Why we need a strong, independent House of Lords


If you ask most people what they think the House of Lords is for they will likely say something like a retirement fund for ex-politicians, or a place for the upper classes to lord themselves over the rest of us. They may say that it is undemocratic, has too much power, and prevents the House of Commons from successfully carrying out its duties.

This is very far from the truth.

In this excellent piece of constitutional research the author, Le Patron, points out how very few Acts of Parliament the House of Lords has tried to block. Indeed all of them are constitutional in nature, where the Lords clearly felt there was not a political mandate from the people of the UK. Typically these acts had substantial portions that were not part of parties’ election manifestos, and thus the people had not had a vote on. This is particularly ironic given the current Liberal Democrat Leader is trying to force an elected chamber through without a constitutional referendum. Just because each party’s manifesto said they wanted to reform the House of Lords does not give them carte blanche to alter it when the details were not in their manifestos before the election.

But these are arguments for another day.

Why do we need a House of Lords? The Lords has few powers to prevent the House of Commons from enacting legislation. They can amend legislation, but each amendment can either be accepted or rejected by the House of Commons before a bill is sent back after amendment to the House of Lords. There are no long lived ping pongs of legislation between the two houses. The House of Lords merely reviews and suggests alterations to legislation. They are uniquely suited to this job because they have a strong make up of people with expertise in particular fields. These people can see potential pit falls, gaps, loopholes and problems in legislation before it becomes law. Without experts reviewing legislation in the House of Lords we would have weaker laws and ineffective policy.

Why are we talking about Lords reform? The House of Commons has a habit of shouting loudly at the House of Lords that they cannot block or drastically alter legislation because they do not agree with it. This bluster covers up real misgivings amongst those in the know about the detail in legislation. The devil, after all, is in the detail. If the House of Commons forces legislation through with a three line whip, and the House of Lords just rubber stamps legislation, then who will point out the faults? No one. We would be left with a system whereby patronage, party majorities, and lobbyists decide not just the political direction of legislation, but also the quality – or lack thereof – of that legislation. The bigger the majority, the less rigorous the laws. Minority opinions would be silenced, pushed out. Only professional politicians would be left. The ‘Westminster bubble’ would decide the direction of the whole country with even less input from the regions as currently happens. With an elected Lords along party lines, from Penzance to Penrith, Birmingham to Belfast, Glasgow to Grantham, our voices would be simply ignored.

What are our British checks and balances? In the UK we do not have a formal constitution written in stone. Or indeed anything else. We are a flexible nation that modernises over time to meet emerging challenges. Our future is not dictated by our past. We all act according to a common code, or set of values. We do not need these listed, or boiled down, because they are inherent to our being. Indeed listing only a subset may constrain what our descendants could do to meet emerging challenges. Even in Parliament these conventions exist. The Queen does not, by convention, send legislation back to the Commons for them to reconsider. The House of Lords, by convention, does not reject legislation that is detailed within a governments’ manifesto.

If we allow political parties to dictate 80% of those selected for election to the House of Lords, who will stop the Commons from introducing legislation that is way beyond what they were elected to enact? The Queen does not by convention for quite understandable reasons. The Supreme Court cannot either because if legislation is enacted then they are powerless to strike it down due to the primacy of Parliament. So who will stop it? Without the House of Lords, no-one. We need a strong, independent House of Lords with a strong voice, and clear mission, to protect the UK from legislation with no public support.

How have the Lords really helped improve legislation? The House of Lords has significantly amended or rejected the following bills from the Commons:-

  • Rejected the Mode of Trial (No 2) Bill 2000 because it attempted to restrict the use of Trial by Jury
  • Rejected the War Crimes Act 1991 which allowed those suspected of war crimes in Germany in WWII to be tried in Britain for those war crimes even if they were not sought for prosecution in Germany itself, and if those people had subsequently become British Citizens. This was forced through by the Conservative government via the use of the Parliament Act 1911. Thus also dispelling the myth that the Lords will only block Labour or Liberal legislation.
  • … others anyone? [Could do with more stats here]

The Lords have also improved legislation recently. Here are some highlights:-

  • Amendments to the Protection of Freedom Act to: 1: Prevent non public bodies from using covert third party human sources to collect intelligence for minor offences [Have private investigators rifle through your trash and talk to your neighbours], 2,6,7,8,9: Created a new criminal offence of stalking [didn’t exist!], 4,5: removes loophole allowing people with child protection offences to have a CRB done but it NOT show up their convictions if their new job does not permit unsupervised access to children
  • Amendments to the Social Care Act 2012: 1: Allow charities to reclaim VAT for the same items as the NHS when providing healthcare services, 7: increase duties on NHS regulators to ensure equality of provision, 14: Add a board to oversee the civil servant in charge of Health England which would have 4500 staff but would otherwise had been accountable to no one unless Parliament investigated, 17: Add training and registration requirements to health care workers
  • Amendments to the Welfare Reform Act 2012: 1: Make the difference between the normal and higher support rate for disabled children less (would have been £1400 per year)

The House of Lords has the following powers:-

  • The House of Lords maintains a veto that cannot be overridden to any legislation that attempts to extend the life of the House of Commons to over 5 years
  • The House of Lords maintains a veto over subordinate legislation (that is legislation introduced by a minister because a previously passed Act may say ‘The Home Secretary may introduce an order to active section 4(1) of this Act’ for example.
  • Amongst others…

The House of Lords should be able to restrict any increases in executive power of the House of Commons, or indeed just the Government in Majority in that house. The House of Lords can be bypassed in the following way:-

  • Using the Parliament Act 1911 to ‘skip’ House of Lords approval for a Money Bill (E.g. ‘Her Majesty’s Government hereby gives £1bn to the Fascist Party of Great Britain’) – if it has a Speaker’s note attached, then it is a Money Bill, and cannot be vetoed by the Lords
  • Using the Parliament Act 1911 to force through after one session (not less than 13 months) any legislation that the House of Lords first rejects, and which does not change between its submissions to the House of Lords (E.g. ‘The only valid political party is the Communist Party of Great Britain’ or perhaps more worryingly ‘The Most Disagreeable Party is hereby banned from standing for elections in the UK’)

We need a House of Lords that:-

  • Is guaranteed a right to amend legislation for reconsideration by the Commons
  • Where the Commons cannot force through legislation that the Lords does not believe has a majority of public support
  • Can refer matters to a referendum of the people of the UK where the Commons is trying to force through particular legislation
  • Forces the commons to think more about the implications of whipping and rushing through legislation that they do not have a political mandate for
  • Guarantees an elected party in majority in the House of Commons cannot infringe upon the rights of the people of the United Kingdom or alter its constitution without their explicit consent
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