Peers are turning out en masse to scrutinise Brexit legislation, providing a good opportunity for some political triviaby Matthew Purvis / April 30, 2018 / Leave a comment
The House of Lords has been back in the headlines in recent weeks. In case you missed it, the Lords has been debating the government’s Withdrawal Bill. The central purpose of the Bill is to provide legal certainty and prevent gaps in the statute book by preserving European Union law in domestic law after exit day. The Bill is not, however, without contention. It did not have a smooth passage through the Commons, where the government has a slim majority. The Bill has now hit its critical stage for votes in the Lords, where the government has no majority.
To date, the government has been defeated seven times, with peers turning out in record numbers to agree changes to the Bill. The biggest turnout was for Conservative Peer Viscount Hailsham’s amendment (former MP Douglas Hogg) which would allow Parliament a “meaningful vote” by determining what the government would do were, amongst other scenarios, the House of Commons to reject the government’s deal with the EU. Previous divisions have seen numbers voting totalling 573, 570 (twice), 531, 520 and 503. These rank in the top 23 biggest votes recorded in the Lords.
Significantly, the 23 largest votes—those where over 500 peers voted—have all taken place in the last seven years. It could be argued the high numbers voting follows the growth of the size of the House since 1999: more members means more who can vote, and there are now around 800.
However, this is too simplistic. Between 1911 and 1999, the Lords more than doubled in size from around 600 to nearly 1,300. Divisions did not garner regular big turnouts. If we look to key votes on momentous constitutional bills in years gone by, they often mustered less than half the numbers we have seen in recent weeks. Indeed, whilst those peers able to vote in 1972 on the European Communities Bill, which paved the way for the UK’s membership of the then EEC, numbered around the same as those eligible to vote today, votes drew around 200 peers voting in divisions on the Bill.
“The 23 largest votes—those where over 500 peers voted—have all taken place in the last seven years”
Even earlier, the Parliament Bill in 1911—the legislation that was to be the culmination of a constitutional row between the two Houses about the Lords’ powers over legislation—saw just under 250 peers voting on the decisive question as to whether the Lords should back down and agree to cut its powers, which it did resulting in the Parliament Act. In rejecting the War Crimes Bill at second reading in 1990, 281 voted and in doing so again the next year—thus enabling a rarefied invoking of the Parliament Act—240 peers voted.
This is more than just political trivia. Here are two thoughts. First, we live in uncertain political times. The size of the votes in recent weeks demonstrates that the issues at stake matter. Brexit is a huge political issue. However, since 2011 the big votes have not just been on Europe; for instance the Lords voted in large numbers on the Coalition’s proposals to restructure the health service and on changes to tax credits put forward in 2015. Second, and more importantly, the turnout at divisions reflects Meg Russell’s assessment that the House has increasing confidence in its role and in its legitimacy as a revising chamber. The House of Lords has a constitutional role to consider proposals received from the Commons and suggest areas MPs should think again about. In the last parliamentary session, the average number of peers voting in a division was 396. Ten years ago it was 234. It could be said that large turnouts that result in government defeats may increase the influence the Lords has by adding to the political pressure on the government to agree or find a compromise. However, on all issues the House of Commons has the final say as the elected House.
Now some political trivia. The biggest recorded vote came last year when the House voted by 366 votes to 268 to agree to an amendment to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill (the Article 50 Bill). David Pannick’s (Crossbench) amendment would have requiredparliamentary approval for the outcome of negotiations with the European Union. In total 634 members voted, almost four in five of those eligible to do so at the time of the vote. This amendment was overturned in the Commons, which was then agreed by the Lords.
The 2017 vote beat the largest vote of 621 previously recorded on 14 July 1993, which was again on legislation concerning Europe. On this occasion, members voted by 445 to 176 against an amendment to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, which would have required a referendum to be held. The Times called it the “biggest turnout of peers in modern times.” In terms of the proportion of members eligible to vote at that time, this represented about three in five.
Until 2017, the 1993 vote was thought to have been the largest since 1831. This has been widely assumed to mean a larger vote took place in 1831, possibly on the “Great Reform Bill.” However, the House was not large enough at that time to have voted in such numbers: figures available for 1830 suggest the House had 399 members and in rejecting the “Great Reform Bill” on 7th October 1831, 357 members voted. This was nevertheless an impressive number, with almost nine in ten of members voting.