The Parliament Act 1911
The Background of the Act
The Parliament Act of 1911 ['the Act'] emerged from political circumstances surrounding the relationship between the two UK parliamentary bodies, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Historically, there was no statutory rule by which to resolve a conflict between the House of Commons and House of Lords. Political tensions were exacerbated in 1909, when the House of Lords, dominated by the Conservative Party at the time, rejected the ‘People’s Budget’ bill proposed by the House of Commons, dominated by the Liberal Government at the time. While the rights of the Parties were legally equal, the conduct of the House of Lords was often regulated by convention which dictated that it ought not to veto financial-related bills. The rejection of the financial-related bill in 1909 directly contravened the norms and conventions in the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament. This spurred a constitutional crisis and raised questions as to the relationship between and the dominance of either House of Parliament. Political and societal questions also arose as to the validity of the House of Lords as an unelected and undemocratic body. Out of this stagnated political position, and the perceived breach of usual convention, the Act emerged as a legislative remedy to expressly restrict the rights of the House of Lords.
The Aim of the Act
The aim of the Act was to introduce legislation to regulate the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament, and particularly to statutorily reduce and restrict the powers of the House of Lords as secondary to that of the House of Commons.
The Main Changes Introduced by the Act
The Act was the first statutory legislation that expressly regulated the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament. At the outset, the Act scrutinised the unelected nature of the House of Lords and viewed the unelected House as secondary to the House of Commons. The Preamble of the Act referred to the House of Lords as a ‘Second Chamber’ and stipulated a future intention to alter the composition of the House from a hereditary one to an elected one. Although this intention did not materialise, the Act nevertheless restricted the powers of the House of Lords and had the effect of reducing its status in relation to the House of Commons.
In terms of law, the Act introduced provisions that removed the House of Lords’ right to veto financial-related bills and replaced its right to veto other public bills with a power to delay by up to two years. This effectively enabled the House of Commons to legislate in relation to a range of financial matters. It also enables the House of Commons to pass bills that would otherwise be rejected by the House of Lords, albeit with a delayed period. This had the effect of severely restricting the constitutional powers of the House of Lords and granting constitutional dominance to the democratically-elected House of Commons. In relation to the composition of Parliament, the Act also provided a provision that reduced the maximum duration of Parliament from a seven-year period to a five-year period.
The Act was viewed as a means of subordinating the House of Lords to the House of Commons in the constitutional landscape of the UK. It altered the legislative process in its entirety by denigrating the role of passing financial-related bills to the democratically-elected House of Commons, as well as restricting the role of the House of Lords in all other public bills. While the factual equality of the two Houses of Parliament remained unchanged by the Act, as was their formation, the Act prescribed greater constitutional weight to the democratically-elected House of Commons as a matter of law.
The Act’s Preamble expressly recognises its purpose as an expedient measure for “regulating the relations between the two Houses of Parliament. The Preamble also contains a recognition that the House of Lords shall later be altered to an elected body rather than hereditary appointment, terming it the “Second Chamber.” The Act, firstly, stipulates that the House of Lords is obliged to pass ‘Money Bills’ sent by the House of Commons, effectively removing its veto power thereto (s1(1)). A ‘Money Bill’ is defined as a bill containing provisions that pertain to the subjects of taxation, payment of debts, charges on the Consolidated Fund, money provided by Parliament, variations or repeals to charges, public money, the raising or guarantee of any loan, or any further related subjects following therefrom (s1(2)). Secondly, beyond the scope of ‘Money Bills,’ the Act stipulates that, in relation to any other ‘Public Bill’ that is passed by the House of Commons and sent to the House of Lords, the House of Lords’ rejection has the effect of delaying the Bill for two years, effectively removing its veto powers thereto (s2). Thirdly, the Act stipulates that the maximum duration of Parliament shall be altered from a seven-year period to a five-year period (s7).
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