Lord Steve Bassam of Brighton is Labour’s Chief Whip in the House of Lords
Much commentary has already been made about the government’s wafer thin agenda for the 2012-13 parliamentary session. The thing is, it is actually far worse than most observers have noticed, not least because of the uncertainty created by putting Lords reform at the heart of the programme.
The recent Queen’s Speech identified just 15 bills in a programme designed to accommodate the LibDems’ pet obsession. Yet ministers are likely to press through even less legislation, as 5 of these bills have already been identified for carry over until the next session. We are not talking minor matters here, but big issues such as energy, banking reform, children and families, and pensions, as well as an EU Accession Bill for Croatia.
This amounts to third of the government’s new legislative programme to be subject to carry over motions. None of these bills will have been drafted yet, and some may even need a white paper to launch them.
We also know that despite the best efforts of the joint committees on Lords reform, that bill is currently being re-drafted to try and make it more acceptable – the question is for whom?
So, for much of the rest of this calendar year we, we will have just 9 bills in play in the Lords. At this stage in most parliaments, governments are just getting into their stride.
Our analysis of the period since the late 1970s suggests a government in its third year of power can expect to push up to 40 to 45 bills, 30 of which will be part of a core programme.
What is clear from looking at the list detailed in the Queen’s Speech is that despite the accompanying ministerial rhetoric, this is not a radical or reforming government, with either a vision or a narrative to lead our country. Rather it is a make it up as you go along government, without a guiding theme other than deficit reduction.
The Crime and Courts and the Justice and Security bills could have emanated from either major party, except that while in opposition, the Tories – like the LibDems – said they wouldn’t do snooping or big brother stuff. The Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, which gets its second reading in the Lords tomorrow looks like something Labour had in mind, as do some of the measures in the bill on electoral registration. And the bill on defamation is again something all parties consider long overdue.
Some of the bills will rightly provoke indignation and intelligent opposition from peers. Indeed, I can’t believe it was wise to start two law and order bills in the Lords, where they risk being emasculated by those who only recently inflicted 14 defeats on the government’s legal aid bill. Still, in the two years of this government, I have learnt not to be too surprised at their ability to mismanage parliamentary business. For much of the last session, one or both Houses were pretty much redundant. The Commons could have taken 6 months off after last October, while the Lords was periodically given extended holidays and were then forced back when time was running short.
Legislation doesn’t fix every problem, and we often have too much of it. But people in Britain expect their politicians to come up with answers to the big issues of the day. Polls show they want economic growth, know that we have a housing problem, recognise the risk of growing educational inequality, and want health and local services for the elderly protected and provided.
None of these concerns have found their way into the government’s plans for this new parliamentary session. Perhaps we should be thankful, given how David Cameron and Nick Clegg have so far managed to get the mood and the measures spectacularly wrong. Their parliamentary agenda for 2012-13 is all of a piece with the budget – incompetent, ill-conceived and for most of us irrelevant to the nation’s needs.
So expect their Lordships to be on top form of grumpiness over the next 12 months or so, as we work over a mismatched Queen’s Speech that has left us far from speechless.
This article was first published at www.labour-uncut.co.uk