House of Commons Financial Privilege: a brief comment

Just a leader for Brit Dopers (and other interested parties) on the financial privilege power of the Commons - fairly significant right now due to the considering of the Welfare Reform Bill by the Commons last week.

The UK Parliament staff have produced a note on where the privilege comes from and how both Houses treat it.

(for the unaware: the British coalition government is currently trying to pass a Welfare Reform Bill which would slash benefits for many; and the House of Lords didn’t like the sound of that, so made many amendments on things such as child benefit and a general benefits cap. It went back to the Commons last week and rejected the most significant amendments, citing financial privilege – i.e. that the Commons has sole right to alter the burden to the taxpayer)

Interestingly, despite cries of shame in the media, it seems the Commons’ declaration of certain Lords amendments as ‘privilege’ is actually quite routine.

Essentially, whether an amendment touches financial privilege is something done by Parliamentary staff and declared by the Speaker, not the Government. Moreover the Commons debates each of the amendments on their merits, not simply on whether they should assert their privilege or not.

If the Commons flat-out rejects a Lords amendment on financial privilege (instead of accepting or offering an amendment-in-lieu), that standard response is to cite privilege – as a polite reminder to the Lords. Privilege has in fact been waived many, many times in the past, and also cited too.

Citation of privilege doesn’t prejudice the Lords rights to insist on their amendments, or to offer other amendments-in-lieu. In short, it’s exactly like how the two Houses work on any other matter, but with a slight reminder to the Lords that they are touching areas they shouldn’t really insist upon.

The Bill returns to the Lords for consideration February 14th.

Hope that makes sense :slight_smile:

Ultimately I suppose the Queen could refuse to sign a Bill enacted by the House of Commons if she thought the Lords had a good point which was being ignored.

I think she’d be playing with fire if she thought she could do that - ultimately, as the elected House, the Commons is entitled to get its way. The Lords can hold out but will, I imagine, give way eventually.

The principle is that every opportunity has been given for the Commons to change its mind, and if it’s made the wrong choice it will pay for it at the election.

I thought the power of the House of Lords had been just about knackered shortly after the death of Edward VII? It was my understanding that Asquith had threatened to flood it with newly madeLords out of butchers, carpenters hookers and what not to get his legislation through- some of which limited the House of Lords?

He did indeed, and the Parliament Act allowed the government to overcome trenchant resistance from the Lords; but the Lords still has power of delay.

The 1911 Act reduced the Lords from an absolute veto to being able to prevent a law for two parliamentary sessions. After that, if the government brought in the bill a third time, and it still got blocked by the Lords, it would still become law once the Commons approved of it, and the monarch Assented to it.

After 1949 the delay was reduced to one session.

However the Lords is still a very active and effective chamber. It has its faults but by and large its membership is comprised of very knowledgable people and experts, and their life tenure makes them very difficult to whip (the government must rely on persuasion, or flattery, to change the minds of peers). It also has no government majority by convention.

So the Lords still delays, but rarely fully blocks a bill - it prefers to try to alter a bill’s internal operation through amendment (recognising the Commons’ right to set policy, but the Lords ability to make its actual implementation fairer/more realistic/less abusive).

The Lords makes more amendments to laws and defeats the Government far more often than the Commons does. On average it has a 40% success rate in getting its amendments endorsed by the Commons (and by extension the Government), which is quite high.

The principle is that if the Commons insists in the face of Lords intransigence, the Lords ought to give way to the elected House. They can still block if they feel sufficiently strong, however, and the Government can overturn it a year later. But the year delay can be scary for a government, and the Parliament Act has only been used about 14 times in a century.

Thanks MC for the detailed response. I believe I read my thoughts in Dreadnought many years ago.

I don’t wish to comment in depth on the UK system- that is a matter for their citizens- but it still seems strange to me that an unelected body has any say.

And now you have made me look up Tony Benn and that dotty old goat is still going strong!

Hehe, sorry for the wall of text :slight_smile:

As for its unelected nature, the government is currently mulling over a Bill to make the Lords elected, but I don’t think they realise how problematic it will be. Moreover other countries have unelected or indirectly-elected second chambers, and direct election is actually a minority.

The problem with having two elected Houses (especially when they’ll be representing essentially the same thing, the People - i.e. we have no federal structure that can be represented as an alternative constituency), is that they will demand equal powers, which will incur deadlock. Generally that’s seen as undesirable.

My opinion is as long as the Commons gets the final say (which it does), then the democratic principle is served. Ironically, having two elected chambers will undermine that democratic principle.

In Australia we have two elected houses (Representatives and Senate) with no major problems. If you ignore the clowns that seem to live there.

Qld did however get rid of the Senate around 1922.

Australia is one of the examples the Committee looking at Lords reform is considering, but I think (IIRC) Australia has a ‘convention’ mechanism for resolving disputes between the Houses? As in, the Houses will merge and vote on the issue. That and the double-dissolution rule.

I think you may be incorrect there. the Houses don’t merge.

I wish Penultimate Thule was here- he/ she has a better understanding than I.

However, if you look at the Whitlam dismissal in 1975 it may give you an idea how things played out. Sorry, no link, but it is easily searchable.

Yeah I have read about the Whitlam dismissal, a very messy affair! I dunno, it never sat right with me that two Houses should have equal power - it confounds accountability IMO. But that’s just me, and in the century since Australian independence from the UK its clear the constitutional traditions have diverged somewhat.

Yes, they can, in the rare case of a double dissolution, which is only triggered by a major disagreement between the houses. After the elections, they sit separately, to re-consider the bill (or bills) that caused the double dissolution. If, after meeting separately, they still do not agree, then they meet as a single house to consider the measure.

See wiki article: Joint Meetings of the Australian Parliament - Resolving Deadlocks.

It has only happened once in Australia’s history, in the joint sitting of 1974.

It’s provided for in s. 57 of the Australian Constitution.

Thanks Northern Piper. I wasn’t aware of that.