Labour peer slams 'outrageous' threat to suspend Lords in tax credits row


Suggestions the Government could suspend the House of Lords in a row over tax credits are "nothing short of outrageous", a senior Labour peer has warned.

Shadow Lords leader Baroness Smith of Basildon slammed the idea in a debate on Government plans for English votes for English laws (Evel) in the Commons, a proposal which is due before MPs on Thursday.

She said the two issues were indicative of a Government which preferred to avoid scrutiny.

Baroness Smith's remarks come amid growing tension between the Government and the unelected House of Lords, where the Tories do not have a majority and are frequently defeated.

So-called "fatal" motions, which could wreck controversial plans to slash tax credits, are due before peers on Monday.

Earlier ministers accused Labour of breaching the Salisbury Convention - that the Lords should not block manifesto promises - by forcing through an amendment to the Energy Bill removing plans to end on-shore wind subsidies a year early.

Baroness Smith said: "The whole (Evel) saga is becoming symptomatic of the Government's approach more generally.

"I don't think it is good government to rush such matters through without proper consideration, I would like to see a much greater analysis of the constitutional position.

"Every Government has the right to get its promised legislation through Parliament - that I think is an absolute. But what we are seeing is half baked, half formed legislation put before this House ... but my serious concern is Government is either seeking to ignore what we do or over-react to the House of Lords expressing a different view.

"On Monday evening we had the Government briefing to journalists that if this House votes against tax credit statutory instruments on Monday, then the House will be suspended. That is nothing short of outrageous and appalling.

"Parliament doesn't belong to the Government and the Government cannot dictate how Parliament acts."

Baroness Smith criticised Lords Leader Baroness Stowell for failing to push inside Government for a joint committee of MPs and peers to study Evel despite the Lords voting for such an idea by a huge margin.

But Baroness Stowell earlier dismissed the suggestion, insisting the Government did not back a joint committee.

Outlining the Evel plans, which involve changes to the rules of the House of Commons, Baroness Stowell said they were "pragmatic and proportionate".

MPs are due to debate and vote on the changes to the standing orders on Thursday. The changes, proposed by Commons leader Chris Grayling, add additional stages to legislation deemed English, or English and Welsh, only.

All MPs will still vote on all legislation at the start and end of each Bill but new laws affecting only England, or England and Wales, will not reach the statute book if they cannot also be agreed by a majority of English, or English and Welsh, MPs.

Baroness Stowell told peers: "We will give the English a strong voice on English matters while at the same time respecting the right of every MP from every part of the United Kingdom to debate and vote on every piece of legislation."

Former civil service chief Lord Butler slammed the Government for not taking up an offer by the Lords to create a joint committee with the Commons to look at the issue of English and Welsh MPs being able to vote on issues that solely impact on their parts of the UK.

The crossbench peer said that the Lords had not experienced such a rebuff for 104 years.

Labour former home secretary John Reid warned the Government would create new problems if it tackled the Evel situation too quickly.

Lord Reid questioned why the Government was acting with such speed on the issue when it had a majority of MPs in England, as well as across the UK.

Conservative Lord Forsyth said: "I confess to a sense of weariness ... I am coming to the conclusion it doesn't matter a damn what I say, it doesn't matter a damn what this House does - it's just going to be ignored and the Government will charge on regardless."

Protesting that the House of Commons never responded to the peers' plea for a joint committee on Evel, passed by a majority of more than 180, Lord Forsyth said it was a "scandal of the first order". 

He told peers it was the first time in more than a century that a response to a Lords motion had not been sent.

The former Scotland secretary added: "I wonder why are we here, what are we doing at 8.40pm, what is the point?"

Labour's Lord Foulkes said: "It will be strange that I (as a Scottish peer) will be able to vote on English laws and Ian Murray, or whoever elected in the House of Commons, will not.

"This House has no democratic legitimacy anyway but for us to be taking part in a greater way than people who are elected and who are MPs having less is really quite wrong."

Conservative leader of the Lords, Baroness Stowell, said the Government needed to act in order to ease a feeling of unfairness south of the border.

"There's a sense in England of unfairness, and a desire for that unfairness to be addressed sooner rather than later," she said.

The peer added that in the end both houses of parliament would agree on the issue, but until then "ping-ponging" between the chambers would continue.