Page last updated at 14:44 GMT, Tuesday, 31 May 2011 15:44 UK
Guide to the House of Lords

Peers are members of the House of Lords, a parliamentary debating chamber once likened by Labour MP Austin Mitchell to a "legislative sweatshop in which the most elevated in the land are exploited".

Lords at state opening
A sweatshop? Hardly...

The upper House is known for the expertise of its members and the painstaking detail of its scrutiny of legislation - and yet the majority of peers are not paid a salary for their trouble.

That's where comparisons with a sweatshop must end, however; attendance is, after all, voluntary, and peers can claim generous expenses when they do turn up.


The name peer was adopted, as long ago as the 13th Century, to convey the idea that all members are equal, no matter what their aristocratic rank or title.

True, backbenchers in the Lords are unusually powerful thanks to the jealously guarded practice of self-regulation, the limited power of the Lord Speaker and the fact that the crossbenchers act independently of any political party.

But a hierarchy establishes itself nonetheless. Some peers become whips, meaning that their party has authorised them to encourage - sometimes quite robustly - their colleagues to vote with the party line.

Although decisions on how business is scheduled in the chamber are ostensibly taken spontaneously by the House as a whole, much wrangling takes place behind the scenes as governing party whips negotiate with opposition whips and the convenor of the crossbench peers to hammer out prior agreements on future business.

This murky process is described as decision-making via "the usual channels".


Lord West of Spithead
Peers are known for their expertise

Other peers take on ministerial responsibilities (for which most, but not all, are paid a salary).

They must hold forth on government policy at the question sessions that mark the start of each day's business in the chamber.

They also face the daunting task of piloting government legislation through the upper chamber, opening or wrapping up the debate on each stage of government bills and defending their content.

Ministers in the Lords are shadowed by peers from the main opposition parties, just as they are in the Commons.

Status anxiety?

Informally, some peers are held in higher regard by their colleagues than others; perhaps for the quality of their contributions in debate on particular subjects, for the diligence of their work in one of the Lords select committees, or as a consequence of many years of distinguished service in public office.

Speeches by such peers are listened to attentively.

Conversely, the views of poorly-regarded peers may be ignored, especially those who flout protocol by speaking arrogantly or combatively in the chamber.

There is also a certain kudos attached to seniority and long-standing devotion to the traditions of the House.

Emma Crewe, an anthropologist who spent three years studying the upper chamber, remarks that "the stereotyped view of the Lords as doddering old pensioners is mostly prejudice, although a few resemble the two crusty, opera-loving old gentlemen from the Muppet Show".

She concludes that many of the House's elders are regarded as a source of advice and treated with deference.

There has been an influx of new peers since the 2010 election and there are now more than 800.

The majority are appointed, or given life peerages, by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister. A total of 92 peers sit in the Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage; 26 seats are reserved for bishops and archbishops.

More from BBC Democracy Live
Compare who does what across the UK and Europe
Our A-Z of words used in the business of politics
Discover what BBC Democracy Live has to offer you


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific