Last night, the Lords voted to delay the government’s cuts to tax credits. Conservative ministers have spent the morning touring the news studios to proclaim a constitutional crisis. Lords experts agree that it is nothing of the sort: Ruth Fox from the Hansard Society and Meg Russell from the UCL Constitution Unit lay out the facts.
The Lords may have been right to question the government’s mandate to sneak through major changes to tax credits without giving Parliament the time to debate it in a bill. They are right to point out that these cuts were not announced in the Conservative manifesto or the Budget. But this episode has shown that the way the unelected Lords and elected House of Commons work together is broken. When the patchwork of rules and conventions are tested as they were last night, it becomes clear that there is no consensus between Parliament and the government on what the Lords can and cannot do.
The Conservatives have promised a “rapid review” to make sure that this can never happen again, but a quick fix would leave the government with even more power over a chastened Lords. That’s why it’s so important that we have an elected second chamber - any reform should make the government more accountable, not less. When the government abuses its majority to force through changes without scrutiny, we leave it to the unelected Lords to provide the checks and balances needed for good government. An elected second chamber would have a democratic mandate to hold the government to account.
David Cameron says he regrets not introducing an elected House of Lords back in 2012, and the government said just a month ago that it was “not a priority”. What a difference one vote makes! Even backbenchers like Jacob Rees-Mogg who blocked Lords reform last time round are now enthusiastic converts to reform. Now that Lords reform is back on the agenda, he should think again about an elected second chamber.