat that—of the Royal Family will be called upon to act as Counsellors of State, and that diaries will be arranged to make this practicable.

The Bill proposes a very precise and limited modification to the provisions in the Regency Acts in respect of Counsellors of State. In line with the King’s message to both Houses of Parliament, the Bill will add His Royal Highness the Earl of Wessex and Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal to the list of Counsellors of State. They will undertake those roles for their lifetimes. By doing so, the Bill will provide greater resilience in our constitutional arrangements by widening the pool of Counsellors of State. As His Majesty undertakes engagements abroad, this is an expedient step, helping His Majesty’s Government plan for contingencies. Furthermore, Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal and His Royal Highness the Earl of Wessex have extensive experience—over 50 years between them, I believe—of supporting the sovereign with their official duties, having previously served as Counsellors of State during the reign of Her late Majesty.

The Bill follows the precedent set by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth when, shortly after her accession in 1953, she asked Parliament to consider legislating for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother to be a Counsellor of State. The Queen Mother had previously acted as a Counsellor of State but had ceased to be one following the death of her husband King George VI in 1952. Seven decades ago, Parliament passed the Regency Act 1953 to deliver on Her late Majesty’s wishes. Today, as we bring the Bill before this House, reflecting His Majesty’s wishes, we are guided by precedent in the substantive approach and procedure.

I trust, therefore, that your Lordships will agree with me that this is a prudent and expedient modification to the long-tested provisions for Counsellors of State that will offer the necessary resilience to our constitutional arrangements and be of great support to His Majesty. I am confident that the Bill will command considerable support, and I know that this House and this Parliament will wish to be of assistance and support to our sovereign as he undertakes his vital duties. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Janvrin Lord Janvrin Crossbench 3:59 pm, 21st November 2022

My Lords, I strongly support the Bill. It will ensure that the constitutional business of the Government can proceed without delay when the sovereign is unavailable. I declare an interest as a former member of the late Queen’s household.

The daily workload of the sovereign as Head of State contains much that is of an essentially formal legal nature, requiring, for example, a presence, a formal approval or a signature to process state business according to law. As we have heard, this covers such things as Privy Council meetings, receiving ambassadors’ credentials or the formal approval of appointments. It has long been the working practice of the Palace to ensure that such formal business is carried out without delay—hence, for example, the discipline of the daily red boxes and the regular appointment, certainly in my time, of Counsellors of State when the Queen was overseas. The present pool of working members of the Royal Family who are eligible and available to be Counsellors of State is, for reasons which are well known, very small. The addition of the Earl of Wessex and the Princess Royal makes very good practical sense. If I may say, when many minds are on football, it will give much-needed strength and depth to the bench.

I have three brief points to add. First, some might question whether in the age of Teams, Zoom and electronic signatures the business of the Head of State could be updated—as indeed some of it had to be during Covid—but I am not sure that this is the right way to go in normal times. Some of the activities performed by Counsellors of State, such as the receipt of credentials from ambassadors, are better done face to face, especially when a little ceremonial adds to the occasion. I am no expert on the legal technicalities of how, where and when electronic signatures are valid, but I would need to be persuaded that an electronic royal sign manual is either practical or historically desirable, especially when the alternative of Counsellors of State is on the statute book.

Secondly, the Bill is about process and good administrative practice; namely, the expeditious execution of formal government business. It is not about policy matters or wider royal matters such as finances, programmes, major speeches or other royal activities which are the subject of continuous formal and informal discussion between the Government and the Palace.

Thirdly, this is a very limited administrative measure but one which could be of great importance in the event of unforeseen developments that come out of nowhere; I think, for example, of accident or illness.

The fast-tracking of the Bill though Parliament therefore seems entirely sensible. It is a very simple Bill which does not affect the underlying Regency Act, and it is entirely non-political. For this reason, it surely does not merit extensive use of scarce parliamentary time. I support the Bill and the Government’s handling of it.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour 4:03 pm, 21st November 2022

My Lords, this is a necessary Bill, and it should pass. It is also the case that we know why it is necessary. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, who speaks with such experience and authority in this area.

The monarch cannot always be available to perform his or her duties, and by long tradition over centuries, enshrined most recently in statute, others have been appointed from within the Royal Household to assist the sovereign. The duties cover things such as those listed by the noble Lord, including Privy Council meetings, signing relevant documents, receiving ambassadorial credentials and so on, but they do not include appointing Prime Ministers, dissolving Parliament or conferring peerages.

Under the existing Regency Act 1937, as the Leader of the House outlined, there are currently five who hold the position of Counsellor of State: the Queen Consort, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, the Duke of Sussex and Princess Beatrice. I think that there are many people in this country who would find this current list a curious mixture. Many would say, “Well, why isn’t Princess Anne and Prince Edward on it?”, which of course is why we are here today. That is because the current list, under the formula of the 1937 Act, bases Counsellors of State on the next four adults in the line of succession. It is clear that neither the King nor the Government want to change the definition of the line of succession to the Crown, or its relationship to those who are eligible to serve as a Counsellor of State. Yet, for reasons that we know, the current system is untenable, which is why we have this Bill.

When I first raised the issue at the beginning of the year, it was already clear that there were elements of Her late Majesty’s reign that had a regency about it. Her Majesty had reached a great age and was increasingly unable to fulfil some of the constitutional functions that she had performed with such distinction for decades. Earlier this year, the Government announced that they had no intention to change the Act, but events unfolded—the Leader of the House referred to the single most decisive occasion, which was the opening of this current Session of Parliament—which were only made possible by virtue of the operation of the Regency Act. We know that Her Majesty’s final constitutional act was to appoint a new Prime Minister, something that only a monarch can do. I am one of those of the opinion that she deliberately held on because she knew that that duty lay ahead of her.

As the House knows, I raised the matter on the Floor of the House on 24 October, and my Question swiftly unearthed the news that the King—and, by all accounts, Her late Majesty as well—had also begun to realise that, in future, the existing arrangements would not work because they would not be publicly acceptable in the case of two of the existing Counsellors of State, one of whom has left public life and one of whom has left the country. So, when the King sent his message to your Lordships’ House a week ago, I think it reflected his own recognition that the current position is untenable. He has shown an important sensitivity to public opinion and is to be commended for it.

Over the centuries, Parliament has passed Regency Acts to deal with all manner of circumstances, and the Leader of the House alluded to some of them. The regency Act 1811 provided that Prince George could act for his incapacitated father, King George III; the Regency Act 1830 provided for what would happen if the King died before Victoria had reached the age of 18; the Lords Justices Act 1837 provided for what would happen if Queen Victoria died without legitimate children succeeding her; the Regency Act 1840 provided for what would happen if Queen Victoria died so that Prince Albert would, in effect, take over until such time as their eldest child reached 18; the Regency Act 1910 provided that, in the event of the death of King George V, Queen Mary would rule as regent. In fact, the Regency Act 1937 broke this pattern, because it established, as it were, a mechanism for defining who Counsellors of State would be in relation to the line of succession to the Crown, which we know.

There is a long history of Parliament taking pragmatic action, and the Bill before us today, as has already been said, does the simplest possible thing to address the problem: it simply adds two names to those defined under the Act. I think that it will be widely supported; it is the easiest and most straightforward thing to do. It is, however, a quick fix, and it does not entirely provide a solution to what may happen in the future. If, for example, Princess Anne or Prince Edward were themselves to become unavailable, through circumstances such as illness or worse, the law would immediately need to be looked at again and we would have another Bill before the House. Would it not be better if the Bill provided a sort of updated formula for identifying who can become Counsellors of State depending on circumstances, which is, in effect, what the 1937 Act tried to do?

The Leader of the House said that the start of a new reign is an appropriate time to reconsider the resilience of our constitutional arrangements in support of the monarch, and he is right. But it may be possible that we can spend a short time in Committee exploring an alternative approach, especially in relation to what happens if something happens to the two Counsellors of State that the Bill proposes we add today. In the meantime, I hope the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 4:10 pm, 21st November 2022

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, who has delivered a very well-researched speech. I must say that, as he was speaking, I had a lovely mental image of his father in a celestial realm writing his diary. I am sure he would have approved of every word that the noble Viscount uttered. He is quite right, as is the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, and my noble friend Lord True: this is a very simple measure to deal with an immediate potential problem. It is right that it should be simple; it is right that it should add just two people to the list at the moment; and that does not mean that the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, is wrong in thinking that there may be a time when we look a little beyond that.

The fact is that we need to extend this list of people. There could be no better two members of the Royal Family than the Princess Royal and the Earl of Wessex to invite to join this list, and this just gives us all a brief opportunity to say how much we are indebted to the Royal Family for the wonderful service they have given, most gloriously personified by Her late Majesty’s seven decades on the throne. I have great confidence that our present King will continue in that tradition, but he needs to have the peace of mind that this very simple measure gives him that, in the unfortunate event of his being unwell, or the necessary event of his being out of the country if some problem crops up, there will be no difficulty about finding two Counsellors of State to fulfil the necessary duties that the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, described so very well. Therefore, it is with very great pleasure that I give my total support to this Bill and express my hope that Committee and any subsequent stage will be extremely brief and that Wednesday’s other important business will not be held up as a result.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 4:12 pm, 21st November 2022

My Lords, I have intervened on previous occasions to discuss these issues. I welcome the Bill, as I have said before. As other noble Lords have said, it is very necessary to ensure that the machinery of government continues when the monarch is abroad or indisposed. Other noble Lords have mentioned the machinery of government, rather than opening fêtes and things. The machinery is vital. It is good that the Lord Privy Seal, in his opening remarks, talked about the working members of the Royal Family, because they work very hard, so this appointment is necessary. I had a chuckle when I read the Bill and saw that the Earl of Wessex took precedence over the Princess Royal. I would like to ask the Lord Privy Seal why. Is it because he is a man, or for some other reason? It does not really matter, because they are both equal anyway.

The most important thing for me is the question of whether the Duke of Sussex and the Duke of York will continue. I have questions for the Lord Privy Seal on both of them. The Duke of Sussex is abroad, as we all know, and Section 6 of the Regency Act 1937 appears to exclude those who are absent from the UK. I do not know whether that means absent for a short or a long time. We can form our own views on it, but it is pretty clear that he is away for quite a long time and I question whether he should still be on the list.

The Duke of York no longer undertakes royal duties, I understand, so I assume that he is excluded from being a Counsellor of State. However, it is not clear whether he is disqualified under Section 2 of the Regency Act 1953 because that applies only to people under 18, I think, which he clearly is not.

The Bill quite rightly adds two more members so, presumably, it can also exclude two members who, I suggest, are no longer working members. As several noble Lords have said, there is a need to bring the list up to date. I have tabled two amendments for us to debate in Committee to investigate and hear comments from noble Lords as to whether it would be a good idea, in addition to adding two people, as the Bill says, to remove two people.

Finally, in the interests of transparency, it would be useful for the Royal Household or the Government to produce a list of members every year or whenever there is a change so that everybody knows the role that people are taking, including whether they still do it or have stopped doing it, and what the criteria are. It is all a bit confusing; there might be some benefit to a bit more transparency.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 4:16 pm, 21st November 2022

My Lords, I usually have strong opinions on almost everything but, I must say, I could not care less about this particular Bill.

We have a system of government that is ridiculous and crazy. It was originally based on the concept that “might is right”, with which I fundamentally disagree. It just seems ridiculous that we still have that system here. We are not a democracy. We do not have any sort of sensible system; I include in that not having proportional representation and still having an appointed House of Lords, even though I am appointed myself.

Honestly, this Bill is so inconsequential to the lives of most people who are struggling to live and work at the moment. Of course the Royal Family works hard, but so do nurses and street cleaners. Please could we give those people some credit as well? I am sorry to strike a sour note, but we should be discussing things that matter, not things such as this that matter to a tiny number of people.

The third paragraph of the Library briefing states:

“There is no provision for making anyone else a counsellor of state.”

I wonder whether we are breaking the law; I do not quite understand what that means. Perhaps the Leader of the House could explain why there is no such provision.

From my point of view, the sooner we have a Scandinavian-style monarchy, the better.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 4:18 pm, 21st November 2022

My Lords, I was moved to put my name down on the speakers’ list by the same point that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, made. First, I commend the King on bringing this matter before us so speedily, because it is something that needs looking at.

What the Bill is doing, I think, is trying to deal with an Act that was conceived and passed before the idea of a working member of the Royal Family was invented. That makes for part of the difficulty because it clearly does not remove either the Duke of Sussex or the Duke of York from the list. It does, however, still apply to Princess Beatrice, of course, who will disappear from the list when Prince George is 18 years of age. So it is a bit of an odd Bill. I wonder: what would happen if the Duke of Sussex decided to jet in? What if he saw the King’s diary and saw that the King was going to be on a state visit going from X to Y in, let us say, Australia, so he got on a plane, got off at Heathrow and said, “Hi, I’m here. I’m on the succession list”?

We would get over all this if we had a system whereby the monarch just prescribed that “the Counsellors of State shall be as follows”. That would be very adequate. The Princess Royal and the Earl of Wessex have in the past held the role, and dropped off because of the rules of primogeniture, which is what we are dealing with today. In my elected time, I met the Earl of Wessex and, on several occasions, the Princess Royal. I was always immensely impressed with her. Whenever she turned up to a function in my Euro constituency, she was extraordinarily well briefed and spent her time talking to the people on whatever project she had come to visit. She did not spend her time with the mayor, let alone with the MEP, but with whoever was working in the area that she had come to open, commend, present prizes concerning, and the like. I can think of no one better placed than the Princess Royal to be a Counsellor of State. She certainly knows everything about the job.

The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, will put me right if I am wrong, but the 1840 Act appointed Albert as regent until Prince Edward came of age if Victoria died before he was 18 years old. A strong candidate for the role of Counsellor of State must be the present Princess of Wales. She will be a Counsellor of State when her husband eventually succeeds to the throne. Presumably, if the throne is vacated before Prince George is 18, the Princess of Wales will be designated as the regent-in-waiting. Therefore, it would be very sensible, and give her some practice in the job, if the Princess of Wales was added to this list. I dare say that someone at the Palace will be reading this debate. They might like to consider these points. I certainly will not be pushing anything to a vote, but this is the one time in a lifetime when we can express an opinion on this. As such, I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. One of the jobs of this House is to make informed comment on matters such as this. We are a monarchy, and the Counsellors of State matter.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 4:23 pm, 21st November 2022

My Lords, this Bill, which I support, would not justify a whole episode of the television series “The Crown”. However, it raises some interesting constitutional questions, despite the dismissal of its significance by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. I would welcome the views of the Lord Privy Seal, in writing or when answering this debate, on those questions; I do not propose to table any amendments.

Section 6 of the 1937 Act which this Bill amends is confined to cases when His Majesty is ill or absent abroad. Does the Lord Privy Seal agree that it is anomalous that there could be no delegation to the Counsellors of State if the monarch were at Balmoral, unable to travel and unable to receive visitors because of snow or fog, but that there can be delegation if the monarch is in Paris for the day and easily able to receive a visitor or return to London to conduct urgent business? It seems anomalous that if there is a problem within the United Kingdom, no delegation can be made.

My second question arises from the fact that some of the most important royal functions have been performed by the monarch when abroad. For example, in 1908, when Edward VII was unwilling to interrupt his holiday in Biarritz, Mr Asquith was summoned there to be appointed Prime Minister. In the very useful House of Commons Library paper, Regency and Counsellors of State, written by Mr David Torrance and published in May this year, there is a reference to what happened when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was on a Caribbean tour in 1966. There was a request by the then Prime Minister, Mr Harold Wilson, for a Dissolution of Parliament. The assent of Her Majesty was contained in a letter sent to Mr Wilson.

We now have the advantage of videoconferencing and documents can be sent as email attachments. We have all sorts of modern communications and, one would hope, the occasions on which His Majesty cannot personally perform royal functions because he is abroad would be reduced. I entirely accept my noble friend Lord Janvrin’s point that ceremonial occasions are best performed in person and I suggest that important constitutional functions should be performed by the sovereign personally. The Lord Privy Seal emphasised the role of the sovereign in giving consent to legislation. Can he answer the question of whether, in principle, His Majesty could signify his consent to legislation from abroad, sending his signature by email—a point raised by my noble friend? Equally, could His Majesty appear by videolink from abroad to preside over a Privy Council meeting? These important functions should be performed by the sovereign personally.

My third question concerns the scope of the powers of Counsellors of State. There are limits on these powers, as we have heard: Counsellors of State may not dissolve Parliament, except on the express instructions of the sovereign; they may not grant any rank, title or dignity of the peerage. But, in academic debates, the question has arisen of whether there are implied limits on the powers of the counsellors. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, in his book The Monarchy and the Constitution, quoted a memo written in 1954 by Sir Edward Ford, assistant private secretary to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Sir Edward said that Counsellors of State have no power to make decisions. They are,

“if one may say it without disrespect to their persons—merely a piece of constitutional machinery—the nearest thing to a human rubber stamp that has perhaps yet been devised.”

Professor Bogdanor pointed out that the legislation provides no procedure for what should happen if the Counsellors of State disagree. He said that is because the question is “absurd”, since the counsellors have no decision-making power.

Another distinguished constitutional scholar, Professor Rodney Brazier, took a different view in his 2005 article in the Cambridge Law Journal. He said that, if the King were seriously indisposed and could not express a view, counsellors may have to take decisions to deal with urgent matters—for example, the sudden death of the Prime Minister. Can the Minister illuminate us, or at least give some guidance, on whether the Counsellors of State are merely instruments of the King’s will or have an independent decision-making function where necessary?

I shall raise my fourth point tentatively because of its sensitivity. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has already referred to it. The noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, made a football analogy, saying that it is valuable to have two further players on the bench. I would respectfully suggest that it is a curious feature of the Bill to retain two people on the team sheet who will not play any part in the match. Of course, I understand why that is.

My final point is to express hope that the Government may think it time to conduct a general review of the provisions of the 1937 Act, as amended, to see whether they are appropriate for the modern world or can be improved. This little Bill does not provide an opportunity to resolve these questions but I hope the Government will consider them.

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 4:31 pm, 21st November 2022

My Lords, the British constitution is an extremely strange animal. The Bill shines a light into one of its darkest corners. How many of the general public know that there are such things as Counsellors of State? How many could name them? If they heard who they were, how many would think that this was a sensible current arrangement?

The noble Lord the Leader of the House helpfully said how many times the Counsellors of State have officiated in that role in recent decades, but I do not think he said what they did. I would find it extremely interesting to know what, in practice, it has been necessary for them to do. This will give us some sense of how they might be used in the future.

Obviously, I support the appointment of the Earl of Wessex and Princess Anne, both of whom clearly have the commitment and experience to do the job well. Indeed, both have done it in the past. They were on the bench and had what is normally the great ignominy of being dropped from the squad altogether. Now, at a rather more advanced age, they have been brought back to the squad and definitely strengthen it immeasurably.

The situation at the minute, given what the noble Lord, Lord True, said about only working royals being asked to fulfil the roles of Counsellors of State, is clearly extremely precarious and has been for some time. The last State Opening was performed by Prince Charles, now King Charles, with Prince William as the second Counsellor of State in attendance. Suppose, however, that Prince William had contracted Covid on the eve of the State Opening. There would still have been a requirement for two Counsellors of State. Instead of Prince William, the choice would have rested between Prince Andrew and Princess Beatrice. I do not think the country would have thought that an acceptable position to find ourselves in.

A number of noble Lords have suggested that we ought to have a root-and-branch look at who might be Counsellors of State. One can think of ways in which the situation could be easily improved—for example, inserting the word “working”, albeit with some appropriate definition, to cover those members of the Royal Family who would be eligible to be Counsellors of State.

Given the many other pressing issues facing the country, I suggest that we should not be spending a huge amount of time looking at this now, because what we have before us today is a perfectly good, reasonable and workable temporary measure—if quite a long-term one—to deal with the problems of the existing Counsellors of State. For today, I am very happy to support the Bill. It gets us out of a hole that, at some point, it would be a good idea to fill in.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) 4:34 pm, 21st November 2022

My Lords, I am grateful to the Lord Privy Seal for his detailed explanation of the Bill when he opened the debate. I also thank the House of Lords Library for its very helpful and comprehensive paper, which actually answers a number of the questions that were raised by noble Lords in this debate. I am sure that the Minister will make use of it.

I smiled when the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, referred to the constitutional machinery of Counsellors of State. Those of us who have been candidates at elections often remember being told that we were a legal necessity for the election, but our role was important in that context nonetheless.

This is a very simple, straightforward proposal. We have strayed into debate on wider issues that may be addressed in the legislation, but we have quite a straightforward and moderate measure before us today. It has the advantage, unlike so much other legislation, of being precise and very clear. The purpose is to ensure that Counsellors of State are available when His Majesty wishes to delegate certain duties. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, asked what would happen if the Duke of Suffolk were to come over to the UK and try to assume responsibilities. Under the provisions of the legislation, the monarch delegates responsibilities; people do not take them on of their own accord.

I can think of no more appropriate members of the Royal Household to take on these two positions as extra Counsellors of State. As has been referred to, both have previously acted as Counsellors of State but were then moved as the line of succession changed—we will have to look at some of the gender issues in this at some point—and others reached the age of majority and became Counsellors of State. Princess Anne was a Counsellor of State from 1971 to 2003, and the Earl of Wessex from 1985 to 2005, when Prince Harry reached the age of 21. Their experience in that role is something that cannot be denied. They both know what is expected of them and how to perform their functions. It is of course open to other members of the Royal Family to carry out other ceremonial events, but Counsellors of State have very specific functions, as delegated by the sovereign.

There are other issues relevant to this legislation but they are not for discussion today, or indeed in this legislation. The measure before us today is entirely appropriate and proportionate. Unlike many other pieces of legislation, it does exactly what it says on the tin.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal 4:37 pm, 21st November 2022

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. There have been some very interesting contributions, and some with ambitions to range quite widely, even to include inclement weather in Scotland. We should recall that this legislation follows a message from His Majesty the King to Parliament. It reflects the wish of His Majesty the King. Most who have spoken in this debate support the legislation and wish to enable that to be enacted. I am very grateful for the broad support.

I accept, of course, that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, is entitled to her view. I am sure that, as and when the Green Party forms a Government, it will not only abolish the monarchy but join with the view of Sir Keir Starmer on abolishing your Lordships’ House. However, we are a long way away from a Green Government, and it was heartening to hear from all other noble Lords who spoke the genuine affection, admiration and high regard that your Lordships’ House holds for His Majesty. I am delighted to reiterate, on behalf of all noble Lords, our support and gratitude.

It was heartening also to hear your Lordships’ warm support for the broad Royal Family, as expressed by my noble friend Lord Cormack, and the great admiration expressed—rightly, in my judgment—including at the end by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal and the Earl of Wessex, who have been and are so outstanding in their continuing public duties.

I was asked about the order of the names in the Bill. I do not think that there is anything sinister in it. I note that it is in one order in the Long Title, in a different order in the preamble and in another order in Clause 1. I believe the drafters of the Bill have sought to reflect equality.

The noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, who spoke from a position of great and unique authority, told us about the necessity of the legislation, how it touches mostly the routine nature of everyday government, and the case for fast-tracking. In some of the things he said he expressed a very strong view about how the nature of government should ideally be conducted, which the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, courteously acknowledged. There is always room for innovation, of course, but I was very struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, said on these matters.

The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, who has taken a great interest, said that this was a necessary Bill and should pass. I agree.

My noble friend Lord Balfe asked what would happen if somebody turned up and sought to exercise the role. With respect, as the noble Baroness opposite said, this seems a little far-fetched. Counsellors of State have been undertaking royal functions for 85 years under this scheme with no such problems arising. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, wisely reminded us, it is ultimately for the sovereign to determine who undertakes these functions.

My noble friend also asked why not others. The approach proposed is a limited modification to the Regency Acts, whereby two individuals are added to the list of Counsellors of State. Although it would have been possible to add others, this proposal provides the right balance between giving additional flexibility and maintaining the underlying structure of the original Act.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, who has intimated his intention potentially to raise these matters in Committee, proposed that individuals be removed from the pool of Counsellors of State. He will have noted—indeed, I am grateful that he acknowledged this—that, as I set out, the Royal Household has confirmed that, in practice, working members of the Royal Family will be called on to act as Counsellors of State. As he acknowledged, the legislation already contains provisions whereby Counsellors of State are excepted from duties if they are overseas. I hope that addresses his concern.

The noble Lord also suggested in the amendments that he has put before your Lordships’ House that perhaps some other person might decide on people’s suitability to be Counsellors of State. He might reflect that this would introduce complexity into the scheme where it is not required.

The noble Lord also raised transparency. I am a strong supporter of the principle of transparency. I point out that the list of Counsellors of State is already available on the royal website, so there is no need for a legislative requirement to do this. In addition, the legislation is already clear as to who the Counsellors of State are. Moreover, when Counsellors of State are appointed the current practice is that Letters Patent are made public. It is therefore clear. I hope I have addressed some of the noble Lord’s concerns and that he might not feel it necessary to return to these in Committee.

The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, whose reading slightly differs from my reading in my library, raised a number of significant and interesting points. I think I have dealt with the issue of bad weather. The weather would have to be truly exceptional to interrupt the conduct of the Government’s affairs.

On videoconferencing, this idea is always before us and was in the age of Covid, but I believe the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, addressed that point.

The noble Lord also asked about the scope of powers of Counsellors of State. In recent years, going back to 2010, the practice has been that Privy Council meetings, which can be one of the roles of Counsellors of State, have been arranged around visits by the sovereign, but looking at the past practice of Privy Council meetings—for example, in 1987, 1991 and 1994—Counsellors of State undertook the following tasks; this is also in response to the noble Lord, Lord Newby. They have approved Privy Counsellor appointments, amended charters, agreed Channel Island orders, agreed university orders, approved statutory instruments and, an unusual task which falls to the Privy Council, closed burial grounds. In 1999 the then Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal convened a Privy Council meeting required to approve a Prorogation of Parliament at the request of Mr Blair while the monarch was unavailable overseas. Counsellors of State can also undertake non-Privy Council business such as, as the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, reminded us, receiving the credentials of ambassadors. The powers of Counsellors of State have been used, but it is not the norm. Wherever possible, diaries are organised such that Privy Council meetings revolve around the diary of the monarch.

I noted the noble Lord’s suggestion and indeed that of the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, for a wider review. At this time, the Government are not persuaded of the necessity of that, and I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that there are perhaps more pressing issues at this time. While some Members of the House may feel this is an opportunity to make wider changes, in our submission it is not the appropriate place to undertake wider revisions. What we have before us is a small and focused Bill. The proposals in the Bill are modifications of the provisions that will ensure that there is a greater pool of Counsellors of State when needed, reducing any potential risk of delay in public business. Any further reforms of the nature suggested by some who spoke would require consideration of any wider constitutional significance and implications. We are here responding to a specific context in response to His Majesty’s message and seeking practical steps to add further resilience and support to His Majesty’s capacity to undertake his official role. That is where, in my submission, we should rest at present, and I rather agree, therefore, with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, as I have said.

As many of your Lordships noted, there are good practical reasons for the provisions proposed, and I welcome the support shown for the Bill today. Your Lordships will be aware that Committee is on Wednesday. Therefore, I am ready to discuss any questions or issues that any noble Lord might wish to raise before then. I remind the House, as so many who have spoken have done—and I reiterate my gratitude for the welcome given to the legislation—that the purpose of the Bill is very simple and straightforward, and I am confident that this loyal House of Lords will respond to His Majesty’s message and support this legislation, and I submit that this legislation commends itself to the House.

Bill read a second time.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, as my noble friend the Deputy Chief Whip informed the House last week, the deadline for amendments for the Marshalled List for Committee on this Bill is in 30 minutes’ time. Therefore, amendments should be in by 5.19 pm.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

Obviously, time has been allowed for the laying of amendments. I am grateful for that reminder to the House.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House.