What happens when the Lords defeat the Government?

Thea Ridley-Castle, Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 8th May 2024

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, allowing deportations to Rwanda for certain migrants who arrive in the UK via illegal routes, completed its passage through Parliament overnight on Monday 22 April, and gained royal assent on the 25th April, becoming law.

In the run-up to the bill passing, there were multiple headlines about the House of Lords defeating the government on the bill. The Guardian reported Government loses all seven Lords votes on Rwanda bill while ITV reported PM’s Rwanda Bill faces onslaught of defeats by Lords triggering more debates. Sometimes people even point to these defeats as reasons why we shouldn’t have an elected second chamber.

So, did the House of Lords stand up to the government and defeat them? If they did defeat them, how come the Safety of Rwanda Bill is now law?

The passage of the Safety of Rwanda Bill

When the government proposes a new law, it is known as a Bill while it works its way through Parliament. Once it has passed all the stages and comes into force it is known as an Act.

The Safety of Rwanda Bill started life in the House of Commons at the start of December 2023. Over about a month and a half, MPs had three ‘readings’ to discuss the bill and a committee meeting to go over the details. On the 18th January 2024 MPs handed the bill over to the House of Lords who went through a similar process, heavily amending the Bill in ways the government didn’t support.

By this point, the Bill didn’t look much like the one MP’s had sent to the House of Lords. Was the government defeated then?

A game of parliamentary ping pong

Parliament went into a process called ping pong, where MPs looked at the Lord’s amendments and said ‘No thanks’, sending the bill back to the Lords, who then said ‘Yes please’.

Late at night on Monday 22nd, the game of ping pong between the two Houses ended when the House of Lords backed down on 2 amendments to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill leaving it clear to pass. The game of ping pong finished after the Bill was thrown between the Houses four times for revision. These revisions brought the total of Government defeats by the House of Lords to 38 in 2024. But what does it mean for the Government when it is defeated in the House of Lords?

When a defeat isn’t a defeat

A Government defeat is when “the Government fails to persuade a majority of MPs or members of the House of Lords to support them in a division (vote)”, this is more common in the Lords than the House of Commons as no party has a majority in the House of Lords.

Due to the Salisbury Convention established in 1945, the Lords do not block bills which are in the governing party’s manifesto. On other bills, as the House of Lords has no democratic mandate it tends to defer to the House of Commons; therefore it recommends changes to the bill rather than ‘wrecking’ the bill entirely. Again, due to the lack of democratic mandate the House of Lords tends to submit to the primacy of the House of Commons after 4 to 5 exchanges of the bill.

The House of Lords can hold up a Bill for around a year until the parliamentary session ends, however in the next parliamentary session the House of Commons can reintroduce the Bill and pass it without the Lords’ consent.

A shaky democratic mandate

While the House of Commons is certainly more democratic than the appointed Lords, it still doesn’t acurately represent the mix of opinions in the country, as it isn’t elected with a proportional voting system.

In essence, it is very hard for the upper chamber to ‘defeat’ a Bill; they can revise it but due to the primacy of the House of Commons, which stems from this democratic mandate, they are unable to block a Bill.

While it might make grand headlines in the papers, a government defeat in the Lords can be all smoke and no fire. In fact, if we want government bills to be properly scrutinised and for the government to truly need to ‘think again’ about legislation, we need it to be an elected chamber.

Replacing the House of Lords with a representative House of the Nations and Regions, with its power drawn from its elected members from the UK’s constituent parts, could act as legitimate chamber for scrutinising the work of the Commons.

We need voices from the UK’s nations and regions to come together to scrutinise legislation – and for the second chamber be held accountable for its decisions by the communities it serves.

Voters should decide who scrutinises our laws

Add your name to our call for an elected second chamber

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