A Brief History of House of Lords Reform

The House of Lords is one of the oldest institutions in the world. Its origins lay in the early 11th century, when King’s of England consulted the Witan, a national council of nobles and bishops, that advised the King.

The roots of the House of Lords can be found in the Anglo-Saxon institution known as the Witan.

By the 14th Century the Lords became a distinct body within Parliament, where the House of Lords was the seat of Archbishops and Bishops (Lords Spiritual) and Barons, Earls and others with a hereditary title. Meanwhile, the House of Commons was the seat of those without any spiritual or noble title.

Between the 14th and 20th Century there was very little by the way of structural reform to the House of Lords. However, one significant structural change that was instituted in 1847 was that the number of Lords Spiritual (Bishops) was limited to 26, a number it remains at today.

The conventions regarding the House of Lords did however see its power reduced and it became accepted that the House of Commons was the preeminent body within Parliament. For example, it became an accepted convention that the Prime Minister should come from the House of Commons. Indeed, the last Prime Minister to govern from the Lords was the Marquess of Salisbury in 1902.

The Marquess of Salisbury was the last noble to lead a government from the House of Lords.

In addition, other conventions emerged that reduced the power of the House of Lords. For example, since 1671, it was acknowledged that the Lords should not vote against a money bill, thereby ensuring the financial privilege of the House of Commons.

The 20th Century saw far more significant reform to the House of Lords and has led to the creation of the House of Lords as we recognise it today.

Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949

In 1906 a Liberal Government was elected. They envisaged significant social changes, including the provision of welfare through means like old age pensions and sick pay for workers.

The Liberal Government of 1906, with David Lloyd-George as Chancellor, had a program of radical social reform.

The House of Lords, which at this point was made up of Hereditary Peers and 26 Lords Spiritual, were hugely opposed to these changes. This was because these new policies would be paid for by new taxes on the rich. In 1909, the House of Lords broke a 200 year old convention that they do not reject ‘money bills’ and voted against the Liberal Party’s so-called Peoples Budget.

The decision led to a significant constitutional crisis, which, after two elections in 1910, eventually led to the passing of the Parliament Act (1911). The Parliament Act removed the power of the House of Lords to block legislation and limited its power to being able to delay a bill for two years. This meant that, if the House of Commons passed a bill in three consecutive parliamentary sessions, any objections by the Lords could be overruled. The introduction of the Parliament Act was bitterly opposed by the House of Lords, however, after a threat by King George V to swamp the House of Lords with 400 new Liberal Peers, they eventually relented.

Uses of the 1911 Parliament Act:

  1. Government of Ireland Act (1914): The House of Lords blocked an Act that would have created Home Rule in Ireland. The Commons used the Parliament Act to push this through. However, ultimately, the implementation of Home Rule was halted by the First World War.
  2. Welsh Church Act (1914): An Act that saw the disestablishment of the Church in Wales from the Church of England. This was fiercely opposed by the traditionalist Conservative Party, however, it was forced through.
  3. Parliament Act (1949): The Act that reduced the power of the House of Lords to delay bills from two years to a single year. Predictably, the House of Lords were concerned about this reduction of its power, but it was seen as necessary by Clement Attlee’s Labour Government that saw its socialist agenda frustrated by the conservative House of Lords.
The limits placed on the House of Lords were increased by the Parliament Act (1949) when Clement Attlee saw his agenda frustrated by the House of Lords.

In 1949 a second Parliament Act was passed. This act reduced the delaying period to one year. This means that if the House of Commons passes the same bill for two consecutive parliamentary sessions, the Parliament Act can be used to bypass the House of Lords.

Uses of the 1949 Parliament Act:

  1. War Crimes Act (1991): A bill allowed British Courts to try Second World War criminals, regardless of whether they had been resident in, or citizens of, the UK at the time. It was blocked by the House of Lords on the basis that it infringed a fundamental aspect of the Rule of Law – that someone should not be retrospectively prosecuted for something that was not a criminal offence at the time. The Lords rejected the bill, but the House of Commons pushed it through.
  2. European Parliamentary Elections Act (1999): This reform saw the voting system for the European Parliamentary Elections switched from First Past the Post to the D’Hondt Proportional System. This was opposed by the conservative House of Lords, notably because it would hurt Conservative chances of winning these elections. Irregardless, the House of Commons pushed it through.
  3. Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act (2000): This bill equalised the age of consent between homosexual and heterosexual couples. The socially conservative House of Lords opposed the bill, but the New Labour dominated House of Commons was determined to push it through.
  4. Hunting Act (2004): This controversial bill banned the hunting of all mammals using dogs. The aim of the bill was to suppress the pastime of fox-hunting, which many people found incredibly cruel. The conservative House of Lords opposed the move, but it was forced through anyway.
The Hunting Act (2004) was the last time the Parliament Act was invoked.

Importantly, students often consider that the fact that the Parliament Act has been used so sparingly (just four times since 1949) is an indicator of its lack of importance. In fact, what is more accurate, is that the very existence of the Parliament Act encourages the House of Lords to back down before a showdown with the House of Commons even emerges.

The Salisbury Convention

In July 1945 Clement Attlee’s Labour Government won the second largest majority of the twentieth century with 145 seats. However, despite such a clear mandate from the electorate, he struggled to get his progressive agenda passed. Sensing a significant constitutional issue in the unelected Lords thwarting the wishes of the electorate, Lords Salisbury and Addison agreed that any bills that arrived in the House of Lords that had formed part of the Government’s manifesto would not be voted against. The convention still holds today.

Life Peerages Act 1958

Until 1958 all members of the House of Lords were either hereditary peers, appellate judges or Bishops of the Church of England. The Life Peerages Act was an attempt to modernise the House of Lords and enable a greater range of experts to be appointed to sit in the chamber. It was done by allowing the creation of Life Peers, people who would take the title of Lord, but not pass it on in the event of their death. The Life Peerages Act did not dramatically reduce the conservative bias in the House of Lords, however, it undoubtedly helped to professionalise the Lords and continues to allow expert candidates to be appointed. Additionally, before the Life Peerages Act, women could not sit in the House of Lords, even if they had inherited a title. Today, there is a healthy number of female peers, although, there is room for further balance.

The first Life Peers were created on 24th July 1958.

House of Lords Act 1999

One of Tony Blair’s key aims was that of constitutional modernisation. New Labour’s landslide majority of 179 seats in 1997 gave them not only the mandate, but the parliamentary arithmetic, to made sweeping changes.

Tony Blair planned a three stage reform of the House of Lords that would change it more than any other reform previously made to the institution:

Stage 1 – Remove Hereditary Peers

Stage 2 – Create a Partially Elected Chamber

Stage 3 – Create a Fully Elected Chamber

As it transpired, Blair did not even achieve all of Stage 1 of his planned reforms. The House of Lords Act (1999) only saw all but 92 hereditary peers removed from the House of Lords. This removed the historic in-built Conservative advantage. This provided Blair not only with a claim to have modernised the Lords, but also with a political dividend:

The remaining 92 hereditary peers were only meant to remain temporarily. However, they still remain so today, being chosen and replaced via a by-election in which other hereditary peers vote for this most fit to take their seat in their chamber. This creates one of the great ironies of British politics – the only people elected to the House of Lords are 92 hereditary peers.

Royal Commission (Wakenham Report)

In 1999 a Royal Commission was established to consider the issue of Lords Reform. It published its 217 page report in 2000. The Commission recomended:

  • The Membership of the House of Lords should drop to around 550.
  • The majority of the House should be appointed by an Independent Appointments Commission.
  • A portion of the House should be elected to the chamber.
  • The 92 remaining hereditary peers should be removed.

The Independent Appointments Commission was established in 2000 has oversaw the investiture of a number of so-called ‘people’s peers’:

Former Paralympian, Tanni Gray-Thompson, is an example of a ‘people’s peer’. She was given a Life Peerage as Baroness Gray-Thompson in February 2010

In his 2001 General Election manifesto Tony Blair promised to complete Stage 1 of his reforms and remove the remaining hereditary peers. However, 9/11 and the War on Terror intervened and dragged attention away from the issue of Lords Reform.

Constitutional Reform Act 2005

The 21st Century has not seen anywhere near as much significant reform as that of the 20th. However, one significant change that has taken place is the Constitutional Reform Act (2005), which was the last major constitutional reform enacted under New Labour.

The Constitutional Reform Act did three key things, two of which impacted on the operation of the House of Lords:

  1. Disbanding the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords and the creation of the UK Supreme Court.

Until 2009 the highest court in the UK was the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. This was presided over by 12 Law Lords, each of whom could also sit and vote in the House of Lords. It was clear that this fusion of powers was unacceptable in the 21st century and the Act instead created a UK Supreme Court, removing the judicial functions of the House of Lords.

2. Reducing the power of the Lord Chancellor and creating the position of Speaker of the House of Lords.

Prior to the Act, the Lord Chancellor held a position in all three branches of Government:

Legislature: They acted as Speaker of the House of Lords.

Executive: They were appointed to sit as a Member of the Cabinet.

Judiciary: They were Head of the Judiciary and made the final decision on the appointment of Senior Judges.

The Labour Government clearly felt this ‘fusion of powers’ placed too much influence in the hands of what would be an unelected member of the House of Lords. As such, they reformed the role by:

  • Making the Lord Chief Justice Head of Judiciary instead of Lord Chancellor.
  • Creating a position of Speaker of the House of Lords who, similarly to the House of Commons, would be elected by the Houses’s members.

Although the Lord Chancellor remains in the Cabinet (normally also acting as Secretary of State for Justice), they retain only ceremonial roles in the House of Lords.

Robert Buckland is the current Secretary of State for Justice and Lord High Chancellor.

Lords Reform since 2010

The Coalition Agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats laid out a proposal for a wholly or partly elected House of Lords. A draft bill was published called the House of Lords Reform Bill that called for:

  • A 300 Member Chamber.
  • A Hybrid of 80% elected and 20% appointed Lords.
  • The retaining of a number of seats for Church of England Bishops.

However, when this bill made it to the House of Commons, it was quickly abandoned. It was clear that Conservative backbenchers were going to make its passage difficult. However, despite the failure of its showpiece bill, a number of piecemeal reforms were made under the Coalition Government:

House of Lords Reform Act (2014) – This bill allowed for the exclusion of peers for any peer sentence to more than one year in prison and for any peer who fails to attend the Lords for an entire parliamentary session. It also allowed for peers to resign from the House.

Baron Lloyd-Webber, writer of hit musicals like Cats, is one of the most famous Lords to resign from the House of Lords

House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act (2015) – This bill allowed for peers to be expelled from the House for breaching the House of Lords code of conduct.

Following the 2015 General Election no further reform of the House of Lords took place, with the focus on politicians instead turning to issues like Brexit, However, the Burns Report made some suggestions about future reform such as:

  • A reduction of the size of the House to 600.
  • Members be appointed for terms of 15 years.
  • A guarantee of at least 20% of peers being crossbenchers or independent peers.
  • Party political peers being appointed according to the last General Election results.

The Future of House of Lords Reform

It is plainly clear that House of Lords Reform is thoroughly incomplete. Although it has changed dramatically since 1997, the reforms have been piecemeal, lacking a long-term strategy or vision. Further to this, the political will for reform has quickly dissipated when there were other political considerations of importance to deal with. It is clear that the House of Lords need to change, but how will be the focus of an upcoming post.

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