Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, as the last Back-Bench speaker in this debate—I wonder whether there is some alphabetical bias in the selection of the order of speakers—I join others in commending my noble friend Lord Strathclyde for his report and for his speech introducing the debate. His report is a “best buy” in terms of value for money. Indeed, such good value is his report that the Command Paper publishing it does not even have a price on the back.
Picking up a point made by my noble friend Lord Forsyth, I wonder whether there are some broader lessons to be learned from this type of inquiry, as the law of diminishing returns sets in quite quickly as the size and length of inquiries develop. With the Chilcots, the Levesons and the Scotts at one end, and the Strathclydes at the other, should we not have fewer of the former and more of the latter? Without being dogmatic, we need more sprints round the greyhound track with a small field, and fewer London marathons, where some entrants find it difficult to finish.
Turning to the report itself, I believe it offers the basis for a settlement. I have been encouraged by the number of noble Lords who have spoken in this debate who have been quite careful not to close the door on further discussions building on what is proposed. There are real advantages for both Houses. I am a recent refugee from the other place after 41 years there and, in my capacity as a former Leader of the Commons, I see real advantages for it, in that the will of the Commons will prevail in secondary legislation as it now does in primary. Indeed, it seems somewhat perverse—a point made by my noble friend Lord Jopling—that the will of the elected House can prevail with Bills but not with the statutory instruments that derive from them.
I would make a number of clarifications. For example, if we were to reject an SI, it must be debated in the other place and not simply approved on a deferred division without substantive discussion; it should be treated like a Lords amendment. As far as this House is concerned, I think that we get a new weapon that is more appropriate to our role as a revising Chamber. In his report, my noble friend Lord Wakeham said:
“At the cost of weakening the formal power of the second chamber … we believe it would actually strengthen its influence and its ability to cause the Government and the House of Commons to take its concerns seriously”.
It is worth reflecting on what might have happened in October had option 3 been available. This House could, of course, have rejected the SI. I suspect that it would have done so by an even bigger majority, because many noble Peers felt inhibited against voting it down for constitutional reasons, and those would have been dealt with under option 3. It would have gone back to the House of Commons with a bigger majority and the House of Commons would have then had to consider what to do with it. We will never know the answer, but my guess is that it would have done exactly what it did in November. The key difference would have been that the House of Commons would have had the last word on the SI and not this House. That is why I think there are real merits in the proposal.
We read on page 18 of the report that the preferred option requires legislation. My noble friend must have come to that decision on the basis of the professional advice that he got from his team. There may be some in my party who will want to legislate straightaway, using the Parliament Act if necessary, but I hope we do not proceed too hastily, precipitating a wholly unnecessary constitutional crisis. There should now be discussions between the parties, and it may be that issues not addressed by the Strathclyde report—for example, the SI procedure in the other place—need to be put on the table, together with other issues such as the time lag between rejection by this House and consideration by the other.
The Government could set the tone for constructive discussions by indicating that they are sympathetic to the recommendation referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane: that about not using SIs where primary legislation is more appropriate. This is not a pain-free decision for the Government, in that it inevitably squeezes out other legislation from their programme if what would have been an SI now becomes primary legislation. However, if the Government were to indicate that they are sympathetic to that proposition, I hope that that would encourage other parties to come to the table to see whether we could then reach all-party agreement on the way forward. If it is then indeed necessary to legislate to introduce option 3, that can be done on the basis of mature consideration and not the hasty, shooting from the hip exercise that may be advocated by some.