THE BLOG

In Defence of Scrutiny

05/01/2016 07:38 GMT | Updated 05/01/2017 10:12 GMT

At this time of the year, we often reflect on the past and make plans for the future. For politicians, it is particularly poignant as we look back over the first eight months of the only wholly Conservative government for 18 years and consider what the future holds.

Already, the true character of the government is evident. The Lobbying Bill - or rather, 'Gagging Bill' - introduced by the Coalition set the tone, by making it much harder for charities and campaigning organisations to get their messages across. But the Conservatives have now taken this aversion to challenge and scrutiny to a level that I thought was lost with the court of Charles I.

We've had had the review of constituency boundaries, where the Prime Minister took the unprecedented step of instructing the Boundaries Commission on how many constituencies there should be. As he seeks to reduce the number of MPs however, Mr Cameron continues to appoint Life Peers at faster rate than any of his predecessors.

Changes to voter registration have also been rushed in, contrary to Electoral Commission advice - meaning many thousands of people could lose the right to vote. No prizes for guessing which political party is expected to gain from this.

Then there's the Trade Union Bill, which seeks to decimate the Labour Party's funding base whilst making no commensurate changes that would impact on the Conservative's sources of income.

And now, smarting from a defeat in the House of Lords on plans to slash tax credits for working families, the government is using a review by Lord Strathclyde as a Trojan horse to blunt Peers' powers of scrutiny over secondary legislation.

So what did the Lords do that was so terrible? We dared to suggest that perhaps the Chancellor hadn't got this right, declined to pass a Statutory Instrument, and gave the government the opportunity to pause and think again. Mr Osborne took full advantage of this and promptly scrapped his planned changes. After months defending his flagship policy, he realised what many others had from the start - that taking away thousands of pounds from the lowest-paid was neither good policy nor good politics.

Had the Lords not asked Ministers to think again, two million families would have had a very different Christmas. Indeed, that whole debate showed the Lords at its best - doing the quiet, unglamorous work of marking the government's homework; going through legislation line-by-line, tweaking and improving; and from time to time asking the government to reconsider.

Since the beginning of this Parliament, Peers have scrutinised 60 pieces of legislation over hundreds of hours. We've had 42 votes and defeated the government 23 times. (MPs have voted close to 150 times during the same period.) At no point have we stopped a policy that the Conservatives were elected to implement; and crucially, 16 of the defeats were on Bills that started in the Lords and so had no prior scrutiny or approval from the Commons. A fair few of the Bills were in fact, half-baked.

On the day back in July when we broke for summer recess, I wrote another blog for Huffington Post on the votes we'd won by that point. Since then, we've won thirteen more.

We've amended the Childcare Bill to increase flexibility for parents and ensure the regulations derived from it are properly debated on. In the Energy Bill, we've voted to broaden the purposes of the Oil and Gas Authority, change the UKs climate budget's metric to give greater certainty to Green investors, and block cuts to onshore wind subsidies. And in the Enterprise Bill we've voted to ensure the Green Investment Bank maintains its green purposes after privatisation, and supported pub owners in requiring pub companies to offer a market rent only option to tied tenants.

We also suggested that the early introduction of Individual Electoral Registration be halted, to prevent one million people dropping off the register, and called for 16 and 17 years olds to have a vote in the EU referendum. Although on both occasions, the government subsequently defeated us.

Finally, and in addition to our 'help' to Mr Osborne on tax credits, we also provided the opportunity for Lord Chancellor Michael Gove to reverse his ill-fated policy on criminal courts charges, which he duly did.

All of this doesn't add up to a major attack on democracy. It is the job of Parliament to scrutinise the actions of the Executive - a job that becomes all the more vital when Mr Cameron is reported as telling Ministers to: "use statutory instruments wherever possible to get legislation through".

During thirteen years in office between 1997 and 2010, Labour was defeated over 500 times in the Lords. We didn't like it but we just got on with the job. No government likes to be told they've got something wrong, but the current Prime Minister needs to learn that scrutiny, transparency and challenge is fundamental to a healthy democracy. And, as the Chancellor will no doubt confirm, it can sometimes even be his friend.

Baroness Smith of Basildon is Labour Leader in the House of Lords