House of Lords

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Politics and government

The House of Lords is the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and is also commonly referred to as "the Lords". The Sovereign, the House of Commons (which is the lower house of Parliament and referred to as "the Commons"), and the Lords together comprise the Parliament.

Members of the House of Lords are known as "Lords of Parliament". The House of Lords does not have a fixed number of members: currently there are 751 members, consisting of 26 " Lords Spiritual" and 725 " Lords Temporal". The Lords Spiritual are the two archbishops and 24 most senior bishops of the Church of England, while the Lords Temporal are 633 current Life Peers, the 90 Hereditary Peers and the two Great Officers of State.

Lords Spiritual are "Lords of Parliament" (and not peers) so long as they continue to occupy their ecclesiastical positions, whereas Lords Temporal serve for life. By convention, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are offered life peerages on retirement from those ecclesiastical positions.

The House of Lords originated in the 14th century and has been in almost continuous existence since. The name "House of Lords" was not used as a name for the Upper House until 1544. 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 was once more powerful than the elected House of Commons. 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 elected counterpart. Under the Parliament Acts (passed in 1911 and 1949), all government legislation excluding "money bills" (which include the annual Finance Bill implementing the Budget) passed by the House of Commons can be delayed for twelve months, but cannot be rejected. This power is called a suspensive veto in political science.

Further reforms were enacted under the House of Lords Act 1999, which removed the automatic hereditary right of peers to sit in the Upper House. Two hereditary peers, the Duke of Norfolk [The hereditary Earl Marshal, who organises openings of Parliament, coronations and state funerals] and the Marquess of Cholmondley [hereditary Lord High Chamberlain, who has a role in the openings of Parliament] retain seats because of their offices of state Great Officers of State, and an additional 90 are elected to represent the other hereditary peers. Further reforms have been contemplated but have not been passed into law : among the proposals are removing hereditary peers and directly electing at least 50% of the House of Lords.

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 an Appelate Committee of members with experience of high judicial office, 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 Judicial Committee of 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, but the provisions enacting the transfer have not yet been brought into force. It is understood that the Law Lords are "resistant" and have yet to formally decide on a new location, away from the Houses of Parliament : their present offices are "most agreeable", it seems, while possible new offices nearby in a re-modelled listed neo-Gothic Middlesex Guildhall are being considered.


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, fluctuating as the strength of the monarchy grew or declined. For example, during much of the reign of Edward II (1307–1327), 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 because of the great influence of the aristocrats and prelates of the realm.

The power of the nobility suffered a decline during the civil wars of the late fifteenth century, known as the Wars of the Roses. Much of the nobility was 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 16th century. The Crown was at the height of its power during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547).

The House of Lords remained more powerful than the House of Commons, but the Lower House did continue to grow in influence, reaching a zenith in relation to the House of Lords during the middle 17th 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 effectively under the overall control of Oliver Cromwell. The House of Lords was reduced to 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 chamber of Parliament—a position it would occupy until the 19th century.

The 19th century was marked by several changes to the House of Lords. The House, once a body of only about 50 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 of 1832. The electoral system of the House of Commons was not, at the time, democratic: property qualifications greatly restricted the size of the electorate, and the boundaries of many 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 11 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 80 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 House 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 of debate after the election of a Liberal Government in 1906. 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. After a General Election in December 1910, the Asquith Government secured the passage of a bill to curtail the powers of the House of Lords. The Parliament Act 1911 soon destroyed the power of the House of Lords to reject legislation: most bills could be delayed for no more than three parliamentary sessions or two calendar years. It was not meant to be a permanent solution; 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 reduced the delaying power of the House of Lords further 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. The number of Life Peers then gradually increased, though not at a constant rate. 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 coalition 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 proposed instead. In the meantime, the creation of hereditary peerages (except for members of the Royal Family) has been 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 92 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), making the House of Lords predominantly an appointed House.

Since then however, reform has stalled (see Lords Reform). 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, 20% elected, 40% elected, 50% elected, 60% elected, 80%, and fully elected). In a confusing series of votes in February 2003, all of these options were defeated although the 80% elected option fell by just three votes in the Commons. 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 in the near future, 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 cross-party campaign initiative that was set up to make the case for a predominantly elected Second Chamber in the run up to the 2005 general election. In the post-election Queen's Speech, the government announced that it would "bring forward proposals to continue the reform of the House of Lords" in the 2005/2006 legislative session.

The Times reported on July 19, 2005 that the Labour Party would propose that the House of Lords be 80% elected and renamed the "Second Chamber". The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, has announced plans to develop a cross-party consensus on House of Lords reform. A cross-party group of senior MPs ( Ken Clarke, Robin Cook (deceased August 2005), Paul Tyler, Tony Wright and George Young) published a report in 2005 proposing that 70% of members of the House of Lords should be elected - each member for a single long term - by the single transferable vote system. Most of the remainder would be appointed by a Commission to ensure a mix of "skills, knowledge and experience".

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 26 Lords Spiritual, always including the five most important prelates 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 21 longest-serving other 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, represent only the Church of England.

Other ecclesiastics have sat in the House of Lords in recent times: Immanuel Jakobovits, was appointed to the House of Lords by Margaret Thatcher while he was Chief Rabbi. In recognition of his work at reconciliation and in the Peace Process, the Archbishop of Armagh (the senior Anglican bishop in Northern Ireland), Lord Eames was appointed to the Lords by Tony Blair. Other clergymen appointed include Reverend Donald Soper, Reverend Timothy Beaumont [Lib Dem], and some Scottish clerics. There have been no Roman Catholic clergymen appointed, though it was rumoured that Cardinal Basil Hume was offered a peerage, but refused, and accepted instead the Order of Merit, a personal appointment of the Queen, shortly before his death.

In practice, however, although the Free Churches have never been represented as of right in the Lords, some Methodist and other ministers sit as Lords Temporal. Other clerics such as the Chief Rabbi are also often elevated as Lords Temporal; and indeed the heads of various professions and learned societies, and notably the military, academic and legal professions, are customarily considered.

Lords Temporal

Since the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Lords Temporal have been the most numerous group in the House of Lords. Unlike the Lords Spiritual, they may be publicly partisan. Publicly non-partisan Lords are called cross-benchers. Originally, the Lords Temporal included several hereditary peers (that is, those whose peerages may be inherited), who ranked variously as dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons. Such hereditary dignities can be 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 92 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 90 hereditary peers in the House of Lords, 15 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 70, or, if his or her term is extended by the government, at the age of 75; 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 because of 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 70 or 75. Former Lord Chancellors and holders of other high judicial office may also sit as Law Lords under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act, although in practice this right is infrequently exercised. After the coming into force of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary will become judges of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and will be barred from sitting or voting until they retire as judges.

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 2000, the government announced it would set up an Independent Appointments Commission, under Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, to select fifteen so-called "People's Peers" for life peerages. However, when the choices were announced in April 2001, from a list of 3,000 applicants, the choices were treated with criticism in the media, as all were distinguished in their field, and none were "ordinary people" as some had originally hoped.

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 16 representative peers to sit in the House of Lords; the term of a representative was to extend until the next general election. 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 28 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 Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Republic of Ireland may sit in the House of Lords. The nationality restrictions were previously more stringent: under the Act of Settlement 1701, and prior to the British Nationality Act 1948, 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 excluded from the House of Lords until the Life Peerages Act, passed in 1958 to address the declining number of active members, facilitated the creation of peerages for life. Women were immediately eligible and four were among the first life peers appointed. However, hereditary peeresses, whose existence had long been a constitutional anomaly, 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; there are three among the 92 hereditaries who continue to sit. All women in the House of Lords are amongst the Lords Temporal; the Church of England does not presently permit the consecration of female bishops, though this issue is currently under consideration, with many observers expecting female bishops in the near future.


Traditionally the House of Lords did not elect its own speaker, unlike the House of Commons; rather, the ex officio presiding officer was the Lord Chancellor. With the passage of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the post of Lord Speaker was created, a position to which a peer is elected by the House and subsequently appointed by The Crown. The first Lord Speaker to be elected, on May the fourth 2006, is Baroness Hayman, a former Labour peer. As the Speaker is expected to be an impartial presiding officer, Baroness Hayman has resigned from the Labour whip.

This reform of the post of Lord Chancellor was made due to the constitutional anomalies inherent in the role. The Lord Chancellor was 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 was part of all three branches of government: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. The overlap of the legislative and executive roles is a characteristic of the Westminster system, as the entire cabinet consists of members of the House of Commons or the House of Lords, however in June 2003, the Blair Government announced its intention to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor because of the office's mixed executive and judicial responsibilities. The abolition of the office was rejected by the House of Lords, and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 was thus amended to preserve the office of Lord Chancellor. The Act no longer guarantees that the office holder of Lord Chancellor is the presiding officer of the House of Lords, and therefore allows for the House of Lords to elect a speaker of their own.

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

The Lord Speaker 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 Speaker, 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 was previously 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; thus the Woolsack upon which the Lord Chancellor sat was notionally not in the House of Lords, although situated in the middle of it.

Whilst presiding over the House of Lords, the Lord Chancellor traditionally wore ceremonial black and gold robes. This is no longer a requirement for the Speaker except for State occasions outside of the chamber. The Speaker or 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 Speaker 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 originally remained members of their respective parties, and may participate in debate, however this is no longer true of the new role of Lord Speaker.

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 Speaker, 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 Speaker. 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 Speaker 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 Speaker may not take part in the vote. 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 30 members for a vote on legislation. If fewer than three or 30 members (as appropriate) are present, the division is invalid.

The full, formal style of the House is The Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled. The formal style of individual members of the House of Lords is The Right Honourable the Lord X of Y. The House of Lords, like the House of Commons, meets in the Palace of Westminster. Lords who are Privy Counsellors place "PC" after their title : all Privy Counsellors are in any case entitled to the epithet "The Right Honourable".


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 Speaker, 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

The House of Lords meets in a lavishly decorated chamber in the Palace of Westminster (above).
The House of Lords meets in a lavishly decorated chamber in the Palace of Westminster (above).

Most legislation may be introduced in either House, but, most commonly, is introduced in the House of Commons.

The power of the Lords to reject a bill passed by the House of Commons is severely restricted 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 cannot have the effect of extending a parliamentary term beyond five years. A further restriction is a constitutional convention known as the Salisbury Convention, which means that the House of Lords does not oppose legislation promised in the Government's election manifesto.

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.

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 chamber of Parliament.

In March 2006, it was reported that, among other reforms, the Government are considering removing the ability of the Lords to delay legislation that arises as a result of manifesto commitments, and reducing their ability to delay other legislation to a period of 60 days .

Judicial functions

The judicial functions of the House of Lords originate from the ancient role of the Curia Regis as a body that addressed the petitions of the King's subjects.

The judicial functions of the House of Lords are exercised not by the whole House, but by a committee 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 1876. 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 narrower 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, since World War II cases have been 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, although the House of Lords may refer a "preliminary question" to the European Court of Justice in cases involving an element of European Union law, and a case can be brought at the European Court of Human Rights if the House of Lords does not provide a satisfactory remedy in cases where the European Convention on Human Rights is relevant.

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 Speaker, 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 were tried in Ecclesiastical Courts. 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 of 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, will be transferred. In addition, the office of Lord Chancellor has been reformed by the act, 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 not being likely to be considered sufficiently impartial to provide a fair trial), and in any case are considered undesirable according to modern constitutional theory concerning the separation of powers. The new Supreme Court will be located in Middlesex Guildhall.

Relationship with the Government

Unlike the House of Commons, the House of Lords does not control the term of the Prime Minister or of the Government. Only the Lower House may force the Prime Minister to resign or call elections by passing a motion of no-confidence or by withdrawing supply. Thus, the House of Lords' oversight of the government is limited.

Most Cabinet ministers are from the House of Commons, rather than the House of Lords. In particular, all Prime Ministers since 1902 have been members of the Lower House. ( Alec Douglas-Home, who became Prime Minister in 1963 whilst still an Earl, disclaimed his peerage and was elected to the Commons soon after his term began.) No major cabinet position (except Lord Chancellor and Leader of the House of Lords) has been filled by a peer since 1982. However, the House of Lords does remain a source for junior ministers.

Current composition

The House of Lords, as of 31 October 2006:

Affiliation Life peers Hereditary peers Lords spiritual Total
Elected by party Elected by whole house Royal office-holders
  Labour 208 2 2 0 0 212
  Conservative 160 39 9 0 0 208
  Liberal Democrats 73 3 2 0 0 78
  Green 1 0 0 0 0 1
  Cross-benchers 168 29 2 2 0 201
  Non-affiliated 9 2 0 0 0 11
  Lords Spiritual 0 0 0 0 26 26
Total 620 75 15 2 26 738

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 42 hereditary peers elected as Conservatives, one ( Lord Brabazon of Tara) now sits as a Cross-bencher, having become the House of Lords' Chairman of Committees, and another ( Lord Willoughby de Broke) now sits as a non-affiliated member.

Current political leaders in the Lords

  • Lord Strathclyde - Conservative Party
  • Lord McNally - Liberal Democrats
  • Baroness Amos - Labour, Cabinet Member

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