The second chamber of Parliament have added two amendments to the so called 'Article 50' bill. The first was to guarantee the rights of EU citizens in Britain, and the second was to allow Parliament a meaningful vote on the final deal reached between the UK and the EU, following the negotiations. This has led to a backlash from the government and Leave.EU, among others. Some are calling for reform, others for the House to be abolished. Now, I am in favour of House of Lords reform, and have been vocal on this for years. The 1999 House of Lords Act did little to reform the House. It would be good to see the second chamber in some way more representative of the electorate. However, that is not the issue now. The issue here is with the House of Lords' current arrangement, should it listen to the threat of the government, or should it be doing its constitutional duty and making amendments that it feels right? I would argue the latter.
As I said, I am in favour of Lords reform. However, that is not the issue at hand. These amendments may form a trigger for reform in the future, but at the moment, this issue needs to be considered under the current constitutional arrangement. The House of Lords are the second chamber of Parliament. They are inferior to the House of Commons, and are aware of this. Any amendments made by the Lords can be changed when the bill goes back to the Commons. There are three readings of a bill. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 have given the Commons superiority in that they allow for the Commons to bypass the Lords, in certain circumstances, if there is a dispute between the two Houses. Therefore, in theory the Commons could pass the bill without the Lords amendments if they did this at the second reading, although it may delay triggering Article 50 by a year.
We have seen the threats from the government. The government is basically telling the House of Lords to not do its job. To simply sit back and allow the first chamber to do as it pleases. Why? They argue that the referendum was direct democracy, and Parliament must not frustrate the 'will of the people'. The role of the House of Lords is to scrutinise bills and make amendments, so in effect, the government is telling the Lords to not perform its constitutional duty.
This is severely problematic. I believe a benefit of the Lords is to ensure checks and balances against any Parliament. There is a constitutional right to propose amendments and debate the bill. The Lords have the right to vote for any amendments, even if the Commons are opposed. This is good for many reasons. Firstly, it allows the Commons to think on the matter again. For instance, it is expected that more Conservatives may rebel on the EU citizens issue during the second reading. This process allows the Commons to reconsider the key issues relating to the bill. With the support of the Lords, many MPs may feel in a stronger position to rebel against their party's position, voting with their conscience rather than their whip. On issues such as EU citizens right to remain in the UK this is very important, as it has the potential to impact on the lives of individuals and families.
Secondly, as previously stated the Lords allows for checks and balances. Brexit covers a lot of territory, from fishing policy, to fundamental rights, from research and innovation, to trade. This is a very important process for the country, and therefore, we need to get it right. The original bill which was less than a page was shambolic. Brexiteers who want Brexit at any cost need to consider the breadth and depth of issues here. The House of Lords has considered some of these issues, and in doing so, voted for the meaningful vote amendment. Theresa May implied no deal is better than a bad deal, suggesting that after the two years Britain may rely on WTO rules. With trade and business being so closely intertwined with the EU, falling back on WTO rules could be a disaster. The Lords and Ladies have a right to express those fears. If the Lords were to accept the governments position, it allows for an unfettered amount of power by governments with a large majority. The House is right to question, and is performing its constitutional role by doing so. This is not a matter of opinion, but the foundations of the UK's constitutional arrangement, and the Lords are acting to prevent a potential abuse of power.
So what of the future? Whilst I think we should not be using threats of abolishing the House to make the second chambers do as the government pleases, I do think that this may be a trigger for change. This may bring about the end of the House of Lords as we know it, and this would create a new constitutional arrangement of Parliament, but this is something to be considered in the future rather than the present. In effect we are currently working with what we have, and the position we are in, and it is for that reason that I believe the House of Lords has a right to propose these amendments. Although newspapers and politicians may threaten the House and question whether they have the right to do this, in short they do. This is a fact, so I say let the House do its job. We can talk about Lords reform, but lets save it for another day. I think the UK already has a lot on its plate at the moment.