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Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:05 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 8:05 pm, 13th January 2016

My Lords, a few moments ago, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, suggested that anything we did now would be thought by everybody outside this Chamber to have been going since 1215. One of the things I find quite incredible about this country, and particularly the political class in it, is the ignorance about what did happen in 1215, which was the creation of a desperately needed organisation to control the Executive—not one to facilitate them. The Executive were not permitted to enter it until the reign of George I, who did not speak enough English to deliver the King’s Speech and had to have a Prime Minister in here to do it for him. Now we have more than 100 of his kin, as it were, in the two Houses.

That makes it increasingly important that we guard the power not just of this House but of Parliament to control the Executive. On occasion, the Government—the Executive—get control of the other place to the extent that it loses its ability to control the Government. I refer to the occasion when the Labour Party wanted to introduce 90-day detention without habeas corpus or any access to lawyers. That was only stopped because this House sat from 2.30 pm on a Thursday until 7.31 pm on a Friday evening. Your Lordships may think this is a long session, but it is nothing to what we did then. That actually stopped it. That was such a close demonstration of how difficult it is when we are really needed to restrain the excesses of an Executive that I, for one, am certainly not tempted by options 1 or 2. Option 3 is defective in two respects, to which I will return.

The other thing that amazes me about people in Parliament since 1973, when I joined it, is that I see endless processions of Oppositions clamouring for more restraint of government and coming on to the Front Bench, both here and in the other House, promising to do something about it. Within months—my noble friend Lord Higgins made this point rather well—they are saying it is not convenient or timely and actually find they like things as they are and that it makes business easier. The departments tell them that they should not build obstructions to the policies the department wants to put in, and the result is that nothing much happens in the right direction after the first six months or so in power. Incidentally, it was in her first six months that Lord St John of Fawsley got Margaret Thatcher to accept departmental Select Committees in the House of Commons, which has been tremendously important but is something she would never have done in the following years.

I come from the wrong camp: I am a Conservative, but a parliamentarian, and my view is that we should hang on to all the powers we have. The fat underbelly of legislation, as it was described a moment ago, exists in the huge amounts of legislation that go through in statutory instruments. How do we ever stop the excessive powers put into statutory instruments? If the Henry VIII clause has gone through, if the Minister has the power and if the department wants the legislation, how do we stop excessive powers and excessive expenditure—things that should not happen without proper and full parliamentary scrutiny—if we cannot say no? We can send them back for the House of Commons to think again, but if the Commons just nods them through, the same faults will be repeated.

There is much in option 3 that is desirable. I think it is necessary to have a specific time limit within which the House of Commons should make up its mind. There should be machinery to see that legislation is actually debated. My noble friend said that you could not do that because debate might go on—or there might be no debate—before the statutory instrument fell due to be implemented. The answer to that is to have a timetable for the tabling of statutory instruments by departments such that there is time for them to be scrutinised and discussed by both Houses in an interchange before the implementation date. Departments are sometimes pretty slack in getting these things out. What is now needed is a review of the whole SI process from drafting through to the instrument’s scope and the powers it confers, followed by the tabling and the procedures in Parliament. If those matters can be matched into a discussion of the wider question of the arrangements between the two Houses, all well and good. However, we need to get on with something.

If the commissioning of this report was a reaction to what was thought to be an unpopular exhibition, with the House of Lords being out of date and unpopular with the country, my response is that I think that in the country as a whole it was thought that we did rather a good job. If we want to do something to show that we, the House of Lords, wish to make ourselves more effective, easier to run and less expensive, we should address the question of the numbers in this House. I have a Private Member’s Bill on the stocks and am working on a Standing Order which, between them, would achieve that reduction without changing the balance between the parties.

I hope that your Lordships hang on to your powers for as long as you can.