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House of Lords must not become 'an impotent debating society'

3 min read

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and former Minister Lord Wallace, writes following the publication of the 'hastily-established' Review by Lord Strathclyde into the power of the second chamber.

Yesterday, the Government published the hastily-established Review by Lord Strathclyde into the power of the Lords over statutory instruments (SIs). At this point most people’s eyes glaze over, but the reality is that SIs often contain important and far-reaching policy detail.

One such policy change, which would have had very significant consequences, was the proposal from the Government to overhaul the tax credits system. Their proposal would have meant slashing vital support to hard working families who were doing the right thing – going out to work in order to support their families. It would have directly impacted around 3 million working people on low incomes, with the average family losing around £1000.

The Government proposed this change in an SI, for which the scrutiny process is considerably weaker. Each House would only have a single debate on an issue, with the Commons’ time severely limited. It could, of course, have brought the measure forward in primary legislation, where much more detailed scrutiny is possible. And if they had inserted clauses into the Finance Bill, the Lords could not have touched it. But Ministers, fearing perhaps that a number of Tory rebels might join forces with the opposition in the Commons to amend the Bill, chose the route which offered least resistance. Or so they thought.

But, the House of Lords voted to delay implementation of the changes to tax credits until transitional protections were put in place. The Government’s response was to throw its hands up in horror at the temerity of the Lords daring to express a view that was contrary to theirs.

And so the Government decided if they couldn’t win an argument on its merits, they would have to change the rules. Lord Strathclyde was drafted in to save the day.

His Review recommends that the House of Lords lose its veto over secondary legislation, a recommendation which we think is unwise. Our evidence to the Strathclyde Review argued that the role of Parliament in scrutinising the Government should be enhanced, not diluted. As Governments put less and less detail on the face of Bills they rely more on SIs to flesh out those details, SIs become are becoming more complex and more important. They therefore should be accorded more scrutiny, not less.

But this response is unfortunately not surprising from a Government which is doing all it can to stifle those who challenge them. Their actions speak loudly - playing around with the Human Rights Act; threats to leave the Strasbourg court;  watering down Freedom of Information; making it harder for people to register to vote; creating a two-tier system of MPs; boundary reform; cutting funding for Opposition parties; and curbing the rights of trade unions.

It is simply wrong that any government achieving a majority in the Commons should have the absolute power to prosecute its business without the burden of proper checks and balances, particularly as voter turnout declines and governments are elected by a smaller and smaller share of the vote.

Liberal Democrats believe that a second chamber, however it is constituted, should not be a mere echo of the House of Commons. The role of Parliament as a whole in scrutinising and challenging the Executive needs to be strengthened. We do not want to see the House of Lords converted from a revising chamber to an impotent debating society.

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