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House of Lords
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House of Lords

This article is part of the series
Politics of the United Kingdom
House of Lords
   Lord Chancellor
House of Commons
Prime Minister
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In the politics of the United Kingdom the House of Lords is the unelected upper house of Parliament (the lower house is the House of Commons.) The House of Lords is unique in combining both legislative and judicial functions in the one body; it is both the upper house of Parliament and the highest court of appeal for criminal cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and for civil cases in the whole of the United Kingdom. The House of Lords is located in the Palace of Westminster, and is used for the State Opening of Parliament, as by convention, the Sovereign may not enter the elected House of Commons.

Although many national legislatures undertake the quasi-judicial process of deciding upon impeachment cases, the House of Lords has not tried such a case since 1805.

See also Judicial functions of the House of Lords.

Table of contents
1 Membership
2 Procedure
3 Legislative Functions
4 History
5 See also
6 External links


The membership of the House of Lords consists of the Lords Spiritual (bishops) and the Lords Temporal (law lords, life peers and 92 hereditary peers).


The Lords Spiritual consist of twenty-six clergymen of the Church of England, namely the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of London, the Bishop of Durham, the Bishop of Winchester and the twenty-one longest-serving bishops of other dioceses.


The Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, who with other Lords of Appeal hear legal cases, collectively act as the UK's highest court. They are appointed for a term of years concluding during the year in which the Lord of Appeal turns seventy; they may be continued in office at ministerial discretion until age 75 but the Judicial Pensions and Retirement Act 1993 absolutely forbids them to hear legal cases after that age. They remain members of the House of Lords for life. They are generally referred to as the Law Lords and during their time as judges traditionally refrain from political debate.

Hereditary Peers

Several hereditary Peers (i.e., who have inherited their peerages) also have seats in the House of Lords. Originally several hundred Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts, and Barons were eligible to sit; reforms in 1999 mean that now only ninety-two may, and only two of these inherit seats in the Lords without facing election.

Currently, these ninety-two consist of fifteen "office-holders", that is, Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chairmen, who are elected by the whole House; seventy-five party or crossbench members, elected by their party or group. These groups, and the number of peers each elect, are:

The two peers who hold seats automatically are the two peers who hold royal appointments connected with Parliament: the Lord Great Chamberlain (currently the present Marquess of Cholmondeley) and the Earl Marshal (an hereditary office held by the Dukes of Norfolk). Twelve people who are hereditary peers but were not elected have been made life peers also.

When an elected hereditary peer dies there is a by-election, using a variant of the Alternative Vote system, to replace him or her. The electorate differs based on the group of the hereditary peer: in the case of party or Cross-Bench peers, the electorate is the party or group in the House that elected the peer whose seat is now vacant. In the case of the fifteen office-holders, the whole House is the electorate. In 2003 the first two such by-elections were held. The first was won by the Viscount Ullswater who replaced the Viscount of Oxfuird. Later, a by-election was held to replace Lord Milner of Leeds. There were 11 candidates, and the election was won by Lord Grantchester, with 2 of the 3 electors voting for him. In May 2004 a Conservative by-election saw Viscount Trenchard elected to replace Lord Vivian.

The British Labour party government aims eventually to eliminate all hereditary privilege in the House, but under an agreement "binding in honour as Privy Counsellors" the previous Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg gave an assurance during the 1999 reforms that the Government would not remove the remaining hereditary peers except as part of the second stage of reform of the House of Lords. A Government bill planned in 2004 would arguably have broken this pledge, but was withdrawn.

Life Peers

The largest group in the House of Lords are Life Peers appointed for life under the Life Peerages Act 1958. They are appointed by the Queen, who acts on the advice of the Prime Minister. The leaders of the other two main parties are also consulted by the Prime Minister, and allowed to nominate a number of "working peers" (peers who are appointed primarily in order to act as legislators rather than as an honour). Life Peerages only exist in the degree of Baron (or Baroness).

Composition of the House of Lords

By party strength, as of 1 July 2004

Party Life Peers Hereditary Peers Bishops Total
Elected by Party Elected Office Holders Royal Office Holders
  Conservative 159 39 8 0 0 206
  Labour 187 2 2 0 0 191
  Liberal Democrat 61 3 2 0 0 66
  Crossbencher 146 29 2 2 0 179
  Bishop 0 0 0 0 26 26
  Other 7 2 0 0 0 9
  Total 560 75 14 2 26 677

Note: The figures in the above table are based on those peers who are eligible to attend the House Lords (ie. Peers without Writs of Summons (26) or on leave of absence (11) are excluded.)



The House of Lords meets at the Palace of Westminster in London in the lavishly decorated House of Lords Chamber.

The House of Lords sits on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Friday sessions are only held when the House is very busy.

The House holds a number of recesses each year. The longest recess is the Summer Recess, which lasts from mid-July to mid-October. The other recesses, including the Easter, Whitsun, and Christmas Recesses, usually last for one to two weeks.


The Lord Chancellor, as well as being a judge and the cabinet minister responsible for the judiciary and the courts, serves as the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords. Often, a Deputy Speaker presides.

The Lord Speaker is merely the House's mouthpiece; he has little power compared to the Speaker of the House of Commons. He does not have the authority to maintain order or discipline members; such measures may be taken only by the House as a whole.

In June 2003 the UK Government announced its intention to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor, and to allow for a speaker of the House who would not be a minister. In addition, it plans to create a new supreme court that will take over the judicial functions of the Lords of Appeal. The bill that was intended to achieve this faced enormous opposition in the House of Lords, and was in March 2004 committed to a select committee of the House for thorough review in defiance of the Government. This was viewed by the Government as a measure to mothball the bill.


The Speaker of the House of Commons may recognise MPs for speech in whatever order he pleases, but the Lord Chancellor has no such authority. Instead it is the House which decides, either by acclamation or by voting on a motion that a particular noble Lord "be now heard". Often, however, the Leader of the House of Lords or other senior Government minister will suggest an order, which is generally followed. A speech is always addressed to the House as a whole (My Lords), rather than, as is done in the House of Commons, to the Speaker.

If a member wishes to refer to an individual Lord, he or she must do so in the third person. The forms used are: for Dukes, the noble Duke, the Duke of..., for other Marquesses, Earls, and Viscounts, the noble Marquess (or Earl or Viscount), Lord..., for Barons, the noble Lord, Lord..., for Baronesses, the noble Baroness, Lady..., for Archbishops, the Most Reverend Primate, the Archbishop of..., and for Bishops, the Right Reverend Prelate, the Bishop of.... The words noble and gallant are used instead of noble if the Lord in question is a Field Marshal, Admiral of the Fleet, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, or holder of the Victoria Cross or George Cross. Similarly, noble and learned is used for the present or former Lord Chancellor, Lords of Appeal, Attorney-General, Solicitor-General, Lords Justices of Appeal, and Judges of the High Court. Lastly, a peer of the same party as the person speaking is referred to as noble friend rather than lord.


All motions are at first subject to a voice vote. The Lord Speaker then gives his opinion as to which side won the voice vote. If his assessment is challenged by any Lord, then a division occurs. On either side of the House Chamber is a division lobby. Those who wish to vote "Content" (for the motion) enter one lobby, while those who wish to vote "Not-Content" (against the motion) enter the other. As members then exit the lobby and reenter the Chamber, their votes and names are recorded by tellers and clerks. The tellers then announce the numbers of Contents and Not-Contents to the Lord Speaker, who then announces the result to the House. The House of Lords has the lowest quorum in the world. Only three members need to be present to decide on procedural issues, though one of them has to be the Lord Chancellor.


Unlike in the United States Congress, committees in the House of Lords are not very powerful. The entire house, rather than committees, conduct the review of bills. The standing committees used by the House of Commons are not present in the House of Lords.

House of Lords select committees scrutinize government activities and investigate specific areas of legislation. The select committees of the House of Lords are as follows:

These Committees are permanent. The House establishes only one ad hoc subject-specific Select Committee per session. The past three years have seen the following Committees: In 2003-4, the Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill; in 2002-3, Religious Offences, and in 2001-2 the Animals in Scientific Procedures Committee was established. In addition specific changes are sometimes referred to an ad hoc Select Committee, including the Speakership of the House and the Constitutional Reform Bill.

Legislative Functions


There is a convention known as the Salisbury Convention according to which the House of Lords will not oppose Government legislation promised in its election manifesto. Furthermore, the Parliament Acts of 1911 and of 1949 apply to any bill other than a bill to extend the life of a Parliament. They limit the power of the House of Lords to delaying a bill for up to one year, after which it may receive Royal Assent, if the Commons passes it again, without the Lords' consent. In the case of money bills (the main purpose of which relates to taxation or expenditure), the bills are sent for Royal Assent automatically one month after they have been passed by the Commons.

Royal Approval

The monarch must assent to any legislation for it to enter into law, although it has been convention since the time of William and Mary that the monarch will assent to legislation passed by Parliament. Queen Anne was the last monarch to refuse Royal Assent to a bill; she refused her approval to the Scottish Militia Bill in 1708.


The two distinct houses of parliament emerged in the 14th century. One was composed of shire and borough representatives, this became known as the Commons. The other was composed of religious leaders (Lords Spiritual) and magnates (Lords Temporal), this became known as the House of Lords.

On March 19, 1649 the Rump Parliament passed an Act abolishing the House of Lords, declaring that it is " useless and dangerous to the people of England". The Lords did not meet again until the Restoration of the Monarchy in April 1660 and the meeting of Convention Parliament.

The Act of Union 1707 with Scotland and the Act of Union 1800 with Ireland entitled Scottish and Irish peers to elect representative peerss from among themselves to sit in the House of Lords. Ireland was further entitled to send four representative Lords Spiritual from its Church of Ireland; the same ceased in 1871 when the Church of Ireland was disestablished. Elections for Irish temporal representative peers ceased in 1922. From 1963 all Scottish peers had the right to sit in the House of Lords, until, of course, the passage of the House of Lords Act 1999.

Until 1539, bishops, abbots, and priors were members of the Lords. As a result of the dissolution of the monasteries, from then on only the bishops attended. In 1847, following the creation of many new bishoprics, the Bishopric of Manchester Act limited the number of bishops in the Lords.

The Parliament Acts

After the election of 1906 the Liberal Party had a large majority in the House of Commons. Due to the naval race with Germany and new social programmes, the Liberal "People's Budget" of 1909 proposed tax increases and new taxes targeting wealthy landowners. These measures were unpopular in the conservative (and legislatively equal) House of Lords, where the budget was refused passage.

The Liberals, re-elected in January 1910 with a reduced majority, proposed to curtail greatly the powers of the Lords. King Edward VII was troubled enough by this to insert qualifying phrases in his speech at the State Opening, but died in May, and was succeeded by George V, who said he would intervene if the Government fought a new election specifically on this issue. The election of December 1910 saw the Liberals again successfully re-elected. Threatened with the appointment of 500 new peers if they refused, the Lords passed the Parliament Act. Under it, the House of Lords could only reject a proposal for up to two years, after which the Commons would automatically prevail. On August 10 1911, the Parliament Act 1911 came into effect, removing the equal status of the House of Lords and its effective power of veto.

The Parliament Act 1949 reduced the delaying power of the 1911 Act in respect of Public Bills other than Money Bills to two sessions and one year respectively, the exception being bills to extend the life of Parliament to beyond five years, in which case the Lords would have full power to defeat the bill.

The Life Peerages Act 1958

The Life Peerages Act 1958 permitted the creation of peerages for life, with no limit on numbers, to persons of either sex. There is no provision which allows a life peer to renounce his title.

The Peerage Act 1963

The Peerage Act 1963 allowed hereditary peeresses and all Scottish peers to be members of the House, and allowed hereditary peerages to be disclaimed for life. The politician best known for disclaiming his inherited peerage is Tony Benn.

The House of Lords Act 1999

The House of Lords Act 1999, which became law on 11 November 1999 changed the right to sit as a member of the House of Lords.

On 1st November 1999, the House of Lords was composed of 759 hereditary peers, 26 Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England, and the 545 life peers created by either the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 or the Life Peerages Act 1958. The Bishops and Life Peers were unaffected by the act; however:

The Royal Dukes (the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of York, the Duke of Gloucester, and the Duke of Kent as well as the Earl of Wessex) and peers who themselves were created hereditary peers were not exempted. Thus, the anomaly that allowed the Duke of Cornwall a seat, even if a baby, ended.

The House of Lords adopted standing orders to govern the election of the 90 peers:

On November 2, 1999 10 hereditary peers were given life peerages (six former Leaders of the House and four holders of peerages of the first creation). Then in March 2000 seven hereditary peers who had not been elected were included in a list of 33 new life peers and allowed to retake their seat in the Lords.

The 90 peers who continue as members of the House of Lords will not be able to disclaim their peerage. The other peers will be able to disclaim, but do not need to even if elected to the House of Commons.

Changes in the composition of the House of Lords as a result of the 1999 Act (ie. change in composition between 13th October 1999 and 30th June 2004) are as follows:

Party Life Peers Hereditary Peers Bishops Total
  Conservative -13 -252 - -265
  Labour +27 -15 - +12
  Liberal Democrat +12 -18 - -6
  Crossbencher +18 -192 - -174
  Bishop - - - -
  Other -25 -78 - -103
  Total +19 -555 - -536
Note: The figures in the above table are based on those peers who were eligible to attend the House Lords (ie. Peers without Writs of Summons or on leave of absence are excluded.)

The Labour Party and the House of Lords

For many years the Labour Party in the United Kingdom advocated reform of the House of Lords, but this was obstructed by the House of Lords itself, whose members were mostly of the Conservative party. Most notorious were the so-called 'backwoodsmen', who never attended Parliament except to defeat important Labour legislation opposed by the Conservatives. Later the Labour party managed to extract another reform, the Parliament Act of 1949, which limited the power of the House of Lords to defeat House of Commons legislation.

In 1968, the Labour government of Harold Wilson attempted to remove hereditary peers from voting in the House of Lords. The Lords voted in favour of the plan but when it got to the House of Commons it was defeated by a combination of traditionalist Conservatives, such as Enoch Powell, and Labour MPs such as Michael Foot, who advocated outright abolition of the upper house. Abolition became Labour party policy under Foot's leadership, but was dropped under the leadership of Neil Kinnock in favour of a reformed second chamber.

Finally when Labour returned to power in 1997 under Tony Blair, legislation was introduced to remove hereditary peers, as the first step in the reform of the House. However, in order to get the law passed by the House of Lords, the Government had to compromise and allow 92 hereditary peers to remain until reform of the House was completed.

A free vote was held in the House of Commons in February 2003, in which MPs could vote for a fully elected second chamber, an entirely nominated one, a chamber with a mixture of elected and nominated members, or for outright abolition. However, the result proved inconclusive, as MPs proceeded to vote against each option in turn.

See also

External links