UK Politics

A touch of tension among their lordships

Does yesterday's government defeat in the Lords signal a return to trench warfare in the Upper House?

The issue did not appear earth-shaking; peers rejected - by four votes - a proposal to send the Financial Services Bill off to Grand Committee for detailed scrutiny. The alternative, which we'll now get, is to hold the committee stage debates on this very detailed, highly technical measure, on the floor of the House.

And the leader of the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, provoked quite a reaction when he suggested that if the bill was not sent off to Grand Committee, peers would have to cut short their summer holidays to provide the extra time needed to debate it - never a popular option.

It's quite unusual for this kind of issue not to have been sorted out in advance, behind the scenes, via the so-called "usual channels" - and it bodes ill. If communication is breaking down, peers may return to the late nights, long speeches and ultra-slow progress which characterised the passage of the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Act, last year. The impending Lords Reform Bill was always going to have a torrid time if and when it reached the Upper House - and I wonder if this is a harbinger of trouble to come.

There may be other reasons for the kerfuffle. Lord Strathclyde's normally sure touch seemed to desert him, and his warning that extra sitting days may be required didn't go down well with peers; and the idea of shuffling big technical bills into Grand Committee (where issues can be teased out and clarified, but where votes are not taken) was not universally popular when it was applied to the highly controversial Welfare Reform Bill.

The Financial Services Bill is part of the mopping up operation after the credit crunch. It reshapes the system for policing the financial markets and hands considerable extra powers to the governor of the Bank of England, so getting the governance arrangements right is crucial to the whole economy. As a result, a lot of peers want the bill dealt with in what one House of Lords source, rather optimistically, described as the "spotlight of publicity of a full committee stage".

But I'm beginning to sense a bit of pre-reform-bill tension among their lordships.

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