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By Lord Moylan
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Who Is Doing The Heavy Lifting To Get Change Through Parliament?

Peers in the House of Lords in 2020 (Alamy)

6 min read

It takes two houses to turn government policy into solid laws, and the political chaos of the last decade – not least with the upheaval of Covid and Brexit – means how the Commons and the Lords interact has found itself in the spotlight.

Before any law receives royal assent, it is voted through the House of Commons by MPs, followed by duplicated stages in the House of Lords where peers offer a second layer of scrutiny. Any changes in the Lords are put back before the Commons to approve and vice versa until both houses are satisfied the legislation is up to scratch. 

But with a volatile government and so much contentious legislation in recent years, there has been some speculation that MPs are swiftly pushing through bills that suit their own political aims before leaving it to the Lords to do the tedious work of ensuring what makes it to the statute books is fit for purpose. 

Dr Hannah White, director at the Institute for Government has noted that lately the "Commons has been spending less time" on legislation, while peers in the House of Lords "see it as their job" to get into the details. 

Next week this relationship will once again be in sharp focus when the government's Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill returns to Parliament. Further amendments are expected as it as it limps through its final stages. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is desperate to pass the legislation aimed at enacting Government's Rwanda deportation policy. He has previously accused “opposition in the appointed House of Lords” of trying to "frustrate the will of the people” with amendments that peers argue will lessen the chances of challenges from international courts over the compliance with human rights laws. 

The IfG's White, a former parliamentary clerk, believes Government has gotten used to being able to get legislation through relatively quickly after the Brexit and Covid crises without much time for legislative scrutiny. 

“When you look at Commons scrutiny in procedural terms, it’s doing things in a way which involves more superficial scrutiny, such as less time spent in Public Bill Committees,” she told PoliticsHome.  

Public Bill Committees have the power to receive written and oral evidence in the same way as select committees, while a Committee of the Whole House takes place in the main chamber and allows all MPs to take part in the debate. White said that more and more often, bills are skipping the former. 

“It used to be the case that you really only did that for constitutional bills or those sorts of bills that were to do with personal ethics,” she continued. “But increasingly that’s happening also for policy-heavy bills like the Rwanda Bill.” 

Labour has pledged to reform the House of Lords if they win the next general election, as is currently widely expected to be the case, offering a golden opportunity to overhaul some antiquated procedures. But White worries that Parliament's dogged commitment to precedent could mean that change is slow. 

“I'd like to think that we could have a reset because I think the process of scrutiny is important and useful and improves policy and enhances the legislation and identifies unforeseen consequences and so on," she said. 

"But now that we've been doing things this way for a few years, it’s not going to be that easy to effect a reset unless you’ve got lots of people who really want it and are prepared to be disciplined about it.

“I imagine post election we will be in a fairly similar situation of the Lord's doing the brunt of detailed scrutiny.”

White believes that Lords have not done “anything particularly out of the ordinary” with their Rwanda scrutiny, and the numbers of them backing amendments to it have also not been unusual. 

“It takes a novel approach, this legislation, defining Rwanda as a safe country against a finding of fact by the Supreme Court,” White said. 

“The Lords are always more interested in bills that they think set constitutional precedents, so they were always going to pay close attention to this bill."

While a bill goes through all of the same stages in the House of Lords as it does in the House of Commons, the government has less influence on the timing and schedule in the upper House. 

Peers have been known to sit into the early hours to make their way through policy, including last summer, when there was an unexpected sitting until after 4am when they considered the Illegal Migration Act

Conservative peer and former minister Lord Timothy Kirkhope agrees that in the current Parliament “there’s no question about it that the House of Commons is doing very little scrutiny” and sensed that the relationship between the two chambers needs a rethink. 

While he believes that peers scrutinise and make amendments while “looking at things that ought to have been looked at in the first place by the Commons,” he thinks ministers have landed on a position of saying “we will not accept it” to changes that come from the Lords. 

“We do all this work and it should not be work that was totally wasted,” he said. 

He hopes that any new government would take a “fresh approach” to the Lords, but like White thinks parliamentary habits may be hard to break.

Given the “extensive” process peers undertake, Kirkhope believes there should be “some means whereby the government of the day or the Commons is obliged to consider all changes and what we are suggesting to them in a proper manner”. He felt this could be achieved by MPs having greater recognition of the Lords' work, rather than especially needing to change public perception. 

“It may well be that that should be considered in a wider setting than just in the chamber of the House of Commons where there is a ten minute debate and they vote down the whole lot of things,” he added.

Liberal Democrat peer Kath Pinnock, who has been in the Lords for almost a decade, believes there is an “ever-developing” relationship between peers and MPs. “Unless you change to meet new demands, you’re not doing what you should do,” she said.  

Pinnock is the party’s spokesperson on levelling up, housing and communities in the second chamber, and led on the Levelling Up Bill when it was making its way through the Lords last year. 

She believes the Lords’ input to that legislation over many months was “enormously helpful” to the government, thanks to their range of expertise peers were able to offer on such a wide-reaching policy area. 

“What we are able to do in the Lords, because we have the time, is just to go through line by line what the government is proposing,” she said. 

“What is clear to me is that legislation would be in a very poor state if it didn’t come through the Lords because we give it an awful lot of time.”

Pinnock said having legal experts in the Lords analysing constitutional reform policies, and housing experts examining the housing elements had been especially valuable in recent years – particularly on the Levelling Up Bill which was subject to hundreds of amendments. “All of that was enormously helpful to the government,” she added. 

But while there have been many notable cases where the Commons and Lords were “at loggerheads with each other”, as is likely to be the case with Rwanda this week, Pinnock said successful cross-party working remained the norm in her view. 

“You can’t say the system’s broken," she said. "In many cases, we work together.”

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