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Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:25 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 6:25 pm, 13th January 2016

My Lords, the review undertaken by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde may be pointing us in a direction that is worth pursuing, but for very different reasons from those advanced by my noble friend and not in the way recommended in his report. Our debate, following my noble friend’s report, has tended to focus on whether the House, by its vote on 26 October, broke a convention of the constitution. We are in danger of getting into a muddle. There has been no attempt to define what we mean by “convention”. The Joint Committee on Conventions did not offer a definition. My noble friend in his report offers a definition that is not incorrect, but it is incomplete.

There is much misunderstanding of what we mean by constitutional convention. Conventions are non-legal rules that determine a consistent, indeed invariable, pattern of behaviour. Those who comply with them do so because they accept that they are, as David Feldman has cogently expressed it, “right behaviour”. Conventions do not become such by the words of a particular person, be it Viscount Cranborne in 1945 or Lord Sewel in 1998. They are not created, but develop. A convention exists once there is an invariable practice. Kenneth Wheare distinguished between conventions and usage—in effect, a distinction between invariable and usual practice. The Cranborne doctrine of 1945 developed into the Salisbury convention. The statement of Lord Sewel developed into a convention named after him, even though the convention is such only by departing from the words that he used. It is a convention because seeking a legislative consent Motion is an invariable practice.

It is our usual practice not to withhold agreement to statutory instruments, but it is not our invariable practice. As we have heard, the House has asserted its right to reject statutory instruments and has on occasion exercised it. This House therefore does not regard itself as bound, and has not been bound, by a moral imperative that we should not reject statutory instruments. So long as that is the case, there is no convention. The Joint Committee got itself into something of a confusion on this issue, partly because of a failure to define conventions, but it recognised that no convention was breached if the House defeated a statutory instrument. As it reported at paragraph 228:

“The Government appear to consider that any defeat of an SI by the Lords is a breach of convention. We disagree”.

The fact that there is no convention is borne out by the words of my noble friend in the course of asserting that there is. My noble friend’s report states on page 15:

“The convention that the House of Lords should not, or should not regularly, reject SIs is longstanding but has been interpreted in different ways, has not been understood by all, and has never been accepted by some members of the House”.

The very wording draws attention to the absence of any agreement on what this supposed convention constitutes. Some Members, like my noble friend, may believe that there is a convention but, for it to be one, Members generally have to consider themselves bound not to vote down SIs. There is no such acceptance by the House. There was thus no breach of convention in respect of how this House deals with statutory instruments. That was not the problem. The problem derives from the fact that we exercised our power in respect of a statutory instrument that engaged the financial privilege of the Commons. The key section of my noble friend’s report is to be found on pages 21 and 22. That should have been the focus of his report. As my noble friend recognises, there is nothing to stop us developing procedures particular to delegated legislation that cover financial privilege.

I am not against reviewing our powers in respect of statutory instruments, but I take the view that if our powers in respect of delegated legislation are to be restricted, the powers should at least be analogous to those provided in the Parliament Acts in respect of primary legislation. My noble friend’s recommendation in favour of option 3 claims on page 18 that it is, but then admits, on page 20, that it is not, since there would be no suspensory veto. If we are to go down the route recommended by my noble friend, there needs to be something else built into the procedure to ensure that the reasons for objecting to an SI are taken seriously. I therefore endorse what several others noble Lords have argued—in other words, what may be termed option 3 plus.

In short, while I think that my noble friend’s report has come up with some stimulating proposals, it derives from a false premise and comes up with recommendations not geared to the mischief that prompted my noble friend’s inquiry. In the short term, there is a case for acting in respect of SIs that engage the Commons supremacy in respect of tax and spending. In the longer term, as several noble Lords have said today, there is a case for a substantial review of how we deal with statutory instruments. We have had recommendations from the Wakeham commission and the Goodlad committee. There is also a report on the subject produced by the Hansard Society, which has made the case for revisiting how Parliament as a whole deals with secondary legislation, recognising the limitations of the other place. Rather than a rushed quick fix, a more holistic approach is the way forward.