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UK Constitutional Convention

Volume 765: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will consider establishing a United Kingdom constitutional convention.

The Government continue to consider a variety of approaches as they reflect on the British constitution, but our immediate focus must be on implementing a fair and balanced constitutional settlement that works for all the people of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, are the Government aware that such a convention is now supported by almost all the other political parties; by a wide variety of organisations, including the Local Government Association, the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy; and by most of the academics in this field—and, indeed, by many of the noble Baroness’s colleagues on her own side? When will the Government join this growing consensus so that constitutional reform is dealt with in a coherent and comprehensive way instead of in the current piecemeal fashion?

I know that the noble Lord is passionate about and an expert on this subject, and I would like to say to him that the objective of all these groups is one that the Government share: to ensure that while the constitution continues to evolve, it does so in a way that safeguards its stability and fairness, the unity of the nation and the sovereignty of Parliament. There will of course be plenty of opportunities for constitutional scrutiny and debate along the way.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that, under our first past the post system, modern Governments are formed with the support of a mere quarter of the electorate and only a third of the votes cast in general elections? Should we not at least try to restore our lost democracy through some form of proportional representation?

My Lords, there is nothing to suggest that the public want to be involved in a constitutional convention. The Government were elected on a mandate to deliver their commitment to further devolution, and that is what we are doing.

My Lords, I share the Minister’s view about the passion and expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes—my co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Reform, Decentralisation and Devolution in the UK. Does she not also agree that a common feature of the debates that we have been having recently on English votes for English laws, on boundaries and electoral registration and on the size and role of this House is that they should no longer be looked at in isolation and should take into consideration the wider whole? I might be immodest, but I would suggest that the Constitutional Convention Bill, which is currently being debated by your Lordships’ House, may well be the best opportunity to bring not only all parties but also the civic groups together. At the very least, will the Government offer technical support or even time in another place, if the Bill passes in this House, for civic groups to progress this work?

The noble Lord has promoted his Bill with passion. There will be plenty of opportunities for constitutional scrutiny and debate both in the House and beyond, and I am in no doubt that all these groups will benefit from the insight and experience of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis. I cannot guarantee House of Commons time; that is down to the other place and the usual channels.

My Lords, there is an overwhelming body of opinion in support of a constitutional convention as by far the best way to make changes to the constitution of our Parliament and our country. In view of what the Minister has just said, is it not inappropriate that we should now be contemplating a significant change to the powers of this House on the basis of a temper tantrum by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer? The Joint Committee’s report on the conventions of the UK Parliament, which was unanimously approved by this House and the other place, stated that this House is perfectly entitled to vote down a statutory instrument. Is this any way to make fundamental constitutional changes?

My Lords, all these matters are going to be looked into shortly. As noble Lords will know, my noble friend Lord Strathclyde is setting up a review to look into these matters and it would be wrong for me to pre-empt what that review is going to say.

My Lords, the United Kingdom itself is hanging by a thread, thanks to constitutional tinkering; there are now disputes between both Houses of Parliament; and we have experienced piecemeal constitutional reform. If we are not to have a constitutional convention, how do the Government propose to look at these things together, in the round, and find a long-term, stable relationship for the future of our constitution?

A static convention, deciding constitutional matters once and for all, does not really fit with this country’s tradition of evolving and adapting its constitutional arrangements in line with its people’s expectations and needs. A convention would bundle together a number of complex issues and it is likely not to give each due attention. We prefer a tailored approach, ensuring that each part of the UK gets a fair settlement and that the overall settlement is always balanced and fair.

My Lords, the noble Baroness says that we prefer a different approach. She has come forward with that approach because the Government lost a vote last week. Does she accept the comments made at the weekend by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, when he described Members of the House of Lords as “rabble rousers” and said that he will make them pay in his review? Does she accept that a constitutional constitution is the best way of looking at all these issues—and wider ones—in the round and that any changes that are made to how your Lordships’ House, or the other place, operates should be made in the public interest, not the Government’s narrow, partisan one?

My noble friend Lord Strathclyde’s review is very specific. It is on the matters of last week, when this House withheld its approval to financial measures that had been approved three times by the other House. A convention exists and it was broken. We want to get things back on an even keel.

My Lords, would my noble friend accept that it is very important indeed that, before my noble friend Lord Strathclyde reports to this House—it is to the House that he is answerable—he takes with him those Labour constitutionalists who voted in the government Lobby last week and people like the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, so that whatever is produced commands a cross-section of support in this House?

My Lords, I know that there is wide interest in this subject. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde will report back to the Government. During the review he will take careful interest in what noble Lords from all sides of this House say.