Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:36 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative 3:36 pm, 13th January 2016

Well, he had been in the House of Commons, my Lords, and therefore it would be fair to say that he had a pretty good view of the relationship from both sides of the argument. He was then a supporter of the Government; I am sure that he is still a supporter of the Labour Party. These things are important, because when you reread his work from 2006 you find that it is still fresh and interesting, and I urge noble Lords who are so interested to go back and have a look at it. Perhaps the Library could be persuaded to give a small extract from it on the conventions of the House of Lords to remind us.

Why conventions? Conventions require us to behave in ways that we would rather not. They require us to sign up to a series of obligations that constrain the way the powers of the House of Lords are used. To work, they need to be binding on those who agree them; and they are of course based on trust, because there is no legal basis for them.

My view is that the convention on statutory instruments has been fraying for some time, for a number of reasons. First, the House of Lords has changed substantially over the last 17 years. There is undoubtedly a new confidence in the House of Lords; I applaud that. There has been an influx of new Peers over many years. There has been a fundamental change from a more hereditary House to one that has been appointed, with people here on merit. On the other side of the equation, however, there has been a loss of collective memory and less understanding of the implications of what happens when we use our powers too aggressively. I tried to avoid that after 1999, when it should be remembered that nearly half the Conservative Party in the House of Lords was expelled by the Government. I do not want to give this Government any ideas, but it was quite effective at the time.

In 2000, I declared in a speech that the convention was now dead. I did so quite deliberately and pointedly, and we then went on to defeat the Government on some order to do with the London mayoral elections. Two things happened immediately afterwards. First, we agreed a process by which the offending order was put into legislation and, secondly, Lord Williams of Mostyn and I agreed that of course the convention should stay on and that it was not true that there was no need to continue the conventions from the old hereditary House into the new House that had been created after the 1999 Act. He understood, as a Leader of the House and leader of the Labour Party in this House, that it would help the House of Lords to work better to maintain this convention.

There is a similarity between that and what happened in 1968. Incidentally, one of the remarkable things about this House is that my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, who is going to speak in a few moments, was around in 1968 and voted on the Rhodesia orders, on which the House foolishly voted to vote down the orders to impose sanctions on Rhodesia. My noble friend Lord Carrington and Lord Shackleton, who were then the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the House, agreed that there should be a convention that this should never happen again—and nor did it, until 2000. In the 1970s came the start of the Motions to Regret, which were a sensible way forward. However, that agreement of my noble friend Lord Carrington and Lord Shackleton was a sensible and pragmatic understanding between two parties. They accepted that the Lords may have the power to reject but that they should not use it, because they did not have the authority to do so.

In 2007, the super-casino orders were also lost in the House of Lords. There was no Conservative Whip but it was interesting that 15 Labour Peers voted against the Government and there was a dramatic last-minute intervention by the then most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. No more was heard of the super-casinos after that.

That brings us to tax credits, because what was so interesting about the votes that took place on them is that the House divided along entirely political lines. In fact, what was so unusual is that several senior Labour Peers voted to support the Government—not, I hasten to add, because they had any affection for what the Government were doing on tax credits but because they understood the constitutional implications of what was to take place and that a practice was going to change. In the Chamber itself, there was some confusion as to whether the delay Motions of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis and Lady Meacher, were in tune with the convention or broke it. At a stroke, there was then more than one interpretation of what the convention was; hence there has been a need for clarity and the Prime Minister, in his wisdom, invited me to conduct my review.

I should say at this point that I absolve completely, if any absolution is required, the two noble Baronesses in their Motions. I do not think for one moment that they were seeking to undermine the conventions that existed. In fact, they had rather cleverly and innovatively found a frame of words that technically did not break the convention. These were words that were neither fatal nor non-fatal; this is the cleverness that succeeded.

My view is that, in practice, whatever the technicalities, they proved fatal because they took the order hostage and would not pass it unless certain conditions were met. The noise from the opposition Benches exemplifies what has gone wrong, because if we cannot now agree what the convention is, we have to either re-establish it or find another way to try to get it right.

My review was greatly helped by an excellent team of officials from the Cabinet Office and a group of parliamentary advisers whose combined knowledge of Parliament and the passing of legislation is, I think, unparalleled. However, it was my review and my report, and I am entirely responsible for all the views held in it.

One issue that exercised us perhaps more than anything else was that of financial privilege. In my report, I discuss the old conventions between the two Houses on tax and supply, which go back to the 17th century—some argue to the 15th or the 14th century. Sometimes these things are not well understood these days. What is true is that financial privilege is very much a matter for another place, which, rightly, jealously guards its financial privilege. I have made recommendations that government and parliamentary authorities ought to discuss more, perhaps with the House of Commons Procedure Committee, exactly how to deal with financial privilege in future.

Of the three options that I have put forward, the first two are pretty self-explanatory. The first is to remove the House of Lords from debating and discussing statutory instruments, which I think would be a loss of scrutiny and an encouragement for the Government to use statutory instruments and secondary legislation even more. The second is somehow to rebuild the convention, but the convention can be rebuilt only if it comes from the House. Governments cannot impose conventions on the House. That is why I came to my third option, which is a genuine attempt to find a new procedure and give the House of Lords a new power, a very practical power that we have never had before. I also have to admit that there was nothing original in it. As part of my studies, I looked at previous debates and discussions. As early as 2001, in the great Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords chaired by my noble friend Lord Wakeham, he and his team of commissioners came up with a plan that looks remarkably similar to my option 3, and it has been echoed in other studies as well.

By having the ability to do what the House of Lords traditionally does so well, which is to ask the House of Commons to think again, we are doing what we have always done. To limit it to—if I may call it this—a ping without a pong, we are giving the House of Lords certain rights that it does not have at the moment. In other words, we have a conversation between the two Houses but the other House has the final say.

I should also like briefly to mention the scrutiny committees. One thing that became apparent very quickly was in what high regard the scrutiny committees of the House of Lords, chaired by my noble friends Lady Fookes and Lord Trefgarne, are held by government departments, Commons committees and outside commentators. There is no question in my mind that secondary legislation—statutory instruments—are an absolute requirement in the modern era, but it is very important that we have the right tools for scrutiny. We should question very strongly when framework Bills are put before us whether the requirements for ministerial powers are necessary.

Since the Statutory Instruments Act was passed in 1946, we have enjoyed unfettered powers to vote on Secondary Legislation. In this context, I asked myself these questions. First, is there a problem that now needs to be solved? I concluded that there was. Secondly, should the Lords retain this veto power? I concluded that the answer was no. Thirdly, is this the right time for a new power and a new procedure for the House of Lords to do what it does best? That is, to ask the House of Commons to think again, and the answer to that was yes. It is now up to your Lordships and the Government to decide not only whether these are the right questions but whether they are also the right answers to find a sustainable process that will serve the interest of Lords and Parliament alike over the next few years. I beg to move.