‘……………By Molly Meacher
Most MPs understand how vital our work on scrutinising legislation is – and where our remit lies. Pity David Cameron isn’t one of them
Andrew Lloyd Webber was required to fly across the Atlantic to add an extra vote to the Conservative total in the fight in the House of Lords against amendments to tax credit regulations this week. The government lost despite such desperate measures. And tomorrow it is likely to lose another debate on tax credits, in the House of Commons.
The flight of Lloyd Webber indicates just how significant the chancellor and prime minister believe these votes to be. We have to ask ourselves why. If there were a clear majority in the elected house – the House of Commons – in favour of what are, for many vulnerable people, catastrophic cuts, the government would have been able to get them through without much of a fuss. But that is far from the case. Although the government has won three votes on tax credits in the lower house it is important to know that a number of Conservative MPs are now “livid” that those votes happened when they did not have the information they needed to assess the impact of the cuts. They are asking for more information in tomorrow’s debate.
The government is talking nonsense when it claims that the votes in the Lords were unconstitutional and unprecedented. The tax credit cuts were put forward in the welfare reform and work bill, and not the budget. The House of Lords regularly proposes amendments to, and votes on, such bills, which always involve government spending. Had the tax credit cuts been introduced in the budget, the Lords would not have sought to amend them. Was the government trying to slip through these huge cuts to the welfare budget without debate? If so, putting them into regulations was very clever. Regulations tend to be given far less attention in the House of Commons than bills.
The government argues that it is unconstitutional for the Lords to vote on regulations, particularly those involving finance. The clerk of the parliaments – the highest authority on procedure – wrote a guidance note for me on my motion to hold off on the cuts, giving the government time to consider all aspects of them. He made abundantly clear in this note that “procedurally, the Meacher motion is entirely in order under the rules of the house” – and was entirely clear that my amendment was perfectly constitutional and was not unprecedented.
What was new was that my amendment was a “delaying” motion. The Lords, in passing it, were saying that we decline to consider the tax credit cuts regulations until the government provides a report making clear what these cuts mean to poor and vulnerable households. But, of course, the Lords can simply throw out a regulation. This is much more drastic than deferring a decision. The clerks agreed with us that there is no reason why the house should not defer consideration of an amendment, if it has the power to do something much more draconian. Admittedly, it is true that the house has chosen not to use a delaying power until now.
The fact is that George Osborne now has to make concessions, and those concessions will have to be more significant if he has no majority in the elected house. He has already indicated that he is working on some transitional arrangements that will mean the full effect of the tax credit cuts will be felt over time, instead of hitting home on 1 April next year. This will ease the pain considerably for current claimants – at least for a time – but it does nothing for new claimants. I hope he will find a way of protecting people who can earn very little, for reasons of their own disability or health problems, or those of their children; or because they are carers as well as workers in the economy; or have limited abilities. I am hoping that MPs will press home the importance of this point.
And will the Conservative leadership destroy the House of Lords? I doubt it. They have many friends in the house. The fact is that the MPs leave the work on regulations to the House of Lords. MPs are extremely busy with their constituencies and don’t have time for this very detailed work.
The House of Lords has many highly qualified professionals, including lawyers, who do an excellent job on regulations, and indeed on bills and European regulations as well. There are good reasons why MPs don’t actually want to abolish the Lords – such a move would make their lives impossible. …………’