Betty Boothroyd: PM’s snub to the Lords is an attack on the constitution

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IN a forthright speech, Betty Boothroyd, the former Speaker of the Commons, led a successful Parliamentary rebellion against David Cameron’s decision to downgrade the status of Baroness Stowell, the Leader of the House of Lords, in the Cabinet reshuffle. This is an edited version:

WE live in dangerous times. The Prime Minister’s demotion of the House of Lords in his Cabinet reshuffle challenges its rights, its authority and its long-established role and status in the constitution. It breaks the mould of British history. It strikes at the very roots of our bicameral Parliament. The place of this House in the Cabinet of every Prime Minister has never been challenged until now.

I never thought I would witness such careless disregard for the way our constitution works. The Prime Minister’s exclusion of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, from full Cabinet status has rightly shocked all parts of the House. This Motion calls on him to correct his error without further prevarication.

When the blow fell, the events were somewhat blurred, but the facts are now clear. The fog has been penetrated by our Select Committee on the Constitution, whose report was published only last Thursday. The committee’s findings and conclusions make grim reading. It strips bare the Prime Minister’s pretensions that all is well, that nothing serious has happened and that it will be put right at some time or other. Its report into the status of the Leader of this House and the status of the House itself after the reshuffle sets out exactly what has happened and the likely consequences.

The committee states: “The Leader may often have to give unpalatable advice to Ministerial colleagues about the chances of their legislation passing the House, or the time it will take. The Leader may have to block proposals which would clearly not pass the House or would be contrary to its interests. The Leader has to express the House’s misgivings to departments about their policies. The Leader has to ensure that questions and correspondence from peers are answered promptly and fully. In such matters the Leader needs authority. While some of that authority can come from tangible things like sitting at the Cabinet table and receiving Cabinet papers, some of it is intangible, such as having full Cabinet status on the same terms as senior Ministers in the Commons.”

What a marvellous report it is.

I have witnessed attempts by successive governments to ignore the views of Parliament, and I resisted them in both Houses. When the committee says 
there may be a risk, I can 
assure the House that there is no maybe about it; it is a dead certainty.

The Select Committee’s warnings on the constitutional impact of what has happened are vital. It reminds us that it is a core part of our constitution that Ministers are drawn from the legislature and that the legislature is bicameral. The committee says in two more lines, which I will quote: “It sits very uneasily with those principles for one House of Parliament to be unrepresented in the full Cabinet.”

I believe the Prime Minister’s actions are diametrically opposed to those principles. They also shatter the Prime Minister’s pretence that his hands were tied by the Ministerial Salaries Act 1975. Which section of that Act dictated that he promote the Minister for Overseas Development to the Cabinet and demote the Leader of the Lords?

Why is the Minister for overseas aid made a Secretary of State with full Cabinet rank and pay, while the salary of the Leader of this House and her status are downgraded? The Prime Minister needs reminding that the noble Baroness is responsible for all government business in this House and needs 18 Ministers and 10 Whips to report to and assist her in her duties.

I am beginning to understand why the lack of judgment and ill thought-out decisions coming from Downing Street give cause for concern. Did the Prime Minister really expect the Leader of this House to accept the offer to top up her pay by a subsidy from Conservative Party funds? It was a bizarre proposition.

The Prime Minister’s response neither mitigates the offence nor justifies his action. The flattery in his letter of response is transparent. His excuses are spurious, and his promise to mend the damage depends on his returning to power next year.

The Prime Minister, I am afraid, pays scant attention to his responsibility towards this House. He fails to understand that we are a bicameral Parliament and, as such, that this House should be fully represented at the highest level of government. He has trampled on the constitution.

His Cabinet has become the unicameral apex of power in a bicameral Parliament. It will not do. His shuffling this House out of its full status in the Cabinet must be reversed, and it must be done soon.