But what are the Parliament Acts? Simply put, they are a way to circumvent the House of Lords in certain circumstances. The first Parliament Act was passed in 1911 after several years of strife between the Conservative-dominated House of Lords and the Liberal government. At the time, the Lords and Commons were on a more or less equal footing, though there was a longstanding convention that the Lords should not amend financial legislation (known in Westminster parlance as ‘money bills’). They could, however, reject money bills outright, and in November 1909, they rejected the so-called “People’s Budget” that had been proposed by David Lloyd-George.
In response, the House of Commons resolved “That the action of the House of Lords in refusing to pass into law the financial provision made by this House for the Service of the year is a breach of the Constitution and a usurpation of the rights of the Commons.” When the Liberals were returned to power (albeit with a reduced majority) in the January 2010 General Election, they reintroduced the budget. The Lords relented and passed the budget on a voice vote.
However, the Liberals were determined to clip the Lords’ wings. Their Parliament Bill sought to abolish the Lords’ veto on financial legislation and allow public bills passed by the Commons in three successive sessions to become law without the Lords’ consent. Naturally, the government feared that their proposals might run into trouble in the Lords, and so Asquith sought an assurance from Edward VII that he would create enough Liberal peers to pass the Parliament Bill if the Lords proved recalcitrant. The King was reluctant to grant his Prime Minister’s request, as he feared that it would negatively impact the upper house in the long term as well as undermine the Crown’s political neutrality (Hibbert, 287). In the end, he said that he would only create extra peers if the government agreed to put the issue of Lords reform to the electorate in a General Election.
Asquith agreed, but Edward died a short while later. In an attempt to avoid putting the new King in a constitutionally awkward position right away, the Conservatives and the Liberals met secretly to try to thrash out a compromise. But their talks failed, and Parliament was dissolved in November 1910. The next month’s General Election saw the Liberals and Conservatives win an equal number of seats, though the Liberals were able to hold on to power thanks to the support of Irish Nationalist MPs.
The government duly reintroduced the Parliament Bill when Parliament reconvened in February 1911, and the bill passed the Commons on May 15. The Conservative Party was bitterly divided on the issue. While the party leaders were reconciled to the fact that the bill should become law, there were a number of Tory peers who were determined to fight until the bitter end. Although the Lords ultimately passed the Parliament Bill, they made a number of amendments to it.
When the Commons considered the Lords’ amendments on June 24, there were scenes of epic disorder. Asquith told the Commons that the government could not accept the Lords amendments, and he warned that, unless the Lords relented, the government would have no choice but to ask the King to create hundreds of new peers. The Opposition was livid. The Tory leader, Arthur Balfour, accused Asquith of “destroying the prerogative of the Crown and the independence of the Upper House,” and the debate became so disorderly that the Speaker was forced to adjourn the sitting.
While George V had agreed to create the extra peers, he insisted that the Lords should have a chance to discuss the Commons counter-amendments before the upper house was swamped. During their debate, the Lord President of the Council, Viscount Morley, informed the House of the King’s promise, and that threat was sufficient to cow the Opposition. The Lords did not insist on their amendments (the final vote was 131 to 114), and the bill received Royal Assent on August 18.
The Parliament Act was first used in 1914 to pass the Welsh Church Act 1914 (which disestablished the Church of England in Wales) and the Government of Ireland Act 1914 (which gave Ireland home rule). It would not be used again until 1949, when the Labour government proposed a second Parliament Bill to reduce the Lords’ power of delay from three parliamentary sessions to two (although their bill simply amended the Parliament Act 1911, it also specified that the two acts were to be construed as one). From 1949 until the present day, this ‘parliamentary override’ has only been used on four other occasions.
Conservative MPs shouldn’t get too cocky, though, since it’s far from certain that the Parliament Acts will apply to the European Union (Referendum) Bill. The key sticking point is that the Commons must pass the same bill that they passed in the previous session. If MPs vote to amend it, the Parliament Acts won’t apply. In the past, the chances of that happening would have been remote since the government could use its majority to block all amendments. But the Tories don’t have a majority, and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners aren’t keen on the idea of a referendum on the EU (because of their opposition, the bill is being introduced as a private member’s bill rather than a government bill). If the LibDems were to vote with the Labour opposition, they could defeat the Tories. When the bill was being considered in the last session, neither Labour nor the LibDems really needed to play hardball since they knew the bill would almost certainly die in the Lords. But this time around, they might put up more of a fight.
Hibbert, Christopher. Edward VII: The Last Victorian Monarch. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) 2007.