2. The Parliament Act 1949

This is the second post in a series tracking the major reforms to the House of Lords that have taken place over the last century, look at attempts at reform that have failed as well as what changes may be on the cards going forward.


In 1945 the Labour party under Clement Attlee swept to power on the back of a radical manifesto that proposed an expansion of social welfare and mass nationalisation. In the House of Commons, Labour secured a majority of 156 but out of 831 voting peers just 16 took the Labour whip. This lack of representation in the Lords was met with suspicion as despite the powers of the House of Lords being severely curtailed by the 1911 Parliament Act the Lords continued to fulfil a revising role and provided a powerful check to government.

Labour fears we allayed by the early evolution of the Salisbury-Addison Convention but Atlee worried that as the Parliament reached its conclusion and there was no longer enough time for a Bill to fulfil the requirements of the Parliament Act then the Conservatives would use their influence in the Upper House to block nationalisation of key industries like Steel and Iron. To combat this in 1947 Labour introduced the Parliament Bill which sought to amend the 1911 Parliament Act and further reduce the time the Lords could delay legislation.

by Navana Vandyk, film negative, 16 April 1948

Viscount Addison (1869-1951) by Navana Vandyk, film negative, 16 April 1948.

The Salisbury-Addison Convention

Viscount Addison headed up the Labour benches as Leader of the House of Lords and managed to strike up a strong working relationship with Viscount Cranbourne, later the 5th Marquess of Salisbury. It was agreed that it would be improper for the Conservatives to use their huge number of Peers to frustrate government policy given Labour’s clear electoral victory and the disparity in the composition of chamber.

In his speech following the 1945 King’s Speech from the Throne, Viscount Cranbourne said:

“Whatever our personal views, we should frankly recognise that these proposals were put before the country at the recent General Election and that the people of this country, with full knowledge of these proposals, returned the Labour Party to power. The Government may, therefore, I think, fairly claim that they have a mandate to introduce these proposals. I believe that it would be constitutionally wrong, when the country has so recently expressed its view, for this House to oppose proposals which have been definitely put before the electorate.”

The convention dictates that the House of Lords will not reject, on second or third reading, Bills given a democratic mandate in a government’s manifesto. This convention is still in force and is a key aspect of the relationship between the Commons and the Lords despite challenges from the Liberal Democrats who have never accepted its legitimacy. It has become increasingly important for Labour and the Conservatives alike since the removal of the hereditary Peers and the appointments of Tony Blair have left the composition of the House more evenly balanced between the traditional Westminster Parties.

Passing the Act

The Act was first introduced on the 31st October 1947 but initially rejected. Determined to have his Bill, and mindful of the time constraints, Attlee introduced a special short session in 1948 with a King’s speech on the 25th September followed quickly by prorogation on October 25th. The Bill was rejected in the short session and when it was reintroduced in 1949 it only required approval from House of Commons which it duly received. Royal Assent was granted on the 16th December 1949 and the Act came into force the same day.

The use of the Parliament Act 1911 to pass the Parliament Act 1949 was challenged in 2005 in the case of Jackson V Attorney General. Members of the Countryside alliance were attempting to claim the Hunting Act 2004 was invalid because the Parliament Act 1949 was an illegal Act. They claimed that the Labour government had overstepped the remit of the Parliament Act 1911 specifically that;

‘The legislative power conferred by section 2(1) of the 1911 Act is not unlimited in scope and must be read according to established principles of statutory interpretation.’ and that ‘accordingly, section 2(1) of the 1911 Act does not authorise the Commons to remove, attenuate or modify in any respect any of the conditions on which its law-making power is granted.’

The first ruling went against them and an appeal to the House of Lords, heard by 9 rather than the usual 5 Law Lords, found that there were no limitations to the Parliament Act 1911 that would prevent it being used to pass the Parliament Act 1949.

The Act’s Provisions.

In short, the Act reduced the Lords power to delay a Bill from two years over three sessions to one year over two sessions by amending the wording of Section 2 of the 1911 Parliament Act. The House of Commons must pass a Bill twice and upon its second rejection by the House of Lords, provided the Commons sends a Bill up at least a month before the end of a session, it will be presented to the sovereign for their Royal Assent. The Act is cited together with the 1911 Act as the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949

(c) Jersey Heritage; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

King George VI (1895-1952) (c) Jersey Heritage; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The words of enactment for legislation passed under normal circumstances reads as follows:

“BE IT ENACTED by the Queen’s [King’s] most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows: –

This is altered for legislation passed using the Parliament Acts and reads as follows:

‘BE IT ENACTED by The Queen’s [King’s] most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Commons in this present Parliament assembled, in accordance with the provisions of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, and by the authority of the same, as follows: -’

The altered words of enactment have so far been required 4 times:

  • The War Crimes Act 1991 (Allowed UK courts to try cases where crimes had been committed on behalf of Nazi Germany.)


  • The European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999 (Changed voting at European Parliamentary elections from FPTP to the Closed Party List form of PR.


  • The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 (Equalised the age of consent for all sexual acts at 16)


  • The Hunting Act 2004 (Prohibited Hare coursing and hunting wild animals with dogs)




Whether the mere threat of the Act was enough to dissuade Peers from attempting to derail Attlee’s legislative agenda the Act was not used until 1991 and was in fact first used by the Conservatives under John Major. It reinforced the role of the House of Lords as that of a revising and amending chamber subordinate to the will of the elected House and still stands as the most recent piece of legislation passed to affected the powers of the House of Lords. Later reforms would focus purely on its composition.


One Response to “2. The Parliament Act 1949

  • Parliament Act 1949 was questioned because it used the 1911 Act to ensure its passage.

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