Parliament Act

In British history, the term Parliament Act refers to two pieces of legislation. The first and most important is the Parliament Act of 1911, which limited the House of Lords' power to veto legislation and for the first time gave statutory definition to the relationship between the two houses of Parliament.

Of the three traditional elements in Britain's unwritten constitution King, Lords, and Commons the House of Commons had become the most powerful in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nevertheless, legislation still needed approval by both houses before it could receive the royal assent. To those who favored democratic rule this seemed unsatisfactory, since it gave the unelected Lords veto power over measures enacted by the House of Commons, which was elected by the people. Particularly after the Lords rejected the second Home Rule Bill in 1894, sentiment in favor of reforming the House of Lords became widespread, especially in the Liberal party. Pressure for reform reached its height when the Lords rejected David Lloyd George's "people's budget" (which included tax increases for the rich) in 1909.

Following the elections of January 1910 the Liberal government of Herbert H. Asquith introduced the Parliament Bill, which provided that money bills (as defined in the Parliament Bill) would become law one month after passage by the Commons, whether the Lords had approved them or not; over other types of legislation the delaying power of the Lords was limited to two years. Also, the normal period between parliamentary elections was reduced from seven to five years. The measure passed the House in April 1910. In order to force the bill through the Lords, Asquith got King Edward VII to promise that he would allow the creation of as many new Liberal peers as would be necessary to ensure its passage (the "conditional understanding"), but the king insisted that a new election be held first. King Edward died (May 6) before the agreement could be carried out. His successor, George V, suggested a "truce" during which the two houses should try to resolve their differences. When this failed, Parliament was dissolved (November 28) and new elections were held in December. The result was another Liberal victory, and the Parliament Bill was reintroduced in February 1911. It was passed (May 15) in the House of Commons by a majority of 121, the Labourites and Irish Nationalists voting with the Liberals. On August 10 it was reluctantly approved by the Lords under threat of the conditional understanding. The Parliament Act of 1949 reduced the Lords' delaying power for nonmoney bills to one year.

In the preamble to the 1911 act, the Asquith government had declared its intention to at some future time "substitute for the House of Lords as it is at present a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis." This promise remained unrealized until nearly a century later, when the Labour government of Tony Blair introduced (1999) a bill to deprive the hereditary peers of their right to sit in the House of Lords and appointed a royal commission to make recommendations for a more complete reform of the Lords. The exclusion of the hereditary peers was approved by the Commons in February and by the Lords in October 1999.

Bibliography: Shell, Donald, ed., The House of Lords at Work (1993); Smith, E. A., The House of Lords in British Politics and Society, 18151911 (1993).

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    The Presidency