Conventions on the relationship between the House of Commons and House of Lords

Published Thursday, January 7, 2016

This House of Commons Library briefing paper sets out the conventions on the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament and their origins. On 17 December 2015 Lord Strathclyde published his review of secondary legislation and the primacy of the House of Commons. This briefing paper sets out the background to the review and Lord Strathclyde's recommendations.

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There are a number of conventions and statutes which together, enshrine the primacy of the elected chamber, the House of Commons, over the House of Lords. The nature of conventions, however, is that they are not necessarily closely defined and they change over time. The force of convention also relies on a common understanding of the nature of the conventions and for those involved to observe them

What are the main conventions

The main conventions which relate to the relationship between the two chambers are considered to be:

  • The Salisbury Convention - bills implementing manifesto commitments are not opposed by the Lords at Second Reading and are not subject to wrecking amendments;
  • The Lords does not usually object to secondary legislation;
  • The financial privilege of the House of Commons;
  • Governments should get their business “in reasonable time”.

These conventions were all subject to consideration by the Joint Committee on Conventions in 2006 which considered “the practicality of codifying the conventions on the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament which affect the consideration of legislation”.  The Committee report favoured passing resolutions on the conventions rather than codifying them, but their formulation of the resolutions were not put to either House.

Tax credits defeats

On 26 October 2015 the House of Lords twice amended a motion so as to decline to consider a statutory instrument that would have implemented the Government’s policy on tax credits.  This prompted some to question whether the House of Lords had acted properly in voting down a statutory instrument, and whether it had encroached on the financial privilege of the House of Commons.  Others stated that the Lords had acted within its normal competence and no conventions had been broken.  The incident drew attention to these conventions and how they operate when the Government lacks a majority of members in the House of Lords. 

The Strathclyde Review: Secondary legislation and the primacy of the House of Commons

After the tax credits defeats the Government launched a “rapid review” of the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament which was chaired by a former Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde.  Lord Strathclyde published his report on 17 December 2015. 

Lord Strathclyde recommended that there should be a new procedure, set out in statute, which would allow the Lords to invite the Commons to “think again” when there is a disagreement on a statutory instrument between the two Houses.  The Commons would then be able to insist on its primacy. 

He also suggested that a review should take place, with the involvement of the House of Commons Procedure Committee, into the circumstances in which statutory instruments should be subject to Commons-only procedures.  

Lastly, he suggested that it would be appropriate for the Government to take steps to ensure that “too much is not left for implementation by statutory instrument” in order to mitigate excessive use of the new process.

Commons Briefing papers SN05996

Author: Lucinda Maer

Topics: Constitution, House of Commons, House of Lords, Parliament

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