The Lords against the ‘Iron Lady’

ROSS LAVER January 11 1988

The Lords against the ‘Iron Lady’

ROSS LAVER January 11 1988

The Lords against the ‘Iron Lady’


She has been prime minister of Britain for more than eight years, but in all that time Margaret Thatcher has only twice lost a vote in the British House of Commons. By contrast, the unelected and often fiercely independent members of the upper chamber of Parliament, the House of Lords, have defeated her on 107 occasions, on issues ranging from the future of local government to the preservation of a rare species of wild flower. In the coming months the upper chamber will likely play an even greater role in reining in the Iron Lady’s legislative ambitions. With much of the opposition in the Commons in disarray, an increasing number of Lords are preparing to challenge the Conservative government’s plans to implement far-reaching reforms in education, housing, health-care and taxation. Declared Lord McIntosh, 54, a prominent member of the opposition Labour Party:

“It hurts to admit it, but on many issues we are the government’s only real opposition.”

Thatcher cannot afford to ignore her critics in the upper chamber. Last June the 62year-old Tory leader became the first British prime minister in the 20th century to win three consecutive general elections, gaining a solid 101-seat majority in the 650seat Commons. As a result, the outcome of most debates in the Commons is not in doubt. But Thatcher wields far less influence over the Lords, whose members—or peers, as they are called—hold their seats for life, either through inheritance or after the Queen appoints them on the prime minister’s recommendation. They are not, consequently, answerable to any voters. Of the approximately 950 peers—67 of them women—who are entitled to vote in the Lords, fewer than half are Conservatives. Some 330 of the remainder are independents, and the rest are divided between Labour and the LiberalSocial Democratic Party Alliance. In theory, at least, the powers of the House of Lords are limited. Under a law passed in 1949, members do not normally vote down major items of government legislation. But by extensively revising the details of government bills, the Lords can often force

the ruling party to accept fundamental changes in legislation. In addition, the Lords have the power to delay the passage of some laws for as long as 13 months—a practice that can cause havoc with the government’s legislative timetable. Said Baroness Seear, 74, a Liberal: “As an unelected body, it would obviously be quite improper for us to try to kill a bill outright. But there is nothing to stop us from being an utter nuisance to the government. We call it playing Ping-Pong—holding up a bill for so long that the government is compelled to accept our amendments just to get the thing passed.”

As she prepares to put into legislation the latest phase of her economic and political revolution, Thatcher faces the opposition of even some Conservative members of the

Lords. Many of them belong to what journalist Simon Heffer of the Daily Telegraph called “the paternalist wing of the Conservative party,” which has disagreed with many of Thatcher’s hard-line economic policies because they have widened the gulf in British society between rich and poor. Indeed, several peers are themselves former senior Tory MPs whom Thatcher had earlier relegated to the backbenches after they criticized key elements of government policy. Included in the ranks of the so-called “wets” are former Tory cabinet ministers Francis Pym, James Prior and Norman St. John-Stevas, each of whom Thatcher elevated to the House of Lords after the last election.

The government can apply little pressure on the Lords to influence their votes because they cannot be unseated. Nor by convention can a peer normally be tempted into supporting the government by the expectation that his loyalty will eventually be rewarded with a choice government appointment. “After all, once

you enter the Lords you have gone about as high as you can go,” said Baroness Seear. “A lot of Tory wets seem to find it easier to speak out because they know that they are beyond the prime minister’s reach. They have nothing to gain and nothing to lose.”

Of all of Thatcher’s proposed reforms, the one that will likely stir the greatest controversy in the Lords is her plan to abolish the existing system of local taxes and replace it with a flat-rate levy, or community charge. Most experts agree that the existing arrangement, under which the amount of tax that a person pays to his local government is determined by the size and value of the property he owns, is both outdated and unfair. But critics say that the government’s answer to the problem is even more regressive.

The new system would ensure that every adult who lives in a particular community receives an identical tax bill, without regard to income.

Tory supporters of the legislation say that by spreading the tax burden equally, the new system will bring public pressure to bear on high-spending local councils —many controlled by the Labour Party —to trim their budgets. Thatcher herself recently described the bill as “the flagship in the Thatcherite fleet” and said that it would mark a major step forward in her campaign to make local government more accountable. The bill’s opponents, however, complain that it would result in substantial tax increases for millions of low-income voters, while at the same time reducing the tax bills of many wealthy homeowners. As a result, some Tory rebels—both in the Commons and in the Lords—have proposed amending the bill to take into account a taxpayer’s ability to pay.

The government also faces serious opposition over its plans to reform Britain’s state-run education system.

Like the tax proposals, the new education bill is aimed largely at restricting the powers of left-wing local politicians. The legislation would allow parents who are dissatisfied with their children’s education to hold a referendum to decide whether their school should remain under local government control. Parents would then have the option to operate the school independently, using funds provided directly by Parliament. Smaller state schools

would also have the right to refuse admission to pupils who failed to meet their entrance requirements.

In the long run, the bill’s proponents say that it will raise standards in all schools—independent and staterun—by introducing a spirit of competition to the educational system. But Thatcher’s critics in the Tory partyincluding many in the Lords—are gearing up to fight the legislation. Last month former Tory prime minister Edward Heath, 71, launched a blistering attack on the bill in the Commons, describing it as “largely a

confidence trick” and predicting that many parents would soon be required to pay for their children’s education. Declared Heath: “The bill is divisive, and it would be fatal to the education of a large number of children.”

Despite Heath’s outburst, both the education bill and the tax reform bill are expected to be approved by the Commons early this year. They will then be referred to the House of Lords—where each is likely to en-

counter stiff opposition. Other government initiatives that are likely to receive close scrutiny include proposals to abolish free eye and dental checkups and to exempt some private landlords from rent controls in order to encourage more people to rent out vacant property. Even Thatcher’s deputy prime minister, Viscount Whitelaw, 69, acknowledged that it would be a mistake for the government to try to “ride roughshod” over the upper chamber because its members were “likely to become angry if hurried.” The Lords’ willingness to stand up

to Thatcher’s reform program has won the upper chamber praise from some unlikely quarters. In 1983 the Labour Party promised in its election manifesto “to abolish the undemocratic House of Lords as quickly as possible.” But that pledge was quietly dropped from the party’s 1987 election platform—in large part, Labour’s Lord McIntosh said, because his party’s activists realized that the upper chamber represented the most effec-

tive opposition to Thatcher’s rightwing reforms. Said Lord McIntosh: “Among a lot of Labour MPs there is a grudging respect, tinged with jealousy, for our ability to inflict defeat on the government.” He added: “Personally, my sympathies lie with those who think that the upper house should be abolished. But while it is there, I would argue that it is performing a useful function.” And while it is there, Thatcher will have to answer to the Lords.

— ROSS LAVER in London