Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, November 06, 2015

Elect the aristocracy! ?

The Economist applauds the action of the House of Lords in opposing welfare cuts proposed by the government, but argues that such forceful political actions require an elected body.

There's a link to the news story in the same issue following this editorial.

Right answer, spoken out of turn
RETURNED to power with a surprise majority in May… Britain’s Conservative government has found everything almost too easy… [O]n October 26th came… a flailing defeat in the House of Lords… which voted to delay a big welfare cut…

The scotched plan, to take £4.4 billion ($6.7 billion) in tax credits, mostly from the lowest-paid, would have inflicted hardship on the country’s poorest children and reduced incentives for their parents to work. Britain is better off with the measures on ice. Yet the defeat by the Lords presents a bigger problem. Unelected and unaccountable, the peers tread on dangerous ground when they slap down the plans of an elected government. If the House of Lords is to serve as a check on power—which, as this week showed, is needed—it must undergo a few reforms of its own…

House of Lords
So the Lords are right. But they are also wrong, having overstepped their constitutional limit, in so far as anyone can tell where it lies. A 300-year-old convention… holds that the Lords cannot scupper “money bills”. The tax-credit measure is a statutory instrument, not a bill, so some argue it is open to scrutiny (the Tories only have themselves to blame for this doubt: they chose a statutory instrument to curb debate in the Commons)…

Every time the unelected Lords flex their muscles Britain is less democratic. Labour and the Liberal Democrats handily outnumber the Tories there…

Peers almost never retire… meaning the chamber takes a lifetime to overhaul. Unlike ministers of other religions, 26 Church of England bishops get a place, though only one in six Britons is Anglican…

With Labour so weak in the Commons, an alternative check on the government is more valuable than ever…

But, to act as a brake, they need clarity and a mandate. That means a written constitution to codify their powers, and election of its members. The Commons resists Lords reform for fear of a rival chamber with the legitimacy to challenge it—and then proceeds to scream illegitimacy whenever the Lords blocks legislation. If the tax-credits debacle provokes a rethink, it will be long overdue.

Crisis? What crisis?
At issue was a seemingly mundane statutory instrument containing the government’s planned cuts to tax credits next April…

Before the debate, the government said that rejection by the unelected Lords would infringe the prerogative of the elected House of Commons over taxes and spending. The tax-credit cuts, worth £4.4 billion ($6.7 billion) to the exchequer, are clearly a budgetary matter. Conventions dating to the late 17th century or earlier provide that such matters should be decided by the lower house, which has voted for the cuts no fewer than three times. Lord Butler, a former cabinet secretary, firmly supported this line…

Yet many peers disagreed. They pointed out that a statutory instrument linked to a welfare act was not a money or finance bill, and thus not covered by the 1911 Parliament Act that stops the Lords rejecting such bills. They said the government could have put the changes in a finance bill, but had chosen the sneaky route of a statutory instrument precisely to avoid debate and amendment…

Talk of a constitutional crisis akin to that of 1909-11 thus seems overblown. Yet the challenge to the elected government’s powers is still serious. David Cameron is in the unique position for a Tory prime minister of not commanding a majority in the House of Lords…

Mr Cameron has responded to the latest defeats by setting up a review of the House of Lords to stop it blocking budgetary matters. Yet Britain’s history is littered with long, painful and mostly failed attempts to reform the upper house…

In 2011 Mr Cameron’s coalition government tried to bring in a mostly elected House of Lords. But that measure failed in 2012 after a rebellion by Conservative backbenchers… The nice irony in Mr Cameron’s position is that he should have chosen to lead his review of the House of Lords an unelected hereditary peer, Lord Strathclyde.

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