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Constitutional Reform

Volume 820: debated on Monday 21 March 2022


Asked by

My Lords, the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill and the Elections Bill are in the advanced stages of their passage through Parliament. The Government have consulted on proposals to overhaul the Human Rights Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights. The Government also remain focused on working with devolved Administrations to make sure our system of devolution works effectively for all citizens.

I thank the Minister for that response, but may we take it from the absence of any reference to a presidential system that the suggestion made on 22 January by Mr Rees-Mogg on the “Newsnight” programme will not now be pursued? If so, does the Minister understand that that will come as a great relief since given the verbal damage caused by the Prime Minister over the weekend, think just how much he would cause were he the President.

My Lords, I think I answered on the first point a few weeks ago in the House. We do not have a presidential system in this country—thank God. We have a constitutional monarchy and our present monarch.

My Lords, when will the Government realise that the SNP is not interested in making devolution work effectively but only in the break up of Britain? Are the Government aware that in Scotland—on the right as well as the left—there is growing concern at improper expenditure by the Scottish Government on areas for which they have no responsibility, particularly in preparing for a referendum that no one wants? Why do the British Government not step in and make sure taxpayers’ money is spent properly?

My Lords, this is slightly outside my direct brief. Obviously, the Government’s intention is to work with the Administrations that we have and that is why we have pushed forward the work on intergovernmental relations, which has been welcomed in your Lordships’ House. As to the political comments of the noble Lord, I might well agree with some of the things he said. Certainly, a federal approach does not guarantee good government.

My Lords, have my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, had a chance to read the latest report from the Constitution Committee called Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st Century? I declare an interest as a member of that committee. The very positive message of that report was that with our very flexible, uncodified and evolving constitution, we can devise a far better and stronger United Kingdom, possibly more amenable to all the sensible views in Scotland, as well as the other devolved nations, in a way that does not involve getting into the deep quagmire of full constitutional reform, which could take years and achieve little.

Yes, my Lords, I think your Lordships’ Constitution Committee makes outstanding contributions to all thinking on constitutional matters. As I indicated in my previous answer, we are seeking approaches to always create good relations—as far as we can—between the different Administrations of these islands. That means good will, and every party has to show that good will.

My Lords, the measures that the Minister referred to were for the most part unilateral initiatives on the part of the Government. What has happened to the proposal in the Conservative Party manifesto—and of other parties—for a commission on the constitution, which would involve much wider consultation?

My Lords, I have indicated previously to your Lordships’ House that the Government are determined to take the various aspects of constitutional consideration forward; I gave the House examples of the different workstreams. I simply do not agree with the noble Lord that there is not cross-party agreement on certain things. For example, the removal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was agreed across the House and the principle of it was subject to very extensive consultation and examination.

My Lords, as the Minister is aware, there is currently a parliamentary by-election taking place in this House, the result of which is to be declared a week on Wednesday. I have the documents here: we now know that all nine candidates and all 46 voters are Conservatives. If the Minister was an election observer at this election, would he describe it as free and fair?

It is certainly a secret ballot. The noble Lord is well known in the House for his assiduous pressing of this point—he almost qualifies as the elder Cato on Carthage—but the system remains enacted by Parliament, and it will remain until Parliament decides otherwise.

My Lords, could the Minister tell us who is responsible as Minister for the Constitution? I looked it up this morning on the government website, and it said that Chloe Smith had been the Minister for the Constitution in 2020-21 but gave no successor. She was responsible to a Cabinet Minister, Michael Gove, who was then the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He is now, in whatever his department is called, also Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, and one of his junior Ministers, Kemi Badenoch, is handling the Elections Bill in the Commons, but I cannot quite see who is in charge of the constitution. Perhaps it is the noble Lord, Lord True, himself—in which case, I congratulate him. If so, to which Cabinet Minister does he think he is responsible for discussions and policy on constitutional matters?

My Lords, so far as the elements of constitutional policy that remain within the Cabinet Office, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is the responsible Cabinet Minister—and, yes, I report to him as Minister of State. Other aspects of the constitutional brief—for example, policy in relation to the union, elections and local government—lie with my right honourable friend Mr Michael Gove and DLUHC.

My Lords, will the Government carry out meaningful consultations with the devolved Governments to reduce conflict in dealing with such matters as the pandemic, and recognise the inadequacy of the Barnett formula for providing for Welsh finances?

My Lords, I repeat that we seek ongoing friendly and close relations with the devolved Administrations. Indeed, even in this regard, I know that the Secretary of State for Wales and the Minister for Levelling Up, the Union and Constitution met with the commission set up by the Welsh Government on constitutional matters. I can assure the noble and learned Lord that these contacts will continue.

My Lords, given that under the Barnett formula, Scotland receives very substantial amounts of taxpayers’ money from the rest of the United Kingdom, why are we not allowed to ask Questions in the Table Office about the huge losses—in ferries, airports and all kinds of weird and wonderful schemes—of hundreds of millions of pounds by the SNP Government? Why are they not accountable for taxpayers’ money in this House?

My Lords, I cannot answer that question: it is a matter of procedure. As to the Table Office, that is a matter for the House authorities. I agree with my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that the politics of the current Administration in Scotland leave a lot to be desired. It is notable that the Scottish nationalists do not send Members to your Lordships’ House, so we cannot hold them accountable in this Chamber, which is regrettable.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. That Act is a prime example of how, when legislation is made in haste, it creates more problems than it seeks to solve. Does the Minister accept that any further reform of, or changes to, the constitution would benefit from a period of pre-legislative scrutiny? That would at least have the benefit of fully examining both the intended and the unintended consequences.

My Lords, I certainly think that scrutiny, consideration and listening are important in our affairs—I gave the example of the Human Rights Act and its potential replacement, on which the Government have issued a consultation. Sometimes, it is an exaggeration to say that the Government do not listen or ask.