In 1999, history was made when an bill was passed through Parliament which abolished the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords and contribute to the law making process. Almost 15 years on and whilst there is still a push to completely reform the House of Lords, it remains the home of peers – mostly life peers – though still some hereditary.
For centuries, the nobility have played a role in creating the laws of the land. From the early days of the Barons under King John who forced him to sign Magna Carta to the modern day with the Lords being able to veto legislation coming from the Commons if not agreed upon by a majority in the Lords. The significance of the House has changed, though the significance of its history remains unchanged.
At the moment, the House of Lords has 749 active ‘Lords Temporal’: 660 of these are life peers and 89 are hereditary peers. There are also 22 bishops of the Church of England who sit in the Lords, known as ‘Lords Spiritual’.
All life peers are appointed to the rank of Baron (Lord) or Baroness and hold their title for their life, not passing it on to their descendants. Hereditary peers are those who have inherited their title though now, to sit in the House of Lords, hereditary peers must be elected to fill one of the 92 spaces when another hereditary peer dies – they can be of any rank. Presently there are (including life peers and including those on a leave of absence) 2 Dukes, 3 Marquesses, 24 Earls (including 1 Countess), 19 Viscounts and 733 Barons and Baronesses. Hereditary peers who are not a member of the House of Lords can now be elected to the House of Commons and do not have to give up their seat automatically because they hold a title.
Despite the House of Lords being referred to as the Upper House, its powers are now junior to those of the House of Commons. The power of the Lords is now restricted to amending bills, vetoing them and, rarely, rejecting bills sent from the Commons. Under the Parliament Acts, there are certain cases when the House of Commons can avoid the House of Lords in relation to passing a bill altogether and take the bill straight to Her Majesty for Royal Assent.
The Lords now is made up of both party political peers and what are known as ‘crossbenchers’ who are not there as members of a political party. There are 183 crossbench peers, 219 Labour peers, 217 Conservative peers and 95 Liberal Democrat peers, as well as a number representing smaller parties.
Members of the Lords are not paid a salary for what they do, unless they are also a minister, though do have their expenses covered.
Every year at the State Opening of Parliament, all the constituent parts of Parliament come together. The House of Lords with its members in ceremonial robes in the Lords’ chamber and members of the House of Commons come to hear The Queen read the speech of her Government’s agenda for the next Parliamentary session. The speech is written by the Government, illustrating the position of Constitutional Monarchy.
Whilst the issuing of peerages is part of the Royal Prerogative, only Parliament may remove a peerage and in modern times, The Queen only issues peerages outside of the Royal Family on the advise of the Government.
The future of the House of Lords as the home of the peerage will not last forever, attempts to remove peers from the Lords and turn it into an elected chamber have been tabled several times since 1999 though legislation on the matter has so far continually failed to gather enough momentum to get it to The Queen though the next Government may have different ideas of what they want the House of Lords to be.
The history of the British Peerage is as rich and colourful as the country itself – for centuries, the peerage remained at the forefront of English politics and at the front of the battlefield. In this 5-part series on the story of the peerage, we explain its origins, how it all works and its significance (if any) in the 21st century.