What is the House of Lords?
The House of Lords is the second chamber of Parliament and is also called the Upper House. Because it is not elected, it does not have the same powers as the Commons, but it retains the right to revise and scrutinise the Government's actions and legislation.
Its independent minds and extensive expertise form a crucial check on the power of the executive in Parliament but it is much more likely to wield this power by asking Ministers to think again than to veto whole pieces of legislation.
Members of the House of Lords are called Peers. Around 700 people currently have the right to sit in the House of Lords but they do not all derive their right to sit from the same place. Members of the Lords fall into the following three categories: Life Peers, the remaining elected hereditary Peers (collectively the Lords Temporal), and Church of England archbishops and bishops (the Lords Spiritual).
The Law Lords, appointed to the House of Lords under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876, sat in the upper chamber for the last time in July 2009. The judicial functions of the Lords were transferred to the Supreme Court established under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. The Law Lords became Justices of the Supreme Court in October 2009.
The majority of peers are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister or of the House of Lords Appointments Commission.
Historically, the power of the Lords - the representatives of the landed interests - was greater than that of the Commons, but as democratic ideals took root in the UK, its power has gradually been eroded.
The primacy of the Commons was explicitly stated by the Parliament Act 1911, which compelled the Lords to approve financial legislation, and the Parliament Act 1949, which removed the Lords' power of veto over laws.
Today, the debate about reform of the House of Lords refers more to its composition than to its powers. Until the Life Peerage Act 1958, with the exception of the Law Lords and the Bishops, the right to sit in the Lords derived from membership of the hereditary nobility. The 1958 Act introduced a new type of member: the Life Peer. Life Peers may sit in the Lords for life, but their rights are not passed on to their descendents.
Although the growing number of Life Peers diluted the hereditary basis of Lords membership for the next 40 years, the House of Lords Act 1999 all but dissolved it.
The Act removed the rights of all but 92 hereditary peers to sit in the Lords. These peers - who are elected from among the 800 or so entitled to sit before the Act - survive only by virtue of a compromise struck between the Labour Government and the Conservative leader in the Lords of the day, Viscount Cranborne.
This 'Stage 1' reform remains a compromise that the Government is committed to changing by removing the remaining hereditary peers. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill published in July 2009 and enacted in April 2010, provided for the abolition of the by-elections used to fill vacancies for the 92 hereditary peers.
The Coalition government pledged to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected Upper Chamber on the basis of proportional representation. Subsequently the House of Lords Reform Bill was announced in the Queen's Speech on 9th May 2012 which provides for the creation of a mainly elected chamber.
The principal controversy regarding House of Lords reform revolves around what should replace the hereditary basis of the Second Chamber.
A Royal Commission, led by the former Cabinet Minister Lord Wakeham, put forward a number of options for the future composition of the House, ranging from fully appointed to fully elected, with a series of compromises in between.
The Commons, however, was unable to reach a 'consensus' on any option. The Government then tried to remove the remaining hereditary Peers through its House of Lords Reform Bill, which it described as the first stage of wider reforms, but this was dropped in March 2004 after it became clear that it would not be passed by the House of Lords.
Opponents of a fully appointed Chamber warn that it would put too much power in the hands of those making the appointments, who have historically been Ministers and to a lesser extent Opposition Party leaders, and argued that it would be as undemocratic as the unreformed House. Opponents of a fully elected Chamber warn that the democratic mandate of an elected House would undermine the primacy of the Commons and potentially lead to legislative deadlock. Opponents of a mixed system argue that there is no basic rationale for a mixture.
A number of secondary debates relate to the composition of the House of Lords. The membership of Church of England Bishops, based on the position of the established church, is deemed by some to be anachronistic and discriminatory. The Government committed itself in 2003 to reforming the position of the Law Lords, whose rights to sit in the Lords derived from its position as the highest court of the UK.
Proponents of a reformed House argue variously in favour of the appointment or election of regional representatives or representatives of sectional, community and cultural groups, as a means of improving the representative character of the House while distinguishing it from the Commons. Some, notably the Labour MP Dennis Skinner, continue to argue for its abolition outright.
The publication in 2007 of a white paper on House of Lords reform was followed by a free vote in both Houses on the composition of the second chamber. The Commons voted overwhelmingly for a fully elected House of Lords. The peers themselves, however, voted in favour of a fully appointed House of Lords.
In July of the following year a further white paper was published and Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, insisted that House of Lords reform had to be based on the will of the Commons -"the primary chamber in our legislature". This 2008 white paper set out how a wholly or mainly elected second chamber might be created within a bicameral legislature in which the House of Commons retains primacy.
A draft House of Lords Reform Bill published in November 2009 set out how the government intended to take forward the 2007 Commons vote in favour of an elected second chamber and build on the proposals of the 2008 white paper.
Following the election of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government in May 2010 it was announced that the two parties had agreed to establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation, with a draft bill expected by December 2010. In the interim, the government stated, Lords appointments would be made "with the objective of creating a second chamber reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election."
The House of Lords Reform Bill announced in the Queen's Speech on 9th May 2012 provides for elected members of the House of Lords to be voted in by a different electoral system to the House of Commons, on a proportional basis (a single transferable vote system). The size of the Upper House would also be reduced substantially under the Bill and membership of the Lords would no longer be linked to the acceptance of a peerage.
House of Lords membership:
Conservative: life peers – 164; excepted hereditary peers – 49. Total 213
Labour: life peers – 227; excepted hereditary peers – 4. Total 231
Lib. Dem: life peers – 86; excepted hereditary peers – 4..Total 90
Crossbench: life peers – 150; excepted hereditary peers – 31. Total 181
Other life peers - 33; excepted hereditary peers - 1. Total 34
Bishops 26 Total 26
Source: Parliament – June 2012
"It's crucial that the House of Commons endorses Lords reform now to ensure that the first members of the second chamber are elected in 2015. What's more, most MPs stood in the last election on a platform promising to do precisely that; all three main political parties promised democratic reform of the House of Lords in their last party manifestos."
Unlock Democracy June 2012
"Electing the second chamber is not self-evidently the democratic option – by dividing accountability it can undermine the capacity of the people to hold government to account (since policies may emerge for which it is not directly responsible) and can sweep away the very benefits that the present system delivers."
Lord Norton – March 2012
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