The Huffington Post UK recently claimed that the Government may ‘suspend’ the House of Lords if peers vote against George Osborne’s tax credit cuts next week. According to an anonymous Government insider, “one option is to simply suspend the Lords’ entire business, and process bills purely through the Commons.” It’s an eye-catching statement, but it strains the bounds of credulity.
The Government simply does not have the power to make inconvenient parts of the constitution disappear by fiat. The House of Lords is an integral part of Parliament, and bills cannot receive Royal Assent unless they have passed the Lords as well as the Commons. The only exception to this rule is when a bill is passed under the provisions of the Parliament Acts 1911 & 1949, but even then peers aren’t bypassed entirely. The bill follows the normal parliamentary path until its second rejection by peers, at which point it becomes law without their consent. The House of Lords can only be stripped of its legislative power by an Act of Parliament.
More plausibly, the HuffPo speculates that the Government might try to flood the House with Conservative peers to make it more compliant. Before the advent of the Parliament Act, mass ennoblement was often the only way to break an impasse caused by intransigent peers. In practice, the mere threat would be sufficient to persuade the Lords to yield (for example, Tory peers dropped their opposition to the Parliament Bill once they realized that George V would create a massive number of Liberal peers to ensure its passage).
However, it’s not clear that mass ennoblement would be appropriate in this case. H. H. Asquith only asked George V to agree to mass ennoblement after protracted negotiations with the Tories failed to reach an agreement on limiting the powers of the Lords. Also, the Liberals campaigned on a promise to reform the Lords during the December 1910 General Election, so Asquith could claim a popular mandate for the policy. In contrast, the current Government’s tax credit cuts were not a part of their manifesto, and the two Houses have not been at loggerheads for an extended period of time on this issue.
Mass ennoblement would have far-reaching ramifications. The peers that David Cameron creates to get his way right now would stay in the Lords until they die or retire. This means that a future Labour Prime Minister would have to embark on their own program of mass ennoblement to redress the balance, and it won’t be long until the House has swollen to farcical proportions.
The Government may disagree with the Lords’ response to the tax credit cuts, but they must resist the temptation to reach for the easy button. Their short-term frustration must be balanced against the long-term damage that a rash decision could do to the constitution.