The House of Lords and financial privilege in the 1670s

Recent debates in the House of Lords concerning the Welfare Reform Bill have turned especially on the extent to which the Lords might make amendments to bills which involve increased public expenditure. The modern procedure and practice on the issue is dealt with in a note by the Clerk of the House of Commons and the Clerk of Legislation on the Parliament website. In the Lords’ debates on the reasons given by the Commons for rejecting a number of the Lords’ amendments to the bill reference was made to the two Commons resolutions of the 1670s which are treated as the foundation of the Commons’ insistence that the Lords should not amend bills relating to taxation or expenditure.

The 13 April 1671 Resolution (which can be seen in the House of Commons Journal in the British History Online website) states ‘That, in all Aids given to the King, by the Commons, the Rate or Tax ought not to be altered by the Lords’. It was provoked by amendments made in the Lords to the Foreign Commodities Bill. The bill was one of a series designed to meet the request for finance to meet King Charles II’s debts and carry out his obligations under the 1668 Triple Alliance with the Netherlands and Spain (a request set out at the beginning of the session in October 1670 not long after the King had secretly agreed to abandon the alliance in favour of a Treaty with France, the old enemy of his allies). The bill was designed to raise around £160,000 through increased duties on imports of sugar and tobacco. It fell foul of a concerted lobby by the Barbados plantation owners (and, of course, slave owners), to reduce the duties charged on imported refined sugar – which would make it more profitable for them to refine their own sugar, as opposed to simply exporting unrefined sugar which was then refined in England. The lobby persuaded a number of peers and ministers – the Duke of Buckingham (a key favourite of the King), Lord Ashley (then Chancellor of the Exchequer), the Earl of Sandwich and others to accept their case, in order to bolster the financial viability of the planters. The relevant amendment was made in the Lords and justified by a statement later presented to the Commons. According to the Earl of Sandwich, who was principally responsible for ensuring that the amendment was made in the Lords, opposition to it in the Commons was aroused by another minister, the secretary of state the Earl of Arlington, who was engaged in a struggle for the King’s favour with Buckingham. In the debates in the Commons on the amendment to their bill Members who were associated with Arlington — Sir Thomas Clifford, Sir Robert Carr — certainly professed to be outraged by the Lords’ interference in matters they thought their own business, but the concern for the Lords’ encroachment appears to have been more general than can be explained simply by the machinations of factions at court. The Lords, in response, asserted their own right to amend ‘money bills’, claiming on 17 April:

“That the Power exercised by the House of Peers, in making the Amendments and Abatements in the Bill, intituled, “An Act for an additional Imposition on several Foreign Commodities, and for the Encouragement of several Commodities and Manufactures of this Kingdom,” both as to the Matter, Measure, and Time, concerning the Rates and Impositions on Merchandize, is a fundamental, inherent, and undoubted Right of the House of Peers, from which they cannot depart.”

They expanded on the point in further conferences between the two Houses, before the King abandoned the session altogether, proroguing Parliament on 22 April. One Member of the House of Lords, the veteran parliamentarian Lord Holles (who as plain Mr Denzil Holles had been one of the five Members whom Charles I had tried to arrest in early 1642) subsequently published a tract arguing that

“The Lords easily apprehended the ill consequence of such a Maxim, how it did shake the very foundation of Parliament, and utterly over-throw the Being of their House, rendring it altogether uselesse to the general good of the Nation: Because it could then contribute nothing to what is of so great consequence to it, as is the carrying on of Trade, and the just bal|lancing of it, if so be any slip or mistake, or error should happen to have been in what had passed to that purpose in the House of Commons, (as no Society of men but may erre) And therein consists the excellency of the constitution of our Government, that every Law hath first in each House of Parliament three Examens, like so many passings through the fire, to refine and purifie it. And that done in one House, then the other House takes it, and examines it over again in like manner three several times: And if any dross remain, or any thing be yet wanting to make it better and fitter to pass, care is there taken to do all that is further needful; so one House is both a Check and a help to the other, which is the great security of the Kingdom. This the Lords saw must inevitably cease. And therefore they judged it, to be of absolute present necessity, in the first place to make that sure, and assert a Priviledg so undoubtedly theirs, and indispensably necessary for the good of the Publick, of King, People and Parliament; which they did by a Vote. That the power exercised by the House of Peers in making the Amendments and Abatements in that Bill, was a Fundamental, inherent and undoubted right of the House of Peers, from which they could not depart.” [The case stated of the jurisdiction of the House of Lords in the point of Impositions (1676), 4.]

The 3 July 1678 Resolution (in the House of Commons Journal on British History Online as well) stated

“That all Aids and Supplies, and Aids to his Majesty in Parliament, are the sole Gift of the Commons: And all Bills for the Granting of any such Aids and Supplies ought to begin with the Commons: And that it is the undoubted and sole Right of the Commons, to direct, limit, and appoint, in such Bills, the Ends, Purposes, Considerations, Conditions, Limitations, and Qualifications of such Grants; which ought not to be changed, or altered by the House of Lords.”

This one emerged out of the deepening political crisis of the late 1670s which resulted a few months later in the beginnings of what is known as the ‘Exclusion Crisis’. Charles II’s alliance with France had been bitterly opposed from 1673 onwards by many in his Parliament, and eventually reversed. England joined an international coalition against France in 1678 just as its new partners were seeking peace, and just before a peace conference got under way in the Netherlands at Nijmegen. Charles raised troops to wage war against France; but as they were being raised it started to look as if they would not be needed. Many parliamentarians were suspicious that the new army, no longer needed on the continent, might be used to suppress dissent at home, and were keen to be rid of it as soon as possible. They agreed to taxation to pay off the troops, insisting that they should be disbanded by 30 June. But French brinkmanship at the peace conference made so fast a disbandment unwise, and while the supply bill was in the Lords, Charles received an appeal from the Dutch to delay it. He transmitted it to the Lords, who obliged by amending the dates given for disbandment to be achieved in the bill. The Commons to resist the amendments by raising the issue of privilege. Eventually a relatively smooth compromise was worked out in which the Commons merged the provisions of the disbandment bill with those of a completely new bill.

Some sources suggest that the controversy over the Lords Amendments was to some extent a synthetic one, designed to give the government time to see how the negotiations at Nijmegen would play out – something which would also explain why it was so easily resolved (unlike that of 1671, in which the bill was lost). The resolution of the issue might also suggest, though, that the Commons were keen to vindicate their own stand on the point of principle.


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