Turning off the tap

This is an anoraky point on parliamentary procedure, but an important one.

In recent weeks I’ve been involved in trying to resist the passage of the Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grant Bill through the Commons, as one of the shadow Treasury ministers. The Bill axes Child Trust Funds, axes the Savings Gateway scheme and axes the Health in Pregnancy Grant. We put down some 30 or so amendments during the Committee and Report stages, but not a single one was accepted by the Government, and of course we lost on all those we put to the vote.

The Bill is now on its way through the Lords, who we hoped would be more receptive to our amendments – in particular, we were pushing for the Child Trust Fund to be retained for ‘looked after’ children, who don’t have parents to make provision for them.  We thought we’d get a fair bit of support for that from the cross-benchers, and some of the more independent-minded peers, as well as those who take the Labour whip.

However… the Speaker has ruled – at the request of the Government and after taking advice from the parliamentary Clerk – that the Bill can be designated a ‘Money Bill’ in the Lords, which means that they can debate it, but not amend it. In other words, they can’t do anything at all. (It is, I’m told not the done thing for the Lords to vote against the Second Reading of a Bill).

Finance Bills – i.e. implementing the Budget – are always Money Bills, but we certainly weren’t expecting it in this instance.

The logic for the classification of this Bill as a Money Bill, we’ve been told, is that the Bill “turns off the tap”, i.e. that it stops the spending.  It’s worth noting that none of the three Bills which set up the Child Trust Fund, the Savings Gateway pilots and the Health in Pregnancy Grants – i.e. the three Bills which ‘turned on the tap’ – were classed as Money Bills.

This sets a worrying precedent. Does it mean that in future any Bill which cuts public spending will not be allowed to be amended in the Lords? OK, I know the Lords is undemocratic, but that is an argument for future reform, not an argument for denying the Upper Chamber its current legislative role. Could it apply to any other Bill which is implementing Government cuts?

Incidentally, the measures in this Bill weren’t in the Conservative manifesto. They said they’d reduce payments to Child Trust Funds – which they did in the emergency Budget in June, to a measly £50 – but no mention of abolishing it. The Lib Dems (for once!) are sticking to their manifesto pledges to abolish the CTF and the Health in Pregnancy Grant. But there’s no way this Government can claim an electoral mandate for this legislation.

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  • matthewsdent  On December 1, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Wow, that’s…ridiculous. It’s a money bill because it deals with spending? The Parliament Acts were introduced to stop the Lords from blocking the budget- and bills which had overwhelming democratic support (e.g. the hunting ban). To use the Acts to railroad the cuts through Parliament is a serious abuse of process.

    I know the Lords are much maligned for being undemocratic (an argument I personally don’t find to have much substance), but they DO serve a valuable purpose in instilling common sense into legislation (again, I accept that this isn’t always the case in practice). To remove their input from measures as controversial and with such wide-reaching effects is blatantly wrong. The only reason that the government do something like this is because they recognise their lack of democratic mandate on it, and that the Lords would rightly review and amend it.

    Very disappointing, especially that the speaker agreed to this. I’d thought (hoped) John Bercow was made of better moral fibre.

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