Trouble is brewing in the House of Lords

Could the peers save the Human Rights Act?


The election may have given David Cameron a majority of 12 in the Commons, but in the Lords the picture looks very different.

According to data on the parliament website, 226 peers in a House of 787 members are Conservatives – just under 29 per cent of the total membership.

David Cameron will undoubtedly be look to fill the House with yet more peers to take their seats on the already overcrowded red benches, but it is unlikely that he will secure over half of seats in the upper house.

The reality therefore, is that faced with contentious legislation around Human Rights and extending the right to buy to housing associations, the government will be relying on peers of all sides to abide by the spirit of the Salisbury Convention. As the parliament website notes:

“Having emerged from the working arrangements reached during the Labour government of 1945-51, when the fifth marquess of Salisbury was the leader of the Conservative opposition in the Lords.

“The Convention ensures that major government bills can get through the Lords when the government of the day has no majority in the Lords. In practice, it means that the Lords does not try to vote down at second or third reading, a government bill mentioned in an election manifesto.”

Having found a new sense of freedom however, the Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who until the election was deputy leader of the House in the coalition government, has questioned the legitimacy of the convention.

Addressing peers yesterday in the wake of the Queen’s Speech, he argued that whilst it ‘s of course right and proper that we uphold the measures that allow our revising Chamber to remain a self-regulating House’, the House:

“May wish to reflect on the strength of the mandate of a government who secured less than 37 per cent of the popular vote on a turnout of 66 per cent should they seek to drive through ill-thought-through and reactionary legislation without the robust scrutiny and proper checks and balances provided by your Lordships’ House.”

To support his position he cited the 2006 joint report from the House of Commons and Lords on conventions in parliament, which suggested that the Lords had a right to reject legislation within a manifesto in some ‘exceptional’ circumstances.

Indeed, giving evidence to the committee, the then-leader of the Conservatives in the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, who served as leader of the House when David Cameron entered Downing Street, admitted:

“Where a government is trying to push through some very unpopular measure with a very, very small majority, with a substantial government rebellion, I think it is a clear signal for the House of Lords to take extra special care in examining that measure”.

Lord Wallace noted that the House of Lords has ‘demonstrated time and again that we can be the last bastion of defence of civil liberties and human rights’;  yet further proof that the Gove/Cameron project to ditch the Human Rights Act is now seriously in doubt.

Ed Jacobs is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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