The government is poised to announce plans to try to limit the powers of the Lords so that peers only have one chance to reject some legislation before the House of Commons can insist it passes into law.
David Cameron had asked Lord Strathclyde, the former Conservative leader of the Lords, to draw up plans to limit the Lords’ powers in the wake of the peers’ decision in October to block a planned £4bn cut to tax credits. His review is expected as early as Thursday and will face criticism that instead of reforming the Lords, Cameron is attempting to neuter its powers.
At present all legislation can go back and forth between the Lords and the Commons until an issue is resolved.
Cameron regarded the Lords’ decision to block the tax credits as unprecedented interference with financial matters and a sign that the relationship between the two houses needed to be put on a new long-term footing. The issue is likely to lead to a major row between the two houses in the new year and be presented by Labour as part of a wider attempt by the government to weaken political opposition in the UK
In the Lords, Labour has largely run a political operation independent of Jeremy Corbyn and, in alliance with the Liberal Democrats and some crossbenchers, has selectively chosen a range of issues on which to defeat the government.
Labour regarded the momentous decision to challenge the tax credits cuts as legitimate, since the motion that passed on what is called a statutory instrument did not altogether throw out the measure, but instead ordered George Osborne to come up with alternative proposals.
Strathclyde will propose that the Lords should lose its veto over this delegated – or secondary – legislation, such as the measure implementing tax-credit cuts. Peers would have the right to throw out secondary legislation once, but if the Commons in a subsequent vote insisted on the measure, the Lords could not intervene again.
For this change to be enforceable, Labour expects Strathclyde to recommend that a brief statute is passed setting this relationship into law. It is rare for any aspect of parliamentary procedure to be codified in statute, as opposed to a non-legal convention, since it is argued any such statute on parliamentary procedure makes parliament vulnerable to judicial interference.
Strathclyde’s report will look back at previous votes against statutory instruments and conclude the tax credit vote broke new ground. Labour also fears that once the peers’ power of veto is removed, Cameron will increasingly turn to the use of delegated legislation – also known as statutory instruments – to push controversial measures through the upper house.
Statutory instruments receive less parliamentary time and scrutiny than full bills. It is a permanent complaint of oppositions that governments use statutory instruments to pass complex legislation that should have been subject to full scrutiny.
Cameron is worried that conventional bills are facing sabotage in the Lords, where the Tories have 251 seats out of a total of 822. Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined have 324.
Labour said that since the election there had been 23 defeats in 38 votes but 16 of these “wins” have actually been on bills that started in the Lords. A Labour source said this looked like a rather deliberate approach to the house from a government that does not take too kindly to challenge and is looking at ways to neuter peers’ powers of scrutiny.
Senior Tories argue the Lords have inflicted defeats on the government on 30% of occasions over the past 15 years. Since the election that has risen to 70%.
Last week, Lord Lisvane, a former clerk of the Commons, said secondary legislation was being used “increasingly for matters of policy and principle which should be the subject of primary legislation”.
This article was written by Patrick Wintour Political editor, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 16th December 2015 22.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010