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Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:44 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 7:44 pm, 13th January 2016

My Lords, we know that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is a very nice man. I have known him for all the 25 years that I have been here, and he has shown great courtesy, charm and ability. So the question before us is: why does the Prime Minister not like him? Why has he given him what in rugby terms is called a hospital pass? He has been given the thankless task of trying to make a major tactical mistake by the Government, which was shown by your Lordships’ House to be worth definite rejection, seem respectable, retrieving the disaster that was visited upon the Government by pretending that the fault was somehow that of your Lordships’ House.

We have had an interesting and wide-ranging discussion today. We have had a kind of admission by the noble Lord that, strictly speaking, conventions were not broken on 26 October by the two Motions that were put to the vote. In the debate on the day, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said she was introducing her Motion because she knew that within three days the House of Commons would be holding a discussion on precisely the tax credit issue, so she was genuinely asking the House of Commons to think again. We all thought what would happen, after we had debated and passed the Motion, was that the House of Commons would think again. Indeed it did, and the Chancellor thought again too. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, it is the most popular thing that the House of Lords has done as far as the British public were concerned, and the most effective thing, in that the Chancellor dropped the policy. He had to revise his policy, come the Autumn Statement.

Given that all these things have happened, why do we have to consider all sorts of questions about the position of this House vis-à-vis the House of Commons, matters of power and privilege and all that? Why can we not just admit that, strictly speaking, had the Government wanted drastically to cut tax credits—they have the privilege to do so if they want to—they should have done it via primary legislation? That would have been the end of the matter and we would not have been able to do anything about it. So why did the Government do it by statutory instrument? It is precisely because there are 1,000 of them every year. I was privileged to be on the first committee of your Lordships’ House on the scrutiny of secondary legislation and, let me tell you, they are mind-numbingly boring. However, you have to go through the details because those details matter; they have to be examined. I think someone in the other place thought, “Statutory instruments are so boring that no one’s going to take this one seriously and it will pass”. It is precisely because secondary legislation is overused that a trick was tried on us that failed.

I remember Lord Simon of Glaisdale, whose name was mentioned earlier, who used to warn us about Henry VIII legislation and so on. There is indeed a problem; if we are going to have 1,000 or 1,200 pieces of secondary legislation, someone has to scrutinise them. I also agree with the many noble Lords who have said that your Lordships’ House would scrutinise them with much greater care and attention than would the other place. However, given that, we also ought to ask whether a lot of those sorts of decisions should not be much more open and transparent and be part of primary legislation, and not in skeleton Bills? Therefore, those are the issues.

I want to make one slightly radical suggestion about financial privileges. I accept that since the 17th century or before that it has been the House of Commons’ privilege to have powers with regard to financial matters. In 1911 the House of Lords blotted its copybook and got smashed for that reason—quite rightly so—and in 1949 our powers were again curtailed. Coming to today, the relationship between our two Chambers is quite different, because your Lordships’ House is no longer a seat of privilege or a place of feudal Lords. It is a place as representative of the great British public as is the House of Commons. Yes, we are unelected, but we are not unrepresentative. Also, as was proved on 26 October, we sometimes have better judgment on financial matters than another place.

Therefore, when we examine all the big questions of our constitution, we ought to ask ourselves: is it not time that we used the expertise of this House and its representativeness to have a greater input into financial matters than it is allowed today? It will not happen any time soon—if we ever have this great constitutional convention we may be able to consider that—but we should certainly not leave that question undiscussed in our future deliberations.