Last week I wrote about a recent debate in the House of Lords about the future of civil society, and noted that there are some distinct differences between the two Houses of Parliament – the House of Commons and the House.
We have a bicameral system of government, which means that we have two separate chambers responsible for scrutinising legislation before it becomes law.
The House of Commons is a directly elected chamber, with each Member of Parliament being elected to represent a distinct constituency, hence they are said to serve their constituents. Upon Parliament dissolving, each MP has to be re-elected, and the coalition Government has introduced legislation which states that each Parliament will now last for five years. Of course, the lack of a codified constitution means that legislation could be repealed at any time, but it is suffice to say that MPs are judged by their constituents on the job they have done locally as well as representing them in Parliament, and if they are deemed to have performed well then they are likely to be returned for another term.
The House of Lords is different. The majority of the House of Lords is now appointed – in fact, yesterday saw the Prime Minister announce the appointment of thirty new peers. However there also an elected element to the Lords, although this derives more from the history of reform, and attempted reform of the chamber rather than any prolonged commitment to an elected second chamber. Tony Blair’s Government whittled down the number of hereditary peers with the aim being that an increase in appointed peers would make the Lords more representative of the public as a whole. As a result, hereditary peers were given the opportunity to vote for 92 peers to continue serving, which means that we now have the contradiction of hereditary elected peers. There is also a small group known as the Lords Spiritual, who hold their seats on the basis of their ecclesiastical office.
The House of Lords also operates differently to the Commons. Whilst there is a Speaker, the role is much diminished as peers are expected to regulate themselves. It is also rare for members of the House of Lords to sit in a Government’s Cabinet, although there are of course exceptions, notably Lord Mandelson, who served as Secretary of State for Business. Because the Commons is elected, it holds supremacy over the Lords, as enforced by the 1911 Parliament Act which followed a ruckus between the two chambers over the passing of that year’s budget. However the House of Lords does have the power to defeat government legislation in that chamber, and rather than force it through using the powers granted by the 1911 Act, most governments tend to work on altering the legislation to achieve a compromise. Until recently, the House of Lords also served as the final court of appeal in legal cases, until those powers were redirected to the newly established Supreme Court.
All very interesting, but why is that relevance, I hear you ask.
Firstly, members of the House of Lords are often appointed because of their expertise in a particular area. Whereas MPs have a more general role and need to be on top of issues affecting all of their constituents, Lords are often appointed because of their experiences which make them an authority on a particular topic. Debates in the Lords tend to less partisan than the Commons – partly because of the presence of crossbenchers – but also because the Lords take it’s role as a scrutiniser of legislation very seriously. This means that debates in the Lords sometimes go into more detail, and scrutinise legislation in a way that the Commons is sometimes unable to due to a lack of time. There are a number of peers who also now serve charities as patrons or as chair, a role that former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard now performs for Help the Hospices. Campaigning and communications around highly technical issues that we deal with, such as Gift Aid reform, are therefore well worth targeting at Lords with an interest in charities and the ability to really delve into the details in depth.
Secondly, many Lords are extremely well connected. A number are former MPs themselves, and have strong links with their party’s internal machinery – links that are extremely hard to form in isolation. They can help charities by introducing them to relevant people who might be sympathetic to an organisation’s aims – both inside and outside Parliament – and can be of great use around manifesto writing time. Often determining who is responsible for a particular part of a party’s manifesto can be quite the minefield for organisations such as charities, and Lords who have been in politics for years are able to cut through the bureaucracy and give charities the chance to ensure that their policy ideas are heard.
Thirdly, the Lords has a number of useful tools that peers can use to pursue an issue, in a similar way to the Commons. Lords are able to initiate debates on subjects of issue, asks questions of relevant ministers, and hold and broker meetings to pursue a cause. When we were running the Give it Back George campaign last year, we were able to connect with a number of Lords who instinctively understood the threat posed to the charity sector by the proposed cap on tax relief, and wanted to help us pressurise the Government to withdraw the proposals. Working with them, we were able to use Parliamentary tools in the Lords to raise awareness of the issue and claim a crucial victory.
Fourthly, and finally, whilst a government’s activity – and the subsequent media interest – is dominated by the House of Commons, there are a number of ministers who operate from the House of Lords. They can be held to account by their fellow peers, and are responsible for promoting and defending Government policy. Charities should try and engage with these ministers in the same way they engage with those in the Lords, and to fail to do so would be a wasted opportunity.
The future of the House of Lords is constantly debated, with many people concerned that a move to a democratically elected chamber could put both houses on an equal footing and create ‘gridlock’ and others arguing that an appointed house is not compatible with the UK’s democratic principles. Regardless of your view, it is clear that engagement with peers is essential to charities in the pursuit of their agenda, and should not be overlooked despite the position of the Lords as the secondary chamber. Over the last year or so we’ve had excellent meetings with a number of Lords, and continued engagement with them will form a key part of our strategic Parliamentary plan going forward to ensure that the future of giving remains firmly on the political agenda.