Jos Bell looks at Labour's crusading peers in the House of Lords, fighting harder for a fairer future and holding the coalition to account.
Baroness Jan Royall, leader of the Labour Lords, is justly proud of her dedicated front bench team who relentlessly challenge every fine detail of destructive and often incompetent coalition legislation. The packed break out session at #Lab12 was testament to the renewed interest in the work of the upper chamber – possibly also due to a new communications strategy from the Labour Lords.
The work of the House of Lords is rarely noticed by the general public, and if quizzed most would probably hone in on the imagery of the State Opening of Parliament or an elderly snoozer rather than the busy day-to-day workings of the Chamber and small team of support staff.
Although some (well, OK, many) of the traditions of the Chamber may be archaic/quirky – dependent upon your taste for history – the work is very definitely contemporary and relevant to every UK resident.
Whereas the Commons committee only debates on chosen points, the Lords debate not just every single proposed amendment of each Bill, but also instigate debates on urgent topics even when no legislation is in process.
Lords are largely unpaid and with an average age above the retirement threshold, and with more than a smattering of health issues, this is no mean feat – and Chief Whip Steve Bassam made fond mention of Lord Philip Gould attending two weeks before his premature demise to vote against the Health and Social Care Bill.
The mainstream press rarely pass comment on these activities – even government losses on the Legal Aid Bill (thanks to Lord Willy Bach, @FightBach), or the 90 hours of debates opposing the Health and Social Care Bill and the elusive NHS Risk Register went largely un-noted. Likewise, the now so crucial success in retaining the role of the Chief Coroner, who will have such a key role in the follow up to the long awaited revelations of the Hillsborough disaster.
The very act of ennoblement can bestow the recipient with a seemingly unreachable quality – either through deference or disapproval (dependent upon your view of our establishment). Some may revel in such elevation, but the Labour Lords are keen to reach out and encourage active engagement with NGOs, voluntary sector, lobbyists and members of the public.
The lively Labour nobles have taken matters into their own hands – launching their own website and taking to Twitter in droves with 20% of members now having an @ handle. This very 21st-century strategy is now having some impact, with greater levels of public engagement and latterly even an increasing press interest. Who knew it was possible to input into Lords debate live via Twitter? You do now!
The Labour Lords (@LabourLordsUK) commitment:
• Look outwards;
• Communicate well;
• Work with NGOs and the voluntary sector;
• “We are the Labour Second Front” – it is possible to mobilise a majority!
The shadow team are passionate about the need to expose the phoney opposition techniques of the poor relation of the coalition – which ironically won the Twitter-hating Baroness Shirley Williams the Peer of the Year Award, whilst actively undermining the role of the Lords as a revising chamber.
The technique of putting forward an amendment to claim opposition, but then either voting against their own amendment or failing to turn up to their own vote has become the Liberal Democrats’ deceitful weapon of choice – with only one of their number actually voting against the Heath and Social Care Bill.
Even the occasional Tory may be persuaded to vote against their government. It can take an unusual degree of bravery to challenge their self- interested ramparts – and tribute was paid to the late Lord Tony Newton who repeatedly stood up to speak against the coalition during the Health and Social Care Bill debates and even voted against the government.
Just before he died it is said he remarked that were he to have been entering politics now he would never have thrown his hat in with “the current lot” of split-nation Tories.
The coalition has a majority of 77, but this does not include the Cross Benchers, many of whom rarely put in an appearance, but there are a core group who are available for lobbying and advocacy – either directly, or via the Labour peers. Likewise the Labour peers can help to identify members of the Lib Dems who may be persuaded to take a rain check on their increasingly leaky tug boat.
Nick Clegg may have prioritised Lords reform over saving the NHS, but he’s now left the Labour Lords with a useful hole in their legislative calendar which they put to good use on challenging the government on legislation which once again, Flashman Style, is designed to have a devastating impact upon the poor:
• The innocuous sounding Local Government Finance Bill, coming out of Eric Pickles’s office, contains measures which are going to have an horrendous effect on the poor – with Council Tax benefit cuts and the localisation of business rates;
• The Financial Services Bill, which far from addressing banker excess will allow further opportunities for deregulation, will be hard pressed by the Labour front bench – along with the vital matter of voter registration, designed to take swathes of Labour voters out of the electoral equation;
• The Aviation Bill also offers the chance to address the ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ problem of increased runway capacity in the South East;
• The long existing Children and Families operational framework is also under threat – in particular provision for children with special needs.
Add to this the reams of secondary legislation attached to Bills already passed – the Health and Social Care Act (which will have a huge impact on how NHS services are delivered locally) and the Welfare Reform Act with its Universal Credit inconsistencies, the Labour Lords present us with an open invitation.
They are a self-effacing team, honest about being dependent upon colleagues outside Parliament for support and advice and vigorous in their thanks to those who have sent in briefings, letters, emails, tweets and messages – even when the Chief Whip Steve Bassam wakes up to 600 emails on a particular point; glutton for punishment, he then asks for more!
“Suggest amendments – work with us – the more so, the more effective we are likely to be. Please help us through the legislative process. We will be responsive – ask us for meetings to help us to keep in touch with stakeholders.
“We commit to ensuring that all amendments will be debated.”
While leader Jan Royall (@LabourRoyall) makes this commitment:
“We will do our best to protect our country from the excesses of this coalition.”
We are also encouraged to get to know the committee clerks responsible for steering scrutiny as they can be influenced by outside interest to impact upon their committee’s programme.
Even if the government are rarely defeated it is the opportunity to hold them to account, to press points and demand a vote. All of the government responses are recorded in Hansard and then this offers the opportunity to hold them to account at a later date to show their replies to be found wanting.
A thousand statutory changes are put through each year – and discussed on the floor of the House or in Grand Committee (including the deliberately sidelined Welfare Reform Bill); some are minor whilst others are of “great substance”.
Human dynamo health shadow Philip Hunt (@LordPhilofBrum) puts this in context with respect to his own role:
“Because in the Lords we can guarantee every amendment is debated, there is thorough scrutiny to every piece of legislation. It also means a government minister has to give a response from the dispatch box stating their policy on each of those issues.
“All the flannelling and dodging can be countered precisely because it’s now legally bound.”
Earl Freddie Howe has delivered edict after edict – and even if his response was simply “there’s absolutely nothing to worry about” – now they have been put into practice, his words are there to be challenged.
Adds Lord Phil:
“Now is the time to go through Hansard which gives a rich seam of statements – these can be used in legal cases because judges can refer to parliamentary intent behind the legislation.”
Lord Phil has indeed secured a Pray Debate – so worded as being a challenge to legislation already signed by HMQ but not in direct challenge to the Monarch – and tabled for October 16th:
Deploring the Statutory Instrument within the Health and Social Care Act to address the relationship conflict between competition and marketisation of the NHS and the need to ensure that collaboration and co-operation remain at the core of patient care.
Given Baroness Shirley rode this in roughshod, aided and abetted by Clement “let’s just get the damn thing through” Jones, it will be interesting to see how they respond to the emerging evidence; watch this space…
As @StevetheQuip says:
“Even if we lose the vote we are winning the argument. Put out the word, keep in touch!”
• See www.labourlords.org.uk for more.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.