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Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:23 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 9:23 pm, 13th January 2016

My Lords, at this hour even I can think of very few original things to say, but I congratulate my noble friend Lord Strathclyde on an excellent report, which provides a basis for going forward. I suggest to the Prime Minister that he invites him to take over from Sir John Chilcot, in order to finish Sir John’s report. I apologise that I had to leave the Chamber for a meeting and missed the maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Darling. I look forward to reading it. We all owe him a great debt, especially now that oil prices are down to $32 a barrel in Scotland, and I look forward to seeing his contributions.

Let us be frank about this: it is unfortunate that we are having to discuss this in the context of the tax credits regulations of 26 October. That was not the Government’s finest hour—let us be fair about that. I tried on several occasions through Ministers to get information on the impact of the regulations on families, who would lose and how much would they lose, and in the end I had to rely on the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The consequences, had those regulations been implemented, would have been disastrous for many vulnerable families up and down the country, and I certainly did not come into politics to do that, and nor, I believe, did the Chancellor or many of the MPs who voted for them. The facts of the matter were that the stushie in this place drew people’s attention to how savage and immediate the impact would be and to the consequences for the poorest families and for the Conservative Party and the Government because the political consequences would have been very severe. I therefore say to the noble Baronesses, Lady Manzoor, Lady Meacher and Lady Hollis, thank you so much for what you have done to help the Conservative Party in the country.

I would have supported the Motion moved by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. Indeed, my noble friend the Leader of the House almost invited us to do so, if you look at column 979 of Hansard for 26 October. That would not have been a fatal Motion, but nor were other Motions, other than that moved by the Liberal party, fatal Motions.

My noble friend the Leader advised us that if we voted for those Motions:

“It would have the practical effect of preventing the implementation of a policy that will deliver £4.4 billion of savings to the Exchequer next year—a central plank of the Government’s fiscal policy as well as its welfare policy. It is a step that would challenge the primacy of the other place on financial matters”.—[Hansard, 26/10/15; col. 979.]

Actually, the impact was to make the Government think again. No one in this House suggested that the policy should not be implemented. The argument was that it should be phased in over a period of time, but the Chancellor chose to abandon it altogether.

I am not sure whether I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for starting to quote things that I have said in her speeches, but I did indeed say that if the Motion moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, had not been passed by the House, the tax credit changes would immediately have become law and the Government would not have had an opportunity to think again and make the necessary changes. Indeed, the key point is that if the Chancellor really felt that the primacy of the House of Commons had been challenged, it was up to him to table exactly the same Motion again the following day. He could have done that. He chose not to do so because, as my noble friend pointed out, she had been to see him and had told him of the feelings in the party and in the House and he had undertaken to think about it again. That is what I thought we all came here to do. I thought that is why we are all here at this hour of the night—to try to encourage the Government to think again if they have got it wrong.

The response from those around the Prime Minister and from the Prime Minister himself was a tad ungrateful. It was as if the captain of a ship which had been driven on to the rocks by the first mate after being safely rescued responded by inviting his crew to begin scuttling the lifeboat. That was the effect. It may have been unwise to vote for the Motion moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, which was not fatal, but it was certainly not out of order. As has been pointed out by a number of people in the course of this debate, the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions, which was approved by both Houses of Parliament, makes the position crystal clear.

The effect of our intervention was to give the Commons time to see the impact of their proposals, and I do not believe—perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, can help me—that had the Chancellor of the Exchequer brought the proposal back a second time this House would have rejected it for a second time.

So what is the problem that we are trying to solve here? In his report, my noble friend Lord Strathclyde points out that there were two Motions on SIs on consecutive days. Just because two buses come along at once does not mean to say that you have to change the entire bus route. The second Motion was defeated; it failed because your Lordships chose to vote accordingly. It is true that on very rare occasions the House has voted against SI Motions but, according to my noble friend’s own report, there have been 55 occasions when the House has refused to vote through Motions of that kind, so those five have to be seen in that context.

I accept of course, that something has to be done about the use of statutory instruments and secondary legislation, and option 3 probably has within it the means of a way forward. What I do not accept is that this should be done by primary legislation. The conduct of Parliament is a matter for Parliament, not the Executive. The Executive is accountable to Parliament, not the other way round. I believe that we need to have a Joint Committee to review those procedures and agree them. The joy of my noble friend’s report is that it illustrates how wide the context is in which this needs to be looked at in terms of the Standing Orders of both Houses.

I say to my noble friend the Leader of the House that despite Mr Corbyn’s best efforts, we will be in opposition one day. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde says in his foreword that the Lords must,

“complement the work of the Commons and not … block its will—too often”.

We have never blocked the will of the House of Commons. He says:

“It would be regrettable if the Lords simply became a highly politicised ‘House of Opposition’”.

Quite so, but it would be equally regrettable if the Executive were to drift towards treating Parliament as an irritating inconvenience and limited its ability to ask the Government to think again.