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Commons Scrutiny of Secretaries of State in the House of Lords

Volume 748: debated on Thursday 18 April 2024

Procedure Committee

Select Committee statement

We now move on to the Select Committee statement on behalf of the Procedure Committee. Dame Karen Bradley will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of the statement, I will call Members to ask questions on the subject of the statement. These should be brief questions, not speeches. I also emphasise that questions should be directed to the Select Committee Chair, not to the relevant Minister. Front Benchers therefore may take part in questioning.

I start by adding my own condolences to the many that have been expressed today to Mr Speaker and his family. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for finding time for this statement and pass my regards to the Chair of that Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns).

With permission, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s response to the Procedure Committee’s report on Commons scrutiny of Secretaries of State in the House of Lords, which was published yesterday. Following the appointment of the noble Lord Cameron as Foreign Secretary in November last year, Mr Speaker wrote to the Procedure Committee, asking us to examine how Secretaries of State who sit in the House of Lords could be scrutinised by this House. The Committee published its report on 23 January this year, and following its publication I made a similar statement to this House to explain our conclusions and recommendations. In that statement, I urged the Government to act quickly on the matter, given the strength of feeling across this House. The Government sent their response only after the House had risen for the Easter recess. It is for that reason that the Committee was unable to publish it until yesterday afternoon, once the Committee had met. Despite that, I hope all right hon. and hon. Members have now had the chance to read the Government’s response in full.

It is with regret that I make this statement to inform the House that the Government have rejected our recommendations. The reasons put forward by the Government for rejecting the recommendation that Lords Secretaries of State should be scrutinised by this House at the Bar of the House are that it is “untested” as a method for routine scrutiny, and that our recommendations would have “significant constitutional implications”. I am sorry to say that I find those arguments unconvincing. Our report was clear that while our recommendations may be novel in the modern era, they are not wholly untested. Moreover, our recommendations were limited to this Parliament to deal with issues that this House faces now, without setting a precedent for the future—we were very clear on that. I suggest that the Government have not made the case that our recommendations could have unforeseen constitutional implications, and have failed to adequately set out what they think such implications could be. The Committee is still of the view that the Government should agree to our recommendation to use the Bar of the House to allow questions to be put directly to the Foreign Secretary by all Members of this House.

In rejecting our recommendations, the Government suggested that there are sufficient mechanisms in place—scrutiny in the House of Lords and in Select Committees of both Houses, as well as responses by other Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Ministers to Members of this House at departmental questions, statements and urgent questions—to discharge the Foreign Secretary’s accountability to this House. Our report dealt with those points in detail. We were clear that we have great respect for the work that the House of Lords does in its scrutiny of the Government. Moreover, the Foreign Affairs and International Development Committees do excellent work holding the FCDO to account, as do other Committees in both Houses. However, their work complements and adds to the scrutiny that is undertaken in this Chamber; it is not, and cannot be, a substitute for that scrutiny. As we noted in our report, Select Committees and this Chamber have unique mandates, functions and purposes—they are not synonymous. The Government said nothing in their response to make us think again about this matter.

All Members of this House must have the ability to scrutinise FCDO policy by questioning the Foreign Secretary in this place. The alternative proceedings through which the Foreign Secretary has been, and will be, subject to scrutiny have the potential to exclude some Members of this House from being able to conduct effective scrutiny on behalf of their constituents. I suggest that this is an unacceptable state of affairs, and I respectfully submit that the Government’s response misses this key point entirely. Scrutiny by elected MPs on behalf of their constituents is a fundamental part of our modern democratic system, and while I welcome the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) to the position of Deputy Foreign Secretary earlier this week, the point still stands that the current arrangements do not allow all Members of this place to put their questions directly to the individual with ultimate responsibility for the work of the FCDO.

Lastly, the Government argue that our proposals risk undermining the constitutional balance between the two Houses. My Committee respectfully disagrees. Our report was clear that our recommendations were to enable scrutiny of Secretaries of State in the House of Lords at the Bar of the House of Commons, not to require it or to summon such individuals. We recognise and continue to respect the right of the other place to govern its own affairs. However, by rejecting our recommendation on scrutiny at the Bar of the House on this basis, the Government are putting the cart before the horse. They are using concerns about comity to pre-emptively exclude the possibility of even having discussions with the other place about how to facilitate the arrangements we have recommended. The Government’s refusal to engage with our recommendations in a meaningful way means that we will never know whether the other place would be willing to engage with us in facilitating such opportunities for scrutiny of Secretaries of State in the House of Lords. This is a regrettable situation for us to find ourselves in.

The Government response to our report is most disappointing. It ignores the genuine concerns of many Members of this House that the holder of one of the highest offices in the land, the Foreign Secretary, is unable to be scrutinised by all the Members of this House. It does so at a time of increased international uncertainty, when the lives of many of our constituents are directly affected by crises abroad, for which the Foreign Secretary holds ultimate ministerial responsibility. The Government response misreads the mood of the House on this matter and undermines the principle of accountability of Ministers to this democratically elected House. I urge the Government to think again on our recommendations and to revisit this matter urgently.

I thank the right hon. Lady. We will now take questions to the Chair of the Select Committee, and I call the shadow Leader of the House.

I thank the Chair and all members of her Committee for their diligent work, which was carried out in good faith in the expectation that their recommendations would be taken forward. Does she agree with me that there is wide support across this House—cross-party support—for her recommendations, and that the Government have misread the mood of the House? What plans does she have for the House to express its view on her Committee’s report and perhaps to take forward its recommendations, despite the Government’s response to them?

I thank the shadow Leader of the House for her question. She is correct that we as a Committee took evidence from all Members of this House. We listened to representations and we conducted an all-Member survey. It was very clear from those responses that there was a desire to ensure there were opportunities for proper scrutiny by Members of this House of the Foreign Secretary. We are not as a Committee proposing to do any further work on this matter. As I said in my statement, I urge the Government to rethink their response and perhaps come forward with some other suggestions.

I thank the Chair for her statement. Was it not predictable that this was going to be the Government’s response? As I said in the Adjournment debate I had on this topic just before Easter, if the Government had wanted to make arrangements for the Foreign Secretary to appear at the Bar of the House or be otherwise scrutinised by the House as a whole, they could have brought forward such provisions without any reference to the Procedure Committee. That also applies to the point made earlier about Opposition days. The Government can at any time bring forward recommendations and changes to Standing Orders. Would it not make more sense if the Government presented us as a Committee with their recommendations, which we could scrutinise, rather than asking us to come up with recommendations that they then reject out of hand?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is a fellow member of the Committee, for his question. I think he is reflecting the sense of frustration that was felt in the Committee when we met yesterday afternoon. It is in the Government’s gift to change any matters they wish to change. They control the Order Paper and can make such decisions. As a Committee, we stand ready to scrutinise and to be consulted on proposed changes. However, it is often helpful if the Government give us some indication of the changes they may want, so that we can at least spend our time productively in giving advice on those recommendations, rather than see our recommendations rejected out of hand.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement and for her work as Chair of the Committee. She mentioned the announcement this week that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) has been appointed Deputy Foreign Secretary, and she will also know that the Foreign Secretary has specific responsibilities for oversight of MI6. He or she appears before the Intelligence and Security Committee, which I sit on, and obviously the nature of some of those issues cannot be discussed publicly. Does the right hon. Lady have any information on whether the remit of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has been changed so that he can reply to non-secure questions that Members might have, for example on the operation of MI6?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The appointment of a Deputy Foreign Secretary is what happened in the past—there is precedent for that, for example when Lord Carrington was Foreign Secretary and in previous times. It is something that we had been keen to see, because it means that the House has more opportunities to scrutinise a senior member of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office team. I am afraid I do not have sight of the changes that may have been made to the portfolio of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, and perhaps that is something that the Leader of the House, who is in her place and listening intently, could inform the Committee about at some point.

In principle, no one should be in government who cannot be scrutinised in the elected Chamber representing the people of this country. That is the principle that all Governments should apply, and I do not think that this appointment should have taken place until that issue was sorted out. Is there a view from the Foreign Secretary himself, Lord Cameron, on whether he should be here answering questions in this Chamber?

The Chair of the Committee has, in the view of the Liberal Democrats, done great work on trying to bring the noble Lord Cameron to the Bar of the House. She is right to say that the last time one of the four great offices of state was occupied by a Member of the other place was 1982. Lord Carrington resigned from the role of Foreign Secretary after Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. He did so partly because Back Benchers in the House of Commons had been warning about that possibility, and there was a feeling that the Foreign Office had not heeded their warnings under Lord Carrington. Given that the UK’s relations with some of it adversaries are as tense as they have been since the early 1980s, does the right hon. Lady think that the noble Lord Cameron might want to avert such an outcome by answering questions at the Bar of the House?

The Committee considered all the points carefully, and looked at the evidence and at precedent. That is why we came to the conclusion that the Bar of the House was the right place for scrutiny of Secretaries of State in the House of Lords. We were keen to ensure that proper scrutiny could be done by this place, because we as elected representatives will often reflect what our constituents are telling us and what we are seeing on the ground in a way that no other body in this place can do. Members of the other place do extremely good work in scrutinising the Government, but without constituents they are perhaps not able to reflect what we hear from people on the ground. Likewise, members of Select Committees do not generally ask constituency-based questions in their work; they tend to ask questions on a theme or on the overall topics of the day. We have that unique role in this place, and that is why we were keen to ensure that there could be some form of scrutiny. We are disappointed that the Government have rejected that.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the work she does on the Committee, and for being so mild-mannered in reporting to the House today the feelings of the Procedure Committee. Does she accept that there is strong anger on the Committee, not so much about the response from the Government—we expected that they might reject our recommendations—but about the nature of that rejection, and the failure to answer any of the points or put forward any detailed justifications for rejecting our recommendations? Does she agree that it almost makes us members of the Committee feel that we are held in contempt by the Leader of the House?

I feel that my hon. Friend has made his points effectively, and I thank the Clerks of the Committee for helping me perhaps to tone down the response, based on the Committee meetings we have had. There was also real concern that we did not receive the response before the House rose for the Easter recess, during which we were all focused on our constituencies and not necessarily in Westminster. The need to bring Committee members together and for the Committee to be quorate meant that we were unable to report the response until yesterday. That is another matter of great concern to the Committee.

I thank the Chair of the Committee, and the Committee for their excellent work on this piece. I am a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, representing a diverse constituency with many diaspora communities from countries that rarely get much of a hearing in this place, such as Sudan, Bosnia and Kurdistan. Does the right hon. Lady share my concern that whereas the Secretary of State is an experienced statesperson with knowledge of the different areas across the Foreign Office, having more junior Ministers represent the Department here means that they do not have that expertise across the piece? It is right that all Members of this place are able to question him accordingly.

I think that all Ministers in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office are exemplary and carry out their roles with distinction. The hon. Lady is correct to say that the Secretary of State has a unique role in any Department, and they have the overarching view. That is why Select Committees call in the Secretary of State at least three times a year for an overarching evidence session on all the work of a Department. I am a great fan of the noble Lord Cameron and delighted that he is in his role. I think he represent the United Kingdom superbly, and I would love the opportunity to see him at the Bar of the House. It would be incredible to see him, because he would answer questions thoroughly and rigorously, and we as Members of Parliament would take much from those sessions back to our constituents.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The seriousness of what we have just heard from the Chair of the Procedure Committee cannot be understated. The world is more divided and dangerous than at any moment I can remember in my 24 years in Parliament. We have war in Ukraine, war in the middle east, and an increasingly assertive China. Last night the Government effectively rejected the Procedure Committee’s recommendation for the Foreign Secretary to take questions from this House, and it is untenable that in this time of disorder, the Foreign Secretary—a great office of state for a reason—refuses to be accountable to this House.

My party thought that having a Foreign Secretary in the Lords was absurd 100 years ago in the days of Lord Curzon, and the appointment of the first ever Deputy Foreign Secretary this week is an unconstitutional sop. We have not needed it in 223 years of this Parliament, and he is not the man who meets the Foreign Secretaries of Israel, of our Arab partners, or of the United States. He simply does not have the accountability of the Foreign Secretary. Given what we have heard, and given the strength of feeling across this House, what now to get the Foreign Secretary to take questions from Members of Parliament at this most dangerous of geopolitical moments?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the point of order and for giving notice of it, but he has heard the statement and the exchanges on the Select Committee report, including the responses by the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Dame Karen Bradley), and I am afraid that there is nothing I can add to them from the Chair. I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement and for answering seven questions.