Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:34 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 4:34 pm, 13th January 2016

My Lords, I was intrigued by the very first sentence of the executive summary in the paper of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, which states:

“Since 1968, a convention has existed that the House of Lords should not reject statutory instruments (or should do so only rarely)”.

To my mind, that is exactly what has happened over the past 50 years. The Motions that caused the establishment of the Strathclyde report, and even the noble Lord,

Lord Strathclyde, himself has accepted this, were not in any way breaches of the convention in terms of rejection.

I am taking part today because it is 20 years since I first took my seat in the House, and therefore I thought it would be useful to contribute to what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, referred to as the collective memory. During that time, I have spent nine years as Leader of the Liberal Democrats, three very pleasant years as the Deputy Leader of the House under the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and three and a half years as a Minister. I have never made any secret of my view that although this House has many admirable qualities and does some extremely useful work, in its present form it is an affront to democracy. I regret the opportunities missed more fully to reform the House in 1999 and, as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, knows, I regret the missed opportunity of the Wakeham commission in 2000. However, we must not be seduced today by the argument that because the recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is close to one of the proposals made by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, it has greater weight and authority. The Wakeham proposals were, as I am sure the noble Lord would agree, a carefully balanced package of powers and responsibilities, not a single measure designed to weaken and undermine the authority of this House. I may want to see this House reformed, but I have no wish to see it become Mr Cameron’s poodle, and a neutered poodle at that.

One of the most useful experiences I have had in the past 20 years was to serve on the Cunningham committee, and I am delighted to see that the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, is here today. It is worth remembering that the impetus for the setting-up of the Cunningham committee was that the then Labour Government thought that the House of Lords was getting too big for its boots. This is not a new phenomenon. Every former Leader of the House will be able to show you the scars of being hauled over to No. 10 to explain some defeat or other in the Lords. I well remember having to prepare, as Leader of the Liberal Democrats, a tribute to the late Lord Belstead, who had been a Leader of the House under Mrs Thatcher. I thought I would find something nice to say about him by looking at the Thatcher memoirs. The only reference I could find was to a handbagging he had received from Mrs T following a defeat in the House of Lords. That is the nature of the relationship. I freely confess to my own impatience as a Minister when the House shredded some carefully constructed inter- departmental compromise or spotted a piece of legislative corner-cutting which had escaped the scrutiny, or lack of it, of the other place.

I do not believe that the Lords over-reached themselves in the matter before us, but the whole furore has exposed the need to look at the increasing use by the Government of skeleton Bills backed by secondary legislation, as well as the increasing tendency of the clerks in the other place to affix financial privilege to an amendment. I remember the surprise and relief in the Ministry of Justice when some mainly legal amendments to one of our Bills suddenly had financial privilege attached to them in the other place. We all breathed a sigh of relief that they did not come back to the Lords.

It is 40 years since the late Lord Hailsham warned against a Parliament without checks and balances becoming an elective dictatorship. That warning is even more pertinent today, when the flaws in the first past the post system provide us with a Government with 100% of the power and only 36% of the vote. We are now living with our past failures to reform both the House and the voting system. In those circumstances, it is essential that this House should retain the right to say no. It is the paragraph of the Cunningham committee report that I fought hardest to have included, and that report was endorsed by both Houses. Let us be clear: that Cunningham report is the baseline; it is not Salisbury/ Addison, which was never endorsed by other than the two political parties, and never by these Benches. I urge this House not to abandon its right to say no: use it prudently, yes; use it sparingly, yes; but retain it we must.

I can only say to the Conservative Benches, on which there are some very wise heads, that the best service they can provide is gently to tell the Chancellor and the Prime Minister that the best way to avoid the hubris which overtakes all long-serving Ministers is to retain the safety catch which accident rather than design has left here in the House of Lords to protect us from that elective dictatorship which Lord Hailsham so wisely warned us against.