Tories Threaten To Suspend House Of Lords If It Attempts To Halt Tax Credit Cuts

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Yesterday I reported that a rarely-used procedure called a “fatal motion” is set to be tabled in the House of Lords this week, followed by a vote next week, with the specific design of preventing George Osborne from putting his controversial proposed £4bn tax credit cuts into law.

The Huffington Post reports that House of Lords could be controversially suspended or “flooded with Tory peers” if it takes the “nuclear option” of killing off George Osborne’s tax credits cuts next week, according to government sources. This is a truly remarkable threat from the Conservative government, in a so-called first world liberal democracy.

Furious Conservatives are threatening the unprecedented and profoundly undemocratic retaliation if peers decide to proceed with the step of using the so-called “fatal motion” to kill the Chancellor’s plans to cut working tax credits.

Campaigners believe that the usual Salisbury convention, which stops the Lords from blocking a party’s plans, does not apply because the tax credits cuts were not mentioned in the Tory manifesto in May.

But a fatal motion on what the Tories deem “a financial matter” would be unprecedented and Tory sources say the government are determined that the Lords would “have to pay a serious political price” if the Government is defeated next week.

Normally if the Lords defeat the Government on a money-related bill, it can be overturned easily in the Commons by the Speaker deeming it a financial issue. But a statutory instrument has no such condition.

Baroness Meacher told BBC Radio 4’s World at One on Monday afternoon that the cross-party determination to overturn the plans was strong.

Asked how much support she had, Meacher said: “A lot. There are clearly a lot of Conservatives who are very worried about this. There’s very strong support from the Labour Party and Lib Dem, cross-benchers who are very worried.”

And the government’s threat comes when several Conservatives have warned the tax credit cut will be damaging. Also speaking to the BBC today, even Boris Johnson ramped up the pressure on the chancellor. The London mayor said while it was “brave” and “right” to reform the tax credit system the government needed to make sure it was done in a fair way. He said:

I think everybody is concerned about everything that bares down unfairly on the working poor and it’s very important as we take this thing forward we do it in such a way as to minimize that impact.

Baroness added that Bishops in the Lords were “very deeply concerned” and would “want to support a rethink” of Osborne’s plan. Asked if the Bishops would support her, she said: “That’s my understanding.”

This is an unprecedented and extremely undemocratic threat on the part of the government. The House of Lords shares responsibility for making laws with the House of Common. The role of the House of Lords (sometimes called the “upper house”) is to provide an additional safeguarding mechanism of democracy, as the second chamber of Parliament. Members regularly review and amend Bills from the Commons.

The House of Lords plays a vital role in making and shaping our laws and crucially, in checking and challenging the government; it shares this role with the House of Commons. The Lords has a reputation for thorough and detailed scrutiny of Bills.

The House of Lords serves a valuable democratic function by providing a national forum of debate free from the constraints of party discipline. Although the defeat of government legislation by the house has been relatively rare on major legislation, it sometimes does defy the government. Members come from many walks of life and bring experience and knowledge from a wide range of occupations. Members use their extensive individual experience to investigate and scrutinise public policy.

Much of this work is done in select committees – small groups appointed to consider specific policy areas. Members play a crucial role in holding the government to account.

In late 2011 and early 2012, the Tory-led Coalition government suffered a series of defeats in the House of Lords on amendments to its flagship Welfare Reform Bill. Most of the defeats were on highly controversial matters, including the bedroom tax, disability benefits, the reform of the child maintenance system and the introduction of an overall benefit cap.

The Lords also tabled amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. All were subsequently overturned by the House of Commons, which cited its “financial privilege” – or the right to dismiss the Lords’ demands on “financial matters”. As a consequence it was argued by the government that the Lords should, by convention, not insist on its proposals.

These events provoked anger both inside and outside parliament, with claims that the government had misused parliamentary procedure in order to secure its extremely controversial policy programme, and that the incident could be considered not only as profoundly undemocratic, but also, as “an abuse of privilege,” and a means of avoiding unwelcome scrutiny of and accountability for objectionable policies. A widespread complaint is that the financial privilege process lacks transparency.

At present there are no clear definitions as to what falls within Commons financial privilege. And once privilege has been invoked on an amendment, the Commons gives no explanation as to why. Such lack of transparency makes it difficult for peers to anticipate whether financial privilege will be applied to their amendments, and has certainly fed perceptions outside parliament that the process is being abused.

There is also a lack of transparency about how the Lords may respond when faced by a claim of Commons financial privilege.

The mechanisms of democracy have been steadily stripped back since 2011. Who could forget the (still) unpublished National Health Service risk register, which estimated the negative consequences of the Tory Health and Social Care Bill, deliberately hidden from public scrutiny despite court rulings that demanded its release.

The Tax Credit cuts are extremely unpopular with the UK public, and quite properly so. The Conservatives claim to “make work pay”, but that is clearly not the case for those “strivers” on low pay.

Democracy is supposed to protect and reflect the interests of citizens. In Britain, it does the exact opposite: routinely working against the interests of the many, in favour of a wealthy, privileged few.

Public communication from the Conservatives has generally been geared towards establishing a dominant paradigm and maintaining an illusion of a consensus.

It seems the government is no longer concerned with maintaining that illusion, or preserving even the façade of democracy.

inconPicture courtesy of Robert Livingstone

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15 thoughts on “Tories Threaten To Suspend House Of Lords If It Attempts To Halt Tax Credit Cuts

  1. Much as I think the tax credits cuts are absolutely reprehensible, calling a bypass of the most undemocratic legislative assembly in western europe undemocratic is slightly odd. The Lords is completely undemocratic, so removing it from the process would be a plus to democracy, surely

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    1. No, the Lords are there to challenge the government and hold it to account. They do, too. The current Lords doesn’t hold a Tory majority. I’d prefer an elected body, but we do need a 2nd house for scrutiny and holding the government to account.

      And although I’d prefer employers paying wages high enough to live on, at the moment they don’t. So now is not the time to cut people’s support.

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    2. What would you call the gerrymandering of constituencies, by the govt of the day, and changes to the electoral register that favour one party, and their rush to appeal the HR Act, and to privatise the entire education system, and to devolve “power” to local authorities, without the consulting on the consequences of the loss of redistribution from central govt? Then there’s the selling part of our infrastructure to foreign nationals, and the sweetheart deals on Vodafone tax and Swiss bank account tax fraud to favour the corporations and the rich, while pushing unwaged, and disabled and chronically sick into poverty. There’s a lot wrong in this govt which has abused the democratic processes and traditions – like ignoring the votes on opposition day debates, and the recommendations of the committees, and as stated here today, the point blank refusal to abide by decisions of the courts, and using statutory instruments to enact major changes such as the Tax Credit, and also the imposition of changes in the Courts to impose Compulsory Court Charges.

      I call that undemocratic too, even though they have won an election. The HoL has been reformed, even if only in part, to remove the absolute stranglehold of the Upper Crust on it, and although not elected, which would be preferable, I would rely on having a second house of any sort if it has the power to check these abuses, because short of that, what do we have?

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    3. More evidence, if needed, is the news tonight that the new Ministerial Code has been published, that removes the obligation for the govt ministers to “comply with international law, treaty obligations, and uphold the administration of justice”. We are heading into uncharted waters now. No wonder Cameron was so insultingly dismissive of the UNHCR inquiry into HR Abuses of the disabled at PMQ, if the Tories no longer consider themselves bound by our Treaty Obligations to the UN. I wonder what other International Laws and Treaty Obligations “we” are no longer feeling obliged to uphold? I wonder what our many treaty partners around the world think of this?

      http://www.theguardian.com/law/2015/oct/22/lawyers-express-concern-over-ministerial-code-rewrite

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    1. It’s Cameron, he thinks he can do as he pleases. It wouldn’t be the first time there’s been a constitutional crisis, though and the last one was triggered by the tories, too. In 1909, the House of Lords rejected the Finance Bill (giving effect to the People’s Budget which imposed new taxes on landowners) a constitutional crisis arose when the Liberals ideally wanted to reduce the power of the Lords.

      The crisis of the Finance Bill was resolved by the January election of 1910 after which the Lords passed the bill but it did not end the constitutional crisis. An eventual compromise was not found until after the December election of 1910 when a bill was produced dealing only with the powers, but promising in the preamble to reform the house on a popular basis.

      The Parliament Act 1911 divided Bills into three classes.

      Money bills, to which the Lords did not consent within one month, could be given royal assent without their approval.

      On most other bills the House of Lords was given a suspensory veto. If the Commons passed the same measure in three successive Parliamentary sessions, covering at least two years, then it could become law without the agreement of the Lords.

      The remaining class related to bills to extend the maximum term of the House of Commons beyond five years. However, the House of Lords retained equal legislative power for those Bills.

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  2. Cameron thinks he’s a damn Dicktator, umm I mean Dictator. He cannot interfere with the laid down Democratic process to bully through unfair and reckless legislation. He thinks just because he has gotten away with rigging the General Election that he can do anything he likes.

    The Queen should do her duty and the job she is overly paid, for once, and sack him, dismiss Parliament and call for a proper General Election.

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