The dust has begun to settle after the alleged ‘constitutional outrage’ of the House of Lords asking the government to think again about tax credits. By setting up a Review, chaired by the redoubtable Lord Strathclyde, the Prime Minister and Chancellor seem to have conceded that there might be some value reflecting before rushing off to seek curbs to the powers of the non-elected peers of the realm. The polling evidence is that the public think that we got it about right. Most of the normally Conservative-leaning national press think that too and commentators across the spectrum have congratulated peers for their wise decision.
So what did we learn from the three and a half hours it took to debate? First, that the House of Lords can be relevant when there is a national debate about topical political issues that directly impact on the public. Secondly, that despite his much vaunted ability to put Labour in a difficult place George Osborne can get big issues spectacularly wrong. Thirdly, that even a government in its pomp (as they often are in the first year after an election) should and can be challenged. Fourthly, that Parliament does matter and can add colour to daily life. And finally, that the quality of an argument in debate can still make a difference to how people decide on issues.
The best moment in the debate came when our former Social Security Minister, Baroness Patricia Hollis, took the House through the impact the proposed cut in tax credit would have on the incomes of those who work and struggle to make ends meet. Literally, you could have heard a pin drop in the chamber. And nobody challenged her figures. Poverty is grinding and Osborne’s understanding of its impact is remote and negligible. Hard work may give you dignity but when it squeezes the life out of you and ‘rewards’ you with a marginal rate of tax at 93% you feel cheated. And you are poor.
I looked over the chamber at one point and spotted Lord Green (of HSBC fame) and wondered if it troubled him that one of his personal staff might be a loser from the government’s attack on the working poor. Then my sight-line alighted on Lord Lloyd Webber, who it is said had flown back from New York especially to be there to enforce cuts in the pay of workers earning as little as £12k a year.
The government benches in the Lords have a ‘Millionaires Row’ made up of solid Conservatives such as Lords Borwick, Bell and Bamford. Less a firm of lawyers, more a list of donors. There they sat listening intently as most did as the arguments went back and forth. Those coming to Osborne’s aid told us that the cuts were part of a well-advertised package of welfare reform savings, essential to meet the Chancellors deficit reduction target, and essential to cut the ballooning cost of tax credits. So well-advertised that while Osborne said much about his clever uplift to the living wage he hadn’t mentioned the tax credit changes which made the increase “affordable”. Having lost the economic arguments, what we were left with was all about the ‘primacy of the Commons’. Words that I don’t recall Tories using much during the time they spent over thirteen years inflicting 500 defeats on the last Labour government.
From the Bishops benches we heard about the immorality of the cuts, only to find that the Conservative leader in the Lords thought that the House should support the government’s proposals, although they were free to express their outrage through a non-fatal Motion of Regret. I’m not sure to whose greater embarrassment, the Bishops or the government.
Suddenly it felt that we were at the right moment to vote. The Crossbench Peer Lord Low of Dalston popped up with great prescience said that he thought we had heard enough and that we should vote.