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Reform of House of Lords Membership

Info: 3145 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 7th Aug 2019

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Jurisdiction / Tag(s): UK Law

The reform of the upper house of the Parliament has been attempted since the establishment of parliamentary democracy in the UK. Some of these attempts have fetched positive results whereas the rest have at best been nominal and ineffective. The Parliament Act of 1911 is a cornerstone legislation in this context as the provisions within it had the potential to significantly alter the status quo with regard to the House of Lords. This essay will show how far reforms to the House of Lords have materialized and what areas have remained stagnant in the century since the Act. The first stirrings for Lords reforms started in 1909, when

“the Liberal government of Herbert Asquith was struggling and failing to get its financial reforms through the Lords. Given that these included a tax on land, it was hardly surprising that the landowning (and Conservative) Lords were proving resistant. At that date any Bill needed the support of both Houses before it could become law. The only logical solution to this impasse was to pass an Act of Parliament which meant that an Act of Parliament did not necessarily have to be approved by the Lords. The Act to overrule the Lords – the Parliament Act – would also have to pass through the Lords. Who would, of course, not approve it. But there is a way around that. The government could threaten to create enough new peers to get a majority in the House of Lords.” [1]

The Parliament Act of 1911 repealed the sole right of House of Lords to veto bills passed in the parliament. Instead, it empowered the House of Commons to overrule any such veto after consideration and debate for 3 sessions. Although this provision did not bring into existence the purported Second Chamber based on popular choice, it did significantly alter the power wielded by the House of Lords [2] . While the Parliament Act of 1911 has had noticeable effects in the functioning of other aspects of democracy, its contribution to House of Lord reform has been limited. Moreover, the onset of the First World War in 1914 had shifted priorities for the country from domestic policy to foreign/military affairs. And no sooner did the country settle down to normal functioning, the rise of Nazi Germany and the ensuing World War once again shifted priorities.

Hence, it wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that further efforts to reform House of Lords was undertaken. Despite Winston Churchill’s heroic role in turning around the fortunes of Britain in the war against fascism, he and his government was voted out in the general elections held in 1945. A war-weary and economically impoverished electorate found appealing the election manifesto of the Labour Party and elected it to power. During the same time, conservative leader Lord Salisbury drew up a constitutional convention, which sought to counterbalance the upper-hand held by the Conservative Party in the House of Lords. Given that the population has clearly given its support for the Labour Party, the Salisbury Convention emphasized the legitimacy of the elected government in enacting its election manifesto, and therefore the House of Lords should restrain from vetoing such efforts. Hence, the Salisbury Convention is a key moment in the history of House of Lords reforms. It was in this atmosphere of political reform that the Parliament Act of 1949 was passed. It included an amendment that stipulated the House of Lords no more than 2 sessions for delaying a bill approved by the lower house. Further, “the re-make of the Parliament Act (1949) was better than the original. As re-configured the Upper House could now only block legislation for two sessions, or one year at the most. In fact, so protracted were the negotiations that the Bill to nationalize iron and steel was only passed in 1950.” [3]

One of the prime issues for House of Lords reform is its tradition of membership based on heredity. The Life Peerages Act of 1958 was an attempt to bring in a merit based membership mechanism. Hereby, a new group of peers (from different socio-economic backgrounds) were appointed to the house and were given the right to vote. This act also made the historic change of offering membership and representation to women. Further refinements to this Act were included in the Peerage Act of 1963. Following recommendations made by the Joint Committee in 1962, the Peerage Act of 1963, “initiated by the Macmillan Government, gave effect to most of its recommendations. Peeresses in their own right were admitted to the House, as were all Scottish peers. The system of Scottish representative Peers was abolished. The Act also enabled hereditary peerages to be disclaimed for life.” [4]

It is no surprise that the thrust for House of Lords reform has largely come from the Labour Party. So whenever it had come to power, political discourse tended to concentrate on reform efforts. During the Labour Party reign from 1966 to 1970, the government tried to implement its election manifesto pledge to introduce laws to protect measured passed by the Commons from getting delayed or blocked in the House of Lords. It was in this context that the White Paper on House of Lords Reform was published in November 1968. It proposed key changes to the Upper House as it existed then. The proposals included

“A two-tier House; 230 voting, created Peers who would have to fulfil certain requirements (mainly regular attendance); Non voting members, able to play a full part in debates and committees; Succession to a peerage to no longer carry the right to a seat in the House; Existing Peers by succession to be non-voting members of the reformed House, or to be created life Peers to enable them to continue in active participation as voting members; The Government to have a small majority of the whole House.” [5]

Although this White Paper was approved by a vote of 251 to 56, it did not address all areas of reform. Moreover, its implementation met with several hurdles as members of Parliament could not agree on all its provisions and also due to the fact that the Labour government was defeated in the next elections. Feeling discontentment with the state of affairs, the Labour Party members sitting now in opposition benches called for outright abolition of House of Lords. They argued that a democratically elected second chamber should act as a counterbalance to the House of Commons, and that the House of Lords has lost its relevance in the context of modern democracy. Hence, the 1970s and 1980s were two decades of high-pitched political debate regarding the continued existence of the House of Lords. While the period immediately after the Second World War saw small but significant changes to the power and purview of the House of Lords, the period under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership saw unprecedented demands by Labour M.P.s for not just reforming the functioning of House of Lords but its outright scrapping. But due to the three successive election victories for the Conservatives, led by Mrs. Thatcher, the abolition demands remained just rhetorical. [6]

Probably identifying that its demands are idealistic and not practical, the Labour Party toned down its stance in subsequent election manifestos. By the early 1990s, the Labour Party was back to advocating reform as opposed to abolition. Having assumed the leadership position of the Labour Party recently, Tony Blair ran a successful election campaign in 1997 under an election manifesto that said: “As an initial, self contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative. The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered.” [7]

And it is under the prolonged reign of the New Labour Party from 1997 till 2010 that many significant reform initiatives were mooted – many of which eventually got implemented. Indeed, reforms were at the core of the Labour Party’s 1997 campaign, which set out plans to “devolve powers, modernize election law, reform the House of Lords, incorporate the ECHR into domestic law, increase the openness of government, and provide for a more effective local government system beginning with the election of city mayors” [8] . Following up on this campaign pledge, the Labour government did create white paper for House of Lords, devolution, and FOI. It also carried out unprecedented number of referenda to ascertain the public pulse on various issues. For instance, referenda was employed for “the consideration of devolution in Scotland and Wales and for the establishment of a mayoral system and regional assemblies” [9] . Referenda was not employed for House of Lords reform, the notion of creating the Supreme Court and the acceptance of the Human Rights Act. Looking in retrospect, it would have led to more robust House of Lords reforms, had the Tony Blair leadership heeded to public opinion on this important and politically vexing matter as well. But despite this small failing, the Labour government under Tony Blair had to be given credit for making historical and unprecedented changes to the constitution in its decade long reign.

The Parliament Act of 1911 and the Parliament Act of 1949 were two significant steps toward Lords reform, in that they enabled the Commons to pass bills without consent from members of the Lords, although the latter could still delay or hold-up passage of bills. But even as late as 1997, the reforms have not advanced to a stage where the powers of the upper house was restrained. It is in this context that the reforms under the New Labour regime has to be measured. Starting with its move to remove hereditary peers from the Lords, the government went on to pass the House of Lords Act of 1999, which left a rump of 92 Hereditary Peers among the whole group of appointed Peers till further reform. [10]

Feeling the necessity for a more substantial change to the upper chamber of Parliament, the Tony Blair government appointed the Royal Commission in 1999. Headed by Baron Wakeham, the Commission set forth to consider proposals for comprehensive Lords reform as well as made suggestions toward that end. The Wakeham Report released in 2000 was a product of this effort. In it were laid out more than hundred recommendations that dealt with the structure, organization and dynamics of the House of Lords. The report contained several constructive suggestions for reforming the Lords. The suggestion to set up an Independent Appointment Commission for all appointments to the House of Lords was one such suggestion. It also identified the ideal membership strength for the chamber and the new roles it should assume for strengthening democracy in the UK. Most importantly, the report identified the limitations of any reform project due to the importance of tradition and precedence in British parliamentary and judicial history. [11]

Following the release of the Wakeham Commission report, some of the recommendations given therein were debated in the House of Lords in the following months. The Prime Minister also launched a White Paper as a step toward implementing the reform agenda. In his foreword to the presentation of the White Paper to the parliament, the Prime Minister noted the following:

“The Royal Commission rightly set the issue of membership in the context of functions. The imperative is for a reformed second chamber performing broadly the same functions as in the existing House of Lords but in a more effective manner. To meet this objective the Royal Commission recommended a second chamber with a largely nominated membership, including a strong infusion of independent, non-party members able to bring expertise and experience from beyond the world of party politics….The Government strongly endorses the Royal Commission’s vision of the role and importance of the second chamber. It also accepts the Commission’s broad framework for composing its membership. This White Paper sets out the Government’s detailed proposals and invites comments.” [12]

The consultations and comments elicited by the White Paper had led to several positive changes to the functioning of the country’s institutions. But despite earnest attempts by the New Labour government to carry out its Lords reform agenda, the fact remains that even after a century of reform measures, one in seven members of the Lords are appointed through inheritance. In a legislative system where the second chamber continues to hold significant power, this situation is unfair [13] . Despite clearly identified flaws in the system, and the necessary popular backing for reforms, the government was not able to achieve all its stated reform objectives. For example, toward the end of its rule, the New Labour government had to withdraw its initiative to abolish remaining hereditary peers due to vocal opposition from the Conservatives. The fundamental problem

“for any reformer is the impact major change in membership is likely to have on the House of Commons. The more democratic the second chamber, the more legitimate it will feel and the more likely it is to challenge the Commons. Legislative deadlock between the two Houses holds few attractions. Yet, to some MPs, the very idea of a legislative chamber comprised entirely of appointed members is an affront to democratic principles. This ambivalence lies behind much of the failure by MPs last year to agree any of the options put before them for reform.” [14]

While political compulsions arising from partisan politics has thwarted comprehensive reforms of the House of Lords, one need not be entirely pessimistic about reform prospects in the immediate future. Billy Bragg, whose popularity as a cultural icon has risen in the last decade, has recommended a novel solution to the reform deadlock, whereby an authoritative second chamber could be created without being the equal of the House of Commons. What is referred to as the ‘secondary mandate’ entails indirect elections that will ensure distribution of seats on a regional basis corresponding to the votes cast during the General Elections. This would ensure that no single party will always end up on the side of the majority. Due to the fact that members to the second chamber will only be elected indirectly, their status will not be the same as other Members of Parliament. Lower in status they might be, but their position will carry sufficient legitimacy for them to play an active role in policy making. This proposal is not without its deficiencies. For example,

“Members would only serve two terms and Bragg leaves very few seats for independents, such a strong feature of the current House of Lords. He also glosses over the need to sort out the powers of the Upper House… Since the removal of most hereditary peers in 1999 the Lords has become much more assertive, voting down secondary legislation, threatening to filibuster and wreck key planks of Government legislation. If the primacy of the Commons is to be maintained, as all the political parties are agreed on, the limits of the powers of the second chamber will have to be defined in legislation”. [15]

Hence, in conclusion, the hundred years since the introduction of the Parliament Act of 1911 has seen small incremental Lords reforms. The reform process got renewed attention after the Second World War and whenever the Labour Party held power. There were even calls in the 1970s and 1980s for the complete abolition of the Lords – a move that was deemed too radical to be considered politically viable, and hence was given up. While small incremental reforms had taken place in each decade since the implementation of the Parliament Act of 1911, it wasn’t until the recently concluded New Labour reign that radical changes have been brought about. Since 1997, under the Prime Ministership of Tony Blair several reform initiatives have been successfully implemented while some others remain at the level of debate and discussion. The last decade saw the emergence of several novel and innovative solutions to the problems associated with House of Lords. The suggestion made by Billy Bragg is one such; although it has not materialized into law as yet. But the Lords reform continues to be at the forefront of all election campaigns and has become a key part of the nation’s political discourse. While the reform process has seen a lot of positives in the century since 1911, there is still scope for more improvements. Only by pursuing the reform process, would the nation approach the ideal of democratic functioning.

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