Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: House of Lords from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1643) : the upper house of the British Parliament composed of the lords temporal and spiritual


Summary Article: The House of Lords
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Introduction The UK is the only European democracy to maintain an element of non-elective rule, and this is widely perceived as out of place in modern times. The structure of government in the UK has evolved over many centuries. In contrast to other industrialized countries that have rebuilt governing procedures and processes after revolution, the UK's Parliament has emerged gradually. This means that the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the UK Parliament (also referred to as the upper House or second chamber), is still composed of non-elected members, and these members have powers and responsibilities that affect UK citizens' lives.

Origins of the chamber The House of Lords emerged in the 14th century from the Witan, a council that had been formed in the 11th century to advise Saxon kings. When this body began to include a representative element, it split into two chambers, the House of Commons, composed of representatives from local areas, and the House of Lords, composed of religious leaders and hereditary peers. This created three levels of government, comprising the monarch, the Commons (representing the merchants and local areas), and the Lords (representing the aristocratic land-owning interests). The House of Lords was composed of spiritual (senior figures in the Church of England) and temporal lords (hereditary peers, Law Lords, and, from 1958, life peers). Despite the removal of the spiritual lords during the English Civil War, and the suspension of the upper chamber from 1649 to 1660 during the Cromwellian era, the House of Lords continued to be an important part of Parliament in the UK. Over time, the role of the two Houses developed and changed, and in 1689 the Bill of Rights was passed, which established the authority of the two Houses of Parliament over the monarch. As the number of people allowed to vote was expanded the Commons became more representative than the Lords, but it was not until 1911 that the Lords saw its powers significantly checked. In 1909 the Lords rejected the budget proposed by the chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, and in the next Parliament the Liberal government curbed the Lords' powers by removing the upper House's power of veto. This meant the amount of time that the Lords could delay monetary bills was reduced to one month, and the delaying period on most other bills, apart from a bill to extend the life of a Parliament, was reduced to two years. This second change was consolidated in 1949, when the length of time the Lords could delay a non-financial bill was reduced to one year.

Changes in the later 20th century The next legislation that changed the Lords was the 1958 Life Peerages Act. This allowed for the creation of life peers, people chosen to sit in the Lords for the duration of their life. Although this brought new vitality to the House of Lords, it could also be argued that it allowed the prime minister to use life peerages as a ‘reward’ for support. The principle of primogeniture (succession through the male lineage) was giving way to the principle of patronage, and neither method had its basis in democratic election. In 1963 the Peerage Act allowed female hereditary peers to sit in the House, and also allowed peers to surrender their peerage, for example if they wished to sit in the House of Commons. This was prompted by the case of Tony Benn, a member of Parliament for Bristol Southeast at the time, who inherited a peerage and wished to remain in the House of Commons.

Functions of the House The main functions of the Lords include scrutinizing the actions of the Commons and revising legislation in detail. The Lords are also part of the formal legislative process of any bill. The House of Lords, in the form of the Law Lords, acts as the highest court in the land, and the select committees that are chaired by the Lords, including the European Communities Select Committee, are also seen as vital to democracy in the UK. Many observers see the Lords as important due to their technical expertise, especially since the creation of life peers, which has allowed, for example, scientists and industrialists to contribute to political debate. The members of the Lords are generally less concerned with party politics than the members of the Commons, and may be more in tune with the prevalent public attitudes than members of Parliament who have to follow the party line.

Problems with the chamber If the House of Lords does such crucially important work, why have so many people advocated reform for so long? The key is the undemocratic nature of the body, and its composition. Members of the Lords up until 1999 were predominantly white, land-owning, upper-class males. Despite the introduction of life peers, it was a body where people could rule through accident of birth. Labour Party politician Margaret Beckett claimed that in 1999 there were 750 hereditary peers voting in the Lords, ‘most with little, if any, experience of schools or healthcare or housing in common with most of their fellow countrymen and women’. The House of Lords has tended to have an inbuilt Conservative bias, potentially meaning it can act in opposition to a non-Conservative government that has been democratically elected. The bottom line is that it has no legitimacy – as Charter 88, a pro-reform pressure group argues, ‘a second chamber whose membership is based on appointment and entitlement runs counter [to] all notions of democracy’. A further problem with the House of Lords is that it has no upper limit on numbers. The House of Commons currently contains 659 members, and this number rarely changes. Up until 1999 there were more than double the number of members of Parliament entitled to sit and vote in the House of Lords than there were in the House of Commons. As long ago as 1871 the political scientist Walter Bagehot pronounced the principles underlying the House of Lords ‘utterly dead’. However reform has been slow in coming, because of the value placed on tradition in the UK system of parliament, because of the Conservative domination of government in post-war Britain, and because it has not been considered an issue that a prime minister could gain much popularity by championing. However, in 1999 a process of change was set in motion. This was the result of extra pressures being placed on Parliament, including the increasing integration into the European Union (EU), and the devolution of power to Scottish and Welsh parliaments. The House of Lords appeared undemocratic compared with European parliaments, and seemed ill-equipped to move forward in its existing form.

Labour's programme of reform In the 1997 election the Labour Party manifesto promised a two-step reform process. Step one was the removal of the hereditary peers, and step two was to set up a royal commission to assess potential models for the future House of Lords. In 1998 the government established a royal commission, headed by Lord Wakeham, to evaluate the House of Lords and propose reform. In 1999 step one was implemented, although it received fierce opposition from both the Lords and the Commons. Negotiations between the government and the Conservative Lords' leader, Lord Cranbourne, resulted in the Weatherill amendment, that created a compromise allowing 92 hereditary peers to stay on in the Lords until completion of reform. The government's plans for step two have also been criticized. The notion of a two-step reform of the House of Lords without a clear-cut plan for the second stage is worrying, especially in the historical context that many reforms made to the House have been the interim action of a longer process that was never completed. The royal commission has also been criticized for its relatively small budget, the short time allocated to it to hold public hearings and then report, and its composition, of figures considered as team players rather than visionaries. Further, the limits of the commission's debate were established at the outset by Labour leaders, and it did not discuss whether a bicameral (two-tiered) legislature was the best option for the UK Parliament. The Labour evidence given to the commission also suggested that Tony Blair's government did not want a fully elected House, because of fears that an elected upper House would become more powerful than the House of Commons. This led to concerns among many that the prime minister would be able to appoint whoever he or she liked to the chamber, meaning that the House would still be undemocratic. Labour member of Parliament Tony Wright expressed this opinion, using the phrase ‘Tony's cronies’ to suggest that the House could be filled by the prime minister's friends and supporters.

Potentials for reform There may be no solution to reforming the House of Lords that satisfies all parties. Making the Lords fully elected would allow an opportunity to introduce a different kind of voting system, such as proportional representation, or a system that involved the selection of candidates from different geographical sectors than the House of Commons representatives. Further, it would be a chance to make the upper House more representative of the population of the UK as a whole. It is unlikely that members of Parliament would support a fully elected upper House, but the other option, a fully appointed House, would mean the prime minister would have complete control of the appointments to the House, and this would further consolidate the power of the UK state into the hands of only a few. Many, including, it appears, Tony Blair, advocate a mixed approach, blending elected members with appointed members. To make this more attractive to the public, there could be a people's choice of appointee.

The Wakeham report The Wakeham Commission's report was published on 19 January 2000. Instead of offering one clear proposal, it offered a range of options in reforming the Lords. Key points of the recommendations included the introduction of limited elections to the Lords, possibly for between 60 and 165 members of a House that it recommended should contain around 550 members; an independent appointment system for the rest of the body, calming fears that the House could become a vehicle for prime ministerial patronage; and a minimum of 30% female members, with fair representation for ethnic minorities and a wider range of religious representation.

Reaction to the commission's report The commission's report was viewed as a practical approach to reform, and included many suggestions that were welcomed by pressure groups, especially the introduction of election from regional areas and the increased diversity of the body to reflect current UK population trends. However, there was also disappointment; by not proposing one clear suggestion for reform, and instead offering several options, the commission clearly passed the initiative back to the government. Many commentators felt that Tony Blair was unwilling to go forward with his proposed ‘step two’, having managed to abolish the majority of hereditary peers, his manifesto goal. The commission proposed that life peers remain in the House with no shortening of their lifelong term of office. If, as many commentators predict, the reform of the House of Lords is left on the political back-burner, the Lords will be dominated by these unelected members for an unspecified length of time, making the reforms insignificant.

Conclusion The House of Lords is a fine example in UK politics of how tradition and history have shaped institutions in the UK. However, it became increasingly clear that in the new millennium, in a UK that is no longer a world power but must work alongside other countries to achieve its aims, it can no longer continue in its present form. The Labour government's attempts to modernize the chamber, remove the hereditary peers, and enhance the chamber's tasks in holding together the increasingly devolved UK, as well as maintaining the technical expertise of the Lords, were long overdue. However, to alter 750 years of existence with a commission that debated the matter for less than a year may prove a missed opportunity in the future, and early indicators suggest that the Labour government may follow the long-established pattern of reform of the House of Lords – starting promisingly, but then falling at the first fence.

articles

Lords, House of

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.