1. The Parliament Act 1911

This is the first post in a series that will track 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.

Background.

The 18th and 19th centuries were marked by a substantial decline in the power of the aristocracy and the gradual democratization of government. In many ways, the Parliament Act 1911 was the culmination of a two-hundred-year-old process that began with the enlightenment.

By the turn of the Century the equal balance of powers between the House of Lords and House of Commons was simply a facade with a build-up of conventions awarding effective supremacy to the House of Commons. It was almost inevitable that the veto of the Lords would be challenged but it is perhaps ironic that the Commons got the excuse it needed thanks to one of the longest established conventions; that of financial privilege.

The People’s Budget

The budget was the brain child of David Lloyd George.

The budget was the brain child of David Lloyd George.

Increased franchise not only hampered the influence of the landed nobility it also began to affect the political landscape of the country. As more working and lower middle class men gained the right to vote centre-left and left wing politics began to gain a foothold. The Liberal party had always positioned itself as the party most closely associated with the masses and had the most to lose from the rise of the Labour party. The Liberals began to drift more towards a centre left position and initiated a series of ‘war on poverty’ social policies now remembered as the ‘Liberal Reforms’. Many of these policies were designed to increase the health of the populace and allow Britain to compete with rivals economically and militarily. Measures such as the Education Act 1907 were relatively low cost but as the decade rolled on the increased role of the state was putting a strain on the treasury and major reforms going forward would also require a more radical approach to taxation.

The 1909 ‘people’s budget’, contained many financial measures that the Conservative party were implacably opposed to. It was the first budget designed with the expressed intention of redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. Basic income tax was held at 3.75% but the Liberals proposed the introduction of a higher rate of tax for those earning over £2,000 set at 5%, a flexible surcharge of up to 2.5% for those earning up to £3,000 over £5,000 as well as an increase in death duties. Most controversially Chancellor Lloyd George proposed the introduction of a 20% value increase Land Tax which would have hit largely Conservative supporting landowners.

Peers viewed the ‘heavy’ tax rises and in particularly the Land Tax as a direct and malicious attack on their wealth which they maintained contradicted convention. Whilst the House of Commons had enjoyed financial privilege since 1671 and was rarely challenged it had strengthened its position considerably by increasing the importance of the budget in the 1860s. Previously monetary measures were passed individually rather than as part of the budget which was reserved for the annual renewal of existing taxes. This allowed the Lords the opportunity to reject individual measures without derailing the government’s whole financial program. This system came to an end in 1861 when the Lords outright refused to approve the repeal of Paper Duties. In response the then Chancellor William Gladstone began introducing all taxation measures as part of the Finance Bill. This change meant that in 1909 the Lords had fewer options open to them in opposing the Liberal’s agenda.

Chancellor Lloyd George, with the backing of important figures such as Winston Churchill, relished a fight with the House of Lords and refuse to back down over the budget. Peers were faced with either accepting the new and increased taxes or rejecting the budget wholesale. The Conservatives, who with the backing of the national press supported the reintroduction of tariffs over increasing general taxation, saw the rejection of the budget as a way of forcing an early election and encouraged its rejection. The Lords opted to abandon convention and voted down the budget but included a caveat that they would pass it should the Liberals receive a mandate from the people.

The rejection of the budget was a direct challenge to the primacy of the Commons as well as the authority of the Liberal government and left Prime Minister H.H Asquith with little choice but to call an early election which would set the wheels in motion for a constitutional showdown over the powers of the House of Lords.

Edward VII (1901-19190)

Edward VII (1901-19190)

The Passage of the Bill.

The government went to the electorate in January 1910 to receive a mandate for their budget but their vote share fell by 5.4% to 43.1% resulting in the loss of 123MPs and their majority. The Conservatives gained 116 seats and won 46.7% of the popular vote but only secured 272 seats, 2 less than the Liberals. Both main parties failed to secure a majority but the Liberals were able to rely on the support of the 71MPs of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Labour party who had secured 40 seats in only their third general election. The resulting coalition could claim to have received over 50% of the vote and as they had promised the House of Lords duly passed the budget after the proposed land tax was dropped.

Despite eventually securing their budget the Liberals wanted to ensure that the Lords would never again challenge the financial superiority of the Commons and in conjunction with their coalition allies moved to strip the Lords of its veto over not only financial matters but also primary legislation. Labour saw the limiting of the Lords as a stepping stone to its eventual abolition and the Irish nationalists knew that without its veto the Lords could no longer block Irish Home Rule.

The Liberals pushed ahead with their proposals for reform and had 21 meetings with the Conservatives who wanted the Lords to at least retain a veto over constitutional matters such as Irish Home Rule and the position of the Monarchy. The Irish objected to a constitutional veto and the meetings collapsed. Without the support of the Conservative peers who dominated the House of Lords it was impossible to get the Bill passed. The only other option open to the Liberals was to force the Bill through the Commons and then flood the House of Lords with Liberal Peers to give themselves a majority.

George V was faced with the prospect of creating hundreds of new peers at a time when all peerages were hereditary.

George V (1910-1936)

At this point in history the monarchy still retained much influence in the House of Lords and Edward VII had privately encouraged Peers to pass the 1909 budget to avoid the inevitable constitutional crisis. His death in May 1910, just 4 months after the election left the inexperienced George V with the prospect of having to appoint hundreds of new Liberal Peers. Unwilling to do so and sceptical of public opinion he persuaded Asquith to call a second election to give the Bill a mandate that the House of Lords would find difficult to dismiss.

Despite a reduced turnout, 64 seats changing hands and the Conservatives once again receiving the largest share of the vote. There was little change in the overall composition of Parliament with the Liberals remaining the largest party and in a position to form a majority coalition once again. The Liberals, Irish and Labour collectively won 51.8% of the vote and gained 57.9% of the seats. The King was left with little choice but to threaten the Lords with the creation of a massive amount of new peers that would give the Bill a majority. The Lords gave way and passed the Bill by 131 – 114.

The Act’s Provisions

Before this Act the House of Lords had equal powers to the House of Commons and could repeatedly block any piece of legislation coming to them from the House of Commons. The Act stipulated that the Lords could now only block Bills for 2 years and Bills could be passed without their consent if said Bill was passed by the Commons in three successive sessions and had been rejected by the Lords twice. The House of Lords could reject a Bill twice but after its second rejection a Bill reintroduced and passed a third time in the Commons would be declared to have met the requirement of the Act by the Speaker and presented to the sovereign for their Royal Assent

They could still block money Bills, i.e. Bills that dealt with public spending, debt or taxation, for one month. Convention dictates that money bills are not debated. They can still recommend amendments but this is rare. Changes to council tax can be treated as regular legislation as the Act did not cover local taxation. The Community Charge (Poll Tax) was debated and passed by the House of Lords.

The Act also limited the life of Parliament to 5 years. Parliaments could be extended to 7 years if both the Commons and Lords agreed. This provision was used in both World Wars.

The Act called for ‘a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis’ but the Act itself did not affect membership.

The Act was used 3 times, twice under Asquith:

  • Government of Ireland Act 1914 (Gave Home Rule to Ireland)
  • Welsh Church Act 1914 (Disestablished the Church in Wales)
  • Parliament Act 1949

The Liberals would loose 113 of 134 division in the Lords between 1906 and 1910.

Remaining Powers

Whilst the Parliament Act 1949 reduced the time the Lords could delay legislation the Parliament Act 1911 was the last time that the House of Lords powers were restricted. The House still retains considerable power and influence which it has proven itself willing to use. Indeed, the Lords still has a veto over:

  • Bills starting in the House of Lords.
  • Private Bills (Legislation where the scope is limited to individuals and organisations).
  • Provisional Orders (Authorise local authorities to act under provisions of Acts of Parliament).
  • Delegated legislation (Legislation made outside an Act. An enabling Act allows a Minister or other body the power to create delegated legislation. Most are passed in the Form of Statutory Instruments and deal with minor issues e.g. the cost of a Passport).

The Parliament Act 1911 was one of the most important pieces of constitutional legislation passed in the 20th century and whilst the aristocracy would continue to dominate the chamber for another 90 years it set the scene for a century of tinkering that has drastically changed the way the House of Lords works.

Next, The Parliament Act 1949.

One Response to “1. The Parliament Act 1911

  • Until the Parliament Act 1911, there was no way to resolve contradictions between the two houses of parliament except through the creation of additional peers by the monarch.

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