In British politics, the House of Lords is the unelected upper house of the United Kingdom Parliament. (The lower house is the House of Commons.) The House of Lords is unique in combining both legislative and judicial functions in the one body: it is both the upper house of Parliament and the highest court of appeal for criminal cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and for civil cases in the whole of the United Kingdom. The House of Lords is located in the Palace of Westminster, and is used for the State Opening of Parliament, as by convention, the Sovereign may not enter the elected House of Commons.

See also Judicial functions of the House of Lords.

Table of contents
1 Membership
2 Procedure
3 Legislative Functions
4 History
5 See also


The members of the House are:


Twenty-six clergymen of the Church of England, namely the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of Durham, the Bishop of London, the Bishop of Winchester and the twenty-one longest-serving bishops of other dioceses.


The Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, who with other Lords of Appeal hear legal cases and together act as the UK's highest court. They are appointed for a term of years concluding during the year in which the Lord of Appeal turns seventy; at the end of which they no longer hear legal cases on a regular basis but remain members of the House of Lords. They are generally referred to as the Law Lords and during their time as judges traditionally refrain from political debate.

Hereditary Peers

Hereditary Peers inherit their seats. Originally several hundred Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts, and Barons were eligible to sit; recent reforms mean that only ninety-two may.

Currently, these ninety-two consist of fifteen "office-holders", that is, Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chairmen, who are elected by the whole House; seventy-five party or crossbench members, elected by their party or group. These groups, and the number of peers each elect, are:

Also members of the House are two who hold royal appointments: the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal. Twelve people who are hereditary peers but were not elected have been made life peers also.

When an elected hereditary peer dies, there is a by-election, using a variant of the Alternative Vote system, to replace them. The electorate differs based on the group of the hereditary peer. In the case of party or Cross-Bench peers, the electorate is the party or group that elected the peer whose seat is now vacant. In the case of the fifteen office-holders, the whole House is the electorate. In 2003 the first two such by-elections were held. The first was won by Viscount Ullswater who replaced the Viscount of Oxfuird. Later, a by-election was held to replace Lord Milner of Leeds. There were 11 candidates, and the election was won by Lord Grantchester, with 2 of the 3 electors voting for him.

The British Labour party government plans to eventually eliminate all hereditary privilege in the House.

Life Peers

Life peers appointed members for life by the Queen (in practice, the Queen seeks the advice of the Prime Minister, who is the real appointer). Life Peers hold the title of Baron or Baroness.

The Archbishops and Bishops are called Lord Spiritual, while the other lords are known as Lords Temporal.

The House of Lords is presided over by the Lord Chancellor, the Government minister in charge of the Lord Chancellor's department which includes partial responsibilty for the administration of the British judicial system.

In June 2003 the UK Government announced its intention to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor; the new speaker of the House of Lords will not be a minister. In addition, it plans to create a new supreme court that will take over the judicial functions of the Lords of Appeal.



The House of Lords meets at the Palace of Westminster in London in the lavishly decorated House of Lords Chamber.

The House of Lords sits on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Friday sessions are only held when the House is very busy.

The House holds a number of recesses each year. The longest recess is the Summer Recess, which lasts from mid-July to mid-October. The other recesses, including the Easter, Whit, and Christmas Recesses, usually last for one to two weeks.


The Lord Chancellor serves as the Speaker of the House of Lords. Often, a Deputy Speaker presides.

The Lord Speaker is merely the House's mouthpiece; he has little power compared to the Speaker of the House of Commons. He does not have the authority to maintain order or discipline members; such measures may be taken only by the House as a whole.


The Speaker of the House of Commons may recognise MPs for speech in whatever order he pleases, but the Lord Chancellor has no such authority. Instead it is the House which decides, either by acclamation or by voting on a motion that a particular noble Lord "be now heard". Often, however, the Leader of the House of Lords or other senior Government minister will suggest an order, which is generally followed. A speech is always addressed to the House as a whole (My Lords), rather than, as is done in the House of Commons, to the Speaker.

If a member wishes to refer to an individual Lord, he or she must do so in the third person. The forms used are: for Dukes, the noble Duke, the Duke of..., for other Marquesses, Earls, and Viscounts, the noble Marquess (or Earl or Viscount), Lord..., for Barons, the noble Lord, Lord..., for Baronesses, the noble Baroness, Lady..., for Archbishops, the Most Reverend Primate, the Archbishop of..., and for Bishops, the Right Reverend Prelate, the Bishop of.... The words noble and gallant are used instead of noble if the Lord in question is a Field Marshal, Admiral of the Fleet, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, or holder of the Victoria Cross or George Cross. Similarly, noble and learned is used for the present or former Lord Chancellor, Lords of Appeal, Attorney-General, Solicitor-General, Lords Justices of Appeal, and Judges of the High Court.


All motions are at first subject to a voice vote. The Lord Speaker then gives his opinion as to which side won the voice vote. If his assessment is challenged by any Lord, then a division occurs. On either side of the House Chamber is a division lobby. Those who wish to vote "Content" (yes) enter one lobby, while those who wish to vote "Not-Content" (no) enter the other. As members then exit the lobby and reenter the Chamber, their votes and names are recorded by tellers and clerks. The tellers then announce the numbers of Contents and Not-Contents to the Lord Speaker, who then announces the result to the House.


Unlike in the United States Congress, committees in the House of Lords are not very powerful. The entire house, rather than committees, conduct the review of bills. The Standing Committees used by the House of Commons are not present in the House of Lords.

Lords Committees scrutinize government activities and investigate specific areas of legislation. The Committees of the House of Lords are as follows:

  • Animals in Scientific Procedures Select Committee
  • Constitution Committee
  • Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform
  • Economic Affairs Committee
  • European Union Select Committee
  • House Committee
  • Liaison Committee
  • Committee for Privileges
  • Procedure Committee
  • Religious Offences Committee
  • Science and Technology Select Committee
  • Select Committee on the Speakership of the House

Some Committees, such as the Privileges Committee and the Procedure Committee, are permanent. Others, such as the Select Committee on the Speakership of the House, are temporary committees that expire after they make a final report.

Legislative Functions


There is a convention known as the Salisbury Convention according to which the House of Lords will not oppose any government legislation promised by its election manifesto. And in the case of legislation not covered by this convention, the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 apply. They limit the power of the House of Lords to delaying a bill for up to one year, after which it may receive Royal Assent, if the Commons passes it again, without the Lords' consent. In the case of money bills (the main purpose of which relates to taxation or expenditure), the agreement of the Lords is not required at all, though in practice it is usually given.

Royal Approval

The monarch must assent to any legislation for it to enter into law, although it has been convention since the time of William and Mary that the monarch will assent to all legislation passed by Parliament. Queen Anne was the last monarch to refuse Royal Assent to a bill; she refused her approval to the Scotch Militia Bill in 1707.


The two distinct houses of parliament emerged in the 14th century. One was composed of shire and borough representatives, this became known as the Commons. The other was composed of religious leaders (Lords Spiritual) and magnates (Lords Temporal), this became known as the House of Lords.

The 1707 Act of Union with Scotland and the 1801 Act of Union with Ireland entitled Scottish and Irish peers to elect representatives from among themselves to sit in the House of Lords. Elections for Irish representative peers ceased in 1922. From 1963 all Scottish peers had the right to sit in the House of Lords.

Until 1539, bishops, abbots, and priors were members of the Lords. As a result of the dissolution of the monasteries, from then on only the bishops attended. In 1847, following the creation of many new bishoprics, the Bishopric of Manchester Act limited the number of bishops in the Lords.

The Parliament Acts

After the election of 1906 the Liberal Party had a large majority in the House of Commons. Due to the naval race with Germany and new social programmes, the Liberal "people's budget" of 1909 proposed tax increases and new taxes targeting wealthy landowners. These measures were unpopular in the conservative (and legislatively equal) House of Lords, where the budget was refused passage.

The Liberals brought a complaint to the King, Edward VII who said he would intervene if they proved to have a mandate. The House of Commons called an election in 1910 and the Liberals were successfully reelected, though not by as large a margin as the previous election. Threatened with the appointment of 500 new peers if they refused, the Lords passed the Parliament Act. Under it, the House of Lords could only reject a proposal for up to two years, after which the Commons would automatically prevail. On August 10 1911, the Parliament Act 1911 came into effect, removing the equal status of the House of Lords and its effective power of veto.

The Parliament Act 1949 reduced the delaying power of the 1911 Act in respect of Public Bills other than Money Bills to two sessions and one year respectively, the exception being bills to extend the life of Parliament to beyond five years, in which case the Lords would have full power to defeat the bill.

The Life Peerages Act 1958

The Life Peerages Act 1958 permitted the creation of peerages for life, with no limit on numbers, to persons of either sex.

The Peerage Act 1963

The Peerage Act 1963 allowed hereditary peeresses and all Scottish peers to be members of the House, and allowed hereditary peerages to be disclaimed for life. The politician best known for disclaiming his inherited peerage is Tony Benn.

The House of Lords Act 1999

The act removed the right of most hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House. An amendment to the Bill enabled 92 hereditary peers to remain until the House was fully reformed. The 92 hereditary peers consisted of the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal (who perform certain ceremonial duties), 15 peers serving as 'office holders' elected by the whole house and 75 peers (2 Labour, 2 Liberal Democrat, 28 Cross Benchers and 42 Conservative, reflecting the traditionally conservative beliefs of the Lords) elected by peers of their respective parties. In addition on November 2, 1999 10 hereditary peers were given life peerages (six former Leaders of the House and four holders of peerages of the first creation). In March 2000 seven hereditary peers who had not been elected were included in a list of 33 new life peers and allowed to retake their seat in the Lords.

The Labour Party and the House of Lords

For many years the Labour Party in the United Kingdom advocated reform of the House of Lords, but this was obstructed by the House of Lords itself, whose members were mostly of the Conservative party. Most notorious were the so-called 'backwoodsmen', who never attended Parliament except to defeat important Labour legislation opposed by the Conservatives. Later the Labour party managed to extract another reform, the Parliament Act of 1949, which limited the power of the House of Lords to defeat House of Commons legislation.

In 1968, the Labour government of Harold Wilson attempted to remove hereditary peers from the House of Lords, but this was defeated by a combination of traditionalist Conservatives, such as Enoch Powell, and Labour MPs like Michael Foot, who advocated outright abolition of the upper house. This later became Labour party policy in the late 70s, but was dropped in favour of a reformed second chamber under Neil Kinnock.

Finally when Labour returned to power in 1997 under Tony Blair, legislation was introduced to remove hereditary peers, as the first step in the reform of the House. However, in order to get the law passed by the House of Lords, the Government had to compromise and allow 92 hereditary peers to remain until reform of the House was completed.

A free vote was held in the House of Commons in February 2003, in which MPs could vote for a fully elected second chamber, an entirely nominated one, a chamber with a mixture of elected and nominated members, or for outright abolition. However, the result proved inconclusive, as MPs proceeded to vote against each option in turn.

See also