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Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:59 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Cromwell Lord Cromwell Crossbench 7:59 pm, 13th January 2016

I join those thanking the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for his very thoughtful and thought-provoking review, not least because of the quality of the debate that it has provoked here today, which has brought forth two such excellent and educational maiden speeches. I was a little more nervous to hear about the dreams that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, has of beheading Cromwells, even if they are not my kinsmen, but I hope he sleeps rather better tonight after the very powerful speech he gave us earlier on.

When I first read the review, I found a great deal to like in it. Option 1 is, I suspect, a straw man, while option 2 is almost the status quo. Option 3, to which we are therefore ineluctably led, has an appeal. All the options in the report are designed with one purpose, which is to reduce the ability of this House to thwart the will of the other place. That is, of course, as it should be. Noble Lords may cite examples of where that thwarting has saved the Commons from itself, and we may even have reflected the popular mood on an issue better than the other place on occasion, but that is not our job. The role of this revising Chamber, which it does brilliantly, is, first, to assist the other place in avoiding the unintended consequences of the Government’s legislative programme and, secondly, to provoke thought rather than confrontation. This is achieved through a combination of the wealth of experience in our House and our role in painstaking examination of proposed legislation. However, in the end, the elected Chamber must have its way. That includes the right to pursue policies and legislation that are unpopular, including with some Members of this House, and taking the electoral consequences.

The second thing that appealed to me about option 3 was that it stresses the need for clarity and simplicity. We have talked very inwardly tonight, but out there beyond the Westminster village there is a great need for that clarity of understanding. Many citizens—lamentably few of whom know what this House does or contributes—need a clear understanding of the valuable role of this House, the areas where it excels and where its authority starts and finishes. Option 3 goes a long way to making clear and giving practical effect to the primacy of the House of Commons in interaction between the two Houses. I believe that is what the people of this country would expect.

However, there are difficulties, as ever, in the details of the report, particularly with option 3. First, as a number of noble Lords have said—notably the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead—what is to prevent the House of Lords overusing the ability conveyed in option 3? There is a real risk of option 3 enabling political skirmishing between the Houses. That would be regrettable and I hope that the closing speeches we will hear tonight will tell us how that will be avoided. Conversely, on the other side of that coin, what is to prevent the Commons—a number of speakers have touched on this—simply adding a tick-box process to dismiss the communications from this House and paying little heed to their content? This is a real concern, widely mentioned this evening. A number of commentators have raised worries about the quality of scrutiny in the Commons anyway: both before statutory instruments even come to us and how they would be scrutinised and debated in the Commons if this House sent them back. The review suggests that a requirement for a Written Ministerial Statement might be used, but is that really going to be enough? Again, I hope that we shall get more clarity on this in the closing part of the debate.

The review ends with two further recommendations. The first is a review of when Commons-only procedures should apply. That makes sense if it avoids the abuse of the system to smuggle through aspects of policy and legislation that deserve proper debate and scrutiny. It would be helpful to know if or when this review has actually been scheduled. Secondly, there is not so much a recommendation as an appeal to the Commons to provide Bills and instruments that are more fully written—or, to use the language of tonight, less skeletal. This is something which has often been expressed in this House and is devoutly to be wished for. However, we may wonder whether it is more of a hope than an expectation. Were any signs of progress in this area detected during the course of the review?

Finally, I see the merits of option 3 as a one-off updating of the conventions of this House. But—and again it is a substantial but—it is of course risky to adjust, as this review does, one part of the machine in isolation from other, wider changes in this House and, crucially, in the other place. But that is probably a debate for another day, or perhaps even a Joint Committee.