A House Divided: The Cost of Financial Privilege

20/02/2012 09:35 GMT | Updated 18/04/2012 10:12 BST

If they say that a week is a long time in politics, then the last three have felt like an eternity. For anyone following the final parliamentary stages of the Welfare Reform Bill, it's been an extraordinary journey which tells us much about how the democratic process is working across our two houses of parliament.

In the space of a week in late January, the House of Lords inflicted a series of defeats on the government by passing amendments to the bill on a number of specific measures which peers believed were unfair and unjustifiable (even in the current economic climate). This included the largest defeat since the coalition government was elected, on proposals to charge single parents to access the statutory child maintenance service, which former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern explained thus: "I do not believe that it is fair to require them [single parents] to pay charges when they are not responsible for creating the need for the use of the service".

Other amendments passed were intended to mitigate the worst effects of radical policies such as imposing an overall household benefit cap, reducing child tax credit payments for disabled children, and imposing under-occupancy penalties on all social tenants with an additional bedroom. And it's important to be clear that this wasn't a rebellion of the usual suspects: serious, heavyweight peers across the political spectrum - Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour and independent cross-benchers - spoke eloquently and voted decisively on matters in which their collective knowledge, expertise and experience shone through in the quality of the debates.

As is parliamentary practice, the Bill was then passed back to the House of Commons for MPs to consider the Lords' amendments - at which point the government invoked the tool of 'financial privilege' to throw out all of the amendments (notwithstanding a few minor concessions). It's worth writing in full how this is described in the parliamentary record: "Because it would alter the financial arrangements made by the Commons, and the Commons do not offer any further Reason, trusting that this Reason may be deemed sufficient".

As many peers themselves pointed out during the latest debate when the Bill came back to the House of Lords, it's pretty unusual for a government to invoke this mechanism for anything other than finance bills, and it sets them on a dangerous path if it becomes common practice in future. As Lord Hennessy - also known as eminent political and constitutional historian Peter Hennessy - put it: "If one or the other Chamber pushes its powers to the maximum, it tends to produce a spiral of escalation that leads to Parliament becoming much less than the sum of its parts. It would be impossible for your Lordships' House to serve as a Chamber of what Walter Bagehot called "respected revisers" if the other place pushed its undoubted financial privilege to the maximum in anything but the most exceptional circumstances".

However much the government tries to dress up its use of financial privilege here as perfectly normal practice, let's be honest: this is the parliamentary equivalent of a parent turning to a child and saying "Because I say so, and that's the end of it".

So where does this leave us? For those of us campaigning on the Welfare Reform Bill there will be more work to do, and further opportunities to push for change as the detail is developed through regulations. We will also be here to mitigate, and - importantly - evaluate the impact when the policies are finally implemented on the ground.

But there is a wider question here. If the government intends to apply the same strong-arm tactics in future, what role does a two-chamber political system designed specifically to apply legislative checks and balances actually play? What price an upper house - elected or not - if all it becomes is a talking shop rather than a genuinely revising chamber?