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Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:05 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Taylor of Bolton Baroness Taylor of Bolton Labour 7:05 pm, 13th January 2016

It was not the words of the Motions that were fatal but the political consequences that the Government were fearing, not least because their Members in another place then woke up to what these regulations were all about. The hype that we saw, which my noble friend Lady Smithmentioned, about the threats of extra Peers and the suspension of this House was more to do with the political consequences than the actual point about a convention being broken.

For several years, I was part of the business management team in the House of Commons. I was leader of the Commons and its Chief Whip; before that, I was the shadow leader of the House when Tony Newton was the leader of that House. One of the main problems that government business managers had—looking at what the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said earlier, I think that it is the case on all sides—was in trying to keep Ministers realistic about what they could achieve in their legislation. They always wanted to do more and to have wide framework legislation. They always wanted to load the legislation so that a lot could be done by statutory instruments. There were mechanisms for dealing with that, but it was very difficult to contain Ministers at times.

We have to acknowledge that the whole process of using statutory instruments, while absolutely vital to the machinery of government, is or can be open to abuse. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said that that is possibly the case with all Governments. I accept that there have been occasions when all Governments have pushed the limits further and further, but we are now in a new ball-game with the framework legislation that we get and in terms of the SIs. The example that the noble and learned Lord gave about the provisions in the Childcare Bill during the previous Session prove the point. The idea that you can make a criminal conviction through an SI is just outrageous and we should not even be contemplating it.

I think that we have a great deal of agreement this afternoon that we need change, but it is not a question of what changes need to affect this House. It is a question of what changes need to be implemented in Parliament as a whole to deal with the whole question of secondary legislation and how we scrutinise and hold the Government to account.

My noble friend Lady Smith reminded us of the difficulty in the House of Commons of getting Back-Benchers to serve on SI committees. It was and is a real problem, because people saw little mileage in it for themselves and very little point, because it is a very limited debate. Often, the problem was getting a quorum rather than being challenged on the issues thrown up. At the moment, we see minimal scrutiny in the House of Commons by government Back-Benchers who are told to keep quiet and opposition Back-Benchers who do not think that they will make any difference.

We have three problems here: framework Bills, the number of SIs—and, probably more importantly, their scope, which is much greater than it used to be—and the problem of lack of scrutiny in the House of Commons. When we are considering what the next stage be, it should not be a simplistic Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has suggested; it should be a comprehensive look at this problem. We have had some interesting suggestions during this debate of a Joint Committee, with the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, making some very pertinent points and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, talking about implications of financial privilege for SIs. I would say that most SIs have a financial implication. Are we to have a threshold or to say that we can never look at any of them?

There is general agreement on all sides of this House that this is a bigger problem than one of a convention that may or may not have been broken. Therefore, I urge the Government and the Leader of the House to think about not only what is convenient for this Government in the short-term but—I know that it is unlikely in the near future—what they may have to and want to do in opposition. Do not think about the short term, because that will not be good for Parliament as a whole. We have a big responsibility in this House to Parliament as a whole. That is the way that we should go forward in considering this issue.