BARONESS Smith of Basildon rose on the floor of the House of Lords to speak in a debate on English Votes for English MPs.
Baroness Smith said: "My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement—and what a Statement. This is an issue of major constitutional significance. Action to ensure that the voice of English Members of Parliament is heard loud and clear has to be addressed. Indeed we recognise that, with the deepening of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the need to ensure that the views of English MPs are heard is clearly important. Both the McKay commission and the former Leader of the House of Commons, William Hague, in his Command Paper reported on this issue. But what is proposed by the Government today goes far beyond what has previously been considered and reported to Parliament. These are far more wide-reaching changes, with far deeper implications, but with no proper analysis of how they will work in practice. I find some irony in the opening lines of the Statement describing the Government as both Conservative and unionist. The credibility of claims to be unionist is fading fast.
We could be forgiven for thinking that on an issue of such constitutional importance, on detail that has never even been seen, let alone considered or debated, before today, and on an issue that has such profound implications for how Parliament operates, there would be an opportunity to wisely consider legislation. Should there not be a Green Paper, a White Paper, or possibly even a Bill that would be debated in both Houses—proper effective scrutiny to ensure that any proposals not only address the fundamental principles but, equally importantly, how this could work in practice? But no; this issue, if the Government get their way, will be done and dusted within the next couple of weeks, with no consultation
or any scrutinising debate in your Lordships’ House. How? This will be done merely by amending the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.
The Government have today published 20 pages of amendments to the Standing Orders of the other place. The implications of these changes are hugely significant. Given that, the noble Baroness has to address the question of why there has been no consultation or expert scrutiny outside the immediate narrow circle of the Government. Can she tell me when such constitutional proposals have been dealt with merely by amending the Standing Orders of the House of Commons? Twice in the Statement she referred to making a start on the process. This is not just a start. It will be done, dusted and finished within two weeks? With the Government’s obvious fear of any genuine scrutiny in what most of us consider would be the normal, most sensible and practical way in which to make such significant changes, the noble Baroness will have to convince your Lordships’ House that this does not have the whiff of political expediency about it.
We will all want to reflect further on the detail, given that many of the specific proposals are new and have not been considered previously. For Bills that the House of Commons Speaker certifies as England-only in their entirety, the proposals appear to be fairly clear. However, today’s Statement goes much further than that. It outlines a process of sorts where a Bill contains some proposals that are considered to be either Welsh or English. There is not time today to go into all the complexities and complications of how that would work in practice, but it is sufficient to say that there will most certainly be complexities, complications and, of course, potential for chaos. Legislation rarely divides itself neatly into geographical areas. So if the Government are no longer talking about individual Bills but apparently individual clauses in Bills, this surely creates significant scope for additional complexities—and indeed risk.
With the proposals being published only this morning, the full implications of how this will affect the work of your Lordships’ House cannot yet be fully clear. In this Chamber we press votes only when necessary. We try to effect change by working with the Government with debate, discussion and presentation of the facts. However, on issues that will be defined as English, an amendment passed by this House will be subject effectively to a double lock. Will that mean the Government will be less willing to engage on English-only issues, because in this Parliament, and generally, the other place has a majority of Conservative MPs in England, so that whatever we say or do, they could vote your Lordships’ House down?
The Statement refers to using a procedure to identify English parts of a Bill as similar to that used for certifying financial privilege. Many noble Lords will recall that Peers from across the House have had several heated exchanges over the years with the Government in recent years over their refusal to engage with amendments passed by this House and ask the Commons to reconsider—and the issue raised has been financial privilege. Does the noble Baroness have any concerns about how these proposals will affect your Lordships’ House? Unless the Government already
have a blueprint or precedent of how it can be made to work in practice, should not some thought and debate have gone into these proposals?
When William Hague presented his Command Paper to Parliament, he clearly did not envisage such proposals as those being brought before us. He was clear that there were a number of serious issues to be addressed, consulted on and decisions taken. Today’s Statement bypasses any such process. Mr Hague considered how a constitutional convention could be established and the kind of issues that could be addressed. The noble Baroness would have heard in Questions today the calls from right across this breadth of your Lordships’ House on how a constitutional convention could assist the Government, Parliament and the country. Laws rushed in rarely get it right.
Finally, we have concerns at the way in which this has been announced, and that has been reflected in other measures brought before us. This has been done without consultation or apparent thought for any possible unintended consequences. It is hardly reflective of the significance of the Government’s proposals. Yesterday, I spoke in your Lordships’ House of our concerns about the Government’s approach to the Childcare Bill and our recognition of the wider implications of the Government’s approach. The Constitution Committee, even since the beginning of this Session, has described a trend since the last Parliament,
“towards the introduction of vaguely worded legislation that leaves much to the discretion of ministers”.
This, the committee states,
“increases the power of the Executive at the expense of Parliament”.
On this issue, we are told that an assessment will be conducted in 12 months’ time by the Procedure Committee in the House of Commons. But what about your Lordships’ House? Again I have to ask the noble Baroness: has she given any thought to the implications for this Chamber? Will we get any opportunity to assess any impact that it may have had on the way in which we work? We have to do better than this. If we do not do it properly, the potential risks are enormous.