Lord True debates involving the Scotland Office during the 2019 Parliament

Thu 13th May 2021

Queen’s Speech

Lord True Excerpts
Thursday 13th May 2021

(1 year ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
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My Lords, it is a privilege as always to close another outstanding debate in the House of Lords, although, if noble Lords will allow me, I thought aspects of the personal attack on my right honourable friend the Prime Minister by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, in terms that would have been ruled out of order in the other place, would probably have been better suited to the Twittersphere than to your Lordships’ House.

Given the large numbers who have spoken, I will not be able to name all individually in responding, but I assure noble Lords that I and my noble and learned friend Lord Stewart—who, with consummate respect for the House, has sat right through the debate—have heard all the speeches individually and will reflect on them individually. Given the time available, I cannot accept the offer from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in his interesting speech to explain the term “democracy”. I have to say to him that I probably would not select the Chamber of the House of Lords as the obvious lecture theatre.

I was also amused that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, devoted two minutes and 28 seconds of his speech—on the basis of a rather questionable construal of the 1999 Act—to committing the Labour Party to an all-appointed House in perpetuity, as their future House of Lords. If that is the new Keir Starmer appeal to the nation, bring it on.

We have had differences in this debate, but I think what everyone has shared or would share is the admiration and delight in seeing Her Majesty once again grace our House this week so soon after her sad loss. The Crown is, and will remain, the keystone of our constitution and the literal embodiment of what, please God, we will always be able to call our United Kingdom. I will come directly to that United Kingdom about which so many noble Lords have spoken with such great passion and profound knowledge. We will study the speeches and all suggestions that have been made very carefully.

The people of these islands have, as people across the world have, faced sore trials these last 15 months under the scourge of Covid. Parliament has assented to measures without constitutional precedent in peacetime. We all hope we can now see a path back to normality in every sense, including the constitutional. Next week, this House will debate what part noble Lords—I hope—are ready to play in that. As we have come through this crisis through the genius of science, the heroism and dedication of so many, and the forbearance of all, we have done so better as one United Kingdom, deploying the pooled resources of our historic union.

The response has thrown into sharp relief the collective strength of that union. Our shared values, beliefs and interests are rooted in mutual respect, as my noble friends Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Norton of Louth and others have said. As we chart a sustainable recovery from Covid, the Prime Minister is determined to build back better from this pandemic in a way that levels up and brings every corner of the United Kingdom closer together.

Recovering from the worst public health emergency in over a century is not going to be quick or easy. We need to be remorselessly focused on getting people back into work, getting businesses back on their feet, getting hospital waiting lists down and helping our young people—our future—catch up on the education they have missed.

These are challenges the United Kingdom faces together, and must face together as a family of nations. I so agree with many noble Lords that our collective priority now should be on tackling them together, not stoking old divisions or restarting an all-consuming constitutional debate. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, and my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean made strong criticisms of the role in office of the SNP, and that is a legitimate attack. But during the pandemic there is no question but that we were stronger as one United Kingdom. We were able to do more together by drawing on the particular skills of great shared institutions such as the NHS, the Armed Forces and the Civil Service, the unique power of the UK Treasury to support families and businesses in need, and the scientists behind the world-leading vaccine programme that is helping to bring us out of lockdown.

Politicians have worked closely across the devolved Administrations—as we have heard is necessary from the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and others—in a spirit of collaboration and co-operation for the common good, and this Government remain committed to doing so. I therefore strongly agree with the remarks of my noble friend Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie in her splendid and perfectly modulated maiden speech about the spirit we now need. I give her the assurances she asked for. In fact already, since the elections, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has invited the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, and the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland, to a summit meeting in the coming weeks to address the shared challenges of recovery. Working together on that should surely be the priority for all. That was the sense I felt in your Lordships’ House today.

Some noble Lords spoke about one particular part of our union, Northern Ireland. This year, as my noble friend Lord Caine—a great unionist—reminded us, is the centenary of Northern Ireland, and therefore of the United Kingdom as we know it today.

The last time we had a State Opening of Parliament, the UK was still in the European Union. We are now constitutionally free of the EU and have exploited that freedom in the vaccine rollout. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, my noble friend Lord Lilley and others that we recognise the issues raised on the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol is a unique and delicately balanced solution to a unique and sensitive set of problems. To operate effectively and safeguard both the Belfast agreement and the progress of the past 23 years, about which the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, spoke so movingly, the protocol must be given effect in a pragmatic and proportionate way, as my noble friend Lord Frost reiterated this week.

That is why we are working through the structures of the withdrawal agreement to seek to resolve the outstanding issues. Discussions in recent weeks have begun to clarify those issues and some positive momentum has been established, although difficult issues remain. Our aim is to find common-sense risk-based approaches that enable us to agree a pragmatic way forward that substantially eases the burdens on Northern Ireland. This is how we will protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions, as the protocol itself requires. Of course, as we have set out publicly, if that does not prove possible, we will consider all our options in meeting our overriding responsibility for sustaining the peace and prosperity of everyone in Northern Ireland.

Now that the ratification of the TCA is complete, the first meetings of the TCA committees, including the Partnership Council, will be agreed with the EU. As co-chair of that council, my noble friend Lord Frost will update Parliament on those meetings. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, that we will work closely with the DAs, including on implementing the TCA where that involves matters of devolved competence.

The union is a living, breathing, political, cultural and economic success story, as many noble Lords have said. I think that, in their heart of hearts, the majority of people in every part of this kingdom know that to be true, and are proud both of what we have achieved together and of us as diverse nations. We are—indeed, I am—full of hope and ambition for our common future.

As my noble and learned friend Lord Stewart highlighted when he opened this debate, the Government were elected on a manifesto commitment—one made also by Her Majesty’s Opposition—to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. I express my own satisfaction in that; I hope that it will command support across the House. I think I understood that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, got there first with a Bill; I look forward to his support for the legislation as we take it through. The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will restore tried-and-tested constitutional arrangements that were in place long before the experiment of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which ended in such discord and confusion. The Bill will return us to the long-standing constitutional norm whereby the House of Commons can force an immediate election by withholding confidence and a Prime Minister can request a Dissolution of Parliament from the sovereign.

One effect of the Bill, which I respectfully suggest was not recognised fully by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, will therefore be that, even on the advice of the Prime Minister, a Dissolution will return power to the hands of the supreme authority in our democracy—the voting public—during critical moments for the country, preventing the kind of stalemates that we have seen lately in Parliament from paralysing democracy. Some have claimed that this will give an unfair advantage to an incumbent. However, 1951, 1974 and 2017 are just three examples that suggest otherwise; as I well remember, precious little was gained by clinging like limpets to the rocks in 1997 or, indeed, 2010.

The glory of our constitution, which has enabled extraordinary social change and progress peacefully, is its flexibility. As my noble friend Lord Horam reminded us, conventions play a great part in that; they operate effectively when they are commonly understood and there is tacit agreement that they should be respected irrespective of the political exigencies. This being the case, the Government outlined their understanding of the conventions that underpin Dissolution, again as part of their response to the valuable report of the Joint Committee so ably chaired by my noble friend Lord McLoughlin, that ensured that this Bill received comprehensive parliamentary scrutiny before it was introduced. Your Lordships will continue to have an important role to play in building consensus on conventions. I look forward to what will be fruitful discussions.

My noble friend Lord Young of Cookham and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, asked, as they are wont to do, about the commission on the constitution. As I have said before, work is being carried forward in a series of in-depth workstreams, one of which was the independent review of administrative law chaired by my noble friend Lord Faulks. The Government will bring forward legislation relating to judicial review; that legislation is intended to protect the judiciary from being drawn into political questions and to preserve the integrity of judicial review for its intended purpose. It honours a commitment that this Government made in their manifesto.

The independent review panel identified some areas where the balance of the way in which the rules currently operate should be looked at. The government consultation probed some further areas where that balance could be said to benefit from a fresh perspective. However, I take this opportunity today to reassure noble Lords that the Government are absolutely committed to upholding the rule of law, which means that the courts should be and will remain able to hold the Government to account in the manner set out by Parliament. The government consultation closed on 29 April, and my right honourable and learned friend the Lord Chancellor is currently considering the responses received and views expressed and, following that consideration, final decisions will be taken on which measures are suitable for inclusion in the Bill. Upholding the rule of the law will be central to those considerations.

Upholding the integrity and legitimacy of elections must also be among the prime concerns of any democratic Government. As stewards of the United Kingdom’s world-renowned democratic heritage, it is our responsibility to keep it in touch with modern times. I completely reject the conspiracy theories launched first in this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and taken up by others, which were rebuffed with brio by my noble friend Lord Hannan and with great measure by my noble friend Lord Empey. The measures that will be brought before Parliament are intended to ensure that our democracy remains secure, fair, modern and transparent. They have participation by British citizens at their heart and will maintain public confidence in our elections.

Public trust in the electoral system is critical. The elections Bill is aimed to reinforce the integrity of the system in the modern age. It addresses a very real potential for electoral fraud, preventing harvesting of postal votes and delivering on our manifesto commitment to extend to the rest of the UK the proven practice in Northern Ireland, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, told us, of a requirement for voter identification at the polling station.

We have heard claims today that asking voters to provide ID at polling stations would suppress votes and deny certain communities their democratic rights, and we reject that absolutely. It is not supported by the evidence. Yesterday we published the findings of a survey of 8,000 electors from across Great Britain, which found that 98% of people have a relevant form of identification document. When Labour in 2003 introduced the system in Northern Ireland, the then Minister said that if they believed that voters as a result of the measure would not be able to vote, they would not introduce it. They considered it rationally and introduced it.

The Government are absolutely clear that all those who are eligible to vote must and will be able to do so. The legislation will set out that a very wide range of identification will be accepted, even if it has expired, as long as the voter is still identifiable. There is no new national ID card, and I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that the Government have no intention to introduce one. In the limited cases where a voter does not possess such identification, councils will have a legal obligation to provide a free, local voter card.

We will continue to work with local authorities, the Electoral Commission and civil society organisations to ensure that we address any concerns and that these requirements are clearly communicated. That is vital. However, lack of identification opens up a clear opportunity for fraud in our system and that cannot be acceptable. Every person’s right to vote is theirs alone.

In securing our polls, we can also make them more inclusive. The Bill will therefore ensure that electors with disabilities can be better supported to exercise their right to vote. It will remove the arbitrary barrier to participation by overseas electors, removing the 15-year limit and making it easier for them to vote. It was not entirely clear to me from the opening of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, whether Labour is opposed to the principle of overseas voting. At times it sounded that way. The Bill will also make sure that the rising levels of intimidation we are seeing in public life do not deter candidates from participating in public life, by introducing measures to better protect against abuse.

We will protect the integrity of the democratic debate, increasing the transparency of political campaigning through the introduction of digital imprints.

A number of noble Lords spoke about the future role and place of the House of Lords. I have already praised the expert and invaluable role of this House as a revising Chamber. I hope there is broad agreement that our overriding goal is to offer clear and candid challenge and scrutiny rather than to obstruct. As was said, we are a House of revision, not of opposition.

It is important that the way this House is constituted continues to reflect that role and the primacy of the other place as the elected Chamber. Every Government draw their authority from their ability to command confidence in the other place, which itself holds primacy in our Parliament on the basis that it commands the confidence of the electorate, expressed at a general election.

We do not propose any reform of your Lordships’ House in this programme. The Government will not support any Bill that may come forward for piecemeal change this Session. We are committed in our manifesto to looking at the role of the Lords, but any reform needs careful consideration.

Some of your Lordships complain of the size of this House, although, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde reminded us, even with remote voting, Divisions do not reach the fabled 600. It pains me to stray on to a sensitive area but, given retirements and other departures —and indeed the age of many Members—some new Members are essential to maintain the customary expertise and vibrancy of the Lords.

Your Lordships have a vital role in scrutinising and revising legislation, while respecting, as this House must, the primacy of the other place and the conventions between the two Houses. Last Session, fresh from your Lordships’ struggles to obstruct Brexit, the House defeated an elected Government 96 times. As my noble friend Lord Strathclyde pointed out, this was, in a new Parliament’s first Session, bookended by stunning electoral mandates for my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. This was the largest number of defeats for 45 years, and more than all the defeats your Lordships inflicted on the entire Government of Gordon Brown. No doubt, this is a matter on which some may reflect beyond today’s debate.

Her Majesty’s gracious Speech paints a bright future for the whole of this United Kingdom, including proud parts of our country that have been too long taken for granted and ignored. Outside the European Union, having turned the corner on the pandemic and with the economy tipped to grow this year at the fastest rate since the war, the Government will be able to target money for investment where it is needed most, to create a better future for overlooked families and communities that were in danger of being left behind. Our duty to those who are or who feel left behind involves us all in this House, and here I profoundly agree with the moving speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Merron. She touched the spirit, which we should always seek to do.

Again, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I hope that in the Session to come we will all join in our common aim to create a safer, healthier United Kingdom for generations to come and to project our values—which so many millions of our citizens proudly affirm—around the world. I look forward to discussing these and other matters further with your Lordships in the weeks and months ahead.

Debate adjourned until Monday 17 May.