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House of Lords Act 1999

Why was it introduced (political/sociological context)?

The House of Lords is the second chamber of the UK parliament. Their role has been to review, make and amend the laws of the United Kingdom. The House of Lords has always been independent and separate from the House of Commons, although their work largely complements the functions of the House of Commons. The House of Lords began forming during the Anglo-Saxon period in the 11th century and was made up of religious leaders, people of standing with the community, magnates and the king’s ministers. Over time, new members attended the House of Lords and became Lords purely through hereditary means. Membership was through bloodline and there was no general public vote on members. This continued on for centuries. During the 20th century, the House of Lords were granted the power to reject legislation approved by the House of Commons. Thus, the House of Lords had significant input and power over the country’s laws. It was always the stronger of the two parliamentary houses. Further, legislation was enacted in 1958-1963 to enable members of the House of Lords to hold their peerage for life. Around this time, Lords were also granted allowances of out of pocket expenses and leave of absence, which was seen as unfair by the general public. Five years later, the government considered bringing in a two-tier House to where members had split speaking and voting rights, i.e. enabling some members to speak but not to vote and vice versa. This was the first attempt a reforming parliament to try and balance the power out between parliamentary members. This idea was later abandoned.  

It became apparent that the power of the House of Lords enjoyed through their hereditary peerage was not a fair and representative way of conducting parliamentary decisions, as most members of the House of Lords were all from aristocratic families with significant wealth, who had been in power for many centuries. Therefore, it was noted that the Lords would act with an inevitable bias. The labour government recognised this needed to be reformed to better balance the scales of decision making and law-making. The decision to abolish hereditary peers from the House of Lords was rigorously debated and staunchly opposed by the House of Lords. However, the Act was passed by a majority vote of 340 to 132 in 1999. It was agreed that 92 of the peers were allowed to remain in the House of Lords on a temporary basis.

What was the aim of the Act (legal context)?

The Act removed the hereditary peers of the House of Lords, which aimed to significantly alter the composition and the powers of the Lords. By removing the right to inherit a seat in the House of Lords, this changed the traditional and outdated practises of effectively inheriting powers. This created a more democratic and much fairer way of law-making, as more members of parliament were voted in as opposed to inheriting their seat.

What main changes did it make to the law?

The fundamental change the Act made was the reform of the House of Lords. The membership of the House of Lords was restricted by virtue of hereditary peerage under section 1 of the Act, with the exception of 92 Lords who were able to stay under section 2(2) of the Act. The Lords allowed to stay under the Act were able to hold their membership for the duration of their life and upon their death, a Standing Order would then make provisions to fill the vacancy. Only four members were granted life peerages, although life peerages were created for former Leaders of the House of Lords. Life peerages were also offered to the royal family, although this offer was declined, hence why there are no related provisions within the legislation providing for royal peerage. Members of the House of Lords who were dismissed were able to be elected as a member for the House of Lords or as a member for the House of Commons. Therefore, membership was by election only, with the exception of the 92 members allowed to stay as hereditary peers. The changes made to parliament under the Act were fairly controversial for the day as it overrode long standing practices that had a strong history. The changes were not received well by conservative politicians, even though the nation was ready for such a change.


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