House of Lords

Reform throughout history in the House of Lords

Simon Teale

The origins of the House of Lords reach back to the eleventh century, when Saxon monarchs established that advise should be gained by consulting what was then called the ‘Witangemot’ (the assembly of the wise.) This was made up of powerful landowners and church leaders.

Its role was to propose new laws, which it then discussed (much like the House of Lords today) With the Norman invasion of 1066 this, however, was altered. Now monarchs had to refer to the great council of barrens, which only met three or four times a year, when the king would summon them to help him decide policy. If extra funding was needed for things such as war, the king would try and persuade the barons for extra funding.

Henry III’s brother was unable to raise sufficient funds so he called upon two knights from each English shire to the great council hoping they could help raise the funds, which he needed. After another ten years leading citizens from each city and borough were also called upon. Therefore the council now contained two distinctive groups, those representing local communities (the knights and leading citizens) who formed the commons, and those called for by name (the Barons and the Clergy) that formed the House of Lords.

The great council had merely quasi-legislative powers and was primarily a judicial and executive body with no say in the final form of laws.

The right to peerage within the great council was not introduced until the 14th century and even that was far from inviolable, it was also in the 14th century that the house split officially into two groups. Before this assemblies were called only occasionally, to support the king's requests for revenue and other important matters of policy, but not to legislate or consent to taxation. It was only after the split that the Lords gained more power; they would withhold financial support from the king until he agreed to their terms. This started in the form of petitions but developed into the drafting of bills sent to the king. This meant that during the 15th century the House of Lords grew dramatically in terms of legislative and administrative power, also along with these powers the lords claimed privileges, such as; freedom of debate (no charges could be brought against anything said in an official debate), and even freedom from arrest totally, this was to an extent a result of weak monarchy.

In the 16th century the House of Lords became more how the house is today, including the chancellor into the running of the house (at about the same time the speaker was introduced in the commons.) Also because the raining monarch, Henry VIII supported the reformation so much the House of Lords gained more formal power when they helped to establish the Church of England as the national religion. Although throughout the Tudor monarchy the power of the lords was challenged by the crowns legislative power and the power of the privy Council (which was descended from the Feudal council.)

The English civil war saw the House of Lords attempting to increase its power once again by calling for political sovereignty for the house, although under Cromwell its power was significantly reduced, until the restoration brought the power back to the lords including (along with the commons) legislative supremacy and full authority over taxation and expenditures, also it meant that Parliament had extra power over the monarch by allowing partial control over the kings choice of ministers this was achieved through impeachment within the houses.

The next major change within the House of Lords came about because of James II’s refusal to work with the house; this led to the ‘glorious revolution’ (1688), which permanently gave parliamentary sovereignty to the houses and further limited the powers of the crown. This led to even the monarchs right to veto on legislation being taken away under Queen Ann’s reign.

The House of Lords remained strong and very much the upper house of the parliamentary system until, in the late 19th century when, along with the industrial revolution social and politics conditions were changing, and as Phillip Norton notes ‘the functions ascribed to Parliaments…are not static. The form of parliaments may remain, but what is expected of them will change as conditions change.’ In this case the House of Lords did not (or could not) change with the changes going on in society, and as members of the working class began to be elected into the house of commons, while at the same time the high social class of the House of Lords was becoming less important within society, along with long disagreements between the two houses (mainly on social legislation) this led to the commons threatening to introduce enough new peers so as to make it that the Lords could not overturn any judgement made by the lower house. The battle between the houses of the financial bill in 1909 finally led the commons to take action; they introduced the parliament act (1911), which took away the House of Lords veto over financial bills totally (including taking away power regarding tax raising), and also made it so that if the commons past a bill twice with at least two years in between each time it was passed then the lords veto was useless. This act further damaged the lords by allowing payment to all members of parliament, meaning that no longer was it only the well off people who could be elected to the commons. This put the Lords under pressure because a different social class would want different things to that of the very much upper class lords.

The next parliament act, which was introduced in 1949, reduced the Lords power yet further by reducing the time that the commons could put a bill through twice without threat of a veto from the lords, down to just one year (from what was previously two years) although the act did not take away the Lords veto to stop any proposal to extend the life of parliament to over five years, the Lords saw this as very important because it gives them power as guardian of the constitution.

During the last century it is obvious that a lot of power has been taken away from the House of Lords, but the House still does have many useful functions, one main function of the Lords is to examine and revise bills which have been passed by the commons and also hold debates on major issues and policies, this is something which cannot be done to such an effect in the commons because holding debates in the commons has no real use, as all MPs have to vote down party lines (whereas in the Lords there is a non-partisan atmosphere) and also the Lords simply have a lot more time to spend on individual bills then the commons. Although the recent Labour government (who tend not to favour the lords as much as the conservatives) brought into question the effectiveness and also the efficiency of the House of Lords during their first parliament in this area as well as others, and have even seen fit to change the make up of the upper house. When looking at the figures it is easy to see why they did this, firstly figures show that nearly one third of the hereditary peers of the House of Lords in 1996-1997 did not even attend one sitting during this period. Figures also show a gross misrepresentation of society within the Lords, for example nine out of ten hereditary peers attended public school, with over half of the hereditary peers attending oxford or Cambridge. Another major reason for the change is thought to be because of the large amounts of conservative support in the House of Lords, although the Lords is meant to be unpartisan it was often brought into question weather the members were slightly more inclined to vote consistently for one side.

It was for these reasons and many more (including the fact that this would lead nicely on for reforming other parts of the lords) that in December 1998 Tony Blair (with command of her majesty the queen) presented to parliament the first part of reform of the House of Lords. This made it so that a person could not have the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords just because of their name (effectively this meant the abolition of the hereditary peers within the Lords) This is how a BBC report on the day of the reform saw it:

‘The first stage of Prime Minister Tony Blair's shake-up was completed when legislation removed more than 600 hereditary peers from the House, ending the hereditaries' centuries old dominance of the Lords.’

This along with the creation of forty new life peers by Tony Blair gave the labour party a slight edge in terms of support in the House of Lords, the conservatives had suffered another loss to labour, this was obvious when the conservative leader at the time William Hague sacked Viscount Cranborne as conservative leader in the House of Lords after it had been found that he had struck a deal with Tony Blair to keep on some of the hereditary peers in the Lords on a temporary basis. Once this reform was completed only 75 hereditary peers kept their right to sit and vote in the House of Lords, Labour saw this as a great victory not only for the party but also for democracy in the UK. Although many saw it as Labour simply increasing their power over the other parties yet further, making challenge to government even harder.

Many people believe that this was only the first step towards reforming the House of Lords and that more steps must be taken in order to make the house more efficient, some even see the Lords as useless and believe that its functions could be combined with the commons to make one single house this is the case in other countries (such as Denmark, Sweden, and Israel) and seeing as the only formal legislative power which the lords holds is the delaying of the passage of a bill, if the commons really want a piece of legislature passed there is nothing that the House of Lords can do about it. Why not abolish the lords and replace its ‘checking mechanism’ with a similar mechanism within the commons? Many people disagree with this saying that the Lords acts as a final and very important check on the commons and government, many also say that the work done by the Lords takes a lot of time and if it was put onto the commons to do the work it would be far too much, and as political scientist Rush has said about the abolition of the upper house: ‘the burden of work carried out by the upper house would fall on the commons…As it is, the commons meets as frequently or more frequently then any other legislative chamber in the world’

Some people believe that the only way to make the system work efficiently and with thought of what the general public want, would be to make the House of Lords totally elected, so that it is a fairer reflection of what society wants, there are arguments for and against this idea, firstly many people say that if the Lords was elected then the commons would lose its legitimacy over the Lords, because it would no longer be the only elected chamber. If this did take place the elections to the two Houses may be held at different times (maybe not even in the same year – as in the US) This could lead the most recently elected house to claim a higher level of legitimacy. It is also thought that if the House of Lords became elected then parties would almost certainly dominate, the fact that they don’t is a major part of the Lords legitimacy the moment, as it allows ‘discussion’ rather then ‘argument’.

On the other hand, if the Lords was elected it would bring a more democratic role to the House, this could even lead to more power being given back to the House of Lords, especially as an elected house should be more efficient, as the elected house would almost certainly be paid a wage to sit it is not only the rich who could afford to take on a role in the house, this would make it a fairer representation of our society. The pay would also ensure that more people would attend to sit in the House on a regular basis so the work could be done much faster.

The fact is that the house of lords has changed over time a great deal, in modern times it is mainly due to the new found power of the commons because of the changes in the importance of the respective classes in society, the Lords also looks set to carry on changing into the future, with new governments having new ideas for the House. But as it stands the House of Lords is still respected by many as a very important part of our political system and judging by the many arguments over its future will continue to exist in some form for much time to come.


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Last Modified: Monday, 22-Oct-2012 13:52:25 BST