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The Three Parts of the UK Parliament

The House of Commons

The House of Commons, which consists of 650 MPs elected on a first past the post basis for individual constituencies.

The House of Lords

The House of Lords, which consists of some 700+ peers appointed for their expertise or political experience and 92 hereditary peers. Both groups remain in the House of Lords for life.

There are also 23 Bishops of the Church of England who remain there until they retire as Bishops. The role of the Lords is secondary as, under the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, the Lords are not able to defeat legislation concerned with taxation or expenditure and the House of Commons can overturn decisions of the House of Lords on any other legislation.

The House of Lords plays a lesser role to the Commons but still a significant role and one that has become more important in recent years. The aristocracy and clergy were part of the medieval English Parliament and eventually separated out into a different assembly from the House of Commons.  From the late 17th century it was accepted that the Commons would be superior in financial matters but the Lords retained a veto over legislation. As the Commons became more democratic in the 19th with the extension of the male vote, the Lords were cautious not to constantly challenge an elected Government but conflicts intensified as the Liberal Party became more radical and won a large Commons majority in 1906. In 1909 the large Conservative majority in the Lords rejected the Liberal Government’s Budget, ignoring the precedent that the Commons was supreme in financial affairs, and a constitutional crisis ensued with the Lords backing down only after the Liberals had won two general elections during 1910.  The Parliament Act of 1911 allowed the Commons to override a Lords veto over legislation.

The Parliament Act was meant to be a first stage in Lords reform but the war intervened before the Liberal Government could decide on this and the Conservatives were in the Government almost continuously from 1918 to 1945. In 1945 when Labour won its large majority the Conservative and Labour leaders in the Lords agreed what has been called the Salisbury-Addison Convention which held that the House of Lords would not defeat legislation which was in a Government’s manifesto and would unduly delay Government Bills. The Conservatives, in power from 1951 to 1964 had the continued benefit of a large Conservative majority in the Lords, but still worried about the legitimacy of an assembly whose members were there by an accident of birth.  In 1958, they introduced the Life Peerages Act which allowed the Prime Minister, under the royal prerogative, to appoint people with expertise or political experience to the House of Lords for life.  This gives considerable patronage to the Prime Minister, although they have not just appointed people who support their party, but also made the Lords more legitimate as people began to enter on merit.

The effect of the introduction of life peers was only gradual but by the 1980s they made up most of the members who played an active part and were more ready to be independent and challenge the legislation of the Conservative Government.  Attendance improved compared with the previous 60 years, and the Lords met on more days a year.

After Labour’s House of Lords Act, 1999 removed almost all of the hereditary peers, the Lords became even more confident and assertive.  A House of Lords Appointments Commission was set up in 2000 to vet the quality of people proposed by the Prime Minister for a peerage. Although Blair, Brown and Cameron have appointed peers to increase the number supporting their party, there is no majority for any party in the Lords and the Liberal Democrats and Crossbench (Independent) peers often hold the balance of power in key votes.

The Lords now plays a role in two areas:-


About 60% of the Lords’ time is spent looking at legislation. Less controversial Government Bills may start in the Lords so that they can be looked at more thoroughly before they go to the Commons and individual peers may put forward their own Bills. All members can discuss all stages of the Bill and the Government cannot curtail discussion as in the Commons. All amendments can be debated, unlike in the Commons where only some are selected. The Lords regularly amends Government legislation, especially in the area of civil liberties and many of these amendments are accepted by the Government.

Some of the conventions on this are breaking down. Examples :-

  • During the Coalition Government, The Liberal Democrats, who were not party to the Salisbury-Addison Convention, questioned whether it was still relevant when, in a multi-party system and with lower general election turnouts, Governments are achieving a Commons majority with the support of only about 25% of the electorate.
  • There was considerable opposition in the Lords to the Coalition Government’s Health and Social Care Bill, whose details had not been in its manifesto.  David Owen proposed, in a breach of the Salisbury-Addison convention, an amendment to delay the implementation of the Bill to allow the Government to rethink thus delaying legislation and only narrowly lost.
  • The opposition in the Commons to George Osborne’s proposed change to Tax Credits strengthened opposition to them in the Lords. They came forward as a Statutory Instrument which, by convention, the Lords would not oppose but they did and the proposals had to be withdrawn. The Parliament Act did not give a Commons override of the Lords on statutory instruments. The Government asked Lord Strathclyde to review the powers of the Lords.

Scrutiny of Government Policy

The Lords does this in a number of ways:-

  • Oral and Written Questions to Government Ministers in the Lords.
  • Government Ministers in the Lords make statements on key issues and answer questions
  • There are debates and this allows members with long experience on topics such as health or education to give their views.
  • There are four permanent Committees, which do not shadow Government Departments as in the Commons but deal with Science and Technology, Economic Affairs, the EU, the Constitution and Communications. There are also Joint Committees with the Commons to look at Human Rights issues and to examine Statutory Instruments.

The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived by Meg Russell, 2013 looks at the ways in which the Lords has become more influential in recent years.

The Monarch

The Queen has legally to agree to legislation though, in practice, she never withholds this approval. She has also had powers to dissolve and recall Parliament, now limited by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, but these powers have always been based on strict rules based on past precedent.