By Alison L Young
Sir David Williams Professor of Public Law, University of Cambridge

The House of Lords is the second chamber of the UK Parliament. Unlike the House of Commons, its members are not elected. It is composed of hereditary peers, life peers and 26 Church of England archbishops and bishops. Since the House of Lords Act 1999, there are only 92 hereditary peers. Most of the members of the House of Lords are life peers. Since 2000, the House of Lords Appointment Commission (an independent body) recommends appointment as non-party life peers. Political parties can also recommend life peers and these recommendations are also vetted by the Commission. Nominations have to be approved by the Prime Minister and the Queen. The House of Lords is also an extremely large Chamber – with over 800 members! 

What does the House of Lords do? 

All Acts of Parliament have to be voted on by the House of Commons and the House of Lords and be approved by the Queen. This seems to suggest that the House of Lords can veto legislation. If they do not agree to it, then it cannot be passed. However, the powers of the House of Lords are more limited than this.  

The Parliament Acts 1911-1949 enable the House of Commons to pass legislation without the consent of the House of Lords. This means that the House of Lords can only delay legislation. There are also conventions that limit the powers of the House of Lords. The Salisbury-Addison convention states that the House of Lords will not vote against, or propose ‘wrecking’ amendments to Bills found in the Government’s manifesto.  

The House of Lords also gets to vote on delegated legislation. It is possible for the House of Lords to vote against delegated legislation – though it does so rarely. Sometimes the House of Lords will ask the House of Commons to ‘reconsider’ delegated legislation, rather than voting against it.  

The House of Lords’ most important role is as a second pair of eyes looking over Bills. It often has more time to scrutinise legislation than the House of Commons. This can help to spot errors – e.g. when there are mistakes in the wording of legislation, or when the rules may not achieve the purpose that the House of Commons intends. Life peers are appointed from a range of walks of life. This means they may be able to use their specific expertise to recognise when a Bill may not  achieve its aim.  

The House of Lords can amend legislation and send it back to the House of Commons. The House of Commons can then vote on whether to accept these amendments or not. If the House of Commons disagrees, the legislation then returns to the House of Lords. This is known as ‘ping pong’. The House of Lords can decide whether to insist on its amendments, or whether, instead, to accept the Bill without its proposed amendments.  

The House of Lords can also act as a constitution back-stop, pointing out when legislation may contradict important principles of the UK constitution. Two Select Committees of the House of Lords play an important role here. First, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee (DPRRC). This committee analyses Bills which grant powers to the executive. It checks to make sure that there are sufficient controls over the use of these powers. In particular, it checks to make sure that the House of Commons and the House of Lords play the right role in approving delegated legislation.  

 A second important committee is the Constitution Committee. Its job is to scrutinise Bills to check whether the Bill has any implications for the UK Constitution. It will then write a report on its findings, sometimes recommending changes to Bills to minimise their impact on the constitution. Both the Constitution Committee and the DPRRC produce reports before a Bill has its second reading in the House of Lords. This provides all of the members of the House of Lords with information to help them when debating and voting on a Bill.  

As well as scrutiny over legislation, the House of Lords also has more time to scrutinise other measure that are important for the UK, but which the House of Commons may not have the time to look at. When the UK was a member of the EU, the House of Lords had a committee which scrutinised proposed EU legislation. The House of Lords now has a committee which scrutinises International Treaties. Their work provides useful information for the Government, Parliament and the public more generally.  

Should we reform the House of Lords? 

There have been lots of calls for the House of Lord to be reformed. The composition and powers of the House of Lords have changed over time. Reform is an on-going process, and there have even been calls for the House of Lords to be abolished.  

When thinking about reforming the House of Lords we need to think about three things: its purpose, its powers, and its composition. Why should we have two chambers in Parliament? Not all countries do – New Zealand, for example, only has one chamber. Second chambers can provide a form of representation that is not found in the first chamber. This may be a representation of local interests in a devolved or federal state, or of minority groups that may not be represented in the first chamber. They can also provide expert scrutiny that may not be found in the first chamber.  

Once we’ve thought about the purpose of the second chamber, this can help us think about its composition and its powers. For example, if we wanted the second chamber to provide a representation of local interests that was not found in the first chamber, we may want to ensure that the second chamber was composed of the same number of local representatatives from each area. If we wanted the second chamber to represent minority interests, we may want the second chamber to be composed of individuals who represented these minority groups. This may be appointed or elected. It we wanted expert scrutiny, then the chamber would need to be composed of experts in specific fields. Again, these may be appointed or elected.  

Then we have to think about the powers of the second chamber. This will depend on its function and its composition. We may not want a second chamber to veto legislation if it is not democratically elected. But should a second chamber have more powers than the first chamber if this is composed of a number of elected representatives from minority groups, or if it is composed of those elected through a form of proportional representation, for example? 

Also, if we are to reform the House of Lords, we need to decide how we should achieve this. Should this just be done through legislation, or should we also involve the people more generally, either through the use of citizen’s assemblies or a referendum?   

Given that so many people can disagree about these issues, and the reforms that have already taken place, it is perhaps unsurprising that there have been no more radical changes, despite it seeming really odd that Bishops and Lords are still part of Parliament.   

The image accompanying this article is reproduced under the United Kingdom Open Government Licence v3.0 (OGL v.3). A link to the original version of the image can be found here.