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How the Lords evolved

The cure for the House of Lords is to go and look at it: the judgement not of Dennis Skinner or Tony Benn, but one of Britain's leading constitutional historians writing well over a hundred years ago.
Six hundred years of pageantry

It's been called the best club in London.

The House of Lords is an institution with a long and illustrious past, but a rather more uncertain future.

Quote Mark ..the cure for the House of Lords (is) to go and look at it Quote Mark

Walter Bagehot, 1867
Until the reforms of 1999, it was the largest regularly sitting legislative body in the world: more than 1,200 people were entitled to sit and vote there, although in practice many hereditary peers chose not to exercise their rights.

Video Clip VIDEO
BBC Nine O’Clock News
Political Correspondent John Pienaar reports on the day hereditary peers were abolished in 1999
The story of successive governments' attempts to reform the Lords goes to the heart of the debate about democracy: how do we decide what is the will of the people - and who stands up for minority interests?


The Lords can trace its origins back to the fourteenth century, when royal advisers began to divide themselves into commoners and lords.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Britain was becoming a constitutional democracy, but the Lords had failed to keep pace with those changes. Reforming the Lords was considered numerous times, but with limited practical results.

Its main functions are:

A "second pair of eyes" on bills which have already been debated in the Commons. The Lords makes around 2,000 amendments a year to legislation, nearly all of which are accepted.

Regular Question Times for government ministers in the Lords.

Through specialist select committees, such as Science and Technology.

Increasingly, the Lords initiates legislation, which is debated by the Commons.

The Lords is the final court of Appeal in Great Britain. In practice, this is done by specialist Law Lords, who are chosen from the judiciary.

TIMELINE: Lords reform
19th Century
Commons and Lords have roughly equal powers, except over finance bills where Commons superiority is already acknowledged. Already growing disquiet over an in-built Conservative majority in the Lords.
1893  William GladstoneGladstone's Home Rule Bill was thrown out by the Lords

Gladstone's Second Home Rule Bill defeated in the Lords, effectively spelling the end of the Liberal Prime Minister's hopes to resolve the Irish question.

20th Century
1909  Lloyd GeorgeThe row over Lloyd George's budget led to first Parliament Act, limiting the Lords' power

The Lords vote down Lloyd George's budget, including the first old age pensions in this country. Again, a Liberal chancellor is at odds with a predominantly Conservative chamber.

1911  Parliament Act: the first major restrictions on the Lords' power. Regardless of the Lords' approval, all money bills passed by the Commons will become law within one month. Other public bills will become law without the Lords consent, if passed by the Commons in three successive sessions over the space of two years.
1949  Parliament Act: Limits the delaying powers of the Lords still further, to two sessions and one year.
1958  Life Peerages Act: Permits the creation of life peers. Also allows women to sit in the Lords for the first time.
1963  Hereditary peers given the right to renounce their peerage to stand for parliament, following a campaign by Tony Benn (who'd unwillingly inherited a title) In the wake of Harold Macmillan's resignation as Prime Minister, Lord Douglas Home, selected as Conservative Party leader in his stead, renounces his peerage to stand for election to the House of Commons and become Prime Minister.
1968-9  Harold WilsonHarold Wilson abandoned Lords reform after strong opposition from the Commons.

Harold Wilson's government attempts substantial reform. Hereditary peers would become non-voting members, but still able to take part in debates. The upper chamber would lose the power to reject legislation outright, but could delay for six months. Rejected after strong opposition in the Commons.

1970-80s  Labour party policy advocates total abolition of the House of Lords.
1992  Labour manifesto abandons abolition in favour of reform.
November 1999  Tony Blair's government abolishes the right of most hereditary peers to sit and vote in the Lords (see the next section).
21st Century
2001  Government publishes white paper outlining the next stage for Lords reform. Legislation is promised for the Spring of 2002.

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