LONDON • It has long been seen as the lesser chamber, an anachronism from Britain's past, but the country's unelected Upper House of Parliament briefly reclaimed its long-lost pre-eminence this week when it rejected the government's welfare reforms.
The House of Lords, with its many elderly members and their ceremonial fur-fringed red robes, voted to delay cuts to benefits for low-earning families, with many arguing the proposals were morally indefensible and a threat to the lives of millions.
Their brief defiance of a decades-old convention not to delay passage of financial Bills from the elected Lower House caused an uproar and prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to launch an urgent review.
"If the Lords are intent on wrecking the manifesto of the elected government... then of course we have got to address that," leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling told the BBC on Tuesday. "There will have to be change."
Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who lectures on government at King's College London, said the vote by the Lords against the government caused a constitutional difficulty because it suggested that the unelected Upper House was acting as an opposition chamber.
The House of Lords
Britain's House of Lords, with 816 members known as peers, is the largest legislative body outside China. It is the only Upper House of a bicameral legislature to have more members than the Lower House.
Once a preserve of the here-ditary nobility, the Lords was reformed in 1999, limiting inherited seats to 92. Senior bishops of the Church of England hold 25 more seats.
The remaining members, the vast majority, were nominated by prime ministers and appointed for life. These "life peers" continue their political affiliations; most are affiliated with the left-leaning Labour or Liberal Democratic parties. Conservatives accuse those parties of using the Lords to thwart the will of the elected majority in the Commons.
Current life peers include former Olympic gold medal-winning 1,500m runner Sebastian Coe and composer of The Phantom of the Opera musical Andrew Lloyd Webber.
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS
The governing Conservative party has known that its Bills could get a rough ride in the Lords, because it does not have a majority there, but the rejection of a financial matter amounted to a "constitutional issue" in the Prime Minister's eyes.
"A convention exists and it has been broken. He has asked for a rapid review to see how it can be put back in place," Mr Cameron's spokesman said.
Late on Tuesday, a spokesman said the government was setting up a review to "examine how to protect the ability of elected governments to secure their business in Parliament".
"The review will consider in particular how to secure the decisive role of the elected House of Commons in relation to its primacy on financial matters; and secondary legislation," the spokesman said.
The last time the Lords blocked a finance Bill that had been approved by the Commons was in 1909, when the defeat brought down the Liberal government of the day and prompted its successor to pass the Parliament Act of 1911 which severely limited the Lords' powers.
Now, by convention, the upper chamber does not block financial Bills or those that fulfil promises in the governing party's election manifesto, but it can amend them, as it did on Monday, delaying the government's flagship policy of welfare cuts just months into its five-year term.
The review was dismissed by Professor Steven Fielding, who lectures political history at Nottingham University, as an exercise in saving face.
Further reform of the upper chamber has been an objective of many British governments for more than a century, but progress has been slow, with a consensus on comprehensive change continually out of reach.
"One suspects that this is going to be back of the envelope stuff, and it will probably go nowhere," Prof Fielding said.
Prof Bogdanor suggested the situation could be clarified by putting the existing conventions that govern the Lords into law, as was done with the Parliament Act of 1911.
"I think that would be the right procedure now, to put these conventions into law, to codify them if you like, so the Lords couldn't do that again," he said.
One option open to the Conservative government would be to use the Prime Minister's right to appoint members to the Lords to flood it with sympathisers. But that would likely reignite calls for an overhaul of the appointment system on which the Lords is based.
The most recent attempt at Lords reform, which would have made the majority of peers elected, was killed off in 2012.
The Lords can seem like an anachronism but its defenders point to the wide-ranging expertise of its peers, and a tradition of acting as a counter-balance to politicians.