It has come to my attention that Parliament has received a petition asking for a referendum on the question of abolishing the House of Lords. Parliament has agreed to debate this petition, which raises the possibility that such a referendum may one day happen.

Parliament to debate referendum on abolishing the House of Lords

Conservativism and sentimentality would ordinarily make such a proposition distasteful to a great number of Britons. The times have changed, however, and the anger of the nation, much like steam in a pressure cooker, is building, still to be dissipated.

The House of Lords is not what it once was. During the Blair years, a great number of hereditary peers, bastions of British conservatism and patriotism, were presented by the Commons with a choice: stay in the legislature, but give up your hereditary peerage; or keep your hereditary peerage, but leave the legislature. A large number chose the latter option, wishing their children to inherit their ancient (usually) title. This meant that the composition of the House swung towards political appointees, the so-called “life peers”.

Furthermore, under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the Law Lords were removed from the House of Lords and formed the new Supreme Court, to replace the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. This was done in order to improve the separation of powers in the British constitution.

In truth, the power of the House of Lords has been limited in some respects for a long time now. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 mean that where the House of Lords and House of Commons are in conflict, the House of Lords can merely delay the passage of a Bill by one year. Provided the Monarch gives Royal Assent, a Bill passed by the Commons, but not by the Lords, will become an Act of Parliament. This was confirmed in the case of R (Jackson) v Attorney General [2006] 1 AC 262, in which Lord Steyn said that Parliament was composed of the Monarch, the Commons, and the Lords. He went on to say that Parliament could redefine itself for certain purposes if it so chose, and said that this is what had happened in 1911: Parliament had permitted itself to be redefined as the Monarch and the Commons where the Lords were in opposition to the will of the Commons.

Such has been our state of affairs – but that may not continue. Reform of the Lords has been a vexed question. Blair’s reforms were meant to be a step in making the Lords more representative of the people, more meritocratic, and ultimately more accountable to the people. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, had been planning a further statute to reform the Lords, but this appears to have been delayed (perhaps indefinitely) because of the voluminous work concerned with implementing Brexit.

The Lords’ latest move to keep Britain in the customs union (see Melanie Phillips’ comments on the matter) may be the straw the breaks the camel’s back. Many Brexiteers are angry with the Commons’ opposition to the referendum result. At least the Commons are elected, though. Not so the Lords.