Primary Intelligence

24/05/2016 07:37 | Updated 24 May 2016

In recent years I have served on the House of Lords Delegated Powers Committee and currently serve on the Secondary Legislation Committee. During this time, I have become more and more concerned about the poor state of legislation presented to us by the government. And it is getting worse. Yes we have to hold ministers to account but they must also accept that they are accountable to Parliament. The Executive has to put this right.

Of course, what brought all of this to a head was the statutory instrument relating to tax credits, which precipitated The Strathclyde Report and in turn precipitated four replies. Three from Lord's Committees and one from the House of Commons; plus much correspondence in the press and elsewhere. Quite a reaction.

But this was not the only example of poor preparation or using secondary legislation to introduce new and significant matters. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has recently drawn attention to matters across the whole spectrum of government: social housing, hunting, building regulations, feed in tariffs, local government and animal welfare.

By drawing the government's attention to these weaknesses and errors in delegated and secondary legislation, the Lords has helped the government avoid some nasty and awkward unintended consequences. After taking evidence, all three Lords Committees in their responses to Strathclyde pointed out that with so many other pressures on MPs they have little time to look at secondary legislation. And they only actually scrutinise selected parts of primary legislation. Indeed, virtually every major bill in the Commons is timetabled - something that further reduces scrutiny.

This is no way to create the law of the land. The government is losing votes not only because there is disagreement over policies but also because the legislation is not thought through. That is why recently we have seen so many u-turns or policies changed or abandoned.

What worries me is that as standards decline the opportunities grow to avoid, evade, ignore or even break the rules. Rules which are devised for the public good. Poorly prepared legislation will undermine our culture of strong fair-minded government. It is in this direction where corruption lies.

Is the problem a lack of staff with the expertise and analytical skills and experience in preparing legislation? What about getting some new help? Artificial intelligence? The government's Science and Technology Facilities Council at Hartree has a five year contract with Watson at IBM. There must be enough computing power and programming skill there to help get this right. After all, machines now read and analyse clauses in loan agreements in contracts of sale and generally point lawyers in the right direction.

As others have noted, the Queen's Speech refers to the primacy of the Commons. Not the primacy of the Executive. It would be terribly wrong to introduce legislation curbing the powers of the Lords when dealing with secondary legislation and leaving everything else as it is. It would be merely like getting rid of an irritation. Without dealing with the cause, that irritation will come back again and again.

Lord Simon Haskel is a backbench Labour Peer and a Deputy Speaker in the House of Lords. He tweets @simon_haskel