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Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:59 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Conservative 6:59 pm, 13th January 2016

My Lords, I shall hope to avoid having a disturbing and dramatic dream of the kind that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, has experienced but it helped to inspire a truly excellent speech. I follow in more mundane fashion.

Whatever the background circumstances, a defeat in this House on secondary legislation relating to a major political issue is bound to incur the wrath of a Government, regardless of their party complexion.

“Practically every newspaper confidently anticipated that the Prime Minister would announce in the House this afternoon a Bill to limit the Lords’ powers”.

That, in the words of Richard Crossman’s diary entry for 20 June 1968, is what followed the narrow defeat of the order on sanctions against Rhodesia, nearly 50 years ago. The fury died away, of course, and no legislation was brought forward. Calm was restored and sustained by conventions agreed between the parties.

The Strathclyde review is designed to provide the basis for the start of a new era. I am with those attracted by the third option for change that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde commended to us with his customary vigour. Indeed, I would always hesitate to challenge him in any way, having entered this House five years ago now with his kindly tutelage. But I am also with those who believe that any changes here need to be accompanied by changes in the other place. They need to proceed hand in hand; one should be conditional on the other.

The entire system by which secondary legislation is dealt with is the subject of an authoritative report, The Devil is in the Detail, to which my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth referred, from the Hansard Society, of which I am proud to be a trustee. It enjoyed until recently the wonderfully benign and gentle chairmanship of my personal friend the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. This detailed Hansard Society study confirms what many have readily acknowledged for years. It states:

“The scrutiny process for delegated legislation has become unnecessarily complex … most MPs simply don’t understand it … Many of the MPs we interviewed simply weren’t aware of the practicalities relating to the scrutiny of statutory instruments”.

It is that state of affairs which has made the existence of our power of veto extremely important.

The Hansard Society’s report also stated:

“The existence of a veto power gives purpose and leverage to the Lords’ scrutiny committees … Remove it, and the influence of the House of Lords will be neutered to the government’s advantage unless steps are also taken to improve scrutiny … by the House of Commons”.

That is surely the nub of the matter. Without improved scrutiny arrangements in the Commons, it is very hard to see how the third, preferred option in the Strathclyde review will really advance the interests of Parliament. If the procedures of the other place do not provide adequately for substantive consideration of the Lords view on a rejected statutory instrument then, instead of underpinning the primacy of the elected Chamber, the process will serve the interests of the Executive by granting an override power for MPs without requiring anything of them as regards actively engaging with or making an informed decision about the concerns raised by this House—a danger underlined by my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester.

I now serve on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. We meet week by week in the presence of an array of legal luminaries. The work is extremely important but the contribution that members of the committee can usefully make is severely circumscribed. Our terms of reference limit us to checking whether a statutory instrument is technically sound and properly drafted. We are explicitly precluded from considering its merits or the policy behind it. It is not difficult to see how better arrangements could be made.

Do we not need to see the Strathclyde review, so judiciously conducted by my noble friend, in a wider context? Do we not need a reform process within which it would take a most useful place? For without such a process, the loss of our veto is likely to strengthen the Executive at Parliament’s expense.