The House of Lords have now passed ten amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, which means the Bill must return to the Commons to be voted on by MPs. While it is likely that most of these amendments will be voted down, it raises the fundamental question of whether or not it is appropriate for an unelected body to interfere in such matters.
There has long been uneasiness over the role of the Lords, with modest reforms being made in 1997 to abolish most hereditary peers, so that the majority of Lords must earn their peerships, even if they do not need to be popularly elected. Whenever the House of Lords dissents from the Commons, opponents vociferously lament the fact that an unelected body can interfere in the workings of the elected legislature, though there is never truly a prospect of further constitutional reform. However, now that the Lords have attempted to amend legislation which has the backing of not only the majority of MPs but the majority of the electorate in the EU Referendum, there could be trouble. During the constitutional crisis of 1911 over the People’s Budget, Lloyd George asked ‘should 500 men...override the judgement...of millions of people?’ Is the situation any different in 2018 than in 1911?
The counter-argument to this point is that the issue of Britain’s exit from the European Union is simply too important for the Lords to take a back seat. Many peers are experts in specialist areas, having worked in politics, business or other areas for many years before retiring to a seat in the House of Lords. Surely amendments backed by such illustrious names as Andrew Adonis should at least be considered by the government. Adonis rose as an adviser to Tony Blair and held government positions under both Blair and Gordon Brown, so surely has enough political experience to have a valid voice in the matter. It would be foolish for MPs to vote down the Lords’ amendments without serious consideration as big names from both parties and many different sectors have backed the changes. Ex-Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine and ex-ministers David Willetts, Douglas Hogg and Ros Altmann all rebelled against the Conservative Party in the Lords to support an amendment committing the government to acting within the limits of the Good Friday Agreement over Northern Ireland. Is it sensible to hold the views of the average voter above those of such experienced members of the House of Lords?
The answer to the problem of the legitimacy of the House of Lords is a complex one and, frankly, not one that will be found any time soon. It is probably not appropriate for the unelected House of Lords to be interfering in the workings of an elected government, working with the mandate of millions of voters; yet it would be foolish to simply discount the views of so many experts on UK and EU law. The inevitable conclusion of this latest complication will surely be that Britain will ignore it and focus on the current priority of delivering Brexit. In true Brexit style, the issue of Lords reform will be kicked into the long grass until it inevitably causes problems at a later date.