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Constitution, Democracy and Human Rights Commission

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 14 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they plan to establish the Constitution, Democracy and Human Rights Commission.

My Lords, the Government remain absolutely committed to looking at the broader aspects of the constitution and the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts, as pledged in our manifesto. We are taking forward the work via a range of work- streams, some of which have already been announced, such as the Independent Review of Administrative Law. Others will be announced in due course.

My Lords, our manifesto said:

“In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission.”

This was confirmed on 29 January last year, when the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said:

“We will set up the commission within this Government’s first year. Further announcements will be made in due course.”—[Official Report, 29/1/20; col. 1437.]

Since then, silence. But the Library tells me that the Government have established seven other independent reviews and one public inquiry. So, for the fourth time, I ask the Government for a debate in which they set out their emerging thoughts and your Lordships set out their priorities. We can then move forward on a broad basis of support that commands public confidence.

My Lords, as a very experienced Minister himself, my noble friend knows that debates are matters for the usual channels. He asked about progress with a constitutional review. I have indicated that the Government are determined to pursue this in a range of independent workstreams. That has begun in the first year with the Independent Review of Administrative Law.

I support the words of the noble Lord, Lord Young, and urge a cross-party and non-party approach to these issues; otherwise, what emerges from the Government’s plans will lack credibility. Before we lurch into any more divisive or closely fought referendums, can we please try to have cross-party and wide agreement on when referendums should be used in our parliamentary democracy, perhaps by following some of the recommendations in the report of the House of Lords cross-party Constitution Committee published a few years ago?

My Lords, the Government are not seeking referendums, although I understand that another political party in the kingdom is. We will not go in that direction. I certainly agree that cross-party approaches are desirable. Another constitutional issue that we are addressing is fixed-term Parliaments, which the Government have put forward for pre-legislative scrutiny by a cross-party Joint Committee.

My Lords, I welcome the request from the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the call from the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, for a cross-party, independent approach to this. Were the commission to make a primary objective strengthening the union and a Parliament working for the whole United Kingdom, does the Minister agree that it should give serious consideration to the devolution of power in England away from Westminster, whether to regional mayors, assemblies or even an English assembly?

My Lords, those concepts are obviously extremely important and are no doubt the subject of continuing discussion in and across all parties. As the right reverend Prelate will know, regional assemblies were proposed by a previous Government and rejected by the electorate.

My Lords, given the sheer scale of the disparate constitutional reforms that have taken place in recent decades and that derive from no intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change, does my noble friend agree that we need a body that can stand back and make sense of where we are, that is grounded in an understanding of our constitution—qua constitution—and that does not rush in with knee-jerk reactions and ill-thought-through proposals for more change?

My Lords, I am not sure about the proposition of a body. I think that, ultimately, authority to determine must reside in Parliament and in part in your Lordships’ House. I hope that we will have debates and discussion. I agree with my noble friend that a lot of change was ill thought through, but I assure noble Lords that the Government intend to proceed cautiously and with independent advice.

My Lords, does the Cabinet Office recognise that more piecemeal changes to the constitution and to electoral law, such as No. 10 taking back control of the Prorogation and Dissolution of Parliament, weakening controls on election spending and attacking the independence and integrity of the Electoral Commission, break the manifesto promise, which has been referred to, of a comprehensive constitution commission, set up to take evidence in the first 12 months of this Government?

No, my Lords. I do not accept the characterisation of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I must say that the Liberal Democrat party has never been slow to come forward with radical changes to the constitution with very little consultation with others.

My Lords, this is a big canvas but, given the enormous impact of the communications revolution and the ever more powerful media platforms’ monopolies on trust in government, on parliamentary constitutional authority, on the unity of the UK itself and on our future national direction, can we be assured that the commission’s remit when it is set up covers these fundamental issues, as many people are asking for, as well as more conventional areas of constitutional reform?

Aside from the question of whether it be under the ambit of a commission, I believe that my noble friend puts his finger on something that is profoundly important about the way in which the context of politics and government is changing. Without treading on anyone’s feet, I would certainly be interested to hear your Lordships’ opinion on that in a future debate.

Please could the noble Lord explain simply to a perplexed audience the relationship between Sir Peter Gross’s review of the Human Rights Act, the review by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, of administrative law and the constitution, democracy and human rights commission being discussed today?

My Lords, those are two separate workstreams as part of the constitutional reform consideration that we are undertaking. As my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said, we are eating the elephant in chunks. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act review is another part, so there are already three strands and they each deserve careful and individual attention.

Assuming that the commission will go ahead—although I am not absolutely sure, from what the Minister said, that it will—then, following up on what my noble friend Lady Quin and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham said, it will have public support only if it is truly independent. Will the Government commit that the commission, when it is appointed, will be independent and non-partisan and ensure that its members are not beholden either to the Government or indeed to any other special interest?

My Lords, I have said that the Government are delivering the commitment in the manifesto to look at the broader aspects of the constitution in a range of separate workstreams. Obviously, this and others to be announced in due course will all reflect what the noble Baroness has said and what I have said—indeed, that is the case for those reviews that have been set up already and the cross-party Joint Committee that is looking at the FTPA.

My Lords, I wish to repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Young, said in his opening question, which is that any constitutional reform needs to have broad-based support that inspires public confidence. How do the Conservative Party and its associated right-wing think tanks, eating the elephant in chunks and bending the conventions of the constitution in the way that it has in the last year, begin to deal with public alienation from politics and holding the union of Great Britain together?

I think that on reflection the noble Lord will think that he does a disservice to those serving on the Independent Review of Administrative Law, those reviewing under Sir Peter Gross the operation of the Human Rights Act and indeed Members of both Houses on the Joint Committee when he characterises them in that way.

My Lords, the broad and radical mandate of the proposed commission would indeed be better managed in bite sizes, as the Minister has suggested. Do Her Majesty’s Government have plans to expand the deliberative democracy initiatives that they have so far sponsored in Dudley, Cambridge and the Test Valley?

I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s support for the approach that I have outlined. On her specific question, I cannot give a commitment on that at the Dispatch Box now, but I will repeat what I have said to the House: other workstreams on constitutional review will be announced in due course.