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Doing the detail

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Labour’s Leader in the Lords, Angela Smith with some positive news from Peers debates on the Trade Union Bill

The old adage “the devil is in the detail” might have been invented for the House of Lords.  Successive governments have learned – often the hard way – that Peers take the detailed scrutiny of legislation very seriously. As many ministers have discovered, just saying something is the case doesn’t make it so.

That’s a lesson that David Cameron’s government is yet to learn.

So it was hard going for BIS Minister Baroness Neville Rolfe when she told the House that Clauses 10 and 11 of the Trade Union Bill were nothing to do with party funding but simply about the regulation of trade unions, without providing any evidence in support.

Lords procedures, rules and conventions can be challenging, even for those who deal with them daily! As an unelected ‘second’ chamber there are limits to what we can, and should be able to do. But a perhaps unusual feature of modern politics is that, not being an entirely political House, there are times when Labour with a strong case and good arguments can gain wider support to challenge the government.

Understanding that Peers would want to look at matters relating to these two clauses more closely, I proposed – on behalf of the Labour Group in the House – that the very specific issue of the impact on party funding should be properly examined by a Select Committee. 

The questions are very simple: will the Conservative government’s Trade Union Bill have an impact on trade union funding, and therefore on Labour Party funding? And by logical extension, on the fairness of our democracy?

We believe it will. The government says it won’t. So we asked the Lords not to take either the Minister’s assertion or our opinion at face value, but to investigate it thoroughly for themselves. 

Support came from across the House. The former head of the Civil Service Lord Kerslake warned that the proposals “should be of concern to those who … like myself, are not in a political party at all”, being “of crucial importance to anyone who believes in an open, plural democracy.”

The current Chair of the Commission on Standards in Public Life, Lord Bew, referred to its 2011 report on Party Funding. That committee made four recommendations but it is only this proposal that has found its way into the government’s legislative plans.

Lord Bew’s comments were devastating. Confirming that he considered that the proposals would impact on party funding, he added: “To take one element, whether it be the role of trade unions or of business in party funding, and to deal with it separately is not in the spirit of that report.”

Even former Conservative Cabinet Minister Lord Forsyth criticised his Party’s proposals saying: “I do think we are provoking a confrontation here which will do none of us any good, and will certainly not do the political system any good.”

So, faced with a serious lack of information but being asked to consider the detail, the House voted 327 to 234 (a majority of 93) to set up a Select Committee to investigate the issue and produce what the government refuses to supply – answers.  

The Committee of 12 Peers from all side of the Lords is being chaired by an independent Peer from the cross benches. Labour are represented by a top team of Larry Whitty, Brenda Dean, Ivor Richard and Jeannie Drake – a formidable quartet. The Committee has called for evidence and will seek to determine the impact of the two clauses on party funding.

The Bill as a whole continues in the normal way, starting its Committee stage next week, but by the time we get to the final stages in the Lords, we will have the evidence and report of the Select Committee.

Then, the House will be able to assess whether these reforms are as “unexceptional” as BIS Minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe claims, or a thinly-disguised assault on fair democracy.

Angela Smith, Baroness Smith of Basildon

Labour’s Leader in the Lords

@LadyBasildon

Visit www.loadingthedice.org.uk for more info.

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