Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:51 pm on 13th January 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Gordon of Strathblane Lord Gordon of Strathblane Labour 8:51 pm, 13th January 2016

My Lords, the fact that the report by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was commissioned as part of a somewhat hysterical overreaction to the defeat that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, just referred to should not blind us to the fact that it is none the less a very good report. I congratulate him on the speed with which it was produced, its brevity and the contribution of his expert advisers.

The report is a very good start to a debate that needs to commence very quickly because of abuse of SIs not by this Chamber, but by successive Governments dating back over a number of years. The quotation that we heard from the forthcoming Scotland Bill is simply one indication of what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, earlier referred to as a Christmas tree on which to hang baubles all over the place. The way legislation moves through is a joke. When I came here there was a statutory instrument in a field to which I was vaguely related that required a small amendment. The Chief Whip told me, “Sorry, we don’t do that. We can either vote to veto it or not at all”. That is ludicrous. If statutory instruments are part of the legislative process, they should be subject to the same rules. We must move in that direction. I am quite happy to lose vetoes. Vetoes do not matter. They are, in fact, equivalent to a nuclear option: they are an inhibiting factor rather than an encouragement to proper dissent.

On page 6 of the report, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, states that,

“I believe it would be appropriate for the Government to take steps to ensure that Bills contain an appropriate level of detail and that too much is not left for implementation by statutory instrument”.

That is a very polite way of agreeing with what the Hansard Society says today: that the distinction between the two has long since been abused by successive Governments and we need to start doing something about it.

Option 1 cannot really be a serious option; it is a bit of a joke. Meg Russell very kindly said that it is probably there to make the other two options look attractive. That is perhaps a legitimate objective. Option 2 is essentially staying the way we are, which I do not think works. I would go for option 3, with some amendments, which would be as follows. First, we should be capable of amending secondary legislation, because in many cases it simply needs a tweak, not a rejection. Secondly, we should have a specific time limit for the Government to respond. Thirdly, this should be decided not by statute but by a further Joint Committee on Conventions.

The statutory option worries me more than somewhat. If Option 3 is delivered by statute, what a temptation there is for a future Government to say, “Look, this worked for this statutory instrument stuff, why don’t we stop them doing that with primary legislation as well?”, and we will end up with legislation preventing us offering more than token opposition to anything the House of Commons puts through. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell: the enemy here is not the House of Commons but the Government—the Executive. The Hansard Society pointed that out in its document published this morning. The noble Lord quoted the reference in that document to a “flawed process” becoming a total farce. The next sentence in that document stated that such a process would neuter the House of Lords. The enemy is not the House of Commons but the Government. They are the only people who would benefit from our being neutered in this manner.

I come to my final point. I am trying to save time to allow those noble Lords who are still trying to get something to eat to do so. It was not our vote that changed the stance on the tax credits issue; it was the fact that it struck a chord within the Conservative Party, some of whose members realised that this was a ghastly mistake and they had better get out of it very quickly. They at least had the sense to change their minds. As has already been pointed out, had the Government wanted to introduce such a measure, there are thousands of ways in which they could have done it. In fact, they dropped the whole idea altogether despite all their claims that it was an election pledge and we could not possibly vote against it because they believed in it so firmly. Nevertheless, they ditched it very quickly in the Budget.

The important thing that we do is focus attention on something and MPs then ask themselves, “My God, I didn’t vote for that, did I?”. Then they realise the mistake they have made and they change their minds. It is the fact that they change their minds that matters and it is that power that we need to retain. Vetoes are unnecessary. I am quite happy to have time limits reduced from a year to six months; it does not worry me at all provided that you give MPs enough pause to have a chance to think again.