Parliament has been prorogued. The 2008/9 Parliamentary Session ended on 12th November 2009 and the new Session begins with the Queen’s Speech on 18th November 2009. I suspect the 2008/9 Session will be remembered for the expenses and other scandals that engulfed both House rather than for the legislation enacted during it. However, some major Bills were passed and became Acts of Parliament. These included the:
- Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act: this provides a statutory framework for and a right for 16-18 year-olds to apprenticeships; gives employees a right to request time-off for training; gives local government responsibility for funding education and training for 16-18 year olds; changes school inspection arrangements; creates a new parental complaints service; and strengthens accountability.
- Banking Act: this provides a permanent system for dealing with failing banks; and gives the Bank of England a new “financial stability” objective.
- Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act: this changes the rules on naturalisation; gives new functions (and new duty to safeguard children) to the UK Border Agency; and introduces powers to control all those arriving in the UK from the rest of the Common Travel Area.
- Business Rate Supplements Act: this gives upper tier local authorities (in London, the Greater London Authority) the power, following consultation, to levy an additional business rate for economic development purposes (including Crossrail in London).
- Coroners and Justice Act: this reforms and updates the law on coroners; extends the laws on child pornography to cover non-photographic images; increases the flexibility on hearing evidence from vulnerable witnesses etc.
- Health Act: this gives statutory force to the new NHS Constitution and sets out the responsibilities of patients and staff; introduces direct payments for health services to give patients greater control over the services they receive; makes provision for more information on service quality to be made available to patients and others; and introduces new measures to protect young people from the harm caused by smoking.
- Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act: this makes provisions to encourage the greater involvement of people in local authority decision-making; creates an obligation on councils to respond to petitions; establishes a new body to represent the interests of tenants; and places a new duty on local authorities to assess economic conditions in their area and to work with Regional Development Agencies to produce a single regional strategy.
- Marine and Coastal Access Act: this reforms the law on marine regulation, fisheries management and marine conservation; and enables the creation of a walkable route around the English coast.
- Parliamentary Standards Act: this created the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.
- Policing and Crime Act: this strengthens police accountability; creates an offence of paying for sex with trafficked or coerced women; tightens regulation of lap-dancing clubs; and amends police powers for dealing with young people drinking in public.
- Political Parties and Elections Act: this strengthens the powers of the Electoral Commission; alters the definition of election expenses; and requires greater clarity on the source of political donations.
- Welfare Reform Act: this abolishes Income Support and moves all claimants on to either Jobseekers’ Allowance or, if sick, on to Employment and Support Allowance; introduces a new regime of sanctions for non-attendance at JobCentres; and provides additional powers for the enforcement of child maintenance arrears.
In addition, the House of Lords spent seven full days debating the Postal Services Bill, which would have enabled a minority stake in the Royal Mail Group to be sold whilst ensuring that the Group remained in public ownership, would have transferred the Royal Mail’s historic pension deficit to the Government and would have created a regulatory regime for the postal services sector under OFCOM. In the event, the Bill, having passed all its stages in the Lords, was introduced in the House of Commons and then abandoned. The Bill has now fallen with the end of the Parliamentary Session. Three major Bills that have had their Second Reading debates and some Committee discussion in the House of Commons have been the subject of Carry Over motions, which means that they have not fallen with the end of the Parliamentary Session and their progress through Parliament can be resumed in the new Session. These are the:
- Child Poverty Bill: this would give statutory force to the Government’s 1999 commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020, placing a duty on Ministers to meet income poverty targets and requiring the regular production of a child poverty strategy.
- Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill: this would end “by-elections” to replace the remaining hereditary peers that sit in the Lords when they die; would make it possible for members of the Lords to resign or to be suspended/expelled; introduce a new Parliamentary process for the ratification of Treaties; establish a statutory basis for the running of the civil service; end the Prime Minister’s role in appointing senior judges; introduce new rules on protests around Parliament and a variety of other constitutional adjustments.
- Equality Bill: this would harmonise and extend anti-discrimination legislation; would place a unified duty on public bodies; extend discrimination protection to the membership of private clubs; require employers to review and publish gender pay differences within their organisations; extends age discrimination legislation outside the workplace; and much else besides.
The number of defeats suffered by the Government this session is the lowest in any full session since the Labour Government was elected in 1997. This session the Government was defeated on 24 occasions (out of 89 votes in total). Last session there were 29 defeats. 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.
Labour now has 212 members in the Lords and is the largest Party, but this only amounts to 30% of the total membership of 705. There are 190 Conservative peers (27%), 183 cross-benchers (26%), and 71 LibDems (10%) – the remainder comprise 26 Church of England bishops/archbishops and 23 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.