In comparison with the House of Commons, the House of Lords powers are restricted. Their political clout is owed more to convention and tradition. The House has no influence on any bills relating to government finance and although it has the authority to stall any acts of parliament for up to a year, the Commons can cite the Parliament Act 1949 – an act introduced by Labour that effectively removed the delaying privileges of the Lords – to swiftly defeat any motion.
However, the Lords do hold the jurisdiction to veto any bill that may prolong a government’s tenure in office. Each government can only rule for five years without a general election. Therefore, the Lords can block any move by the Commons to extend a regime beyond their legal term. Incidentally, this power has never been used in practice.
The Lords make a valuable contribution to improving the quality of legislation in parliament. 50 – 60% of the chambers time is devoted to the revision of Commons bills. During the 2007/08 parliamentary session, the Lords tabled 7,259 amendments to draft bills of which 2,625 were accepted by the Commons. These included the Counter Terrorism Bill which outlined plans to revise the period of time potential terrorism suspects could be detained in custody without charge. The proposal was rejected by a majority of 192.
The Lords have the capacity to dedicate time to in-depth scrutiny of proposed bills. This allows the Commons to take a back seat role and concentrate their efforts on MP constituency responsibilities and other issues. Consequently, many of the most thorough and full proof amendments find their origins in the House of Lords. In fact, it has been argued that the Commons abuse the Lords time and expertise in order to rework incompetently contrived bills.
The Lords posses equal powers on matters concerning Private Members Bills. In plain terms, like the Commons, they too can reject them outright. In 2005, Lord Joffe proposed a bill that legalised assisted suicide in the case of terminally ill individuals. This involved doctors having the discretion to prescribe patients with a fatal dose of medication. However, the bill was fervently opposed on moral grounds and subsequently overcome.
Like their counterpart, the Lord’s is also safe guarded by parliamentary privilege. This means that the chamber is exempt from libel allegations and therefore permits peers the liberty of free speech within parliament.
Legislative procedures aside, the House of Lords plays an important role in scrutinising the actions of parliament. This scrutiny takes the form of questions to ministers, debates in parliament and committee work.
There is no Lords equivalent to Commons Questions Time. In its place, time is allocated at the start of each day’s session for questions to the Lord’s ministers. During the 2007/08 parliamentary session, 595 oral questions were put forth whilst 5,814 oral written questions were lodged.
Debates in the chamber are reflective of the diverse membership of the house. Generally, they are said to be more civil than those that take place in the Commons. Furthermore, although still evident, party allegiance does not carry the same weight. The content of the issues discussed are said to be far more deliberated and comprehensive than those in the Commons. This can be explained by the caliber of representative the Lords can boast. The 2007/08 parliamentary session featured 80 general debates ranging from disputes about the state of the armed forces to the current economic situation in the UK.
The House of Lords exhibits a number of committee’s globally acclaimed for their expertise. The coveted European Communities Committee is held in high regard and compliments the less detailed studies conducted by their Commons counterpart. The Science & Technology Committee, founded in 1979, was responsible for a damning report in 2007 on e-crime. The review examined the role the internet has played in increasing crime levels, highlighting the dangers of online depravity and advised the government of the preventative measures that needed to be put in place. In 2005, the Lords Constitution Committee produced a report on the potential introduction of ID cards and concluded that it threatened to destroy the harmony between the state and citizen.
As of October 2009, the judicial powers of the House of Lords were removed when the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 was brought into practice. Prior to this, the chamber was considered the highest court in the United Kingdom and was traditionally the court of appeal for all civil and criminal cases. Justice was administered via the Law Lords – the countries most higher-ranking judges. However, with the creation of a new United Kingdom Supreme Court, the judicial role of the Lords was effectively rendered void.
Composition of House of Lords
In 1997, Tony Blair’s Labour government came to power and immediately pledged to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative of the electorate. Up until this point, the chamber had comprised of life peers who had been honoured with their seat due to outstanding achievements in their field of work and the traditional hereditary peers who ascended to their position through birth.
Due to the massive prevalence of Conservative supporters amongst hereditary peers prior to 1999, there existed an ingrown Conservative majority within the second Chamber of parliament.
The House of Lords Act 1999 sought to fulfil the Labour party’s 1997 manifesto commitment to remove the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords. The Act served to remove more than 600 hereditary peers from membership. Consequently, this created greater equality between the Conservatives and Labour, leaving the balance of power being held by the cross-benchers and the Liberal Democrats. There was no longer a single party who dominated the House.
This change in composition is reflected when comparing House of Lords Membership in January 1999 to that of November 2009. In January 1999, prior to the Act’s ratification, the Conservatives had 473 peers sitting in the second chamber. As of November 2009, there were only 190 active Conservative peers. In stark contrast, in January 1999, Labour had 168 peers within the House. This figure had risen to 212 by November 2009 and therefore emphasises the close parity now in operation between Labour and Tory
peers. The number of Liberal Democrat peers has remained consistent. In 1999, the party had 67 peers. This figure had increased marginally to 71 by 2009. The removal of hereditary peers also resulted in a significant drop in cross-bench peers. In 1999, there were 310 working in the House. By 2009, this number had reduced to 183.
The composition of the chamber has also been altered by the increasing numbers of life peers derived from common social standing. Whilst hereditary peers are traditionally bourn of upper class backgrounds, life peers offer a more socially representative alternative. However, it must be noted that despite this discrepancy, class issues still remain. In order to offer a life peerage, recipients will generally have achieved something of particular repute. Therefore, by the time peerage is granted, it is highly unlikely that the individual will be still considered of lower social standing. In turn, this severely hampers the chances of the chamber ever becoming a socially representative mechanism of the United Kingdom.
The terms of the House of Lords Act 1999 has also increased the role played by woman within the House of Lords. In 1990, 80 women held peerage within the House. By November 2009, as a result of the changing composition, there were 148 women sitting with the Lords. This shows an increase from 7% of the total membership to 20 % of the total membership in just under two decades.
The present day House of Lords is evidently different from that one that existed before Labour came to power in 1997. Its composition has been transformed in comparison with the Conservative stronghold that was in place pre reform and it now promotes a far more equal representation of political allegiance, gender and social status. More significantly, the vast majority of members are life peers and not hereditary peers.
The Reforms Agenda
Stage two of the Labour Governments plans to reform the House of Lords involved the consolidation of Stage One – the removal of hereditary peers. It was designed to bolster and strengthen the move to a second chamber based purely on appointment. The idea was that the reforms would create a more representative chamber based on the votes a political party had acquired at the previous general election.
Stage three of the reforms agenda outlined proposals for an expansive reform of the House of Lords. In theory, the government had anticipated that the successful implementation of an all-appointed second chamber would allow for more fundamental reforms to be made in order to stabilise the Lords position in Parliament. Secondly, the government planned to introduce a wider programme of constitutional change within the House. This hinged entirely on the success of the stage two reforms in ensuring the House of Lords maintained its legitimacy.
Jack Straw, the secretary of state for justice, recently claimed that the reforms of 1999 dramatically changed the House of Lords for the better. However, many would argue this is not the case. Ultimately, the Labour government has failed to deliver on its promise of a wholly elected second chamber.
In 2007 the House of Commons voted in favour of reforms leading to a 100% or 80% elected second chamber. This proposal was rejected outright by the House of Lords. Despite the governments insistence that the reforms would be pushed through using the will of the Commons, two years have since passed and the in-house squabbling still rages between those in power. This is the frank nature of the reforms debate.
An unelected second chamber with no direct link to the people raises serious questions of legitimacy. The body itself is fundamental to the making of legislation. The Labour Party has been in power for close to 13 years and it has achieved very little. The successful implementation of Stage one of the Lords reform programme now appear as substantial as a gentle breeze. Despite overwhelming public favour for reform of the Lords and numerous votes for a fully elected chamber, Labour has not pushed through the reform agenda its 1997 manifesto guaranteed.
Unfortunately, the governments plans have not came to fruition.. It looks likely that it will remain that way for the foreseeable future.
- Jones, B. Kavanagh, D. Moran, M. and Norton, P. (2007), Politics UK, 6th Edition
- Norton, P. (2005), Parliament in British Politics
- Russell, M. (2000), Reforming the House of Lords: Lessons from Overseas
- Direct Gov Website: http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/index.htm
- The Works of the House of Lords: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/HoLwork.pdf
- UK Parliament Website: http://www.parliament.uk/index.cfm
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