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Wednesday, February 25, 1998 Published at 09:00 GMT

Special Report

The House of Lords: A brief history of time
image: [ The House of Lords, bedecked in sumptuous red leather, faces the prospect of major reform ]
The House of Lords, bedecked in sumptuous red leather, faces the prospect of major reform

The House of Lords is a uniquely British institution. No other western country has an upper tier of parliament which is so heavily dominated by non-elected politicians who are literally "born to rule".

The House dates back to the 11th century -- when feudal landlords and religious leaders were consulted by Saxon kings -- and its critics say it is outmoded and out of kilter with modern Britain's "Cool Britannia" image.

Britain is revered throughout the world as the "mother of parliamentary democracy" but nowadays the "children" the Empire spawned: Australia, Canada, the United States and even India have electoral systems which are more democratic than the United Kingdom's.

The distinction between Lords and Commons developed in the 14th century. Shire and borough representatives formed the "Lower House of Parliament" while the religious leaders (Lords Spiritual) and landed gentry (Lords Temporal) became known as the "Upper House".

All-male preserve

There were five ranks of peers: dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons and they were exclusively male.

Following the Reformation in 1539 abbots and priors lost their right to sit in the Lords and the Lords Temporal began to outnumber the Lords Spiritual.

Bishops were also banned from Westminster during Oliver Cromwell's rule and the overwhelmingly pro-Royalist Lords ceased to exist between 1649 and 1660.

After the English Civil War the Commons became officially pre-eminent in financial matters and the modern-day position with the Lords as the "second house" was formulated.

In 1847 the Bishopric of Manchester Act limited the number of bishops entitled to sit and most of the Irish and all the Welsh bishops ceased to have a seat in the Lords when their respective churches were disestablished in 1869 and 1920.

Since 1876 the House is acting as the highest appeal court in the UK. Reforming the Lords - first changes

The Lords were first reformed in 1909 following a constitutional crisis which threatened to bring down David Lloyd-George's Liberal government.

When the Lords rejected his government's budget he responded by introducing a bill which ended the peers' power to reject legislation approved by the Commons.

The Upper House could have prevented the bill being passed but Lloyd-George threatened to flood the Tory-dominated chamber with specially created Liberal peers.

In the wake of the crisis the 1911 Parliament Act was passed which meant:

  • Financial bills approved by the Commons became law if not passed without amendment by the Lords within a month.

  • Other public bills, except one to extend the life of a Parliament, became law without the consent of the Lords, if passed by the Commons in three successive sessions, providing two years elapsed between Second Reading and final passing in the Commons.

A further act passed by Clement Attlee's Labour government in 1949 reduced the Lords' delaying powers.

Life peers

The first life peers were created in 1958. The same legislation introduced allowances for peers' out-of-pocket expenses and a system of "leave of absence" for peers who did not wish or could not attend the House for long periods.

[ image: Tony Benn...long-time campaigner against House of Lords]
Tony Benn...long-time campaigner against House of Lords
In 1963 the Peerage Act was passed. Prior to it hereditary peers were not allowed to run for Parliament but Tony Benn -- or Anthony Wedgewood Benn as he was better known at the time -- challenged it after his right to serve as an MP was questioned.

Five years later Harold Wilson's Labour government sought to emasculate the Lords once and for all.

The Government proposed the creation of an Upper House whose members could discuss legislation but were not permitted to vote on it.

The bill was opposed by many Conservative and Labour MPs and eventually died a death in the committee stage.

During the rule of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government there were no reform plans for the House of Lords, but when Labour under Tony Blair were swept to power in May 1997, the hereditary peers began to suspect their days might be numbered.

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