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Liberty is at stake: Commons, Lords and the Welfare Reform Bill

If the claim to financial privilege over the Welfare Reform Bill stands, little stops the Coalition from forcing through a broad range of laws. Say goodbye to checks and balances! Scrutiny, farewell!
Stuart White
7 February 2012

‘…the worst thing that can happen to one in the relations between man and man,’ wrote Rousseau, ‘is to find oneself at the mercy of another.’

According to republican political theory, liberty consists precisely in not living at another’s mercy. One lacks liberty when someone has a power to interfere in your life at their discretion, according to their whim. Liberty is the absence of this power, or what the political theorist Philip Pettit calls ‘non-domination.’

It helps to keep this insight into liberty in mind when thinking about the latest turn in the long ongoing story of the Coalition’s Welfare Reform Bill.

Last month, in the context of the innovative ‘Spartacus campaign’ by disabled people, the second chamber of the UK Parliament, the House of Lords, passed a series of amendments – seven in all – to the Welfare Reform Bill. In one series of votes, on proposed changes to Employment Support Allowance, crossbenchers, independent of party whips, strongly supported three amendments. On another proposal, to cap benefits at £26,000, Church of England bishops moved a successful amendment. Whatever one might think of the current composition of the Lords, this was a case of the Lords doing what constitutional traditionalists say it is supposed to do: acting as a thoughtful revising chamber.

Last week the bill went back to the Commons where Coalition MPs voted down all of the Lords’ carefully considered amendments.

In addition, a committee of the House of Commons announced that the Welfare Reform Bill engages the Commons’ ‘financial privilege.’ As Jeff King explains in a very important post, this basically means that the Commons need give no reason to the Lords for its rejection of their amendments and the Lords are expected now to just let the bill pass into law.

On this occasion the justification given is, in King’s words, ‘spectacularly wide’: it has been asserted that ‘any amendment with implications for public expenditure might involve privilege.’ However, as King points out, just about every parliamentary bill has expenditure implications. By implication, then, more or less any amendment to any bill might be said to engage financial privilege. 

King argues that, if accepted, this would fundamentally change the relationship between the two chambers.

Pick a bill, any bill. It goes from Commons to Lords. The Lords consider whether to do their job and subject it to critical scrutiny. But does this bill engage the Commons’ financial privilege, meaning the Commons can force it through as they like whatever the Lords think and without having to give any reasons? So long as it has some expenditure implications, as virtually all bills will, the Commons may apparently so designate it. Of course, the Commons has the power under the Parliament Acts to get its way on any bill after sufficient pause. But, as King emphasises, this new development would go much further.

By bringing King’s analysis together with our opening comments on liberty we can see how much is at stake. 

Under the new interpretation of financial privilege, the Lords would be dominated by the Commons – or, more realistically, by the core executive acting through its secure majority in the Commons. The core executive would effectively have the power to decide entirely at its own discretion which of its bills it will deign to let the Lords have any significant say in and which it will not. In effect, the Lords could be called into and out of existence as a revising chamber at the core executive’s whim.

OK, you might say, that’s tough for the Lords. Poor Lords. But does this matter for the rest of us?

Yes. As political theorists like Pettit argue, we prevent the government itself holding an arbitrary power over us as citizens by making sure that the processes of decision-making contain ‘checks and balances’, little and not-so-little points of blockage and inconvenience, that together make it hard for the government to do just as it likes to us. Our liberty requires – in a sense, consists in the fact - that governments have to get their proposed laws through a process that is at least moderately difficult in this way. (This also tends, in the long-run, to produce better laws.)

If, however, the Commons comes to dominate the Lords in the way just described, then one of the modest checks and balances in the formal political process will be lost. Domination of Lords by Commons is, or adds to, domination of us by the Commons – or, more exactly, by the core executive acting through its secure majority in the Commons.

It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that King calls strongly for the House of Lords to make clear its rejection of this new interpretation of financial privilege. One way it may signal this, he suggests, is to reject the whole bill: ‘…contrary to the tenor of the Clerk of Parliament’s report on the Lords’ options in such a case, the Lords do in fact have the right to reject a bill in its entirety.’ 

The struggle over the WRB is not only a struggle about welfare benefits.

As Sue Marsh has argued, it is also a struggle over the quality of our democracy - and this implicates liberty itself.

 

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