Dianne Hayter on the government’s new legislative agenda and why it raises further concerns about Boris Johnson’s commitment to accountability and transparency
The Queen’s Speech should have seen the setting out of an ambitious programme to improve our country – making it safe, secure, healthy for all, tackling inequality, safeguarding the union, and protecting our democracy.
Good government is dependent on being held to account. Boris Johnson, however, seems uniquely unwilling to be scrutinised – as seen by a reluctance to give straight answers at PMQs, his contempt for a Court which enforced the rule of law, the abandonment of daily televised press briefings, and his general disdain for legislative amendments from the Lords. And a similarly dismissive view is taken of legal scrutiny, with threats to reduce the power of our courts and curtail the right of judicial review that fail to understand that an independent judiciary is a strength, not a weakness.
Democracy depends for its support on good governance. That means tough lobbying rules, obedience to the ministerial code, and fair appointments to decision-making bodies. Not something in evidence with the present administration, with the Commissioner for Public Appointments Peter Riddell concluding that it has “actively sought to appoint allies to the boards of public bodies … [with] the close engagement of 10 Downing Street.”
Elsewhere, we’ve seen attempts to restrict charities’ ability to speak for beneficiaries – even during the pandemic, when finances were at stake. An inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee revealed that political advisers were at the heart of deciding where tax-payers’ funding should go.
Good governance demands firm red lines between party and government when decisions are to be taken. This may not be understood by ministers, with the award of Covid-related contracts to friends, and the Treasury giving £700,000 worth of contracts to a lobbying firm with close links to the Conservatives.
The journalist Peter Oborne says that the PM behaves “as if he believes the Brexit referendum ... has given him political legitimacy to trash British institutions like Parliament, the Supreme Court and the BBC”. It is vital, therefore, that we safeguard these and have effective laws about lobbying, and codes about ministerial behaviour, integrity, and conflicts of interest – the PM included!
But absent from the Queen’s Speech was legislation to amend our ridiculously weak lobbying rules, which have allowed the Chancellor to be lobbied by former Prime Minister, David Cameron. The latter’s wishy-washy Act which excludes the majority of lobbyists, with those working in-house still able to work the back channels.
On elections, meanwhile, we have the absurd position where UK-resident 16 and 17 year olds are still denied the vote but the government wants to enfranchise those long departed from our shores, who may never return, pay no taxes and live lives unaffected by the outcome of our elections. Even more serious, by claiming the vote – even if they never use it – such long-time ex-pats will become ‘permitted donors’, allowing them to fund political parties with no checks on the propriety of their off-shore funding.
In fact, it’s hard to know how this new category of voters will prove their bone fides. They will be able to choose in which constituency to cast their ballot, then simply mail in their voting papers signed by who knows whom, from who knows where. At the same time, those living here are going to be asked to produce a piece of photo ID in their polling station, despite there being barely any evidence of voter fraud in the UK and with 3.5 million of our fellow citizens carrying no such forms of identity.
Earlier this week, The Daily Telegraph commented that “Prosperity follows democracy”. If we want the first, however, we must ensure that the second is robust, fair, open, and accountable. I can’t see anything in this Queen’s Speech that seeks to achieve that aim.
Baroness Dianne Hayter is Labour's Deputy Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords
Published 13th May 2021