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Study Notes

House of Lords

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

The House of Lords is the upper house of Parliament (the Commons is the lower house) in the UK’s bicameral system. Parliament is the UK’s legislature – the branch of government responsible for making law. Members of the Lords are often referred to as peers.

At the time of writing, the Lords contains nearly 850 peers, 783 of whom are able to vote (because some peers are retired, some on leave of absence, and some can’t vote as they are serving judges).

Up until 1999, the Lords was a largely hereditary chamber, with peers inheriting their titles. The 1997 Labour government pledged to remove hereditary peers but to ease the legislation’s passage the Lords was instead allowed to elect 92 peers from amongst the hereditaries. So 11% of peers are hereditary.

86% of peers are ‘Life peers’, who hold their titles for their own lifetimes, but can’t pass it on to their offspring. The Prime Minister has the power of patronage, in that he can fill a position with friends and allies, although an Independent Appointments Commission scrutinises these nominees for propriety, and can also recommend new ‘crossbench peers’, who are generally appointed for their expertise and have no party affiliation.

The remaining 3% of peers include 24 bishops and 2 archbishops, who sit in the Lords as the Church of England is the UK’s established (official) church. These peers only sit whilst they gold ecclesiastical office.

The House of Lords have a variety of functions. The first is that they scrutinise legislation. They can introduce, amend, delay and veto bills (proposed laws). The Lords can introduce a bill as long as it isn’t a money bill or party political. The Lords can also amend a bill, perhaps to remove loopholes or confusing wording although sometimes if they consider legislation unwise). If the Lords is particularly unhappy with a bill it can delay its passage by amending it again and again. This they did with the 2008 Counter-Terrorism Bill and the 2012 Welfare Reform Bill. They can veto a bill completely with the aim of extending the lifetime of the Commons, which has only happened during wartime in the last century.

It should be noted that the Lords’ ability to amend and delay legislation is subject to the ‘Salisbury Convention’ – which is that the Lords will not oppose a bill on the second or third reading if the proposal had been included in an election manifesto. The Commons can also claim financial privilege if there are money issues involved. Furthermore, the 1949 Government Act can be invoked which means the bill becomes law within one year whatever happens.

The House of Lords also should be holding the Government to account, debating issues of public concern and asking questions of ministers. It can also do this via their own committee system. The Commons cannot remove a senior judge without the assent of both houses so the Lords has a role in this. Finally, the House of Lords can provide Government Ministers, as minsters need to be Members of Parliament, but not necessarily from the House of Commons.

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