Forward with scrutiny

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith on a better way to resolve the Government vs the Lords issue than talk of ‘big bazookas’

For most members of the House of Lords, the fine detail of the recent Queen’s Speech had a stand out sentence: “My Government will uphold the sovereignty of Parliament and the Primacy of the House of Commons”. 

Here was a government making it clear, correctly, that Parliament not the Executive was sovereign.  But also – despite no evidence of views to the contrary – that the House of Commons has primacy over the Lords.

I welcome the government putting its position on the record, if not outlining in any detail its real reason for doing so. David Cameron, George Osborne and many of their colleagues continue to respond badly to challenge – from many quarters but especially the Lords where their complaints have been an over-reaction to attempts to scrutinise legislation, sometimes asking Ministers to think again.

Perhaps they’re still adjusting to unusual circumstances? This is after all, the first Conservative government in history not to have an automatic majority at our end of Parliament. Those of us who have served in Labour administrations, having never had such a majority in the Lords, understand the frustrations. But no government should be able to claim it is right all the time. Our House is part of the checks and balances of the British political system, with a constitutional role to fulfil that remit and obligations. 

Mr Cameron and his colleagues should therefore, admit that part of what is going on here relates to the very process and competence of how the government manages its business, and to not overreact when challenged. As happened in response to the defeat on the tax credits statutory instrument, which prompted the Strathclyde Review and its subsequent report.

That in turn flushed out an emerging trend in legislation, when back in December The Financial Times quoted a government aide: “We are being told to use statutory instruments wherever possible to get legislation through”. Along with a senior Tory: “The House of Lords has to tread carefully.  If they don’t accept this proposal, we could stop them having any say at all on secondary legislation. That’s a big bazooka.”

So why the obsession with trying to evade scrutiny through the use of secondary legislation?  Either the government is still developing policy so light on detail or finds non-amendable regulations easier to get through both Houses, as Commons scrutiny is largely cursory and the Lords rarely rejects SIs – a mere six times since 1945. Strathclyde’s recommendations would curtail Peers powers to do so.

As a responsible official opposition in the Lords, we must find a way forward on all of this. But it also requires a responsible government to commit to making more detail available on legislation much earlier than it has in the past couple of years, including impact assessments, financial reports and draft regulations.

One positive step forward would be to establish a Lords Select Committee, or use one of our existing Committees, to look at not just how we deal with legislation, but also what information we should reasonably expect from the government. We now have an opportunity to bring a new rigour and focus to how we work in the Lords. An approach that might see a more robust and intelligent approach to how business in managed. And one that that might also help Ministers struggling to provide detail and therefore deliver better legislation.

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

Published 9th June 2016

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