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Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:26 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Deputy Chairman of Committees 5:26 pm, 13th January 2016

My Lords, I sought to speak in this debate for one specific reason. It has been my privilege in recent years to be a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, as well as of the Goodlad committee. Noble Lords may wonder what I have done to deserve such cruel and unusual punishment, but it has been a genuine privilege to see the way that the House does scrutiny.

I am speaking personally now. I am concerned about anything that might reduce the legitimate use of our powers of scrutiny in this House and diminish the power of Parliament. I believe that the weight of opportunistic changes to our political system, some of which has been rehearsed in the House, has reached a tipping point in terms of Executive power and away from Parliament and, with respect, the noble Lord’s review sits at the heart of that. Far from having a quarrel with the other place, we are here today making a defence of Parliament as a whole and its ability to hold the Government to account—a Government who, as many noble Lords have already said, find it difficult to face losing votes. Sometimes they seem to behave as if it were 1796, not 2016. I advise the party opposite to remember that there is an ineluctable law in politics that no Government have an endless shelf life.

Talking of hubris, despite the elegant way in which the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, delivered his speech, in 1999 he declared that the convention that this House did not vote against statutory instruments was dead. In 2005, he conceded that it had had a lively revival and was rather robust, but now, awkwardly, the Government have required him to declare it conveniently dead after all, and have charged him with finding a way of resuscitating the patient. The problem is of course that the patient is not actually dead; as we have heard today, it is sitting up and having a hearty breakfast. Unfortunately, that means that the noble Lord’s review started on a false note with a false premise. Since there is no evidence of the excessive use of statutory instruments being rejected in this House, no case can be made for the abolition of our power to veto.

Having been invited to address the wrong question, the noble Lord, not surprisingly, came up with the wrong answer. It appears that we are the problem, with our apparent “failure” to understand the conventions. We are also told that the convention has been fraying for many years; indeed, to quote from the report, it,

“has been stretched to breaking point”.

I know that the noble Lord has a fine sense of irony—we saw it in operation many times when he was Leader of this House—but to say that it is stretching the convention to breaking point for the House of Lords to reject five statutory instruments in 65 years, and four in the past 16 years, itself stretches credibility to breaking point. What is frayed and stretched is the other important and very long-standing convention, the distinction between primary and secondary legislation, which has already been alluded to. As Erskine May itself puts it, the purpose of secondary legislation is to deal with the application of detail. The fact that secondary legislation is increasingly not about detail at all but about the scope, the impact and the implementation of primary legislation and making substantial variations to it is the source of the crisis that this Government have manufactured, and is exemplified by the tax credits regulations.

This is evident in the raft of Bills, some already cited by noble Lords, which have been described by the DPRRC in one instance as simple mission statements. Most notoriously, perhaps, there is the Childcare Bill, which led that committee to say that the delegated powers,

“go to the very heart”,

of the Bill. My experience on both the scrutiny committees of this House leaves me in no doubt that the Government find us a thorough nuisance. Time and again in the past two Sessions the Government have been reprimanded by both committees for excessive and inappropriate use of delegation. We have had to refer back to this House secondary legislation which contains substantial policy changes with substantial impacts—for example, the draft hunting regulations, immigration changes, and universal credit. In this Session alone, 32 SIs have had to be corrected by government after serious flaws were identified and 16 have had to be withdrawn completely.

If we add to that ministerial failure to provide impact statements, or Explanatory Memoranda which do the opposite of what they are supposed to do, a picture emerges of a Government who not only deliberately exploit secondary legislation and reduce parliamentary scrutiny in the process but are resentful of proper scrutiny. If we were to lose our exceptional power to reject SIs, Parliament would lose a legitimate brake on government excess. However, it would also reduce the credibility of the scrutiny process as a whole and open the gate to greater abuse. What is needed, which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, anticipated, is a wholesale review of secondary legislation to remind Ministers of their public duty to be open and transparent about policy and legislation, to be accountable, and to respect—in fact, invite—the role of scrutiny.

Instead, we have the three options before us. We are invited to focus on option 3, which involves a new procedure to be set out in statute which would allow the Lords to invite the Commons to think again when a disagreement exists and to assert its primacy. Sadly, this option raises more questions than it resolves. Where is the timetable which will allow the House of Commons to think again? Where are the provisions for legitimate delay? Where is the guarantee that the House of Commons—either as a whole, or in Committee —would be able to show that it had indeed thought again, by debate, or by vote? Where, in short, is this additional provision for scrutiny which would compensate the House for the loss of our veto?

Many commentators are already alarmed by what this implies. We have heard the Hansard Society quoted. Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit says:

“If a Lords defeat did not trigger a debate, and a full-blown vote, peers could find themselves overridden by MPs who had no clue what they were voting on”.

The reality is that we could end up with the worst of all worlds: having lost important competence in this House but with no extra scrutiny in place.

Finally, when the noble Baroness winds up I hope that she will give some indication of the issues raised by the proposal to legislate for these changes. The legislation, we are cheerfully told by the noble Lord, is likely to be short. That will not stop it being problematic. It will be extremely difficult. Nothing like this will have been done before. I know that the noble Baroness is aware of the pitfalls. I detect a certain wistfulness in the noble Lord’s tone when he says that when the conventions go, Parliament and the people it serves will miss their value. Indeed they will, and they will miss nothing more than the power of this House to have a veto over a Government who sometimes act far too hastily, which is when we save them from themselves.