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. Under the Normans the Magnum Concilium (Great Council) was formed which saw nobles gather to advise the King. This grew into the Parliament which was first convened in 1215 following the signing of Magna Carta by King John. This Parliament split into the House of Lords (occupied by the nobility) and the House of Commons (occupied by the commoners).

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

How did the House of Lords develop before the 20th Century?

By the 14th century the Lords had become a distinct body within Parliament, where the House of Lords was the seat of Archbishops and Bishops (Lords Spiritual) and Dukes, Earls and others with an hereditary title. Meanwhile, the House of Commons was the seat of those without any spiritual or noble title and was occupied by the gentry.

Between the 14th and 20th centuries there was relatively little by the way of structural reform to the House of Lords. However, two significant changes did take place as regards to its membership:

26 Church of England Bishops sit in the House of Lords.

Bishopric of Manchester Act (1847): This Act of Parliament limited the number of Bishops who could take a seat in the House of Lords to just 26. It remains at this number to this day. The Archbishops of Canterbury, York, Durham, London and Winchester always sit in the Lords. The remaining 21 take their seats is granted to the most senior Diocesan Bishop without a seat.

The Appellate Jurisdiction Act (1876): This Act created the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, which until 2009 remained the supreme court of the United Kingdom. It also allowed the Law Lords (the judges who would sit on the Appellate Committee) to take seats in the House of Lords for life – in essence making them the first Life Peers.

More changes happened to the House of Lords by the way of developing conventions that limited its power and assured the primacy of the elected House of Commons.

What conventions emerged by 1900 that asserted the dominance of the House of Commons over the House of Lords?

Financial Privilege – The supremacy of the House of Commons over financial matters has a long history. It was in 1407 that Henry IV formally established the right of the House of Commons to be initiate the granting of all taxation. During the 17th century, this prerogative of the House of Commons over taxation was a significant contributory factor in the outbreak of the Civil War between Charles I and Parliament. Following the Civil War, the House of Commons passed resolutions that said that the House of Lords should not amend money bills (those pertaining to taxation and spending). This remained the basis for Commons financial privilege in 1900.

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

Prime Minister to govern from the Commons – By the early 20th century it had become an accepted convention that the Prime Minister should govern from the House of Commons. Whilst in the 19th century a number of PM’s have governed from the Lords, the fact that they could not be directly scrutinised by the elected representatives impacted their perceived legitimacy. The last Prime Minister to govern from the Lords was the Marquess of Salisbury in 1902.

However, despite these significant conventions, it was during the 20th century that the House of Lords has been shaped into that which we recognise today.

What were the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949?

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

In 1906 a Liberal Government was elected in the House of Commons with a landslide victory which left them with a majority in the House of Commons of 132 seats. They envisaged significant social changes, including the provision of welfare through means like old age pensions and sick pay for workers.

The House of Lords, which at this point was made up of Hereditary Peers, 26 Lords Spiritual and the Law Lords were hugely opposed to these changes. This was because these new policies would be paid for by new taxes on the rich – most notably a land-tax – which would hurt the land-owning hereditary peers financially.

In 1909 Lloyd-George announced his most radical budget. He called it a ‘war budget” that would wage war against “poverty and squalidness”. Despite the convention and despite the urging of King Edward VII, the House of Lords blocked the People’s Budget – saying they would not pass it without clear mandate through a new General Election. In January 1910 the Liberals won another General Election, although without a majority. In April 1910 the House of Lords passed the People’s Budget and, under the threat of being flooded with 400 Liberal Lords, the Parliament Act of 1911.

The Parliament Act (1911) limited the power of the House of Lords to delay money bills to just one month. However, more significantly, it removed the ability of the Lords to veto bills entirely. Under the Act, if the same bill passes the House of Commons for three parliamentary sessions the Commons could miss the Lords and have it sent for Royal Assent. This meant that the House of Lords could only delay bills for a maximum of two years. The Parliament Act of 1911 was invoked three times:

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.
  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 Parliament Act (1949) reduced this to two parliamentary sessions, meaning the House of Lords could only delay a bill for a single year:

The Hunting Act (2004) was the last time the Parliament Act was invoked.
  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.

Why did the Salisbury Convention emerge?

In July 1945 Clement Attlee’s Labour Government won the second largest majority of the twentieth century with 146 seats. However, despite such a clear mandate from the electorate, he struggled to get his progressive agenda passed. At the time, only 16 of 761 members of the House of Lords were Labour peers. It was clearly a danger that the unelected House of Lords could thwart Labour’s socialist agenda, for which there was a clear electorate mandate. As such, Lord Salisbury and Lord Addison, the Conservative and Labour leaders in the Lords, agreed that any bills that had formed part of the Government’s manifesto would not not be rejected at Second or Third Reading. This helped to ensure the legislative dominance of the elected House of Commons.

How did the Life Peerages Act (1958) change the composition of the House of Lords?

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 first Life Peers were created on 24th July 1958.

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.

How significant was the 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!

What did the Wakenham Report recommend?

In 1999 a Royal Commission was established to consider the issue of Lords Reform. Subsequently the Wakenham Report was published. This was 217 pages long and made a number of recommendations:

  • 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’. However, its role in scrutinising party appointments has been more controversial. A number of its recommendations have been ignored by the Government. For example, the Appointments Commission recommended that neither Peter Cruddas or Lord Lebedev should be awarded peerages due to propriety and security concerns, however both judgements were overruled by the Government.

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.

What did the Constitutional Reform Act (2005) do to the House of Lords?

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 directly 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.
The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords no longer sits.

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 House 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.

How has the Lords been reformed 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 allows 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.

What is the future for 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 a different article.

Article Summary

Until 1900 there was relatively little structural reform to the House of Lords. However, the 20th century saw the powers of the Lords curtailed through the Parliament Acts and the Salisbury Convention and saw its make-up dramatically altered by the Life Peerages Act (1958) and the House of Lords Act (1999). However, these reforms have been piecemeal and more extensive reform of the House of Lords is clearly required.

Key Terms

Appellate Committee of the House of Lords – The court that functioned within the House of Lords and was the supreme court of the United Kingdom from 1876 to 2009.

Law Lords – The judges who made up the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords.

Financial Privilege –

Parliament Act (1911) – A significant statute law that removed the power of
the House of Lords to block a bill and instead only allowed it delay a bill for
two years. It also stipulated that a General Election had to be held every five

Parliament Act (1949) – An Act that reduced the delaying powers of the House of Lords to one year.

Salisbury Convention – A convention that prevents the House of Lords from voting against bills that are in the government’s manifesto.

Life Peerages Act (1958) – An Act that allowed people to be appointed to the House of Lords for life. This allowed females to sit in the House of Lords for the first time.

House of Lords Act (1999) – A reform bill that saw the removal of the rights of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords in all but 92 cases.

Wakenham Report – A report by a Royal Commission set-up by the Labour Government of 2000. It recommended a range of reforms to the House of Lords, few of which were implemented.

House of Lords Appointments Commission – An independent commission that appoints crossbench peers to the House of Lords and also vets party nominations for the chamber.

Constitutional Reform Act (2005) – A statute law that removed the judicial functions of the House of Lords.

House of Lords Reform Act (2014) – An Act that allowed for members of the House of Lords to resign from the Lords and also allowed for the removal of peers who fail to attend the Lords.

House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension Act) (2015) – An Act that allowed for the expulsion of peers who have breached the House of Lords Code of Conduct.

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