I have read with interest the very thoughtful recent contributions on tuition fees, and the role of the Lords in determining them. Personally, I very much agree with what Baroness Murphy has said of the new scheme. I believe it will be better and fairer, even if it was not the preferred option of the Liberal Democrats, as expressed in our manifesto. My colleague, Lord Rennard, has also written an excellent piece on this for The Guardian, which is well worth a read.
Their case for the detail of the scheme is compelling, so I won’t repeat that here. I am, however, concerned with the proper role for the second House of Parliament. There seems to be interesting variation in views expressed, not least by Peers themselves.
This is reflected, too, in some of the emails I have received. For example, people ask, does the Lords have a duty to uphold manifestos, just as there is a convention that it does not contradict them? Does it matter that it is secondary legislation, where the conventions are different to those for primary legislation? On manifestos, I think it’s quite clear that the “Salisbury-Addison” convention will have to evolve to deal with Coalition government. It was always a convention between the Labour and Conservative parties – when the latter had a vast majority by virtue of having hundreds of hereditary peers – and was never signed up to by the then Liberal Party, when it was devised. Naturally, when no one party has majority in the Commons, it cannot be reasonable to expect any one manifesto to be implemented in full and, in fact, they never were anyway. The idea that manifestos were somehow gospel when there was single party government is a triumph of rose-tinted glasses over experience.
Meanwhile, I never accepted that the Lords should not block secondary legislation. Indeed, it was a matter of some considerable frustration to me that the Conservatives in the last Parliament were always excessively cautious on this point, and refused to stop poorly thought out detail in legislation even when they could have done so with Liberal Democrat support. Much thanks they have got. The evidence is that Labour Peers, far from rewarding the Conservatives’ restraint in opposition, are determined to use every possible delaying tactic and procedural device possible to stymie the Government’s programme, whether on primary or secondary legislation.
Process aside, readers will no doubt note that the reason that this issue is being dealt with as secondary legislation is that the primary legislation enabling tuition fees in the first place was passed yonks ago, by – guess who – the Labour Party. Lord Knight, who laments this fact in his post, voted for the Bill after a “third reading” debate in the Commons for which the then Government allowed just twelve minutes for MPs to have their say. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.
I’m writing this before the debate today in the Lords, and I think the arguments are now well-rehearsed, whatever the outcome!