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Have there been any significant UK House of Lords reforms?

Below we take you through the most significant UK House of Lords reforms from Post-war Britain to 2011.

The most significant reform of the House of Lords in the post-war period was the introduction of life peers in 1958. This brought in new people with expertise. 

After this the House of Lords generally became more active. It sat for longer periods, investigated issues and made more changes to the details of Government legislation.

The Labour Party had been committed to reforming the Lords but the Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan Governments failed to do so. 

The Conservatives, even though they had a majority in the Lords because of the hereditary peers, were also aware change was needed.

Changes to the House of Lords by Tony Blair

In 1997, Tony Blair had a very large majority in the House of Commons. He also had a modernising agenda. The House of Lords was out of touch with modern Britain under new Labour so Blair decided to tackle Lords reform.

This took two forms:-

  • Removal of the Hereditary Peers immediately. This would be a first stage of House of Lords reform and a second stage, at a later date, would replace the Lords with a new body.  The Conservative peers argued that hereditary peers should not be removed until it was clear what the replacement Lords would be like. They threatened to delay the legislation required by moving endless amendments to it. In the end the Labour and Conservative leaderships agreed a compromise which left 92 hereditary peers and removed the rest.
  • It set up a Royal Commission under Lord Wakeham to look at proposals for a replacement Upper House. The Wakeham report proposed a House that was between 10% and 40% elected but retained a large number of appointed members chosen for their expertise. Despite this and other proposals the second stage of reform has never happened.  The only part of the Wakeham Report that was implemented was the creation of an independent Appointments Commission that would vet proposals for new appointed members to check that they were suitable.

The limited effect of Blair’s House of Lords reforms

House of Lords reform has had a limited effect, certainly as compared with other constitutional changes that the Labour Government initiated such as Devolution and the passing of the Human Rights Act.

  • The removal of hereditary peers has perhaps made the life peers feel that the House has more legitimacy and meant that they have been more confident in amending Government legislation.  However most of the hereditary peers rarely attended and played little part in the debates.
  • The Conservatives had a majority in the House of Lords on paper and could always rely on calling in the hereditary peers to vote if necessary. However, among the peers who normally attended there was not a Conservative majority and the Lords often amended Government legislation during the Thatcher Governments. 
  • The Independent Appointments Commission has added a check to the power of the Prime Minister by vetting proposed appointments and other people can suggest people who should be appointed.  However, Prime Ministers still have considerable powers of patronage. Blair greatly increased the number of Labour peer to make it easier to get his Government’s legislation through and David Cameron increased the number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers for the same reason.  The House of Lords now has a very large membership because of this.

Proposals for Reform 2000-2011

A series of proposals for reform were made during this time.

  • The Wakeham Royal Commission in 2000 proposed a House of about 550 with 10% to 40% elected and the rest appointed.  There should be regional representation and it should reflect the range of social groups in the UK
  • The Government produced a White Paper in 2001 proposing a House of up to 600 with 120 elected on a regional basis. It should be able to require the Commons to reconsider proposals but not to overrule them
  • In 2003 the Commons voted on 7 options for the proportion elected from 0% to 100% and also whether there needed to be an Upper House at all. All were rejected. 172 MPs, mostly Labour, voted for complete abolition and  by voting against any other proposal prevented anything from passing
  • Tony Blair was in favour of a completely appointed House and this was now the Government proposal but many Labour MPs wanted elected members and so no progress was possible
  • In 2006 police investigated allegations that wealthy donors to the Labour party for the 2005 election had been promised peerages, which was illegal under an Act of 1925. A new White Paper in 2007 proposed half elected and half appointed. Elected members would be chosen by a regional PR system. 40% of the appointed members would be non-party political. The Commons, partly as a reaction to the problems of appointment given the Cash for Peerages scandal voted for a fully elected House but no progress was made to implement this before the 2010 election.
  • Under the Coalition, in 2012, Nick Clegg brought forward a Bill for a House of 450 members with 300 elected for 15 terms and the rest appointed. This would gradually be phased in. This was voted down by a combination of Conservative MPs opposed to any change and Labour MPs who argued that the Government was not giving enough time for discussion.
  • In 2011, the former Liberal Democrat leader, Lord Steel, proposed an immediate reform to allow life peers retire so as to reduce the size of membership and to end the by-elections for hereditary peers so that eventually there would be none left.

The sticking points and proposals of UK House of Lords reforms

Thus proposals have ranged around the following issues:-

  • The proportion elected and the proportion appointed. There have been different views about how to balance the democratic legitimacy of elected members and the expertise and political independence of appointed members.
  • The method of election.  It is generally accepted that there should not be a majority for any political party and so some form of proportional representation elections would be required.  Many proposals suggest elections on a regional basis or whether a replacement House should represent the four nations of the UK.
  • The method of appointment. In particular, whether the political parties should still nominate or whether the process should be entirely independent. 
  • Whether Church of England Bishops should remain
  • There are those who are abolitionists who argue than any elected Upper House would conflict with the supremacy of the House of Commons.
  • Most of the discussion has been about the composition of the new House. There are also the question of what powers it would have.  The general view is it should only have the power to ask the House of Commons to rethink. However, a mainly elected House might feel it also has authority from the electorate and get into conflict with the House of Commons. This could only be avoided by very clearly defining the limits to the powers of the new House.