The Parliament Act: a century on

Written by Background on 10 August 2011 in Diary
This year marks the 100thanniversary of the passing of the 1911 Parliament Act. Amended in 1949, the act significantly diminished the ability of the House of Lords to stall or veto bills presented by the House of Commons. Today, we look at instances of when it has been used.

The House of Lords reluctantly passed the original act, under Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government, by 131 votes to 114.

The Act removed the power of the Lords to veto bills and meant that they could only reject a bill for two sessions of parliament, at which point the House of Commons could then pass the bill.

The only time the Lords can veto a bill from the Commons is if a bill tries to extend the five year span of parliament.

The 1949 amendment resulted in the upper chamber only being able to stall a bill for one year, rather than two. (The legitimacy of this act was questioned since it was not ratified by the House of Lords. Therefore the 1911 Act was used to pass the amendment)

The act has been used a total of seven times.

When the act was used

Government of Ireland Act 1914 - The Act contained provisions for Irish home rule, which meant that Ireland would have their own bicameral parliament while still sending (a reduced amount of) MPs to Westminster. It was the first ever piece of legislation involving devolved government in Britain.

The Lords emphatically voted against the bill in both 1912 and 1913. After The Commons passed it for a third time in 1914 (by a majority of 77) and the Lords again rejected the bill, Asquith decided to enforce the Parliament Act.

The outbreak of the First World War meant that the government decided to delay implementing the Act, initially for one year. As the war raged on so did discontent in Ireland, culminating in the 1916 Easter uprising. The Act wasn't formally implemented until the Irish Free State was created in 1922.

Welsh Churches Act 1914 - This paved the way for the separation of Welsh churches from The Church of England, thus creating The Church in Wales. Since The House of Lords contained Church of England Bishops, it was highly resistant to the bill.

In Wales, there was much patriotic support for the bill, most notably from Welsh nationalist group Cymru Fydd (Young Wales).

After being stalled by the Lords it finally became an Act in 1914 but like the Government of Ireland Act, the beginning of the War postponed it coming into effect.

Parliament Act 1949 - Again this amendment to the original act further curtailed the ability of the Lords to block legislation from the Commons from two sessions of parliament to one.

When Attlee’s post war Labour government came into power, they were desperate to begin their programme of nationalisation and social welfare; anathema to a House of Lords which still largely consisted of hereditary peers.

After a bill to nationalise the steel industry was rejected by the Lords, the government believed it was time to act and introduced the amended 1949 Parliament Act (although the House of Lords rejected it)

War Crimes Act 1991 - The first and only time the Parliament Act has been used by a Conservative government. It allowed people from Germany/Nazi-occupied territories to be tried for war crimes if they had subsequently become British citizens.

Before the act was passed there had been no means of extraditing British citizens to another country to face a war crime and this was viewed by John Major’s government as a better alternative to revoking citizenship.

The Bill was highly controversial and the Lords did not approve it. Lord Shawcross said; “My philosophical intuition is that this Bill violates the great traditions of English law.”

European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999 - For those who thought the infamous Welsh place name 'Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch' was bad, the technical name of the act was ‘an Act to amend the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978 so as to alter the method used in Great Britain for electing Members of the European Parliament to make other amendments of enactments relating to the election of Members of the European Parliament and for connected purposes’.

The act changed the system for voting for MEPs from first past the post to the more proportional closed party lists.

The House of Lords voted against it a total of six times, more than was necessary to invoke the Parliament Act.

Smaller parties such as Plaid Cymru and more recently, the BNP, have benefited from the change in voting system.

Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 - This Act equalised the homosexual age of consent to 16 (previously 18)

Conservative peer, Baroness Young, was one of the main campaigners against the Bill and the Lords rejected it, before then-Speaker Michael Martin bypassed the Lords and gave the Bill Royal assent.

Hunting Act 2004 - This was the last time the Parliament Act was used and it was a subject of fierce debate between the two houses.

In 2002, DEFRA Minister of State, Alun Michael introduced a Bill that would have affectively regulated fox (and other forms) of hunting. However, the Bill was then amended towards a total ban.

The Lords rejected this Bill, preferring Michael’s original proposal. Many Lords were outraged by what they perceived as urban Labourites sticking their nose in rural affairs.

Michael Martin gave the Bill Royal Assent on 9th September 2004.

Read more about the 1911 Parliament Act from JB Seatrobe in the September issue of Total Politics

Tags: 1911 Parliament Act, H H Asquith, House of Lords, Liberal Party, Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949

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