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It was the Lords wot won it

SteveBassam.jpgSteve Bassam on the unfolding events that saw Peers successfully challenge George Osborne's plans to cut tax credits 

Now the dust has begun to settle after the alleged 'constitutional outrage' of the House of Lords asking the government to think again about tax credits, the Prime Minister and Chancellor might want to spend some time reflecting before rushing off to seek curbs to peers powers. The public think that we got it about right. Most of the normally Conservative-leaning national press think that too and commentators across the spectrum have congratulated peers for their wise counsel.

So what did we learn from the three and a half hours of debate? Firstly, that the House of Lords can be relevant when there is a national debate about topical political issues that directly impact on the public. Secondly, that despite his ability to put Labour in a difficult place George Osborne can get big issues spectacularly wrong. Thirdly, that even a government in its pomp as they often are in the first year after an election should be challenged. Fourthly, that Parliament does matter and can add colour to daily life. And finally, that the quality of an argument can still make a difference to how people decide on issues.

The best moment in the debate came when Patricia Hollis took the House through the impact of the cut in incomes of those who work and struggle to make ends meet. Literally, you could have heard a pin drop in the chamber. It resonated for me personally, because living with a low paid farm worker, single parent mum was my childhood experience. Poverty is grinding and Osborne's understanding of its impact is remote and negligible. Hard work may give you dignity but when it squeezes the life out of you and 'rewards' you with a marginal rate of tax at 93% you feel cheated and poor.

I looked over the chamber at one point and spotted Lord Green (of HSBC fame) and wondered if it troubled him that one of his personal staff might be a loser from the government's attack on the working poor. Then my sight-line alighted on Lord Lloyd Webber, who it is said had flown back from New York especially to be there to enforce cuts in the pay of workers earning as little as £12k a year. The sort of money his Ambassador Theatre Group pockets in an afternoon of ticket sales.

The government benches in the Lords have a 'Millionaires Row' made up of solid Conservatives such as Lords Borwick, Bell and Bamford. Less a firm of lawyers, more a list of donors. There they sat listening intently as most did as the arguments went back and forth. Those coming to Osborne's aid telling us that the cuts were part of a well-advertised package of welfare reform savings essential to meet the Chancellors target, essential to cut the ballooning cost of tax credits. So well-advertised that while Osborne said much about his clever uplift to the living wage he hadn't done the same on the tax credit changes. Apparently this was all about the 'primacy of the Commons'. Words that I don't recall Tories using much during the time they spent over thirteen years inflicting 500 defeats on the last Labour government.

From the Bishops benches we heard about the immorality of the cuts, only to find that the Conservative leader in the Lords thought that the House should support their Motion of Regret. I'm not sure to whose greater embarrassment, the Bishops or the government. My sense is that the only time George Osborne listens to a Bishop is at funeral. Slowly the House came to a conclusion and then Crossbench Peer Lord Low with great prescience said that he thought we had reached a view and that we should shortly vote.

He was right and we did; and after the false start of the Lib Dem Fatal, their Lordships showed the country that once again they could be relevant. That this part of Parliament was a bit freer from the Commons hurly burly, and able to take thoughtful considered choices that make a difference. Now we face a Prime Minister's fury. My advice would be think of the law of unintended consequences before you seek permanent political advantage in our constitution. Why? Because that's where you were wrong before about retaining a House of hereditaries.

Lord Steve Bassam of Brighton is Labour's Chief Whip in the House of Lords. He tweets @StevetheQuip

Published 27th September 2015

This blog was orginally published at The Huffington Post

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