Devolution and the House of Lords (Robert Henderson)

Robert Henderson

There is one important aspect of the devolution mess created since 1997 which receives little or no attention in the mainstream media or from mainstream politicians, namely, the role of the House of Lords. As things stand all legislation which affects England goes through the Lords, while ever increasing swathes of legislation affecting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland avoid such scrutiny because the legislation is initiated, debated, amended and either passed or not at the will of the three devolved assemblies. Yet another instance of how England is grossly disadvantaged by the unbalanced devolution in Britain. Many will shrug their shoulders and say what does it matter, isn’t the Lords just a talking shop with no power? The answer is an emphatic no. Government ministers sit in the Lords, the House can initiate their own Bills, amend or strike down completely Bills sent to them by the House of Commons ,ask questions orally and in writing, including questions of ministers, sit on their own select committees and on joint committees of the Lords and Commons . Members also have the great privilege of a national political platform to get their views to the public.

The power of the Lords to delay
The sharpest power the Lords has is to delay. This can be achieved by being tardy over their examination of Bills sent to them by the Commons, by heavily amending Bills sent to them by the Commons (this means they have to go back to the Commons for re-consideration) and by refusing outright to pass Bills. (There is one important exception to the power of the Lords to amend or refuse outright to pass Bills from the Commons and that is what are called money Bills, legislation which involves the collection or spending of money by the government. Such Bills have to be signed off as Money Bills by the Speaker. )
If the Lords does refuse to pass a Bill from the Commons in its entirety or in part, the 1949 Parliament Act allows

the Commons to force through a Bill regardless of the wishes of the Lords in the session of Parliament in which the Bill was originally introduced into the Common. This procedure typically results in a delay of around a year. When the Bill is reintroduced it is passed without the Lords having any opportunity to delay it further. This is a very rare procedure with only seven Acts have been passed in this way either under the1949 Parliament Act or its 1911 predecessor.
Being able to delay Bills sent from the Commons is a powerful weapon because government legislation may be lost for want of Parliamentary time if an election is looming or a session of Parliament (which normally lasts a year) is coming to an end and other government business takes priority in the new session. Even if time is not absolutely pressing, governments are generally anxious to get their legislation through quickly and will often accept a Lords’ amendment to Bills sent from the Commons simply to get the legislation passed quickly.
The political composition of the House of Lords
“As at 16 December 2014, the total membership of the House of Lords was 847. However, excluding those currently ineligible to sit (such as members on leave of absence or those holding particular posts), the ‘actual’ membership was 791. The average attendance of the House of Lords in the 2013–14 session was 497.”
The 791 Members eligible to sit in the House of consisted of 679 Life Peers, 86 ‘excepted hereditary’ Peers and 26 Bishops. Their political allegiances, where declared, were:
Conservative 230
Labour 216
Liberal Democrat 105
Crossbench 180
Bishops 26
Even on the declared allegiances the House is heavily tilted toward the liberal left who are instinctively anti-English. Not only do Labour and the Libdems have a majority together over the Conservatives, those who take the Tory whip will more often than not have much the same politics as the Labour and LibDem peers . As for the officially politically non-aligned, it is reasonable to assume that most of the Bishops will also be of liberal left because the upper reaches of the Anglican Church has long shown themselves to be consistently left of centre with their unwavering support for political correctness . The crossbenchers will also have a healthy component from the liberal left simply because they are selected by those who generally subscribe to political correctness with the consequence that they will do the very human thing of selecting those who resemble themselves.
The geographical spread and size of the of the Lords is very important. Peers can come from any part of the United Kingdom and there is no limit to their number. This means that the Lords could easily become imbalanced, if it is not already so, by the creation of disproportionately large numbers of peers who were not English. Moreover, because peers are not elected , in principle, a government could create any number of new peers to push through legislation which is damaging to English interests, for example, to Balkanise England with regional assemblies regardless of the wishes of the English.
Less dramatically, because of the power to delay and force compromise from a government, it is easy to see how a House of Lords which was against England controlling its own affairs could cause considerable difficulties if the Commons voted , for example, to end the Barnett formula or to set up an English Parliament simply by delaying matters, for example, if General Election was due in less than a year’s time and sufficient numbers in the Lords thought there was a fair bet that the election would result in a change of government.
If England had English votes for English Laws
Would English votes for English laws solve the constitutional imbalance? The idea raises many problems such as how to define what is English only legislation while the Barnett Formula is in place because the Formula determines what Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland gets from the UK Treasury because it is linked to government spending in England. But the Lords adds another complication because the proposal as it has been suggested to date makes no mention of removing from the Lords’ the power of scrutiny of any House of Commons Bills which are deemed English only Bills. If that were the case then there would still be the anomaly that the Lords could interfere with English only legislation while having no power to intervene over the equivalent legislation for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland .
The difficulty could be surmounted by giving English only laws the same status as money Bills but in reality, only an English Parliament and a truly federal constitution for each of the four home countries will permanently solve the problem of the imbalance of the present devolution settlement.



  1. When the old landed families were kicked out of the “House of Lords”, making the body entirely to be made up of retired politicians and people selected by a liberal-left establishment “commission”, the body ceased to have any value.

    Close it – just keep the chamber for tourists.

  2. Turn the House of Lords into the repealing Chamber – the Commons can make laws but the House of Laws spends its time repealing laws. That way even if they’re all raving lefties they’ll be sufficiently full of self importance to busily repeal stuff they’d otherwise support and if some useful people were in the House of Lords then something substantive could get done.

  3. Britain is designed modernistically as a unitary state and the vestigial role of the House of Lords reflects this. Rather than build on the existing design and renovate the constitutional superstructure conservatively to preserve its elements, successive governments have gone down the road of radical re-engineering, albeit in incremental steps. Scottish autonomy is the source of shock waves that will reverberate long after 1999. The same can be said of the reform of the House of Lords into a pseudo-elective body. Yet there remains a naive sense among some of the elite that reforms which federalise and republicanise the country institutionally and are meant to preserve the existence of the UK will do so, when in reality I suspect what they will do is only add impetus to the break-up (and maybe even Balkanisation) of the country.

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