The Parliament of the UK : the House of Lords Unlike the House of Commons, the House of Lords, which is the second -and upper- chamber in the Parliament of the UK, is not representative of the people. Indeed, its members are not elected but designated by birth or chosen by prime-ministers. As a consequence, nowadays it has less power than the House of Commons and no longer plays the important role it had retained until the early 20th century. The House of Lords has legislative but also judicial functions as it is the ultimate court of appeal in the UK.
In recent decades Labour governments had called its existence into question and a radical reform was initiated by Tony Blair in 1999. I. The powers and functions of the House of Lords The legislative powers of the House of Lords were greatly reduced in the first half of the 20th century. The 1911 Parliament Act deprived it of the right to amend money bills and limited the period during which it could delay a bill (using its « veto ») to two years. This was further reduced to one year only, in 1949.
The main legislative function of the House of Lords consists in examining
The House of Lords is also the highest court of appeal in the UK (except for Scottish criminal cases). II. The composition of the House of Lords The members of the House of Lords, like the members of the royal family, cannot vote nor stand for election. They remain members of the House until their deaths (except the Lords Spiritual). In October 1998, there were 1,309 members in the House of Lords: 759 hereditary peers, 524 life peers (including 12 Law Lords), 24 bishops and 2 archbishops (the Lords Spiritual).
In November 1999, after legislation had been passed, there were 659 members, (as in the House of Commons): 92 hereditary peers, 541 life peers (including 12 Law Lords) and the 26 Lords Spiritual. Women have only been admitted to the House of Lords since 1963 and nowadays it is still gender-biased: in 1998 around 13% of the members were women (and there were only 12 female hereditary peers). Politically speaking, until 1999 the House of Commons was overwhelmingly Conservative. In May 1997 there were 477 Conservative and 120 Labour Lords. Many Lords, however, choose to be independent: they are called crossbenchers (they were 423 in May 1997).
Between 1997 and 1999, Tony Blair created about 140 life peers, so that after the reform (which excluded most of the hereditary peers) the numbers of Conservative, Labour and crossbench Lords were more or less equal. The House is chaired by the Lord Chancellor who is a Cabinet member in charge of the department of justice. He is the Speaker of the House of Lords, but he is not impartial as he defends the point of view of the government in debates. a. Hereditary peers Before 1999, they constituted about 2/3 of members (759 in October 1998). They are members of the aristocracy and are born to their function.
Hereditary peerages are usually transmitted to a male heir only, but some ancient baronnies and Scottish peerages can be transmitted to a woman if there is no male heir. Many hereditary peers were not active, and they constituted the Conservative element in the House. Since 1963 a hereditary peer can give up his title in order to stand for election. Examples include Lord Home who renounced his title when he became the Conservative PM (Sir Alec Douglas–Home, PM from Oct. 1963 to Oct. 1964) and Lord Stansgate who became the Labour MP Tony Benn.
Only five hereditary peerages have been created since 1965. Since November 1999 there are 92 hereditary peers left in the House of Lords. b. Life peers There were 524 life peers in 1998. This title was created by the 1958 Life Peerages Act. They are appointed by the Queen but are chosen by the PM, and they cannot transmit their peerages to their children . They are people who held high public office (former prime ministers and politicians, judges, senior civil servants, trade-unionists,…), prominent business people and a few outstanding artistic or intellectual figures.
Many have highly specialized knowledge and tend to take an active part in debates and votes: they are known as “working peers”. After the reform of the House of Lords, in November 1999, there were 541 life peers. c. Lords Spiritual The Lords Spiritual (the archbishops of Canterbury and York and 24 bishops chosen according to seniority of appointment) represent the Church of England. Unlike its other members, they leave the House of Lords when they retire (usually at 70). d. Law Lords
The judicial function of the House of Lords is carried out by salaried life peers, the « Law Lords » or « Lords of Appeal », of which there are currently 12. III. The reform of the House of Lords For decades, the House of Lords has been widely condemned as undemocratic, because its members are not elected. The fact that the Law Lords can both make and judge the law also goes against the democratic ideal of a separation of powers. Most of the criticism came from the Labour Party, because the House of Lords tended to oppose and hinder the work of Labour more than of Conservative governments.
In the 1980s, the Labour Party was even in favour of the abolition of the House of Lords. In 1997 however, Labour’s election manifesto had moved to a reformist position. Indeed, Tony Blair pledged to reform the House of Lords by abolishing the hereditary peers and changing the system of appointment of life peers. The 1999 House of Lords Act removed all the hereditary peers, except 92 of them. And a further 10 were granted life peerages, which allowed them to stay in the House of Lords. Tony Blair was forced to accept this compromise before the Lords would vote his legislation.
The new House of Lords, with 659 members, first assembled for the Queen’s Speech on November 17th, 1999. In the second stage of the reform, a royal commission was established in 1999 to make recommendations on the role and functions of the new chamber, and on the system of designation of its members. The commission advocated a compromise between a fully-appointed chamber and a directly-elected one, and supported an independent appointments system which would produce a chamber that would represent the various social groups fairly, with more women, more members of ethnic minorities and a broader religious representation.
The government considered various options, and the commission resumed work, but no agreement has yet been reached and the House of Lords remains in a transitory state. Bibliography: G. Blamont et A. Paquette, Les cles de la civilisation britannique, Ellipses, 2000. Monica Charlot, Institutions et forces politiques du Royaume-Uni, Masson, 1995. P. John et P. Lurbe, Civilisation britannique, Hachette, 2003. Pierre Lurbe, Le Royaume-Uni aujourd’hui, Hachette, 2004.