Lord Wallace of Tankerness: “The House of Lords has the right to say no”

Lord Wallace of Tankerness
Lord Wallace of Tankerness

In his response to the Queen’s Speech, Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, will argue that the ‘importance of the House of Lords retaining “the right to say no”’ ensures that the Government must operate in Parliament ‘in a constructive frame of mind’.

Lord Wallace will say that the Lords “may wish to reflect on the strength of the mandate of a government which secured less than 37% of the popular vote on a turnout of 66%”. He will notes that “This House has demonstrated time and time again that it is the last bastion of defence of civil liberties and human rights. On these issues in particular, this House has a legitimate right to question the excesses of any government. It has the right to vigorously scrutinise and revise legislation.”

Lord Wallace also will criticise the agenda of the first Tory government in over 20 years saying that they “seem intent on taking up where they left off” from when they were last in power.

A full copy of the speech is below.

 My Lords, it is a pleasure to echo the Noble Baroness, Lady Royall, in her praise for the very able proposer of the Humble Address, the Noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone.

 My Lords, the Baroness has had an interesting a varied and distinguished career.  I note in particular that she remains a Trustee of the Economist newspaper.  It would of course be remiss of me not to mention that publication’s verdict ahead of the General Election, which said that the risk of a Tory Government was an EU exit, and, concluded that ‘the best hope for Britain is with a continuation of a Conservative-led coalition [with the Liberal Democrats].’  Whilst Coalition Government may not be in the immediate thinking of my colleagues in the other place, I assure the Noble Lady that she is always welcome to join us in the voting lobbies on issues such as Europe and voting reform which the Economist praises so highly.

The motion was of course seconded by the Noble Lord, Lord Finklestein.  He is of course a remarkable and compelling writer, as seen clearly in his response to the Gracious Speech.

I can’t help but note the Nobel Lords’ article in the Times today on the death of the Liberal Democrats.  I would simply say to the Nobel Lord, to misquote the great Mark Twain ‘reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated’.  Of course, Mark Twain also said, that ‘to succeed in life you need two things: ignorance and confidence.’  I must say, with great fondness to the Nobel Lord, whose Twitter account I started to follow last week, he made a very confident speech today.

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the Noble Baroness, Lady Royall, this afternoon. I’m sure there will be an opportunity at a later date to pay a more fulsome tribute to the Noble Baroness who has been a great servant to this House, both as Leader of the House and Leader of the Opposition.

I would like to extend my personal congratulations to the Leader of the House, Lady Stowell of Beeston, on her continuation in office. She has proven herself to be a well-liked and capable Leader of this House, meticulous in her attention to detail and scrupulous in her desire to represent the interests and views of the whole of the House. I wish her every continued success in this role in what I suspect will be a very different Parliament to the last one.

My Lords, I counted it a real privilege to have been Deputy Leader of your Lordships’ House and to work closely with the noble Lady and her predecessor Lord Hill of Oareford.

I would also like to congratulate the Noble Earl, Lord Howe, on his new role as Deputy Leader of this House. The Noble Earl is a paragon of calm in what can sometimes be a stormy House.

Before working with the noble Lady, Baroness Stowell as Deputy Leader, we had, of course, worked closely together as we steered the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act through your Lordships’ House. I’m sure she agrees that it is one of our proudest achievements as Ministers in the coalition government.

Government is an honour and a privilege; and I remain proud of the progressive liberal changes that my party helped bring about in the last five years that made this country fairer.

But there is no doubt from the election campaign and the results that followed that this is not just a difficult time for the Liberal Democrats, it is also a dangerous time for liberalism. Liberal British values of tolerance, generosity and moderation are under threat as never before, just when they’re most needed. The rise of nationalism that we are seeing both in England and in Scotland, with the divisions it provokes and the fear it promotes, is the antithesis of freedom, liberty and equality – everything that I believe in and everything that my party stands for.

If I can believe it I am pleased that the Gracious speech made clear that the Government’s intention to be a one nation government.  However, given the way they stoked fear of the SNP to win their majority one wonders ‘which nation?’

I welcome the announcement of a Scotland Bill in the gracious Speech, based on the Smith Commission proposals. Honouring commitments made to Wales and Northern Ireland are equally important. So too is the welcome but insufficient commitment to devolution to the North. But as many noble Lords mentioned in debates in the last Parliament, there now needs to be coherence to our constitutional developments. The time has surely come for a major, cross-party Constitutional Convention, to find a new resting point for British politics and a new settlement for our nations, our regions, our cities and our people.

This Parliament could be the one that creates a new settlement for our country.

My Lords, it should come as no surprise that we are disappointed by much of the content of the Gracious Speech. The Government’s agenda set out in the Gracious Speech smacks of a Party set to fight the battles of the past, and no doubt to repeat its mistakes. My Lords, we’ve heard much about this being the first Gracious Speech of a majority Conservative government in almost 20 years. The pity is that they seem intent on taking up where they left off.

The European Referendum Bill is the latest manifestation of efforts to paper over cracks in the Conservative Party.

My Lords, there is almost no greater example of our nation’s commitment to being an open, internationalist country than our membership of the European Union.  We can and should be at the forefront of shaping the EU.  To put that in jeopardy, particularly at a time when our economy is still fragile, is not the forward looking agenda we on these benches wish to see.  Instead it would be better looking at how we can work with our European allies, within the EU, to tackle the challenges of the next generation- in particular climate change.  Instead of an EU referendum a forward looking Gracious Speech would have seen Bills to create a zero carbon Britain, where green energy and green industry can thrive.

When the Bill comes to your Lordships’ House, we shall give it the thorough scrutiny which is this House’s hallmark.

My Lords, the Gracious Speech is also notable for the omission of firm legislative proposals for the repeal and replacement of the Human Rights Act. It makes me wonder whether the manifesto commitment was made as a chip to be bargained away in potential coalition negotiations. The former Attorney described last autumn’s Conservative proposals as “unworkable” and containing a “number of howlers”. Colleagues on these benches will certainly scrutinise robustly whatever consultative proposals emerge in the weeks ahead. And in addition, we will be advocating a new Bill of Rights – a Digital Bill of Rights, which will help safeguard and protect our citizens online and ensure that the same rights enshrined in British law in 1998 hold true as we enter a world full of new technology that does not respect boundaries.

My Lords, there are some Bills, or at least titles of Bills, that are to be welcomed in the Gracious Speech.  Measures to expand childcare, increase the personal allowance and increase apprenticeships are all welcome, not least because they are all measures whose genesis lies on these benches and not with the Prime Minister’s policy team.  However, all will of course be undermined by the ideological drive for spending cuts that this Government is set on pursuing.  Measures to tackle coasting schools are all well and good, but not when the Government plans to cut Billions from schools budget, that we on these benches wish to see protected.

My Lords too often we see a backwards looking agenda from a Party fighting the grievances of the past rather than looking forward to new innovation and ideas.

My Lords, may I conclude by talking briefly about the conventions of your Lordships House.  Much has been written in the days since the election, about the predicament in which the Government now finds itself here, and the importance of the Salisbury Convention.

It is of course right and proper that we uphold the measures which allow our revising Chamber to remain a self-regulating House.  I do not question the right of the House of Commons and a Government who command the confidence of it to have its legislation dealt with in a constructive manner by this House.

But we may wish to reflect on the strength of the mandate of a government, which secured less than 37% of the popular vote on a turnout of 66%, should it seek to drive through ill-thought through and reactionary legislation without the robust scrutiny and the proper checks and balances, provided by this House. The Government would do well to remember that the Cunningham Report on the Conventions of the UK Parliament, which recognised the right of this House, in extreme and exceptional circumstances, to say no.  The importance of the House of Lords retaining “the right to say no” is that it is that power which brings the Government to the table in a constructive frame of mind

Indeed, Ministers would be wise to heed the words of the Noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in his evidence to the Cunningham Committee –

…where a government is trying to push through some very unpopular measure with a very, very small majority, with a substantial government rebellion, I think it is a clear signal for the House of Lords to take extra special care in examining that measure.”

This House has demonstrated time and time again that it is the last bastion of defence of civil liberties and human rights. On these issues in particular, this House has a legitimate right to question the excesses of any government. It has the right to vigorously scrutinise and revise legislation.

On 15th May, the Guardian said of the Liberal Democrats, “Missing them Already”.  I can assure Your Lordships that in the key debates and legislative scrutiny which take place in your Lordships’ House in this Parliament, we have no intention of being ‘missing in action’.

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