The House of Lords is the second chamber of Parliament and is also called the Upper House.
As the House of Lords is not elected, it no longer has the same powers as the House of Commons, but it retains the right to revise and scrutinise the Government’s actions and legislation.
The independent minds and extensive expertise of its members are designed to form a crucial check on the power of the Executive in Parliament. However it is much more likely to wield this power by asking Ministers to think again, rather than to veto whole pieces of legislation.
Currently there are just over 800 Members of the House of Lords. Peers are drawn from a pool of life Peers appointed by current or previous Prime Ministers, 92 residual hereditary peers, and 26 Bishops from the Church of England.
The size of the House of Lords makes it unique. It is said to be the only upper house of any bicameral (two chamber) Parliament in the world, where the Upper House is larger than the Lower House. In total it is said to be the second largest legislative chamber in the world after the Chinese National People’s Congress.
Members of the House of Lords are not directly paid a salary, but they can chose to receive an attendance allowance for every sitting day which they attend. That attendance allowance was £313 in 2019, although Peers can chose to receive a reduced attendance allowance of £157, or not to take a payment at all.
Compared to the House of Commons, the key difference in party composition in the Upper House is the existence of the Cross-Benchers. The Cross-Benchers are peers who accept no party allegiance. They speak and vote independently on each issue and tend to have accumulated a great deal of experience in their field. The cross-benches include former civil servants, retired defence chiefs of staff and ex-Speakers of the Commons (excluding John Bercow who has not been appointed a Peer).
Although the Cross-Benchers are not whipped, there is some organisation amongst them, chiefly for the dissemination of information. A convenor is elected who speaks on behalf of the independent peers on key occasions.
At the start of 2021, there were 263 Conservative Peers ,182 Labour Peers, 87 Liberal Democrat Peers, and 184 Cross Bench Peers.
The Lord Speaker is the presiding officer, chairman and highest authority of the House of Lords. The role is similar to that of the Speaker of the House of Commons: the Lord Speaker is elected by the members of the House of Lords and is expected to be politically impartial.
The Lord Speaker sits on a special chair in the middle at one end of the Chamber. That chair is called the Woolsack.
Language and Layout
All speeches in the House of Lords begin with the words, ‘My Lords’. Language must be deemed ‘Parliamentary’ by the chair and peers are not supposed to refer to the Commons by name, using instead ‘another place’ or ‘the other place’.
Peers must not refer to each other by name in the chamber. Instead, they must refer to each other as ‘noble Lords’ or ‘the noble Lord, the Lord X’. Other rules apply for bishops and law lords.
Looking from the throne, the House of Lords chamber is a arranged as two sets of tiered benches, each split by a gangway, facing each other across a series of benches that face the Woolsack (the cross-benches).
The Woolsack (the Chair) is in front of the throne. Looking out from the Woolsack, to the right and nearest the throne, are the Lords Spiritual, with the Government benches are beyond those. To the left of the Woolsack are the Official Opposition and other non-government parties. Facing the Woolsack at the end of the Chamber are the cross benches, on which the cross-benchers sit, hence their name.
House of Lords Reform
Over the years there has been an ongoing debate about the reform of the House of Lords, either in the form of an elected second chamber or a reduced membership of the House of Lords. The arguments surrounding Lords Reform are covered here.