The afternoon after the night before, and here is my report, as promised. So much for the claim that the House of Lords makes the Commons – and the Government majority there – think again.
David Davis MP, former Conservative Shadow Home Secretary and leading campaigner against attacks on civil liberties, previously described Minister’s attempts to hold inquests in secret as a “sinister threat”. Conservative MPs consistently supported moves to stop this change in the law – intended, no doubt, to protect officialdom in the case of soldiers’ deaths – in the Coroners and Justice Bill.
Last night, despite all this principled opposition, Conservative Peers were told by their Whips to abstain when the Liberal Democrats maintained their attack on this “sinister threat”. Sadly, a number of Crossbenchers who should know better followed their lead, although those most associated with civil liberties issues joined the Liberal Democrats. With only a very brave few Conservatives defying their party, the Government won by 175 to 70.
Unkind colleagues muttered that the Tory Peers had wanted to speed up the ping-pong process, putting “dinner before democracy”. I think that was unfair. It was only too obvious that they wanted to get on to the more excitable issue of sexuality. Significantly, they piled into the Chamber for that debate: I saw Peers who haven’t been present for months, and one or two that I didn’t recognise at all. A total of 314 Members voted in the Division just before 8pm, and so those already dressed up for formal dinners were able to get away in time for the soup course.
The only casualty in the rush for the door was the reputation of the House of Lords as a responsible revising chamber, using this priceless opportunity to force the Government and the Commons to think twice before undermining our civil liberties.
Meanwhile, a list of votes sent to me by the excellent House of Lords Library shows that of all the hundreds of government defeats since November 2002, only 19 happened after 8pm. Of those six were in 2005, when the House exceptionally sat until nearly 6am, to counsel caution against the Government’s attempts to introduce control orders. Back then, I was in the Commons and, as in this more recent case, Conservative MPs made a lot of bluster in defence of civil liberties and then their Peers gave in on key principles where they had the power to make a difference.