Alan Watkins: That delinquent grin may charm old ladies, but not me

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The Independent Online

But this was not the way it seemed, either at the time or immediately afterwards. The parliamentary sketchwriters regarded the episode as a retelling of the same old story: Blair caught out, but lives to fight another day. Mr Blair, for his part, gave his delinquent's grin, which can still charm the old ladies at the front of the stalls, as if to say: I know I tell the odd whopper from time to time, but I'm a good lad at heart.

Nor does this exhaust the range of subjects where Mr Blair can escape unpunished or, at least, uncensured for telling us, not lies exactly, but that which is not the case. Take, for example, taxation. There is a great muddle about people being given tax credits to which they were not entitled.

The minister responsible seems to be Ms Dawn Primarolo, who used to be a tricoteuse of the Left, given to summoning conferences of the Lobby off her own bat or, perhaps, her knitting-needles when she was in hot opposition. No longer. She sits snug in the Treasury, not giving conferences to anyone. At all events, the Inland Revenue have taken to asking people to give back the money which they incorrectly received in the first place. Not surprisingly, this has caused general inconvenience, some hardship and even a certain amount of misery.

Mr Blair appeared to think, not only that this was not happening at the present moment, but that it did not happen in the normal course of events: that the Revenue did not ask for the return of any money which had been wrongly disbursed. Where has the boy been living all these years? He used to be a barrister, and consequently self-employed. His wife is in the same profession, earning large sums of money. He must know that sometimes, for wholly legitimate reasons, tax is underpaid, and sometimes overpaid. Occasionally a small cheque will arrive from the Revenue. At other times the tax for the following year is greater than the taxpayer had expected.

Most of the people who were Ms Primarolo's initial beneficiaries were not in this position. They were either employed persons or living on benefits. But the principle which the Revenue applied was the same. Why should Mr Blair suppose it any different? It would be more civilised, admittedly, if overpayments were returned either by lower future benefits or by higher income tax rather than by a brutish demand for cash on the nail. But Mr Blair did not seem to think there was any problem at all. While there were murmurs of incredulity from both sides of the House, there was no attempt to put him right, either from the opposition benches or from his own side - who should be just as concerned as the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats about the hardships being suffered by some poor people through no fault of their own. Indeed, the problem of bringing the Government to account is the question of the age.

There is now a fashion for saying that, since the election, ministers have become more willing to listen. A few of them are even humble. Some observers have gone so far as to detect a hesitancy; almost a failure in the will to govern; to which I would reply that the Identity Cards Bill still passed its second reading and is stil going to the Lords. I hope they reject the Bill, and keep turning it down.

It is argued by ministers, including Mr Blair, that as the Bill figured in the Labour manifesto it should not be rejected by the upper House. The justification for this course of action is supposed to be something called the Salisbury convention, about which I will now tell you. It was originally called something else, the Salisbury-Addison pact, from the respective Conservative and Labour leaders in the Lords after the 1945 election.

This was a period when C R Attlee's government was trying to put through an extensive programme of nationalisation. Naturally enough, the Conservative peers hated most of it. They had a huge majority and were all hereditary (for life peers did not come in till 1958) but they did not want to be abolished, which had been part of Labour's programme for many years, at any rate in theory. Accordingly the first Lord Addison persuaded the fifth Lord Salisbury, who in turn persuaded his colleagues, not to reject any Bill which had been announced in the party manifesto.

This worked smoothly enough till the nationalisation of iron and steel was proposed. It had been in the manifesto likewise, but the Attlee cabinet was divided about it, and it aroused more opposition - as it continued to do throughout the entire postwar period - than any other measure of public ownership. The consequence of the Lords' determination, or obduracy, on iron and steel was the Parliament Act 1949.

The 1949 Act cut from two years to one year the delaying power of the Lords, which had first been imposed by the Parliament Act 1911. The 1911 Act was used to pass the Government of Ireland Act, the Welsh Church Act and the Parliament Act 1949. Oddly enough, steel was nationalised and denationalised without the aid of this second Act. It lay fallow till 1991. Since then it has been used to push through, under the Conservatives, the War Crimes Act and, under Labour, no fewer than three measures, on the European Parliament, sexual offences and hunting. This demonstrates either the intolerance of Mr Blair or the growing assertiveness of the Lords - or both.

The crucial point is, however, that the second Parliament Act was not so much an addition to as a substitute for the Salisbury convention, which had broken down over steel. Moreover, the present House is no longer hereditary. And the parties are now, at last, in a state of balance. Its powers have been legitimised and confirmed by Mr Blair. He cannot complain if it now decides to use them.