Bishop of Rochester contributes to debate on Lords powers

On 13th January 2016, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, spoke in a debate on Lord Strathclyde’s motion “that this House takes note of Command Paper Cm 9177, Secondary legislation and the primacy of the House of Commons.” This related to the Strathclyde Review, which assessed the House of Lord’s powers regarding Statutory Instruments.

RochesterThe Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I, like other Members of your Lordships House, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for the work that he has undertaken and for giving rise to what is clearly an important debate about the role of this House, which probably goes much wider than some of the specifics in front of us today. By way of introduction, I will add a little correction to the text of the noble Lord’s report.

He ascribes to my right reverend friend the Bishop of Southwark the tabling of an amendment that was not, in fact, put to a vote. Although they would not argue over it, it was actually my right reverend friend the Bishop of Portsmouth who tabled that unvoted on amendment, which was, as it happened, an amendment that asked the Government to consider again—precisely the kind of amendment under consideration here.

I am conscious that in speaking in this debate there are many in this Chamber who have many years more experience than I do in these matters of constitution and convention, as has already been amply illustrated. However, there are one or two things I would like to offer the debate.

If we are to change the present convention, perhaps we need some criteria against which we assess any changes that we might make. Three might be: would any change enhance or diminish the ability of your Lordships’ House to scrutinise legislation and thereby hold the Government to account; would it improve or worsen relationships between this House and the other place; and what might the impact be on the reputation and status of your Lordships’ House. As a relatively new Member of this House I understand its primary function to be that of a revising Chamber, thereby holding the Executive to account and occasionally, it has to be said, saving the Government from themselves. If we can achieve that, it will be a hugely valuable contribution.

One of the difficulties with SIs, as has already been indicated, is that our capacity to revise them is severely restricted. Indeed, we cannot revise them; there is no power to amend. Therefore, the increased use of SIs presents this House with a problem in fulfilling its function as a revising Chamber because we are left with a blunt instrument of yes or no. That seems to be part of the problem we face. I am encouraged that there are some helpful suggestions in the noble Lord’s report and elsewhere in the conversation. Establishing some clarity over the respective roles of the Houses on finance Bills and other financial matters will clearly be helpful. Indeed, it will be very helpful if the proposed review by the Procedure Committee established some guidance on that. A strong encouragement to government to rein in the excessive use of secondary legislation and put more detail in Bills, as stated in the noble Lord’s report, is clearly important too. If we are to establish or re-establish relationships of trust, we need to be confident that that will take place as it is a necessary ingredient in balancing the roles of the two respective Houses.

It seems to me that beneath the detail and the circumstances of this debate there is an assumption that trust between this place and the other place has been lost to some degree, and that we are being asked to consider surrendering part of our self-regulation relating to our role within that relationship of trust. The suggestion, or implication, of the proposals in the noble Lord’s report is that we have gone beyond the point where the present self-regulatory framework can be allowed to continue, and that something formally laid down in statute may be required in place of the current convention. If that is the case, there is a sadness to it. Even if we do find ourselves going down the line of changing the arrangements, I encourage noble Lords to consider also the underlying question of the level of trust that exists between the two Chambers and between government and Parliament.

My most reverend friend the Archbishop of Canterbury is currently in another other place, where he is trying to deal with the re-establishment of relationships of trust within the worldwide Anglian communion. Therefore, there is experience of these kinds of processes. If we are to pursue changes, I encourage noble Lords, through whatever channels are available to them, to look also at the wider culture of the relationship between this House and the other place to see whether we can find ways of improving that and building on the existing depth of trust because whatever we put in place will work only if that environment of trust is in place.

For my own part, I would regret your Lordships’ House no longer having the power to veto SIs but accept that the introduction of another way of tackling them may prove necessary. I hope that might be combined with a consideration of the possibility of amending them. That could enhance the whole process, enabling SIs to be improved and their purpose to be more fully achieved. I encourage us to have that conversation so that, whatever our powers may be, we can fulfil them responsibly within a rebuilt and re-established spirit of trust.