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There was recently two days of debate in the House of Lords concerning the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, stating the UK's intention to leave the European Union.

The opening statements made it clear that the decision had already been made, that the Lords would not, under any circumstances, overturn the decision to trigger Article 50.

This means that any commentary, arguments, discussions made during these two days (~800 Peers x ~£300 x 2 days; around £720,000 of tax money), were purely symbolic.

As far as I can tell, this undermines the purpose of the Lords, as a balance to the Commons. Where decisions on law and policy can be blocked by a (relatively) impartial group of people.

So, what was the point in these two days of highly publicised discussion? What was it for?

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    The argument about cost is irrelevant. If the Lords had not been debating this bill, similar costs would have been incurred doing something else. In any case, since the Supreme Court had ruled that a parliamentary bill was legally required, such a bill could not receive the Royal Assent unless it had been passed by the Lords. If you want to assign blame over the cost of the exercise, that should be directed at the Supreme Court (or at the campaigners who brought their case before the court), not at the Lords. – alephzero Feb 24 '17 at 16:11
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    @alephzero I was not assigning blame to anyone, the question is what is the value of this exercise when no action can be taken as a result. I fully understand the value of the Lords being a sanity check for the Commons, but not a debate in which they are stripped of their powers. – AJFaraday Feb 24 '17 at 16:19
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    "The opening statements made it clear that the decision had already been made, that the Lords would not, under any circumstances, overturn the decision to trigger Article 50." -- Those were, presumably, the opinions/plans of those making the opening statements (presumably a member of the government?) but that doesn't mean that the House would have to vote that way. While practically speaking it was a fait accompli, technically speaking it could have been voted down. – owjburnham Feb 24 '17 at 23:46
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    @alephzero Your logic about the costs is flawed. Its like justifying spending $1M investigating how to push the Earth into the sun, instead of say investigating how to relieve traffic congestion in downtown London. – Andy Feb 24 '17 at 23:51
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The role of the House of Lords is to:

  • make laws
  • check and challenge the actions of the government, and
  • provide a forum of independent expertise

Though no party has a majority in the House of Lords, it rarely blocks government legislation. Instead, one of its key purposes is to scrutinise legislation in a less hurried fashion than often happens in the House of Commons.

Where it does disagree with the Commons (and hence the government), it is much more likely to request that the other house think again, rather than issue a blunt rejection.

As to the specific matter of the Article 50 debate, this article from UCL's Constitution Unit attempts to answer the question, "What will the Lords do with the Article 50 bill?", and demonstrates the very nuanced relationship between the Lords and the government.

Briefly, even if the Lords does not amend the Bill, it may require (as a matter of honour, rather than legislation) that the government promise to do certain things. Or it may make an amendment in order to register a concern, so that the Commons has an opportunity to reconsider it, even if the Commons ultimately decides to reject it.

Much of what happens in Parliament doesn't go to a vote, and doesn't change anything on paper. Its function is to ensure that all points of view are heard, and to force the government to justify everything it does. The Article 50 debates are prime examples of this.

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This is a legal requirement determined by the UK courts:

The judgement means Theresa May cannot begin talks with the EU until MPs and peers give their backing - although this is expected to happen in time for the government's 31 March deadline.

On top of that, legislatures will often times have 'obvious' debates where everyone knows the outcome beforehand just for matters of record. That happens not just in the UK.

  • I guess a better question would be, if it was a legal requirement but fait acompli, why spend two days debating it? Couldn't it have been passed to a vote quickly if no one was going to object to it? – KutuluMike Feb 25 '17 at 1:39
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    @KutuluMike I mentioned it in passing, but there is still value in having a formal debate on it. Representatives can express the details of their views (such as reservations even thought they are voting for it). This can be important for reference in future debates. Also some may still vote against even though the majority will vote for, so its again their opportunity to be on the record. – David Grinberg Feb 25 '17 at 1:45
  • @DavidGrinberg: Pedantry, I'm afraid, but Members of the Lords are not 'representatives': they are not elected and do not represent any particular constituency. – Jack Aidley Mar 1 '17 at 12:18

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