The parliamentary objection is that the hereditary peers are overwhelmingly Conservative. This, it is argued, precludes an even-handed treatment of Conservative and Labour measures, and gives the legislature a permanent imbalance.
This objection was more theoretical than real under the former conduct of business. Conservative managers accepted that the Lords' role as a revisory (ie amending) Chamber extended to Conservative measures, and were generally content to leave the issue to the experienced legislators who were regular attenders. (In practice, it depended on Conservative cross-voting and/or abstention and a preponderant cross-bench vote.)
The Asylum Bill was not the first example of a change of practice, but it was a significant one. At a late stage the Government proposed an amendment denying social benefits to asylum claimants who fail to claim immediately on entry. The Lords accepted that the asylum system had been grossly abused, and that the remedy was to limit benefit to those who claimed promptly. But, in order to avoid reducing a significant number of genuine asylum claimants to utter destitution, on a division they modified the Government's amendment to allow three days' grace for claims after entry. This was not acceptable to the Government, who used their Commons majority (which includes 126 "payroll" votes) to reject the Lords' vote.
On return to the Lords, the Government sent out a strong whip to all their supporters (including those who rarely attend). In consequence, the Lords' previous decision was overturned by 182 votes (including 20 payroll) to 168. Of the hereditary Conservative peers, only two voted to uphold the previous decision.
Any pretence that this reflected the balance of the argument in debate can be variously tested: the argument for the Government was the same as that previously rejected by the unreinforced House; all the bishops who voted supported the previous decision and so did the overwhelming majority of cross-bench peers.
Hopefully we shall revert to the former practice of business management. Still more to be hoped is that, if there is to be legislative intervention, the former practice may be institutionalised by a system of representative peers on the lines of the former representative Scottish and Irish peerage.
Lord SIMON OF GLAISDALE
House of Lords
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