Keeping up with Connect: House of Lords – Content or Not Content?
In the first of a series of debates on the Connect blog, Isabella Hunter-Fajardo makes the case for the House of Lords.
House of Laws: in defence of the Second Chamber
The wealth of experience in the Second Chamber is an asset to the UK’s legislative process. At Connect, we often track Bills, or even specific amendments and clauses for clients as they progress through Parliament. Seeing the depth and quality of debate during the respective stages of legislation in the Commons and Lords has given me an appreciation of the role the Upper House plays.
Parliamentary time is precious, and debate time in the Lords means more time for those with extensive individual experience to scrutinise policy and legislation. Amongst their recent achievements are the successful delay in cuts to tax credits until protections for low paid workers were put in place, and the changes on safeguards for immigration-related detention of vulnerable people, particularly pregnant women.
Peers are less susceptible than MPs to the power of the parliamentary Whips. Lords do not have to worry about the next election with the threat of deselection or the loss of their seat. It is also highly unlikely a vote in the Lords will bring down a government or party Leader. While some peers may have once been career politicians, the very nature of an unelected chamber means it is significantly less party-based. If it were more partisan, a government would find it harder to pass legislation, as is the case in the United States.
Arguments for and against the Lords have bubbled up in recent months during the passage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which we have followed in detail at Connect. The government lost 15 votes as the Bill made its way through the House of Lords including on Amendment 110, giving MPs greater power over scrutiny of Statutory Instruments through a sifting committee – the creation of which was first put forward in the Commons and then examined by the Commons Procedure Committee. In the end, both Houses accepted a government amendment which would require ministers to make a written statement if they disagreed with the scrutiny procedure recommended by the committee.
Rather than frustrating the democratic process, such defeats force the government to look again at a Bill, consider its weaknesses and impacts and therefore strengthening the legislation. There are limits on the House of Lords, they can amend Bills, but the power to reject a Bill passed by the Commons is contained by the Parliament Act. When the EU (Withdrawal) Bill made its way back to the House of Commons, the Lords’ amendments were defeated and the government offered amendments in lieu.
The Lords must rightly respect the ‘mandate’ of the government, particularly where policies have been set out in an election manifesto. Their role and powers are also constrained on financial matters and constitutional matters. The Lords do defer to the elected House of Commons and are mindful not to overstep their role and, operating within those limits, their contribution to the work of Parliament, should be valued.
In the next article in our House of Lords series, Jimmy Coles will argue for reform.