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Does the House of Lords scrutinise effectively?

One of the roles of the UK House of Lords, as part of the UK Parliament, is to scrutinise the legislation or proposed laws of the government. But how well does it do this?

What is scrutiny?

The two ideas of checking and scrutiny are not the same though they do overlap. 

The House of Lords will check the Government if it stops the Government from doing things because it does not agree with them. 

The House of Lords is, of course, aware that, unlike the Commons, it has not been elected and so it should not frustrate the will of the electorate.

There are limits, in any case, to what the House of Lords can do to defeat Government proposals because of the Parliament Acts and the Salisbury Convention but the Lords can scrutinise legislation and Government policy.

Scrutiny is a process by which Parliament examines what the Government is doing. It forces the Government to make a reasoned case for its policies and proposals.

Parliament should ask:-

  • Is its legislation clear and capable of being implemented in practice?  Will it have the desired effect? Does it harm particular groups unfairly?
  • Is it spending public money efficiently? Are the agencies that spend the money accountable?
  • Are its proposals for taxation workable and are they fair as between different groups?
  • Are its policies in domestic and foreign affairs working? Do they have clear aims? Is Government monitoring their effect? Is it assessing alternative policies?

What are the limitations of the House of Lords scrutiny?

To consider how effective the Lords it is important to consider the limitations of the House of Commons in scrutiny:-

  • Although Select Committees generally investigate issues well, they can only investigate, given their resources, a limited number of issues. Also, the Government has to answer their conclusions but does not have to accept any of their recommendations.
  • MPs also scrutinise the Government by asking questions to Ministers and by questioning Ministers when they make a Statement to the House.
  • Votes on legislation at all stages are whipped. MPs almost always follow the party line and changes will not be made if the Government opposes it.  There is pre-legislative scrutiny of a few Bills by Select Committees in a few cases.
  • The same problems of party voting occur with financial issues – taxation and public expenditure. The exceptions are the Public Accounts Committee which is non-partisan but can only look at a few areas and the independent Audit Commission, which reports to Parliament. In both cases Government does not have to accept their recommendations.
  • In those areas that are whipped the main task of scrutiny falls to the Opposition who will question the Government’s legislation and financial and public expenditure proposals.  This can rarely be detailed though and may be more concerned with exposing Government weaknesses than the merits of what is being discussed.

What advantages does the House of Lords have?

Legislation is often amended and although the Commons can reverse these, there is often not much room in the Commons timetable to do this as they have to be debated again and so the Government may accept some of them. In carrying out its work of scrutiny the House of Lords has a number of other advantages:-

  • There is no single party control and so issues may be looked at in a non-partisan manner especially by the many Independent (crossbench) Peers. They are there for life and so the Whips have limited power over them.
  • Members of the House of Lords have expertise in a wide range of areas. They have no constituency duties and so can spend more time on policy issues.
  • Lords debate is less time limited than the Commons. So there is an opportunity of more detailed discussion of many issues. Debate focuses on the merits of a proposal rather than on party political arguments.
  • Any member can put forward amendments to legislation.

How has the House of Lords played a role in scrutiny?

The House of Lords has played a role in scrutiny:-

  • It has often considered legislation more carefully than the Commons. The Lords has felt more confident since the removal of most of the hereditary peers. The Government has been defeated over 60 times in the Lords since 1999. It has often accepted many Lords amendments because of the prospect of defeat or because it has accepted the arguments. The Government often amends legislation as it goes through the Commons with little time for MPs to look at these but the House of Lords can.
  • A Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee looks at whether legislation gives powers to Ministers which cannot easily be scrutinised by Parliament in the future.
  • A Constitution Committee looks at the whether legislation has constitutional implications.
  • There are Joint Committees with the Commons to look at whether legislation is compatible with the Human Rights Act. It also looks at the large amount of secondary legislation which Government Departments issue, only a small proportion of which the Commons has time to investigate.
  • Questions are asked to Ministers as in the Commons.
  • The House of Lords has a system of Select Committees. These do not mirror Government Departments, as in the Commons, but are set up to look at particular issues such as The Arctic and The Media. There are permanent Committees on the Economy and on Science and Technology.