The House of Lords: Defending or defying democracy?


Splashed across the front pages in recent weeks have been headlines labelling the House of Lords everything from “meddling” to “abusively rude”. There has also been a very sudden and noticeable uptick in those call for the UK Parliament’s upper chamber to be axed entirely - particularly from the Conservative backbenchers and voices usually on the side of blocking reform altogether. So why all the outrage and sudden calls for reform?

From the front page hysteria you’d be forgiven for thinking that peers had recently voted to overturn the referendum result, or abolished elections. Unsurprisingly, what has actually gone down is a little bit more complicated. Far from facing up to democracy, peers are actually taking steps to uphold it - and that’s coming from a campaign that is firmly in favour of reforming the House of Lords and getting elected peers in the UK Parliament’s second chamber.

What’s actually happened?

The blazing fury being targeted at the House of Lords relates to the latest developments in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the government’s flagship piece of Brexit law.

Unlock Democracy has been campaigning for changes to be made to this proposed law since it was first introduced to Parliament in September 2017. We’ve been really alarmed by some proposals in the law which we think would concentrate significant unchecked powers in the hands of few ministers, which could be used to by-pass Parliament to change our rights and protections,undermine the devolution settlements, and bring instability to peace in Northern Ireland.

So why are a group of MPs who have previously been staunchly anti-House of Lords reform been getting so het up about peers making changes to the bill?

Well, unsurprisingly it all comes down to peers making changes to the bill that they don’t like.

What you need to know about these changes

So here are some of the changes peers made to the bill. You can decide for yourself whether peers are betraying voters, or giving MPs another chance to make positive changes to the government’s flagship piece of Brexit legislation.

1. More power for MPs to have a say over the final deal

Important amendments were made to the bill which will allow Parliament to set the terms of negotiations with the EU if the government fails to meet its timetable.

2. More power for MPs to shape our future relationship with the EU

Aother successful amendment would make the government get its negotiating mandate for our future relationship with the EU signed off by MPs. As MPs are our elected representatives it is only right that they set the direction of a deal that will shape the UK for years, if not decades to come.

3. Cracking down on unaccountable ‘Henry VIII’ powers

From the getgo the government has demanded unjustifiably broad ‘Henry VIII’ and ‘secondary legislation’ powers, which allow them to edit laws with very little say from MPs. This is an outrage in a democracy, as the sweeping nature of the powers would allow the government to make changes to our rights and protections, by-passing our elected representatives. Peers amended the bill to put in place important checks on these powers. For example, the government wanted to allow ministers to use the powers where they personally thought it was “appropriate” - and peers changed this to only where “necessary”. The government also wanted to have the power to make changes to the bill itself after it was passed, which peers have stopped.

4. Protecting our rights

The Charter of Fundamental Rights has been instrumental in protecting and upholding hard-won rights. The government wanted to do away with the Charter - even though they said the Withdrawal Bill was meant to be a copy-and-paste job. Peers voted to keep the Charter. If you want to find our more about the Charter, what is has done for you, and why it’s removal threatens your rights, we recommend Liberty’s briefing.

5. Defending the peace settlement in Northern Ireland

The peace settlement in Northern Ireland is about so much more than just the movement of goods and services - it’s also about human rights and the relationships between communities. Peers voted to put in place measures that will ensure continued North-South cooperation after Brexit and the prevention of new border arrangements between Ireland and Northern Ireland. If you want to read more about, you can read a recent guest blog for us by the Committee on the Administration of Justice in Belfast, defending the peace settlement in Northern Ireland after Brexit.

Defending or defying democracy? 

It’s important to remember that, contrary to what the media and some politicians are suggesting amendments that are passed in the House of Lords are not final. As with all legislation, the final say always rests with our MPs in the House of Commons. The Withdrawal Bill will return to the House of Commons with the amendments that peers have passed and it will be up to MPs to decide whether to keep or reject the changes. As one peer has put it, amendments in the House of Lords are “invitations to the Commons to think again”.  

The final takeaway from us is that yes, we are fully on board with having an elected House of Lords. There is no place in a modern democracy for anything other than that. But we have to work with the system we have. Critical Brexit legislation is going through Parliament at the moment that will shape our country for years, if not decades to come. The Second Chamber is there to scrutinise legislation, and that is exactly what it has done.

Peers have given MPs a second chance to make changes to the Withdrawal Bill. Now it’s time for MPs to step up to the plate and make sure the Withdrawal Bill doesn’t undermine our rights, hand unaccountable powers to the executive, and threaten the peace settlement in Northern Ireland.