Prior to 1911 the House of Commons and the House of Lords had legislative equality. This means they had equal power over the passing of legislation. At this time the Salisbury Convention did not yet exist and would not become an accepted convention until 1945. Therefore, the only significant legislative advantage that the House of Commons had was that it was a well-established convention that the House of Lords could not amend Money Bills.
However, in 1906 it was the arguable failure of the Lords to follow this convention that led to the biggest constitutional crisis of the 20th century. In 1906 a Liberal Government was elected who proposed a radical welfare reform programme. These reforms needed to be paid for and, as such, in 1909 a radical economic programme accompanied it. This became known as the ‘People’s Budget’. The budget would see tax raises for the wealthy and included a 20% tax on selling land, something that the land owning aristocracy in the House of Lords were particularly displeased with. The Liberal Chancellor, David Lloyd-George, called it a war budget:
“This is a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests”
The Liberals did not have a majority in the House of Lords and in 1909 the People’s Budget was defeated in the Lords. Technically the House of Lords could reject a budget but not amend it. However, this had not happened in 200 years and it was now an established convention that the Lords did not interfere with the government’s budget at all. When the Lords rejected the bill they said they would pass it if the Liberals could win an election with this as part of their campaign, something they then did (albeit relying on the Labour and Irish Parliamentary Party to form a government) in January 1910. The Lords therefore accepted the budget in 1910. However, unprepared to see the unelected Lords frustrate their agenda once more, the Liberals had also campaigned for need legislation to limit the power of the Lords. This again caused a constitutional stand-off which only ended when the Lords passed the Parliament Act (1911) under threat that George V would flood the House of Lords with new Liberal Peers in order to create a majority.
The Parliament Act (1911) removed the power of the House of Lords to block legislation and instead limited their power to be able to delay a bill for two years. This meant that if a bill was passed by the House of Commons for two consecutive parliamentary sessions it could leapfrog the House of Lords and go directly for Royal Assent. In addition, the House of Lords could only delay Money Bills by a month, effectively removing its power in this area. Following 1911, the House of Commons invoked the Parliament Act four times:
Government of Ireland Act (1914) – This Act have created Home Rule in Ireland. However, the First World War interfered with its implementation and by 1918 the circumstances in Ireland had changed dramatically and it was formally repealed in 1920.
Church of Wales Act (1914) – This act created a Church of Wales that was distinct from the Church of England
Parliament Act (1949) – This act reduced the delaying power of the House of Lords to one year.
In 1949 the Parliament Act (1949) was passed. This reduced the delaying power of the House of Lords to just one year. Since 1949 the Parliament Act has been invoked four times:
War Crimes Act (1991) – This act allowed UK Courts to try criminals retrospectively who committed crimes in and on behalf of Nazi Germany. This has resulted in only one prosecution.
European Parliamentary Elections Act (1999) – This act changed the voting system for EU elections to the Closed Party List using the D’Hondt system of proportional representation. Prior to this the system had been First Past the Post.
Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act (2000) – This made the age of consent for homosexuals equal to that of heterosexual at age 16.
Hunting Act (2004) – This act prohibited the use of dogs in the hunting of foxes and other wild mammals. This was bitterly fought over and saw scenes of significant anger from members of the House of Lords.
This means that the collectively the Parliament Acts have only been invoked seven times. Given this, it is perhaps easy to surmise that the Parliament Acts have not been particularly impactful. Yet, actually, the very opposite can be argued. The very fact that the Parliament Acts have only been used four times can be suggested to be evidence of just how impactful the Parliament Acts have been. The Parliament Acts have made the House of Lords even more mindful of their constitutional role as a ‘second’ and ‘revising’ chamber and of the fact that they lack the democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons. This means they are more likely to back down in order to avoid a constitutional confrontation.
For example, in 2018 the House of Lords made 15 amendments to the EU Withdrawal Act (2018) which would invoke Article 50 and allow Britain to leave the European Union. Of these, the House of Commons only agreed to one. Following this, to House of Lords made one further amendment to the bill which was again voted down by the Commons. Consequently, rather than allowing a continuing stalemate over such a controversial constitutional issue, the House of Lords subsequently backed down and allowed the Commons bill to pass with limited amendments.
Therefore, whilst the Parliament Act has been used sparingly, its very existence is significant as it ensures the perceived dominance of the House of Commons in the minds of those peers who sit in the House of Lords.
The Parliament Acts are extremely significant developments in the British constitution. The fact they have been rarely used should not be taken as an indication of their lack of importance, but instead the opposite. The reason they have been so rarely used is that their existence reinforces the moral and political power of the House of Commons meaning that the Lords will normally back down before the Commons needs to consider invoking the Act.
Parliament Act (1911) – A significant statute law that removed the power of the House of Lords to block a bill and instead only allowed it delay a bill for two years. It also stipulated that a General Election had to be held every five years.
Parliament Act (1949) – An Act that reduced the delaying powers of the House of Lords to one year.
Hunting Act (2004) – An Act of Parliament proposed by Tony Blair’s New Labour government that would outlaw fox hunting with hounds. It was blocked by the House of Lords in 2003 but the same bill passed the Commons again in 2004. When this was blocked again by the Lords the House of Commons invoked the Parliament Act.