Parliament prorogued (the formal end of the Session) slightly less than two hours ago and the House will not be sitting again for a week until the Queen’s Speech opens the 2008/9 Session in a week’s time on 3rd December 2008.
Interestingly, the number of defeats suffered by the Government in the Lords this Session is the lowest in any full Session since the Labour Government was elected in 1997. There were 29 Government defeats this Session (out of around 120 votes in total). By contrast there were 45 Government defeats in the 2006/7 Session and 62 in the 2005/6 Session. To put these numbers in context: the last Conservative Government under John Major suffered only 62 defeats in the entire 1992-97 Parliament.
Of course, in part this reflects the gradual improvement in the number of Labour peers. Labour now has 214 members in the Lords and is the largest Party, but this only amounts to 29% of the total membership of 731. There are 199 Conservative peers (27%), 204 cross-benchers (28%), and 74 LibDems (10%) – the remainder comprise 26 Church of England bishops/archbishops and 14 non-affiliated or other. The reality of these numbers is that the Government does not have an automatic majority to carry through its legislation. At any one time, the opposition parties can combine to defeat the Government, particularly as a significant proportion of the cross-benchers will usually vote with the opposition, depending on the issue.
During the 2007/8 Session, amongst the major Bills passed that became Acts of Parliament were the following:
- Banking (Special Provisions) Act: this enabled Northern Rock to be taken under public ownership. It was introduced deliberately as a general piece of legislation potentially applying to any UK-incorporated bank or building society and not just (fortunately as it has turned out) applying to Northern Rock. Of course, at the time it was introduced Alistair Darling assured the House of Commons that there was “no intention at present to use the Bill to bring any institution other than Northern Rock into temporary public ownership”.
- Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act: this abolished the Child Support Agency, established the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, and changed the way maintenance payments are calculated, collected and enforced.
- Children and Young Persons Act: this reforms the care system and places greater emphasis on continuity of care and education for children in care.
- Climate Change Act: this sets a legally binding target for the reduction in carbon emissions in the UK of 80% by 2050, creates the Committee on Climate Change and requires the Government to produce regular carbon budgets.
- Counter-Terrorism Act: this introduces post-charge questioning for terrorist suspects, tidied up a number of other counter-terrorist measures and amended the law on asset-freezing procedures. Following defeats and threatened defeats in the Lords, a number of controversial elements of the original Bill were dropped, including the emergency provisions for questioning suspects for up to 42 days without charge and the holding of certain inquests without a jury.
- Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Act: this was an emergency piece of legislation following a loophole emerging in the powers of courts to grant anonymity orders to witnesses in criminal cases which would otherwise have put at risk the lives of witnesses and/or the ability of some trials to proceed.
- Criminal Justice and Immigration Act: this created a generic community sentence for young offenders, new powers to tackle anti-social and violent behaviour, and a new offence to deal with violent pornography.
- Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill: this creates the framework for distributing assets from dormant bank accounts (those not used for over fifteen years) via the Big Lottery Fund to projects providing opportunities for young people.
- Education and Skills Act: this requires that young people stay in some form of education or training beyond the school leaving age, so that 17-year olds will be covered by 2013 and all 18-year olds by 2015.
- Employment Act: this strengthens the framework for enforcing the minimum wage, strengthens the standards governing employment agencies to protect vulnerable workers, and gives clearer rights for trade unions to determine their membership (after the courts had ruled that it was unlawful to expel members because they were BNP activists).
- Energy Act: this makes it easier to invest in schemes for carbon capture and renewable energy and ensures that the operators of new nuclear power stations have to accumulate funds to meet the costs of decommissioning and of disposal of waste.
- European Union (Amendment) Act: this gave Parliamentary approval for the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.
- Health and Safety (Offences) Act: this was a back-bench measure (introduced by two former Parliamentary Private Secretaries to Tony Blair – Keith Hill in the Commons and Bruce Grocott in the Lords) to increase the penalties under Health and Safety laws.
- Health and Social Care Act: this creates the new Care Quality Commission (concerted action in the Lords made this a much more patient-centred structure) and reformed the various systems of professional regulation in the health sector.
- Housing and Regeneration Act: this created the new Homes and Communities Agency (which will bring together investment in social housing and regeneration) and a new regulator of social housing, the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords.
- Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act: this revised and updated the law on embryo research and assisted reproduction. Although amendments to the abortion laws were moved at various stages, none of these were in fact passed.
- Local Transport Act: this makes local transport planning more coherent and consistent and ensures interoperability and consistency in any road pricing schemes.
- Pensions Act: this makes mandatory workplace pension schemes and creates a new system of personal accounts for low earners who do not qualify for such schemes.
- Planning Act: this introduces a new system for approving major infrastructure of national importance, streamlining decisions and avoiding long public inquiries.
- Sale of Student Loans Act: this enables the Government to sell off student loans.