Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:10 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Darling of Roulanish Lord Darling of Roulanish Labour 6:10 pm, 13th January 2016

(Maiden Speech) It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, who makes some very trenchant criticisms of the way in which statutory instruments and legislation are dealt with. It is a pleasure, too, for me to have this opportunity to deliver this my first speech in your Lordships’ House.

I had not expected to end up here, but it was a great pleasure to meet so many people whom I have not seen for, in some cases, many years. I particularly thank my noble friends Lord Bradley and Lady Armstrong who introduced me to the House just before Christmas. The three of us were elected on the same day in 1987 and we have known each other for a long time.

I am grateful to the officers and staff of this House for all their help in what turned out to be a long and arduous process of getting from nomination to arriving here a few weeks ago. I am also grateful for the warm remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and my noble friends Lady Smith and Lady Hollis, who indeed toiled with me in the vineyard of tax credits some years ago.

I know that, rather like in the other House, the first speech should be uncontroversial and should not be phrased in such a way that it would provoke someone to stand up in outrage at anything I may say. Despite the subject, I shall try not to be controversial. I start off in that vein by saying that I come at this from the experience of having spent nearly 28 years in the other House, 13 of which were in government. I understand fully the frustrations of being a government Minister in a Government who get turned over in this place rather more often than one would wish. As a member of the Opposition for almost 15 years, I understand, too, the concern when opportunities to hold the Government to account are being taken away.

Obviously, the merits of tax credits were discussed last October when I was not a Member of this House. Suffice it to say that there has been some debate today about exceptional matters. That depends on where one stands in all this. The nature of tax credits is that they are designed to support the income of people who would otherwise be on a very low wage. It is not dissimilar, philosophically, from universal credit, which the Government are somewhat struggling to implement. From the point of view of the people who stood to lose very substantial sums of money, this was an exceptional measure. As I understand it, exceptional measures do not happen that often in relation to tax credits. Therefore, to react without giving the whole matter proper consideration might simply store up other problems for the future. So I hope that the House will reflect on that.

Speaking as someone who served in government for 13 years, the substantial point is that it is no bad thing that the House of Lords has the opportunity to revise legislation and to say that, no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable it may be to the Government of the day, they should go back and think about the matter again. This is particularly apposite in relation to tax credits. I sometimes reflect that Members of the government party in the other House might be profoundly grateful for being spared several months of being, quite rightly, harangued by their constituents who would have lost substantial sums of money.

I am sure that my successor as Chancellor, perhaps in his private moments, is also very grateful. I am almost certain that he would have been bound to have had to reverse the measure at some point. I have been there before. I had to deal with the consequences of our decision to abolish the 10p rate of tax and, a decade and a half ago, when we raised pensions by rather a small amount. Without wishing to remind my colleagues of that pain, I know what it is like to make a decision and then look at it and think, “Well, perhaps I should have done something different”. The present Chancellor was given the opportunity to change his policy. In the Autumn Statement, he said that, having looked at it—remember that at that time the sun was shining on our economy, although I understand that clouds have subsequently arrived to make the outlook less rosy than it was last December—he did not need to do it. It is a classic case of where the House of Lords said, “Think again”, and a lot of people, perhaps silently, have said, “Yes, I am glad that we did”. But it turned out that the Government said that they did not actually need to introduce the measure.

I make the point that if you take away or restrict the opportunity to revise, the obvious problem will arise that Parliament—I use that term advisedly—will pass, on occasions, legislation which has unintended consequences, or sometimes consequences that are very adverse on the population which looks to Parliament to protect its interests. I understand that when I was in the Government what we proposed was defeated in the House of Lords on nearly 500 occasions. That may have been on a temporary basis but on a number of occasions we had to think again. When you are making policy, you just have to take it on the chin. You have to ask yourself, “Can I get this through the House of Commons? Can I get it past a Select Committee? Can I justify what I am doing in front of a Select Committee for a couple of hours without stumbling? Can I get it through the House of Lords?”. It is important to do that.

I fully accept some of the criticisms made of statutory instruments. There are far too many of them. They are an easy way out for Ministers. In relation to tax credits, I have every sympathy with what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said as to why on earth was this not introduced by primary legislation. That is where it should have been introduced because it was an issue of some principle.

My conclusion is twofold. The need for revision and for questioning of the Executive is essential. I live in Edinburgh, where the Scottish Parliament is getting more and more powers. It is unicameral. It was never designed to be run by one party. As that Parliament gets more and more powers, the lack of questioning and scrutiny will become an increasing problem. We should bear that in mind.

Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, I am increasingly concerned at the amount of constitutional change that is taking place in this country on a piecemeal basis. The Scottish Parliament is getting more and more powers, including complete power over income tax very shortly. The imbalance of devolution in the United Kingdom is becoming a real problem. The whole concept of English votes for English laws is fraught with difficulties, particularly if you get into something that undermines the fiscal union that underpins the political union in this country. Other Members have referred to other measures. I know that reform of the House of Lords is difficult. I can understand why the Prime Minister and all his predecessors said, “Look, forget this. Let’s leave it for another day”. Yet, every year we do a little bit more. If it is not looked at as a whole, one day the whole thing will topple over. Outside, people may say, “Hurrah to that”, but it would be far better for us to look at this and come up with a sensible way to scrutinise and revise legislation, and to make sure that we have a Parliament which reflects what people want, especially at a time of growing dissatisfaction and alienation from our current political structures. It cannot be put off for much longer.

I hope that the House will think further about this, so that it does not look like a political fix and perhaps resembles a more considered view as to what we need as a second Chamber in the 21st century.