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Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:37 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat 8:37 pm, 13th January 2016

My Lords, we have had some hugely interesting and expert contributions to today’s debate. I am not a constitutional or procedural expert, and no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, will find me boringly predictable in agreeing with my colleagues that we should retain the veto, but essentially I want to draw some conclusions from my experience in March 2007 in persuading the House to reject by three votes an order which proposed the location of the first super-casino in east Manchester. I am glad to say that the angels, in the form of the then most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, were on our side for a change, and of course the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, referred to that occasion earlier.

I take very little credit for the outcome of that debate because the arguments had been made in advance. Of huge importance was the fact that the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, now known as the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, had in no uncertain terms drawn special attention, first, to the change in the remit of the Casino Advisory Panel from the one originally announced by Ministers, and secondly, to the problems in the way that the panel interpreted and carried out that remit in producing its recommendation to site the super-casino in east Manchester; and that therefore, in the time-honoured phrase, the SI might “imperfectly achieve its objective”. I probably do not need to remind many noble Lords that the committee was chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, who at the time sat on the same Benches as the then Government.

During that debate, we had some procedural discussion as to whether it was proper to vote down a statutory instrument of that nature. I pointed out Lord Simon of Glaisdale’s 1994 Motion, which many noble Lords have cited today, about our unfettered freedom to vote on subordinate legislation, which of course is contained in the Companion. It was also referred to particularly by my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness.

But as it happened, a few months before that debate, the Joint Committee on Conventions chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling—who I was very glad to hear speak today—had published its report. I also quoted paragraph 216 of that report in the chapter relating to secondary legislation, which again referred back to the merits committee:

“The Lords SI Merits Committee considers that powers and conventions in this area are adequately codified in each SI’s parent Act and in the Companion, and that nothing further is called for. Parliamentary scrutiny of SIs is a growth area; the power to reject SIs gives Parliament ‘leverage’, and should if anything be exercised more, not less”.

The report went on to broadly agree, apart from that final sentiment, that the power should not be exercised frequently but that there was no constitutional convention against doing so, and that indeed it was legitimate to threaten defeat in a number of specific circumstances, one of which relates to special attention being drawn by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. That particular occasion fell foursquare within the terms set out by the Cunningham committee. At the time the House, as it does, listened carefully and accepted that the Cunningham report was essentially correct, and I believe that the vote reflected that, by a narrow margin.

I believe that the report still makes good sense, and that is why I was delighted to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, today. It is given weight by the fact that the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, with a Government and a chair of a different party stripe, subsequently took a not dissimilar view and made sensible suggestions about returning SIs which had been rejected and were coming back to this House.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, himself have mentioned the fact that back in 1999 or 2000, the noble Lord seemed to agree with those on this side of the argument. He referred to his statement about declaring the convention dead, and all credit to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for digging out further compromising statements by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. After that, however, the noble Lord seems to have done a complete about-face both in his evidence to the Goodlad committee and now in this report. His views seem to have changed, and the shadow Leader of the House referred elegantly to the fact that when Ministers are in government they take a somewhat different view. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, took a rather more crude approach, if I may say, but used a none the less vigorous expression in terms of the “Corporal Jones rule” that we must now refer to, and I entirely agree. But to be quite fair, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, made exactly the same points when the casino order was up for debate, and I believe that life was ever thus.

By contrast, we in this House should remain consistent in the absence of wider reform of the Lords. We should stand on the very firm ground established by the reports of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, and of the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, and not on the shaky arguments set forth by the report of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. Governments often huff and puff, but they benefit from reconsidering a measure when it is defeated in this House. In the case of the casinos order, the Government of the time, under Gordon Brown, could have brought back a new order or rerun the process of selection. But they did not. That speaks volumes, as does this Government’s acceptance of the vote on tax credits.

To give credit where it is due, the report of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has stimulated debate. But I urge all sides to consider some of the ideas suggested to do far more effective scrutiny of legislation and to have far more effective primary legislation in terms of the way in which powers are delegated, perhaps through another Joint Committee such as that established previously. However, I urge this House to take the Strathclyde report no further.