Impact of the Lords

Although the House of Lords is clearly the weaker chamber of Parliament in terms of its formal powers, it is often a more effective check on the executive than the Commons. Executive control of the Commons is normally secured through a combination of the voting system (creating a single-party majority) and the party system. By contrast, in the Lords:

• Weak party discipline. This occurs because, being non-elected, peers do not need a party machine to remain in post. Once appointed, peers are there for life.This robs the government of its ability to discipline peers and so ‘enforce’ the whip.

• There is now no guarantee of majority control. Until 2000, the dominance of hereditary peers meant that the Conservatives effectively enjoyed an in-built majority in the Lords. Labour governments, on the other hand, confronted a consistently hostile second chamber. The House of Lords’ checking power was therefore used in a highly partisan way. These factors were dramatically demonstrated by the fact that, while the Blair government suffered no defeats in the Commons during its first two terms in office, it was defeated in the Lords on no fewer than 353 occasions. By contrast, the average number of Lords’ defeats per session during the Conservative governments of 1979–97 was just over 13. However, the level of opposition that the Blair government encountered in the House of Lords was untypical, even by the standards of previous Labour governments. It involved fierce clashes over terrorism legislation, with a range of other measures being either amended or delayed as a result of Lords’ pressure, including the outlawing of hunting with dogs, the introduction of foundation hospitals, restrictions on jury trial and changes to pension regulations. As an indication of its continuing assertiveness the 2010–15 Conservative-led coalition was defeated on over 100 occasions.The‘partially reformed’ House of Lords therefore appears to have become a more significant check on the government than the ‘traditional’ House of Lords had been.

Why has this happened? The greater impact of the Lords can be explained in a number of ways:

• No majority party in the Lords. In the ‘partially reformed’ Lords, there is a balance between Conservative and Labour representation, the parties having 256 and 204 peers respectively, out of a total of 809 (in 2017).

All governments therefore have to seek support from other parties and from crossbenchers in order to get legislation passed (even the Coalition was supported by only 42 per cent of peers).

• Greater legitimacy.The removal of most of the hereditary peers has encouraged the members of the House of Lords to believe that they have a right to assert their authority. As peers now feel that the Lords is more properly constituted, they are more willing to challenge the government, especially over controversial proposals and legislation.

• Landslide majorities in the Commons have led to a cultural cahnge in the Lords. Some peers have argued that they have a particular duty to check the government of the day in the event of landslide majorities in the Commons that render the first chamber almost powerless (as in 1997 and 2001).

• Governments are in a hurry. Although the Parliament Acts allow the Commons to overrule the Lords, their use is very time-consuming as it means that bills get regularly passed back and forth between the two Houses of Parliament (a process called ‘parliamentary ping-pong’). Governments are therefore often more anxious to reach a compromise with the Lords than to ‘steamroller’ a bill through using the 1949 Parliament Act. (This Act has, in fact, only been invoked on four occasions.)

Five ways that the Lords can affect legislation :

1 Legislation can be introduced in the House of Lords. In 2021, constitutional expert Lord Norton of Louth introduced the House of Lords (Peerages Nominations) Bill with the aim of putting the appointment of life peers on a statutory footing and establishing a new commission to better advise the prime minister on making recommendations for life peerages.

2 The government can accept Lords amendments to improve legislation, especially to protect vulnerable groups. In April 2021, the government accepted an amendment made in the House of Lords to the Financial Services Bill, which sought to ensure that retailers were able to offer free cash back from tills without requiring a purchase. It was recognised that some groups in society are more reliant on cash than others, and many rural areas lack access to free ATMs (or cashpoints).

3 Lords committees can conduct and publish inquiries into government bills. In July 2021 the House of Lords Communication and Digital Committee published the outcome of its inquiry into the government’s Online Safety Bill (Online Harms). One prominent conclusion was a warning that the bill posed a ‘threat to free speech’ through its proposed clampdown on ‘legal but harmful’ content. While some restrictions — especially over hate speech or dangerous conspiracy theories — were deemed to be necessary, the prospect of automated filtering systems regulating ‘normal expressions of negative human thoughts’ was reckoned to be ‘a nightmare’.

4 The Lords power of delay can extract compromises from the government. In April 2021, just days before the parliamentary session was due to end, the Lords finally backed down after their amendments to deal more stringently with stalkers were repeatedly rejected in the House of Commons during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. However, in order for the bill to pass, the government made a series of compromises on other proposals by the Lords to better protect children in difficult domestic break-ups by strengthening standards in child contact centres (neutral meeting places for children and parents).

5 Lords proposals can be rejected, but can bring about future change. The House of Lords proposed amendments to the Fire Safety Act 2021 to protect leaseholders from the costs of fixing fire-related problems in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster. The government rejected the Lords amendments but Home Office minister Kit Malthouse conceded that they were ‘well intentioned’ and said that the government planned to tackle the question of who should pay in the building safety bill.