The words “constitutional showdown” have been bounced around in the past week, following the Conservative Government’s failure to push tax credit cuts through the House of Lords; being defeated by a majority of 30 votes.
But what does this mean for the Government, for the House of Lords, and for the tax credit cuts – surely they have to come back, you might think. So, here is your guide to the showdown.
What is the House of Lords?
The House of Lords (HoL/Lords) is the United Kingdom’s Second Chamber, or Upper Chamber, which is intended to hold the government to account.
What does the Lords do?
The Lords is designed to review Bills passed by the Government, in order to hold the Government to account. It can also propose “non-controversial” legislation, so as to spread the legislative burden across both Houses.
Who is in the Lords?
There are currently 817 seats in the Lords. Each of whom is selected for their services to business, sport, politics, and so on by way of a knighthood. The UK is the only country in modern liberal-democracies that still uses class as a basis for its Upper Chamber.
Since the House of Lords Act in 1999, hereditary peerages (peers are the name for the members of the Lords) were restricted to 92 peers. Otherwise, members can be appointed to the Lords by the Monarch following a recommendation by the Government of the day.
Currently, the Conservative Party has 249 peers, the Labour Party has 212, the Liberal Democrats 112, and 177 Cross-benchers and 25 non-affiliates. This means the Conservatives are in a minority to Labour and the LibDems combined 324 members.
What is the problem?
The Lords rejected one of George Osborne’s most controversial budget cuts by a majority of 30 votes. Namely, £4.4 billion in cuts to the tax credits budget. The reason it is controversial is that David Cameron stated in an episode on the BBC’s Question Time that he would not cut child tax credits.
Writing in the Guardian today, Simon Hattenstone argues if a political party breaks a manifesto pledge, there should be an election. However, the issue is the Government did not mention tax credits when it came to their budget cuts in the Conservative manifesto of 2015.
The only mention of tax credits was in limiting the access to tax credits for immigrants. They did state they would find £12 billion from welfare cuts. This detail is important.
What makes the Lords’ rejection so controversial?
The Conservative Government believes the Lords is not entitled to have such influence in financial matters, following a gridlock in 1911. This is simply convention – not written in law.
Also convention, written in the Salisbury Doctrine, is an article in which the election manifesto become important. This is because the Salisbury Doctrine states the Lords cannot reject legislation mentioned in a party’s manifesto on the second or third reading.
The Lords can only delay legislation agreed upon by the Commons for 1 year, and so it is likely the cuts will pass once the Government reintroduces the Bill, which is a time-consuming process.
What has the Government said?
It has been largely critical. Despite their manifesto stating “While we still see a strong case for introducing an elected element into our Second Chamber, this is not a priority in the next Parliament”, the response to the Lords’ actions has resulted in the Government pushing this idea further.
Lord Strathclyde was appointed to head the inquiry into the state of the House of Lords. He says he wants it completed by the end of the year.
What does this mean for the cuts?
We have to wait and see. In Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) this week, David Cameron reiterated many times the Chancellor, George Osborne, will announce measures to offset this “setback” in the Autumn Statement on November 25th.
Rumours abound the Chancellor will review his pledge to reach a £10 billion budget surplus by 2020 to mitigate further harsh welfare cuts.
What is the biggest problem behind the “constitutional showdown”?
The UK does not have a constitution. Unlike the USA, there is no constitution setting out the roles of the Houses of Parliament. There are conventions and Acts, but no true constitution.
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