In the News

House of Lords reform and the police bill

Mike McCartney

18th January 2022

In defence of the Lords? We should separate its composition (bad) from the work it does (good)

As one of my colleagues tweeted earlier with regards to the string of defeats suffered by the government in the House of Lords over its controversial anti-protest Police Bill, we should separate arguments about its composition from the work it does.

Probably main argument is that the Lords as an institution is often viewed as elitist, unrepresentative of the general population (mostly old white men from privileged backgrounds), and overly conservative in outlook. Then we have the hereditary element, a feature shared with only one other country. Lesotho; which has 22 tribal chiefs in its Senate.

So trying to defend the status quo you would be trying to defend the indefensible.

But against this, the current chamber works well. It is the most active chamber in the world. It sits for longer and meets more frequently than any other. Since 1999 the Lords has proved to be a useful check on the executive dominated Commons. See Meg Russell's research on this. Russell argues in “The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived” that since the 1999 reforms (which as students will know were initiated by the Blair government, and involved a compromise decision to leave all but 92 of the 700-plus members who held their place as a right of birth) the Lords has become a thorn in the side of successive governments (of whatever colour/s), and can no longer therefore be regarded as a weak institution. The statistical evidence Russell provides backs this up. Blair and Brown collectively suffered over 450 defeats. Yes the Commons has primacy over the Lords and can overturn these defeats, but most are not. There are also many behind the scenes compromises which involve changes to legislation in the Commons, and this has effected changes in the way ministers and civil servants compose bills. Furthermore, she argued, it is unfair to think of it as a bastion of conservatism. As an example the Lords voted to support the Gay Marriage Bill (essentially by rejecting an amendment to wreck it) by a massive majority of 242 votes. Contrast this with a vote before the 1999 reforms took place which voted against a bill to equalise the age of consent (for straight and homosexual couples) by 222 to 146.

And we can add the most recent government defeats to the ways that the Lords has acted to strengthen democracy.

In case you missed it, here is a section from the Independent:

"The government has suffered a series of defeats over its attempts to crackdown on protests after peers rejected a raft of controversial measures proposed by ministers in response to action taken by Insulate Britain and others.

New powers turned down by the House of Lords included allowing police officers to stop and search anyone at a protest “without suspicion” for items used to prevent a person being moved, known as “locking-on”.

A move that would allow individuals with a history of causing serious disruption to be banned by the courts from attending certain protests was also dismissed, along with a proposal to make it an offence for a person to disrupt the operation of key national infrastructure, including airports and newspaper printers.

In a separate defeat, peers backed restricting the imposition of tougher sentences for blocking a highway to major routes and motorways rather than all roads.

The mauling of the Tory administration’s plans sets the stage for a protracted parliamentary tussle known as ping-pong, where legislation passes between the Lords and the Commons until an agreement can be reached.

Peers were strongly critical of not only the measures, but also the way they had been introduced at such a late stage of the passage of the bill, after it had already gone through the elected House.

Earlier the Lords had also defeated other contentious curbs on demonstrations proposed in the legislation, including powers to impose conditions on protests judged to be too noisy."

Source: Peers inflict string of defeats against government protest crackdown | The Independent

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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