The Salisbury convention is commonly understood to mean the House of Lords does not block government bills that seek to implement manifesto commitments. This means the Lords gives manifesto bills a second reading, does not subject them to wrecking amendments and returns them to the Commons in reasonable time. It is also sometimes called the Salisbury-Addison convention or the Salisbury doctrine.

1. Development

The Salisbury convention is named after an understanding between Viscount Addison, the leader of the House of Lords, and Viscount Cranborne (later Marquess of Salisbury), the leader of the opposition in the House of Lords, during the Labour government of 1945 to 1951.

At that time, Labour had a majority in the House of Commons but the Conservatives had a majority in the House of Lords. In his response to the King’s Speech of 1945, Viscount Cranborne argued the election result gave the Labour government a mandate for the proposals on which the electorate had voted. He said it would therefore be “constitutionally wrong, when the country has so recently expressed its view, for this House to oppose proposals which have been definitely put before the electorate”. He later recalled that during this period, the opposition in the Lords passed Labour’s manifesto bills at second reading “although we cordially disliked them” and did its best to “improve them and make them more workable at committee stage”. However, for bills which had not featured in Labour’s manifesto, the opposition “reserved full liberty of action”.

2. Modern expression

In May 2006, a Joint Committee on Conventions was established to consider “the practicality of codifying the key conventions on the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament which affect the consideration of legislation”. As part of its inquiry, the joint committee examined the Salisbury convention and presented its own understanding of how it worked. The joint committee acknowledged that the convention had changed over time:

We are persuaded by the strength of the argument that the Salisbury-Addison convention has changed since 1945, and particularly since 1999. Indeed, this was tacitly admitted by the government which said, in written evidence, “For a convention to work properly, however, there must be a shared understanding of what it means. A contested convention is not a convention at all.”

In the joint committee’s view, the convention applied to manifesto bills introduced to either House and was now recognised “by the whole House, unlike the original Salisbury-Addison convention which existed only between two parties”. The joint committee also noted evidence of “the emergence in recent years of a practice that the House of Lords will usually give a second reading to any government bill, whether based on the manifesto or not”.

The joint committee’s remit was to consider whether to codify certain conventions. Its report recommended against any form of codification that would “turn conventions into rules, remove flexibility, exclude exceptions and inhibit evolution in response to political circumstances”. It emphasised that conventions, including the Salisbury convention, were not enforceable rules:

[…] all recommendations for the formulation or codification of conventions are subject to the current understanding that conventions as such are flexible and unenforceable, particularly in the self-regulating environment of the House of Lords. Nothing in these recommendations would alter the present right of the House of Lords, in exceptional circumstances, to vote against the second reading or passing of any bill.

However, the joint committee offered “no definition of situations in which an attempt to reject a bill at second reading might be appropriate, save that they would include free votes”. It also concluded that “to reject bills at second reading on a regular basis would be inconsistent with the Lords’ role as the revising chamber”.

3. Identifying manifesto bills and the primacy of the House of Commons

The Salisbury convention relates to a government’s manifesto bills. This is based on the idea that manifesto bills have a special form of democratic legitimacy as they have been voted for by the electorate.

There is a recognition that it is not always straightforward to identify which bills should be classed as manifesto bills, especially as modern manifestos tend to be more complex than in 1945 when the convention originated.

However, it has also been pointed out that in practice the Lords does not usually block any government bill, regardless of whether it is a manifesto bill. Professor Meg Russell, director of the Constitution Unit at University College London, has argued that whether or not a bill is a manifesto commitment to which the Salisbury convention applies may not be the most significant political consideration in practice. Rather, she has argued the House of Lords typically acts in a way that respects the primacy of the Commons:

[…] it is extremely unusual for the House of Lords to block any government measure in its entirety. The most important political factor is not whether a measure was in the government’s manifesto, but the broader context that applies to all bills of the risks of an unelected House of Lords challenging decisions of the elected House of Commons.

Professor Russell explained that she tended to see reference to the convention as “largely a ‘red herring’, since in practice all government bills are given time, and the House of Commons’ primacy is respected almost without exception”.

Earlier this year, the House of Lords voted to reject government amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that were proposed after the bill had left the House of Commons. Speaking for the Labour Party, Lord Rosser said the opposition would vote against the amendments because they had not been considered by the Commons:

The bill has been in Parliament for some 11 months. However, sweeping, significant and further controversial powers from the government have not been looked at for a single minute by the elected House, which is normal practice in relation to controversial measures.

4. Recent hung parliaments

The 2010 and 2017 general elections both produced hung parliaments. This gave rise to questions about whether the Salisbury convention applied to a coalition or minority government.

In 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government initially asserted the convention still applied, although others across the House felt the issue was not so clear cut. In 2011, the government acknowledged the convention did not operate in the same way with the advent of a coalition government. Two parliamentary committees both concluded that a coalition agreement made after an election had produced a hung parliament did not have the same status as a manifesto. During the period of the coalition government, there were attempts to block three government bills at second reading in the Lords, all of which failed:

  • Three attempts were made to stop the then government’s Health and Social Care Bill from progressing.
  • Lord Dear (Crossbench) moved an amendment to the second reading motion of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, declining to give it a second reading.
  • Lord Lloyd of Berwick (Crossbench) moved an amendment to the second reading motion of the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill, declining to give it a second reading.

In 2017, the minority Conservative government argued the Salisbury convention should apply to its manifesto pledges. Other parties in the Lords were not convinced of this argument but acknowledged the Lords would be mindful of the balance of power between the two Houses. During the 2017–19 parliament, Brexit supporters claimed that Lords amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and the Data Protection Bill were ‘wrecking amendments’ that violated the Salisbury convention. However, others argued that in making these amendments the Lords was fulfilling its constitutional role by asking the Commons to think again.

Cover image by Dominika Gregušová on Pexels.