Secret Courts Bill… don’t get your hopes up

House of Lords. Photo: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of ParliamentSo, it has come to this. Apparently, the only hope left of stopping the Secret Courts element of the Justice and Security Bill is to persuade the Parliamentary Party in the Lords to either vote down Part II of the Bill, the bit with the Secret Courts elements in it, or to vote down the entire Bill. Easy, really. Or, perhaps, not. You see, this presumes that the Lords gets to vote on Part II or the entire Bill. So, what is going to happen on 26 March?

We’ve reached the final stage of the legislative process. The Bill has received its Third Reading in first the Lords, and then the Commons, and is back in the Lords for the stage known as ‘Consideration of Amendments‘. At this point the Lords can only consider the amendments that were made in the Commons, or amendments tabled in lieu which are directly relevant to the original amendment. In other words, the Lords may

  • agree to the Commons amendments
  • disagree to Commons amendments
  • propose amendments to the Commons amendments, or;
  • propose amendments in lieu of the Commons amendments

Therefore, at this stage, the House of Lords cannot vote against the Bill as a whole, or vote against Part 2 of the Bill. So, opponents of the Secret Courts provision are going to have to be rather more clever.

If the Lords disagrees with any Commons amendments, or makes alternative proposals, then the Bill is sent back to the Commons, which may likewise accept, reject or amend any changes made in the Lords. If further changes are made, it is batted back to the Commons, hence the phrase ‘ping pong’. And this offers hope to opponents of the Bill as;

In exceptional cases, when the two Houses do not reach agreement, the Bill falls. If certain conditions are met, the Commons can use the Parliament Acts to pass the Bill, without the consent of the Lords, in the following session.

So, the aim of opponents of the Secret Courts provision must be to sabotage the Bill somehow. There is a problem, however, in that the amendments that are coming from the Commons all serve to improve the Bill somewhat, even if they don’t address some of the fundamental areas of concern. The calculation that must be made therefore is, is there any amendment, or group of amendments, that can not only be passed in the Lords, but would be a deal breaker in the Commons. In other words, can an impasse be reached?

In other words, can you persuade peers to vote against an amendment which, in itself, improves the legislation?

Given that the end of the Parliamentary session is in sight, and that there are some fairly chunky pieces of legislation still to be agreed, the potential is there. But can an alliance of rebel Liberal Democrats, Labour and crossbench Peers can be brought together at the right time and place to achieve that?

There is, however, another hurdle to be cleared, ironically, one that most Liberal Democrats would approve of. The convention is that, after a few attempts to persuade the Commons to see it their way, the Lords backs down.

After all, one House has democratic legitimacy and the other, well, doesn’t…

* Mark Valladares is married to a Liberal Democrat peer, and is the Lords Correspondent for Liberal Democrat Voice. He has a fine appreciation of irony.

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9 Comments

  • The main reason my hopes aren’t up is that, after all, the Lords didn’t vote down Part II when they had the chance before. So it seems very unlikely they will achieve the same result now by being fiendishly clever and engineering a parliamentary deadlock.

  • Tony Greaves 15th Mar '13 - 4:40pm

    Whether the Commons amendments “improve the legislation” is a matter of opinion. I am no expert on this Bill but understand that the Commons removed Lords amendments and replaced them with their own, which may be thought to be better or worse than the Lords amendments.

    Whether the Bill as it stands is better or elss bad than the Bill as it started off (which it is) is irrelevant to this argument.

    Tony Greaves

  • David Evans 15th Mar '13 - 4:51pm

    One question is, in this case does either House have any real democratic legitimacy?

  • Tony Dawson 15th Mar '13 - 6:26pm

    “can an alliance of rebel Liberal Democrats, Labour and crossbench Peers can be brought together at the right time and place”

    Surely it is the ‘Cleggistas’ who are the rebels against the Lib Dem lin, ,here?

  • As the Justice and Security Bill originated in the House of Lords, the Parliament Act cannot be used to force it through.

  • Richard Dean 16th Mar '13 - 8:59am

    Do the anti’s have so little respect for democracy that they stoop to claim that a duly elected house has no legitimacy, rather than accept a vote in that house? What nonsense! We are not Libs, we are LibDEMS.

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