All eyes looked to the Lords on Monday night, following a weekend of speculation that Opposition Peers were planning to vote down the government's proposed cuts to tax credits, to which the Commons had previously assented. Supporters of the government's policy argued that this represented a violation of a long-established constitutional principle that the Lords does not oppose the Commons on finance measures. This argument was summarised last week by the Conservative MP for North-East Somerset, Jacob Rees-Moog:
... from 1407—the beginning of the 15th century—the Commons was given primacy over financial matters. That was confirmed in our motion of 1678, when all matters of taxation and expenditure were to be the preserve of this House. In 1839, the Speaker of the House of Commons insisted that an amendment from the House of Lords on a financial matter must be rejected. At that date, the House of Commons would not even consider the change of a trustee of a turnpike trust if it was suggested by the House of Lords, so jealous were we of the privilege that the democratic House must have control of taxation and expenditure.
Those with a focus on the more recent past also emphasised the precedent established in 1911, following the struggle faced by Lloyd George and a young Winston Churchill to get their radical budget through the Lords. The Parliament Act of that year abolished the Lord's right to veto government legislation.
On Monday, however, the constitutional 'crisis' was largely manufactured by supporters of tax credit cuts. The proposal is contained within a Commons statutory instrument; this is a piece of secondary legislation, not at all equivalent to a Finance Bill or a Budget. Furthermore, since the Lords does not posses the constitutional authority to veto legislation, their opposition was little more than a request that the policy be revised and amended. Since tax credits are an integral feature of a government's welfare policy, there is also the question of whether reforming them is an exclusively financial matter.
In the event, following a lively debate in the Chamber, the Lords voted to delay consideration of the statutory instrument pending further consultation. Baroness Hollis gave a particularly moving speech in opposition to the cuts and was joined by many Conservative peers, including the former Chancellor Nigel Lawson, in her request that proposal be amended.
Education and Mental Health Provision
Mental health support in the education system was raised by four MPs during Questions to the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan MP. Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow related a story of a young girl in her constituency who suffered from a eating disorder:
She suggested that one of the things that would make a difference would be for child and adolescent mental health services to have a presence directly in schools so that they could intervene earlier...
Later that afternoon, I attended a reception to mark National Eating Disorder Month hosted by the charity ABC. Over 1.6 million people, of all ages and genders, are affected by this psychiatric disorder. As the experience of Stella's constituent suggests, however, there is limited access to early on-set help and treatment and only 50% will achieve a full recovery. In her response, the Secretary of State agreed with Stella that more must be done to support children and young people with mental health problems at school and university. As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Suicide and Self-harm Prevention Group, I have seen how effective early intervention can be.
Chinese Protest Arrests
On Monday afternoon the Commons discussed the handling by the Metropolitan Police of demonstrations against the Chinese President during his visit to the UK. Met officers have been accused of using heavy-handed techniques to quell protests by human rights activists and Tibetan independence campaigners. I intervened to argue that images of political activists being arrested on our streets will dishearten people in China and across the world who are struggling for freedom of expression and assembly against authoritarian regimes.