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Counsellors of State Bill [Lords]

Volume 723: debated on Thursday 1 December 2022

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a great pleasure to be before the House following His Majesty the King’s message to both Houses and the Humble Address. Parliament has affirmed its willingness to bring forward this Bill and deal with it expeditiously, and the Government are responding in kind. We recognise that it is pivotal to the smooth working of Parliament and Government that royal authority is always available, which includes granting the final, formal legal approval to the decisions that are made here in this House.

The Counsellors of State Bill is designed to ensure continuity in how the monarchy fulfils its core constitutional role. As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, the sovereign performs a significant number of royal functions that are key to the day-to-day machinery of government of the United Kingdom. These vary from assenting to legislation, granting charters, and appointing bishops, judges and King’s counsel, to convening the Privy Council. Many of these functions require the monarch to act in person. If the monarch is temporarily unavailable, these vital constitutional and legal roles must still be performed.

This place has previously identified and resolved the issue. We have a tradition of legislating for such contingencies and adapting to historical context and requirements. Indeed, this Bill is a modification of the existing Regency Acts 1937 to 1953. Section 6 of the Regency Act 1937 provides for Counsellors of State to whom royal functions can be delegated when the sovereign is temporarily unavailable.

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 their absence. These set out the statutory limitations of the delegation; usually, they also specify what the functions are and which functions are not delegated. The sovereign may revoke or vary the delegation by letters patent.

In practice, this creates a pool of all the Counsellors of State who can carry out such delegated functions. Counsellors of State exercise royal functions jointly or by such number of them as may be specified. It is important to note that, generally, Counsellors of State have tended to act in pairs. Those who are absent from the United Kingdom during the period of the delegation may be excepted as per section 6(2) of the 1937 Act. Under the current arrangements, the Counsellors of State are the spouse of the sovereign and the four persons who are next in the line of succession to the Crown, excluding those who are disqualified under the Act—for example, due to age.

During the reign of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Counsellors of State were routinely appointed when she travelled abroad. This occurred more than 30 times over the last few decades. Indeed, hon. Members may recall that earlier this year, during the state opening of Parliament, this power was used when Her late Majesty was unable to attend.

The Bill follows precedent in legislating for additional Counsellors of State. Shortly after her accession in 1953, Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth asked Parliament to legislate for Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother to be a Counsellor of State. In accordance with that request, Parliament passed the Regency Act 1953, which added the Queen Mother as a Counsellor of State for her lifetime, to deliver on Her late Majesty’s wishes. Today, as we bring the Bill before the House, we are guided by that precedent in the substantive approach and the procedure.

The Bill proposes a precise and limited modification to the provisions in the Regency Act 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 Forfar and Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal to the list of Counsellors of State for the duration of their lifetimes. In turn, they bring more than 50 years of extensive experience to the role. I trust that all hon. Members will agree that few individuals are better qualified to undertake these vital constitutional duties should the need arise.

Furthermore, the royal family has confirmed that in practice it will be working members of the royal family who are called on to act as Counsellors of State, and that their diaries will be arranged to ensure that that is the case. The Bill supports the monarch, our Head of State, in discharging his constitutional duties. It guarantees the continuity that we in Government and Parliament depend on to serve the British people. At this time of heightened sporting interest, as one noble Lord succinctly put it in the other place, the Bill

“will give much-needed strength and depth to the bench”,—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 November 2022; Vol. 825, c. 1184]

which always a wise strategy. For all those reasons, I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to his place in our first formal debate in the House. I hope that it will be a constructive one. Although there are a great many things that we often disagree about, this Bill is not one of them. It is a simple, straightforward piece of legislation that provides a solution for a specific issue, as he said in his opening remarks.

By expanding the number of Counsellors of State who can formally deputise for His Majesty the King in his absence, the Bill addresses a potential constitutional problem. It is a fact that some aspects of our government machinery rely on the sovereign’s authority. It follows that a form of that authority must always be available to grant formal legal approval to a range of decisions by the Government and Parliament.

Counsellors of State may also perform a number of necessary functions, such as attending Privy Council meetings and receiving the credentials of new ambassadors to the country. Although the Regency Act 1937 sets out the list of Counsellors of State, it is for the King to delegate functions and decide who acts in the role. The Bill is intended to ensure that he can do so from a group of working royals by adding two further Counsellors of State, both of whom are already experienced and well respected in the role, as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said. This is not a broader debate about our constitution; it is about the narrow purpose of providing His Majesty with flexibility in who can formally represent him.

The Opposition do not oppose this practical measure. Although the Bill has a narrow focus, I know that hon. Members in this House and the other place have raised concerns about the wider issue of the Regency Act. I welcome assurances from Government Ministers in the other place that only working royals can act as Counsellors of State. That is an important assurance that will go alongside the Bill.

As I have said, the substance of the Bill is simple. It is clear that the existing legislation does not provide a mechanism to expand the number of Counsellors of State, which is now needed due to circumstances that Parliament could not have foreseen when the current Act was passed, so I and my hon. Friends will be supporting the Bill today.

I rise to strongly support the Bill. It is clearly a non-political piece of legislation, as the royal message from His Majesty the King to Parliament made clear, and will ensure that he is ably supported in the discharge of his constitutional duties. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said, the Bill follows long-established precedent. Her late Majesty the Queen, of blessed and glorious memory, asked her Parliament to do the same thing after her accession to the throne, and thus Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother was added to the list of Counsellors of State in 1953.

The daily workload of the sovereign is, of course, significant. His Majesty is extremely industrious and absolutely passionate about his work, as we all know, and always has been. In that way, as in many others, the King takes after the late Queen, if I may say so. We are lucky to have him and we should support him in this endeavour.

In rare circumstances—for example, when overseas or when indisposed—it might occasionally be necessary to appoint Counsellors of State. As we heard, that happened 30 times in the last reign. The Bill will broaden the pool of options available to His Majesty. The presence of the sovereign is sometimes required by law, or in the alternative, the formal approval of a Counsellor of State or a royal sign manual. The Bill will allow options to be deployed if His Majesty wishes. It will also prevent delay to the business of the Government of the day, as the noble Lord Janvrin, a former private secretary to the late Queen, said from the Cross Benches in the other place last week.

His Royal Highness the Earl of Wessex and Forfar, and Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal command the confidence of the King, and the approval and respect of the people of this country, and for good reason. Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal is well known and highly respected for her work ethic, her drive, and her pragmatic approach. As we know, she carries out hundreds of engagements annually, and quietly and assiduously undertakes her duties with enormous skill. Like the Princess, His Royal Highness the Earl of Wessex has been a trusted Counsellor of State before, and he will likewise be a welcome addition to the pool of options available to the King.

Even in the current world of online contracts, virtual meetings and automated signatures there is still, I am sure the House will agree, a practical need for Counsellors of State. Not everything can or should be done via online media platforms. The functions of the monarchy sometimes require physical presence—indeed, they often do, either for important legal reasons of state or for ceremonial reasons. As I said, not everything can or should be done via email. Parliament has set those requirements, and for good reason.

This is not a political Bill. It has nothing to do with royal or public finances or engagements. It is about allowing the sovereign expeditiously to clear his work every day. I read that His Majesty has a new red box, and as a former long-standing Minister of the Crown I recognise how important it is that such business is cleared efficiently. It is in the interests of good order and the administration of government that Parliament facilitates that. I support the way that His Majesty’s Government are proceeding with this matter, and I strongly support this Bill.

I will not detain the House for too long. The Bill is what it is, and it does what it says it will do. It is a pragmatic solution to a problem that has arisen, and it is by and large uncontentious and uncontroversial. For as long as the United Kingdom chooses to have a constitutional monarch, whose role includes the granting of Royal Assent to legislation, the appointment of judges and Ministers, as well as a host of other engagements and functions both at home and abroad, there is an identifiable need to extend the number of people who can deputise for the monarch when he or she is overseas, is unwell, or is for whatever reason unable to conduct those duties.

Given that two current Counsellors of State are, for different reasons, non-working royals and have withdrawn from public life, the proposed appointment of two new Counsellors of State who can exercise those royal functions when needs be makes sense. The Bill is a reasonable workaround that provides temporary solutions to the constraints of the Regency Acts, which state that Counsellors of State are the spouse of the monarch and the first four in the line of succession. Although the Bill gets us over that inconvenient hurdle, I suggest that the Government should find a more robust and enduring way of dealing with such situations, which will undoubtedly arise in the future.

I understand why the King would want to make his brother, the Earl of Wessex, and his sister, the Princess Royal, Counsellors of State, as both have previously performed that duty for the late Queen. As an aside, will the Minister explain why on the Bill as printed the Earl of Wessex seems to be given prominence ahead of the Princess Royal? I find it a strange order in which to put them. As a wider point, rather than having to revert once again to the Regency Act 1937, using the 1953 precedent that made the Queen Mother the additional Counsellor, as if she had been appointed at the same time as others, it would probably be better to find a more formalised way to appoint people to those positions. The Bill is a quick-fix solution to an immediate problem, but it does not get over the structural issues latent in the Regency Acts. I point the Minister to a well informed post by Dr Craig Prescott of Bangor University, writing for the University of London’s Constitution Unit. He says that this question will arise time and again until it is formally sorted, and that if there is to be, as we believe there will be, a more slimmed down royal family that focuses more on the direct line of succession, such issues will need to be addressed.

I have no doubt that the Bill will pass, but I suggest that the Government should eventually get round to looking at how Counsellors of State are appointed. That said, given the current state of the United Kingdom, I sincerely hope that this issue is somewhere around No. 101 in the Government’s list of 100 things they need to do. If it is not No. 101, I suggest it should be. At some point, however, it may be worth considering the issue again.

Everyone understands that, for a whole host of reasons, the monarch cannot always be available to perform their duties. That is why over the centuries, Counsellors of State have been appointed to assist the sovereign. The current Regency Acts provide for Counsellors of State because they are important to ensure that Government business can continue to run smoothly. As the 1937 Act states, Counsellors of State should be in place to

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

Much has changed since 1937, and I hope that when the Government get round to looking at this issue again, they will consider the revolution in communication and technology, which I understand the late Queen herself embraced to great effect during the covid lockdown. If the Bill is about improving procedures and ensuring good administrative practice, we should be looking to the future, embracing that technology, and finding a better solution, rather than simply looking back to 1937 and a time when the telegram was the fastest means of communication, and the ocean liner the quickest means of international travel. Is there a barrier to stop the King signing documents by means of an electronic signature? What is there to prevent formal royal correspondence from being done via email? Is there any legal impediment to the monarch appearing via a video link to join a meeting of the Privy Council? I do not see why any of that should be controversial, so perhaps the Minister could tell me whether or not such things are possible.

Finally, on the theme of modernisation, I suspect that many people will be asking what is the point of us examining how we can help the monarchy to modernise when certain parts of the institution seem stuck in the past. The treatment last week of Ngozi Fulani at Buckingham Palace was appalling, and I am delighted that—

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Modernisation is vital, but the institution must help itself to modernise. This Bill is part of that. We will support the Bill today, and I thank you for your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I rise briefly to add my support to the Bill, and to congratulate the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on his new role. The Bill has been brought in promptly, following a request from His Majesty the King in the royal message, and entirely appropriately, given that it is within a few weeks of his accession to the throne. It is therefore appropriate to ensure that sufficient Counsellors of State are available as may be required during the course of his reign. It is also entirely appropriate that the Government should put forward His Majesty’s brother and sister, both of whom, as was said earlier, have undertaken this role earlier in their lives. His Royal Highness the Earl of Wessex and Forfar was a Counsellor of State for 20 years from his 21st birthday, and Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal was Counsellor of State for 32 years, from her 21st birthday. They are both experienced in this role, and they clearly have the full confidence of His Majesty.

The important point for this House, which has been referenced by all speakers, is that His Majesty needs a sufficient pool of experienced individuals who are working members of the royal family. There is no doubt whatsoever about the extent to which both their Royal Highnesses are committed to the royal family. They have spent their entire working lives in public service, and during the course of last year—a year affected by the covid pandemic —the Princess Royal undertook more royal engagements than any other member of the royal family, and I think two more than His Majesty, then Prince of Wales. The Earl of Wessex undertook more than 200 engagements during the course of that year. There is no doubt that they are entirely suited for the role, or that there is considerable public respect for both their Royal Highnesses, and I commend the Bill to the House.

With the leave of the House, I will keep my closing remarks short. We have been debating a Bill that serves one narrow purpose: to ensure that Counsellors of State are available when His Majesty requires one to deputise in his essential duties. I want to mention—I hope I can call him a friend—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis). I absolutely miss him and our exchanges, and I absolutely agree with his comments—[Interruption.] That is not to discourage Members currently on the Government Front Bench!

I live for days like this in Parliament. Never did I think when I was young that I would be debating such Bills with such hon. and distinguished Members. I agree with the right hon. and learned Member that online is great, but it is nice to keep some traditions and meet in person. We all recognise that.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) reminded me of my wonderful experience with Her late Majesty the Queen when I went on to the Privy Council, and we met via Zoom. That was nice. He also mentioned the practicalities of the Regency Act. I hope that one day, when time allows, we can sharpen some of that, but that is not before us today.

As hon. Members in all parties have recognised, the Bill makes a simple and straightforward change to existing law. It will help to prevent a possible future constitutional problem arising and provide the sovereign with sufficient options and flexibility. Labour Members believe that that is proportionate and reasonable, so we support the Bill’s Second Reading.

I also acknowledge the assurances given by Ministers on some of the wider issues that have arisen and thank them and the Palace for the extra clarity that they have provided. I would like to place on record my thanks for their engagement with me on behalf of His Majesty’s Opposition. Of course, we will continue to work constructively in the national interest wherever we can.

I did love the intervention and the response, which was like something from “Love Actually”. [Laughter.] Well, it is Christmas.

It is a genuine pleasure to close a Second Reading debate in which there has been such consensus, and concise consensus at that. At times, as we have seen, that consensus has lapsed into adoration.

One day, maybe—who knows?

As several hon. Members pointed out, the Bill is a necessary short piece of legislation that brings resilience to our constitutional arrangements and does so at speed. It was necessary that we brought a short Bill before Parliament to get the measures through quickly. The reason for that is, as we all know, His Majesty will soon start to travel in the fulfilment of his duties to the country, so we wanted to have things in place as quickly as possible. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) for recognising that and paying tribute to the two new Counsellors of State whom we are appointing today and to how respected they already are. She is right to point to the Regency Act and the fact that the royal household has confirmed that Counsellors of State will only be working royals.

I also pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis). Little can be added to his speech, because there is little that anyone can teach him about the workings of our constitution. He was an illustrious member of the Front-Bench team and an extremely well informed Minister in the Cabinet Office. I know that some of his expertise was brought to bear in the design and drafting of the legislation, and I am grateful to him for that.

I also thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), who spoke from the SNP Front Bench. He raised a point about the order of precedence. Obviously, the law of succession was changed a few years ago to enable girls born to the sovereign to inherit, but that did not change the existing order of succession. That is why the Princess Royal and the Earl of Wessex feature in the order in which they do. In addition, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) for his remarks and concur with what he said.

I am delighted that we have heard in the debate how the Bill commands considerable support in the House, as it did in the other place. I know that this Parliament will wish to be of assistance and support to our sovereign as he goes about his duties.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).