War of the Houses

Annabel O’Rourke gives an insight into the House of Lords and its Brexit negotiations

Credit: Flickr


A divided future

“The question that must be answered is how much power does the House of Lords truly have and is this power wielded justly?”

The oncoming storm of Brexit negotiations is one that continues to garner much attention across Europe. As each member state prepares their winning arguments for their idea of the future of the European Union without its first major rogue member, it becomes ever clearer that a complete break with Britain is on the cards. This prospect was certainly firmly suggested by last month’s announcement of Theresa May’s Brexit strategy whereby she described a Britain that wished to return to the past in order to embrace its Europe-free future. Mrs.May spoke of a united Britain that wished to re-establish itself on a global scale with its cultural and political legacies at the forefront of its international relations. This idea of unity, however, was undone by the recent House of Lords coup against a hard Brexit, an institution of the historic Britain of which Mrs May spoke so fondly.

Importantly, the House of Lords has taken two major steps against Mrs May and her government’s Brexit strategy. Their first amendment was simple; the Lords mandated that EU migrants currently residing in the UK would continue to have the same rights as British nationals. Brexit indeed breeds uncertainty and they believed it was unfair for these people to be placed in such a precarious position. This is certainly an interesting amendment as it  shows the Lords focusing distinctly on the protection of the rights of EU migrants and their value to British society rather than the rights of British citizens themselves. Furthermore, it directly opposes the key themes of  nationalism and border controls which were at the forefront of the Brexit campaign.

The House of Lords, in fact, appears to be a major proponent of the need for EU migration into the UK according to one of their recent reports. They have noted that several sectors of the economy such as the hospitality and caring largely depend on these workers and will face significant labour shortages if a sufficiently liberal Brexit deal is not achieved. Moreover, the report revealed that the UK’s total inward migration was much higher than the EU average. This held true until June 2016 when the vote of the British people created an uncertain prospect for future migrants. This furthers the point that Britain does indeed require this level of migration. As such, the Lords seem to agree that EU migrants should receive preferential treatment above other migrants and gain easier access to the British labour market. This is once again in opposition to Mrs May’s ideas of a global Britain that wishes to develop its international relations without preference to the EU.

This amendment not only contradicts the Prime Minister, however, but the House of Commons as a whole who previously voted against the very same amendment. MP’s argue that the rights of EU nationals currently residing in the UK acts as an important bargaining piece in future negotiations with the EU, particularly towards reaching an equally favourable deal for those British citizens who find themselves in the same predicament in the EU. The House of Lords argue that giving such preferential treatment to EU migrants will show a willingness to work with Europe. This seemingly necessary opening of the UK to the movement of EU labour is in fact a step closer towards enabling Britain to remain a member of the Single Market. If the Parliament, as the Upper House wishes, decides to concede on the issue of EU migration it is clear that the only remaining factor that is preventing its membership of the Single Market is the issue of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and its ability to overrule British law. Interestingly, if Britain wishes to engage in any way in the EU’s market they must abide by the ECJ’s rulings. Simply, this means that rather than having a seat at the decision-making table, the UK is required to abide by these laws and court rulings without complaint if they wish to enter the EU’s formidable and profitable market.

Watchmen of democracy

“Importantly, the House of Lords has taken two major steps against Mrs May and her government’s approved Brexit strategy.”

Though this first amendment is certainly a cause for conflict in the House of Commons, it is something that will merely delay the Brexit process rather than halt it altogether. The second amendment, however, is much more troublesome. The House of Lords has begun to discuss the need for Parliament to have the final say on any UK exit deal the Prime Minister may achieve during negotiations with the EU. Some peers, led by the Liberal Democrats, have gone further and have even questioned the validity of any deal without the backing of a new referendum. Fortunately, this amendment dramatically failed to pass in a recent House of Lords vote. The damaging nature of a second poll could surely only hurt the government in a country that has already become very divided after its first Brexit referendum.

It is indeed questionable that the House of Lords has such concern for the voice of the voters to be heard when it itself is an entirely unelected body. For many, the Upper House appears outdated, being made-up of unelected peers who tend to be from the upper echelons of society and who seem to be given undue influence over the average citizen’s life. The question that must be answered is how much power does the House of Lords truly have and is this power wielded justly?

Outdated or necessary?

“ [The Lords] are able to have a long-term outlook and do not have to be tied to the demands of the electorate in the present moment. This means the policies they approve of are more likely to have lasting long-term benefits rather than being simply ‘quick-fixes’.”

The Upper House is certainly unusual in its structure. Currently, there is no restriction to the House’s number of sitting members leading to its current size of 804 peers. As such, this makes it the only upper house of any bicameral system that is larger than its associated lower house. This is relevant as it means the House of Lords has considerable manpower in terms of necessary subcommittees and reviews. This enables the House to be an effective check on the House of Commons and properly scrutinise the many bills it produces. On top of this, only a tiny minority of the house are bishops or hereditary aristocracy who sit alongside a majority of members who have been appointed by the reigning monarch on the advice of the current Prime Minister. Out of the 803 Lords, only 26 are bishops and 92 hereditary peers. Moreover, the actual power of the House of Lords has been ever reduced. Major reforms occurred in the 20th Century, a period when democracy became more prominent alongside communism in the  post-world war order. By 1999, the House of Lords no longer had any veto power over legislation except in very limited circumstances.

Therefore, it seems clear that the House of Lords does not have undue power but the question must be raised, is it a necessary institution and an efficient use of resources? Primarily, the Upper House can be viewed as a necessary keeper of the government. Its main power lies in its ability to delay the passing of bills and to raise issues with such bills that are brought forward by the House of Commons. In particular, as the peers do not face general elections, they are able to have a long-term outlook that does not have to be tied to the wishes of the electorate in the moment. This means the policies they approve of are more likely to have lasting long-term benefits rather than being simply the sort of “quick-fixes” which have become popular in recent decades. That being said, the British bicameral Parliament is by no means the perfect solution  and issues regarding this selection of peers is certainly noteworthy.

The role of the House of Lords is to act as an important check on the British Government. In a world that may become weary with of the need for a sense of direct democracy, the House of Lords may act as a necessary reminder that democracy is not always the best vehicle to shape the future. Nevertheless, it is clear that the House and its existence may grow more contentious in a country where speaking for the people has become a potent rallying-cry. Equally, the House of Lords further places itself in an even more precarious position when it disagrees with its greatest supporters, the Conservatives. It appears that the House of Lords most important role, to effectively speak out against the House of Commons, may also lead to its downfall.