A video image of the House of Lords gathering on Monday to debate the government’s plans to cut tax credits for low-income workers and people with children. Credit Parliamentary Recording Unit, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament, is best known to Americans as the setting for the queen’s annual Speech from the Throne, and is frequently dismissed as a rubber stamp. But its members threw themselves into the messy fray of British politics on Monday by blocking a measure approved by the country’s elected lawmakers in the House of Commons.
In what some observers have called an overstep and others have described as a “constitutional crisis,” the Lords exercised a rarely used prerogative to reject cuts to welfare spending. The move angered Conservatives, energized the left and confused just about everyone else. Here is what happened.
The trouble started after Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party, which maintains a slender majority in the House of Commons, passed a series of changes to Britain’s welfare system that would cut back, among other things, tax credits for workers in low-paying jobs and for people with children.
The Lords has the power to approve laws passed by the Commons or send them back with proposed amendments, but traditionally does not block financial legislation. This time, though, members voted to delay the cuts and called for welfare recipients to receive additional support if their tax credits are reduced.
Who are the Lords?
The House of Lords, with 816 current members known as peers, is the largest legislative body outside China. It is the only upper house of a bicameral legislature to have more members than the lower house.
Once a preserve of the hereditary nobility, the House of Lords was reformed in 1999, and the number of inherited seats was limited to 92. Senior bishops of the Church of England hold 25 more seats. The remaining members, the vast majority, were nominated by prime ministers and appointed for life by the queen.
These “life peers” carry their political affiliations into the chamber with them; today, most are affiliated with the left-leaning Labour or Liberal Democratic parties.
Conservatives accuse those parties of using the House of Lords inappropriately to hobble the democratic process by thwarting the will of the elected majority in the Commons.
What are the rules?
Britain’s constitution is not a single written document, but rather a collection of laws and legal traditions that have developed over centuries. Though it has a long history of continuity, it also encompasses countless legal precedents that can be interpreted to bolster either side.
Conservatives say the House of Lords has not interfered in financial legislation for more than a century, following a precedent established in 1911 to break an impasse in which Conservatives tried to block a Labour budget.
Opponents of the government say the Lords has frequently blocked statutory instruments, the type of measure that the Commons passed to cut the tax credits.
Many observers consider this year’s parliamentary session one of the most contentious in memory. Nearly every piece of legislation sent to the Lords has been rejected, with 17 rejections since May alone.
Mr. Cameron is the first Conservative prime minister not to have a Conservative majority in the House of Lords. With no limit on the house’s total membership, Mr. Cameron could potentially name enough new Conservative peers to gain a majority. But it would require more than 100 appointments, and critics would probably assail him for trying to pack the house on that scale, replacing one crisis with another.
Instead, it appears that the Conservatives will modify their austerity bills and try again. George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer — the British equivalent of a treasury minister — said on Tuesday that the effect of the measures on families could be lessened in a way that would still “save the money needed so that Britain lives within its means.”