Between 1909 and 1910 the House of Lords , in breach on convention, refused to agree to the government’s budget. Parliament then passed the Parliament Act 1911 which laid down strict rules for the scrutiny of financial legislation by the House of Lords.
Had the House of Lords acted unlawfully in refusing to agree to the budget? Did the House of Lords break the convention or merely introduce and exception to it?
The House of Lords was the heavily Conservative dominated. The great majority of peers were then hereditary peers with only a sprinkling of bishops and law lords. The House of Lords did not like the so-called People’s Budget because it was passed by a Liberal Government – most peers were hostile to the Liberals. The budget was rejected for solely partisan reasons. It envisaged higher taxes on the rich, death duties and especially higher taxes on rent income. The House of Lords broke the convention. This was not unlawful since the convention was nowhere defined in law and there was no legal remedy. George V threatened to flood the Lord with Liberal peers if the budget were not passed after the 1910 election. It was then passed.
In 1975 during the debates on Britain’s continued membership of the European Community the Prime Minister waived the convention of collective ministerial responsibility AND permitted free debate. Following the decision to remain in Europe, the convention was restored. Was there any unlawful or constitutional conduct on the part of the PM? Was the convention of collective responsibility broken or was an exception to it introduced?
The Prime Minister was responding to an unusual situation. Harold Wilson, Prime Minister at the time, suspended collective cabinet responsibility. This principle is that cabinet ministers must in public defend government policy even if they are against it in private. This was not entirely novel. In the 1820s Lord Liverpool had done the same thing over the Catholic Emancipation issue. He had allowed his ministers to voice their opinions in public over this one most divisive issue.
The convention was not broken. It was a temporary exception to it. The exemption applied only to this issue. After the 1975 referendum the status quo was restored. The Conservative Opposition at the time also allowed its shadow cabinet to express their views freely on this issue during the referendum.