The Blog

Responsible Opposition Requires Grown Up Government as Well

If Conservatives whinge every time they lose a vote in the Lords, and then turn use those occasions to justify packing the place with those they can 'rely' on rather than those who will genuinely engage in debate, the casualty will be good government.

We're only eleven weeks into the new Parliament and we are already picking up complaints from government about defeats in the Lords - and the threat that David Cameron will introduce scores of new Conservative Peers to get his legislation through. Is this a genuine and justified concern about the Lords exceeding its constitutional role? Or miffed whingeing that resents any opposition while wanting an excuse to pack an already overcrowded House?

To many people, the Lords is a strange beast. An unelected part of the legislature, it is also subordinate and with a limited role. Rightly, the House cannot veto government legislation permanently but we have a constitutional duty to scrutinise the detail and hold ministers to account.

Most of our legislative work is by advocacy and discussion, with votes on amendments a small part of that. The second chamber is a place where governments, away from the intense glare of publicity in the Commons, are more content to engage, listen and make changes to Bills if it improves the legislation. On the Counter Terrorism Bill in the last Parliament, ministers agreed to around 40 practical amendments - including some previously rejected in the Commons - without in any way damaging the Bill's overall intent.

But the current Parliament is unprecedented: the first time ever that a Conservative government has not had a Lords majority. Until the 1998 House of Lords Act, all previous Tory administrations could rely on hereditary Peers for an inbuilt majority. The last government, as a coalition, had an overall political majority; and of the 192 of new Peers, a staggering 62% were from the government parties.

No Labour government has ever had a majority in the Lords. Labour ministers have had to win the day by debate, discussion and compromise. And by losing votes and having to think again - with lessons learnt particularly during the 2001-5 government, when we were losing an average of 61 votes each year.

But underpinning all of this, the Salisbury convention ensures that the House respects the elected government's right to ensure the promises it made to the electorate are fulfilled. Party manifestos are important and our chamber should not be in the wrecking business.

The Labour government elected in the landslide election of 1945 with a Commons majority of 156 had just 16 of the then 831 Peers. Yet it managed to established the NHS, nationalise the railways, and start a massive house-building programme. Harold Wilson's government also saw numerous Lords defeats but brought in significant social and economic change.

So is there any justification in complaints about the votes that the government has lost in recent weeks? Do they strike at the heart of its programme? Or does it fulfil the Lords traditional scrutinising role?

So far there have been 16 votes and ten government defeats.

One was on a cost-free amendment to the Cities and Local Government Bill, to provide an annual report on how devolution deals are progressing. Having lost, ministers were very uncertain about the following consequential amendment, allowing a backbench Tory Peer to call a further vote, which was of course lost. Later on the same Bill, Peers successfully challenged plans to force Elected Mayors on areas seeking a devolution deal, and changed a technical rule relating to undoing mayoral referenda. We also voted against new Universal Credit (UC) regulations coming in before UC is fully operational. On the 'Legal Highs' Bill, we pressed the government to treat drugs offences committed in prisons more seriously. And after inadequate responses relating to the devolution of NHS services to local government, we have now established a clearer line of accountability to the Health Secretary.

None of these seven defeats strike at the heart of the government's programme. So what about the remaining three?

A Charities Bill vote reinforced existing legal provisions to protect charities - including housing associations - from attempts to force them to sell assets cheaply. Overwhelming support for a Labour/LibDem amendment to allow 16 and 17 year olds a vote in local government elections. Then yesterday, we saw motion from the Crossbench former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler of Brockwell, calling for a joint parliamentary committee to examine the constitutional implications of English Votes for English Laws. This would in no way stop ministers going down the bizarre and unprecedented route of constitutional change through changing Commons Standing Orders. But it would allow Parliament to fully prepare, and try to anticipate some of the unintended consequences. With a majority of 181 this attracted support from across the Lords, including eleven Conservative 'rebels'.

So is the Lords wrong to examine these issues? Are we wrong to challenge Ministers?

Of course, there are many more issues on which my Labour colleagues and I fundamentally disagree with the government. We are mindful however, of our constitutional limitations and role, and those issues are primarily for the Commons chamber.

We will be a responsible Opposition in the Lords. But we also expect responsible and grown up government in return.

If Conservatives whinge every time they lose a vote in the Lords, and then turn use those occasions to justify packing the place with those they can 'rely' on rather than those who will genuinely engage in debate, the casualty will be good government.

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords