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Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:52 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 5:52 pm, 13th January 2016

My Lords, it is always a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. She brings great experience and wisdom to all the debates in which she takes part. I echo what she said about her noble friend Lady Bowles, who made a notable maiden speech. I also echo her perceptive and truly appreciative remarks about my noble friend Lord Strathclyde and the work he has put into what is certainly a thoughtful and constructive report. However, it is not the last word. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for ensuring that this is a “take note” debate and that we can all reflect on what is said in it.

We have to begin by recognising that this debate has come about because of a paradox. Rarely has there been a more popular vote in the country, as far as the

House of Lords is concerned, than the one that took place on 26 October; and rarely has there been a greater change of policy on the part of a Government as a result of the vote. I recognise that, even though I voted enthusiastically in the other Lobby. The Labour constitutionalists, as I call them, and noble Lords in other parts of the House thought that this was a step too far. However, because of the enormous financial cost involved, it was understandable that the Government reacted—but I believe that they overreacted.

It is very interesting that wherever you sit in this House you are conditioned by the position of your party. Position lends difference to the view. I well remember that in another place I fulminated—sometimes from the Front Bench as well as from the Back—against some of the changes of procedure to the House of Commons introduced by the Labour Government. I deplored Programme Motions; I deplored the proliferation of what we called Henry VIII clauses on skeleton Bills; I deplored deferred Divisions; and I very much hoped that when my party came into government those things would go. I even said from the Front Bench that they would go—but of course I was not then in a position to do anything about it. But some of those who had made promises became members of, first, the coalition Government and then the Conservative Government and felt it inconvenient to carry them out because all of those changes were helpful to the Executive. This is really what it is all about.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, referred to this in a whimsical way. I almost thought that he was going to quote Corporal Jones from “Dad’s Army”—“They don’t like it up ‘em”. The fact is that Governments do not “like it up ‘em”—which is why we are in this position today.

Having said all that, we do have a real problem: what should this House do about, and what should its powers be over, important legislation with financial implications—secondary legislation particularly in this case? My noble friend Lord Strathclyde has pointed the way. It is important that we follow some of his suggestions but address them in a manner in which the House of Commons, the other place, has to learn to behave: with more robust independence when it comes to secondary legislation.

I hope that as a result of my noble friend’s report there will be a realisation on the part of government that skeleton Bills should become a thing of the past. Governments are not there to create Christmas trees on which Ministers then hang balls. I hope, therefore, that following today’s “take note” debate there will be a discussion in government. I also hope that a Joint Committee of both Houses will be established to look at the whole issue of secondary legislation and that it will take on board the wise advice given a few moments ago by my noble friend Lord Naseby. We cannot stay where we are—we have to have clarification—but we have to preserve the position of this House, to which I am passionately devoted, to have a real role in legislation while never subverting the superiority, in legislative terms, of the other place, the elected House.

So let us go forward from here having taken note of this sagacious and helpful report. Let us have a Joint Committee of both Houses; let the Government realise that they were largely responsible for the debacle on 26 October. My position then was very like that of my noble friend Lord Lawson, who said that he was determined to vote as he did—as we both did—but that he had considerable sympathy with the points being made by those who were going to vote in another direction. We have had our lesson, I hope. Let us now move forward constructively so that this House’s position in our country’s legislature is properly recognised and confirmed, so that the supremacy of the Commons is not challenged but legislation, both primary and secondary, is thoroughly scrutinised.