Here come the Parliament Acts, 1911 and 1949…

By skepticlawyer

Well, this is is starting to get interesting.

As most of you know from DEM’s posts, the Welfare Reform Bill is currently making its way through the Lords (having enjoyed easy passage through the Commons). Well, almost:

The government has lost another vote in the House of Lords over its plans to reform the welfare system.

Peers backed by a margin of 10 votes an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill, overturning a move to cut payments to council tenants with one spare bedroom.

The bill is now has to go back before MPs, who disagree with the Lords.

Ministers have already had to reverse several defeats over their proposals, which include capping benefits at £26,000 a year per household.

They want the bill, which is back in the Lords after being approved by the Commons, to enter into law soon.

Peers are currently discussing a series of amendments to the legislation.

Here, however, is the clincher:

Although MPs have passed the Welfare Reform Bill, ministers have lost several votes on it when it has gone on to the House of Lords previously.

Among these, peers have chosen to exclude child benefit from the cap and to exclude cancer patients for means testing for Employment and Support Allowance.

However, all the changes were reversed when the bill returned to the Commons earlier this month.

In an effort to avoid what is known as parliamentary “ping pong”, where the bill bounces back and forth between the two Houses until a compromise is reached, Commons officials have said they will use “financial privilege” to ensure Parliament approves the cap.

This is based on the principle that the Lords cannot reject a bill passed by the Commons if it relates to tax and spending decisions.

This would mean that although their old amendments to the bill cannot be discussed again, it would not prevent them from tabling new ones – meaning a prolonged dispute is still possible.

In the Lords, several peers criticised the threat of using financial privilege.

The Lords, because it is not elected, had its wings clipped — twice — in the 20th century, first in 1911 and then in 1949. The two pieces of legislation are known collectively as ‘the Parliament Acts‘, and allow the Commons to bypass the Lords and obtain Royal Assent directly, once certain statutory provisions are met. The net effect of the two Acts is to allow the Lords to delay bills they could once block or veto. The period of delay is one year — considerable in the case of the Welfare Reform Bill, as the government is hoping for quick enactment.

We’re quite a long way from that just now — at the moment the Welfare Reform Bill is being fought over in the Lords, with the preliminary threat of financial privilege coming from the Commons. If, however, the Lords will not budge on this, refusing to wear the Bill’s categorization as financial privilege, then the Parliament Acts become a real possibility.

This may not seem much of a constitutional crisis to an Australian, with Australia’s ‘two houses, both alike in dignity, in fair Canberra where we lay our scene’, but it’s large in British terms, mainly due to a quirk of politics: Labour, because it does not respect the Lords, makes use of the Acts far more regularly. The Tories have done so only once, to force passage of the War Crimes Act 1991. As I pointed out on the Advice, please thread, that bill expended a great deal of political capital belonging to what may loosely be called ‘the Israel Lobby’ in Britain, and is a major reason why Britain’s Conservative Party can seem so equivocal on Israel — compared, for example, with political parties of all stripes in Australia or the US.

Of course, the Conservatives are in Coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and it was the Liberal Party, the Liberal Democrats’ predecessor-in-title, that gave Britain the 1911 iteration of the Parliament Acts. I do wonder if a Conservative Party governing alone would once again have the gumption to take on the Lords in a manner reminiscent of the stushie over the War Crimes Act.

Interesting times indeed.


  1. Posted February 15, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    The constitutional crisis that ended with the Parliament Act 1911 began on 29 April 1909, when David Lloyd George introduced the “People’s Budget” including a 20% tax on future increments in the rental value of land. A leading proponent of this policy defended it in these terms:

    Roads are made, streets are made, railway services are improved, electric light turns night into day, electric trams glide swiftly to and fro, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains – and all the while the landlord sits still. Every one of those improvements is effected by the labour and at the cost of other people. Many of the most important are effected at the cost of the municipality and of the ratepayers. To not one of those improvements does the land monopolist, as a land monopolist, contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is sensibly enhanced. …

    The tax on the increment of land begins by recognising and franking all past increment. We look only to the future; and for the future we say only this: that the community shall be the partner in any further increment above the present value after all the owner’s improvements have been deducted. We say that the State and the municipality should jointly levy a toll upon the future unearned increment of the land. A toll of what? Of the whole? No. Of a half? No. Of a quarter? No. Of a fifth – that is the proposal of the Budget. And that is robbery, that is plunder, that is communism and spoliation, that is the social revolution at last, that is the overturn of civilised society, that is the end of the world foretold in the Apocalypse! Such is the increment tax about which so much chatter and outcry are raised at the present time, and upon which I will say that no more fair, considerate, or salutary proposal for taxation has ever been made in the House of Commons.

    The “leading proponent” was Winston Churchill. The quote is from a speech delivered at the King’s Theatre (Edinburgh) on July 17, 1909, reported by the Times and reprinted in Liberalism and the Social Problem (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1909).

  2. Tim Mulligan
    Posted February 15, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Before the 20th century, when did the House of Lords have its power curtailed? Was there ever a time when it was roughly equal in power vis-a-vis the Commons? Was the British Parliament always bicameral? Sorry, my knowledge of British history is limited!

  3. Posted February 15, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo, heeeeaaalp!

    Oh, and this to start with:

    The power of the House of Lords was chipped away over time, initially because British society changed — from land-based wealth to industrial wealth — but later because the Commons was elected, and people had come to view representative government as a positive development.

    Even so, the sharpest curtailment of the Lords’ power was in 1911, mainly because it lost the ability to strike down legislation originating in the Commons. Ironically (as Gavin’s link shows) the legislation the Lords were trying to kill off (proposed by David Lloyd George’s Liberals) was inspired by libertarian (Henry George, or Georgist) ideas about land tax.

    The Lords also generally opposed extending the franchise, especially (and this is interesting) to poor/unpropertied men. Some Lords would have cheerfully enfranchised propertied women (for which there was historical precedent in Scotland, and also in ancient Rome), but were terrified of socialism and organised labour.

  4. Posted February 15, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Industrialization did not make wealth any less “land-based” – and not only because a factory needs land to stand on. The value of land was made to depend less on fertility and more on “location, location”. The most valuable land was buried under concrete and asphalt in the centres of cities. The productive uses to which the land was put were subordinated to the pursuit of unearned increments (“capital gains”) when the land was eventually resold. And as if to make sure everyone understood the object of the game, the unearned increments got tax concessions while the productive uses did not.

  5. paul walter
    Posted February 15, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    So they tried to transform it from an oligarchs
    junket into a genuine house of review, but the T Party types who control the Tories are intent in welfare bashing even to the point of exclusion of humanity.
    And the only allies the 99% can find are in the House of Lords, the alleged bastion of privilege?
    The City of London, along with Wall St, caused so much grief for so many others, yet it’s the poor who have to pay for the hubris and profligacy of the few.Once again confounded by the enduring mystery of what constitututes conservative “values”, this poster again retreats to baffled, chagrined silence.

  6. Adrien
    Posted February 15, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Interesting that the Hice o’ Lawds are provoking this brouhaha because they refuse to pass a reform to the welfare act by a Tory government trying to reverse itself out of ‘Labour socialism’.

  7. kvd
    Posted February 15, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    In reading SL’s reference to Wikipedia to get some sort of understanding, I stumbled on a reference to Pepper v Hart which goes against most of my previous understanding as to how the law works. So, not to distract, but at some point I’d very much appreciate a comment or two on just where that decision sits now.

    On the post itself, I’m getting the impression that these acts are the English equivalent of Oz’s double dissolution mechanism for resolving ‘differences’? But no election, just a polite ‘this is real world business so yield please’. The foregoing is not a comment on current legislation – just on the ‘method’.

  8. kvd
    Posted February 16, 2012 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    Thanks LE. I must say I think it is really quite interesting as well. Further searching on “The Intolerable Wrestle with Words and Meanings” has lead me to a 2010 speech by the Chief Justice of NSW with that title, which I’ll now attempt to understand. All completely off-topic, but worthwhile for me, at least.

  9. derrida derider
    Posted February 16, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Gavin, on the 1911 crisis have a look at LLoyd-Georges famous Limehouse speech. Its great wit only highlights Ll-G’s steely threat to the Lords – acquiesce or I’ll bring on outright civil war (of course the Tories returned the compliment with the same threat two years later over Home Rule).

    Now that’s what I call a constitutional crisis.

  10. Posted February 16, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Parliament was unicameral under Cromwell. When it was still sitting.

    One way to track their relative power was by PMs. Until 1902, a PM was as likely to be a Lord as a Commons. The first C20th Administration was led from the Lords.

    The Commons was partly a creation of Simon de Montfort but grew out of consulting merchant representatives over taxes they disproportionately paid. So, it getting the power of the purse was hardly surprising.

    [email protected] Land shrank as a proportion of total wealth as capital expanded. So land did become relatively less important.

  11. Posted February 16, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    [email protected], I was thinking the same thing about the double dissolution thing as well.

    The Australian constitution gives the lower house the exclusive right to introduce or amend taxation or appropriation bills, so it’s clear that the idea of the lower house being superior in that sense was clearly already prominent at the turn of the century. I imagine the English solution was more drastic in terms of weighting power in favour of the lower house as its upper house was (is?) far less democratic than ours.

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