Frosty reception

Dianne Hayter on a highly unusual appointment to the House of Lords

Sunday evening was rather taken over by some unusual news. David Frost, Boris Johnson’s “Sherpa” (that is how he signs himself, even when writing to Michel Barnier on Cabinet Office paper) and the UK’s top EU negotiator, is to be made a member of the House of Lords; and add National Security Advisor to his role.

Within the Lords, this raises some interesting questions regarding accountability. Assuming he takes the Conservative Whip, will he be on their Back Bench or sit as a minister? If the latter, this is good news for the House where many peers have wanted to be able to ask him – rather than his representative here, Lord True, who is not in attendance at the negotiating meetings – how things are going.

Previous negotiators (David Davis, Steve Barclay and indeed Mrs May) always reported back to the Commons and took questions after serious rounds of talks. Whilst Mr Gove has made one statement in the Commons (repeated in the Lords), there has been no such opportunity to question David Frost direct. So, assuming he is a minister, he will be able to speak direct from the despatch box.

Or will he be an advisor and sit on the Conservative Back Benches? From where he could see the back of Lord True’s head, as the Cabinet Office Minister answers questions as to how the negotiations are proceeding.

Things become more complicated on National Security Advisor role, where he is not a decision maker but proffers advice to the Prime Minister. Could he answer questions as to what advice he has given? Or would another minister take questions, concentrating on decisions taken by the Prime Minister?

Clearly making a politician the National Security Advisor is in itself a novelty, it never previously having been a political appointment. It raises questions as to the implications for the independence of the role. It is possible that the decision for him to sit in the Lords is indeed a deliberate constitutional move to provide for greater accountability.

While this might be an interesting move, it is hard to understand how such a political appointment will facilitate broad, cross-party confidence in advice which should have political neutrality at its core. It would also imply a change of Advisor with every change of government – a major departure for our system. Most importantly, any such constitutional innovation, no matter what, should be both evidence-based and follow cross-party discussion. That doesn’t appear to have taken place.

Yesterday’s announcement is significant because of what it means for the accountability that is vital to good government and sound decision-making. When stakes are high, as they are now – with a challenging international environment and the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic – we must all have confidence that ministers are taking the right decisions and putting them properly into practice.

It also means having people with the confidence to speak up when they can see something going wrong. That is the real concern of simply relying on trusty friends, rather than experienced and independent advisors, working to a Prime Minister. If senior civil servants are being hired and fired for short-term reasons, we will not have the sound government and civil service advice ready for when the next crisis comes along.

There will be lots of PhD theses and seminars on all of this, and I can’t wait for the Hennessy-Kerr-O’Donnell-Butler-Ricketts-Hannay debate in the Lords. Perhaps the opportunity for Sir Mark Sedwill’s maiden speech?

Baroness Dianne Hayter is Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 29th June 2020

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