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Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010

Volume 805: debated on Wednesday 29 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to amend the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 puts on a statutory basis the Civil Service Code and guarantees the impartiality of the permanent Civil Service to serve Governments of different political persuasions without fear or favour. The Government value the advice and service of our impartial Civil Service and have no plans to amend the Act.

My Lords, considering some of the noises coming out of 10 Downing Street from Mr Dominic Cummings about the hard rain about to fall on our Civil Service, surely there is a case for updating the 2010 Act. Could the Minister clarify reports on ConservativeHome and by Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph that the Government are about to jettison their manifesto commitment to a constitution, democracy and rights commission, where these issues could be addressed?

I do not comment on press speculation. No decisions have yet been taken on the form and scope of the commission on the constitution, democracy and rights. However, we will consult Select Committees about any relevant decisions in the normal way.

In view of the answers that have already been given, I might be unduly cautious in raising my question. I was the judge responsible at the time of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 for dealing with the independence of the judiciary under the changes that were then made. The Civil Service and the judiciary have in common the fact that their essential activities are based on independence. If there are to be any changes to the relationship between the Civil Service and the Government, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, suggests—particularly if they are by legislation—the lessons learned from the 2005 Act need to be borne in mind. Will the Minister indicate whether that will be the case? History shows that it is very easy unintentionally to alter fundamentally the relationship of bodies such as the judiciary and the Civil Service with the Government.

I reiterate that we have no plans to amend the 2010 Act. The established system—that civil servants are accountable to Ministers, who in turn are accountable to Parliament—continues to work well. There are no plans to alter this. The Government do not accept that the Civil Service has become politicised in any way. All individuals appointed to the Civil Service remain subject to the long-standing principles of the Civil Service Code, which requires them to act with honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality.

My Lords, our Constitution Committee criticised provisions in this Act on the ratification of treaties. Have the Government any view as to whether these criticisms should be put into effect?

The Government continue to believe that the legislative framework set by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act is appropriate and provides sufficient flexibility to permit Parliament to undertake scrutiny prior to ratification. In the last Parliament, in July 2019, the Government responded to the Constitution Committee’s report, Parliamentary Scrutiny of Treaties. Many of the committee’s points were reprised in the EU International Agreements Sub-Committee. Its more recent report, Treaty Scrutiny: Working Practices, was published on 10 July. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is conducting a review of the processes around the implementation of CRaG, and the Government will issue a response to the IAC inquiry in due course.

My Lords, the Minister will know that her Conservative colleagues in another place faced criticism after voting against an amendment to the Trade Bill that Opposition MPs said would have protected the NHS from inclusion in any future trade deals. Instead, the Government argued that CRaG would fulfil that task. Is the Minister entirely confident that that is indeed the case?

My Lords, the Government have made it very clear that the NHS is safe in any trade deals. It will continue to be safe.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister said about not amending the Act in relation to the Civil Service, although I hope her words “no plans” are not doing too much work for her. In the light of recent revelations about donations to the Conservative Party, can she say whether there have been any discussions anywhere within government about amending Part 4 of the Act, which stipulates that Members of your Lordships’ House must be UK taxpayers?

My Lords, I welcome the reiteration of the Government’s commitment to the impartiality of the Civil Service. However, since the Act was passed, particularly in the last few months under this Government, the role of special advisers has been expanded. Indeed, if reports are correct, they now play a rather more executive role. Does that not require some adjustment in the relationship between Parliament, parliamentary scrutiny and special advisers?

My Lords, I am not sure whether the reports are correct, but special advisers are certainly covered by the Act. They are appointed in accordance with the Act and work within the Act’s guidelines.

My Lords, to revert to the proposed constitution, democracy and rights commission, I have twice asked for a debate on it before it is established so that the Government can benefit from your Lordships’ views on its remit, priorities and composition. In January my noble friend Lord Howe said that this was a “very good suggestion”. Can my noble friend send us on our Summer Recess with a spring in our step by announcing that such a debate will be held on our return?

I am really sorry to disappoint my noble friend but no, I cannot. If he takes my Answer to the first Question he will understand why.

I will follow up the question from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, on the work of our Constitution Committee. Despite our excellent new committee to examine emerging treaties, the truth is that, under the Act, the only power the Commons has is to decline its ratification within 21 days of a treaty being laid. It cannot scrutinise it earlier, amend it or refer it back for changes. Surely Parliament should be given a proper role in amending and approving treaties akin to that held by the European Parliament.

I can only reiterate that the Government have looked at what has come from the committees and their recommendations, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is looking at a review of procedures, taking into account the CRaG guidelines, to ensure sufficient scrutiny and overview of all treaties before they are signed.

My Lords, following the questions from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, can the Government help to make parliamentary scrutiny of international treaties yet more effective within the present terms of CRaG to ensure that the scrutiny committees in both Houses do a thorough job? What further steps will they take to provide Parliament with detailed and comprehensive information at each stage of the treaty-making process?

My Lords, that is exactly where the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s review is leading: to see whether it can put in place any further best practice within the CRaG guidelines to make scrutiny and overview much better.