There was a good example this week of the House of Lords doing its job of scrutiny. Winning a vote on the public bodies bill (‘bonfire of the quangos bill’) was very important, with 59 crossbenchers voting with the Labour opposition. It is clear that the crossbenchers will vote with us on issues of constitutional importance and fairness. There should be plenty of opportunity for us to be cooperative given the highhandedness of this government.
Our chief whip Steve Bassam raised in the chamber the fact that the savings accounts and health in pregnancy grant bills have been designated as a money bill. Mr Speaker, John Bercow, has amazingly declared both these as money bills. This means that the Lords can only have a second reading debate, but no scrutiny and no amendments to test the bills because this means that there will be no further stages of the bill.
The history of money bill goes back to the historic settlement of 1911. The House of Lords (because of its lack of democratic base) – cannot refuse or even scrutinise money bills. No taxation without representation – quite right too!
However, by declaring this particular bill as a money bill, we believe that the speaker may be creating a precedent which could limit the Lords ability to consider many pieces of legislation. Both the savings accounts bill and the health in pregnancy bill were pieces of the Labour government social policy legislation. One seeks to give some children a financial start in savings, and the other to give a grant to pregnant women intended to help them with their diet and self care. The key to the health in pregnancy grant is that it is only granted after a woman has seen and had a discussion with a midwife or qualified health professional. This is important particularly for young and low income expectant mothers.
We believe that the speaker’s ruling is highly likely to limit or stop completely our house being able to consider this particular bill. This is wrong. The legislation that this bill is seeking to amend went through all stages in both houses, with no question of it being designated as a money bill. The implications for future bills are obvious: if a bill dealing with, say, housing benefit was designated as a money bill, we would not be able to debate it in the Lords, so removing even the prospect of defeating the government. Or indeed legislation on student finance.
Colleagues in the Commons are raising the implications with the Commons authorities. We intend to do the same, so we put down a motion for Monday 29 November seeking to have all the stages of the bill debated in this house. We lost by just seven but we believe that, once again, the role of the Lords is a revising chamber is being threatened.
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