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House of Lords

Composition of the House of Lords, July 2004
Hereditary Life peersBishopsTotal
Labour 4 187 191
Liberal Democrat 5 61 66
Crossbench 133146179
Other 223335
Total members 39158626703
  • 1 - Includes Law Lords.
  • 2 - Comprises:
    1 Green,
    1 Independent Labour,
    1 Independent Socialist,
    8 non-affiliated members and
    24 newly created life peers who had not yet been introduced.
  • 3 - Excludes 11 peers on leave of absence
  • The House of Lords is the original chamber of Parliament, predating the Commons. Its origins can be traced back to Saxon times, when it was the custom of the king to call the leading men of the country to advise him at court. The pattern of the two-chamber Parliament was adopted by the 14th century. The first chamber consisted of those who had been summoned individually by the king as peers of the realm, who were his counsellors, officials and judges. They were also the chief landowners, who held their lands directly from the king and were responsible for providing the armies in time of war. The second chamber consisted of the representatives of the communities of the country: the knights of the shires and the burgesses.

    Although the Commons established comparatively early its right to determine the resources the Government should have available to it, the House of Lords continued through the patronage of individual lords in other matters to be the dominant House into the 18th century. It was the consequences of the industrial revolution that finally established the pre-eminence of the Commons, as industry replaced land as the main source of wealth, the great cities came to dominate the countryside and changing patterns of society led to the gradual widening of the franchise. Although the most important offices of state were regularly held by members of the House of Lords well into the late 19th century, the Commons continued to establish its dominance as the elected chamber.

    The lords spiritual, the archbishops and bishops, were supposed to hold certain ancient baronies under the king, William I, the Conqueror, having changed the spiritual tenure of frankalmoigne into the feudal or Norman tenure by barony, which subjected their estates to all the feudal charges, from which they were before exempt. Previous to the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, there were also 26 mitred abbots and 2 priors, which made the whole number 54, the number of lords temporal being, at that time, but 106.

    Before the suppression of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539, when the abbots and priors sat with the bishops, the lords spiritual actually exceeded the temporal lords in number. First in rank and precedence, superior in attainments, and exercising high trusts and extended influence, they were certainly not inferior, in political weight, to the great nobles with whom they were associated. Even when the abbots and priors had been removed, the bishops alone formed about one third of the House of Lords.

    But while the temporal lords have been multiplied since that period about eight-fold, the English bishops sitting in Parliament, have only been increased from twenty-one to twenty-six, to whom have been added the four Irish bishops. The ecclesiastical element in the legislature, has thus become relatively inconsiderable and subordinate. Instead of being a third of the House of Lords, as in former times, it later formed less than a fifteenth part of that assembly.

    The lords temporal consist of all the peers of the realm; some of them sat by descent, as did all ancient peers; some by creation, as do all new. made ones; and others, since the union of Scotland and Ireland, by election. All the peers were not originally entitled to a seat as a matter of right, but only those who were expressly summoned by the king. The number is indefinite, and may be increased at the pleasure of the crown, which, however, cannot deprive a peer of the dignity once bestowed. In the reign of queen Anne, 12 new peers having been created at once, a bill was introduced, and passed the house of lords, in the reign of George I, for restricting this prerogative of the crown; but the bill was thrown out in the house of commons, whose leading members are naturally desirous of keeping open the avenues to the peerage. No king has made such frequent use of thisprerogative as George III. From 1760 to 1820, were created 2 dukes, 16 marquises, 47 earls, 17 viscounts and 106 barons, in England alone, without reckoning the Scotch and Irish titles. The whole number of English peers, at the end of his reign (February, 1820), was 291.

    The entire English Peerage and the Peerage of Great Britain were members of the House of Lords. Of these there were, in 1896, five Princes of the Blood, twenty-one Dukes, twenty-two Marquises, one hundred and eighteen Earls, twenty-seven Viscounts, and three hundred and three Barons : in all, four hundred and ninety-six. The oldest existing peerage was created in 1264. Only nine have a date earlier than the fifteenth century, while a large majority of those extant in 1900 had been created between 1800 and 1900.

    The House of Lords consisted in March 1918 of 692 members, including three princes of the Blood Royal the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Connaught and the Duke of Albany; 2 archbishops, 21 dukes, 29 marquesses, 128 carls, 57 viscounts, 24 bishops, 384 barons, 16 Scottish and 28 Irish representative peers. There are, besides, 19 peeresses of the United Kingdom and 4 Scottish peeresses in their own right and 19 Scottish and 57 Irish peers who are not members of the House of Lords. Representatives of the Scottish and Irish peerage are elected by their peers, Scottish peers for each Parliament, Irish peers for life. But many of the peers of Scotland and Ireland are also peers of the United Kingdom and sit as such. Of the barons a few hold life peerages, as being, or having been, Lords of appeal; the other Lords Temporal hold hereditary peerages.

    There was, for example, an impression that the hereditary peerage is for the most part the representation of ancient noble families and is therefore part of Britain's history. In fact, more than 200 of the 750 hereditary peers of the 1990s owed their seats to titles created since 1918. The numerical predominance enjoyed by hereditary peers in the House of Lords was not only a legacy from hundreds of years ago it was in part due to large numbers of relatively recently created peerages. Most peerages can descend only in the male line. As a result, only 16 out of 750 hereditary peerages were held by women.

    The widening of the franchise in the 20th century, coupled with governments with a different political base, led to greater pressure for reform of the House of Lords. Two reforms of the House of Lords were carried, to its powers in 1911 and 1949, and to its composition in 1958 following the introduction of life peers. Throughout the 20th century there has been widespread support for further reform, and in particular for the abolition of the rights of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords.

    Membership of the House of Lords is not a salaried job. Peers may claim only reimbursement of expenses incurred in undertaking Parliamentary duties. Many members of the House attended only rarely. For example, in the 199798 session, only 40 per cent of life peers attended more than two-thirds of the House's sessions and 34 per cent attended less than one-third. The equivalent figures for the hereditary peers are 20 per cent and 67 per cent respectively. Nearly 200 hereditary peers never attended at all, not counting those on leave of absence.

    Political parties operate within the overall structure of the House of Lords. But unlike the House of Commons, there is a significant independent element the cross-bench peers. At 4 January 1999 the Conservatives had a clear majority over the other parties overall, and an overwhelming majority among the hereditary peers. They constitute nearly 50 per cent of the total of hereditary peers, including the politically non-affiliated. They also form the largest single party among the life peers. The Conservatives' share of the House of Lords far exceeded the Party's vote in recent general elections. The overwhelming majority 88 per cent of those who "take a party whip" in 1999 identified themselves with the Conservative Party.

    Since its origins as a gathering of feudal magnates and churchmen, the House of Lords has occupied a central role in the United Kingdom's parliamentary system. By 2009 the House of Lords had around 750 Members, and there are four different types: life Peers, Law Lords, bishops and elected hereditary Peers. Unlike MPs, the public do not elect the Lords. The majority are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister or of the House of Lords Appointments Commission.

      In the 19th Century the House of Lords did arguably represent a distinct and important interest in the country the landed classes. But the whole concept of identifying a number of families whose senior male or, very rarely, female representative was always entitled to a seat in the legislature only made sense when those families uniquely represented a fundamental interest in the country: the Crown's tenants-in-chief. By the end of the 20th Century it was one [or two] centuries since this was even partly true of the hereditary peerage in the country. The right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords was ended in 1999 by the House of Lords Act. This is a real change in the way Britain is governed one of the most radical seen this century. It is a major reform of the House of Lords, and a significant step in the modernisation of Parliament. Instead, 92 Members were elected internally to remain until the next stage of the Lords reform process. Until then there had been about 700 hereditary Members. The 1958 Life Peerages Act created peerages 'for life' for men and women; women sat in the House for the first time.

      Life Peers are appointed for their lifetime only, and these Lords' titles are not passed on to their children. The Queen formally appoints life Peers on the advice and recommendation of the Prime Minister. Life peers make up the majority (about 630) of the total membership (about 750).

      The Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 provides for up to 12 Law Lords to be appointed to hear appeals from the lower courts. They are full-time professional judges and can continue to hear appeals until they are 70 years old. After they retire they go on sitting in the House. In effect, they were the first life peers. The 2005 Constitutional Reform Act removed the Law Lords and sets up a new, independent supreme court (from October 2009). It also changed the role of the Lord Chancellor, ending his role as a judge and as Speaker of the House of Lords.

      The Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of Durham, London and Winchester and the 21 senior diocesan bishops of the Church of England have seats in the House. This is because the Church of England is the 'established' Church of the State.

    The powers of the Lords, like those of the Commons, are not precisely defined, although the limitations on them are. The main function which the Lords shares with the Commons is the scrutiny of primary and secondary legislation. For primary legislation, the usual role of the Lords is as a revising chamber, although some Bills can and do begin their Parliamentary passage in the Lords. Every year, the House of Lords passes a large number of amendments to Bills, the overwhelming majority of which are government amendments. The average number of amendments made by the House of Lords to Bills each year in the 1990s was nearly 2,000. The House of Lords therefore performs an important role in improving legislation, and in allowing further consideration of controversial issues.

    The Lords' powers over primary legislation are constrained by the Parliament Acts. Under these, the Lords must pass without amendment any Bill certified by the Speaker of the House of Commons as a Money Bill within one month of its being sent up to the Lords, otherwise the Bill can be presented for Royal Assent. For all other public Bills, except, importantly, one to extend the life of a Parliament, the House of Lords has only the power to delay a Bill into the Parliamentary session after that in which it was first introduced.

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    Page last modified: 26-11-2012 18:58:16 ZULU