The House of Lords
The House of Lords currently has about 800 members. None are elected by the people, yet they still wield a lot of power. How does the Upper House work — and why do many people want change?
What is the House of Lords?
It is the second chamber of the UK’s Parliament, based in the Palace of Westminster in London. It helps to make laws and question the Government, along with the 650 elected Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons.
Who is in the House of Lords?
There are currently about 800 Lords or “peers”, as they are known. Originally, they were “wise men” drawn together to advise Saxon kings. These days, peers may be appointed because they have attained a degree of expertise in certain areas.
The majority are appointed by the Prime Minister, while a certain number of nominations from the leader of the opposition are also accepted. Many peers are former politicians.
Then, there are the 90 hereditary peers — people who earn their position entirely through birth. There used to be many more.
There are also 26 churchmen and women.
How much power do they have?
The Lords cannot propose legislation, but they help to shape laws proposed by the Government by checking and challenging their content. If they disagree with something in a bill, they can vote it down, delay it, or propose amendments to change it.
If a bill includes a policy in the Government’s manifesto, then the Lords can only vote against the first reading, meaning the bill is sent back to the Commons with only one round of proposed amendments.
These days their main job is to scrutinise, but they used to be much more powerful. Lord Salisbury, who was a member of the Lords, not the Commons, even served three terms as Prime Minister up to 1902.
If the Lords aren’t elected, isn’t that completely undemocratic?
Yes, but that is part of the point. Writing in The Daily Telegraph in 2014, Peter Oborne argued that the House of Lords works well by throwing out what he called “populist measures introduced by governments determined to bolster their right-wing credentials.”
An elected House of Lords would never have the courage to stand out against public opinion, he argued, and would deprive the public of the judgement of “very valuable” peers, such as retired generals, trade union leaders, academics and judges.
“They are an important counterbalance to the Commons,” he said.
What if people disagree with them?
That can happen sometimes. The House of Lords has defeated the Government several times during the row over Brexit, for example, by voting for the UK to stay in some sort of single market, or the European Economic Area (EEA). They also forced the Government to agree that MPs should be allowed a say if there was no final withdrawal agreement with the EU.
Writing in The Daily Mail in 2018, Quentin Letts described the Lords as “ripe for the abattoir”. However, Labour MP Jess Phillips wrote that, despite her “deep mistrust of any sort of nobility”, she had “started to see the need for the House of Lords at the exact moment they started to agree with what I think”.
Will it ever change?
Many people hope so. All the main parties have pledged to cut the number of peers. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has gone even further, vowing to abolish the Lords as part of plans for a “radical overhaul” of the British constitution to address a “growing democratic deficit”.
Others favour retaining some kind of second chamber, but without any hereditary positions.
- How much power should the House of Lords have?
- Design your own political system. How many houses are there? How many restraints on popular opinion are there?
- Former politicians
- These include Peter Mandelson and Neil Kinnock from the Labour Party, and Michael Heseltine and Nigel Lawson from the Conservative Party, among many others.
- Many more
- The House of Lords Act of 1999 reduced the number of members from 1,330 to 669, which meant that 650 hereditary peers had their entitlement to sit in the House removed.
- Lord Salisbury
- Salisbury was the last Prime Minister to sit in the House of Lords instead of the House of Commons.
- Single market
- The way the European Union is treated as one territory with a free market in goods, money, services and people.
- European Economic Area
- An area covering the 28 EU countries plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, which enables those three countries to be part of the EU’s single market.
- Cut the number of peers
- The House of Lords is the only upper house of any bicameral Parliament (parliaments split into two separate assemblies) to be larger than its lower house.