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Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what will be (1) the terms of reference, and (2) the appointment process, for the constitution, democracy and rights commission.

My Lords, the commission will examine the broader aspects of the constitution in depth and develop proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates. Careful consideration of the scope of the commission is required, and further announcements will be made in due course.

Events have moved on since this commission was first announced. How will its remit and membership take account of the rights of black and minority ethnic marginalised and poor people, as well as the citizen’s right to a clean and sustainable environment?

My Lords, the commission was promised in the Conservative manifesto last December. Since then, we have had the Covid crisis. As I said, further announcements about the commission will be made in due course, but I have no doubt that it will be able to take into account all events anterior to its creation.

My Lords, when my noble friend the Minister is discussing the terms of reference for this commission, will he also consider the case for examining political interference by the judiciary, and for looking at the provisions of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 and the possibility of the role of Lord Chancellor returning to this House permanently?

My Lords, I cannot anticipate the scope of the commission at this point. Of course, like my noble friend, I well remember the appalling events when the Lord Chancellor’s office was abolished by a press release from No. 10. I assure noble Lords that the commission will be proceeded with in a more thoughtful and sensitive fashion.

My Lords, considering the increased indifference among some English Conservatives towards Scotland and Northern Ireland, can the Minister confirm that representatives from Scotland and Northern Ireland will be on the commission, who would ensure the future of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, as I have said, I am afraid that I cannot respond in detail prior to the announcements of the scope, composition and focus of the commission. However, the noble Lord makes a vital point about our union, the preservation of which is fundamental to the objectives of the Government.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the commission will cover all aspects of the constitution, including that most basic of all: how we vote in both local and general elections? If, as I hope it will, the commission advises that it will go for electronic voting with an ID card which has built into it either a fingerprint or facial recognition so that there can be no cheating, will the Government implement the commission’s proposal?

My Lords, again, I cannot anticipate the composition and focus of the commission. However, I can say to the noble Lord that the Government have already presented legislation on boundaries, which is before the other place at the moment, and we have also signified that we will look at matters relating to the conduct of elections.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s statement that the Government are taking very careful consideration of the agenda. There is a great deal of expertise on constitutional and political issues in this Chamber. Will the Minister commit to a Lords debate on the agenda and terms of reference of the constitutional commission, either before the summer or at least in our September Session, to inform the process of consideration?

My Lords, I had the pleasure of sitting on the Back Benches behind the noble Lord when he was on the Front Bench, and he will know that that is a matter for the usual channels to determine. For my own part, I always welcome discussion with anybody on this important matter.

My Lords, I wish to press the Minister further on the relationship between the devolved Administrations and Westminster. If the terms of reference include looking at this interrelationship, as they most certainly should, can he guarantee, or at least press the Government to ensure, that voices from Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast are on both sides of the argument —with regard to the nationalist community in the three countries—as a central part of the commission to ensure that it has credibility in those three nations?

My Lords, I regret that I cannot add anything to my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. I am not in a position to advise the House at this stage on the composition and focus of the commission. Of course, I take note of what the noble Lord says.

My Lords, further to the question put by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, will the proposed commission look at the relationship between the Supreme Court and Parliament? If so, will it look in particular at the recent controversial court judgment on interim custody orders in Northern Ireland and exactly who signed them back in the 1970s, given that the judgment seemed to ignore completely the clear wishes and intentions of Parliament, to misunderstand the normal workings of ministerial and departmental government and to take no account of the practicalities of direct rule administration in Belfast at the time?

My Lords, my noble friend has great and direct experience of this issue. Obviously, the Government will look closely at the outcome of that judgment. I regret that, as far as the commission is concerned, I cannot add anything to my prior answers on its scope and composition. I assure the noble Lord that the Government will proceed with care and consideration.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is aware of the YouGov survey conducted last month, which showed that less than half of people said that the Government are “relatively trustworthy” or better. If we look around the world, to countries such as Germany, New Zealand and Iceland, levels of trust are high. That suggests that the underlying problem may be our system of an uncodified, opaque and unwritten constitution. Will the terms of reference consider why our system is trusted so little by the people?

My Lords, I strongly disagree with the noble Baroness in her view that the people of this country distrust our governance and the Government. I remind her that the British people had an opportunity only last December to say what their view was on who should govern them.

My Lords, I appreciate that the Minister cannot tell us what is already going on but I wonder whether he could use his good offices—we know that he has a lot of influence—to ensure that, if the commission is to restore or enhance public confidence, it is taken forward on a cross-party basis and with a focus on excluded or disenfranchised groups, particularly BME groups, as we have heard, as well as the charity sector and civil society. Unless we all have confidence in the process, we will not have confidence in the outcome. Can the Minister assure us that he will use his influence to put the views he has heard today to those who are drawing up the terms of reference and membership?

My Lords, I have the privilege of coming to this Chamber to hear the views of Members from all sides of the House; I do that, of course. We will continue to promote the United Kingdom’s interests and values, including freedom of speech, human rights and the rule of law.

Given the stress of the combined impact of Brexit and Covid-19 on the devolution settlements, may I urge the Government to consider how a federal constitution could share fairly the powers, resources and decision-making allocated to and shared between the devolved Administrations and local authorities?

My Lords, I know that that is a long-time aspiration of the noble Lord’s party but I cannot add further to what I have said about composition, focus and scope.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the damaging impact of the retrospective application of the Human Rights Act on legacy cases in Northern Ireland, particularly in respect of former members of the Armed Forces and the police? Could the commission consider legislating to limit the scope of that Act?

My Lords, I regret to say to my noble friend what I have said to other Members: I cannot answer that specifically. The Government are still considering these matters but, as with the other noble Lords I have answered, I will take close notice of what my noble friend says.

My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked so we will move on to the next Question. I will allow a few moments for the Front-Bench teams to change places.