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House of Lords and Machinery of Government: Consultation on Changes

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 15 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have (1) to consult relevant Parliamentary select committees about the constitutional implications of, and (2) to await the outcome of the proposed Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to inform, changes to (a) the machinery of Government, (b) the location of their departments and the civil service, and (c) the location of the House of Lords.

My Lords, the Government have committed to ensuring that the administration of government is less London-centric and to locating more Civil Service roles and public bodies out of London and into the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. No decisions have yet been taken on the form and scope of the commission on the constitution, democracy and rights. We will consult Select Committees about any relevant decisions in the normal way.

My Lords, if one wants to distribute civil servants around the country, proper devolution for England would be the best way by far to do that. The Conservative manifesto last December declared:

“we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords”

and that they would

“set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth”.

Instead, No. 10 is briefing out piecemeal changes that were not in the manifesto but which only appeared in Dominic Cummings’s blog. Is Cummings’s blog now more authoritative as a guide to government policy than the manifesto?

My Lords, at risk to my career, I must say that Mr Cummings’s blog is not on my reading list, and I do not normally consult social media in general. However, I say to the noble Lord that the commission will examine the broader aspects of the constitution in depth and develop proposals to restore trust in our institutions and the operation of our democracy. We will consider the composition and focus of the commission carefully and will provide an update in due course.

My Lords, I read the debate on this topic yesterday, following the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, and noted the imprecise Answer given then by the Minister. I have listened carefully to his answers to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, today, which again have not been definitive. Therefore, I would like to put two straightforward questions to the Minister, and I would appreciate a straightforward answer. Is it the intention of the Government to table proposals for the relocation of the House of Lords, on a permanent basis, to York or any other location outside London? If so, when do they intend to table these proposals?

My Lords, I said yesterday, in a straight- forward fashion, that the location of this House is ultimately a matter of its exclusive cognisance. The Government are putting forward a series of ideas—they have done and are continuing to do so—about the relocation of aspects of government outside London. This is ongoing and will continue.

My Lords, there are 79 bi- cameral Parliaments in the world. All but one of them have chambers co-located in the capital city, often in the same building. Why does the Minister think that this is the case?

My Lords, I can only repeat what I said yesterday: that in any decision about the future operation of Parliament, the convenience of parliamentary procedure is obviously one of the factors that would have to be taken into account.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that it is important that your Lordships’ deliberations should take place as close as possible to the people? Would he also agree with me that it is even more important for those who actually represent the people to be located even nearer to them than this House? Could he tell your Lordships what plans the Government have for the future location of the House of Commons to ensure that it is situated as close as possible to the people?

My Lords, I do not think I am going to be drawn on that one. I think that the Companion says that one is supposed to speak respectfully of the other place. However, I say to my noble friend that my right honourable friend Boris Johnson brought the other place close to the people by his devastating victory in the December election last year, which delivered a majority of 80 to the real people’s party.

My Lords, Westminster is not only the mother of Parliaments; it is the mother of bicameral Parliaments. Would the Minister agree that, for purely practical purposes, the close proximity of both Houses side by side—whether for APPGs, committees or visiting Heads of State—is important and that they should be together, let alone the fact that the House of Lords has the greatest depth and breadth of expertise of any parliamentary Chamber in the world? Surely, being located in London—the greatest of the world’s great cities—is a huge advantage, as we have our financial capital and our government capital together. That is where the House of Lords should be based. Could he say who is behind this idea?

My Lords, I repeat what I said yesterday. Of course, all the factors the noble Lord has mentioned have to be weighed and taken into account in any reflections on the future of our Parliament and the role of this House. At the moment, Parliament is operating remotely—as the noble Lord himself is—and it is not impossible. However, I am sure that all the factors mentioned will be considered.

My Lords, all power to the Government’s elbows to distribute civil servants across the country, but yesterday the Minister was absolutely clear that only Parliament could determine its own relocation. Will the Government desist from acting ultra vires and leave it to Parliament to pursue its own conclusions, backed by primary legislation?

My Lords, I do not believe the Government are acting ultra vires in any way. It is important that all of us—in this House, in the other place and in the political world generally—reflect on how we may restore respect in the political process and bring that closer to the people. That does not change the fundamental constitutional point which the noble Lord has cited.

My Lords, one reason why the European Parliament is subject to criticism is that it sits in two places: Brussels and Strasbourg. The moves to Strasbourg diminish accountability and create problems. Does the Minister agree that, if our bicameral Parliament were separated, it would be much harder to hold Ministers to account and would undermine the British Parliament?

My Lords, I do not necessarily agree with that argument: the noble Baroness is holding me to account at present. It is no secret that I was not an enthusiast for the Strasbourg Parliament.

Will the Minister confirm to the House whether the decision of the Supreme Court to become involved in the Prorogation dispute last autumn will be considered as part of the review when the commission is established?

My Lords, I must repeat that, obviously, the commission will be looking at a wide range of matters and the broader aspects of the constitution. The issue that the noble Lord mentioned is of great constitutional importance and certainly deserves examination.

My Lords, the problems of moving this House away from the Commons and Whitehall may be insuperable. However, should we not, perhaps by moving the Moses Room and Westminster Hall to York, try to bring Parliament closer to people from whose views and values it was so clearly estranged during the last Parliament? It would surely strengthen this House, first, if more people saw your Lordships’ excellent work as a revising Chamber and, secondly, if closer contact with people outside the metropolitan bubble made us more respectful of their views.

My Lords, my noble friend makes a number of important and relevant points. As I said yesterday, in some respects the House already takes part of its work outside London. I do not believe this is something to which your Lordships should close your ears.

My Lords, if idealistic elements of decision-making advocate decentralisation, why not move the whole machinery of governance out of town, or make it rotational? This may have the added beneficial consequences of strengthening the sanctity of the union and lessening the drain on the Exchequer.

My Lords, the noble Viscount puts forward considerations which would need to be, and will be, reflected on as we look at the future of our constitution. The operation of Parliament must be absolutely fundamental in that consideration.