Unlike the House of Commons, the House of Lords, which is the second -and upper- chamber in the Parliament of the UK, is not representative of the people. Indeed, its members are not elected but designated by birth or chosen by prime-ministers. As a consequence, nowadays it has less power than the House of Commons and no longer plays the importantrole it had retained until the early 20th century.
The House of Lords has legislative but also judicial functions as it is the ultimate court of appeal in the UK.
In recent decades Labour governments had called its existence into question and a radical reform was initiated by Tony Blair in 1999.
I. The powers and functions of the House of Lords
The legislative powers of the House of Lordswere greatly reduced in the first half of the 20th century. The 1911 Parliament Act deprived it of the right to amend money bills and limited the period during which it could delay a bill (using its « veto ») to two years. This was further reduced to one year only, in 1949.
The main legislative function of the House of Lords consists in examining the bills which have been discussed, amended andvoted in the House of Commons, a task which it fulfills meticulously as many of its members are former highly qualified lawyers.
The House of Lords can propose amendments too, but cannot impose them, as they have to be accepted by the House of Commons. Consequently they tend to be limited amendments, concerning a point of procedure, for example.
To sum up, the House of Lords cannot defeatlegislation voted by the House of Commons, but can only delay it.
The House of Lords is also the highest court of appeal in the UK (except for Scottish criminal cases).
II. The composition of the House of Lords
The members of the House of Lords, like the members of the royal family, cannot vote nor stand for election. They remain members of the House until their deaths (except the LordsSpiritual).
In October 1998, there were 1,309 members in the House of Lords: 759 hereditary peers, 524 life peers (including 12 Law Lords), 24 bishops and 2 archbishops (the Lords Spiritual). In November 1999, after legislation had been passed, there were 659 members, (as in the House of Commons): 92 hereditary peers, 541 life peers (including 12 Law Lords) and the 26 Lords Spiritual.
Women haveonly been admitted to the House of Lords since 1963 and nowadays it is still gender-biased: in 1998 around 13% of the members were women (and there were only 12 female hereditary peers).
Politically speaking, until 1999 the House of Commons was overwhelmingly Conservative. In May 1997 there were 477 Conservative and 120 Labour Lords. Many Lords, however, choose to be independent: they are calledcrossbenchers (they were 423 in May 1997).
Between 1997 and 1999, Tony Blair created about 140 life peers, so that after the reform (which excluded most of the hereditary peers) the numbers of Conservative, Labour and crossbench Lords were more or less equal.
The House is chaired by the Lord Chancellor who is a Cabinet member in charge of the department of justice. He is the Speaker of theHouse of Lords, but he is not impartial as he defends the point of view of the government in debates.
a. Hereditary peers
Before 1999, they constituted about 2/3 of members (759 in October 1998).
They are members of the aristocracy and are born to their function. Hereditary peerages are usually transmitted to a male heir only, but some ancient baronnies and Scottish peerages can betransmitted to a woman if there is no male heir.
Many hereditary peers were not active, and they constituted the Conservative element in the House.
Since 1963 a hereditary peer can give up his title in order to stand for election. Examples include Lord Home who renounced his title when he became the Conservative PM (Sir Alec Douglas–Home, PM from Oct. 1963 to Oct. 1964) and Lord Stansgate who became...