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Government drops plans to strip House of Lords of power to veto laws

Published 17/11/2016

Lord Strathclyde was commissioned by David Cameron to review the power of the Lords
Lord Strathclyde was commissioned by David Cameron to review the power of the Lords

The Government has dropped plans to curb the power of the House of Lords to block legislation.

Proposals drawn up by Conservative Lord Strathclyde would have stripped peers of their power to veto laws known as statutory instruments (SIs).

He was asked to carry out the review by David Cameron after the Government suffered a humiliating defeat over George Osborne's plans to cut tax credits in October last year.

But in the latest departure of Theresa May's Government from her predecessor's policy, ministers said there are "no plans" to bring forward a law to quell the power of the Lords.

Commons leader David Lidington told the Commons: "I can confirm this morning that, while the Government found the analysis of Lord Strathclyde compelling, and we are determined that the principle of the supremacy of the elected House should be upheld, we have no plans for now to introduce new primary legislation."

Lords leader Baroness Evans of Bowes Park made the announcement to some cheers in the Upper House, but warned that if Lords do not maintain "discipline" in the rarely-used power "we would have to reflect on this decision".

Under the proposals, peers would have been limited to asking MPs to "think again" about planned legislation, leaving the final decision to the elected House of Commons.

The plans had been described by a parliamentary committee as a "disproportionate response" to the defeat of Mr Osborne's plans to cut £12 billion of tax credits.

But some Lords and MPs criticised the Government's "embarrassing" decision, which they warned left an "unelected circus" unreformed.

Lord (Digby) Jones said the move is a "big mistake" and risks peers blocking Brexit because the Tories do not have a majority in the Lords.

The crossbench peer suggested the PM has miscalculated if she thinks treating the Lords well now will win peers' support on crunch votes in the future.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "I would have stuck to my guns because I think they're going to live to regret it on all of the Brexit stuff coming down the pipe.

"When you've got eight Liberal (Democrats) in the Commons and you've got 100 Liberal (Democrats) in the Lords and they want actually to stay in the EU and they'll do anything to stay in the EU, I think they'll rue the day."

He added: "I think it's, in political, legislative management terms, a big mistake because this stuff is going to be huge coming down the pipe in a year's time."

The SNP's Commons leader, Pete Wishart, said: "It looks like the unelected circus down the corridor has just won the battle of the statutory instrument, as this Government hastily and embarrassingly withdraws all its plans to rein in the powers of the unelected ones."

And he poked fun at speculation that Ukip leader Nigel Farage could become a Lord.

He said: "With the imminent ennoblement of the dark lord Farage, it seems like the only intention this Government therefore has for the House of Lords is just to increase the numbers of that grotesque place down the corridor."

Lady Smith repeated her commitment that Labour in the Lords would not block or delay Brexit.

She added: "But a Government without a plan does not have a blank cheque.

"Clearly this House will have an important role, especially if there is considerable secondary legislation that will need us to work together to provide effective scrutiny from all sides of the House, in the public interest."

She hoped the Government would see the Lords "as an asset rather than just a challenge".

Lady Smith, Labour's leader in the Lords, said the review and its recommendations had been "an absurd overreaction and completely unnecessary".

She said the Lords had "an enviable and well-deserved reputation for the way in which it fulfils its duty of scrutiny of government legislation, including secondary".

Lady Smith said: "As a House we recognise those responsibilities and also our limitations as an unelected second chamber."

The power to reject secondary legislation was used only in "exceptional circumstances" - just five times in nearly 70 years.

"The tax credits votes that led to this review were exceptional. They fulfilled the criteria. It wasn't just a matter of disagreeing but completely in line with the history and conventions of this House."

Lord Strathclyde said he "very much welcomed" his proposals being shelved, telling BBC Radio 4's World At One programme: "What the Government have done - with the Opposition - is to appeal to the very best instincts of the House of Lords, which is to move forward by agreement, to recognise the limits to their power and only use this power in the most exceptional circumstances.

"A year ago, everybody was a little bit hot and flustered about it and I wrote my report suggesting legislation. That of course still remains the alternative if the House of Lords does not use its traditional methods for dealing with these issues and decides to use its veto in an increasing manner."

The Tory peer said he expected the Upper House to "debate, discuss, challenge and scrutinise" the Government's Brexit proposals, but added: "Its job is not to block and to stop."

Lord Strathclyde said he did not expect Lords reform to be "a priority for Government time" in the period to come.

Speaking in the Lords, Lord Strathclyde said the guidelines for the use of secondary legislation were "vague or indeed opaque" and called on the Government to clarify the situation.

Labour former cabinet minister Lord Cunningham welcomed the "satisfactory conclusion" to the review.

He said: "After all, the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer who made the original error, which led to these charges of abuse of procedure, have now both left office.

"It's time to move forward and put behind us the false claims that this House has abused its powers and acted wrongly. That was never the case and I hope personally, speaking for myself, it never will be the case."

Liberal Democrat peer Lord McNally stressed the chamber "must retain the right to say no".

"The warning and the danger is if we ever gave away that right to say no, sparingly as it is used, the dynamic of this House would change. We would become a debating society.

"This house is here for a special reason and it is that right to say no that protects its authority and makes governments think twice."

Lady Evans agreed that the Lords had a vital role to play but added: "We must also remember that the elected House does have the final say. It is the elected House.

"But what we can do is add our voice and our expertise to ensure that opinions are reflected and we improve legislation.

"But we are reliant on the House's self regulation and discipline to ensure that we achieve that.

"I believe that we are constructive and we are working well together, but also if that does break down we will have to reflect on what that means."

Labour peer Lord Foulkes of Cumnock cautioned the Government against thinking it would have "an easy time" when it came to the scrutiny of Brexit.

Highlighting the huge implications of leaving the EU, Lord Foulkes said: "If we don't scrutinise this properly we are not doing our job."

Tory former cabinet minister Lord Forsyth of Drumlean said: "This House is acutely aware of the supremacy of the other place and always, always will behave accordingly."

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Wallace of Tankerness called for consideration to be given to a procedure that would allow the amendment of statutory instruments, which were currently "take it or leave it" with no opportunity to change.

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