Will Peer Pressure Be a Problem For Cameron?

Spare a thought for Baroness Stowell of Beeston, for she may have one of the most unenviable jobs in Government. As Leader of the House of Lords, she is responsible for piloting the Government’s legislation through the House, and there is every indication that she will have her work cut out for her.

At the moment, the political breakdown of the House is as follows:

  • Conservatives: 224
  • Labour: 212
  • Liberal Democrat: 100
  • Crossbench: 179
  • Archbishops/Bishops: 26
  • Non-affiliated: 28
  • Other parties: 16

These numbers will give the Government pause. Although the Tories are the largest single party, they can easily be outvoted by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. If the two main Opposition parties decide to play hardball, the Government will have to rely on Crossbench support to pass legislation. However, that is easier said than done. Since the Crossbenchers aren’t a unified group, the Government would have to win their votes individually on a case-by-case basis.

In theory, Cameron could simply create more Tory peers. But the House already has almost 800 members, and the Tories’ manifesto pledged to do something about its mushrooming growth. This makes the large-scale creation of peers politically problematic, to say the least.

There are some bright spots for the Government. First, the Salisbury-Addison Convention dictates that the Lords won’t reject bills that arise from the Government’s manifesto commitments.[1] But the convention is just that—a convention—and some peers (particularly those on the Liberal Democrat benches[2]) have questioned whether they should be bound by a gentlemen’s agreement forged in the days when the House of Lords was a hereditary body with a huge inbuilt Tory majority.[3] But even if the Salisbury-Addison Convention stands, it only goes so far. While it prevents the Lords from rejecting manifesto bills outright, it does not preclude them from making amendments that the Government doesn’t like. The Government can remove them when the bill returns to the Commons, but if the Lords insist on their amendments, the bill will fall unless a compromise can be reached.

There’s also the matter of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949. Although they allow the Commons to pass legislation without the Lords’ consent in certain circumstances, they are not a legislative easy button. The Parliament Acts only come into play if a bill that began in the Commons is rejected in two sessions of Parliament, and it generally takes at least a year to override a veto by the House of Lords. Not surprisingly, use of the Parliament Acts is exceedingly rare (only seven acts have been passed without the Lords’ consent since 1911). Governments are loath to wait a year to get their legislation onto the statute book, and they often compromise in order to win peers’ support. With a majority of only 12, Cameron has an added incentive to compromise.

We may also see further dustups over the Commons’ financial privilege. Convention dictates that, if the Lords make an amendment that affects taxation or spending, the Commons can reject it out of hand by invoking their financial privilege.[4] At that point, the Lords are expected to let the matter drop unless the Commons choose to waive their privilege (the Lords can, however, propose a substitute amendment).[5] Although the Commons’ financial privilege has been around since the seventeenth century, it became a matter of controversy during the last Parliament when it was used to block several Lords amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill. This led to accusations that the Government was using the arcana of parliamentary procedure to safeguard its agenda, though in reality, it is a Commons Clerk who determines whether an amendment might infringe the Commons’ financial privilege, not the Government.[6] Since the House of Lords now has a leftward tilt, it is entirely possible that we will see more disputes over the Commons’ financial privilege if Labour and the Liberal Democrats try to roll back the Government’s austerity measures.

Ultimately, the Liberal Democrats will likely have a huge influence over the behavior of the House of Lords. If they were to repudiate the conventions that they deem outdated, they could cause a lot of trouble, particularly if Labour decided to back them up. It’s doubtful we will see anything like American-style gridlock, but at the same time, the Government may end up having to cede more ground than it would like.

NOTES

[1] This convention arose after Labour’s landslide victory in 1945. Although Labour had a three-figure majority in the Commons, the Tories had a huge majority in the Lords. However, the Tory leader in the Lords, Viscount Cranborne (later Marquess of Salisbury) promised his Labour counterpart, Viscount Addison, that the Tories would not use their majority in the Lords to oppose bills that had received the sanction of the voters. Despite being little more than a gentlemen’s agreement between a Tory leader and a Labour leader, this arrangement has prevailed until the present day, and is widely regarded as one of the core tenets that underpin the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament.

[2] On a side note, the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors the Liberals were never a formal party to the Salisbury-Addison Convention.

[3] It can also be argued that the increasing fragmentation of British politics makes the Salisbury-Addison convention problematic. Although the Tories won a majority, they did so with only 36.8% of the vote overall.

[4] Expenditure must be authorized by a Money Resolution while taxation requires a Ways and Means Resolution, and these are the domain of the Commons alone.

[5] Waiving their privilege is actually fairly common. When the two Houses were negotiating over the Localism Bill in 2011, there were 115 Lords Amendments which involved the Commons’ financial privilege and MPs voted to waive their privilege for each one (for a summary of cases where the Commons have waived their privilege, see this note from the Clerk of the House). There is, however, one case where the Commons cannot waive their privilege. If a Lords amendment would impose a charge upon the public revenue that has not been authorized by a Money Resolution, the amendment will be automatically rejected by the Commons under SO 78(3) unless the Government brings forward the necessary Money Resolution.

[6] The rules that govern this determination are somewhat vague, and in practice it seems to be based on a combination of precedent and instinct. For a discussion of the ins and outs of the Commons’ financial privilege, see Meg Russell and Daniel Gover, “Demystifying Financial Privilege: Does the Commons’ claim of financial primacy on Lords amendments need reform?” (London: The Constitution Unit, 2014), 19-32.

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