Taxing times

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith on the rationale and justfication for our challenge to the government's tax credits policy

It is rare for the House of Lords to find itself at the centre of such a ferocious policy and constitutional debate as it does at present. Tomorrow evening, peers will be asked to approve the government's tax credits order - pernicious regulations that will dramatically cut the income of more than three million working people on low incomes. People who are playing by the rules but now risk being forced into poverty, using food banks to get them through each week.

The complexities of parliamentary procedure is not widely known outside of the Westminster Village, and often not inside it either. But it could normally be expected for a measure of this nature and magnitude to be introduced by primary legislation. In other words, a government bill to be debated and voted on in the usual way by both houses, with the opportunity to make revisions and fully consider the implications. Instead, the government has chosen to deal with its policy shift via the mechanism of a Statutory Instrument (SI). Something more normally used for minor issues after a bill has already passed into law as an act, or for the normal uprating or changes to tax credits.

By taking the SI route, ministers have opted for a highly truncated process that usually has little debate. The SI has to be accepted in its presented form or rejected, only very, very occasionally giving rise to a vote such as this. Of course, had the government gone down the normal legislative route, it could have claimed 'financial privilege' and the Lords would rightly not have considered the changes. But there would have been a much fuller debate in the Commons, in the full glare of the media and with MPs of all sides keen to air concerns on behalf of their constituents.

Tomorrow's debate in the Lords will see consideration of several amendments, including one from my Labour colleague Baroness Patricia Hollis. An ex-DWP minister, Patricia will call on peers to reject what is being proposed until the government come back with a scheme to protect those already getting tax credits for at least three years. If pressed to a vote and successful, the onus would then be on ministers to put such a plan in place. A failure to do so however, would mean the government could not go ahead with the cuts.

The House of Lords independent authorities have been clear that the Hollis amendment is not a so-called 'Fatal Motion', designed merely to kill off the government's plans. They too understand that it gives George Osborne and the Treasury an opportunity to address the deep concerns that have been expressed by MPs and peers of all parties, including Norman TebbitNigel Lawson and Boris Johnson.

Some have asked why Labour hasn't gone ahead with a straightforward 'fatal', like the one tabled by Lib Dem peers at the behest of their party leader, Tim Farron. The problem with that approach is that the government, having already won a vote on the SI in the Commons, could quickly return with new primary legislation, avoid Lords consideration and try to prevent any amendments - like the Hollis one - designed to help mitigate the effects of the cuts.

Our motion gives ministers the opportunity to take a step back and listen properly to the clamour of voices calling for them to think again. Not just at parliament but the Children's Society, think tanks like the IFS, the IEA and the Adam Smith Institute, as well as newspapers generally supportive of the current government, including theSun.

So what about the accusations that our peers and others are overstepping the constitutional authority of the unelected, second chamber? Is it not right, given Mr Osborne's decision to sidestep the more usual detailed parliamentary scrutiny that we ask the government to reconsider? Conservative peers certainly thought so in 2008when they voted en masse to limit the Labour government's ability to increase the National Insurance upper earnings limit without further primary legislation. A move formally backed in the division lobby by the current Government Chief Whip, Lord Taylor. So what has changed now that they - and he - are in power?

The last week has enlightened quite a few about the Cameron government's reluctance to accept challenge or proper scrutiny. The prime minister would rather provoke a phoney constitutional 'crisis' with peers than deal with the issues and problems with his and Osborne's tax credits policy. Between 1997 and 2010, Labour lost many dozens of votes in the Lords, on a range of key issues. We didn't like it either but accepted them and moved on. Now we have a government that prefers to issue thinly veiled threats to anyone who dares question its authority.

Personally, I have been appalled at the government's parliamentary bullying. Threats to 'suspend the House of Lords', pack it with 150 new Tory Peers, and 'clip their wings' do nothing to address the serious policy issues that have given rise to our concerns. There is a need for Lords reform and Labour Peers have suggested very real changesthat could be implemented fairly quickly. But the threats we are now hearing have nothing to do with reform, and all to do with a government that hates challenge and will try any trick in the political playbook to get its way.

Tomorrow, we will debate and scrutinise the tax credits SI in the usual way. We will not exceed our authority but neither will we be cowed into abdicating our responsibilities to hold government - any government - to account.

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Labour Leader of the House of Lords

Published 25th October 2015

This article first appeared at The Huffington Post


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