Monday, December 14, 2015

Meanwhile, back on the home front

The EU Referendum Bill is still making its way through Parliament. As expected the House of Commons reversed the Amendment that would have given 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in it (unlike the right to buy tobacco or alcohol or decide whether they want to stop being part of the education system) and agreed to all the government Amendments. (See columns 881 to 885 for the vote.)

So the Bill returns to the Lords in what has become known as "ping-pong" and from 3 pm on the proceedings can be watched here. It will be interesting to see how the Lords will deal with a problem that seems to have been added to the procedure quite gratuitously.

At the beginning of that debate in the Commons on December 8, the Speaker said:
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that Lords amendment 1 engages financial privilege. Lords amendment 1 is the first amendment to be taken, and to move the Government motion to disagree I call the Minister, eager and expectant.
Financial privilege attached to the amendment implies that the Lords will not be able to reinstate it. It is hard to see why this amendment should have financial privilege attached to it while other matters should not.

Naturally, an extension of the electorate even temporarily carries a price but then all legislation carries a price. Is the Speaker saying that the Lords will now not be able to amend any legislation, in case that amendment might have some financial implication. If so, it introduces an important constitutional change, which should be discussed widely and not simply announced in a somewhat off-hand fashion by the Speaker.

This is all part and parcel of the government's intention to do away with any kind of check on its power. Given our system that check is not going to come from the House of Commons, though its members might be elected; it can come only from the courts (another theme altogether) or the Lords. Readers of this blog know that it is greatly in favour of the Lords providing that check even when the blog disagrees with their decision, as it does in this case.

Interestingly, support for that point of view has come from the Adam Smith Institute. Dr Eamonn Butler writes on their blot that An unelected check is better than no check on the House of Commons.
Who says politicians are useless and inefficient? They are superbly efficient at one thing, at least – curbing any restraints on their own power.

Thus Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative grandee charged by Prime Minister David Cameron with reviewing the role of peers in the governance of the United Kingdom, is set to propose that the Lords lose their veto over delegated or ‘secondary’ legislation. It all stems from the Prime Minister’s (and the Chancellor’s) agitation at the House of Lords blocking plans to cut tax credits. And that was not the first time that the Lords has irritated the House of Commons by questioning its legislative plans.

The argument is that the Commons is elected and the Lords (mostly) isn’t. So the Lords have no right to block Commons legislation. But even the most slavering MP these days would not suggest simply abolishing the Lords and giving the House of Commons absolute power. That would lead to riots. But they figure they can get rid of the ‘problem’ a bit at a time. The Lords have already lost their powers to block financial legislation; they can delay but not veto other measures; and the Parliament Act, designed to be used in dire emergencies, is now deployed with dazzling frequency, to push through measures that the Lords feel queasy about.

Lord Strathclyde’s proposals are just the latest sortie in these one-sided air-strikes. Secondary legislation is the detailed regulatory stuff that MPs can’t be bothered with, and delegate to officials: so (runs the argument) why do we need the Lords to worry about that?

Well, we should all worry about it, as we can at least get rid of MPs and even overturn laws, but we can’t vote out regulators. Scrapping regulations ain’t so easy, either. So it is good that such proposals are properly scrutinised before they get going. Give it a year or three, though, and there will be some other issue, and the Lords’ powers will be trimmed again. And again.
I find this obsession with elections completely baffling, especially as so often the people who insist on it also complain about the electoral system and about the people who get elected. Surely, having another House that is chosen in a different way is a good idea.

There are many problems with the House of Lords as it stands. Lord Pearson's repeated complaint that the Lib-Dims are over-represented in it while UKIP is under-represented is fair; the packing of the House by the previous Labour and Coalition as well as the present Conservative governments is part and parcel of their intention to control its activity and ought to be stopped. A moratorium on any further peerages should be introduced immediately until we sort out the mess that has been created by the packing.

But let us not forget that the argument for nobody being appointed and everybody being elected leads to the next one, which is the one about elected politicians not being elected by all that large a proportion of the electorate. A discussion of whom MPs represent and what their position is or ought to be in the political world is something for another blog in which Edmund Burke will be quoted correctly but let us quickly look at the logical conclusion of that argument: it is surely that unless about 90 per cent or more vote for the government it has no legitimacy. Well there are and have been for many years political systems based on that. Do the critics of our system really want to live like that?

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