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Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission

Volume 801: debated on Wednesday 29 January 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to be established.

My Lords, the Conservative manifesto committed to reviewing the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts in a constitution, democracy and rights commission. We will set up the commission within this Government’s first year. Further announcements will be made in due course.

My Lords, I know that I speak for the whole House in wishing the noble Earl many happy returns for his birthday. On a similarly positive note, I hope that he will be able to give us assurances about the authority and independence of the commission, to be demonstrated by its membership, and, above all, an assurance that the commission will not have its card marked by the Government.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his kind greetings. I recognise absolutely the concern that lies behind his Question. The one thing we want to achieve from this exercise is a set of recommendations that command public confidence. That means a wide range of engagement by the commission when it is formed and a feeling on the part of the public and, indeed, civil society as a whole, that they are engaged with, and sympathetic to, the outcome.

My Lords, the terms of reference of this commission have not been specified. Will this rather shadowy, generalised body turn its attention to upholding the rights of Parliament and the judiciary and to protecting the rule of law?

My Lords, I wish that I could be more specific about the remit. I completely understand the noble Lord’s wish for further and better particulars on this subject. It is still too early for me to provide him with any details about either the composition or the remit of the commission. However, I assure him that the points he makes will be registered.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister rightly wishes he could be more specific. Does he accept, and will he convey to his colleagues, that there really is a need to be more specific, and give us some hints about what the focus of this commission will be? Does he not accept that the present three words are very vague, and the canvass enormous? There are 16 different definitions or more of what democracy means. If noble Lords are to make a sensible contribution to this commission, as we would wish, we must very soon have a better indication of what specific issues in this enormous range the commission will concentrate on.

My noble friend makes a very good point. Constitutional reform is a term that could encompass many subject areas. One reason why the Government are taking a bit of time over deciding the commission’s remit is that, if the remit is too wide, the task becomes too unwieldy and lengthy; too narrow, and it risks creating policy that is not properly joined up. The scope needs to be substantial but sensible.

My Lords, following the point that the Minister has just made, do the Government accept that there are some priority steps required to, and I quote from the Conservative manifesto,

“protect the integrity of our democracy”

that are probably so urgent that they cannot wait for the proposed commission? Has the Minister seen, and does he note, the recommendations of the APPG report, Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age, which follows the work of Select Committees in both Houses, and the recommendations of the Information Commissioner and the Electoral Commission? Do the Government recognise that there is a dangerous connection between digital campaigning and potentially illegal funding—the huge sums of money from foreign sources, from Miami to Moscow, seeking to influence both elections and referendums?

I fully recognise the concern expressed by the noble Lord. Indeed, we have debated these matters in the past, albeit cursorily. These are matters that the Government are determined to grip. Whether the commission will be doing that is something that unfortunately I cannot be specific on at the moment.

My Lords, the Minister will have seen the report today that shows a dramatic increase in dissatisfaction with democracy. That is startling but hardly surprising, given the toxic nature of debate that we have seen over the last few years, so the new commission will have to look at ways to restore trust. The Government’s briefings have already provoked some interest, whether about political appointments to challenge the independence of the judiciary or about shallow comments about moving this House to York. While I understand that some No. 10 spokesmen delight in being populist, does the Minister consider that the path to restoring confidence is structural change of democratic institutions or will he accept that it is more fundamentally about behaviour and about offering hope for the future? What will really make a difference is genuinely understanding and tackling the serious issues that impact on society, from homelessness to climate emergency, if we are serious about restoring trust in the whole political system.

The noble Baroness makes some extremely good points. Constitutional structures matter, but I suggest that what matters equally is for British and Northern Irish citizens to have a sense of belonging to this country, not a sense of alienation, and a necessary underpinning of that is public engagement and a listening, responsive Government. A number of things are in train at the moment that are designed to achieve those ends, not least the UK prosperity fund, which is designed to reach out to deprivation and inequality wherever it exists and bind the country together in the process.

My Lords, it is clear from the replies that my noble friend has been able to give that work on the commission is still at its formative stage, so I repeat my request for an early debate in order for your Lordships to influence its development. Is it not the case that the biggest challenge facing the UK at the moment is the threat to the union? Should that not be an early priority for the commission?

My noble friend’s request for a debate has been duly noted by the usual channels. With regard to the union, I could not agree with him more. In so much of what the Government plan to do, they are working to strengthen the union by ensuring that the institutions and the power of the UK are used in a way that benefits people in every part of our country. I am thinking here of not just the shared prosperity fund that I mentioned a moment ago but the review of intergovernmental relations in the UK and the Dunlop review into the union.

From what the Minister has said, we assume that the remit of this commission is UK-wide. That being so, what steps have so far been taken to seek nominations from the Governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for membership of this commission?

Consideration is being given to that matter. Unfortunately, I can give the noble Lord no particulars at this juncture.