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Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:10 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour 9:10 pm, 13th January 2016

My Lords, I, too, express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and to his advisers for the speed with which he has produced his report. My contribution today will draw on my written submission to the noble Lord and is much wider than his terms of reference. My noble friend Lord Darling, whose most excellent speech I welcome, said that he was concerned about piecemeal changes. It is my long-standing belief that piecemeal reform will not do.

I played a small part in encouraging my friends to set up the Kilbrandon commission on the constitution. It was effective as a catalyst for devolution and major legislation. I believe that there should be another constitutional convention to consider, deliberate on and opine on a wide range of options and, having done so, with a hope for a more permanent and comprehensive settlement for Parliament as a whole.

In my time, I have seen many attempts at House of Lords reform. Drawing a veil over the Clegg-inspired reforms, my mind goes back to the joint attack of Michael Foot and Enoch Powell on the reform attempt in the 1960s. When the plug was pulled on that Bill, Michael Foot uttered memorable words regarding the efforts of the two junior Ministers who were left in charge of it. They were the future Lord Merlyn-Rees and the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, whose speedy return to this House we wish for. Mr Foot said that never had so much bravery been shown,

“since the boy stood on the burning deck”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 14/4/69; col. 885.]

And that was the night the plug was pulled on the Bill.

I confess that I did not vote in the tax credit Divisions last October. As many noble Lords have said, the Government should not have used the statutory instrument procedure, with its inadequate discussion in the Commons, to deprive a large number of the poorest people like those whom I had the privilege of representing in the Commons for more than 41 years. But I do not buy the argument that a convention was broken. In the words of my noble friend Lord Richard, primary legislation should have been used. Nevertheless, it was not right to deny the Commons its right to change taxation, despite the machinery adopted.

I believe in the paramountcy of the elected House and that there is a way to put that beyond peradventure for almost all occasions and, at the same time, to spell out a role for our own non-elected House for the future. I surmise that my radical solution—the one that I would propose—will not appeal to most of your Lordships. I believe that the way forward is to revisit the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 together, to learn from the simple mechanism that they adopted. Incidentally, we forget the rather plaintive words of the 1911 Act’s preamble as to the substitution of a hereditary House with a popularly-based House. It said that,

“such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”.

Rather than pursuing that aim more than 100 years later, my suggestion is that we should copy and adopt that machinery for this House’s power to delay legislation which shortened the period in the 1911 Act to the 1949 Act by what amounts to one year. I propose removing this House’s powers to delay legislation altogether—hence, I am sure, it is too radical for most of your Lordships. The shearing away of this House’s power to delay would result in this House having power only to consider Commons legislation—in short, to review it and scrutinise it. This would apply to both primary and secondary legislation, with which the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has been wrestling.

This House could of course then debate amendments, and any amendments made would be returned to the Commons. They would have the benefit of our discussions. If, then, the Commons disapproved of our amendments, that would be the end of the matter. The Commons, unless directed to the contrary, would present the Bill for Her Majesty’s approval and it would become an Act of Parliament on Royal Assent being signified thereto, notwithstanding that the Lords had not consented.

It would be essential to include a maximum period for your Lordships to consider any particular Commons Bill, so that consideration did not become delay by another name. When I said earlier that I was dealing with almost all occasions, of course the present exclusion as amended of the Parliament Acts as regards extending the maximum period of the length of the Parliament would remain. That would be fundamental.

My simple amendment would end the argument about the overuse of statutory instruments and reaffirm the primacy of the Commons in all respects. There would then be no danger of gridlock between Commons and Lords. I was a witness to gridlock between the Senate and Congress in Washington on that fateful weekend in July 2011. It is my belief that the result would be a substantial weakening of any case for an elected House, and it would be a matter for another time to consider the fettering of the Prime Minister’s power to top up, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, the membership of this House. The noble Lord’s words regarding the Irish Senate were perhaps too close for comfort.