The House of Lords, Britain’s unelected upper house of parliament, briefly reclaimed its long-lost pre-eminence this week when it rejected the government’s welfare reforms.
The chamber voted to delay cuts to benefits for low-earning families, with many arguing the proposals were morally indefensible and a threat to the lives of millions, Reuters reported.
But their brief defiance of a decades-old convention not to delay passage of financial bills from the elected lower house, has caused an uproar and prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to launch an urgent review.
“If the Lords is intent on wrecking the manifesto of the elected government … then of course we’ve got to address that,” the leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling told the BBC on Tuesday. “There will have to be change.”
The welfare reforms were a key component of Chancellor George Osborne’s plan to wipe out the country’s budget deficit by 2020.
Designed to reduce the annual welfare bill by around 4.4 billion pounds (US$6.74 billion), the changes have been widely criticized by those who say they will penalize working families — including by some Conservative lawmakers.
Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at King’s College London, said the vote by the Lords against the government caused a constitutional difficulty because it suggested that the unelected upper house was acting as an opposition chamber.
The governing Conservative party has known that its bills could get a rough ride in the Lords, because it does not have a majority there, but the rejection of a financial matter amounted to a “constitutional issue” in the prime minister’s eyes.
“A convention exists and it has been broken. He has asked for a rapid review to see how it can be put back in place,” Cameron’s spokesman said.
Late on Tuesday, a spokesman said the government was setting up a review to “examine how to protect the ability of elected governments to secure their business in parliament”.
“The review will consider in particular how to secure the decisive role of the elected House of Commons in relation to its primacy on financial matters; and secondary legislation,” the spokesman said.
The last time the Lords blocked a finance bill that had been approved by the Commons was in 1909 when the defeat brought down the Liberal government of the day and prompted its successor to pass the Parliament Act of 1911 which severely limited the Lords’ powers.
Now, by convention, the upper chamber does not block financial bills or those that fulfill promises in the governing party’s election manifesto, but it can amend them, as it did on Monday, delaying the government’s flagship policy of welfare cuts just months into its five-year term.
House of Lords members, known as peers, are appointed by the prime minister following arcane rules.
Members include Seb Coe, the former Olympic gold medal-winning 1,500 meter runner, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer of the Phantom of the Opera musical, and Alan West, a former head of the Royal Navy.
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