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Strathclyde Review

Volume 603: debated on Thursday 17 December 2015

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on Lord Strathclyde’s review. The Government have today published “Strathclyde Review: Secondary legislation and the primacy of the House of Commons”. On behalf of the House, I should like to thank Lord Strathclyde for his work.

The Prime Minister invited Lord Strathclyde to undertake this review after constitutional questions were raised about the primacy of this elected House of Commons. There is a balance to be struck between the interests of proper parliamentary scrutiny and the certainty that Government business can be conducted in a reasonable manner and time. The House of Lords is a revising Chamber with an important core purpose: to complement the House of Commons and, in doing so, give the public confidence in what Parliament decides. On primary legislation, it can fulfil this purpose by asking the House of Commons to think again, through the process known as ping-pong. But ultimately, with the backstop of the Parliament Acts, the will of the elected House can prevail.

That is not the case for secondary legislation, in relation to which the House of Lords can only approve or withhold its approval. Given this, Lord Strathclyde was asked whether there was a better way to handle secondary legislation that would give the elected House of Commons the decisive say. He consulted parliamentarians in both Houses and from across the political spectrum in the course of the review.

In his report, Lord Strathclyde has outlined three options to provide the House of Commons with that decisive vote. Option 1 would remove the House of Lords from the statutory instrument procedure altogether. Option 2 would retain the present role of the House of Lords but clarify the restrictions on how its powers to withhold approval or to annul should be exercised. Option 3 would create a new procedure in statute. That is a compromise option that would provide the House of Lords with the ability to ask the House of Commons to think again but would give the final say to the House of Commons. This would be achieved by allowing the Commons to override a vote by the House of Lords to reject a statutory instrument. Lord Strathclyde has recommended the third option. He also recommended that the Government, with the involvement of the Procedure Committee, should review the circumstances in which statutory instrument powers should be subject to Commons-only procedures, especially on financial matters, and that the Government should ensure the appropriate use of primary and secondary legislation.

The Government will need to consider Lord Strathclyde’s review and his recommendations carefully, and we will respond fully when we have done so. Clearly there will be views in both Houses as to the best way forward, and we will want to listen to those views as we decide on our preferred approach. We have begun doing so today by making oral statements in both Houses.

We are very clear that all Governments require, and indeed benefit from, a strong Parliament holding them to account and providing scrutiny. As Lord Strathclyde’s report highlights, the House of Lords has long played its scrutiny role effectively. It provides that scrutiny and challenge, but we also think it important that the elected House should be able to have the decisive say on secondary legislation as well as on primary legislation. Such a balance will allow the other House to deliver its core purpose more effectively. We will therefore study Lord Strathclyde’s review in detail and respond fully next year. I commend this statement to the House.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving me advance notice of his statement, which I received in exemplary fashion before 10 o’clock this morning.

I am afraid that this has all the hallmarks of government by fit of pique. The Leader of the House says that the review was set up “after constitutional questions were raised about the primacy of this elected House of Commons”. What utter tosh! The only people who were raising constitutional questions were the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Leader of the House himself, who were stamping their little feet because they had not got their way. There were protests, yes, but people were not protesting against the Lords. They were protesting against the Government’s miserly attempt to cut working tax credits. The truth is that this is payback time. It has absolutely nothing to do with principle. Maybe the Leader of the House is still smarting from losing more votes in the House of Lords as a Minister than any other Minister in the last Parliament—24 in all, or a quarter of the total number of lost votes.

The most astonishing thing, however, is how Lord Strathclyde has done an about-turn. In 1999, when in opposition, he said of the convention that the House of Lords did not strike down statutory instruments:

“I declare this convention dead.”

But now he wants to resurrect it. There’s a word for that. Between 2001 and 2010, when Lord Strathclyde was Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords, he led his colleagues through the Division Lobby to defeat the Labour Government 390 times, including once on a fatal motion on a statutory instrument. Now he thinks that that is a disgraceful way to behave. There’s a word for that.

This was meant to be all about the financial privilege of the House of Commons, but can the Leader of the House confirm that the review makes no distinction whatever between secondary legislation where financial privilege is concerned and any other form of secondary legislation? In essence, the Government are seeking to stop the Lords having any right to oppose any secondary legislation, whatever they might put through in it.

Does the Leader of the House accept that the other problem with secondary legislation is that because it is unamendable, each House is simply asked to say aye or no, content or not content? So ping-pong does not make any kind of sense. The report does not make sense, either. It seems to imagine a statutory instrument being sent back to the Commons, but the two Houses have completely distinct processes for deciding on secondary legislation. Every piece of secondary legislation that is now advanced depends on a parent Act. Each of them specifies whether the regulations shall be subject to the affirmative or negative decision process and whether there has to be a vote in one or both Houses before coming into force. Are the Government really intending retrospective amendment of each one of these Acts of Parliament? There is a simple answer to this problem: use less secondary legislation and only use secondary legislation for non-contentious matters—do not use it for significant matters that dramatically affect households in this country.

The House of Lords is far from perfect—the Prime Minister has packed it with 240 new Members, doing so faster than any Prime Minister in history—but surely it would be wrong to deal with aspects of the powers and the role of the Lords without considering its composition. Is it not time we had a constitutional convention and proper, thoroughgoing reform? There is a pattern here: the Government have changed the voting rights in this House; they have curtailed the rights of trade unions and voluntary organisations to campaign; they have made it more difficult for the poor and the young to register; and today we learn that they have increased the number of Conservative special advisers from 74 to 96, costing an additional £1.6 million a year, even as they want to cut the support for Opposition scrutiny of this Government by 20%. Where there is dissent, they crush it. Where a body opposes them, they neuter it. That is not a Conservative Government, respectful of the constitution, dutiful in their dealings with their opponents, cautious in advancing radical change and determined to govern for the whole nation. It is not a Conservative Government; in the words of one of their former leaders, Disraeli, it is an “organised hypocrisy”.

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that I will not allow him to use that word that he has just used—the very last one.

Those were words used by Disraeli in this House. I am not maintaining that any Member has acted hypocritically, but I am saying that this set of proposals is an organised hypocrisy.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but the fact that Disraeli was also wrong does not make him right. I am sure he will find a better way of putting that last sentence he used.

Well, Madam Deputy Speaker, what word would you use for it? Let me make it absolutely clear that I am not imputing any sense of dishonourableness to any hon. Member of this House or any other House, but I am saying that the Government are trying to get something through the back door and that that is not fundamentally, for the Government, an honest way of behaving.

I accept that the hon. Gentleman is not impugning any Member of this House, so for the moment I will let him away with it.

It does not feel as though we are trying to move anything through the back door, given that I am standing in front of the House making a statement and setting out a report that has been prepared with a number of options for the Government to consider and undoubtedly for this House to debate before any legislative change could happen—if legislative change were to be adopted as a result of this report. There is a degree of faux outrage from the other side on this matter.

Let us be clear about what happens. This House has an elected mandate, unlike the House of Lords. Our majority Government have a democratic mandate to implement our manifesto, and that is what we have sought to do. The conventions that have guided the relationship between the House of Lords and the House of Commons have existed for a very long time, and they have indeed broken down over many years. The Government’s view is that it is time to re-establish a framework for the relationship between the two Houses which reflects the fact that this is the elected House of Commons. That is the purpose of the report, and it sets out three options for all of us to consider. Of course it makes specific reference to the issue of financial matters. The Commons has had primacy over financial matters for centuries; there are already Commons-only statutory instruments on financial matters. What occurred this autumn was the first time that a financial matter that had come before the House of Lords had been rejected—it was the first time a fatal motion had been used. Over the previous decades there had been hardly any fatal motions on SIs. On reading this report—I again thank Lord Strathclyde for his work—it is my view that in many respects it gives the Lords a clearer and broader role in the consideration of secondary legislation, while also making it clear that ultimately the democratically elected Chamber has to have the final say.

When the shadow Leader of the House talks about using less secondary legislation and about the composition of the House of Lords, I simply look back to my first few years in this House, and indeed yours, Madam Deputy Speaker, given that you were first elected in 1997, and I can say that I have no memory of a shortage of SIs being brought forward under the Labour Governments. I also have no memory of a shortage of appointments by Tony Blair of his friends and cronies to the House of Lords over an extended period, so I will take no lessons from Labour Members.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and join him in thanking Lord Strathclyde for his report? The Government could not have chosen a safer pair of hands for such an inquiry, and of course it does avoid the whole issue of the composition and other aspects of the House of Lords. Perhaps that is timely and convenient, but we will have to address those things.

May I welcome the proposal for dealing with this by primary legislation? The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will wish to look at this, just as the Procedure Committee will. We have some questions. How often will this procedure be used? What kind of behaviour of the two Houses will we adopt? Would it be justified in using this procedure to deal with particular SIs that amend primary legislation through the so-called Henry VIII clauses? Would it be right to be able to use what one might call a “ding-dong” procedure, as opposed to a ping-pong procedure, simply to force through amendment to primary legislation in this way? I assure my right hon. Friend that we will be looking at these matters in great detail.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments about the report and the work done by Lord Strathclyde. I would expect nothing less of my hon. Friend’s Committee or of the Procedure Committee than the approach he has set out—both will want to express views on this. In Lord Strathclyde’s comments about financial matters, he expressly makes reference to the need to work with the Committees of the House of Commons to do these things. I look forward to seeing my hon. Friend’s work on this subject, as debate and discussion will be an important part of shaping a better relationship between the two Houses.

May I thank the Leader of the House for early sight of his statement? Rarely has there been a review of such pointlessness, with such a pre-arranged outcome, as this endeavour in absolute uselessness. In the battle of blue verses ermine there was only ever going to be one victor, and it was not going to be our unelected friends down the corridor. The House of Lords as the be-ermined tribunes of the people was always an unlikely concept, but this Government have decided that they will never allow themselves to be embarrassed by the Lords again.

I quite like option 1. I like it up to a certain part, as it says it would

“remove the House of Lords”.

Why could we not just leave it at that and get on with it? Let us be frank: the House of Lords is perhaps the most absurd, ridiculous legislature anywhere in the world. Stuffed full of unelected cronies, party donors, hereditaries and Church of England bishops, and with its 800 Members, it is becoming a national embarrassment. The only thing I can take comfort from in this statement is the fact that we may be starting to get rid of the whole ridiculous circus. We are poorly served with an unelected House whose rules a Government can simply change when it does not do their bidding, just because they can and because that place is accountable to absolutely nobody. Let us work together, and if we need to retain a secondary Chamber, let us make sure it is one equipped for the 21st century, not the 16th.

The hon. Gentleman talked about pre-arranged outcomes, but I think I could have written his speech in advance by anticipating what he had to say. He spoke with his customary flowing prose, talking about a pre-arranged outcome for the review. He knows Lord Strathclyde well enough to know that he is the last person to be given a script and then told to write a review around it and publish it. He has done a lot of work, he has talked to a lot of people and he has thought about it carefully. I understand the Scottish National party’s position of not wanting the House of Lords, but it is here and it is not about to disappear. It makes good sense for us to make sure that the relationships and workings between the two Houses are well structured and appropriate, and that is what we intend to do.

I also welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I wonder whether the views of the Opposition would be somewhat different if the other place had blocked a left-wing financial measure, rather than the measure that was introduced. May I urge him to give serious consideration to option 1? I suspect that my motives in that regard are different from those of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). The advantage of that option is its simplicity and clarity, and I fear that the other two options, although they would be an improvement, would still be open to different interpretations, as with the current convention.

I heard the shadow Leader of the House say that what took place has happened to a Labour Government many times. This of course was the first time that a financial measure has been blocked in the way that it was in the House of Lords. Although my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) share the same accent, I suspect that they do not share the same view for quite the same reasons. I take on board what my hon. Friend says. We will have to consider all three options very carefully, and we will bring forward our proposals in due course. None the less, I note the point that he makes.

It is a pleasure to be in the Chamber today for the First Reading of the Punishment of the Tax Credit Whistleblowers (Lords) Bill. I fully support what you said, Madam Deputy Speaker, in taking to task the shadow Leader of the House when he used the words, “disorganised hypocrisy.”[Interruption.] I meant organised hypocrisy. I have never seen anything more disorganised—other than me trying to make a joke out of it.

Once again, we have crisis management and firefighting instead of a clear strategy on what the Government want to do on democracy and constitutional change. We are in the middle of great change with English votes for English laws, Scottish devolution and the mess around English devolution, and the Government do not quite know what to do, so they are doing it bit by bit. I urge the Leader of the House to bite the bullet and create a constitutional or citizens’ convention that can look in the round at all those issues together—whether they involve the composition of the Lords and how they affect federalism in the United Kingdom and English devolution—and take a strategic view, rather than having this constant piecemeal firefighting.

I will not use any words to describe the views of the Opposition party, but given that, after 13 years of Labour, I was left with the clear impression that what it did was to take our constitutional arrangements and throw them up in the air with no idea of how they would land, it is a bit ripe to talk about our having a piecemeal approach to constitutional affairs. What we are trying to do is to sort out some of the mess that was left behind and to put back some stability into our constitutional arrangements, and this is a part of doing that.

Whatever happens to the Lord Strathclyde’s workman-like review, all of us who believe in democracy will have to agree with his conclusions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, since we are in the business of quoting literary and political figures, it is important that we should at least try to see ourselves as others see us? Democracies, especially nascent democracies across the world, look somewhat aghast at some of the more archaic features of our constitutional arrangements.

There is always a case for modernisation in a parliamentary or constitutional process, and that should continue to be the case. None the less, the long-standing traditions of this House and of our constitutional arrangements provide a bedrock to how this country is governed and how this country works, which makes it admired around the world, and it should continue to be so.

I am afraid that, yet again, when we need comprehensive review and reform, the Government are offering us piecemeal change. I deeply regret how this matter has been brought forward. The Leader of the House speaks of this as if it is something for the Government alone. It is not; this concerns Parliament as a whole. If change is to be required, it must be owned by Parliament as a whole. This matter was last dealt with in 2006 in a Joint Committee report on recommendations. The Leader of the House threatens to drive a coach and horses through that. If he is to achieve anything, he will need to reconstitute some sort of Joint Committee between this House and the other place; otherwise all his efforts will come to naught.

I am not trying to drive anything through this House. We are considering a report that has been produced by a senior and respected member of the House of Lords with an expert panel that is drawn from some of the most experienced past officials of this House—people who have great knowledge of parliamentary process. He has brought forward a series of recommendations for us to consider, which we will duly do. Those recommendations will be discussed again in this House when the Government make clear their own view about which option to take. It seems that that is an entirely right and proper way to do this.

This latest constitutional skirmish is just another symptom of a second Chamber that is far too large and that lacks a democratic mandate. Will the Leader of the House say when in this Parliament he will bring forward substantive reforms to make that Chamber democratically accountable with clearly defined powers vis-à-vis this House?

The reason I have not in the past supported an elected House of Lords is that it would create significant constitutional problems for this House. This matter has been considered three times since I was first elected in 2001. This House has not yet reached a clear view. What we do have in the House of Lords is an enormous wealth of expertise that adds to the value of our democratic process. I absolutely accept what my hon. Friend says about some of the issues and challenges around the structure and nature of the House of Lords at the moment. Right now, the best people to make proposals about how to address those are the Lords themselves, and I know that there is a move for them to do that.

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I wish you a happy new year and a merry Christmas?

It is a fine review, except that it is into the wrong thing. Would it not have saved the Leader of the House a lot of trouble if his Ministers had gone on a weekend course on when it is appropriate to use primary legislation and when it is appropriate to use secondary legislation? That would have saved us a lot of effort.

I can only repeat what I said earlier: Governments use primary and secondary legislation. When the right hon. Lady’s party was in power, we were deluged with secondary legislation. I suspect that Governments in future will continue to use such legislation on a widespread basis. We will do so now—if some of these recommendations are enacted—in a more structured and balanced way between the two Houses.

I echo the words of other Members who have spoken and urge my right hon. Friend to move forward with a fundamental change to the upper House, rather than tinker at the edges. Can we please think again on how we can move forward towards a mainly elected upper House?

I do not imagine that we have heard the last of this debate, but when it comes to enacting our manifesto and the measures in the spending review, our legislative priority is to do things that will make a real difference to the country. That is what the country expected of us when it elected us in May.

Is the Leader of the House aware that people will recognise this as one big sulk, because of the decision taken by the House of Lords on tax credits? The Lords were right, and they were sustained in their decision by Members on the Opposition Benches, by public opinion and even by Members on the Government side. That is why this nonsense has come before us today.

The reason this matter has come before us today is that, by general acknowledgement, the conventions that have existed for a long time between the House of Lords and the House of Commons have somewhat broken down. It is time to sort that out and to put in place arrangements that give certainty and continuity for the future.

As a new Member of this House, I must say that I find the other place a completely ridiculous anachronism. The people of Somerset are very confused as to why it should have any power at all in this place. I would rather see a much more wide-ranging review of what is going on with it. To limit our powers to countermand it to financial matters with regard to statutory instruments is too narrow. In my constituency, we have one elected Member of this Parliament, which is me, and three appointed residents, all of whom are Liberal Democrats with no mandate whatsoever, claiming £900 a day to be there. It is a purely political House now, and it is completely unacceptable that its Members do not need to be elected.

My hon. Friend expresses a sincerely held view and one which I know is shared by many in the House. The matter has been debated on many occasions. Right now, the important thing is to ensure that he has the final say. As a result of what is set out in the Strathclyde review, we will return to a situation in which he does indeed have that final say as the elected representative of his constituency.

As people have been wishing the occupant of the Chair a happy Christmas, having been at the Star Wars movie last night I feel I should say, “May the force be with you.” Having watched the dark lords of the Sith at their nefarious business—I am not referring to the other place amending the Scotland Bill—may I ask the Leader of the House what impact the procedure that he is introducing today will have on the procedures for English votes for English laws that were introduced recently in this House?

If the hon. Gentleman went to both the Star Wars movie last night and the Scottish National party’s Christmas party, he is doing well to be here today. That is perhaps why he has a glass of water in his hand. The proposals will not change the EVEL procedures. If a matter is an English-only statutory instrument, it will be passed in the ways described in the EVEL process. What will change is not the process for EVEL, but the process for statutory instruments. Every statutory instrument would therefore operate in a different way in future, not just English-only ones, but all of them.

Given that the House of Lords barely pays regard to a convention these days, I welcome the statement today and the report by Lord Strathclyde. Echoing the comments of many of my hon. Friends, does my right hon. Friend agree that the first option, removing the House of Lords from statutory instrument procedure, would be the best option?

I note what my hon. Friend and others have said today. That is something the Government will have to take into account as they consider how best to respond to the report, so I thank him for his contribution.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and merry Christmas to you and to everyone in the House. The power under discussion is one that the Lords seldom use. The fact that it has been used so rarely in its history probably proves why it should be there for a House that is required to make the Government think again. The Lords knew that what the Government had claimed at the Budget was wrong, and they discovered with the benefit of hindsight that the claims of the Chancellor that people would not be worse off were incorrect, and that working families with children would have been thousands of pounds a year worse off. It was not just the Opposition who were pointing that out to the Government. A significant number of Government Back Benchers were doing so as well. The Lords listened to that and used the power that they rarely use to make the Government think again. The Chancellor came back to the House and wanted to be cheered for saying that he would never do it again. The Lords were proven to be correct, so the power was proven to be useful. This is just a spat and a tantrum from the Government because the Lords had the temerity to make the Government think again.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the changes that he is referring to were voted on and passed five times by this elected House. There comes a point where the elected House needs to be able to assert its will. Lord Strathclyde has recommended a number of options that enable it to do that.

If we have a revising Chamber in the form that we have, it makes sense that it still has a role in secondary legislation, much of which is of a more technical nature. I therefore welcome the fact that option 3 has been chosen. Will the Leader of the House confirm that this will not stop the Government looking at options to deal with some of the things that make the other place almost a laughing stock, such as those who do not attend and others whose reason for being there has perhaps now disappeared?

Of course, we need to look at all three options carefully before we respond. On other matters related to the House of Lords, there has been a push for reform in the House of Lords in recent years. A Bill was introduced by Lord Steel in the previous Parliament and I suspect that we will see further proposals for change over the next few years from that House. Right now our priority is to implement the manifesto that we were elected on, and the country expects that of us.

I listened carefully to the Leader of the House when he talked about the House of Lords giving the public confidence in what Parliament decides, and it will come as no surprise to the right hon. Gentleman if I urge him to seriously consider the abolition of the House of Lords. That would give the public confidence in democratic accountability. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the House of Lords is the only legislature in the world, with the exception of Iran, whose Members include unelected clerics. It is unelected and unaccountable, and the public do not have confidence in it. Will he consider abolishing this museum piece, which is filled with cronies and failed politicians who have been rejected at the ballot box?

If we talked to the public about the way our Parliament works and said that we have an elected House which, as a result of these proposals on secondary legislation, will have the final say, but that we also have a group of people who have been eminent in their very different professions—people ranging from Lord Lloyd-Webber in the arts to some of the most senior business people—whose job it is to advise and guide the elected House about when it might be getting it right and when it might be getting it wrong, I think they might form a different view. I accept that there are strong opinions about this, but right now this is about solving a structural problem in the relationship between the two Houses that has emerged in the past few months. Lord Strathclyde has given us three sensible options to work with.

Surely the episode that gave rise to the report was simply an example of Parliament functioning as it is supposed to do. The Chancellor has since been trying to take the credit for the change. Will the Leader of the House accept, as I think the great majority of his hon. Friends now do, that the other place was right on tax credits?

What really happened was that having set out some tough decisions that we said we would have to take—we have always been clear about the tough decisions that we were going to have to take—and having discovered that the public finances were doing better than expected because of the success of his economic policies, the Chancellor was able not to take some of those difficult decisions, and that is a good thing.

Since I was elected democratically in May, 62 new Lords have been appointed to the other place. That includes 11 Liberal Democrat Lords. There are more new Liberal Democrat Lords than there are elected MPs of the same party, which stinks of the word that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was not allowed to use earlier. The Leader of the House knows the position of the SNP, which is to abolish the House of Lords. Will he come clean and get Lord Strathclyde to print the real option 4, which is to continue stuffing the other place with cronies and donors?

I know that the Scottish National party believes in abolishing the House of Lords, and I know it uses the language of cronies and donors, but if the hon. Gentleman looks across the House of Lords, he will find people who have contributed vastly to our public life, have achieved great things for our society and have a role to play in advising the elected House on the final decisions it should take.

The removal of the veto from the House of Lords effectively leads to the formation of the most expensive, over-subscribed think-tank in history. I seldom see the point of the current unelected affront to democracy, but how could any rational person justify spending such a disgraceful amount of taxpayers’ money on an impotent talking shop? Surely this is the ideal opportunity to abolish the House of Lords and create a democratically elected second Chamber. Although I welcome any recommendation that seeks to remove legitimacy from an institution that lacks any, it does not go far enough.

Scottish National party Members are both consistent and not terribly shy in their views on the House of Lords. I know these views exist and those hon. Members are not alone in the House in holding those views of the House of Lords. Our priority is to get on with the job of sorting out the mess that we inherited in 2010. We have done much of the job up till now; we still have further to go and our priorities should be to deliver the rest of the changes that will transform this country.