The Conservative government was recently defeated in its attempts to cut tax credits. Owing to the nature of the cuts, many people were pleased about this news. Nonetheless, it has caused a significant amount of controversy, given that the proposed cuts were passed by the House of Commons but were then defeated in the House of Lords. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Chancellor, George Osborne, were among those to cry foul over this, claiming the Lords had broken a century of convention where financial matters would be controlled by the elected House of Commons. To some, the idea of unelected and unaccountable peers voting on how our money is spent and preventing the democratically elected government from carrying out its plans is rather worrying. Is this not in danger of undermining our democracy?
Let’s consider the facts. The first convention (or rule of parliament) which critics claim the Lords has broken is that the upper chamber does not influence bills that only relate to how money is spent – these are known as a money bill. However, the tax credits bill did not count as a money bill, as the Conservatives used a statutory instrument instead of a normal bill. These instruments are intended to be used for minor changes to existing legislation, and do not need to be as heavily scrutinised as an ordinary bill. Presumably the Tories hoped this would ensure the cuts made it through the House of Commons, which they did. Nevertheless, as a statutory instrument, the Speaker could not label the cuts as a money bill, so the Lords were perfectly within their rights to vote it down. John Bercow described it as “procedurally correct”; clearly, the convention has not been broken.
A second convention which some critics have claimed was broken is that of the Lords not voting against policies the government included in its manifesto. It has been argued that plans to reform welfare were referenced in the Conservative manifesto, meaning that the Lords should not have voted against the tax credits cuts, but this is not the case. The cuts were not specifically mentioned in the manifesto and, prior to the general election, Cameron himself said that he was not planning to cut tax credits. Consequently, that convention has also been upheld. To put it simply, the House of Lords had every right to vote against the tax credit cuts, something any competent politician should be aware of.
There is another element to this story. Cameron and Osborne’s reactions have convinced many people that now is the time for a reform of the House of Lords. Although all parties have put forward plans for such a reform, to make the House of Lord at least partially elected, the last time there was an attempt to pass this bill, it was defeated by the Conservatives. Now that the Tories themselves have been disadvantaged by the current system, some people believe that reform will finally come.
In reality, however, this is highly unlikely, and there are three main reasons for this. Firstly, the public does not really care about the issue; it isn’t a vote winner, and there are better ways for parliamentary time to be spent, especially given that any proposed bill will almost certainly be defeated anyway.
Secondly, whatever the party line might be, all parties find the Lords useful, particularly when in opposition. If the government has a strong majority, as it did under Blair, often the only way they can be defeated is through the Lords. For example, the Liberal Democrats are no doubt finding the Lords invaluable at the moment, as they have 112 Lords, compared to only eight MPs; therefore, their only chance to achieve anything at the moment is through the Lords, as they did in defeating the tax credits, which brings me to my final reason: there won’t be a reform of the House of Lords because it already does a lot of good.
Whatever the critics say, the House of Lords has proved to be incredibly useful. During Blair’s premiership, it was the Lords who sought to safeguard our rights, and, as we have seen of late, it was the Lords that was able to prevented the tax credit cuts from being passed. Part of the reason the Lords is able to do this is that it is, by nature, non-partisan; no party has a majority in the Lords, so it ensures that any bill must have cross-party support. The effect of this is to encourage less radical bills, as anything too severe simply won’t get through, and to prevent the highly partisan gridlock which nations such as the US have suffered from with an elected second chamber.
On this occasion, the House of Lords should be congratulated for protecting the most vulnerable in society, and encouraged to keep up the good work.