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Passing of the Parliament Bill, 1911, from the drawing by S. Begg

The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949[1] are two Acts of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which form part of the constitution of the United Kingdom. It is provided that they are to be construed as though they were a single Act.[2]

The first Parliament Act, the Parliament Act 1911 (1 & 2 Geo. 5. c. 13), asserted the supremacy of the House of Commons by limiting the legislation-blocking powers of the House of Lords (the suspensory veto). Provided the provisions of the Act are met, legislation can be passed without the approval of the House of Lords. Additionally, the 1911 Act amended the Septennial Act to reduce the maximum life of a Parliament from seven years to five years. The first Parliament Act was amended by the second Parliament Act, the Parliament Act 1949 (12, 13 & 14 Geo. 6. c. 103), which further limited the power of the Lords by reducing the time that they could delay bills, from two years to one.[3]

The Parliament Acts have been used to pass legislation against the wishes of the House of Lords on only seven occasions since 1911, including the passing of the Parliament Act 1949. Some constitutional lawyers had questioned the validity of the 1949 Act; these doubts were settled in 2005 when members of the Countryside Alliance unsuccessfully challenged the validity of the Hunting Act 2004, which had been passed under the auspices of the Act. In October 2005, the House of Lords dismissed the Alliance's appeal against this decision, with an unusually large panel of nine Law Lords holding that the 1949 Act was a valid Act of Parliament.


Parliament Act 1911

The purpose of the Parliament Act 1911 is explained by its long title:

An Act to make provision with respect to the powers of the House of Lords in relation to those of the House of Commons, and to limit the duration of Parliament.[3]


The 1911 Act prevented the Lords from vetoing any public legislation that originated in and had been approved by the Commons, and imposed a maximum legislative delay of one month for "money bills" (those dealing with taxation) and two years for other types of bill.[3] The Speaker was given the power to certify which bills are classified as money bills. If a money bill is not passed by the Lords without amendment within one month after it is received, the bill can be presented for Royal Assent without being passed by the Lords. For other public bills, the 1911 Act originally provided that a rejected bill would become law without the Lords' consent if it were passed by the Commons in three successive sessions, provided that two years elapsed between Second Reading of the bill and its final passing in the Commons.

The 1911 Act still allowed the Lords to veto a bill to prolong the lifetime of a parliament or to confirm a provisional order, and it could only be used to force through a bill originating in the Commons, so the Lords also retained the power to veto any bill originating within the House of Lords. In addition to curtailing the power of the Lords, the 1911 Act amended the Septennial Act 1715, reducing the maximum duration of any parliament from seven years to five, and provided for Members of Parliament (excluding government ministers) to be paid £400 per year.[4] The payment of MPs had been a demand of radical democratic movements since at least the 1830s.

Parliament Act 1949

Immediately after the Second World War, the Labour government of Clement Attlee decided to amend the 1911 Act to reduce further the power of the Lords, as a result of their fears that their radical programme of nationalisation would be delayed by the Lords and hence would not be completed within the life of the parliament.[5] The House of Lords did not interfere with nationalisations in 1945 or 1946, but it was feared that the proposed nationalisation of the iron and steel industry would be a bridge too far,[6] so a bill was introduced in 1947 to reduce the time that the Lords could delay bills, from three sessions over two years to two sessions over one year.[3] The Lords attempted to block this change. The Bill was reintroduced in 1948 and again in 1949, before the 1911 Act was finally used to force it through.[7] Since the 1911 Act required a delay over three "sessions", a special short "session" of parliament was introduced in 1948, with a King's Speech on 14 September 1948, and prorogation on 25 October.[3]

The amended Parliament Act was never used in the 1940s or 1950s, possibly because the mere threat of it was enough. The Salisbury convention that the Lords would not block government bills that were mentioned in the government's manifesto dates from this time. Salisbury believed that since, in being returned to power, the Government was given a clear mandate for the policies proposed in its manifesto, it would be improper for the Lords to frustrate such legislation.[8]

Acts passed under the Parliament Act display a modified form of enacting formula:

BE IT ENACTED by The Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Commons in this present Parliament assembled, in accordance with the provisions of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, and by the authority of the same, as follows

The usual enacting formula, used on other Acts, also refers to the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and omits the reference to the Parliament Acts.

Use of the Parliament Acts

The Parliament Acts have seldom been used. The 1911 Act was used only three times before its amendment in 1949.[3] These were:

  1. Welsh Church Act 1914, under which the Welsh part of the Church of England was disestablished in 1920, becoming the Church in Wales.
  2. Home Rule Act 1914, which would have established a Home Rule government in Ireland; its implementation was blocked due to the First World War.
  3. Parliament Act 1949, which amended the Parliament Act 1911 (discussed above).

The amended form of the 1911 Act has been used four times.[3] These were:

  1. War Crimes Act 1991, which extended jurisdiction of UK courts to acts committed on behalf of Nazi Germany during the Second World War (the only time that the Parliament Acts have been used by a Conservative government).
  2. European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, which changed the system of elections to the European Parliament from first past the post to a form of proportional representation.
  3. Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000, which equalised the age of consent for male homosexual sexual activities with that for heterosexual and female homosexual sexual activities at 16.
  4. Hunting Act 2004, which prohibited hare coursing and (subject to some exceptions) all hunting of wild mammals (particularly foxes) with dogs after early 2005.

Since the Labour government came to power in 1997, there has been repeated speculation that it would rely on the Parliament Acts to reverse a check from the Lords, but it has not proved necessary. The Parliament Acts were not required to enact, for example, the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No 2) Bill in 2000[3] (which originally proposed to give magistrates, not defendants, the choice of where an "either way" offence would be tried) because the government abandoned the bill after a wrecking amendment in the House of Lords. The Parliament Act was threatened to be used to get the ID Cards bill passed through the Lords. This was backed up by a threat of an immediate introduction of a compulsory ID Card scheme. The Lords had no option but to accept a compromise of a delay in the introduction of the scheme. The Parliament Acts cannot be used to force through legislation that originated in the House of Lords, so they could not have been used to enact the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 or the Constitutional Reform Act 2005.

The first three measures for which the act has been used since 1949 were not mentioned in manifestos, and hence in trying to veto them the Lords were not breaking the Salisbury convention. The Hunting Bill was mentioned in the Labour Party manifesto for the 2001 general election, so, depending upon how the convention is interpreted, the attempt to block it could be taken as a breach. However, as conventions are merely convention and not law, the House of Lords would not be taking illegal action if they were to act otherwise.

The threat of the Parliament Acts has been employed by several British governments to force the Lords to accept its legislation. In at least three cases, the procedure set out in the Parliament Acts was started, but the legislation was approved by the House of Lords as a result of the government making concessions.[3] These were:

  1. Temperance (Scotland) Act 1913, which allowed the voters in a district to hold a poll to vote on whether their district went "dry" or remained "wet".
  2. Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Act 1976, which amended the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 to reverse changes made to that act as it passed through Parliament.
  3. Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977, which nationalised large parts of the UK aerospace and shipbuilding industries and established two corporations, British Aerospace and British Shipbuilders.

Validity of the 1949 Act

Since the 1949 Act became law, doubts were raised by legal academics as to whether the use of the 1911 Act to pass the 1949 Act, which amended the 1911 Act itself, was valid.[3][5][9] Three main concerns were raised:

  • The continued ability of the House of Lords to veto a bill to prolong the life of Parliament would not be entrenched if the 1911 Act could be used to amend itself first, removing this restriction.
  • The 1949 Act could be considered to be secondary legislation, since it depended for its validity on another Act, the 1911 Act; and the principle that courts will respect an Act of Parliament without enquiring into its origins (an emanation of parliamentary sovereignty) would not apply.
  • Under the 1911 Act, Parliament (that is, the Commons and the Lords acting together) delegated its ability to pass legislation to another body (the Commons alone). Following legal principles established when the United Kingdom granted legislative powers to assemblies in its colonies in the late 1700s, a subordinate legislative body cannot use the Act under which legislative power was delegated to it to expand its competence without an express power to do so in the enabling Act (see Declaratory Act).[10]

To address these concerns, a Law Lord, Lord Donaldson of Lymington, presented a Private Member's Bill in House of Lords in the 2000–2001 session of Parliament (the Parliament Acts (Amendment) Bill), which would have had the effect of confirming the legitimacy of the 1949 Act, but prohibiting any further such uses of the Parliament Act to amend itself, or use of it to further modify or curtail the powers of the House of Lords.[3][5][11] Another Parliament Acts (Amendment) Bill was introduced independently by Lord Renton of Mount Harry in the next session,[5] but neither of these Bills proceeded to a Third Reading.[3]

The first legal challenge to the 1949 Act is believed to have been made during the first prosecution for war crimes under the War Crimes Act 1991, R. v. Serafinowicz, but no record of the legal arguments remains.[12] Because a second defendant was prosecuted under the War Crimes Act, and was sentenced to life imprisonment and since the War Crimes Act was later amended by both two further acts (the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996), which were passed by both Houses and received royal assent, the validity of War Crimes Act is not under question.[12]

The 1949 Act, and the validity of Acts made under it, were not questioned in court again until the Parliament Acts were used to pass the Hunting Act 2004. Early in 2005, the Countryside Alliance took a case to court to challenge the validity of the 1949 Act.[13] In the High Court, the wording of the 1911 Act was held not to imply any entrenchment.[7] Support for this conclusion can be drawn from the parliamentary debates on the 1911 Act, in which an entrenchment clause was considered but rejected, the Government clearly displaying the intention to be able to make such amendments if necessary. However, the 2005 decision was made on other grounds, so the question of whether the Courts could refer to the 1949 Act's Parliamentary debates under the principle established in Pepper v Hart was not decided.[7]

The High Court held that the 1949 Act was primary legislation, despite being unusual in that the Courts can rule on whether the provisions of the 1911 Act are complied with. It was held that the 1911 Act clearly permits the procedures specified in the Parliament Acts to be used for "any Public Bill", and this was sufficient to dispose of the argument that the 1911 Act could not be used to amend itself. The Court took the view that the 1911 Act was a 'remodelling' of the constitution rather than a delegation of power.

The subsequent Court of Appeal ruling agreed that the 1949 Act itself was valid, but left open the question of whether the Commons could use the Parliament Act to make significant changes to the constitution (for example, repealing the Parliament Act's provision prohibiting the Act from being used to extend the lifespan of Parliament).[14] The Court of Appeal refused to give the Countryside Alliance permission to appeal their decision to the House of Lords; however, a petition for permission to appeal was submitted directly to the Law Lords and granted in July 2005. Argument in the case was heard on 13 and 14 July 2005 by a large committee of nine Law Lords, rather than the normal five. In a unanimous decision, the Law Lords upheld the validity of 1949 Act.[15]

Future developments

After the "first stage" of reform of the House of Lords was implemented in the House of Lords Act 1999, the Wakeham Royal Commission on the proposal of a "second stage" of reform reported in January 2000. Subsequently, the government decided to take no action to change the legislative relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords.[3]

In March 2006, it was reported that the Government is considering removing the ability of the Lords to delay legislation that arises as a result of manifesto commitments, and reducing their ability to delay other legislation to a period of 60 days.[16]

See also


  1. ^ This collective title is authorised by section 2(2) of the Parliament Act 1949
  2. ^ The Parliament Act 1949, section 2(2)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Parliamentary Standard Note on the Parliament ActsPDF (232 KiB) (SN/PC/675) (last updated 23 March 2007, in PDF format, 28 pages)
  4. ^ Eric J. Evans, Parliamentary Reform, c. 1770–1918
  5. ^ a b c d "House of Lords Hansard for 19 January 2001 (pt 1)". The Stationery Office. 2001-01-19. Retrieved 9 October 2006. 
  6. ^ The Parliament Act 1949PDF (103 KiB), House of Lords Library Note LLN 2005/007, 16 November 2005.
  7. ^ a b c R. v. H.M. Attorney General, ex parte Jackson [2005] EWHC 94 (Admin), 28 January 2005
  8. ^ Glenn Dymond and Hugo Deadman (2006-06-30). "Library Note: The Salisbury Doctrine" (PDF). The House of Lords. Retrieved 10 October 2006. 
  9. ^ F A R Bennion. "Is the Parliament Act 1949 invalid?" (PDF). Retrieved 8 October 2006. 
  10. ^ See, for example, the decision of the Privy Council in R v. Burah (1878) 3 App Cas 889 and in Bribery Commissioner v. Ranasinghe [1965] AC 172.
  11. ^ House of Lords. Parliament Acts (Amendment) Bill, Session 1999–2000. Accessed 23 September 2006.
  12. ^ a b Royal Courts of Justice. The Queen on the application of Jackson & Ors and HM Attorney General. Accessed 23 September 2006.
  13. ^ "House of Commons Hansard Debates for 11 January 2005 (pt 6)". The Stationery Office. Retrieved 7 October 2006. 
  14. ^ R. v. H.M. Attorney General, ex parte Jackson [2005] EWCA Civ 126, 16 February 2005
  15. ^ Jackson v. H.M. Attorney General, [2005] UKHL 56, 13 October 2005
  16. ^ "Lords reform moves up the agenda". 2006-03-27. Retrieved 26 September 2006. 


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