A row has broken out between the government and the House of Lords over planned Tax Credit cuts for working people, leading to warnings of a “constitutional crisis”. The Lords are aiming to block the motion. In response, the Prime Minister David Cameron has threatened to flood the Lords with Conservative appointees.
On Tuesday night the House of Commons narrowly voted in favour of the cuts for the second time, but debate is set to continue as Labour and Liberal Democrat Peers have defied convention to table motions against the measure which would see it radically altered or even killed off completely, the Daily Telegraph has reported.
The Lords are technically able to throw out the plans as the Treasury has opted to introduce them as a statutory instrument rather than including them in the Finance Bill, which does not require approval by the Upper Chamber. However the Salisbury Convention dictates that the Lords do not oppose legislation promised in the ruling party’s manifesto.
On Monday, the Lords will debate motions put forward by Liberal Democrat Peers which would “kill” the cuts outright if successful. Labour Peers Baroness Hollis and Baroness Meacher have also spoken out against the cuts, insisting that they must not go ahead until the government has assessed their impact and put in transitional protection for three years.
Baroness Meacher also plans to table a wrecking amendment, but is holding off until the Commons can debate the matter again next week.
The senior Conservative MP Ken Clarke has called their actions “undemocratic”, telling the Telegraph: “There is no point in turning this into a constitutional crisis. It is an abuse of the House of Lord’s position to inflict £4bn of debt or cuts elsewhere on the government.
“It would be overstepping their role. They will get people demanding they are abolished if they try to imitate the American Congress.
“The Commons is supreme, we had a constitutional crisis more than 100 years ago which settled that. This would be fundamentally undemocratic. It is contrary to any sensible, good government and is undemocratic.”
The Speaker, John Bercow has also issued a warning to the Lords not to overreach itself, saying: “The constitutional position is clear and longstanding.”
But Labour insists that it is not in contravention of the Salisbury Convention, as opposition to the cuts has also come from Conservative quarters. Although the government suffered no rebellions in last Tuesday’s vote, four Conservative MPs, including mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith and senior party member David Davis, have sponsored a debate on the matter to be held next week.
Nonetheless, Mr Cameron has reacted furiously to the Lords opposition and has threatened to fill the Upper Chamber with new Conservative appointees to be sure of getting his way. Currently there are 811 Peers eligible to take part in the work of the House of Lords, of which 26 are Archbishops and 92 are hereditary peers.
More than a quarter, 211, are Labour members, while the Liberal Democrats have 110. A further 178 are Crossbench peers. However, just 248 are Conservatives, leaving the government vulnerable to being outvoted in the Lords.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Cameron yesterday said: “This House has now decided twice in favour of this measure. Once when voting on the statutory instrument – again last night in a vote put forward by the opposition.
“And I think the House of Lords should listen to that very carefully and recognise that it’s for this House to make financial decision. It’s for the other House to revise other legislation.”
He also did not rule out a suggestion by a fellow MP that he should “create more peers to ensure the Government can get its financial business through.”
The House of Lords is currently the second largest legislature in the world after China’s politburo, which boasts nearly 3,000 members. Lords are not paid a salary, but are entitled to an allowance of up to £300 a day for every day the House sits. There are currently no upper limits to how many Peers can be created.