Strathclyde Review — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:43 pm on 13th January 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Lisvane Lord Lisvane Crossbench 9:43 pm, 13th January 2016

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, whose 2011 report—particularly at about paragraph 154 in the context of today’s debate—is a source of great wisdom. The report of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is technically an excellent piece of work. I say this not merely because he has been kind enough to refer in it to two works in which I myself had a hand. I cannot fault his description of the constitutional background and the procedural arrangements. He has been very well served by his team of expert advisers, all of whom I know well and have worked with, and for whom I have the very greatest respect.

I do not want to be unduly churlish to the Government Front Bench, because I suspect that it was not master of its fate, but what happened on 26 October was at least in part a failure of business management. If defeat was likely or possible—and that must have been apparent—then several options were of course open to the Government. They could have delayed and sought some sort of accommodation; they could have achieved what they wanted by inserting new clauses in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which was conveniently to hand; or they could have made the required changes in a free-standing Bill, which as the noble Lord observes—and I respectfully agree—would most probably have been certified under the Parliament Acts and would therefore not have touched the sides, so to speak, in your Lordships’ House.

Of course, in the event of defeat on an SI, the option is always there of withdrawing and re-laying. The substitute instrument has to be slightly different to avoid breaching the rule about deciding the same question twice in the same Session, but it does not have to be very different, and that simple pragmatism is always at the disposal of Governments who suffer defeats on SIs in either House.

So what about the three options that the noble Lord has put before us? They need to be seen against the asymmetry of consideration of delegated legislation in the two Houses. This is not in itself a problem, because one of the strengths of Parliament is that the two Houses are complementary and not competing. But that is also a powerful argument against diminishing the role of your Lordships’ House, as the House of Commons is not in a position to take up the slack.

In the latest edition of How Parliament Works—I am not seeking to advertise here but it was written before I left my previous post—I described Commons scrutiny of delegated legislation as a “legislative black hole”. The noble Lord, Lord Beith, has drawn attention to the average time—averaged out per day over a Session—taken in considering SIs in the Commons Chamber.

I hope that option 1, simply excluding this House from the consideration of statutory instruments, will be rejected out of hand. Indeed, I think that the noble Lord is very nearly counsel for the prosecution in terms of the significant disadvantages of this option that he identifies in his report. If it were decided to go down that extremely ill-considered route, I think that the legislation would have to be Parliament-Acted, with all the collateral damage for a considerable period to the Government’s legislative programme.

Option 3, the recommended outcome, has some attractions, although of course it does not guarantee a proper debate at the Commons second stage—a point raised by a number of noble Lords. And it is not without hazard. In the context of Article 9 of the Bill of Rights, I have an instinctive dislike of legislating for proceedings in Parliament. There is a more immediate hazard—and here I take the timely warnings of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell—because the scope of a Bill, and the relevance of amendments to it, is determined not by the Long Title but by what is actually in the Bill. I do not think anybody can guarantee that there could not be in the Commons more wide-ranging amendment of the noble Lord’s apparently simple proposition—and then where should we be?

Then there is option 2, a non-statutory resolution of both Houses. The noble Lord expresses scepticism about this route and whether it can be achieved because,

“a wide range of different views has been expressed about what the convention is”.

That seems to me an excellent argument for redefining the convention—or, with a nod towards the noble Lord, Lord Norton, the doctrine—probably using a Joint Committee to achieve a cross-party and inter-House agreement rather than rushing to legislation, although I accept that legislation will be there as a potential penalty, should that route fail. If there were to be such a Joint Committee, I agree with many noble Lords that it could be a forum for a much more comprehensive examination of how Parliament as a whole deals with delegated legislation.

Briefly, I have two other observations. The noble Lord suggests that the Government should review, with the help of the Commons Procedure Committee but not with the help of a committee of this House, when SIs should be subject to Commons-only procedures. However, there is a quid pro quo to this. If SIs receive less scrutiny in the Commons than in your Lordships’ House, it must be clearly understood, and delivered, that Commons-only SIs must contain only matter which engages Commons financial privilege and must not be freighted with non-financial matters simply because of the attraction of an easier ride.

My last point is also the noble Lord’s last point. In the review it is almost a throw-away line, but it is the real reason that we are in this fix. The threshold between primary and secondary legislation has been steadily rising, no doubt because SIs are more convenient for Governments, and SIs are being used for matters of policy and principle which should find their place in primary legislation. Both the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers Committee have consistently pointed this out, and the searing indictment of my noble and learned friend Lord Judge is still ringing in our ears.

I could wish that we were not in this fix but, now that we are, that is the real mischief that needs dealing with. I think it is reasonable to say that we should expect a striking and sustained change of culture before your Lordships give up any powers over delegated legislation.