Why must the government treat parliament and the public with such contempt?

Rishi Sunak promised to lead with integrity, but from my vantage point in the Lords I see nothing of the sort

April 18, 2023
Holding us in contempt? Rishi Sunak outside Downing Street. Image: Imageplotter / Alamy Stock Photo
Holding us in contempt? Rishi Sunak outside Downing Street. Image: Imageplotter / Alamy Stock Photo

The House of Commons Privileges Committee is still deliberating over whether Boris Johnson deliberately mislead parliament but, whatever it rules, the norm now seems to be for members of the government to mislead both parliament and the public at whim. It seems that they hold voters, both within the Palace of Westminster and in the country, in contempt.

Take Suella Braverman, the home secretary, assuring the nation that Easter delays of 14 hours at Dover for would-be holidaymakers were nothing to do with Brexit. “No, I don’t think that’s fair to say that this has been an adverse effect of Brexit,” she asserted. Travel operators, who should know, disagree—hence Belmond, the company which runs the Orient Express, has decided to give up starting the glamorous trip in the UK because of the delays at Dover. It is putting the blame squarely on Brexit.

Even Micky Mouse would realise that an increased level of checks on passengers crossing the Channel would equate to longer queues, which is why the Eurostar service from London directly to Disneyland Paris is also being cancelled. Yet Braverman has as little respect for the facts as she does for the electorate.

Johnson assured us that Brexit would not result in any onerous change in border controls that would affect Northern Ireland. It was patently clear then that this could not be true, but it did not stop him from repeatedly making the claim. The need for the new Windsor framework for the province is an acknowledgement of the fact that the former PM would say whatever he believed necessary to help push his Brexit deal to fruition. The truth was simply not relevant.

Do these politicians really think we are so gullible as to be taken in by their nonsense? Rishi Sunak, despite pledging in his first speech as prime minister to lead the government with “integrity, professionalism and accountability”, seems prepared to try to sell the nation snake oil nonetheless. His latest effort—an attempt to repackage his enthusiasm for mathematics as a new initiative—was ridiculous: a policy of teaching children more maths fell flat when he announced it three months ago because of a massive shortage of qualified maths teachers. Did he really expect us to be more enthusiastic this time round just because he couched it slightly differently, even though the shortage of teachers has not noticeably changed?

Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, had the task of selling the policy on the day’s media round but met with what might politely be termed a degree of scepticism. The fact that teachers are among the many public sector workers who are currently taking strike action because of the “insulting” pay rise they have been offered did not make Keegan’s pitch any easier. But she had her script and she was sticking to it.

When ministers venture off-script, the contempt in which they hold the public can be even more obvious. In February, more than a few jaws dropped in parliament when the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, told MPs that people facing difficulties feeding their families because of soaring food prices should work longer hours. Alternatively, Coffey suggested these unfortunates should consider “upskilling” so that they could obtain better paid jobs.

Now, that’s the sort of helpful suggestion destined to go down really well with a hungry and exhausted person trying to eke out the minimum wage.

Parliament, too, is treated with disdain by the government. Its penchant for delegated legislation, effectively keeping power as close to its executive chest as it can, attempts to curtail parliamentary involvement in many major policy areas. Far from restoring parliamentary sovereignty in the wake of Brexit, it appears determined to neuter parliament’s abilities to hold government in check. Whether it be draconian changes to the law on demonstrations or a bill to limit strike action in some sectors, the aim is increasingly to pass legislation with little detail, leaving it to ministers to fill in the gaps as and when they choose.

This is dangerous at the best of times, but potentially toxic should there be an unsavoury government in office—perish the thought!

A particularly egregious insult to parliament involves the Retained EU Law Bill, a piece of legislation which aims to light a bonfire of EU-derived law by the end of this year. Given that there are more than 4,000 such pieces of such law (at the last count) the deadline is nonsensical. Opponents of the bill include the business world, which hates the uncertainty it creates and the damage its mere existence surely inflicts on sales.

That has not stopped the government ploughing on with it and the House of Commons, in its usual supine way, allowing the massive Tory majority to vote it through. (Given the lack of scrutiny most bills get in the Commons, it is possible to understand why ministers do not show a great deal of respect for their backbench colleagues!)

But the Lords is different. It does scrutinise legislation and has been determined to fight the Retained EU Law Bill. We had geared up for the report stage, which was due to begin this week. Yet, over the Easter holiday, the government quietly removed the bill from the parliamentary timetable. There has been no explanation and the “government spokesman” has continued to tell the media that ministers remain committed to the bill. But parliament has been told nothing. Now that really is contemptuous!