The House of Lords is the Upper Chamber of the Houses of Parliament. Descending from the medieval King's Court, it was originally based in St. Stephens Chapel at the Palace of Westminster but after a severe fire in 1834 almost destroyed the building, a specially designed chamber was included in the new Palace of Westminster, which was designed by Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin.
Members of the House are known as peers, and fall into one of two subcatogories:
- Lords Spiritual
Originally consisting of Archbishops, Bishops and Mitred Abbots, the Lords Spiritual made up the majority of the members of the House, until the Reformation in the 16th century removed all of the Abbots from the monasteries. They are concerned primarily with matters of social or moral importance, and rarely contribute to political discussions.
The Reformation also limited this group of peers to 26 members, and includes the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishops of Durham, London and Winchester, and the 21 next most senior Church of England Bishops. Unlike the Lords Temporal, their right to sit in the Upper House is revoked when they retire from their position within the Church.
- Lords Temporal
Prior to the Life Peerages Act of 1958, the Lords Temporal consisted of two subgroups, the Law Lords and the Hereditary peers.
The Law Lords are there to facilitate the House of Lords role as the highest court in the land, for all cases bar those originating from Scotland. These twenty-four members of the Upper House are also divided into two categories. Twelve of the Law Lords, who are given the title 'Lord of Appeal in Ordinary' are judges who are given life peerages, allowing them to sit in the House. The remainder are either sitting or previous Lord Chancellors, or judges who hold, or have held, high office and either happen to be hereditary peers anyway or have been made life peers because of their distinguished careers
The Hereditary Peers, prior to the House of Lords Act 1999, numbered around 750 . A few of these titles originated in the thirteenth century, but about half of the hereditary peerages have been created this century. Due to the unprecedented numbers of new peerages there was a freeze imposed that lasted for 18 years up until 1980. Any new Hereditary titles created after this time are known as 'hereditary peers of first creation'.
After the passing of the Life Peerages Act in 1958. the Queen claimed the right to grant non-hereditary Life peerages on the advice of the Prime Minister. Over 600 of these appointments have been made since the act. Usually, life peerages are offered to those who have had a distinguished career, not necessarily in politics, but often in business or law. The Prime Minister's choice of candidate tends to favour supporters of his or her own party, but other party leaders are invited to put forward candidates for peerages, to try to maintain a reasonable balance in the House. This practice seems to have been wavering slightly, with recent accusations being levelled at the current Prime Minister Tony Blair claiming that he is rewarding people who donate large sums of money to the Labour party, dubbed 'Tony's Cronies', with peerages
There are numerous official positions related to the House of Lords, including The Lord Chancellor who presides over debates in his or her role as the Speaker for the House of Lords from the Woolsack, the Earl Marshal, the Lord Great Chamberlain and Black Rod
All other members of the House of Lords are unpaid, but they are entitled to reimbursement of their expenses, within maximum limits for each day on which they attend the House. Another quirk of being a peer is that you may not sit in the House of Commons, but can be a Government Minister, merely one that sits in the Upper House. To be eligible to sit in the House of Commons you must first renounce your title, as has been done by Tony Benn, who is the current MP for Chesterfieldand whose father was Viscount Stansgate.
The Duties of the House
The House of Lords has very similar duties to the House of Commons, barring the fact that members of the Lords do not represent constituencies, meaning that a member of the Lords does not have to try to impress his or her electors . Another effect of being appointed rather than elected means that, in the Commons, a member may feel obliged to ask certain questions, or to make a particular speech simply because the electors in his or her area will expect it, whereas the Lords are free from such pressures. There is also and unwritten rule that the Upper house does not interfere with issues of taxation or finance..
All bills go through both Houses before becoming Acts of Parliament, and may start in either House. More often than not a bill will be sponsored in the House of Commons before being passed to the House of Lords for approval. Whilst the Upper House cannot veto a bill, it has limited powers of delay, and also the power of amendment usually reserved from more controversial bills, such as recent Private Members Bill attempting to ban fox hunting. One interesting quirk of the power to delay is that it may only be used once on a Bill. If the same Bill is reintroduced to the Upper House, it automatically passes into the statute book, whether the Lords agree or not.
At the end of debates on Bills the Lords have an opportunity to shout out `content' or `not content' , when asked whether or not they are happy to pass it. If only one side shouts the bill passes, if both do it goes to a division of the House. Often peers affiliated with the party in power abstain from voting against a Bill from the Commons, as they don't see it as their place to vote against their fellow party members
A further duty is making the Government answer questions about their work. Questions are addressed to the Government as a whole and Lords cannot expect to get their answer from any particular minister.
Reforming the House of Lords
There has been a lot of talk of reform during this century as some people object to the fact that seats in the Lords can be inherited, but nothing of consequence happened until the Labour party was elected to Government in 1997 with the manifesto pledge on 'reforming the House of Lords. The problem came when those who want reform found it hard to agree on what exactly should be done. Some do not want a second chamber at all, while others think there should be an elected second chamber, and then disagree on the method of election.
Since the House of Lords Act in 1999, major changes have started to take place. The number of hereditary peers has been slashed to 92, all of whom must be nominated by their fellow peers as agreed in the Weatherill Amendement, and even then these are still temporary appointments and are subject to change following further reforms of the House.
The next step that was taken was to set up a Royal Commission
on the Reform of the House of Lords to be chaired by Lord Wakeham
. The Commission's report `A House for the Future
' was published on 20 January 2000. Its many recommendations include the setting up of a new, mostly nominated, partially elected chamber of around 550 members. These recommendations will then be considered by a joint committee of both Houses which is yet to be appointed. The Government
has not committed itself to accepting any of the Commission
No doubt there will be more to add to this in the future...