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Lords versus Commons

Parliamentary ping pong or beat the clock?

How the Commons and Lords play the Westminster game when it comes to rebellions.

The Home Secretary David Blunkett: accused the Lords of disembowelling his Anti-Terrorism Bill.

It's been called parliamentary ping-pong, but Beat the Clock might be a better name for the elaborate game played between Commons and Lords over disputed legislation.

It's a game which shows that when a government's in a hurry, even a huge Commons majority isn't much use.

Why not? Over to the Lords…

A mauling for David Blunkett

The Lords played one of its best games ever in December 2001, even as the government was preparing to reform it out of all recognition.
 To find out more about the proposed reforms, click here

Video Clip VIDEO
BBC Ten O'Clock News
Political Editor Andrew Marr analyses Blunkett's battering
The Home Secretary David Blunkett's anti-terrorist legislation was comprehensively mauled. His problem was an ambitious deadline: to get the law onto the statute book by Christmas.

But the bill, constructed in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001, contained several highly controversial new powers, such as the right to detain foreigners suspected of terrorism without trial.
Beverly Hughes
Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes: ludicrous and arcane rules

After ten separate defeats in the House of Lords on the bill, David Blunkett was forced to make an important concession.

One key clause - banning the incitement of religious hatred - was removed from the bill after being thrown out twice by the Lords. But detention without trial and several other controversial powers stayed in - and have since become law.

It was, by all accounts, a moment of high drama. Conceding defeat on his clause on religious hatred, Mr Blunkett told the Commons: "I have marched my troops up to the top of the hill…Now I must march them down again."

Within a few hours of his concession, the rest of his bill became law, narrowly beating his self-imposed deadline.
Audio Clip AUDIO
BBC Radio 4 PM Programme
Why the Lords opposes the anti-terrorism bill, by Liberal Democrat Peer, Lord McNally

One of his deputies, the Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes was less philosophical. Her view was that "ludicrous and arcane rules" had endangered the entire bill: " What we actually had, she said, "was an un-elected house of Lords cutting across the will of the Commons."

Lords v Commons: a tale of two rebellions

The Lords cannot throw out government legislation entirely, but it can delay it - and sometimes this can be terminal.

In theory, the government can use its powers under the Parliament Acts to force through whatever legislation it wants. In practice, this tends to be very much a weapon of last resort.

So, the Lords' effectiveness at opposing legislation often depends on how much time the Commons has to play with.

Under the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, the Lords has the right to delay bills for up to one year, but no right at all to interfere with finance bills.

The Parliament Acts have only been used twice in a decade to push through legislation against the will of the Lords: to pass the war crimes bill of 1991 and to amend the law on the age of consent for gay men in 1999.

Protests as the Lords attempted to block moves to lower the age of consent for gay men.
The Age of Consent

Led by the Tory Peer Lady Young, the Lords fought tooth and nail not to lower the age of consent for gay men from 18 to 16.

The Lords voted it down twice (in July 1998 and April 1999) before the government used the Parliament Acts to force it through in November 2000.

In all, the process took nearly three years - and it was only the second time in a decade that the parliament acts had been invoked.

scoreline: Commons 1, Lords 0
time taken: three years

Moves to outlaw fox-hunting were beaten by the clock, just before the 2001 election
Fox Hunting

The Lords had more success over fox-hunting - a classic example of beat the clock.

The Commons passed legislation to ban hunting by a huge majority (more than 200) in January 2001. But, just before the June election, the bill was blocked in the Lords.

Time ran out for it - and the fox hunting bill was one of a number which the government scrapped when it cleared the decks for the General Election in 2001.

No date has yet been set for its reintroduction, which means that fox hunting remains legal for the foreseeable future

scoreline: Commons 0, Lords 1
time taken: six months

So, the Lords' effectiveness at opposing legislation often depends on how much time the Commons has to play with.

Rebellious or respectful?

Tony Blair's first government chose to use the Parliament Acts just once to push through its legislation, although it was defeated in the Lords just over 100 times (between 1997 and 2001).

In fact, the Lords has come to think of its main work not as an opponent of the Commons, but as an adjunct to it: sifting out the bad legislation and refining the good.

 GOVT DEFEATS IN THE LORDS ( figures from Lords' official website )
1992-93: 19
1993-94: 16
1994-95: 7
1995-96: 10
1996-97: 10
1997-98: 39
1998-99: 31
1999-2000: 36
2000-01: 2
2001-02: 11
Figures correct as of 14.12.2001

Nearly sixty per cent of the Lords' time is spent examining legislation which has already gone through the Commons. It makes around 2,000 amendments each year to various bills, but most of these are accepted - many indeed are sponsored by the government.

Under the Salisbury Convention, the Lords denies itself the power to challenge the principle behind any legislation which was contained in the government's general election manifesto.

Since 1945, the Lords has not taken a vote on the second reading of any bill promised in the government's election manifesto or (more recently) in the government's legislative programme for the session. This is the stage at which legislation is discussed in principle, before being considered in greater detail at third reading.

The Lords as Opposition

We live, it seems, in an age of huge commons majorities. Margaret Thatcher won a landslide in 1983; Tony Blair has won two - in 1997 and 2001.

If it's impossible for the official Opposition to defeat the government in the Commons, the House of Lords' role becomes crucial. It's there to protect minorities who might otherwise be steamrollered by the majority - and it's also there to protect the government from itself: to revise bad legislation before it becomes law.

The organisation Charter 88 - which wants an elected second chamber - accuses the Lords of having failed to block at least two hasty and ill-thought out pieces of legislation in the same period: the Child Support Act and the Dangerous Dogs Act.

So, what do you think?

Is the Lords acting as a second Opposition to a powerful and controlling government? Does it act as an essential backstop, which can tidy up the Commons' hastily conceived legislation? And if so, does it play a vital democratic role?

Does the Lords choose the right subjects to fight on - or has it allowed weak legislation to slip through the net. Or, is the Lords' role fatally undermined by the lack of democratic legitimacy?

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