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The Houses of Parliament are not in competition – they are complementary

4 min read

The Lords must be allowed to fulfil its constitutional duty by improving legislation – and the Commons must be given the time to consider it

The Conservatives have gathered in Birmingham just two weeks after Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral – a ceremony of solemn dignity and pageantry that will surely never be surpassed. It is difficult, after such an outpouring of national grief, and a remarkable display of national unity, to come back to issues which bitterly divide us. The two days I spent listening to, and taking part in, tributes to Her late Majesty in the Lords were the most moving days of my 52 years in Parliament. From every quarter of the House people spoke as with one voice, united in their admiration for the untiring, devoted service Her late Majesty had given to the nation. The best way of honouring her memory is to follow her example.

In this context, the new government has my heartfelt good wishes as it takes on an enormous responsibility in seeking to tackle crises at home and abroad, the like of which have not been seen since the Second World War. It also has an opportunity to give truly national leadership. It is an opportunity that must not be neglected.

In Parliament the elected House must take precedence and, in accordance with the Parliament Acts, the will of the Commons will always prevail. But there has been an unfortunate, and increasing, tendency for governments to express unnecessary impatience and annoyance when the House of Lords has sought to fulfil its constitutional duty by seeking to improve legislation. Underlying this has been an unwillingness to recognise that, in our constitution, the two Houses are not in competition but are complementary. There is an accumulation of experience and expertise in the Lords such as exists in no other democracy in the world. But because our House is not elected, the United Kingdom will never experience the gridlock that often paralyses administrations in the United States.

There are a number of things that would help create better understanding and co-operation between our two Houses. The government should ask itself, before introducing any legislation, whether that legislation is strictly necessary. Of the thousands of pieces of legislation put on the statute books during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, a significant number were certainly not necessary, and a not insignificant number were rarely, or never, used. If the government decides that a piece of legislation is essential, it should give the Commons more time to deal with it.

There is an accumulation of experience and expertise in the Lords such as exists in no other democracy in the world

One of the problems since the Labour government introduced it in the late-90s (and successive governments found very convenient to maintain) is that every bill has a timetable attached to it. That can mean that great chunks are barely discussed in the Commons. And when constructive amendments are made in the House of Lords, where thorough scrutiny does take place, it is quite usual for the Commons to give them no real consideration but to reject them out of hand.

The government should also take more seriously the repeated requests from the Lords not to inflate our numbers. We should have no larger membership than the Commons. A defining feature of the House of Lords is that between 20 and 25 per cent of its Members sit on the crossbenches. It really would be a retrograde step to create a situation where any single party can have the sort of overall majority that the Conservatives had before 1999 when Conservative hereditary peers, many of whom took little part in proceedings, could dominate any division.

Finally, and to end on a very positive note, we must not forget that significant improvements to many bills have been made during the present Parliament as a result of the detailed scrutiny they have received in the Lords. It was in our House, for instance, that the crucial amendment on the control of sewage discharge was inserted into the Environment Bill – on the initiative of the Duke of Wellington, a crossbench peer.

Lord Cormack is a Conservative peer and life president of The House magazine


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