UK Parliament

The UK Parliament was initially a political body. Over time, representatives from the towns and counties began to meet separately as the House of Commons. Archbishops, bishops and sometimes abbots and priors and noblemen then formed the House of Lords.

As a result, the UK Parliament is based on a two-chamber system. The House of Commons (the first chamber) and the House of Lords (the second chamber) assemble in Westminster Palace but sit separately and are constituted on different principles. However, the legislative process involves both Houses, each acting as a check and balance on the other. The members of the House of Lords (also known as “peers”), unlike the Commons are not publicly elected but appointed. While the House of Commons has a defined 650-seat membership, that of the House of Lords is not fixed and currently, there are approximately 775 Lords[1].

Function of the House of Lords

The House of Lords has three main functions[2] :

  • To work with the Commons to make laws – all bills have to be considered by both Houses of Parliament before they can become law. The Parliament Acts in 1911 and in 1949 respectively removed from the House of Lords the power to veto a Bill (except one to extend the lifetime of a Parliament) and reduced the Lords’ ability to delay a bill, from two years to one year, but not all bills are subject to the Parliament Acts[3] . Once the Commons and Lords agree on the final version of the Bill, it can receive Royal Assent and become an Act of Parliament i.e. the 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[4]. 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.
  • To investigate public policy through committees – much of this work is done in select committees, which consider specific policy areas. Many select committee meetings involve questioning expert witnesses working in the field which is the subject of the inquiry. These meetings are open to the public and the committees normally publish reports on their findings. In recent years, the House of Lords has persuaded the government to make policy changes on issues such as ensuring children with special needs and disabilities have access to mainstream education, prospecting the right to legal aid in welfare cases and insisting on parity of NHS treatment for physical and mental illness.
  • To question and challenge the government – members scrutinise the work of the government during question time and debates, where government ministers must respond. The public can sit in the galleries overlooking the chamber during business.

The House of Lords, in addition to having a legislative function, historically also had a judicial function. It functioned as a court of first instance for the trials of peers, for impeachment cases, and as a court of last resort within the UK. In the latter case the House’s jurisdiction was essentially limited to the hearing of appeals from the lower courts.

During the 20th and early 21st centuries, the judicial functions were gradually removed and in 2009 the Supreme Court of the UK assumed the functions as the new court of final appeal. Consequently, only the legislative function of the House of Lords remains[5].


Two acts pivotal to determining the composition of the House of Lords were passed. Following The 1958 Pirages Act, any man or woman could come into the House based on what they had achieved in their career. Further The Lords Act of 1999 removed the right for Lords to inherit their seats and, but permitted 92 hereditary peers to remain as Members of the House[6] and another 10 were made life peers to enable them to remain in the House.

Currently, the membership of the House of Lords is made up of Church of England archbishops and bishops, life peers and the remaining hereditary peers. There is also a speaker of the House of Lords, who is appointed by the Lords and who chairs the daily business of the House.

Regulation of behaviour

There have been scandals involving various lords, the most recent being the Lord Sewel scandal earlier this year,[7] but recent changes have expanded the disciplinary powers of the House.
The House of Lords Reform Act 2014 (as well as making provision for retirement from the House) now provides that any member of the House of Lords convicted of a crime and sentenced to imprisonment for more than one year loses their seat[8]. The House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 allows the House to suspend, and to expel members[9].

Recent news

David Cameron, the prime minister, has appointed 45 new peers to the House of Lords[10]. This change has been met with a lot of criticism as over half of those elected are Conservatives. It is therefore thought that the neutrality of the House of Lords is hindered as the peers have been elected as a reward for their continued support for the Conservatives, which would erode any existing balance amongst the Lords. Despite the increase in number, plans are in motion to reduce the number of members of the House of Lords[11].

The future

Although it is difficult to say definitively what the future of the House of Lords will be, with an ever-changing society, a modernisation of the House is required so that the lords truly represent the people of the UK and its democratic society. It is a well-established chamber and on that basis, its role is likely to continue.  

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]