Former cabinet secretary Lord Butler warns of “constitutional crisis” over Lords tax credit row

Former cabinet secretary and head of the civil service clashes with Lib Dem chief whip over plans to obstruct tax credit cuts in the House of Lords

By Matt Foster

23 Oct 2015

An attempt by the House of Lords to block the government’s planned tax credit cuts could spark a constitutional crisis, the former head of the civil service has said.

Liberal Democrat peers have tabled a so-called “fatal motion” on the statutory instrument seeking to introduce the cuts. If passed, the changes would not be able to go ahead.

Lord Butler – who served as cabinet secretary and head of the civil service between 1988 and 1998 – clashed with Lib Dem chief whip Lord Newby over the issue on Friday.

Butler said it would be “quite wrong” for peers to block the government’s proposed cuts to tax credits.

“I don’t impugn the motives of people like Lord Newby who are opposed to the cut in tax credits," he told the Today programme.

“But the fact is that the House of Commons has passed it. The House of Lords has long accepted the supremacy of the House of Commons on tax and expenditure, however frustrating that may sometimes be for members of the Lords.”

Lord Newby said one option rumoured to be under consideration by the prime minister – to create new Conservative peers to give the party a majority in the Lords – would be the behaviour of a “schoolboy bully”.

“He’s being challenged in the playground so he is threatening to bring round lots of his mates to duff us up,” the Lib Dem peer said.

“He would be creating a constitutional crisis. But that will be a crisis of his creation, not of ours.”

But Lord Butler disputed that position, and said the argument showed the case for House of Lords reform.

“It certainly wouldn’t be acting as a playground bully. [It would be] a constitutional crisis [if the Lords blocked the cuts], and we would be back to 1911 when a very similar situation occurred, and in the end the House of Lords had to back down. 

“But Lord Newby isn’t right to say there hasn’t been adequate debate on this matter, the House of Commons has debated it on three occasions and passed it. It passed it in the Budget, it passed the statutory instrument and it passed it in a motion last week.

He added: ”We can express our views, we can put pressure on the government by the sort of regret motion that Lord Newby has described. But it would be quite wrong for us to overturn or obstruct it."

The former cabinet secretary said he would back a “smaller” but “appointed” House of Lords.

“If this drives on reform of the House of Lords I will be pleased,” he added.

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