Angela Smith speech in House of Lords, 17th November
My Lords, I thank the Noble Lady for this statement, and the decision not to proceed with legislation is warmly welcomed by Your Lordships House. And I’d like to pay tribute to both the Noble Lady, the Leader and the Noble Lords, the Government Chief Whip for the way in which they have approached this issue.
Whilst we welcome the main conclusion we still feel that option 3 in the Report is wrong, misunderstands the role of this House and the constitutional position of Statutory Instruments which are sent to this House from Government, not from the House of Commons.
Certainly welcome that it is made in the spirit of looking forward rather than what has happened in the past and none of us want to re-run old arguments.
However, I do want to briefly reflect on the constitutional background that led to the Strathclyde Review following the votes on the tax credits Statutory Instrument.
That review and its recommendations were an absurd overreaction and completely unnecessary. But perhaps is did us a great service. For a brief moment in time – statutory instruments became exciting to people who had never heard of them before.
This House has an enviable and well-deserved reputation for the way in which it fulfils its duty of scrutiny of Government legislation, including Secondary. As a House we recognise those responsibilities, and also our limitations as an unelected Second Chamber.
And, we also recognise that when it comes to Secondary legislation with our scrutiny committees and our debates we discharge that duty with both experience and expertise.
We considered that as a significant policy change the tax credits proposals should have, more appropriately and properly, been dealt with as Primary legislation. But even then, this House was reluctant to just block it and we rejected a fatal motion.
However, again in the spirit of how this House works best, we sought to find a sustainable way forward to provide the Government with greater detail on the impact, and the time and the space to think again, to reflect and reconsider.
That gained support from all corners of this House and was passed. The Government did reconsider and changed the policy. It was the right and appropriate action to take.
Your Lordships House unanimously agreed the Report of The Joint Committee on our conventions, chaired by the Noble Lord Cunningham of Felling in 2006, that in clearly exceptional circumstances this House retains the power to reject Secondary Legislation. But the significance of that power is reflected in how rarely it is used – just 5 times in nearly 70 years.
There have been other attempts. But all have failed.
And that is because it must be exceptional - for example, where the primary legislation is in effect a Skeleton Bill or an SI is being used for a significant policy change, but not where secondary legislation is merely implementing the details of policy from Primary Legislation.
That doesn’t mean we won’t challenge or hold the Government to account but, as the Report clearly says that unless there are exceptional circumstances, “opposition parties should not use their numbers in the House of Lords merely to defeat an SI simply because they disagree with it”.
The tax credits votes that led to this review were exceptional. They fulfilled the criteria. It wasn’t just a matter of disagreeing but completely in line with the history and conventions of this House and the Cunningham Report.
Over the past few weeks there has been considerable speculation about the role of this House in examining Brexit. My Lords, we have been clear. We will not block. We will not delay.
But a Government without a plan does not have a blank cheque. Clearly this House will have an important role, especially if there is considerable secondary legislation that will need us to work together to provide effective scrutiny from all sides of the House, in the public interest.
I say to the Noble Lady, I hope that she and her colleagues in Government will see this House as an asset rather than just a challenge.
On these benches we always considered that the Strathclyde Review was evidence that the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, loathed challenge and feared scrutiny. That made life difficult in this House when challenge and scrutiny is what we do.
In welcoming today’s announcement of no legislation from the Strathclyde Report I hope that this heralds a new, more adult and reasonable approach to Government and opposition, where challenge and scrutiny is recognised as being in the public interest.
Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon
Published 17th November 2016