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Response to Government statement on Strathclyde Review

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith speech to The House of Lords

Well my Lords, it didn’t take long, did it?

The first wholly Conservative Government for nearly 20 years, the first ever without an automatic majority in Your Lordships House and within months they’re already trying to change the rules on the pretext that this House has exceeded its powers.

Let’s be clear from the outset. We do not set our face against change and improvements. Indeed it is Labour Peers who have proposed immediate changes in how we operate. And we also proposed significant change through a Constitutional Convention. The Government has declined to do so.

Instead we have today’s announcement on the Government’s growth area of legislation – Statutory instruments. 

My Lords – at this point for most normal people their eyes are going to glaze over. But SIs are the Government’s secret weapon. Traditionally, these were not used for issues that should be in primary legislation or policy changes where there should full scrutiny and consideration. But their use has grown over many years, and more significantly and at a faster rate since 2010.

The tax credits changes originally proposed, were a major policy shift and it would have been entirely appropriate to have been considered by primary legislation. The Government choose to use an SI.

My Lords we will want to consider the Noble Lord Srathclyde’s Report in more detail. I do say to the Noble Lady though, that the process he recommends is a very significant change.

Firstly, it is a major departure to use legislation to address this issue. Secondly, in terms of procedure an SI is sent to Your Lordships House not from the House of Commons but from the Executive – the Government. It’s not like legislation where proposals are considered and sent from one House to another. 

In terms of SIs both Houses separately consider measures proposed by the Government. Either can accept or reject - and rejection by either House is in effect a veto. That is why this House has so rarely rejected an SI – (just 4 times in 16 years since 1999 – approximately once a Parliament) – and in this Parliament three attempts at a so-called fatal motion to reject an SI have failed.

The recommendation from the Noble Lord Strathclyde that Your Lordships House could send an SI back to the Commons – but there is no guarantee that the Commons will have considered it first and there is no indication in what timescale.

This proposal denies Your Lordships House the opportunity to ask the Government to reconsider.  It instead sends it to the House of Commons – and I know other Noble Lords share my concern about the degree of scrutiny for Sis in the other place.

My Lords, we know that any Government with a majority will just ensure that a small committee will pass the SI. So why does the Noble Lord Strathclyde and the Prime Minister consider that such change is needed? 

We’re told: the tax credits vote.

This House fulfilled its duty in scrutinising secondary legislation. Contrary to some reports we overwhelmingly declined to block the measure through a fatal motion but supported asking the Government to reconsider and bring forward changes. That is the right and legitimate role of a Second Chamber. 

We’re also told: the Labour Opposition and the Lib Dems are ganging up on the Government and forcing through legislative changes. The evidence for that assertion is feeble. There have been 42 votes in Your Lordships House since the election. The Government has lost 23 – and won 19.  But significantly, 16 of those defeats were on Bills that started in Your Lordships ouseHouse with no pre-legislative scrutiny, and no prior consideration by the Other Place. We would have been failing in our duty as a Second Chamber if we had not appropriately scrutinised that legislation.

And those concerns were also raised by the Delegated Powers Committee and the Constitution Committee. My Lords – the collective memory of this Government is at fault.

In 2005-2010, the Labour Government lost 145 votes, including a second reading and a fatal SI.

In 2001-2005, the Labour Government suffered 245 defeats – and that was with an elected Commons majority of 167.

And that was when the NL Strathclyde was Leader of the Opposition. My Lords – I think there are two Lord Strathclydes.  

There’s the one that used to do my job as Leader of the Opposition who would – and I’m sure has – made the points I’m making now. And then there’s the new version that we see today – the only difference is Government.  

We lost serious major votes on terrorism and security legislation. I can’t recall a single vote that this Government has lost that is of that magnitude or seriousness.

And my Lords it has to be taken into account that we vote far less often that the Other Place. They have voted 137 times in this Parliament.  We’ve voted just 42. And that’s because in recognising the role of the Second Chamber we are more selective and more cautious in when we choose to vote.

But my Lords – let us be honest with ourselves.  This is not about tax credits or any of the other issues on which Your Lordships House has disagreed with the Government.

If it was, it would be a massive overreaction. It is far more serious that than.

Let’s see these changes in the wider context. In the context of:

  • the misnamed Lobbying Bill - or gagging bill -  that has made it so much harder for charities and campaigning organisations to be effective in their campaigning and lobbying  
  • the weakening of the Freedom of Information legislation 
  • for the first time ever, Government has instructed the Boundaries Commission as to how many constituencies there should be – knowing that the reduction favours Conservative over Labour 
  • whilst at the same time appointing members of this House at a faster rate than any Prime Minister in our history – and with the greatest proportion ever of Government Peers 
  • making harder through Individual Electoral registration, to register to vote 
  • English Votes for English laws – who knows where that will lead 
  • And – leaping in where the late Lady Thatcher chose not to tread – the Trade Union Bill.  Not only does that Bill make it harder for campaigning and funding for Trade Unions, it will also completely undermine the funding of the Labour Party – whilst keeping very quiet about Conservative Party funding.

My Lords, all this paints a very unattractive picture of a Prime Minister and a Government that will not tolerate challenge; that loathes scrutiny and fears questioning.

The evidence base for the changes proposed are weak.

We are very open to genuine suggestions for clarification, for modernisation and for changes. But that has to be in the context of fulfilling our duty and our legitimate constitutional role. And not just because the Government didn’t like losing a vote.

So, finally, four key questions for the Noble Lady, the leader of the House:

  • When will the Government respond to this Report?
  • Does she accept the assertion in the report that too much is being done through secondary legislation?
  • What consultation will there be prior to any decision by Government?
  • And can she comment on suggestions that the Government intends to use the Parliament Act to force any legislation through?


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

Published 17th December 2015


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