I have in a previous post drawn attention to the change that took place in the House of Lords on the issue of same-sex marriage. The House has moved over the past decade from being resistant to measures designed to advance gay rights, such as lowering the age of consent and repealing Section 28, to being willing to endorse change and to do so by a substantial margin. I reflected in that post of why the House had changed so notably over that period. However, it strikes me that the change is notable not only in a historical sense (the change over time), but also in a comparative sense. The comparison is with the Commons.
The Lords used to be resistant to attempts by the Commons to achieve change. The lowering of the age of consent, for example, was achieved by use of the Parliament Act, the Commons getting its way over the resistance of the Lords. However, consider the position today. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill got through the Commons by 400 votes to 175, although more Conservative MPs voted against it than voted for it. In the Lords, it was carried by 390 votes to 148. There are two points of comparative relevance. First, the majority in the Lords was not only substantial, but higher than that achieved in the Commons. Second, every political grouping in the House produced more members voting for than against. This included the cross-benchers as well as the Conservatives.
Now fast forward to this year and the Assisted Dying Bill. A Private Member’s Bill, it was debated in the Commons earlier this month. It was rejected by 330 votes to 118, a majority of 212. When introduced in the Lords last session by Lord Falconer of Thoroton, a vote took place on an amendment that was seen as designed to frustrate the Bill by opponents. The amendment was rejected by 180 votes to 107, a somewhat unexpected victory by supporters of the Bill.
One has to be careful in reading too much into two votes, but the contrast merits reflection. In the 1960s, the Lords was seen as a liberal House: the law to decriminalise homosexuality could be seen as having its origins in a motion moved by the Earl of Arran and peers somewhat unexpectedly endorsed the decision of the Commons to abolish capital punishment. As Peter Richards wrote of the social reform legislation of the period, ‘the Lords, on balance, have assisted rather than impeded reform’. After going through a rather conservative era, is the House reverting to what it was half-a-century ago?