The extent of reform of House of Lords membership in the century since the Parliament Act of 1911

The reform of the upper house of the Parliament has been attempted since the establishment of parliamentary democracy in the UK.  Some of these attempts have fetched positive results whereas the rest have at best been nominal and ineffective.  The Parliament Act of 1911 is a cornerstone legislation in this context as the provisions within it had the potential to significantly alter the status quo with regard to the House of Lords.  This essay will show how far reforms to the House of Lords have materialized and what areas have remained stagnant in the century since the Act.  The first stirrings for Lords reforms started in 1909, when

“the Liberal government of Herbert Asquith was struggling and failing to get its financial reforms through the Lords. Given that these included a tax on land, it was hardly surprising that the landowning (and Conservative) Lords were proving resistant. At that date any Bill needed the support of both Houses before it could   become law. The only logical solution to this impasse was to pass an Act of Parliament which meant that an Act of Parliament did not necessarily have to be approved by the Lords. The Act to overrule the Lords – the Parliament Act – would also have to pass through the Lords. Who would, of course, not approve it. But there is a way around that. The government could threaten to create enough new peers to get a majority in the House of Lords.” [1]

The Parliament Act of 1911 repealed the sole right of House of Lords to veto bills passed in the parliament.  Instead, it empowered the House of Commons to overrule any such veto after consideration and debate for 3 sessions.  Although this provision did not bring into existence the purported Second Chamber based on popular choice, it did significantly alter the power wielded by the House of Lords[2].  While the Parliament Act of 1911 has had noticeable effects in the functioning of other aspects of democracy, its contribution to House of Lord reform has been limited.  Moreover, the onset of the First World War in 1914 had shifted priorities for the country from domestic policy to foreign/military affairs.  And no sooner did the country settle down to normal functioning, the rise of Nazi Germany and the ensuing World War once again shifted priorities.

Hence, it wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that further efforts to reform House of Lords was undertaken.  Despite Winston Churchill’s heroic role in turning around the fortunes of Britain in the war against fascism, he and his government was voted out in the general elections held in 1945.  A war-weary and economically impoverished electorate found appealing the election manifesto of the Labour Party and elected it to power.  During the same time, conservative leader Lord Salisbury drew up a constitutional convention, which sought to counterbalance the upper-hand held by the Conservative Party in the House of Lords.  Given that the population has clearly given its support for the Labour Party, the Salisbury Convention emphasized the legitimacy of the elected government in enacting its election manifesto, and therefore the House of Lords should restrain from vetoing such efforts.  Hence, the Salisbury Convention is a key moment in the history of House of Lords reforms.  It was in this atmosphere of political reform that the Parliament Act of 1949 was passed.  It included an amendment that stipulated the House of Lords no more than 2 sessions for delaying a bill approved by the lower house.  Further, “the re-make of the Parliament Act (1949) was better than the original. As re-configured the Upper House could now only block legislation for two sessions, or one year at the most. In fact, so protracted were the negotiations that the Bill to nationalize iron and steel was only passed in 1950.” [3]

One of the prime issues for House of Lords reform is its tradition of membership based on heredity.  The Life Peerages Act of 1958 was an attempt to bring in a merit based membership mechanism.  Hereby, a new group of peers (from different socio-economic backgrounds) were appointed to the house and were given the right to vote.  This act also made the historic change of offering membership and representation to women.  Further refinements to this Act were included in the Peerage Act of 1963.  Following recommendations made by the Joint Committee in 1962, the Peerage Act of 1963, “initiated by the Macmillan Government, gave effect to most of its recommendations. Peeresses in their own right were admitted to the House, as were all Scottish peers. The system of Scottish representative Peers was abolished. The Act also enabled hereditary peerages to be disclaimed for life.”[4]

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