Conventional wisdom

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith on why the government should be wary of railroading legislation through the Lords

Yesterday, I responded to the first Conservative only, Queen’s Speech for 23 years. But anyone who remembers what they managed to get through as part of the Coalition – the Bedroom Tax, the bargain basement sale of Royal Mail, cuts in legal aid, the marketization of the NHS, the massive hike in tuition fees – will recognise how successful they were in getting their way during the past five years. So we’re not talking about the first tentative steps of a party long out of government but the bold stride of those building on what they have already started. 

They do however, face a new challenge. For the first time in history, a Conservative government does not have an automatic majority in the Lords. To my colleagues in the Labour Group, that doesn’t sound too daunting. None of our governments has ever had such a majority, and we know the challenges it places on the House. Indeed, during the last Labour government we lost around 500 divisions – about 30% of votes.  

The Lords of course, is about more than the number of votes the Opposition can win. We are about ensuring better and more effective legislation, and we have a responsibility to ensure our expertise is brought to bear on government proposals. Something we’ll no doubt see in relation to those Conservative manifesto commitments that were lacking in detail and masking their exact intentions. 

A prime example is the much touted £12 billion of cuts to social security, with Ministers still arguing about where and when the axe will fall. Another is the proposal to force Housing Associations to sell off stock at a knock down discount. Our country needs a Housing Bill, but the one offered by the government does nothing to address the greatest housing shortage for a generation.   

On immigration, the government will have to clarify how its proposals will work in practice. We support measures to tackle illegal immigration and deport foreign criminals, but Ministers are already revealing itself to be tough on rhetoric but weak on action. Around 500 fewer foreign criminals are being deported every year than under the last Labour government, whilst at the same time there has been substantial cuts in the UK Border Force. The Prime Minister may look very fetching – to some, at least – in his police issue Kevlar jacket, as he joins them on a raid to arrest exploited migrant workers. But that’s no replacement for effective legislation.

In policing, we will challenge the government to recognise the shocking impact of its policies during the last parliament. The most senior counter terrorism officer in the UK, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley has warned that the loss of mainstream policing teams and cuts in neighbourhood policing undermines counter terrorism work. In my home county of Essex, we no longer have any 24 hour police stations, and 600 fewer police officers than in 2010. 

As I made clear in my speech yesterday, Labour will abide by the broad principles of the Salisbury Convention. But I do believe the government – indeed, the Prime Minister himself – has some way to go to learn to work with the Lords, and peers from across all parties and none. If Mr Cameron and his Ministers choose not to, and seek instead to railroad through legislation not specified in their manifesto, we will be robust in our challenges and ready to take them to the wire.

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets at @LadyBasildon

Published 3rd June 2015

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