The weeks of late July and August are often referred to in Westminster circles as “the silly season”, as newspapers look for all sorts of stories to fill their political pages while Parliament is in recess. And in recent days one errant Peer has provided a vivid cocktail of absurdity for them to do just that.
Yet this year, it was the final few weeks before the long Summer break which seemed to get really silly.
Pride of place in the roll call should probably go to “English Votes for English Laws” (or EVEL, pronounced “Evil” by some). No sooner did the Leader of the Commons attempt to slip through a daunting sequence of complicated changes to Standing Orders than a varied and cross-party alliance of analysts, in both Houses, spotted a bewildering array of constitutional blunders. The lack of clarity and simplicity in Ministers’ proposals was all too apparent from the claim by the Leader of the Lords that English MPs were to be given “a voice not a veto”. This assertion came just moments after she had repeated a statement from her colleague, the Leader of the Commons which consistently referred to an English MPs’ veto.
MPs rightly insisted on a delayed decision until September, to allow some time for the government to get its ideas straight. Last Tuesday the Lords went further still. Led by Crossbencher Lord Butler (former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service), the House voted for a Joint Committee of MPs and Peers to examine the options. It was a heavy defeat for the government, involving leading Conservatives as well as Labour, Liberal Democrat and Crossbench Peers.
Amongst many other critics – most much more expert than me – I suggested that for a subset of only some members of the Commons to have the power of veto over Lords’ Bills and Amendments raised substantial new issues for us all, not least in terms of the precedent for Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont. I referred to this as altering “the whole delicate balance of power and responsibility within the United Kingdom… This is a classic case of the dangers of piecemeal and ad hoc attempts to deal with apparent anomalies in our constitution. Removing one anomaly produces another.”
Meanwhile, the rush to legislation after the change of Government in May has led to some singularly oddly drafted Bills. The Lords’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee (DPRRC), of which I am now a member, had some terse comment for two Bills which started in our House.
In the first case, on the Childcare Bill, the Committee was especially critical: the Government had asserted that the Bill was intended to “send a message” which earned it a wrap over the knuckles from the DPRRC which rightly says that “the purpose of an Act is to change the law, not to ‘send a message’”.
In the second case, on the Cities Bill, the DPRRC was able to achieve a modest but very democratic improvement. The Government had been trying to “streamline” consultation processes about changing the structure of local government so that what I referred to as “a small and relatively exclusive group” could take decisions without public consent. The government amendments introducing these provisions were so controversial that I was able to persuade the House and the Minister that they should be withdrawn until DPRRC criticisms of them had been addressed. On the final Tuesday before the recess, the Minister responded with a much more acceptable proposal for public consultation. A good outcome in the end, but it was a remarkable mess for the government to have got itself into in the first place.
The third government initiative could not be described as “silly” at all, but as a very serious affront to democracy. Yet Ministers hoped it would go unnoticed just before the summer break. As my colleague Lord Rennard described here so fully last week, Ministers are making a bid to ignore the clear advice of the statutory Electoral Commission by removing 1.9 million people from the electoral register.
If the Government gets its way, this nakedly partisan move could have a profound effect on next year’s London, Scottish and Welsh elections – and in the European Union Referendum too, if it is timed for June 2016, as now predicted. My colleagues and I will fight it all the way, and we hope for support from all sides in doing so.