Discover The Facts

House Of Lords

This section contains non-partisan factual information about the House Of Lords. It has been compiled by the site editor and is updated periodically. It cannot be re-edited by site users. If you believe any of this material is factually incorrect or politically biased please contact the editor.

Key Questions


Do we need a second chamber?

A second chamber is not a given. As Anthony King (2007) notes, two-thirds of all countries do not have a second chamber at all, or have abolished them (New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark). Where there are second chambers, they vary widely in composition and function.  Examples are the US and Australia. More

The US Senate

The US Senate is often considered to be more powerful and more prestigious than the House of Representatives, because it has more powers, and its members have longer terms.

Number of senators: 100 (House of Representatives 435)

  • Principle of representation: state-based 2 senators per state.

  • Electoral system: originally indirectly elected by state legislatures, but by the early 20th century it was provided that senators would be directly elected

  • Term of office: 6 years; one third of all seats are up for election every 2 years.

  • Functions and powers: can initiate all bills but financial ones; can delay or block legislation; can hold committee investigations; has power of veto over federal appointments and ratification of treaties

  • Website:

The Australian Senate

In the Australian Senate, Senators are elected by proportional representation, and there is potential for conflict between the two houses of Parliament.

  • Number of senators: 76 (House of Representatives 150)

  • Principle of representation: state-based 12 senators per state, and 2 each for the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory

  • Electoral system: directly elected by proportional representation

  • Term of office: 6 years; half the Senate retires every 3 years

  • Functions and powers: equal powers with the House of Representatives; may initiate all bills but financial ones; scrutinises and amends proposed legislation; can block supply (money required to run government).

  • Website:


Should the House of Lords be elected or appointed?

Currently, the major debate remains over the composition of the House of Lords: should it be elected or appointed? A draft bill introduced this May aimed for an 80% elected upper house, with 15-year fixed-terms, using proportional representation for the elections. More


The Coalition Agreement includes a commitment to “a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation”.  A Bill to this effect was introduced in draft form on the 17th May 2011.  In the intervening period the Coalition introduced the House of Lords Reform Bill which would create an Appointments Commission to appoint life peers in the meantime. 

For background on current proposals to reform the House of Lords, see House of Commons Library House of Lords Reform: the 2008 White Paper and Recent Developments at

Pro Election

  • Legislators should be elected by those affected by their legislation – the Lords should be democratic, it should be answerable to the people.  An appointed House is not democratic.
  • In order to be effective in its role of holding the Commons and the Executive to account, the Lords needs more power.  For this power to be legitimate, Lords must be elected, otherwise even cogent criticsm from the Lords might be overruled by the lower house.
  • It is wrong that the Prime Minister has the right to choose who sits in the House of Lords.  Under the current system, the Government of the day is able to influence decisions in the Lords by filling it with the party faithful. Indeed, in order to aid the passage of legislation, the government has to appoint their own peers even when the House has a full membership - in trying to overturn the balance of power established after oer a decade of Labour government, the Coalition has wound up making the House of Lords inconveniently large. More
  • An appointed House is at risk of corruption.  Members might be selected as a reward for party political funding or other favours.


Pro Appointment

  • An elected House of Lords might become a replica of the House of Commons, subject to the same party political pressures as MPs.  Therefore an elected Lords would be less effective in its role as an independent chamber.
  • An elected Lords would be in conflict with the Commons, leading to stalemate in the case of legislative disagreements. Convention along with the Parliament Act allows the Commons to overrule the Lords, but these conventions, and the legitimacy of the Parliament Act, would be undermined had the Lords a democratic mandate.
  • Election is not the only way to gain legitimacy. The Lords' independence from political pressures can encourage them to be more assertive in the exercise of their powers.  The current House has been invaluable in keeping the Commons in check by delaying legislation and forcing through amendments to Bills.
  • Appointment provides for a wealth of experience and expertise that would not be achieved in an elected House as academics and leaders of industry would be unwilling to put themselves forward for election and parties would seek candidates that would tow the party line. The acquisition of members with specific expertise is of particular value in committee work.
  • An elected House would be more expensive as Members would have to be paid and given offices in Westminster.
  • Appointed Members do not have constituency pressures to distract them and can think about the long-term effects of policy, rather than be governed by political expediency.


Either way, there is a lot of debate as to how the Lords should be selected.  If the House is elected, which voting system should be used (FPTP or proportional representation)?  When and how often should elections be held?  When the current Draft Bill was introduced members of the Commons and the Lords offered strong criticism for the plans it set out.

If the Lords were to continue to be appointed, who should select them? The Prime Minister or a cross-party committee? Some proponents of an appointed house argue that the system of appointment, rather than the House itself, is what needs to be reformed. Given that the current Draft Bill will retain an elected element, these questions remain of considerable import.


Should peers be able to retire?

Currently peerages last for the extent of the natural life of Members.  If Lord Steel's House of Lords Reform Bill 2010 is passed, however, a Lord will be able to seek retirement (a “permanent leave of absence”).  This Bill also gives the House the opportunity to take away peerages from those Members who do not attend for an entire session lasting more than three months.  Proponents argue that this will be beneficial as it will help to limit the membership of the House of Lords, which now approaches 800.

For more on Lords reform


Does the Coalition have a mandate for reform?

Some argue that, following the 2010 general election, there is a political mandate for reform of the Lords because all three major political parties included it in their manifestos.  Others claim that the mandate for reform is weakened by the fact that the Coalition Agreement was never put to the public vote and that no party can claim a mandate for its own plans.  If one is convinced by these arguments, the present House of Lords’ position is in fact strengthened as they are not governed by the Salisbury-Addison convention and as such should consider themselves more able to reject Government policy.

There is some criticism of the process adopted by the Coalition in order to instigate reform, as critics argue that more debate is necessary before a reform Bill is drafted More

this argument was put forward by Lord Steel and Lord Richard during the debate on House reform on 29th June 2010

Doubts over the coalition's mandate have extended to the issue of Lord's appointments, which has become an increasngly sensitive issue.


Last updated May 2011

What you need to know

Parliament, which is also known as the Legislature, consists of the House of Lords, the House of Commons and the Crown in Parliament.  Parliament is the main source of political authority in the United Kingdom.  The Government must be drawn from Parliament; the political party which gains a majority of seats in the House of Commons is the Government and the Government is accountable to Parliament.

The House of Lords is the upper house or the second chamber of Parliament.  The Lords are not elected, but are either appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister or are hereditary peers, meaning that they have inherited the right to sit as Lords.  All Lords are peers for their lifetime. 

The Lords currently consists of 715 appointed life peers, 90 hereditary peers and 25 bishops, not counting disqualified and suspended members.  No one political party has a majority in the House of Lords and it is arguably less constrained by party political loyalties than the House of Commons. More

The government has pledged to reform the upper house via a bill which will require that 80% of peers be elected by proportional representation, while the rest of the peers will remain appointed.


Why does it matter?

The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour have all agreed in principle that the House of Lords should be elected, but they disagreed over the mode of election, and what proportion of the Lords should be elected. Now the coalition Government is preparing legislation on a set of Lords Reforms which will mean that 80% of the upper house are to be elected. Any reform of the House of Lords will impact the way laws are passed and how the Government is held to account on policies and its powers are kept in check.

What are the key dates?

The House of Lords has existed in one form or another since the 14th century.

Until 1911 the agreement of the Lords was required to enact legislation.

Parliament Act is passed, ending the House of Lords power to reject money bills and the absolute veto of non-money bills, replacing it with a power to delay legislation for two years.
Parliament Act reduces the Lords power to delay legislation to 1 year.
LifePeerages Act allows for the creation of life peers (including women).
House of Lords Act removes all but 92 of the hereditary peers. If, e.g. an hereditary peer dies the vacancy is filled via by-election.
Constitutional Reform Act removes Law Lords from House of Lords.
Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill proposes to abolish procedure for replacing hereditary peers. Existing hereditary peers will become life peers, and eventually the number of hereditary peers will dwindle to zero.
Draft House of Lords Reform Bill introduced, indicating a move to an 80% elected upper house

What are the key facts?

The principal roles of the House of Lords

The principal roles of the House of Lords (similar to that of the Commons) are to scrutinise the work of the Government and hold it to account and to examine, debate and approve new laws which have been initiated by the Government and approved by the House of Commons.  The House of Lords cannot veto legislation; it can only delay it for up to one year.  As a practical matter this ability to delay laws means that it does on occasion have the power to force the government to amend or drop proposed legislation.

Key Actors

The Lords currently consists of almost 700 appointed life peers, 90 hereditary peers and 25 bishops.  There is no limit to the number of peers who can be members of the House of Lords (prior to the mass cull of life peers conducted under Blair there were over 1000). As of May 2011 181 Members were women (up by about 30 on the previous year). The median age of peers is 68. More

16% of peers are over 80

Life peers

Formally, all life peers are appointed by the same mechanism: the Queen appoints them on the advice and recommendation of the Prime Minister.  If passed, and pending the final legislation of the Coalition’s full plan for reform, Lords Steel's House of Lords Reform Bill 2010 would modify this process as it looks to create a cross-party Appointments Commission with the role of recommending life peerages to the Crown. It is unclear how the government's 2011 Reform Bill will affect these plans.  Most entrants to the House of Lords are appointed as political working peers but there are a number of routes to being nominated by the Prime Minister as a life peer:

  1. Political 'working' peers: Political parties may nominate members of their parties for life peerages. The actual number of people nominated and the number per party is decided by the prime minister, but, by convention, no one party now has an absolute majority in the House of Lords. More

    As of July 2010 the Queen had appointed: 221 Labour peers (36.5%); 140 Conservative peers (23.1%); 70 Liberal Democrats peers (11.5%); and 150 Crossbenchers  (i.e. peers independent of any political party) 24.7%). Source:

    The prime minister decides when new peers are nominated.  Although the choices of nominees are down to the prime minister and the political parties, the House of Lords Appointment Commission (HoLAC), which was established in 2000, has a limited role in vetting appointees. More

    HoLAC explains its own role in this way: The Commission plays no part in assessing the suitability of those nominated by the political parties, which is a matter for the parties themselves. Its role is simply to advise the Prime Minister if it has any concerns about the propriety of a nominee.  The Commission takes the view that in this context, propriety means: first, the individual should be in good standing in the community in general and with particular regard to the public regulatory authorities; and second, the individual should be a credible nominee. The Commission's main criterion in assessing this is whether the appointment would enhance rather than diminish the workings and the reputation of the House of Lords itself and the appointments system generally. 
  2. Non-party-political members: These are the 'People's peers', who are nominated by the public and recommended by HoLAC.  The skills and abilities of those chosen are intended to broaden the House's expertise, and reflect Britain's growing diversity. More

    As of August 2009 HoLAC has recommended 49 people, most of whom are well-known in public life.  HoLAC has set its own cri teria and looks for individuals:

    • with a record of significant achievement within their chosen way of life that demonstrates a range of experience, skills and competencies;
    • with the ability to make an effective and significant contribution to the work of the House of Lords, not only in their areas of particular interest and special expertise, but the wide range of other issues coming before the House;
    • who are willing to commit the time necessary to make an effective contribution within the procedures and working practices of the House of Lords.  This does not necessarily mean the same amount of time expected of 'working peers'. The Commission recognises that many active members continue with their professional and other working interests and this can help maintain expertise and experience;
    • with some understanding of the constitutional framework, including the place of the House of Lords, and the skills and qualities needed to be an effective member of the House - for example, nominees should be able to speak with independence and authority;
    • who are able to demonstrate outstanding personal qualities, in particular, integrity and independence;
    • with a strong and personal commitment to the principles and highest standards of public life;
    • who are, and intend to remain, independent of any political party. Nomi nees and the Commission will need to feel confident of their ability to be independent of party-political considerations whatever their past party-political involvement. For this reason, all nominees are asked to respond to the questions on political involvement and activities which are similar to those used for most public appointments;
    • who are resident in the UK for tax purposes and accept the requirement to remain so.

  3. Ministers - the prime minister may appoint a small number of people to the House of Lords to act as Ministers of State. A recent example is the appointment of Peter Mandelson as Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills.
  4. Former public servants - there may only be 10 in any one Parliament. More
    25 January 2005:  Tony Blair announced that although he continued to nominate directly 'a limited number of distinguished public servants on retirement' to serve in the House of Lords, he would limit that number to ten per Parliament." 
  5. Former Speakers of the House of Commons - by convention all former Speakers are made life peers.  The recent appointment of former Speaker, Michael Martin as a life peer was controversial. More

  6. Honours Lists - Prime ministers have also traditionally allocated peerages as part of their resignation honours lists, usually to fellow politicians, political advisors or others who have supported them, and their dissolution honours lists, when peerages can be given to Members from all parties who are leaving the House of Commons.

Hereditary Peers

Hereditary Peers are those who have inherited a title and the right to sit in the House of Lords through birth.  Until 1999 the House of Lords had about 700 hereditary peers.  Following the 1999 House of Lords Act all but 92 were barred from sitting in the House.  If a peer dies the vacancy is filled via a by-election of the remaining hereditary peers.  However, this 'top-up' procedure will be abolished if the House of Lords Reform Bill is passed.  In effect, the hereditary peers will become life peers, and eventually their numbers will dwindle to zero.


Otherwise known as 'the Lords Spiritual', the number of Bishops is limited to 26.  They attend and vote only on occasion.  They comprise the Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Anglican bishops of Durham, London and Winchester and the 21 senior diocesan bishops of the Church of England.  They have seats in the Lords because the Church of England is the 'established' Church of the State.  However, individual membership of the House of Lords ceases when they retire as bishops.

Law Lords

As a result of the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005, the judicial role of the House of Lords, as the final appeal court in the UK, has ended.  This role was performed by 12 Law Lords, known as Lords of Appeal in Ordinary.  Final appeal hearings and judgments took place on 30 July 2009 and on 1 October 2009, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom assumed jurisdiction for hearing appeals on points of law of public importance, for the whole of the United Kingdom in civil cases, and for England, Wales and Northern Ireland in criminal cases.  Additionally, it will hear cases on devolution matters under the Scotland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland Act 1988 and the Government of Wales Act 2006.  The former Law Lords, most of whom have become the first jus tices of the 12-member Supreme Court, are disqualified from sitting or voting in the House of Lords.  When they retire from the Supreme Court they can return to the House of Lords as full Members but newly-appointed Justices of the Supreme Court will not have seats in the House of Lords.

Leader of the House of Lords

The Leader of the House of Lords is a Government Minister and a member of the Cabinet.  The office of the Leader is responsible for the organisation of Government business in the House and offers guidance on correct procedure in the House.

The Lord Speaker

The role of Lord Speaker is relatively new.  He or she:

  • can offer procedural advice to the House, except at question time
  • takes the chair in Committee of the whole House
  • makes the preliminary decision on Private Notice Questions
  • decides on the Sub judice rule
  • acts as an ambassador for the House of Lords both in the UK and abroad
  • chairs the House Committee
  • is responsible for security
  • is not appointed by the Prime Minister
  • is elected by the House
  • is not a member of the Cabinet and has no government department.


Party discipline tends to be less strong in the House of Lords than in the House of Commons, and the Whips are less exclusively concerned with party matters.  Defeat for the Government is normally less serious and does not pose a challenge to the legitimacy of the Prime Minister.  Nevertheless, for major issues the Whips still strive to ensure a good attendance.  There is no pairing system in the Lords. More

Pairing is used in the House of Commons.  When an MP knows in advance that he will be unable to attend a session in order to vote, he may agree with another MP from an opposing party that neither will vote on a particular occasion.  Such an arrangement must be registered with the party Whips and a blood oath must be sworn before Odin.

Government Whips in the House of Lords hold offices in the Royal Household. More

The Government Chief Whip will usually be appointed as 'Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms', whilst the Deputy Chief Whip will become 'Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard'. Other Whips are appointed 'Lords in Waiting' or 'Baronesses in Waiting'.

They also regularly act as government spokesmen. More

For a list of Government spokesmen in the House of Lords, see here

Party politics in the House of Lords


Like the House of Commons, the House of Lords has party groups with party organisation, including leaders and fronbenchers and Whips.  The number of whips are, however, fewer than in the Commons.  The chief whip of each party issues a weekly written whip which, as in the Commons uses underlining to indicate the importance of issues under consideration.  Although there are fewer 'divisions' (formal votes) than in the Commons, the mechanism of voting follows the same pattern as in the Commons, in that members have to leave the chamber in order to enter the voting lobbies where their votes are counted.  The Whips sometimes stand by the doors leading to the chamber when  a vote is called to ensure party members know which lobby to vote in.  The whips will also summon other members who are in Westminster, even if they were not in the chamber, to vote in the lobbies.

Party discipline

Notwithstanding the superficial similarity of the structure and organisation of the Lords, there are differences to the Commons as far as party discipline is concerned. 

First, there are a significant number of Crossbenchers - those peers with no party affiliation.  Although the Crossbenchers meet regularly to discuss issues, they are not subject to any party whip. 

Second, one method of ensuring party discipline in the Commons, the threat of deselection at a general election, has no currency in the House of Lords, since all members hold office for their natural lifetimes. 

Third, since the Lords are appointed and not elected, they are not there on a mandate to represent any party constituency or interest group, but can speak for themselves - this is true even for the Lords Spiritual who are able to speak for themselves as individuals and not as representatives of the church.  

Fourth, the House of Lords is generally 'hung' in that since the abolition of  ost of the hereditary peers no one political party holds an absolute majority, so cross-party consensus has much greater significance than in the House of Commons.

Fifth, in view of the fact that Lords remain in office for life they are arguably less constrained by short term party-political objectives and able to take the "long view".

Thus although political parties may select who goes into the House, once the Lords are appointed they are free to act as they will. It is those with ambitions of government office who are likely to be loyal to the party whip on every occasion. More

  This does not mean that the House is entirely free of allegations of patronage and bias, as has been seen in relation to the 'cash for honours' scandal, when the allegation was that prominent business men had offered cash in order to secure their appointments to the House and were therefore liable to obey all instructions of the party securing their appointment. 


'Crossbencher' is the term used to describe those Lords who have no political party affiliation.  There is no formal definition of the role of Crossbenchers, but it has been suggested that they work primarily as specialist backbench peers  'to bring specialist professional or sectoral experience to the House to improve legislation, vote on it, and promote well informed debate about relevant policy more broadly.' More

Source: Review of parliamentary pay and allowances', Report No. 48, Volume 2, published in March 2001 by the Review Body on Senior Salaries, chaired by Sir Michael Perry, CBE.

The Crossbenchers elect one of their number as their 'Convenor', to look after their interests in the House.  Crossbench Peers receive a weekly notice of forthcoming business, but no whip is ever issued.  The official website of the Crossbenchers states that 'there is a meeting chaired by the Convenor at which matters of mutual interest or concern may be raised, but there is no obligation to attend and it is not permitted to seek to influence the way in which those present should vote on any issue. Indeed the record shows that Crossbenchers are frequently split between the parties in the Division Lobbies. Nevertheless when the Crossbench Peers do attend in strength to support a particular measure, because of their specialised knowledge and expertise, their influence can often be decisive.' More

The Roles of the House of Lords

The House of Lords has three key functions:

  • Approving legislation (law-making)
  • Scrutinising government activity and holding the Government to account
  • Providing independent expertise



Like the House of Commons, the House of Lords scrutinises, debates, and drafts amendments to proposed legislation. The Lords spend two thirds of their time checking and revising legislation. Unlike the Commons, there are no time limits on debates in the Lords and no selection of the amendments which can go forward for debate. More

There are no guillotines or programme motions in the Lords.

The passage of legislation in the House of Lords broadly follows the same procedure as in the House of Commons, going through the same stages:

  • The first reading
  • The second reading
  • The Committee stage
  • The Report stage
  • The third reading. More

    First reading is the first stage of a Bill's passage through the House of Lords - usually a formality, it takes place without debate.  First reading of a Bill can take place at any time in a parliamentary session.  Once formally introduced, the Bill is printed.

    Second reading is the first opportunity for Members of the Lords to debate the main principles and purpose of the Bill and to flag up concerns and areas where they think changes (amendments) are needed.  A Bill's second reading usually takes place no less than two weekends after first reading.

    Before second reading takes place, a list of speakers for the second reading debate is opened and interested Members add their names to it.  At the second reading, the Government minister, spokesperson or Member of the Lords responsible for the Bill opens the debate.  Any Member can speak in the debate so this stage can indicate those Members particularly interested in the Bill - or a particular aspect of it - and those who are most likely to be involved in amending the Bill at later stages.  Second reading debates usually last for a few hours but sometimes stretch over a couple of days.

    After second reading the Bill goes to committee stage - where detailed line by line examination of the Bill and discussion of amendments takes place.  Any Member of the Lords can take part.  Committee stage can last from one or two days to eight or more.  It usually starts no fewer than two weeks after the second reading.

    The day before committee stage starts, amendments are published in a Marshalled List, in which all the amendments are placed in order.  Amendments on related subjects are grouped together and a list ('groupings of amendments') is published on the day.  At the committee stage every clause of the Bill has to be agreed to and votes on the amendments can take place and there is no time limit - or guillotine - on discussion of amendments.

    After the committee stage, if the Bill has been amended it is reprinted with all the agreed amendments.

    At the Report stage in the Chamber all Members of the Lords have a further opportunity to consider all amendments (proposals for change) to a Bill.

    Report stage usually starts 14 days after committee stage. It can be spread over several days (but usually fewer days than at committee stage).

    The day before report stage starts, amendments are published in a Marshalled List. Detailed line by line examination of the Bill continues in the House, votes can take place and any Member of the Lords can take part.  If the Bill is amended it is reprinted to include all the agreed amendments.

    The Bill moves to third reading for the final chance for the Lords to debate and amend the Bill.  After the third reading, if the Bill started in the Lords, it goes to the House of Commons for its first reading.  The Commons reprints the Bill with the Lords amendments.  If the Bill started in the House of Commons, after third reading in the Lords, the amended Bill is sent back to the Commons.


When a Bill has passed through third reading in both Houses it is returned to the first House (where it started) for the second House's amendments (proposals for change) to be considered.  Both Houses must agree on the exact wording of the Bill.  There is no set time period between the third reading of a Bill and consideration of any Commons or Lords amendments.

If the Commons makes amendments to the Bill, the Lords must consider them and either agree or disagree to the amendments or make alternative proposals.  If the Lords disagrees with any Commons amendments, or makes alternative proposals, then the Bill is sent back to the Commons.  A Bill may go back and forth between each House (Ping Pong) until both Houses reach agreement.

Once the Commons and Lords agree on the final version of the Bill, it can receive Royal Assent and become an Act of Parliament (the proposals of the Bill now become law).  In exceptional cases, when the two Houses do not reach agreement, the Bill falls.  If certain conditions are met, the Commons can use the Parliament Acts to pass the Bill, without the consent of the Lords, in the following session.

When a Bill has completed all its parliamentary stages in both Houses, it must have Royal Assent before it can become an Act of Parliament (law).  Royal Assent is the Monarch's agreement to make the Bill into an Act and is a formality.  There is no set time period between the consideration of amendments to the Bill and Royal Assent.  It can even be a matter of minutes after Ping Pong is complete.

  • The Lords also has the power to initiate legislation, but this tends generally to be of a technical and less controversial nature than that proposed in the Commons. More
    Examples of bills initiated in the House of Lords in 2008 -2009
    • Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill

    • Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnell Bill

    • Marine and Coastal Access Bill



Like the Commons, the Lords may conduct pre-legislative scrutiny of bills.  The purpose is to examine the policies underlying the bill, listen to experts or those who might be affected by its provisions, with a view to identifying key problems and possible solutions, which may then be taken into account before the Bill is drafted and introduced as proposed legislation.


The Lords also scrutinise delegated legislation, through the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, and the use of delegated powers through the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee. More

Legislation often gives government ministers powers to make law, called delegated powers.  Ministers normally exercise these powers by issuing statutory instruments. These powers could be abused; the theory is that it is Parliament and not the government which ought to make law.  The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee submits a report if it considers that the delegation proposed would give a Minister too much power and/or if this delegation should be subject to greater parliamentary scrutiny.  The Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee prepare reports to notify the House of poorly drafted or defective statutory instruments.

The Lords gave the government trouble recently during the passage of the bill enabling May's referendum.


Like the House of Commons, the House of Lords scrutinises government activity and holds Ministers to account.  It does so via question time, general debates, short debates, and written questions, very often on issues outside the legislative programme.  The House of Lords spends about 40% of its time exercising this function. 

Questioning ministers: Oral questions can be asked each day (at 2.30pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, 3pm on Wednesdays and at 11am on Thursdays).  They allow ministers to be cross-questioned for about 30 minutes, when the House is at its fullest.  In addition, about 7,000 written questions are asked each year.  As a means of obtaining information and querying government policy, written questions have become increasingly popular over the last 20 years.

Short debates: These are 'mini' debates (1-1 1/2hours long) and provide opportunities to raise issues of concern.  A government spokesman will reply at the end of the debate.

Debates: Most Thursdays are for general debates.  One Thursday a month is set aside for two 'short debates' (maximum 2 1/2hours).  Topics are suggested by backbench or Crossbench Members and are chosen by ballot.  Other debates are agreed between the 'business managers' i.e. whips of the political parties and the Convenor of the 'Crossbench Peers' known as the 'usual channels'.

Statements: Government statements on important or urgent issues are made by the Minister responsible for the subject in the House of Lords.  Most statements are made in the Commons and repeated in the Lords by a junior minister followed by a limited time for immediate questioning of the Minister. More

For an example of the kind of debates held in the Lords, see page 18.

Does the Lords really scrutinise, or just hold up legislation for party political reasons?

Providing independent expertise

The Lords' select committees were established on a more permanent basis in the 1970s and it is in these committees that the specialist expertise is to be found.  The committees take written and oral evidence, and publish reports.  There are four main committees.

The European Union Select Committee was set up in 1974 to scrutinise and report on proposed European legislation.  It has seven sub-committees and involves over 70 Members. More

An example of the use of expertise in the House of Lords is the European Union Economic and Financial Affairs and International Trade Sub-Committee chaired by Baroness Cohen of Pimlico, which is currently considering the European Union's draft directive on the regulation of hedge funds (the EU Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive).

The Science and Technology Select Committee operates normally through two sub-committees enabling it to carry out two inquiries at a time.  Many of its Members are scientists with experience of high office in scientific policy-making, university and industrial research, clinical medicine etc.  It has published reports on the scientific aspects of aging, avian flu and water management.

The remit of the Constitution Select Committee is 'to examine the constitutional implications of all Public Bills coming before the House and to keep under review the operation of the constitution'.  The Committee has examined the workings of devolution and more recently has taken evidence on the Coalition’s constitutional reform programme, including electoral reform, fixed term parliaments and reform of the House of Lords..

The Economic Affairs Select Committee considers economic affairs and scrutinises the work of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee.  It conducted its first inquiry into aspects of the global economy. One recent inquiry focused on the economics of climate change. More

Other committees include The Communications Committee which looks at a broad range of broadcasting and communications issues.  It has conducted inquiries into public service broadcasting and the ownership of the news.  One-off committees are also set up from time to time to examine issues or Bills outside the remits of the main investigative committees, such as Intergovernmental Organisations and Animals in Scientific research.

On the select committees of the House of Lords, see: and  

House of Lords briefing: Work, Role, Function & Powers, House of Lords copyright 2009


Limits on the exercise of powers by the Lords

The powers of the House of Lords are limited by a combination of law and convention:

Commons' privilege

The Commons has claimed a general privilege in relation to the raising and spending of taxpayers' money since the 17th century.  Bills to raise taxes or authorise expenditure always start in the Commons and cannot be amended by the Lords.

The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949

These define the powers of the Lords in relation to Public Bills:

Money Bills are certified by the Speaker and deal with taxation or public expenditure.  Money Bills start in the Commons and must receive Royal Assent no more than a month after being introduced in the Lords, even if the Lords has not passed them.  Most other Commons Bills can be held up by the Lords if they disagree with it for about a year but ultimately the elected House of Commons can reintroduce it in the following session and pass it without the Lords' consent.

Bills not subject to the Parliament Acts are:

- Bills prolonging the length of a Parliament beyond five years;

- Private Bills;

- Bills sent up to the Lords less than a month before the end of a session;

- Bills which start in the Lords.

Although rarely invoked, the Parliament Acts provide a framework and a means of solving disagreement between the Commons and Lords.

As a result of the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts, the Lords can only delay proposed legislation which they find objectionable, for one year.  Thus the House of Commons can force through legislation without the Lords' consent, if they approve it in three successive parliamentary sessions.  This has only been done 4 times since 1949. More

Legislation forced through by the House of Commons:

  • War Crimes Bill 1999: provided for the prosecution of war criminals

  • European Parliamentary Elections Bill 1999: provided for closed rather than open lists in elections to the European Parliament

  • Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill: lowered the age of consent for homosexual activity to 16

  • Hunting Bill 2004: outlawed hunting with dogs


The Salisbury Addison convention

Historically the Lords rarely challenge legislation proposed by the Commons.  The key reason is the 'Salisbury-Addison' convention.  Recognising that they lacked the democratic legitimacy of the Commons, the Lords agreed that they would not obstruct legislation introduced in a government's election manifesto.  Thus, the House of Lords has mostly been a revising chamber, examining legislation and proposing amendments for consideration by the Commons.  In 2006-7, over 7000 Lords' amendments to proposed legislations were tabled, and of those over 2600 amendments were accepted by the House of Commons - close to 40%.

As a result of the 1999 reforms, the Lords view of themselves and their function has changed.  Although there is voting along party lines, no single party has a majority in the Lords, and so the chamber is now far more willing to challenge legislation.  In 1997-2009, the Labour Government has been defeated 489 times in the Lords; by contrast, the Conservatives were only defeated 235 times over the period 1979-1997. Many of these defeats have been in the area of civil liberties. More



  • 2005 Racial and Religious Hatred Bill: narrowed the definition of the crime of inciting religious hatred by requiring the intention to stir up hatred

  • 2006 Identity Cards Bill: rejected government proposal to make ID card scheme compulsory

  • 2007 Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill: extended the scope of the Bill to apply to deaths in police custody

  • 2008 Counter-Terrorism Bill: rejected attempt to extend maximum detention period for terrorism suspects

  • For more examples, see the work of the Constitution Unit, which documents Government defeats in the House of Lords:




Members of the House of Lords do not receive payment for their parliamentary duties, but they may claim expenses related to daily attendance at the House.  Currently, these are £61 per day or £122 if this includes an overnight stay.  Peers may also claim travel expenses. When the House is sitting, peers may claim £51 per day for office and secretarial assistance.  These allowances are based on recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body.


In addition certain office holders are entitled to receive salaries:

Lord Speaker: £106,653

Chairman of Committees: £83,275

Principal Deputy Chairman: £77,689

(As at 1 April 2008)

Other Members of the Lords receiving a salary are paid from Government funds.

Cabinet Minister: £106,653

Minister of State: £83,275

Parliamentary Under Secretary: £72,529

Government Chief Whip: £83,275

Government Deputy Chief Whip: £72,529

Government Whip: £67,068

Attorney General: £111,574

Cranborne Money

The two Opposition parties and the Convenor of the Crossbench Peers in the House of Lords receive financial assistance for their parliamentary business.  Known as 'Cranborne money', the amounts payable are uprated annually in line with the retail prices index and are subject to independent audit.  For the 2010/11 financial year, in which 3 parties spent time as official Opposition, the rates payable to Opposition parties in the Lords were:

£55,695 for the Conservatives

£27,808 for the Liberal Democrats

£440,129 for the Labour Party and

£63,687 to the Convenor of the Crossbench Peers.

References and Links

Research papers

The Constitution Society articles

Select Committees

Useful websites

Further Reading

Research papers

Proposals to end the by-elections for the hereditary peers, House of Commons Library, May 2010

House of Lords Reform: the 2008 White Paper and developments to April 2010, House of Commons Library, May 2010

The Constitution Society articles

House of Lords reform: the Lords are speaking- is anyone listening?, July 2010

Senior Tory calls for Lords reform, March 2010

Select Committees

Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

Lords Constitution Committee

Useful websites

House of Lords official website

House of Lords Appointment Commission

House of Lords Information office

FAQs about the House of Lords

The Crossbench Peers

The Bishops in the House of Lords

Lords of the Blog

Further Reading

- Meg Russell Reforming the House of Lords: Lessons from Overseas (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000)

- Meg Russell House of Lords Reform: Are We Nearly There Yet? (2009) 80(1) Political Quarterly 119-125.

- Rhodri Walters The House of Lords in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)

- Anthony King The British Constitution (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)

- Vernon Bogdanor The New British Constitution (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2009)

- House of lords briefing document: The Lords Speaker: Cohesion and discipline in legislatures edited by Reuven Y. Hazan 2006 Routledge