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Come Clean with the People… And Parliament will give you a fair ride!

There he was, walking tall but now walking small. Yes, indeed, for George Osborne a week has been a long time in Politics. And how did this fall come about?

Forget the nonsense of a constitutional crisis, both the speaker of the House of Commons and the distinguished former clerk of the House of Common, Robert Rogers, now Lord Lisvane, have been explicit in stating that the constitutional angle raised by the government is a hullabaloo.

The real problem is political miscalculation by the chancellor. He wanted to limit the exposure and the political debate on tax credits as much as possible. So he decided to introduce his changes within a statutory instrument. Normally, these procedures only receive cursory attention and are normally debated for a maximum period of 90 minutes or so. A statutory instrument is a procedure which can be enacted under the parent act and regulations are required to be laid before both houses. And so, the relevant statutory instruments regulations were required to be laid before the lords and commons under the Tax Credit Act 2002. So, it seemed that George Osborne forgot, or dismissed the role of the Lords in this procedure.

The Lords considered them, they came to a view that the government didn’t like and then the balloon went up. As a revising chamber the Lords scrutinised the regulation, exposed the almost non-existent detail in the information provided by the government, and sent it back to be looked at again.

What the Lords was exposing was the regrettable trend in the use of statutory instruments to include major issues of policy in principle which really ought to be on the face of a bill and so subject to detailed scrutiny, not left to cursory inspection.

The tax credits cuts was an issue of deep concern to people in the country, and the government should have respected that. Indeed the tax credit fiasco could have been avoided if the chancellor had been honest with the public and parliament including his own Conservative backbenchers, many of whom were angry at his shady manoeuvres. At election time, George Osborne never detailed any measure of tax credits other than stating that there would be a £12bn welfare cut. The prime minister and certainly Michael Gove went further in insisting that tax credits were not in the frame.

So the lessons are twofold:

Firstly: be honest with Parliament, and never again try and sneak major policy measures through regulations like statutory instruments – the more scrutiny the better the policy outcome.

And secondly, don’t look upon truth as a flexible friend – the more inflexible it is the better for government and the country.


Lord McFall of Alcluith

John McFall was the Member of Parliament for Dumbarton (1987-2005) and then Dumbartonshire West (2005-2010), chairing the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee from 2001 until 2010. Ennobled on his retirement from the Commons, he is now Senior Deputy Speaker in the House of Lords where he also chairs the Liaison Committee and the Procedure and Privileges Committee. He was co-author for Politeia of Banking on Recovery: Towards an accountable, stable financial sector (2016) and The Financial Sector and the UK Economy: The Danger of Over-Regulation (2013).

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