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“Since 1999, the House of Lords has become an effective check on the power of the Executive.” Discuss the validity of this statement. (26)
Although prior to 1999 the Lords was seen as a last challenge to the executive dominance of Mrs Thatcher, the 1999 reform of the Lords marked a watershed when the Lords were judged to have become much more assertive. For example, the Lords defeated the labour government from 1997-2010 154 times compared to 6 defeats in the commons. It defeated the Cameron government 60 times in just one year, promoting Cameron to threaten to “pack it with Tory peers” in order to reduce its powers further. It would seem effective, to the point some Tories referred to the peers as “vermin in ermine”. However, the Lords may be more assertive, but does that make them more effective? Given their constitutional weakness, their effectiveness lies in principally being a revising chamber and as a frustration to the elected government to whom they must give way. Therefore, their effectiveness can only be intermittent.
The House of Lords Act 1999 removed the majority of the hereditary peers and included more life peers increasing the diversity and expertise of the Lords as many professionals such as businessmen and scientists were appointed peers. This created a chamber that more accurately represented the diversity of the UK. This created a higher public profile with the public feeling that the Lords is on their side as they better represent the public than the Commons do. The lack of party ties can be seen as a strength as the peers are free to vote any way they want and aren’t tied down by their party much to the annoyance of the governing party. The Lords can be a real frustration to the government as no government has a majority in the Lords and making the Lords agree with them can be hard. The commons can be seen as an elective dictatorship and the Lords can be seen as defenders of democracy.
They are effective in revising legislation as often the government will try to anticipate the Lords’ reaction before passing a bill in order to pass the bill quickly. The Lords don’t always adhere to conventions in order to stand firm against the commons. For example, the Lords broke the Salisbury convention in 2006, when labour tried to pass the id cards bill which was a manifesto pledge. The peers claimed that that Labour did not have a sufficiently large enough mandate to pass the bill and that the Salisbury convention was outdated.
The Lords can also scrutinize legislation better as they aren’t under the pressure the commons are under to stick rigidly to a timetable. Sometimes the Lords can find fault in some laws years after they have been passed. For example, they discovered that child spies were not receiving the care minors should receive, for example, they were dealing with dangerous criminals with little protection. During David Cameron’s leadership, the Lords challenged his government so many times that he threatened to fill the Lords with Tory peers in order to get his bills passed. The Lords’ expertise is useful to get concerns of the citizens’ raised and forcing governments to respond and take issue with controversial issues. For example, the Lords were held a debate on the topic of euthanasia.
However, the Lords can be seen as only an intermittent check on the executive because of their lack of legitimacy. It is not an elected body so cant be seen as standing in the way of an elected Commons. However, their illegimacy was more obvious before 1999, as the majority of peers were hereditary peers who had only inherited their title in order to sit in the Lords and dint represent the British public very well. However, the Lords is still an unelected body, even though the majority of peers are life peers. The Lords can basically “only a break, cant stop the train”. Any attempts to make the Lords a wholly elected body, have been dismissed as this would create gridlock between the Commons and the Lords with each house trying to claim more legitimacy than the other.
The parliament Act 1911 was passed after the Lords blocked Lloyd-George’s “people’s budget” of 1909. The Act prevents the Lords from blocking legislation and they can only delay bills to 2 years. The Parliament act 1949, further reduced this to only 1 year. The Lords can only frustrate the government but cant do anymore than that. For example, the Lords cant debate or scrutinize money bills. The Salisbury Convention states that the Lords shouldn’t vote against a bill which was a manifesto pledge of the governing party as this would be stainding in the way of an elected Commons. The Lords are also under a time restriction which prevent them from deliberately delaying debating on bills.
In 2018, the Lords’ attempt to force the government to establish tighter regulation of the media failed. There were 15 defeats in the Lords for the EU Withdrawal Bill but only one was successfully supported in the Commons. All the other Lords’ amendments were overturned, even by a weak May government. Ultimately, the final decision lies with the Commons.
In conclusion although the Lords may not be lawfully able to prevent the Commons from passing legislation, they are able to prevent the Commons from becoming too powerful. For example, the Commons try to anticipate the Lords’ reaction in order to get a bill passed quickly. This may lead to the Commons cutting out large sections of their legislation. Also, the Lords can effectively scrutinize bills and point out any flaws in them because they have more time on their hands as they aren’t under a strict parliamentary timetable which the Commons are under. Therefore, I believe that the Lords, since 1999, have become a more effective check on the powers of the Executive as the introduction of more life peers created a more diverse and experienced Lords, well equipped to confidently challenge the Commons when they feel that the Commons is becoming an elective dictatorship.