The House Of Lords

In Detail

Key Actors in the House of Lords

The Lords currently consists of almost 700 appointed life peers, 90 hereditary peers and 25 bishops. There is no limit to the number of peers who can be members of the House of Lords (prior to the mass removal of life peers in 1999 there were over 1000). As of October 2011 181 Members were women (up by about 30 on the previous year).



Formally, all life peers are appointed by the same mechanism: the Queen appoints them on the advice and recommendation of the Prime Minister.

Most entrants to the House of Lords are appointed as political working peers but there are a number of routes to being nominated by the Prime Minister as a life peer:

  1. Political ‘working’ peers: Political parties may nominate members of their parties for life peerages. The actual number of people nominated and the number per party is decided by the prime minister, but, by convention, no one party now has an absolute majority in the House of Lords. The prime minister decides when new peers are nominated. Although the nominations are made by the prime minister and the political parties, the House of Lords Appointment Commission (HoLAC), which was established in 2000, has a limited role in vetting appointees.
  2. Non-party-political members: These are the ‘People’s peers’, who are nominated by the public and recommended by HoLAC. As of May 2013 HoLAC has recommended 74 people, most of whom are well-known in public life. The skills and abilities of those chosen are intended to broaden the House’s expertise, and reflect Britain’s growing diversity.
  3. Ministers: The prime minister may appoint a small number of people to the House of Lords to act as Ministers of State. Peter Mandelson was appointed in this way as Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills in 2010.
  4. Former public servants: A limited number of public servants may be nominated by the Prime Minister.
  5. Former Speakers of the House of Commons: By convention all former Speakers are made life peers. The appointment of former Speaker, Michael Martin, as a life peer in 2009 was controversial.
  6. Honours Lists: Prime ministers have also traditionally allocated peerages as part of their resignation honours lists, usually to fellow politicians, political advisors or others who have supported them, and their dissolution honours lists, when peerages can be given to Members from all parties who are leaving the House of Commons.



Hereditary Peers are those who have inherited a title and the right to sit in the House of Lords. Until 1999 the House of Lords had about 700 hereditary peers. Following the 1999 House of Lords Act all but 92 were barred from sitting in the House. If a peer dies the vacancy is filled via a by-election of the remaining hereditary peers. However, this ‘top-up’ procedure will be abolished if the House of Lords Reform Bill is passed. In effect, the hereditary peers will become life peers, and eventually their numbers will dwindle to zero.



Otherwise known as ‘the Lords Spiritual’, the number of Bishops is limited to 26. They attend and vote only on occasion. They comprise the Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Anglican bishops of Durham, London and Winchester and the 21 senior diocesan bishops of the Church of England. They have seats in the Lords because the Church of England is the ‘established’ Church of the State. However, individual membership of the House of Lords ceases when they retire as bishops.



As a result of the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005, the judicial role of the House of Lords, as the final appeal court in the UK, has ended. This role was performed by 12 Law Lords, known as Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. Final appeal hearings and judgments took place on 30 July 2009. On 1 October 2009, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom assumed jurisdiction for hearing appeals on points of law of public importance, for the whole of the United Kingdom in civil cases, and for England, Wales and Northern Ireland in criminal cases. Additionally, it will hear cases on devolution matters under the Scotland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 2006. The former Law Lords, most of whom have become the first justices of the 12-member Supreme Court, are disqualified from sitting or voting in the House of Lords. When they retire from the Supreme Court they can return to the House of Lords as full Members but newly-appointed Justices of the Supreme Court will not have seats in the House of Lords.



The Leader of the House of Lords is a Government Minister and a member of the Cabinet. The office of the Leader is responsible for the organisation of Government business in the House and offers guidance on correct procedure in the House.



The role of Lord Speaker is relatively new. He or she:

  • can offer procedural advice to the House, except at question time
  • takes the chair in Committee of the whole House
  • makes the preliminary decision on Private Notice Questions
  • decides on the Sub judice rule
  • acts as an ambassador for the House of Lords both in the UK and abroad
  • chairs the House Committee
  • is responsible for security
  • is not appointed by the Prime Minister
  • is elected by the House
  • is not a member of the Cabinet and has no government department.



Party discipline tends to be less strong in the House of Lords than in the House of Commons, and the Whips are less exclusively concerned with party matters. Defeat for the Government is normally less serious and does not pose a challenge to the legitimacy of the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, for major issues the Whips still strive to ensure a good attendance. There is no pairing system in the Lords.

Party politics in the House of Lords


Like the House of Commons, the House of Lords has party groups with party organisation, including leaders and frontbenchers and Whips. The number of whips are, however, fewer than in the Commons. The chief whip of each party issues a weekly written whip which, as in the Commons uses underlining to indicate the importance of issues under consideration. Although there are fewer ‘divisions’ (formal votes) than in the Commons, the mechanism of voting follows the same pattern as in the Commons, in that members have to leave the chamber in order to enter the voting lobbies where their votes are counted. The Whips sometimes stand by the doors leading to the chamber when a vote is called to ensure party members know which lobby to vote in. The whips will also summon other members who are in Westminster, even if they were not in the chamber, to vote in the lobbies.



The role of political parties in the Lords is very different to the Commons;

  1. There are a significant number of Crossbenchers – those peers with no party affiliation. Although the Crossbenchers meet regularly to discuss issues, they are not subject to any party whip.
  2. One method of ensuring party discipline in the Commons, the threat of deselection at a general election, has no currency in the House of Lords, since all members hold office for their natural lifetimes.
  3. Since the Lords are appointed and not elected, they are not there on a mandate to represent any party constituency or interest group, but can speak for themselves – this is true even for the Lords Spiritual who are able to speak for themselves as individuals and not as representatives of the church.
  4. The House of Lords is generally ‘hung’ (no one political party holds an absolute majority) so cross-party consensus has much greater significance than in the House of Commons.
  5. In view of the fact that Lords remain in office for life they are arguably less constrained by short term party-political objectives and able to take the “long-term view”.



Crossbencher‘ is the term used to describe those Lords who have no political party affiliation. There is no formal definition of the role of Crossbenchers, but it has been suggested that they work primarily ‘to bring specialist professional or sectoral experience to the House to improve legislation, vote on it, and promote well informed debate about relevant policy more broadly.’ (‘Review of parliamentary pay and allowances’, Report No. 48, Volume 2, March 2001, Review Body on Senior Salaries).

The Crossbenchers elect one of their number as their ‘Convenor’, to look after their interests in the House. Crossbench Peers receive a weekly notice of forthcoming business, but no whip is ever issued.

The Roles of the House of Lords

The House of Lords has three key functions:

  • Approving legislation (law-making)
  • Scrutinising government activity and holding the Government to account
  • Providing independent expertise
  • Legislation

Like the House of Commons, the House of Lords scrutinises, debates, and drafts amendments to proposed legislation. The Lords spend two thirds of their time checking and revising legislation. Unlike the Commons, there are no time limits on debates in the Lords and no selection of the amendments which can go forward for debate.

The passage of legislation in the House of Lords broadly follows the same procedure as in the House of Commons, going through the same stages:

  • The first reading
  • The second reading
  • The Committee stage
  • The Report stage
  • The third reading.

When a Bill has passed through third reading in both Houses it is returned to the first House (where it started) for the second House’s amendments to be considered. Both Houses must agree on the exact wording of the Bill. There is no set time period between the third reading of a Bill and consideration of any Commons or Lords amendments.


If the Commons makes amendments to the Bill, the Lords must consider them and either agree or disagree to the amendments or make alternative proposals. If the Lords disagrees with any Commons amendments, or makes alternative proposals, then the Bill is sent back to the Commons. A Bill may go back and forth between each House (Ping Pong) until both Houses reach agreement.

Once the Commons and Lords agree on the final version of the Bill, it can receive Royal Assent and become an Act of Parliament (the proposals of the Bill now become law). In exceptional cases, when the two Houses do not reach agreement, the Bill falls. If certain conditions are met, the Commons can use the Parliament Acts to pass the Bill, without the consent of the Lords, in the following session.

When a Bill has completed all of its parliamentary stages in both Houses, it must have Royal Assent before it can become an Act of Parliament (law). Royal Assent is the Monarch’s agreement to make the Bill into an Act and is a formality. There is no set time period between the consideration of amendments to the Bill and Royal Assent. It can even be a matter of minutes after Ping Pong is complete.

The Lords also scrutinise delegated legislation, through the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, and the use of delegated powers through the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee.



Like the House of Commons, the House of Lords scrutinises government activity and holds Ministers to account. It does so via question time, general debates, short debates, and written questions, very often on issues outside the legislative programme. The House of Lords spends about 40% of its time exercising this function.

  1. Questioning ministers: Oral questions can be asked each day (at 2.30pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, 3pm on Wednesdays and at 11am on Thursdays). They allow ministers to be cross-questioned for about 30 minutes, when the House is at its fullest. In addition, about 7,000 written questions are asked each year. As a means of obtaining information and querying government policy, written questions have become increasingly popular over the last 20 years.
  2. Short debates: These are ‘mini’ debates (60-90 minutes long) and provide opportunities to raise issues of concern. A government spokesman will reply at the end of the debate.
  3. Debates: Most Thursdays are for general debates. One Thursday a month is set aside for two ‘short debates’ (maximum 2 1/2hours). Topics are suggested by backbench or Crossbench Members and are chosen by ballot. Other debates are agreed between the ‘business managers’ i.e. whips of the political parties and the Convenor of the ‘Crossbench Peers’.
  4. Statements: Government statements on important or urgent issues are made by the Minister responsible for the subject in the House of Lords. Most statements are made in the Commons and repeated in the Lords by a junior minister followed by a limited time for immediate questioning of the Minister.



The Lords’ select committees were established on a more permanent basis in the 1970s and it is in these committees that the specialist expertise is to be found. The committees take written and oral evidence, and publish reports. There are four main committees:

  1. The European Union Select Committee was set up in 1974 to scrutinise and report on proposed European legislation. It has seven sub-committees and involves over 70 Members.
  2. The Science and Technology Select Committee operates normally through two sub-committees enabling it to carry out two inquiries at a time. Many of its members are scientists with experience of high office in scientific policy-making, university and industrial research, clinical medicine etc. It has published reports on the scientific aspects of aging, avian flu and water management.
  3. The Constitution Select Committee is ‘to examine the constitutional implications of all Public Bills coming before the House and to keep under review the operation of the constitution’.
  4. The Economic Affairs Select Committee considers economic affairs and scrutinises the work of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee. It conducted its first inquiry into aspects of the global economy.

Limits on the Exercise of Powers by the Lords

The powers of the House of Lords are limited by a combination of law and convention:

  • Commons’ privilege: The Commons has claimed a general privilege in relation to the raising and spending of taxpayers’ money since the 17th century. Bills to raise taxes or authorise expenditure always start in the Commons and cannot be amended by the Lords.
  • The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949: These define the powers of the Lords in relation to Public Bills

Money Bills are certified by the Speaker and deal with taxation or public expenditure. Money Bills start in the Commons and must receive Royal Assent no more than a month after being introduced in the Lords, even if the Lords has not passed them. Most other Commons Bills can be held up by the Lords if they disagree with it for about a year but ultimately the elected House of Commons can reintroduce it in the following session and pass it without the Lords’ consent.

Bills not subject to the Parliament Acts are:

  • Bills prolonging the length of a Parliament beyond five years;
  • Private Bills;
  • Bills sent up to the Lords less than a month before the end of a session;
  • Bills which start in the Lords.

Although rarely invoked, the Parliament Acts provide a framework and a means of solving disagreement between the Commons and Lords.

As a result of the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts, the Lords can only delay proposed legislation which they find objectionable, for one year. Thus the House of Commons can force through legislation without the Lords’ consent, if they approve it in three successive parliamentary sessions. This has only been done 4 times since 1949.

  • War Crimes Bill 1999: provided for the prosecution of war criminals
  • European Parliamentary Elections Bill 1999: provided for closed rather than open lists in elections to the European Parliament
  • Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill: lowered the age of consent for homosexual activity to 16
  • Hunting Bill 2004: outlawed hunting with dogs


The Salisbury-Addison convention: This convention dates from the period 1942 to 1957, when Lord Salisbury was the Conservative leader in the House of Lords. Recognising that they lacked the democratic legitimacy of the Commons, the Lords agreed then that they would not obstruct legislation introduced in a government’s election manifesto. As a result, the role of the House of Lords is principally one of a revising chamber, examining legislation and proposing amendments for consideration by the Commons. In 2006-7, over 7000 Lords’ amendments to proposed legislation were tabled, and of those over 2600 amendments were accepted by the House of Commons – close to 40%.


Arguably the Lords’ view of themselves and their function has changed since reform of the House was introduced in 1999. Although voting follows party lines, no single party has a majority in the Lords, and the chamber is now far more willing to challenge legislation. In 1997-2009, the Labour Government was defeated 489 times in the Lords; by contrast, the Conservatives were only defeated 235 times over the period 1979-1997. Many of these defeats have been in the area of civil liberties, with examples include:

  • 2005 Racial and Religious Hatred Bill: narrowed the definition of the crime of inciting religious hatred by requiring the intention to stir up hatred
  • 2006 Identity Cards Bill: rejected government proposal to make ID card scheme compulsory
  • 2007 Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill: extended the scope of the Bill to apply to deaths in police custody
  • 2008 Counter-Terrorism Bill: rejected attempt to extend maximum detention period for terrorism suspects

Lords' Pay


Members of the House of Lords do not receive payment for their parliamentary duties, but they are entitled to claim a daily allowance of £300 for each qualifying day of attendance at Westminster. They may also claim travel expenses.



In addition to allowances, certain office holders are entitled to receive salaries, including Lord Speaker, Chairmen of Committees and Principal Deputy Chairman. Other Members of the Lords receiving a salary are paid from Government funds, including Cabinet Ministers, Ministers of State, Parliamentary Under Secretaries, the Government Chief Whip, the Government Deputy Chief Whip, Government Whips and the Attorney General.



The two Opposition parties and the Convenor of the Crossbench Peers in the House of Lords receive financial assistance for their parliamentary business. Known as ‘Cranborne money’, the amounts payable are uprated annually in line with the retail prices index and are subject to independent audit. For the 2010/11 financial year, in which 3 parties spent time as official Opposition, the rates payable to Opposition parties in the Lords were:

  • £55,695 for the Conservatives
  • £27,808 for the Liberal Democrats
  • £440,129 for the Labour Party and
  • £63,687 to the Convenor of the Crossbench Peers.

Further Reading

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Research Papers


ConSoc Articles


Select Committees


Useful Websites


Further Reading

- Meg Russell Reforming the House of Lords: Lessons from Overseas (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000)

- Meg Russell House of Lords Reform: Are We Nearly There Yet? (2009) 80(1) Political Quarterly 119-125.

- Rhodri Walters The House of Lords in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)

- Anthony King The British Constitution (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)

- Vernon Bogdanor The New British Constitution (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2009)

- House of lords briefing document: The Lords Speaker: Cohesion and discipline in legislatures edited by Reuven Y. Hazan 2006 Routledge