Parliamentary Democracy in the United Kingdom - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords am 7:39 pm ar 25 Ebrill 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 7:39, 25 Ebrill 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the strength of parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, I am delighted to see so many noble Lords keen to talk about parliamentary democracy; it is absolutely wonderful. I hope I will not shock them too much when I say that we do not really have democracy in this country any more. I extend a welcome to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield, who I think I met in a former existence. It is good to see him here. I hope he will have more than two minutes to make his maiden speech.

I am going to argue that we have a failing democracy. It is exemplified by an Executive who are taking on the powers of Parliament to make, delete and even change laws. It is a power grab that will undoubtedly backfire when Labour comes into government. At the moment, we are seeing a Bill go through—the strikes Bill, which we will debate on Report tomorrow—that is hyper-skeletal and gives sweeping powers to the Minister. I find that quite shocking. In 1929, Lord Hewart, the Lord Chief Justice, warned of the Executive taking on oppressive power through the use of delegated legislation

“to subordinate Parliament, to evade the Courts, and to render the will, or the caprice, of the Executive unfettered and supreme”.

A few years later, we saw what that led to in 1930s Germany as a party gained power in an election and then destroyed all the democratic and social institutions that held it in check. We saw a ruling party—a populist party—stir up hatred of foreigners and minorities in a cynical but successful attempt to gain and keep power by fomenting divisions. A security expert recently highlighted the blacklisting from government events by the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, of any experts on any subject if they are critical of the Government. This country has proud, wonderful traditions of freedom and fairness but I am afraid that, as he so often is, Gary Lineker is right: we are on a downward track.

The local elections are important for local democracy but, this time round, they are absolutely vital for our national democracy as well. They give electors a chance to warn a corrupt, far-right Government that they have gone too far; their undemocratic will asserting itself is a disaster for Britain. That same Government are using voter ID to suppress the vote, with older people like us able to use our railcard as ID but not younger people. If there is chaos at the local elections, with thousands of voters turned away or long queues putting others off of voting, that will make many question the validity of the results.

Such voter suppression is common in America; it is definitely an import from there. It is used regularly to gerrymander results by those in power who want to stay in power for ever. If there is chaos, delays or dips in turnout at these local elections, the Government will have two choices. They can be honourable and abandon voter ID before the general election, or they can risk destroying what is left of our democratic system. I should say that I will not let the Labour Party off the hook when it becomes the Government, either.

We need proportional representation. We need an elected second Chamber and we need to stop money controlling government policy. The Australians realised that, to save their democracy, they needed an anti-corruption commission; we should do exactly the same. The PPE fast-track contracts? Investigate. The millions of pounds in donations from the fossil fuel industry? Investigate. The ministerial meetings with United States healthcare providers? Investigate. I have not got time to list all the scandals, dodgy deals and Tufton Street connections that would be the bread and butter of any corruption commission. It would take years to go through all of them—I hope that, ultimately, the offenders will go to prison—but it might make MPs think more about their constituents and less about their bank accounts.

Proportional representation could be the foundation of a renewed democracy. It is what the public support in opinion polls and it is what the Labour membership supports at its conference. Please do not talk about first past the post leading to strong and stable government. That is absolute nonsense—we have had three Prime Ministers in the past three years. The problem is that we have had 13 years of the same party in government, which has created a climate where corruption and sleaze are rife. There is no stability or strength when a ruling party with a massive majority has a permanent crisis of allegations involving bullying, sex scandals, cash for questions, PPE contracts and the drawn-out saga of partygate. We now have high interest rates, high food prices and high energy prices. The only thing that is not going up is wages.

I agree with my Labour colleagues that any democracy that works will punish such failure and result in a change of government at the next election, but I would also argue that no healthy democracy would have allowed this messy mix of incompetence and far-right ideology to have dragged us into such an economic and moral sewer. No healthy democracy would allow privatised water companies to give shareholders £52 billion over recent decades while allowing sewage to be pumped into our rivers and coastal waters on an industrial scale; of course, only this afternoon, the other place again voted to allow this to continue. No healthy democracy would allow billions in fraud to be written off with a shrug of the shoulders, which is basically what has happened here. No healthy democracy would allow 13 years of food banks and child poverty to become normal, while the number of billionaires has more than trebled.

A change of party in a failing democracy will not do what we hope it will do. I do not want ever to live through another period of double austerity, social division and environmental damage. I do not for one moment claim that proportional representation is the solution to all our problems, but it might at least allow solutions to emerge.

Finally, I want to run through what I see as the real problems with our democracy at the moment. A democracy is failing when those who support the opposition are discouraged from voting; when protests that are noisy and get noticed get banned; when strikes are also banned; when police spies have legal immunity when infiltrating campaign groups; when the people who oversee the running of elections lose their independence; when international law and treaty commitments are disregarded; when human rights protections and the courts’ ability to question the Executive’s decisions are diluted; when lawyers and judges are declared the enemy within; when corruption is rife and legitimised; when there is one rule for those partying at the top and another rule for us at the bottom; when money buys access, which gets you the contracts, licences and regulations you desire; and when the national broadcaster is run by friends of the ruling party and the independent media is mostly owned by foreign billionaires. This is not a democracy. This is not a country we can be proud of any more. Our traditions have been scrapped, and this Government are responsible for that. I would argue that, at the moment, the strength of parliamentary democracy in the UK is absolutely zero.

Let me say also that I find it offensive when noble Lords opposite sit and chat while I am speaking; it is unnecessary for them to giggle from the Back Benches when they disagree with me. Be brave: stand up and say something in the debate.

Photo of Lord Davies of Gower Lord Davies of Gower Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, may I politely remind the House that the speaking limit for this debate is two minutes? We have one hour and we must accommodate both the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield’s maiden speech and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, afterwards. I ask speakers to adhere to two minutes, please.

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 7:48, 25 Ebrill 2023

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for giving us an opportunity to speak on this important subject, even if I do not, I am afraid, recognise her bleak and at times rather fantastic and comic picture of what is going on in this country at the moment. I also look forward to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield’s maiden speech.

In the short time I have, I want to take a step back. As a concept, modern parliamentary democracy is linked to the concept of the nation state. They rose together. We saw the growth of democracies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then again after 1990 as peoples found their independence and wanted to give it institutional form. So, although plenty of nation states are not democracies, there are, I think, no democracies that are not also nation states. That is not surprising. The nation state allows for the creation of a common demos, common loyalties and the readiness to settle political differences within an agreed set of rules.

It follows from this that, when the nation state weakens, confidence in democracy weakens. That is just what we saw in this country over the past nearly 50 years during our membership of the EU. Then, we were in practice only a limited democracy. Fewer and fewer issues could be settled in national elections. Policies on trade, agriculture, fisheries, the environment, employment, social issues, migration and citizens’ rights could be changed only by agreement in Brussels, whatever our national electorate said.

It is no wonder that people switched off and stopped believing that voting could change everything. Luckily, we have now escaped that, or at least, 95% of us have escaped that, since the Windsor Framework unfortunately preserves some of these weaknesses—I hope not for too long. Overall, we have brought politics back home. We have revived political life. We can debate and change everything again in this country. Of course, many people clearly are uncomfortable with that, and it sounds like the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, may be one of them. They call it populism when a democracy reflects citizens’ actual views but for me, it is a strength. Our democracy is healing. Politics is coming back to life.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Llafur 7:50, 25 Ebrill 2023

My Lords, after 44 years in Westminster, do I believe that UK parliamentary democracy has been strengthened? On the contrary: I believe it has been weakened. What is my measure? General election turnouts, which are a good measure of confidence. The turnout was 77% in 1992 and 67% in the last election. Why the 10% decline?

There are two explanations: the conduct of a few in Westminster’s political class; and the internet, which has hugely increased transparency across the political divide. What has it revealed? First, a breakdown in our criminal justice system, with escalating street and online crime, to which the Government’s response is just more cuts. Secondly, the shift in policy towards the personal funding of hitherto public service provision, breeding inequality while penalising the poor. Thirdly, the state’s ruthless indifference to the scandal of housing policy, which through managed scarcity enriches property owners and exploits those who rent. Finally, government indifference to the income greed of a few, whose settlements insult the intelligence of a hard-working majority living in the real world of deprivation and struggling to survive.

It is against that background that the public increasingly shun the polling booth. I predict that when the scandalous gerrymandering of the electoral system through individual registration is fully exposed, there will be an angry outcry from an alienated, disfranchised public.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 7:52, 25 Ebrill 2023

My Lords, it is not without irony when this Chamber discusses our democracy. Many people recognise that we often do a very good job here, a much better job than the Commons, of scrutinising legislation. There, MPs are hardly given the time to look at most of it. A second Chamber is therefore needed. However, when we ask MPs to think again, our carefully considered views are too often ignored by government and the overpowerful executive branch imposes its will on MPs.

The preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 promised that we would move from membership here being based on the hereditary principle to the popular principle. We are still waiting for that reform 112 years later, although the coalition Government made a brave attempt at it, winning support from MPs by a majority of 462 to 124 for the Second Reading of a Bill which, if enacted, would by now have meant at least two rounds of elections for Members of this place. This failure came despite commitment to reform having been included in all three main UK parties’ manifestos at the previous general election.

As the parties now prepare their next manifestos, I hope they will pledge to stop the process of electing more hereditary peers, make the recommendations of the House of Lords Appointments Commission binding and spell out their proposals for proper reform here. The House of Lords Reform Bill 2012 would not be a bad start. The manifestos should also include proposals to ensure that we have an electoral system which means that when people vote in a general election, they get the MPs they vote for. Just 43% of those who voted in 2019 gave the Conservative Party an 80-seat majority. A more representative Parliament would have prevented much of what has gone wrong since then.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Ceidwadwyr 7:54, 25 Ebrill 2023

My Lords, in 2019 I thought that our parliamentary democracy was doomed. The majority in each House of Parliament seem resolved to frustrate the will of the British people as expressed in the Brexit referendum. Both Houses found devious ways to undermine the Executive and sought to impede our exit from the EU. It was a very unhappy experience.

All of this was exacerbated by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, itself an unhappy reminder that coalition Governments breed bad legislation. Parliament eventually remembered that the people are the most important part of any democratic system. It allowed a general election, and the great British electorate told us what they thought. They elected my party with a majority to get Brexit done, and we did it. We then expunged the Fixed-term Parliaments Act from the statute book. Parliamentary democracy has been rescued.

That does not mean that there are no problems, but they are not the ones analysed by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. Two minutes does not allow me to critique the noble Baroness’s speech or to list the challenges that I see, so I shall conclude my remarks with just one observation. Your Lordships’ House is well on the way to reinventing itself as a House of opposition to the elected Government. We may become the weak link in our parliamentary democracy, and that will not end well for your Lordships’ House.

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Ceidwadwyr 7:56, 25 Ebrill 2023

My Lords, I shall focus on trust. Public trust in government is low and getting lower. The survey evidence is that the distrust is not in the institutional structures but in the people who inhabit those structures. A survey by Ipsos MORI in February found that lack of faith in politics, politicians and Governments ranked fourth in response to the question, “What do you see as the most important issue facing Britain?” A survey last summer by YouGov found that when offered a list of 18 options in response to the question, “How much better or worse would democracy in the UK work if …”, the most popular option for working better was if politicians spoke more honestly. A total of 81% answered that it would work a lot or a bit better. Constitutional change in the form of structures and processes came in notably lower, all figuring in the latter half of the list. Fewer than 50% of respondents thought that democracy would work better if the House of Lords was replaced by an elected Chamber. The problem is not structures; it is behaviour.

I make one other related point following the resignation of Dominic Raab. The coverage of it misses the point that the conduct involved was a symptom of a systemic problem with government. In September 2021 I initiated a debate in your Lordships’ House on the need for Ministers and senior civil servants to be trained in core leadership skills. Until there is such training, there will continue to be problems with the capacity of Ministers and officials to deliver good government. Does my noble friend the Minister, who took part in that debate, not agree?

Photo of Baroness Pidding Baroness Pidding Ceidwadwyr 7:58, 25 Ebrill 2023

My Lords, I am proud of this country’s parliamentary democracy. We only have to look a few hours’ flight away from London to find countries such as Russia and Belarus that are denied the rights and freedoms we have, which stemmed from the historic signing of Magna Carta over 800 years ago. Over the years our parliamentary democracy has developed in a powerful way, and individual communities have been able to make their voices heard. Causes that were once seen as niche interests are now settled public policy, because of Back-Benchers sent to Parliament by our democratic systems.

I will give two examples. The campaigner William Wilberforce was laughed at and mocked, at first, before he succeeded in bringing about the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. In more recent times, the securing of equal rights and equal marriage was once a lonely fight confined to a group of fringe MPs, but it is now seen as a basic human right. These different cases both show the power of our parliamentary democracy in providing a platform to campaign about, debate and force social and political change.

However, to continue to strengthen our parliamentary democracy, it is beholden on all our political parties to do two things. First, they must increase engagement with young people to show them that there is a role for them to play in our democracy, make politics relevant to them and dispel apathy. Secondly, they must encourage and nurture talent from every corner and community of the UK, making it easier for those with the ability but who lack the encouragement to enter politics. Much progress has been made over the years, but there is much more that we must do.

Photo of Lord Jackson of Peterborough Lord Jackson of Peterborough Ceidwadwyr 8:00, 25 Ebrill 2023

My Lords, I welcome this timely debate, notwithstanding the hyperbole of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. It gives us the opportunity to put forward some practical alternatives.

We have much to learn from the United States. Woodrow Wilson said:

“Quite as important as legislation is vigilant oversight of administration”.

We could take a leaf out of the book of the Committee on Oversight and Reform of the US House of Representatives, with its subpoena powers, substantial administrative heft and sector expertise. Speaker Bercow’s 2010 reforms in the other place made some much-needed progress on the Select Committee model that had existed since 1979, but it is still work in progress. A powerful robust ways and means committee would certainly add to the effectiveness of parliamentary oversight.

HM Treasury is too powerful and stifles innovation and independent thinking across departments. Surely the Northcote-Trevelyan paradigm from the mid-1800s is defunct, as we have seen in the recent contentious cases of Dominic Raab and Sue Gray. The case for a permanent Civil Service is receding and is less compelling than it has ever been. As a former special adviser, I would argue more generally that the bureaucratic impasse of write-rounds and public consultation is inimical to expeditious legislation and governance.

I believe in the bicameral model of Parliament, but this House also needs reform. We need to look at the size of the House and at those who do not regularly attend, and we need to look at the role of the Bishops in this place—notwithstanding the position of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield, who is about to make his maiden speech.

Finally, the judiciary too cannot be immune from the imperative for openness and transparency. Self-selection and lack of transparency reduce accountability and public trust. We need confirmation hearings for senior departmental, executive and judicial appointments across both Houses, via a Joint Committee. This should be debated soon. In short, there is much work to do.

Photo of Lord Davies of Gower Lord Davies of Gower Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we seem to have gone out of sequence, so my noble friend Lord Hannan will now speak where my noble friend Lord Jackson would have spoken.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Llafur 8:03, 25 Ebrill 2023

Well, that ruined my opening line, which was going to be to congratulate the Member who had just spoken before me with “It’s a pleasure to disagree”, but never mind. It is customary to congratulate the Member who secured the debate, but I really want to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, who has performed a very useful service to the House as a whole.

I look forward to the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate. This is an interesting debate in which to give a maiden speech. When I saw this debate on the Order Paper, I thought three things. First, I thought, “What a good debate to have”. I think the House should have debates like this, from time to time, to take the temperature of things and assess where we are.

Secondly, I thought that this debate would attract so many speakers that we would have hardly any time to say anything, which has proved to be the case. I am afraid that this is what might be called a soundbite debate and I am sorry about that; we need more time.

Thirdly, I thought about how we are having this debate in the run-up to the Coronation, which is a rare event when attention naturally falls upon the monarch. It is a timely moment to remind ourselves that we are indeed supposed to be a parliamentary democracy. But what does that mean? Historically, it means that powers that have for centuries been exercised by the monarch are now exercised by the Prime Minister, but how accountable is she or he for that? I hope I will be forgiven if I upset any Members opposite but we have seen, for example, the exercise of what one might call the normal power of Prorogation as a highly political act of some consequence.

Then there are defects in the legislative process: there are too many skeleton Bills, which can reduce Parliament to a rubber stamp, and too many mega-Bills, such as the enormous Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Everyone knows that this House deals with legislation more successfully than the other place. There are balance of power Bills, which, I would argue, restrict and change the individual right of citizens. Of course, we sit far longer than the other place. There is also the question of the future of the Chamber. The light is already flashing. It is no secret that the Opposition have a plan for this House after the next election, but we will have to see what that is.

I end by saying that I know what the Minister is going to say. I rather wish that we could have a debate when she speaks first and then we comment on what the Government have said. Although this is a very short debate and I am about to sit down, I venture to suggest that today’s Hansard may be a slim volume, but it would be worth having.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Ceidwadwyr 8:06, 25 Ebrill 2023

My Lords, one can say very little in two minutes, so I will concentrate on one subject. I spent a long time in another legislature in another country. One of the conclusions that I drew 30 years ago, which is still with me, is that our electoral system is fundamentally unfair. You cannot talk about parliamentary democracy when you deny large numbers of people representation in Parliament. For many years, I have been a strong supporter of PR. When one talks about strong government, one should think also about stable government; the German, Swedish and Dutch systems have brought forward very sound Governments.

I think the Labour Party—as many in it probably think—would be far better off if Jeremy Corbyn was in an ultra-left party, as exists in most European countries. The House of Commons would be much stronger if the Green Party had a representation that came somewhere near its votes. I also think that Nigel Farage clearly has a following that is worthy of representation. You cannot talk about the strength of parliamentary democracy when you deny so many people a vote and a say in the way that the country is governed. I have believed that for many years and still believe it now.

There is a myth about strong government. We have a strong Government now, but look at some of the things that they have done. I am unhappy with them and I am on their side. God knows what other people think about them. I ask that we give serious consideration to electoral reform as the basis of a strong parliamentary democracy.

Photo of Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Ceidwadwyr 8:08, 25 Ebrill 2023

My Lords, I welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield. He brings to an implausible nine the number of alumni of Oriel College, Oxford. I say “implausible” because, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, will agree, it was a rather philistine place, yet it is punching rather above its weight at this end.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for broadening and enlivening the breadth and nature of our debates. She knows how fond I am of her and how fond my children are of her delicious homemade jam. I agree with much of what she said about the overmighty Executive. I do not dissent from that by one iota, but I urge her not to catastrophise and to be careful about the language that we use in this legislature. If you have disagreements with this Government, it does not follow that they are a moral sewer comparable to 1930s Germany. Using language of that kind can imperil the very democracy which we are debating, because democracy depends on a measure of self-restraint. It depends on losers being prepared to accept the outcome and on winners being prepared not to take a winner-takes-all attitude. Above all, democracy depends on treating the other side as opponents rather than enemies and accepting that people with whom we disagree might still have one or two useful things to tell us. We have to give a lead.

Let me give the example of how quickly we descend to cancel culture and destroy people over one slip or one clumsy phrase. I will aim this more at people on these Benches. Thinking of cases such as Rupa Huq’s unfortunate comments about Kwasi Kwarteng, Gary Lineker on 1930s Germany or, most recently, Diane Abbott’s asinine remarks about whether Jews could suffer from racism, I ask, without defending any of those things: is it not better to live in a world where we have second chances, where there is the possibility of atonement and forgiveness?

“Use every man according to his desert and who should ‘scape whipping?”

If your Lordships’ response is that the other side started it: maybe so. But me? I am more interested in ending it.

Photo of Lord Shinkwin Lord Shinkwin Ceidwadwyr 8:10, 25 Ebrill 2023

My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for securing this debate. It is a pleasure to follow my old noble friend Lord Hannan and precede the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield. Having witnessed at first hand his practical commitment to democracy in the way he chairs the Council of Christians and Jews, I have no doubt that his contributions will strengthen your Lordships’ House.

We all know that democracy is not perfect, but it is the best imperfection we have as a bulwark against the wave of totalitarianism once again destabilising the world and causing chaos, as the current situation in Sudan demonstrates. Closer to home, I hope that when making an assessment of the strength of parliamentary democracy, my noble friend the Minister will consider how inclusive and representative our Parliament is of the diversity of the UK population, particularly with regard to the more than 14 million who have a disability. I commend my noble friend the Minister on her personal commitment to getting more disabled people into public appointments.

With little more than 1% of your Lordships’ House having long-term lived experience of disability, I suggest that all party leaders need to follow the Minister’s example and commit to addressing this damaging deficit of lived experience by sending, on merit, more disabled people to this House. I hope this call is something that all noble Lords can support as an opportunity for us to own reform of your Lordships’ House and so strengthen the vital contribution we make to robust and rigorous parliamentary scrutiny and debate.

Photo of The Bishop of Lichfield The Bishop of Lichfield Bishop 8:13, 25 Ebrill 2023

My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak in this House for the first time. I promise that I will be brief. I thank all noble Lords for their warm welcome and all the parliamentary staff and officers for their kindness and patience in explaining to me the procedures, traditions and geography of this extraordinary place.

Throughout my ministry I have had the joy of living and working in places of cheerful diversity—in Leicester, in south London and now in the West Midlands—and it is in the context of a diverse society that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has rightly asked this Question about the strength of our parliamentary democracy.

In 2010 the late Pope, His Holiness Benedict XVI, spoke about parliamentary democracy in an address here in Westminster. He pointed out that democracy is a process rather than a value in itself—a process whose vitality depends on its being open to people who are guided by the values and commitments that inform their conscience. He asked the question,

“where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?”.

We might all answer that question in different ways, but we can all recognise its importance for the strength of our democracy. For many of us, the answer to the Pope’s question will be found in the faiths and beliefs we hold dear. Our parliamentary democracy has grown out of deep roots in the Christian tradition, as we are reminded at the start of every sitting in this Chamber, when we begin our business with prayer.

For our democracy to remain strong, we must recognise that many people, individuals and communities alike, are motivated by values that are given them by their faith or belief; that they need assurance that their freedom to practise and express their faith or belief is not under threat; and that differences between and within faiths in our society are not a problem or cause of anxiety. To these principles the Church of England is resolutely committed. Church of England parishes cover the whole nation of England, and our clergy and people often find themselves building strong friendships with people of different faiths in their neighbourhoods.

In my own diocese, for example, we have churches twinned with mosques in Walsall and Wolverhampton. During the pandemic, leaders of different faiths came together for online programmes to combat vaccine hesitancy. Over the last winter, people of all faiths and none have together been organising warm spaces and places of welcome. Examples like these could be multiplied across the country; faith or belief gives people values to motivate their civic involvement, and that strengthens our democracy.

As the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, reminded us, in 10 days our King will be crowned in a joyful service that will both be deeply Christian and deeply honour people of different faiths. In a speech soon after his accession, the King said:

“The beliefs that flourish in, and contribute to, our richly diverse society differ. They, and our society, can only thrive through a clear collective commitment to those vital principles of freedom of conscience, generosity of spirit and care for others which are, to me, the essence of our nationhood”.

Such a commitment in our diverse society can only strengthen our parliamentary democracy.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 8:17, 25 Ebrill 2023

My Lords, I am very happy to welcome the right reverend Prelate to this House. He comes from an interesting background. Apart from being a priest in the south of England, Leicester and Staffordshire, he has also worked in Japan. He was involved in setting up the national Christian Muslim Forum and now chairs the Council of Christians and Jews. I gather he is also one of the Church of England’s team of bishops for prisons. That is a good range of expertise from which to speak with authority in this House. We look forward to that, and to him, as with his colleagues, bringing his diocesan perspective to this sometimes rather overly metropolitan House.

Anyone who has read Anthony Seldon’s account of the Johnson Government in the Times in recent days must doubt whether parliamentary democracy has been saved or strengthened since 2019. We should all be worried by the quality of democratic government in the UK and the damage that has been done to its conventions. The events in Washington two years ago have shown how delicate commitment to constitutional democracy can be.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Norton, I worry about the depth of public disillusion in the UK about democratic politics, above all about Westminster and how it operates. I worry even more about the depth of disillusion among the young, few of whom now vote, let alone join political parties, and turn to the streets instead to campaign.

I worry about ministerial attacks on the rule of law—that essential part of democracy. I worry about the colonisation of the Conservative Party by US Republicans, national conservatives and Christian nationalists, with their well-funded organisations, dragging the Conservatives towards an illiberal authoritarianism. I worry that the noble Lord, Lord Frost, has become more of a national conservative than a Conservative, although I am happy that the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, seems to have resisted some of that tendency.

I worry about the creeping spread of conspiracy theories, which inspire and energise anti-democratic fantasists, of allegations about a hidden deep state or a controlling liberal elite. I worry about the willingness of our right-wing media to help spread such theories. I worry about the fringe of right-wing extremists, fired up by social media, who talk about violence, some of whom, sadly, have gone on to kill politicians.

I worry about what would happen if we had a change of Government who then failed to change the way British politics works, leaving at the following election the only effective alternative: a Conservative Party that had drifted further to the right. None of us should be complacent about the strength of our constitution or democracy. We need more than a change of Government; we need a change of political culture and structure.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 8:20, 25 Ebrill 2023

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for bringing forward this brief but fascinating debate, and congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield on his excellent speech. I offer him our warmest welcome to the House.

One of Parliament’s greatest strengths has always been its evolution and ability to adapt. Given the recent decline of faith in politics that we have heard about, now more than ever we need to consider how our democracy can be reformed.

Britain is one of the most centralised states in Europe. That is one of the reasons why Labour has committed to undertake a rebalancing of power, providing a framework and process for economic devolution to towns and cities across England. However, we also recognise the need for a new constitutional settlement here in Westminster, including guarantees over the autonomy of local government, clarification over what citizens can expect from their Government, and a commitment to tackle geographic economic inequalities.

Given recent events, it is important that Westminster reflects on how trust and integrity can be restored. We need powers to clamp down on inappropriate outside earnings for MPs, and to look at how to eliminate foreign and corrupt money from UK politics. As we have heard, it is also important to consider how this Chamber can be more efficient and effective by exploring how the size of the House can be reduced while retaining what works best, because often we work very well.

The UCL Constitution Unit’s third report on democracy said that most people

“wanted a stronger parliament and thought ministers should not be able to change the law without full parliamentary scrutiny”.

We have seen a move in the opposite direction. The one thing I ask the Minister to take from this debate is to take that back to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 8:22, 25 Ebrill 2023

I welcome the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has secured this important and extremely wide-ranging debate. We should spend more time debating these important issues.

I start by congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield on his excellent maiden speech. Lichfield is actually one of my favourite cathedrals, so he is most welcome; may he continue to make insightful contributions to the House. I was particularly glad that he reminded us of the Christian tradition of parliamentary democracy, and of the importance of freedom to practise different faiths.

Turning to the question of the day, my assessment is that, overall, UK parliamentary democracy is in a good state. Of course, like everything else political, it—UK parliamentary democracy—is a human construct, hence failures of one sort or another occur from time to time, and some have been mentioned, but the overall verdict should be a favourable one. I do not agree with the noble Baroness; like my noble friend Lord Hannan, I feel she should be careful about trying to draw parallels with 1930s Germany.

How has the situation that we are in come about? I am tempted to speculate that there may be some intrinsic virtue in the British character but my sober conclusion is that we have benefited from the virtues of evolution as opposed to adopting the follies of revolution as is sometimes espoused elsewhere—advocates of which are not unknown even within these hallowed walls. To sum things up I would like to quote Winston Churchill, who once said that:

“democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/11/1947; col. 207.]

Given that position, the need is to protect what we have that is good, to strive to improve it where possible and to adapt to circumstances.

There are, of course, other democratic nations, some of which are, like us, parliamentary democracies, although some are not. All truly democratic nations promote the principles of free and fair elections, the rule of law, a free press and the role of civil society. Autocracies are normally opposed to all these values that we hold so dear—and what a tragic mess that can lead to, as we see in Russia today.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has rightly mentioned the important role of elections in a functioning democracy, although I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, or my noble friend Lord Balfe that proportional representation would be better. Moreover, this Government were elected on a manifesto commitment to continue to support the first past the post voting system. We believe that this system is robust, secure and well understood by voters, providing strong and clear accountability.

My noble friend Lady Noakes was on great form. She was right to welcome an election that allowed us to get Brexit done—because that was the will of the people, despite strongly held views in many quarters, including in many parts of this House, on all sides. She is right to warn that the House should not become a House of opposition to an elected Government. This House is a very important part of the constitution.

My noble friend Lady Noakes also mentioned the recent repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. I believe that, by returning to the status quo ante, a Prime Minister will once again be able to call an election at a time of their choosing and avoid the parliamentary gridlock that caused so much trouble during the Brexit process.

As many have said, Members of Parliament as elected representatives have a central role in our system, advocating on behalf of and representing the views of their constituents. Both Houses carefully scrutinise and hold the Government to account and, through transparent engagement with Parliament, the Government facilitate that effective and important scrutiny work.

These are rights and principles that apply to all parts of the UK, whose constituent parts are represented in our parliamentary system, which is defined by a number of important elements. Under the UK’s parliamentary system, the ability of the Government to command the confidence of the House of Commons is the fundamental principle that enables government and Parliament to operate smoothly.

Ours is a representative democracy; because all individuals within the UK are represented, they are incentivised to participate in the electoral process. Government Ministers are, of course, drawn from both Houses, as I am lucky enough to know. The majority of Ministers are drawn from the Commons and not only accountable to the nation as a whole but required to address the local concerns of individuals represented by their individual MP.

Our parliamentary democracy is effective because it is grounded in tradition while being sufficiently flexible and adaptable to the circumstances of the day. This system allows for the development of policy and the passage of legislation under the careful scrutiny of Parliament when there is a majority in favour of the Government’s programme. Our parliamentary democracy allows for a high level of accountability and transparency by various mechanisms, of which noble Lords will be well aware, and to the success of which individuals in this House certainly contribute.

Our House—the Lords—as it is now would not be invented by anyone seeking to design a constitution, and over time we are likely to see further evolution of our constitutional arrangements. Until then, we perform a useful role in providing the scrutiny and accountability I mentioned. I think particular strengths are our scrutiny of Bills and SIs, including the revision of important detailed and complex clauses, and our respective committees, because they are the most fruitful area of engagement with the media; we play a crucial role in accurately informing the press.

I have been struck also by the strength the House gets from diverse specialisms: from different walks of life, from age—young and old, from geography and the wisdom of mature politicians of different persuasions who can help Governments to learn from past mistakes. In a very useful intervention, my noble friend Lord Shinkwin highlighted the role that individuals like himself, with his background and disability, can play in the House. He demonstrates that all the time, and I thank him for his support today.

There is an eclectic mix which brings much benefit, contributing in my view to our stable constitution. However, I must stress that in doing our work it is important that we recognise the primacy of the House of Commons as the elected Chamber. I believe the dilution of this is one of the problems with Gordon Brown’s proposed reforms, which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, touched on briefly.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned corruption in her opening remarks. I do not believe that this country is systematically corrupt, but corruption does pose a threat to all democracies, the economy and security. Corruption threatens to erode trust in our institutions, which is why the Government are taking steps all the time to address these threats. I refer her, and I think she has had a debate on this subject, to the Home Office-led anti-corruption strategy and to the Defending Democracy Taskforce, which is very important and on which I have the pleasure of sitting.

It has been a good debate and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and everyone else who has spoken. I am sorry I have not been able to refer to everybody, but we have had contributions on everything from housing to water, to the more obvious subjects. I agree with my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth—that surprised him—about the importance of trust and honesty in public life, saying what you know to be true in Parliament and elsewhere, and on the value of leadership skills, both for Ministers and for senior civil servants. As a Cabinet Office Minister and as a former director of well-managed international companies, I spend a good deal of time encouraging leadership and skills training, and trying to move things forward.

When assessing the strengths of our parliamentary democracy, one of the greatest is our ability to evolve and develop over time, to meet and resolve different challenges. This flexibility is what makes it so effective, and I was interested that the noble Baroness picked up on this point about flexibility, going forward.

To sum up, we have a vibrant parliamentary democracy; we should be proud of that but, as always, we must strive to maintain and if possible improve on the present position.

Sitting suspended.