Originally written for the Chat Politics website back in 2015, this piece looks at whether the House of Lords overstepped its mark regarding the Government’s plans for reforming welfare.
By Will Barber – Taylor
Since the time of Edward the Third, the House of Lords and the House of Commons have fought for the power that comes from the Royal Prerogative. Over time and after two civil wars, the Lords eventually lost the fight and for the past hundred years the Lords has mainly agreed with the government and never attempted to block a bill outright. That is until, at the end of last month, the Lords voted against Chancellor, George Osborne’s plans to cut working tax credit. The planned cuts to working tax credit have been highly controversial; not least because prior to the election Mr Cameron promised that he wouldn’t cut said working tax credits – before promptly going back on his word. To look at the answer to the questions on everyone’s lips “Were the Lords right to overstep the mark? Should they now be reformed?” we must turn back to the last time the Lord’s defied the government over a major economic policy, that was back in 1909.
In 1909 H.S Asquith’s Liberal party were elected to government. Asquith’s Chancellor was future Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. Lloyd George had grown up in great poverty; when he became Chancellor he was resolute in his decision to make his first budget (dubbed The People’s Budget) “cope with the social condition of the people, to remove the national degradation of slums and widespread poverty and destitution in a land glittering with wealth”. Lloyd George’s proposed reforms were sweeping and included a new Land Tax which would have taken hundreds of thousands of pounds away from the landowning members of the Conservative party. Unsurprisingly, while the Liberal’s majority carried the bill through the Commons, when it entered the Lords it was voted down. This led to the toppling of Asquith’s government and two general elections in 1910 which weakened the Liberal Party, although they returned to office. It would, in fact, be the last time that the party that would one day become the Liberal Democrats held power on its own.
Now you may be wondering; “Why is this relevant?” It is significant simply because it demonstrates how much the Lords have changed in one hundred years. Before, they were stopping a budget (which was passed after the 1911 Parliament Act took away a great deal of the Lords’ power) that would help the poor, now they are stopping a motion that will financially penalise the working poor. While many Tories, led by the Chancellor, have condemned the Lords for their interference in matters which should be left to the Commons, their interference has forced the government to reconsider a motion that will affect many people which in the times we live in, can only be a good thing.
This only leaves the question as to whether or not the House of Lords should be reformed and needs reform. In truth, it probably does though complete abolition would not work. While many within the Tories and Labour may want it, the voice of the moderates will more than likely hold back the chop. A better solution would be to make the Lords fully elected by the people; however, this surely begs the question of whether a Lord can keep his title if he isn’t elected or not and whether only Lords can be elected or you only get the title when you are elected. This and several other questions will need to be answered before democracy can be introduced into the hallowed halls of Westminster’s upper chamber, yet it is needed. If the Lords wishes to continue in the modern political scene it needs accountability or else it will continue to have pot shots taken at it by anyone who is mauled by it, such as that unfortunate prospective Prime Minister, Mr Osborne.