The unnecessary constitutional crisis

If you’ve been reading the newspapers, watching the news or listening to the radio today, you might have come to one of two conclusions. Firstly that you’ve heard the phrase ‘statutory instrument’ more times than is healthy on a Tuesday morning. Secondly, that the UK is in the middle of the biggest constitutional crisis since Oliver Cromwell woke up one morning and decided he’d had enough of the monarchy.

The reality is nothing of the sort – although you’ll probably now know much more about statutory instruments and secondary legislation than you did yesterday. At the eye of this storm is the face-off between the House of Commons, which had voted in favour of cuts to tax credits on three occasions, and the House of Lords, which voted down the proposals.

The saga is an embarrassing one for Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the proponent of the cuts. The Chancellor, while insistent he will consider changes to his proposals in light of the Lords’ vote, has also been happy to join in with the warnings of other parliamentarians that the un-elected Upper House has drastically overstepped its authority. According to the Chancellor and others, peers have acted in violation of a centuries old convention that they do not act against finance measures.

Not so, say the Lords – the convention applies only to primary legislation. By pushing forward the tax credit cuts as a secondary legislation/statutory instrument (which covers the implementation of Acts) the Chancellor gave the Upper House every right to consider the proposals and vote them down.

When not in listening mode, it’s clear the Chancellor is livid, promising – with a line reminiscent of the Godfather Trilogy – that he and the Prime Minister will “deal with” the assault to the authority of the House of Commons. But the furore raises three important points.

The first, from a communications perspective, is whether the Government is attempting to use the cover of a constitutional crisis to deflect from public spending cuts that were expected to hit the poorest in society. In such an instance, it remains important that whatever plans the Chancellor returns with, the constitutional issues do not overshadow an important economic and social welfare decision.

The second is whether it’s time to either reform the House of Lords or the conventions it adheres to. As I’ve noted previously, the idea of suddenly appointing 150 more peers to give the Conservatives a majority in both Houses would be a nonsense. Instead, perhaps it’s time to consider expanding the purview of the Lords. The Government has previously brought forward legislation without leaving adequate time for its discussion in the Commons – in essence ensuring its passage with minimal scrutiny. It’s not necessarily without fault, and in such instances – even where financial matters are considered – it might be appropriate to allow the Upper Chamber to provide oversight and scrutiny.

The third point is that this ‘constitutional crisis’ was entirely avoidable. There were ample demonstrations of discontent in the House of Commons when tax credits were discussed – including from within the Conservative benches. The Chancellor had plenty of warning that the plans would hit a roadblock in the Lords, and he had the opportunity to include tax credits in primary legislation that would have avoided the problem all together. It seems a little trite to now cry foul.