My Lords, following the general election and the opening of the new Parliament, it is fair to say that a number of us looked forward to a period in which reform of this House was not on everybody’s lips but instead we had an opportunity to get on with business, scrutinise legislation and do the job which we are sent here to do.
Sadly, as the summer progressed, the Sewel scandal had a huge impact on the standing of this House, and of course another major controversy erupted in the autumn over the tax credits issue. A number of noble Lords have already questioned whether that piece of secondary legislation should have been brought to your Lordships’ House in the first place. Maybe, on reflection, there could have been another way, but the temptation in this case to stop such a controversial measure was irresistible.
My main concern about option 3 is, in part, shared by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, himself. In the final paragraph on page 6 of his review, the noble Lord expresses the concern that I share, when he uses the words,
“Finally, in order to mitigate against excessive use of the new process which I have proposed under option 3”,
et cetera. My anxiety is that the temptation will be to ping-pong piece after piece of secondary legislation down the corridor and say, as the scorpion did to the frog, “It’s what we do”. It could lead to further confrontations rather than fewer.
Perhaps we need to look at other measures. These could include, as mentioned by many Members this afternoon, those around the question of secondary legislation. Anybody who has ever had any role in a formal legislative process, either nationally or regionally, will know that Ministers all like statutory instruments. They are easy and quick, and difficult to amend. You can achieve quite a lot with them. Of course there is now future-proofing of legislation—I have no doubt that the draftspeople will deny it, but I do not accept that—where provision is made so that Bills can be subsequently amended by statutory instrument. The temptation is undoubtedly there.
I sincerely hope that we can look at some kind of change. However, although it may certainly be required, I am anxious that we will escalate the number of confrontations rather than reduce them. The temptation will be to send any statutory instrument back to the other place to amend it. It would open up a huge degree of additional traffic between the two Houses, which would not necessarily be helpful.
I am of course a very strong believer in the primacy of the other place, but I also believe that, to do our job properly, this House needs to be able to express a view in order to improve legislation and cause the Government to rethink their position from time to time. However, where we may be starting to go wrong is that this House should not allow itself to become the national Opposition to Her Majesty’s Government, which I fear is the temptation to which a number of Members of your Lordships’ House have yielded in recent months. That is not helpful to the balance in this Parliament.
There is growing hostility towards us among some Members in the other place, which is concerning. This is in part as a result of confrontation coming so soon after the Government secured a mandate. I fear that there might be far less support expressed for this House in the Commons today than there was when the Clegg proposals were being pushed through a few years ago. It would be churlish not to acknowledge the work done by the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and
Lord Norton of Louth, and their very effective group in trying to get a proper balance in the relationship. Knee-jerk reactions and changes always carry risks.
The fundamental weakness in all this is the unco-ordinated nature of the changes occurring to our unwritten constitution at so many different levels. Devolution to the home nations is evolving rapidly, with no thought given to accountability to Parliament; major changes are taking place at local level, with the new council and mayoral arrangements being introduced; and, finally, we saw last night another attempt to resolve the West Lothian question, with EVEL being used for the first time in the other place. Only a coherent and comprehensive examination of all our constitutional arrangements taken together will provide the platform for a fully thought-through constitution for the 21st century. That must involve consideration of what role this House plays.
What we are discussing today is an understandable attempt to resolve what is seen as a challenge to the primacy of the other place, and I do not believe there is real support in this House for any challenge. That is the weakness that is so apparent in the way successive Governments have chosen to handle the constitution. I sincerely hope that we can promote a more joined-up approach and that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will address this matter during her contribution later in the debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for the work he has done, but I believe we need further refinement, perhaps around option 3 or variations thereof. Otherwise, I fear we will increase, at a dramatic rate, the number of issues which we will be sending back to the other place.