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House of Lords

The House of Lords, also known as the House of Peers and domestically usually referred to simply as the Lords, is the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Membership is granted by appointment or else by heredity or official function. Like the House of Commons, it meets in the Palace of Westminster. Officially, the full name 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.

Membership was once an entitlement of all hereditary peers, other than those in the peerage of Ireland, but under the House of Lords Act 1999, the right to membership was restricted to 92 hereditary peers. Since 2008, only one of them is female (Countess of Mar); most hereditary peerages can be inherited only by men.

Moreover, the power of the House as a whole decreased, 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 far from democratic: property qualifications greatly restricted the size of the electorate, and the boundaries of many constituencies had not been changed for centuries.

The Labour Party had for most of the 20th century a commitment, based on the party's historic opposition to class privilege, to abolish the House of Lords, or at least expel the hereditary element. 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 continued to advocate the outright abolition of the Upper House (such as Michael Foot).

Since 1999, however, no further reform has taken place. The Wakeham Commission proposed introducing a 20% elected element to the Lords, but this plan was widely criticised. A parliamentary 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. Socialist MPs favouring outright abolition voted against all the options.

Detailed proposals for Lords reform, including a draft House of Lords Reform Bill, were published on 17 May 2011. These included a 300-member hybrid house, of whom 80% would be elected. A further 20% would be appointed, and reserve space would be included for some Church of England bishops. Under the proposals, members would also serve single non-renewable terms of 15 years. Former MPs would be allowed to stand for election to the Upper House, but members of the Upper House would not be immediately allowed to become MPs.

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.

Other ecclesiastics have sat in the House of Lords as Lords Temporal in recent times: Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits was appointed to the House of Lords (with the consent of the Queen, who acted on the advice of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), as was his successor Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Julia Neuberger is the senior rabbi to the West London Synagogue. In recognition of his work at reconciliation and in the peace process in Northern Ireland, the Archbishop of Armagh (the senior Anglican bishop in Northern Ireland), Robin Eames, was appointed to the Lords by John Major. Other clergy appointed include Donald Soper, Timothy Beaumont, and some Scottish clerics.

The number of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (excluding those who were no longer able to hear cases because of age restrictions) was limited to twelve, but could be changed by statutory instrument. By a convention of the House, Lords of Appeal in Ordinary did not take part in debates on new legislation, so as to maintain judicial independence. Lords of Appeal in Ordinary held their seats in the House of Lords for life, remaining as members even after reaching the judicial retirement age of 70 or 75. Former Lord Chancellors and holders of other high judicial office could also sit as Law Lords under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act, although in practice this right was only rarely exercised.