Baroness Smith: The Government should not fear challenge and scrutiny from the House of Lords
Labour's Leader in the Lords welcomes the Government's climbdown on Lords reform, but warns ministers will not get a 'blank cheque' on Article 50.
The government’s announcement that they will not bring forward legislation following the Strathclyde Report is welcome.
Despite the fact that Ministers could never be certain of winning the argument or the vote, both the change of heart and the spirit in which the announcement was made were well received. Hopefully this is the start of a new, more adult response from No.10 towards how the House of Lords does its job of scrutiny.
There’s no doubt that David Cameron’s government seriously overreacted to the tax credits vote last October, on a motion from my colleague Patricia Hollis on the consideration of a Statutory Instrument – an SI. The Lords behaved perfectly properly by not supporting the plans, instead asking the government to look again and reconsider.
Driven by his fear and loathing of challenge, Mr Cameron then demanded a review of peers powers, conducted by Lord Strathclyde, and the subsequent recommendations sought to solve a ‘problem’ that didn’t even exist. The power to completely reject such an SI has only been used five times in the past 70 years.
Exciting, if not quite ‘sexy’, as SIs briefly became, the review also appeared to misunderstand their constitutional position. This was never a case of unelected Lords rejecting the will of the elected Commons – Sis are initiated by the government for consideration by both Houses. And despite what some in government may think, no government gets it right first time, every time.
The Lords has an enviable and well-deserved reputation for scrutiny to legislation. We recognise our responsibilities – and also our limitations – as the second chamber.
The significant policy change of the tax credits proposals should have, more appropriately, been dealt with as primary legislation. So Labour peers, working with others across the House, sought to find a sustainable way forward to provide Ministers with greater detail on the impact, along with the opportunity to reflect and reconsider. Something the government did, after losing the vote.
The tax credits vote was exceptional and completely in line with the Lords history and conventions.
Over the past few weeks there has been considerable speculation about the role of the House in examining Brexit, and I have been as clear as I can be. We will not block or delay, but a government without a plan will not get a blank cheque. Clearly the Lords will have an important role, especially on related secondary legislation, where we will need to work together to provide effective scrutiny.
I hope that today’s statement from the Government heralds a new, more reasonable and grown up approach where government doesn’t fear such challenge and scrutiny but recognises that it is ultimately in the public interest.
Baroness Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon