The House of Lords was, until the early 20th century the senior of the two houses in the British political system. Its members enjoyed greater powers than the members of the House of Commons, but as the 1911 and 1949 acts were introduced the powers of the Lords were greatly reduced. The abilities of the upper house became an issue as society became more democratic and concerned about the unrepresentative nature of the House; after all it was at one point hereditary peers only.
It is now argued the House of Lords have become irrelevant because of its great reduction in powers and abilities to hold the lower house to account; it’s still unrepresentative nature and lack of legitimacy. Beginning at the start of the reforms, under the Liberal government Lloyd George purpose the introduction of a land tax which would affect rich wealthy land owners. This bill was challenged by the conservatives, as many of them where wealthy land owners and wanted to raise import taxes instead.
The bill went ahead and passed through the House of Commons, however when the Bill reached the upper house it was struck down by the Conservative lords. The Prime Minister Henry Asquith requested the king make sufficient Liberal Lords to pass the bill if the conservative lords reject it again. Edward VII refused which led to the reduction of power in the House of Lords being a priority issue in the 1910 General election. Once the Liberals were in government a mandate was used to make the necessary constitutional changes.
The Parliament Act removed the House of Lords right to veto legislation and restricted the amount of time it could prevent a bill passing through the house to 2 years. This first act did much to cripple the upper house and restrict its powers over the government; however it cannot be seen as irrelevant because the house still had substantial powers that could hold up legislation. The House of Lords were particularly effective of this shortly after the act had been introduced to the house.
In 1912 a bill was passed through the house of commons regarding Irish home rule, however the House of Lords were able to hold off passing the bill until world war one. At this point the bill was dropped because the threat of Germany was seen as a more important issue. After the Second World War the Labour government, under Clement Attlee, decided to amend the 1911 parliament act further. This was because they thought the House of Lords would interfere in their rapid nationalisation program and stop them from achieving their party goals before the next general election.
The new proposals meant the House of Lords could only hold up new bills for up to a year. It was argued that the time the House of Lords had become irrelevant for a times they held very little powers to hold the government to account or stop legislation. The act was used as a threat; however in 1991 the House of Lords used their remaining powers to slow the War crimes act that would extend the jurisdiction of UK courts to acts committed on behalf of Nazi Germany.
The parliament act was used (for the first time since 1914), but it showed the Lords were becoming more involved. Before the House of Lords would be forced to accept legislation through the parliament act once more, Labour in 1997, with the support of the Lib-Dems purposed to end the ‘right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords’ and committed it to their manifesto. This meant at all but 92 of the Hereditary peers would be removed from the House and replaced by appointed life peers; a right given to the Prime Minister through the Life Peerages act 1958.
This new act meant as a consequence the lords obtained greater authority through the fact the government wanted them there and are seen as less undemocratic because of this reform. This in turn had a great affect on the activities and use of power by the Lords, which made less irrelevant that they were previously. In the next 7 years the House of Lords opposed 3 acts; the European Parliamentary Elections Act in 1999; the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act in 2000 and the Hunting act in 2004, showing greater use of their authority and fulfilling some of the necessary tasks the Lords need to carry out in order to retain some relevancy.
One role of the House of Lords performs is acting as a second opposition for the Governing executive, which has been especially effective during times when the Government has a large majority in the commons because of the first past the post (FPTP) voting system. A good illustration of this role was when the Thatcher government enjoyed majorities of over 100 following the elections of 1983. This meant the House of Lords were improving parliamentary opposition, effectively holding government to account and making up for the opposition’s weakness.
This scrutiny of the executive is made clear through the huge amount of time (around 80%) the Lords spend scrutinising and revising legislation. Their regular attendance and increasing numbers means the House is adopting this role very seriously ensuring their relevancy in the British political system. Arguably the House of Lords have become even more effective at performing this role after The House of Lords Act in 1998 because party leaderships have been selecting more professional politicians to become Lords, who are, arguably, better at scrutinising the executive.
As we have seen before, the House of Lords is heavily involved in the Legislative process and although they can no longer stop bills that can (and commonly do) make amendments. A recent example of this was on the 3rd of November 2011, when the House of Lords made 6 amendments to the Armed Forces Bill. This is an important function of the House because it oversees the work of the executive and ensures the elected Government is remaining representative, ensuing accountability.
Some criticize this oversight of the executive as irrelevant because the house is not elected, and is a very unrepresentative elitist group. However there is defence for keeping an unelected second chamber as it is came when Labour was in power under the Blair government there were plans to change the House into a wholly elected House, Bob Marshall-Andrews importantly pointed out that “replacing a second chamber that was rotten because of inherited patronage with a second chamber which is rotten with contemporary patronage. Suggesting that having an elected chamber would not be an improvement, or any chamber in his opinion, however there are some strong arguments against having a wholly elected chamber. A key point is an appointed second chamber means there are specialists from a broad range of subjects present in the house meaning the quality of debate in the House of Lords is generally better than the quality of debate in the House of Commons, which is dominated by the executive.
The Lords are free to vote as they wish because they have no party whip and can generally be more opinionated and do not have to tow the party line. There is also the argument that if both chambers were elected then there wouldn’t be much difference between the chambers and there may be a demand for power off the commons as they are the higher house, Lord Wakeham, a Tory peer who used to head the Royal commission said the house of commons “would not give the upper chamber the authority to play an effective role” even if both houses were elected.
The House of Lords could be seen as been as relevant and as effective as they possibly can be in the situation they are in, besides the House has managed to effectively defy the will of the government on key issues such as the Anti-terrorism legislation purposed by Blair’s government. The House defeated the government on this issue and managed to make several key amendments on this bill. Although there are some strong arguments for keeping the House of Lords, many believe it is out dated and out of place in a modern democratic society; therefore it should not be in a position to judge or pass legislation.
Thomas Bingham, a writer for the Guardian suggested the House should ‘not exist’ because it ‘obstruct the will of the commons’, he like many other critics of the house believe it is unnecessary and is open to abuse. In 2007 the House came under attack from the press and the Daily Telegraph published the article ‘Cash for Peerage’ which suggested that Tony Blair had been accepting money in return for appointing members to the House of Lords.
Although this was never proved to be true, there was still substantial evidence that suggested it had gone on. This completely destroys the argument that the House of Lords is appointed because of their experience and could make it completely irrelevant. Some believe having a fully elected house would mean the House of Lords would not be open to critic’s claiming it was elitist and undemocratic.
Many are in support of giving the House democratic legitimacy, such as the Electoral Reform Society, who support an 100% elected House using STV, with election tied into the European Parliament cycle; Preventing the house from holding up the Government; Members of second chamber banned from standing for commons for 4 years; No reserved religious seats and thresholds to ensure candidate diversity. This clearly shows that many political elites see the House as irrelevant in its current state, and would be become more relevant, up to date and perhaps even more effective if these reforms were to go ahead.
The Electoral Reform Society see it as ‘removing the burden from parliament’. The House of Lords is seen by some as a irrelevant institute that is out of touch with modern society. However I think the second chamber is crucial as it acts as a political safeguard that effectively holds the government to account in the event of poor opposition in the House of Commons. Although the House faces criticism for its undemocratic nature, it is this that allows it to remain a relevant part of society that does no unnecessarily damage the House of Commons.
If the House were to be elected by a proportional representation system, such as STV suggested by the Electoral Reform Society, it would become a danger as it would be more representative of the people than the commons and could cause for a demand of power off the lower House. Overall I do not think the House of Lords is irrelevant in modern politics as it performs many important roles effectively, and although at first glance it seems out of place in a democratic society, it would be an executive dictatorship without it.