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House of Lords: Government Review

Volume 765: debated on Wednesday 28 October 2015

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to their announcement yesterday that they are to conduct a review covering the procedures and responsibilities of the House of Lords, whether they will provide information including the terms of reference for the review, its membership and the timescale set for its report.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Strathclyde’s review will examine how to protect the ability of elected Governments to secure their business in Parliament. In particular, it will consider how to secure the decisive role of the elected House of Commons in relation to its primacy on financial matters and secondary legislation. My noble friend will be supported in that work by a small panel of experts and we expect the review to conclude swiftly. The membership of the panel will be communicated to both Houses as soon as it is agreed.

My Lords, last night the Government issued a statement—to the press, rather than to your Lordships’ House—to say that they were setting up this review. They do not seem to have got very far with any work on what it actually is. As the noble Baroness said, it is to ensure that the Government can secure government business. The Government made clear that they intend to review the powers and processes of this House. The noble Baroness called it the review of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. My understanding is that it is a government review undertaken by the noble Lord.

It is obvious that the impetus for this was the Government losing two votes on Monday on the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lady Hollis and of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. Prior to that vote, we heard the Government threaten first that this House would be suspended; then that the Government would make 150 new Conservative Peers; or that they would clip our wings. Clearly, the Government intend to clip our wings. Less than six months into a new Parliament, the Government are trying to change the rules to ensure that they will not lose a vote again.

Clearly, some in government have very short memories. If noble Lords look back at the number and content of the defeats endured by Labour Governments, it is clear how very little justification there is for this move. It is a gross overreaction. I am not against a review. We have called for a constitutional convention to address much wider issues that affect your Lordships’ House, but any review must be in the public interest and not for short-term party-political gain.

I do not think that the noble Baroness really answered my question, but I will press her on membership. She said that there will be a small panel to assist the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. Will she confirm whether that will be a cross-party panel or merely a Conservative panel? Will she tell us when it will report and to whom?

My Lords, on Monday this House withheld its approval from a financial measure—that is what happened. The measure had been approved three times by the other place. That has never happened before. Monday was a significant day for this House and the events on Monday justify the review. It is a government review about how elected Governments can secure their business when an established convention has been put in doubt. The noble Baroness made reference to a constitutional convention. What the Government have done by asking my noble friend to lead this review is to simply look at the issues arising from the events on Monday. It is limited and it is focused. My noble friend will have at his disposal a panel of experts and, as he said himself today, he will talk to other political parties. Ultimately, we are trying to ensure that elected Governments can be confident that they can secure their business, when that business has had the support of the elected other place.

My Lords, will my noble friend ask my noble friend Lord Strathclyde to extend the scope of his review to include the procedures of the House of Commons, so that the House of Commons is properly able to scrutinise business? A particular issue is the use of the automatic guillotine, which results in large tracts of legislation coming to this House which have not even been considered by the House of Commons. This was a manifesto commitment, in the election before last, of the Conservative Party.

I would much rather that my noble friend concentrated on the very serious issue arising from the unprecedented step taken on Monday by your Lordships’ House. It is a significant issue and we need to look at it and concentrate on it. We must do so swiftly and get ourselves back on to an even keel.

My Lords, I welcome this Question. It is regrettable that, despite all the public pronouncements about this particular review, no statement has been issued to your Lordships’ House. Indeed, it is discourteous to Members here. Will the Leader agree that an excellent review of the convention was published by the Joint Committee in October 2006? The review took in to account the Salisbury/Addison convention, secondary legislation and financial privilege. Does the Lord Privy Seal disagree with any of its conclusions, and what are we likely to learn from the new review that we do not already know?

The noble Lord is right to point to the Joint Committee’s review that took place in 2006. The reason we need the review I have outlined today is that one of the conventions that that Joint Committee discussed and highlighted as important to the effective role of Parliament has now been put in doubt by the actions of this House on Monday. On Monday, this House withheld its approval from a financial measure. That is what happened. The measure had been approved and voted on three times by the other place. That has never happened before.

My Lords, the noble Baroness the Leader of the House keeps referring to a “financial measure”. I believe that what this House did on Monday night was to delay consideration of a statutory instrument under normal welfare legislation. I understand the meaning of a finance Bill. I understand financial SIs that are considered only by the House of Commons. What I do not understand is the term “financial measure”, because most of the legislation that we pass has financial consequences. Will the noble Baroness define the term?

The piece of secondary legislation that we debated on Monday was very clearly and exclusively about a financial matter, to the tune of £4.4 billion in terms of the savings it would deliver in the first year of its implementation. It was a decision arising from the Budget in July. What happened on Monday is something that has never happened before.

My Lords, can the Leader of the House reassure us that the work of the committee will be evidence-based and, in particular, will take note of the following piece of evidence? It is that, during the five years of the Cameron premiership, on average there have been 20 government defeats per year. In the five years from 2002 to 2007—a period with which I am very familiar—under the Blair and Brown Governments, there were on average 59 defeats a year. I remind the House that that was at a time when the Labour Government had a majority of around 170 in the Commons and Labour was not even the biggest party in this House, let alone a majority party. The Prime Ministers of the time did not work themselves up into a synthetic lather about government defeats. If the Prime Minister is anxious to find evidence about Governments being defeated on a regular basis, I am at the end of the phone to give him that information.

I cannot imagine that when the noble Lord was Government Chief Whip in this House, if he and his Government had experienced the events of Monday in the same way that this Government did, they would not have defined the result in the same way as we have done. The noble Lord talks about the rate of defeats. This was not about the rate of defeats under this Government compared with those under previous Governments; this was about a specific event on Monday that was unprecedented. But if he wants to talk about how often this Government are being defeated, since the general election this Government have been defeated in 75% of all the Divisions that have taken place in your Lordships’ House.