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House of Lords Act 1999

The House of Lords Act 1999, an Act of Parliament passed by the British Parliament, was a major constitutional enactment as it completely reformed one of the chambers of Parliament, the House of Lords. For centuries, the House of Lords had included several hundred members who inherited their seats; the Act removed such a right. However, as a part of a compromise, the Act did permit approximately ninety hereditaries, mostly elected by their peers, to remain in the House on an interim basis.



The Lords were once the stronger of the two houses of Parliament. A slow process of evolution moved political control of England, first from the Sovereign to the House of Lords and then from the Lords to the House of Commons. Prior to the House of Lords Act 1999 the power of the Lords was diminished by the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 which stripped the Lords of their ability to block adoption of most bills; at most they could delay them for one session. Furthermore, the Commons have absolute power when it comes to money bills.

In 1997, after nearly two decades of Conservative rule, a Labour government, led by Tony Blair, was elected. The Labour Party had for years endorsed abolition of the unelected House of Lords in its election manifestos until 1992, when it dropped the idea in favour of reforming the House.

The Government proposed many bills that were opposed by the traditionally Conservative House of Lords. In the first session of Parliament, which included a part of 1997 and most of 1998, the Lords rejected Labour bills thirty-nine times. The most contentious of the rejections was of the European Elections Bill , which the Lords voted down an unprecedented five times. Blair attacked the Lords for thwarting the will of the democratically elected House of Commons. He also found an opportunity to deliver on Labour's campaign promise to reform the Lords. On November 24, in opening the second session of Parliament, the Queen delivered her annual Speech from the Throne outlining her Government's agenda for the upcoming year. In it, she suggested that her Government would pursue a reform of the House of Lords. Her remarks were followed by shouts of "Hear! Hear!" from supportive Labour Members of Parliament, and by similar shouts of "Shame! Shame!" from Conservative peers; such outbursts were unprecedented, for the Queen's Speech is traditionally heard by a silent and dignified Parliament.

The House of Lords Bill

The House of Lords Bill was expected to face a tough fight in the House of Lords. Several Lords threatened to disrupt the Government's other bills if they continued with the plan to abolish the hereditaries' right to sit in the House of Lords. The Earl of Onslow, for instance, said, "I'm happy to force a division on each and every clause of the Scotland Bill. Each division takes 20 minutes and there are more than 270 clauses." Lords had plenty of other means by which they could obstruct the Government's programme.

In order to convince some peers to vote for reform, Tony Blair announced that he would compromise by allowing a number of hereditary peers to remain in the House of Lords on an interim basis. On December 2, 1998, the Conservative Leader of the Opposition, William Hague, rose in the House of Commons to attack Tony Blair's plans. He suggested that Mr Blair's changes indicated his lack of principles. Hague further suggested that the Conservative Party would never agree to such constitutional reforms that were "based on no comprehensive plan or principle". Mr Hague's remarks backfired when Blair revealed that the Conservative Party in the House of Lords, rather than oppose his reforms, would definitely support them, and that he had done a secret deal with the Conservative leader in the House of Lords, Viscount Cranborne. Mr Hague immediately removed Viscount Cranborne from office, but, in protest, several Conservative Lords who held front-bench positions resigned.

On January 19, 1999, the Prime Minister introduced the House of Lords Bill into the House of Commons. On March 16, the House of Commons passed the bill by a vote of 340 to 132. On the next day, it was presented to the House of Lords, where the bill took far longer to debate. One significant amendment made to the Bill was the so-called Weatherill Amendment , named for the Lord Weatherill, the former Speaker of the House of Commons. The Weatherill Amendment put into place the deal agreed to by the Prime Minister and Viscount Cranborne, and allowed ninety-two hereditary peers to remain members of the House of Lords.

Several controversies relating to the technicalities of the bill were brought up in the House of Lords. One issue was related to the Treaty of Union of 1707 uniting Scotland and England into Great Britain. After lengthy debates, the matter was referred to the House of Lords Committee on Privileges .

Under the Articles of Union agreed to in 1707, Scottish Lords would be entitled to elect sixteen representative peers to sit on their behalf in the House of Lords. In 1963, the Peerage Act was passed, allowing all Scottish peers to sit in the House, not just sixteen of them. It was felt that removing all Scottish representation would breach the Articles. The Government, however, responded that the Articles did envisage a change in the election of representative peers. It was argued that some portions of the Treaty were "entrenched," while others were not. For instance, Scotland and England were united "forever," the Scottish Court of Session was to "remain in all time coming within Scotland as it is now constituted," and the establishment of the Church of Scotland was "effectually and unalterably secured." However, it was suggested, the election of Scottish representative peers was not "entrenched," and therefore could be amended. Furthermore, the Government argued that Parliament was entirely sovereign and supreme, and could at its will change the Articles of Union. For example, the Treaty of Union joining Great Britain and Ireland required that the two nations be united "forever". Nonetheless, in 1922, by an Act of Parliament, most of Ireland was made independent as the Irish Free State. Thus, even "entrenched" clauses were argued to be open to amendment by the authority of Parliament. The Committee agreed and reported to the House on October 20 that the Bill was indeed lawful in this regard.

After the reports were considered, on October 26, the Lords passed the bill 221 to 81. After the Lords settled the differences between their version of the bill and the Commons version thereof, the Bill received Royal Assent on November 11.

Membership of the House of Lords

The House of Lords Act 1999 provides firstly that "No-one shall be a member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage." (The Act treats the Principality of Wales and the Earldom of Chester as hereditary peerages, though those titles, granted normally to the heir-apparent, are never inherited.) The Act then provides that ninety-two peers, including the Earl Marshal, the Lord Great Chamberlain and ninety other peers elected in accordance with the Standing Orders of the House would be excepted from the exclusion of hereditary peers, and that after the first session of the next Parliament, whenever one of these seats fell vacant, the Lords would have to proceed to a by-election. The Act also provided that a hereditary peer would be entitled to vote in elections for, and sit in, the House of Commons, unless he or she was also a member of the House of Lords. Previously, hereditary peers had been constitutionally disqualified from being electors to, or members of, the House of Commons.

The Act prevents even hereditary peers of the first creation from sitting automatically in the House of Lords. The Government did agree, however, to give life peerages (the titles of which are indicated in parentheses) to four hereditary peers of the first creation: Toby Austin Richard William Low, 1st Baron Aldington (Baron Low), Frederick James Erroll, 1st Baron Erroll of Hale (Baron Erroll of Kilmun), Francis Aungier Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford, 1st Baron Pakenham (Baron Pakenham of Cowley) and Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon (Baron Armstrong-Jones). Additionally, life peerages were created for former Leaders of the House of Lords: John Julian Ganzoni, 2nd Baron Belstead (Baron Ganzoni), Peter Alexander Rupert Carington, 6th Baron Carrington (Baron Carrington), Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Viscount Cranborne (Baron Gascoyne-Cecil), George Patrick John Rushworth Jellicoe, 2nd Earl Jellicoe (Baron Jellicoe of Southampton) and David James George Hennessy, 3rd Baron Windlesham (Baron Hennessy).

Life peerages were offered, but rejected by members of the royal family who were Royal hereditary peers of the first creation: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Charles, Prince of Wales, Prince Andrew, Duke of York and Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex.

Prior to the granting of Royal Assent, the Lords had adopted a Standing Order making provision for the election of peers. The Order provided that there be elected:

  • Two peers by the Labour peers
  • Three peers by the Liberal Democrat peers
  • Twenty-eight Cross-bench peers
  • Forty-two Conservative peers
  • Fifteen peers, to serve as Deputy Speakers and in other offices, by the entire House of Lords

The elections for officers of the House were held on the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth of October, while those for peers elected by party were held on the third and fourth of November; the results were proclaimed to the House on the fifth of November. Voters were required to rank in order of preference, on a ballot prepared by the Clerk of the Parliaments, as many candidates as there were places to be filled. The candidates receiving the greatest number of votes (without regard to the ranking on the ballots, so in effect block voting) were declared elected. Only if there were ties would the ranking be examined. Thereafter, until November 2002, if a vacancy occurred, the next-highest vote-getter (the rankings being examined, again, only in the case of ties) in the original election would fill the seat.

Since November 2002, by-elections have been held to fill vacancies. Voting is by preferential voting, with peers ranking the candidates in order of preference. As many or as few preferences as desired may be indicated. To win the election, a peer must receive a majority of first preference votes. If no candidate receives such a majority, the candidate with the fewest number of first preference votes is eliminated, with each of his votes being redistributed according to the second preference marked on the ballot. The process is continued until one candidate receives a majority. Two by-elections have been held in 2003 and a third in 2004.

It had been expected that the Government would present a bill to remove the remaining ninety-two hereditary peers from the House of Lords, but this will now be left to the next Parliament.


Last updated: 05-07-2005 05:30:05
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04