The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






House of Lords

This article is about the British House of Lords. For the historical Irish body, see Irish House of Lords.

The House of Lords is a component of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which also includes the Sovereign and the House of Commons. The House of Lords is an unelected body, consisting of 26 senior clerics of the Church of England (the "Lords Spiritual"), as well as 669 members of the Peerage (the "Lords Temporal"). Lords Spiritual serve as long as they continue to occupy their ecclesiastical positions, but Lords Temporal serve for life. Members of the House of Lords are known as "Lords of Parliament".

The House of Lords originated in the 14th century and has been in almost continuous existence since. It was abolished in 1649 by the revolutionary government that came to power during the English Civil War, but was restored in 1660. The House of Lords (the "Upper House") was once more powerful than the elected House of Commons (the "Lower House"). Since the 19th century, however, the powers of the House of Lords have been steadily declining; now, the Upper House is far weaker than its parliamentary counterpart. Under the Parliament Act 1911, most legislation passed by the House of Commons can be delayed, but cannot be rejected, by the House of Lords. Reforms were enacted under the House of Lords Act 1999, which removed the automatic hereditary right of many peers to sit in the Upper House. Additional reforms are contemplated by the current Labour Government, but have not been passed into law.

In addition to performing legislative functions, the House of Lords also holds judicial powers: it constitutes the highest court of appeal for most cases in the United Kingdom. The judicial functions of the House of Lords are not performed by the whole Chamber, but rather by a group of members with legal experience, who are known as "Law Lords". The House of Lords is not the only court of last resort in the United Kingdom; in some cases, that role is fulfilled by the Privy Council. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 will transfer the judicial functions of the Lords to a new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom when it comes into effect.

The full, formal style of the House of Lords is: The Right Honourable The Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament Assembled. The House of Lords, like the House of Commons, meets in the Palace of Westminster.



Parliament developed from the council that advised the King during mediæval times. This royal council came to be composed of ecclesiastics, noblemen, and representatives of the counties (afterwards, representatives of the boroughs as well). The first Parliament is often considered to be the "Model Parliament" (held in 1295), which included archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, and representatives of the shires and boroughs. The power of Parliament grew slowly, changing as the strength of the monarchy grew or declined. For example, during much of the reign of Edward II (13071327), the nobility was supreme, the Crown weak, and the shire and borough representatives entirely powerless. In 1322, the authority of Parliament was for the first time recognised not simply by custom or royal charter, but by an authoritative statute, passed by Parliament itself. Further developments occurred during the reign of Edward II's successor, Edward III. Most importantly, it was during this King's reign that Parliament clearly separated into two distinct chambers: the House of Commons (consisting of the shire and borough representatives) and the House of Lords (consisting of the senior clergy and the nobility). The authority of Parliament continued to grow, and, during the early fifteenth century, both Houses exercised powers to an extent not seen before. The Lords were far more powerful than the Commons, due to the great influence of the aristocrats and prelates of the realm.

The power of the nobility suffered a relapse due to the civil wars of the late fifteenth century, known as the Wars of the Roses. Much of the nobility was either decimated on the battlefield or executed for participation in the war, and many aristocratic estates were lost to the Crown. Moreover, feudalism was dying, and the feudal armies controlled by the barons became obsolete. Hence, the Crown easily re-established its absolute supremacy in the realm. The domination of the Sovereign continued to grow during the reigns of the Tudor monarchs in the sixteenth century. The Crown was at the height of its power during the reign of Henry VIII (which lasted from 1509 to 1547).

The House of Lords remained more powerful than the House of Commons, but the Lower House did continue to grow in influence, reaching its zenith in relation to the House of Lords during the middle seventeenth century. Conflicts between the King and the Parliament (for the most part, the House of Commons) ultimately led to the English Civil War during the 1640s. In 1649, after the defeat and execution of King Charles I, a republic (the Commonwealth of England) was declared, but the nation was truly a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. The House of Lords relapsed into a largely powerless body, with Cromwell and his supporters in the Commons dominating the Government. On 19 March 1649, the House of Lords was abolished by an Act of Parliament, which declared that "The Commons of England [find] by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England." The House of Lords did not assemble again until the Convention Parliament met in 1660 and the monarchy was restored. It returned to its former position as the more powerful branch of Parliament—a position it would occupy until the nineteenth century.

The nineteenth century was marked by several changes to the House of Lords. The House, once a body that included only about fifty members, had been greatly enlarged by the liberality of George III and his successors in creating peerages. The individual influence of a Lord of Parliament was thus diminished. Moreover, the power of the House as a whole experienced a decrease, whilst that of the House of Commons grew. Particularly notable in the development of the Lower House's superiority was the Reform Bill Crisis of 1832. The electoral system of the House of Commons was not, at the time, democratic but antediluvian: property qualifications greatly restricted the size of the electorate, and the boundaries of many of the constituencies had not been changed for centuries. Entire cities such as Manchester were not represented by a single individual in the House of Commons, but the eleven voters of Old Sarum retained their ancient right to elect two Members of Parliament. A small borough was susceptible to bribery, and was often under the control of a patron, whose nominee was guaranteed to win an election. Some aristocrats were patrons of numerous "pocket boroughs", and therefore controlled a considerable part of the membership of the House of Commons.

When, in 1831, the House of Commons passed a Reform Bill to correct some of these anomalies, the House of Lords rejected the proposal. The popular cause of reform, however, was not abandoned by the ministry, despite a second rejection of the bill in the Lords in 1832. The Prime Minister, Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, then advised the King to overwhelm the opposition to the bill in the House of Lords by creating about eighty new pro-Reform peers. William IV originally baulked at the proposal, which effectively threatened the opposition of the House of Lords, but at length relented. Before the new peers were created, however, the Lords who opposed the bill admitted defeat, and abstained from the vote, allowing the passage of the bill. The crisis damaged the political influence of the House of Lords, but did not altogether end it. Over the course of the century, however, the power of the Upper House experienced further erosion, and the Commons gradually became the stronger branch of Parliament.

The rejection of the People's Budget, proposed by David Lloyd George (above), precipitated a political crisis in 1909.
The rejection of the People's Budget, proposed by David Lloyd George (above), precipitated a political crisis in 1909.

The status of the House of Lords returned to the forefront after the election of a Liberal Government in 1906. In 1908, the Government under Herbert Henry Asquith introduced a number of social welfare programmes, which, together with an expensive arms race with Germany, had forced the Government to seek more funding in the form of tax increases. In 1909, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, introduced the "People's Budget", which proposed a new tax targeting wealthy landowners. The unpopular measure, however, failed in the heavily Conservative House of Lords. Having made the powers of the House of Lords a primary campaign issue, the Liberals were re-elected in January 1910. Asquith then proposed that the powers of the House of Lords be severely curtailed. Proceedings on the bill were briefly interrupted by the death of King Edward VII, but were soon recommenced under the new monarch, George V. After fresh elections in December 1910, the Asquith Government secured the passage of a bill to curtail the powers of the House of Lords. The Prime Minister proposed, and the King agreed, that the House of Lords could be flooded by the creation of five hundred new Liberal peers if it failed to pass the bill. (This was the same device used earlier to force the Upper House to consent to the passage of the Reform Act 1832.) The Parliament Act 1911 soon came into effect, destroying the House of Lords' power to reject most bills. Money Bills (bills that dealt solely with matters related to revenue and public expenditures, such as the Budget) could be delayed by the House of Lords for no more than one month, and most other bills for no more than three parliamentary sessions or two calendar years. The Parliament Act 1911 was not meant to be a permanent solution; rather, more comprehensive reforms were planned. Neither party, however, pursued the matter with much enthusiasm, and the House of Lords remained primarily hereditary. In 1949, the Parliament Act was slightly modified, so that the delaying power of the House of Lords with respect to most bills was reduced from three sessions or two years to two sessions or one year.

In 1958, the predominantly hereditary nature of the House of Lords was changed by the Life Peerages Act 1958, which authorised the creation of life baronies, with no numerical limits. In 1968, the Labour Government of Harold Wilson attempted to reform the House of Lords by introducing a system under which hereditary peers would be allowed to remain in the House and take part in debate, but would be unable to vote. This plan, however, was defeated in the House of Commons by a combination of traditionalist Conservatives (such as Enoch Powell) and Labour members who advocated the outright abolition of the Upper House (such as Michael Foot). When Michael Foot attained the leadership of the Labour Party, abolition of the House of Lords became a part of the party's agenda; under Neil Kinnock, however, a reformed Upper House was instead proposed. In the meantime, the creation of hereditary peerages (except for members of the Royal Family) has been entirely arrested, with the exception of three creations during the administration of the Conservative Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

The Labour Party's return to power in 1997 under Tony Blair finally heralded the reform of the House of Lords. The Blair Government introduced legislation to remove all hereditary peers from the Upper House as the first step in Lords reform. As a part of a compromise, however, it agreed to permit ninety-two hereditary peers to remain until the reforms are complete. The hereditary peers were removed under the House of Lords Act 1999 (see below for its provisions).

Since then however, reform has stalled. The Wakeham Commission proposed introducing a 20% elected element to the Lords, but this plan was widely criticised. A Joint Committee was established in 2001 to resolve the issue, but it reached no conclusion and instead gave Parliament seven options to choose from (fully appointed, twenty per cent elected, forty per cent elected, fifty per cent elected, sixty per cent elected, eighty per cent elected, and fully elected). In a confusing series of votes in February 2003 all of these options were defeated although the eighty per cent elected option fell by just three votes. MPs favouring outright abolition voted against all the options. New peers, therefore, are only created by appointment to the house.

The Labour Party now intends to introduce reform early in the next Parliament, although they are yet to state exactly what system they will be proposing. It is understood, however, that they may be inclined to support Billy Bragg's Secondary Mandate system. The Conservative Party favour an eighty per cent elected Second Chamber, while the Liberal Democrats are calling for a fully elected Senate. Elect the Lords is a new cross-party campaign initiative that has been set up to make the case for a predominantly elected Second Chamber in the run up to the general election.

Lords Spiritual

Members of the House of Lords who sit by virtue of their ecclesiastical offices are known as Lords Spiritual. Formerly, the Lords Spiritual comprised a majority in the House of Lords, including the Church of England's archbishops, diocesan bishops, abbots, and priors. After 1539, however, only the archbishops and bishops continued to attend, for the Dissolution of the Monasteries suppressed the positions of abbot and prior. In 1642, during the English Civil War, the Lords Spiritual were excluded altogether, but they returned under the Clergy Act 1661 . The number of Lords Spiritual was further restricted by the Bishopric of Manchester Act 1847 , and by later acts. Now, there can be no more than twenty-six Lords Spiritual, always including the five most important ecclesiastics of the Church: the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of London, the Bishop of Durham, and the Bishop of Winchester. Membership of the House of Lords also extends to the twenty-one next-most senior diocesan bishops of the Church of England.

The Church of Scotland is not represented by any Lords Spiritual; being a Presbyterian institution, it has no archbishops or bishops. The Church of Ireland did obtain representation in the House of Lords after the union of Ireland and Great Britain in 1801. Of the Church of Ireland's ecclesiastics, four (one archbishop and three bishops) were to sit at any one time, with the members rotating at the end of every parliamentary session (which normally lasted approximately one year). The Church of Ireland, however, was disestablished in 1871, and ceased to be represented by Lords Spiritual. The same is true for the Church in Wales which was disestablished in 1920. The current Lords Spiritual, therefore, only represent the Church of England.

Lords Temporal

Since the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Lords Temporal have been the most numerous group in the House of Lords. Originally, the Lords Temporal included several hereditary peers (that is, those whose peerages may be inherited), who ranked variously as dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, barons, and lords of Parliament. Such hereditary dignities are created by the Crown, in modern times on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day. Reforms enacted in 1999 (see above) caused several hundred hereditary peers to lose their seats in the House of Lords. The House of Lords Act 1999 provides that only ninety-two individuals may continue to sit in the Upper House by virtue of hereditary peerages. Two hereditary peers remain in the House of Lords because they hold hereditary offices connected with Parliament: the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain. Of the remaining ninety hereditary peers in the House of Lords, fifteen are elected by the whole House. Seventy-five hereditary peers are chosen by fellow hereditaries in the House of Lords, grouped by party. The number of peers to be chosen by a party reflects the proportion of hereditary peers that belongs to that party (see current composition below). When an elected hereditary peer dies, a by-election is held, with a variant of the Alternative Vote system being used. If the recently deceased hereditary peer was elected by the whole House, then so is his or her replacement; a hereditary peer elected by a specific party is replaced by a vote of elected hereditary peers belonging to that party (whether elected as part of that party group or by the whole house).

The Lords Temporal also include the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, a group of individuals appointed to the House of Lords so that they may exercise its judicial functions. Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, more commonly known as Law Lords, were first appointed under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876. They are selected by the Prime Minister, but are formally appointed by the Sovereign. A Lord of Appeal in Ordinary must retire at the age of seventy, or, if his or her term is extended by the Government, at the age of seventy-five; after reaching such an age, the Law Lord cannot hear any further legal cases. The number of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (excluding those who are no longer able to hear cases due to age restrictions) is limited to twelve, but may be changed by statutory instrument. Lords of Appeal in Ordinary traditionally do not participate in political debates, so as to maintain judicial independence. Lords of Appeal in Ordinary hold seats the House of Lords for life, remaining members even after reaching the retirement age of seventy or seventy-five.

The largest group of Lords Temporal, and indeed of the whole House, are life peers. Life peers with seats in the House of Lords rank only as barons or baronesses, and are created under the Life Peerages Act 1958. Like all other peers, life peers are created by the Sovereign, who acts on the advice of the Prime Minister. By convention, however, the Prime Minister allows leaders of other parties to select some life peers so as to maintain a political balance in the House of Lords. Moreover, some non-party life peers (the number being determined by the Prime Minister) are nominated by an independent House of Lords Appointments Commission. If an hereditary peer also holds a life peerage, he or she remains a member of the House of Lords without a need for an election.

In many historical instances, some peers were not permitted to sit in the Upper House. When Scotland united with England to form Great Britain in 1707, it was provided that the Scottish hereditary peers would only be able to elect sixteen representative peers to sit in the House of Lords; the term of a representative was to extend until the next general elections. A similar provision was enacted in respect of Ireland when that kingdom merged with Great Britain in 1801; the Irish peers were allowed to elect twenty-eight representatives, who were to retain office for life. Elections for Irish representatives ended in 1922, when most of Ireland became an independent state; elections for Scottish representatives ended with the passage of the Peerage Act 1963, under which all Scottish peers obtained seats in the Upper House.


Several different qualifications apply for membership of the House of Lords. No person may sit in the House of Lords if under the age of 21. Furthermore, only citizens of the United Kingdom, of a British overseas territory, of a nation that belongs to the Commonwealth, or of the Republic of Ireland may sit in the House of Lords. These restrictions were introduced by the British Nationality Act 1981, but were previously far more stringent: under the Act of Settlement 1701, only natural-born subjects were qualified.

Additionally, some bankruptcy-related restrictions apply to members of the Upper House. A person may not sit in the House of Lords if he or she is the subject of a Bankruptcy Restrictions Order (applicable in England and Wales only), or if he or she is adjudged bankrupt (in Northern Ireland), or if his or her estate is sequestered (in Scotland). A final restriction bars an individual convicted of high treason from sitting in the House of Lords until completing his or her full term of imprisonment. An exception applies, however, if the individual convicted of high treason receives a full pardon. Note that an individual serving a prison sentence for an offence other than high treason is not automatically disqualified.

Finally, some qualifications apply only in the case of the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. No person may be created a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary unless he or she has either held "high judicial office" for two years, or has been a practising barrister for fifteen years. The term "high judicial office" encompasses membership of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales, of the Inner House of the Court of Session (Scotland), or of the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland .

Women were formerly ineligible to sit in the House of Lords, even if they held peerages in their own right. It was only in 1958 that women were admitted to the House of Lords; the Life Peerages Act passed in that year granted seats to all life peeresses. Hereditary peeresses, however, continued to be excluded until the passage of the Peerage Act 1963. Since the passage of the House of Lords Act 1999, hereditary peeresses remain eligible for election to the Upper House. All women in the House of Lords are amongst the Lords Temporal; the Church of England does not presently permit the consecration of female archbishops or bishops, though this issue is currently under consideration, with many observers expecting female bishops in the near future.


Unlike the House of Commons, the House of Lords does not elect its own Speaker; rather, the ex officio presiding officer is the Lord Chancellor (as of 2005, The Rt Hon. The Lord Falconer of Thoroton). The Lord Chancellor is not only the Speaker of the House of Lords, but also a member of the Cabinet; his or her department, formerly the Lord Chancellor's Department, is now called the Department for Constitutional Affairs. In addition, the Lord Chancellor is the head of the judiciary of England and Wales, serving as the President of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. Thus, the Lord Chancellor is a part of all three branches of Government: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. In June 2003, the Blair Government announced its intention to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor, due to the office's mixed executive and judicial responsibilities; a bill intended to achieve this goal was introduced in 2004, but has not passed.

The Lord Chancellor wears black and gold robes whilst presiding over the House of Lords.
The Lord Chancellor wears black and gold robes whilst presiding over the House of Lords.

The Lord Chancellor may be replaced as presiding officer by one of his or her deputies. The Chairman of Committees, the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees, and several Deputy Chairmen of Committees are all deputies to the Lord Chancellor, and are all appointed by the House of Lords itself. By custom, the Crown appoints each Chairman, Principal Deputy Chairman, or Deputy Chairman to the additional office of Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords. There is no legal requirement that the Lord Chancellor or a Deputy Speaker be a member of the House of Lords, though the same has long been customary.

Whilst presiding over the House of Lords, the Lord Chancellor wears a ceremonial black and gold robes. The Lord Chancellor or Deputy Speaker sits on the Woolsack, a large red seat stuffed with wool, at the front of the Lords Chamber. When the House of Lords resolves itself into committee (see below), the Chairman or a Deputy Chairman presides, not from the Woolsack, but from a chair at the Table of the House. The presiding officer has little power compared to the Speaker of the House of Commons. He or she only acts as the mouthpiece of the House, performing duties such as announcing the results of votes. The Lord Chancellor or Deputy Speaker cannot determine which members may speak, or discipline members for violating the rules of the House; these measures may be taken only by the House itself. Unlike the politically neutral Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Chancellor and Deputy Speakers remain members of their respective parties, and may participate in debate.

Another officer of the body is the Leader of the House of Lords, a peer selected by the Prime Minister. The Leader of the House is responsible for steering Government bills through the House of Lords, and is a member of the Cabinet. The Leader also advises the House on proper procedure when necessary, but such advice is merely informal, rather than official and binding. A Deputy Leader is also appointed by the Prime Minister, and takes the place of an absent or unavailable Leader.

The Clerk of the Parliaments is the chief clerk and officer of the House of Lords (but is not a member of the House itself). The Clerk, who is appointed by the Crown, advises the presiding officer on the rules of the House, signs orders and official communications, endorses bills, and is the keeper of the official records of both Houses of Parliament. Moreover, the Clerk of the Parliaments is responsible for arranging by-elections of hereditary peers when necessary. The deputies of the Clerk of the Parliaments (the Clerk Assistant and the Reading Clerk) are appointed by the Lord Chancellor, subject to the House's approval.

The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod is also an officer of the House; he takes his title from the symbol of his office, a black rod. Black Rod (as the Gentleman Usher is normally known) is responsible for ceremonial arrangements, is in charge of the House's doorkeepers, and may (upon the order of the House) take action to end disorder or disturbance in the Chamber. Black Rod also holds the office of Serjeant-at-Arms of the House of Lords, and in this capacity attends upon the Lord Chancellor. The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod's duties may be delegated to the Yeoman Usher of the Black Rod or to the Assistant Sergeant-at-Arms.


The House of Lords and the House of Commons assemble in the Palace of Westminster. The Lords Chamber is lavishly decorated, in contrast with the more modestly furnished Commons Chamber. Benches in the Lords Chamber are coloured red; thus, the House of Lords is sometimes referred to as the "Red Chamber". The Woolsack is at the front of the Chamber; supporters of the Government sit on benches on the right of the Woolsack, whilst members of the Opposition sit on the left. Neutral members, known as Cross-benchers, sit on the benches immediately opposite the Woolsack.

The Lords Chamber is the site of many formal ceremonies, the most famous of which is the State Opening of Parliament, held at the beginning of each new parliamentary session. During the State Opening, the Sovereign, seated on the Throne in the Lords Chamber and in the presence of both Houses of Parliament, delivers a speech outlining the Government's agenda for the upcoming parliamentary session.

In the House of Lords, members need not seek the recognition of the presiding officer before speaking, as is done in the House of Commons. If two or more Lords simultaneously rise to speak, the House decides which one is to be heard by acclamation, or, if necessary, by voting on a motion. Often, however, the Leader of the House will suggest an order, which is thereafter generally followed. Speeches in the House of Lords are addressed to the House as a whole ("My Lords") rather than to the presiding officer alone (as is the custom in the Lower House). Members may not refer to each other in the second person (as "you"), but rather use third person forms such as "the noble Duke", "the noble Earl", "the noble Lord", "my noble friend", etc.

Each member may make no more than one speech on a motion, except that the mover of the motion may make one speech at the beginning of the debate and another at the end. Speeches are not subject to any time limits in the House; however, the House may put an end to a speech by approving a motion "that the noble Lord be no longer heard". It is also possible for the House to end the debate entirely, by approving a motion "that the Question be now put". This procedure is known as Closure, and is extremely rare.

Once all speeches on a motion have concluded, or Closure invoked, the motion may be put to a vote. The House first votes by voice vote; the Lord Chancellor or Deputy Speaker puts the question, and the Lords respond either "Content" (in favour of the motion) or "Not-Content" (against the motion). The presiding officer then announces the result of the voice vote, but if his assessment is challenged by any Lord, a recorded vote known as a division follows. Members of the House enter one of two lobbies (the "Content" lobby or the "Not-Content" lobby) on either side of the Chamber, where their names are recorded by clerks. At each lobby are two Tellers (themselves members of the House) who count the votes of the Lords. The Lord Chancellor or Deputy Speaker may vote from the Woolsack. Once the division concludes, the Tellers provide the results thereof to the presiding officer, who then announces them to the House. If there is an equality of votes, the motion is decided according to the following principles: legislation may proceed in its present form, unless there is a majority in favour of amending or rejecting it; any other motions are rejected, unless there is a majority in favour of approving it. The quorum of the House of Lords is just three members for a general or procedural vote, and thirty members for a vote on legislation. If fewer than three or thirty members (as appropriate) are present, the division is invalid.


The Parliament of the United Kingdom uses committees for a variety of purposes; one common use is for the review of bills. Committees of both Houses consider bills in detail, and may make amendments. In the House of Lords, the committee most commonly used for the consideration of bills is the Committee of the Whole House, which, as its name suggests, includes all members of the House. The Committee meets in the Lords Chamber, and is presided over not by the Lord Chancellor, but by the Chairman of Committees or a Deputy Chairman. Different procedural rules apply in the Committee of the Whole House than in normal sessions of the Lords; in particular, members are allowed to make more than one speech each on a motion. Similar to the Committee of the Whole House are the Grand Committees, bodies in which any member of the House may participate. A Grand Committee does not meet in the Lords Chamber, but in a separate committee room. No divisions are held in Grand Committees, and any amendments to the bill require the unanimous consent of the body. Hence, the Grand Committee procedure is used only for uncontroversial bills.

Bills may also be committed to Public Bill Committees, which consist of between twelve and sixteen members each. A Public Bill Committee is specifically constituted for a particular bill. A bill may also be referred to a Special Public Bill Committee, which, unlike the Public Bill Committee, has the power to hold hearings and collect evidence. These committees are used much less frequently than the Committee of the Whole House and Grand Committees.

The House of Lords also has several Select Committees. The members of these committees are appointed by the House at the beginning of each session, and continue to serve until the next parliamentary session begins. The House of Lords may appoint a chairman for a committee; if it does not do so, the Chairman of Committees or a Deputy Chairman of Committees may preside instead. Most Select Committees are permanent, but the House may also establish ad hoc committees, which cease to exist upon the completion of a particular task (for instance, investigating the reform of the House of Lords). The primary function of Select Committees is to scrutinise and investigate Government activities; to fulfil these aims, they are permitted to hold hearings and collect evidence. Bills may be referred to Select Committees, but are more often sent to the Committee of the Whole House and Grand Committees.

The committee system of the House of Lords also includes several Domestic Committees, which supervise or consider the House's procedures and administration. One of the Domestic Committees is the Committee of Selection, which is responsible for assigning members to many of the House's other committees.

Legislative functions

Most legislation may be introduced in either House, but, most commonly, is introduced in the House of Commons. For the stages through which the legislation passes in the House of Lords, see Act of Parliament.

The power of the Lords to reject a bill passed by the House of Commons is severely hampered by the Parliament Acts. Under those Acts, certain types of bills may be presented for the Royal Assent without the consent of the House of Lords. The House of Lords cannot delay a money bill (a bill that, in the view of the Speaker of the House of Commons, solely concerns national taxation or public funds) for more than one month. Other public bills cannot be delayed by the House of Lords for more than two parliamentary sessions, or one calendar year. These provisions, however, only apply to public bills that originate in the House of Commons, and do not have the effect of extending a parliamentary term beyond five years.

By a custom that prevailed even before the Parliament Acts, the House of Lords is further restrained insofar as financial bills are concerned. The House of Lords may neither originate a bill concerning taxation or Supply, nor amend a bill so as to insert a taxation or Supply-related provision. (The House of Commons, however, often waives its privileges and allows the Upper House to make amendments with financial implications.) Moreover, the Upper House may not amend any Supply Bill. The House of Lords formerly maintained the absolute power to reject a bill relating to revenue or Supply, but this power was curtailed by the Parliament Acts, as aforementioned. Under a separate convention, known as the Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords does not seek to oppose legislation promised in the Government's election manifesto.

Hence, as the power of the House of Lords has been severely curtailed by statute and by practice, the House of Commons is clearly the more powerful branch of Parliament.

Judicial functions

The judicial functions of the House of Lords originate from the ancient role of Parliament as a body that redresses petitions demanding justice. The judicial functions of the House of Lords are exercised not by the whole House, but by a group of "Law Lords". The bulk of the House's judicial business is conducted by the twelve Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, who are specifically appointed for this purpose under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act. The judicial functions may also be exercised by Lords of Appeal (other members of the House who happen to have held high judicial office). No Lord of Appeal in Ordinary or Lord of Appeal may sit judicially beyond the age of seventy-five. The judicial business of the Lords is supervised by the Senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and his or her deputy, the Second Senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary.

The jurisdiction of the House of Lords extends, in civil and in criminal cases, to appeals from the courts of England and Wales, and of Northern Ireland. From Scotland, appeals are possible only in civil cases; Scotland's High Court of Justiciary is the highest court in criminal matters. The House of Lords is not the United Kingdom's only court of last resort; in some cases, the Privy Council performs such a function. The jurisdiction of the Privy Council in the United Kingdom, however, is more narrow than that of the House of Lords; it encompasses appeals from ecclesiastical courts, issues related to devolution, disputes under the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, and a few other minor matters.

Not all Law Lords sit to hear cases; rather, cases are heard by panels known as Appellate Committees, each of which normally consists of five members (selected by the Senior Lord). An Appellate Committee hearing an important case may consist of even more members. Though Appellate Committees meet in separate committee rooms, judgement is given in the Lords Chamber itself. No further appeal lies from the House of Lords.

A distinct judicial function—one in which the whole House, rather than just the Law Lords, may participate—is that of trying impeachments. Impeachments are brought by the House of Commons, and are tried in the House of Lords; a conviction requires only a majority of the Lords voting. Impeachments, however, are essentially obsolete; the last impeachment was that of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville in 1806.

Similarly, the House of Lords was once the court that tried peers charged with high treason or felony. The House would be presided over not by the Lord Chancellor, but by the Lord High Steward, an official especially appointed for the occasion of the trial. If Parliament was not in session, then peers could be tried in a separate court, known as the Lord High Steward's Court. Only peers, their wives, and their unremarried widows were entitled to trials in the House of Lords or the Lord High Steward's Court; the Lords Spiritual, being commoners, were tried by regular juries. In 1948, the right of peers and peeresses to be tried in such special courts was abolished; now, they may be tried in the same courts as others.

The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 will lead to the creation of a separate Supreme Court for the United Kingdom, to which the judicial function of the House of Lords, and some of the judicial functions of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, would be transfered. In addition, the office of Lord Chancellor will be reformed, to remove his ability to act as both a government minister and a judge. This is motivated in part by concerns that the historical admixture of legislative, judicial, and executive power, may not be in conformance with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights (a judicial officer having legislative or executive power might not be considered to be sufficiently impartial to provide a fair trial), and in any case are considered undesirable according to modern constitutional thought concerning the separation of powers. The Government proposes that the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom would be located in Middlesex Guildhall.

Current composition

The House of Lords, as of 1 March 2005:

Affiliation Life Peers Hereditary Peers Lords Spiritual Total
Elected by Party Elected by Whole House Royal Office-holders
  Conservative Party 156 39 8 0 0 203
  Labour Party 198 2 2 0 0 202
  Liberal Democrats 64 3 2 0 0 69
  Cross-benchers 150 28 2 2 0 182
  Other party/
9 2 0 0 0 11
  Lords Spiritual 0 0 0 0 26 26
Total 578 74 14 2 26 694

Note: These figures exclude thirteen peers who are on leave of absence.

†The number of hereditary peers 'allocated' to each party, which is based on the proportion of hereditary peers that belongs to that party, is:

  • Conservative Party: 42 peers
  • Labour Party: 2 peers
  • Liberal Democrats: 3 peers
  • Cross-benchers: 28 peers

Of the initial forty-two hereditary peers elected as Conservatives, one (The Lord Brabazon of Tara) now sits as a Cross-bencher, having become the House of Lords' Chairman of Committees, and another (The Lord Willoughby de Broke ) now sits as a non-affiliated member. The Conservative place vacated by the death of the 6th Baron Burnham on January 1, 2005 was filled March 10th by the election of the 7th Baron de Mauley [1]. On January 23, 2005 the death of the 4th Baron Aberdare created a vacancy filled by the election of the 2nd Viscount Eccles by the whole House on March 22. A Cross-Bench vacancy occurred on the death of Lady Strange March 11, 2005.

See also


Last updated: 10-24-2005 23:09:58
The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy