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7 July 2012

The House of Lords

Tag(s): Politics & Economics

This week I attended a lunch at the House of Lords. Our host was the Rt Hon the Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, the leader of the opposition in the Lords. While clearly a died-in-the-wool Labour supporter she above all is committed to democracy. In the opinion of the Liberal Democrats that would seem to be an oxymoron because they believe the House of Lords is not democratic and so want to see it ‘reformed’, a condition of the coalition agreement. Thus we have embarked on a path which to my mind is not only barmy but positively dangerous and another blow at the heart of our fragile institutions.

Let’s first examine why the Liberal Democrats feel this way. First, they had won power in 1906 with a relatively small swing in votes over the Unionists but with a majority in the House of Commons.  Spending was out of control and under Prime Minister Asquith the Chancellor David Lloyd George introduced the so-called People’s Budget in 1909, the first budget in history to propose massive redistribution of wealth. It proposed a new super tax on higher incomes, increases in inheritance tax and most controversially a new Land Tax. Strictly speaking this latter was outside the normal boundaries of a Finance Act and it was overwhelmingly rejected by the House of Lords. This precipitated another General Election in which the Liberals made the reduction of power of the unelected House of Lords a key issue.  The Unionists won the larger popular vote but the Liberals hung onto power in a coalition with Labour and, crucially, the Irish MPs. Their price for support was Home Rule and that was to go ahead without proper consideration of the Ulster loyalist population with tragic consequences. The Liberals got their way over the budget by threatening the King that they would create enough peerages to win a majority of the House of Lords and the Parliament Act was passed by both Houses in 1911. This provided that;

·         Money bills approved by the Commons became law if not passed without amendment by the Lords within one month.

·         Other public bills, except one to extend the life of a Parliament, became law without the consent of the Lords if passed by the Commons in three successive sessions providing two years elapsed between Second Reading and Final Passing in the Commons.

Some historians believe that civil war was only averted by the outbreak of the First World War  A major constitutional crisis was resolved unsatisfactorily and the Liberals have always argued that it was unfinished business. They now say we have been talking about reform for 100 years and nothing has been done. But this is not true. Quite a lot has been done already. In 1949 The Parliament Act reduced the delaying power of the 1911 Act in respect of public bills, other than money bills, to two sessions and one year respectively. The Life Peerages Act 1958 permitted the creation of peerages for life, with no limit on numbers, to persons of either sex. The Peerage Act 1963 allowed hereditary peeresses to be Members of the House, hereditary peerages to be disclaimed for life and for all Scottish peers to sit. It was under this Act that Viscount Stansgate disclaimed his right of succession and to stand for Parliament as Anthony Wedgwood Benn, later Tony Benn. In 1968 the Labour government introduced the Parliament (No.2) Bill, which would have created a two-tier House of created Members who could speak and vote and others who could speak but not vote. The bill was so held up in the House of Commons by both Labour and Conservative MPs that it had to be abandoned. This action was led by a combination of Enoch Powell who wanted to retain the House of Lords as it was and Michael Foot who wanted to abolish it!

Then in 1999 the House of Lords Act removed the right of most hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House. An amendment to the bill, tabled by former Commons Speaker and, at the time, Convener of the Crossbenchers Lord Weatherill, was accepted by the government: it enabled 92 hereditary peers to remain until the House was fully reformed. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 provided for the separation of the House’s judicial function from Parliament and ended the Lord Chancellor’s role as head of the judiciary, a member of the executive and as Speaker of the House of Lords. In 2006 the House held its first election for a Lord Speaker and Baroness Hayman was elected on 4 July 2006. In 2009 the House’s judicial function ended and was transferred to the new UK Supreme Court.

So what does it do? The Lords plays an essential role in revising and improving the content of bills, highlighting potential problems and ensuring they will be workable laws. All bills must be approved by both Houses to become law. A bill goes though each of these steps to become law:

·         First reading: a bill is introduced without debate.

·         Second reading: debate on main principles.

·         Committee stage: line by line examination.

·         Report stage: further examination.

·         Third reading: final debate.

·         Consideration of amendments: each House considers the other’s changes.

·         Royal assent: the final content is agreed and the bill is passed into law as an Act of Parliament.

Most bills are brought to Parliament by the government and a majority of the MPs in the House of Commons belong to the party or parties of government, so the government usually wins votes on bills in the Commons. Fewer than half the members of the House of Lords belong to the government parties. This is because many members don’t belong to a political party; the crossbenchers and the bishops. There are also important differences between the Houses in how they carry out some of the steps in checking a bill. In the Lords, at:

·         committee stage, there is no selection of amendments: all can be considered

·         committee stage, debate on amendments is not time limited

·         third reading, ‘tidying up’ amendments can be made.

The lack of a government majority, the more relaxed party discipline, and the fact that the House’s procedures give members greater freedom to propose amendments, mean that the Lords sometimes reaches different conclusions on bills, and agrees amendments asking the Commons and the government to ‘think again’.

Committee work is a way for the House to investigate public policy and government activity in detail. The experience of the House’s membership is an especially useful resource in carrying out this work. While some have a political background many don’t. Instead they have had and may still be enjoying distinguished careers in medicine, law, business, the arts, science, sports, education, the armed forces, diplomacy and public service. The permanent five committees examine these subjects:

·         the constitution

·         communications

·         economic affairs

·         the European Union

·         Science and technology.

I sit on a board with one distinguished member of this latter committee, Lord Broers. Alec Broers has enjoyed a remarkable career in industry as a software engineer with IBM and as a director of Vodafone and in education as Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University. Colleagues of his on the Science and Technology Committee have included a Nobel Prize Winner, several Fellows of the Royal Society, the medical and veterinary royal colleges and former presidents of the British Medical Association and General Medical Council. By contrast its equivalent Committee in the Commons has only two or three members who have any kind of science background at all.

Another way in which the House of Lords performs valuable work is in delegated legislation. Some Acts of Parliament confer powers on ministers to make law themselves. These are called ‘delegated powers’ because Parliament is giving some of its authority to make law to someone else. Acts are known as ‘primary legislation’. Orders, rules and regulations made by ministers are known as ‘delegated legislation’, or ‘secondary legislation’. Secondary it may be but it still binds every one of us and there are over 3,000 such exercises of ministerial power each year.  The House of Lords has two committees which complement each other and keep a watchful eye on delegated legislation. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee advises the House of Lords ‘whether the provisions of any bill inappropriately delegate legislative power, or whether they subject the exercise of legislative power to an inappropriate degree of parliamentary scrutiny’.

The Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee looks at the policy in a Statutory Instrument introduced by a minister and draws the attention of the House to any it considers;

·         politically or legally important or that give rise to issues of public policy likely to be of interest

·         may inappropriately implement EU legislation or

·         may imperfectly achieve its policy objectives.

These Committees ensure that the small print in legislation, which affects our daily lives in many different ways, is thoroughly checked. There is no similar process for scrutinising ministerial powers in the Commons. The Committees make recommendations to the House and then it is up to individual members to raise the issue. On the whole the government usually tries to accept such views.

So presumably if the Liberal Democrats get their way we can say goodbye to most of this. Instead we will be asked to vote for so-called senators who will be elected by the same method as our Members of the European Parliament. i.e. noone knows who they are, turnout is pitifully low, and very little political accountability is achieved. Incredibly they will be elected for fifteen year terms, a form of democracy that Robert Mugabe would admire. After that they will be forced to step down so that there will never be a chance to vote out a bad senator or re-elect a good one. As they will all be replaced at the same time there will be no continuity in the House.

What is so repugnant about this measure is that it has been worked out on the back of a fag packet under the pressure of negotiating a coalition. All parties were committed to reform of the House of Lords. But noone was clear in the 2010 election what that meant so it is absurd to say there is any kind of mandate for this.

I don’t usually get so political in my blogs but Lady Royall, whose political views are very different from mine, reminded me of the importance of democracy. It is not sufficient to say that by electing some political has-beens as senators for fifteen years we are making things more democratic. Far from it. At present a group of talented individuals with a high sense of public service work for little reward in the House of Lords to do what is signally not done in the House of Commons; that is hold the government to account and try to minimise the worst of its legislation.

In future we can expect the same impasse as happens in Congress where a constitution designed to balance power instead manages to freeze it; only if one party controls all the branches of the state does real change occur. By virtue of the Liberal Democrats’ tired vision of proportional representation we will be doomed to a hung House of Lords which will see itself as of equal authority to the House of Commons because it is ‘elected’ and so instead of seeking to improve legalisation it will try to override it.

In the 18th century the great Adam Smith observed that the decline and stagnation of Imperial China was due to the weakness of its institutions. In contrast Great Britain enjoyed unparalleled wealth and influence owing to the strength of its institutions, a constitutional monarchy, a well-balanced and representative parliament, a strong and independent judiciary, an agile and trusted banking system and a vigilant fourth estate. Today only the monarchy has strengthened in recent years owing to the outstanding individual efforts of its current protagonist. The judiciary has kept itself above the fray but is in danger of being politicised. All the other institutions have been tarnished by scandal. It seems beyond belief that one of the weakest, the House of Commons, which has been brought low by sleaze, corruption and the lack of experience of its leaders on all sides should seek to reform its opposite number which has had a mild scandal, all among appointed Lords, but otherwise succeeds in holding the government to account.

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved

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