news vote 2001search vote 2001
 You are in: Vote2001: Main Issues
Main Issues 
Correspondent Analysis 
Crucial Seats 
Key People 
Results &  Constituencies 
Opinion Polls 
Online 1000 
Virtual Vote 
Talking Point 
Voting System 
Local Elections 

N Ireland 

BBC News

BBC Sport

BBC Weather
Tuesday, 27 March, 2001, 15:20 GMT
House of Lords reform

Tony Blair will be remembered as the prime minister who removed the voting rights of most hereditary peers. But will Labour's promised second stage of reforms ever take place?


"One of the most curious of the curious anomalies in British public life, defying all logic of democratic and secular politics."

That is how the political scientist, John Kingdom, saw the House of Lords.

The second parliamentary chamber is responsible for scrutinising and amending the legislation of the House of Commons and it can delay non-financial legislation for up to a year.

The House of Lords must be reformed - the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute

Labour Party manifesto, 1997
However, most other democracies with a second chamber do not have hereditary peers who are privileged to sit in the House because of a title inherited through an accident of birth.

Since 1958 the prime minister has had the power to appoint peers for life, but these members cannot pass the title to their heirs.

The Lords also reflects the role within Britain of the Church of England, with the presence of 26 bishops. In addition, 12 law lords sit in the Lords, acting as the UK's final court of appeal.

While supporters of the historic system say that the Lords has long offered a less party-political counterbalance to the Commons, those who oppose the second chamber, including the constitutional reform pressure group, Charter 88, say the chamber enjoys little public support and makes a mockery of representative democracy.

The Lords has long been a source of anger for Labour politicians.

It has had a truly massive in-built Conservative majority - by virtue of the hereditary peers - which has generally led to more second chamber defeats of Labour proposals than of Tory ones.

The greatest number of Lords defeats suffered by any government was 126 inflicted on Labour during the 1975-76 session.

In the first year of Tony Blair's government there were 38 defeats.

Important Govt defeats in the Lords (1997-2000)
Section 28
Age of consent
Trial by jury
European election reforms
Elements of devolution
Care home standards
Air traffic control privatisation
Lords reform
(Some defeats later overturned)
The highest number inflicted on the previous Conservative administration was 22 defeats in the 1985-86 session.

Legislation rejected by the Lords has included two attempts to repeal Section 28, the controversial law which prevents local authorities from "promoting" homosexuality.

Campaigners also complain that the doctrine of the "separation of powers" is undermined by the existence of law lords who both make the law and then interpret it.

This, they say, prevents the UK from becoming a modern democracy in which the courts, parliament and government are all independent of each other - and therefore in a stronger position to check and balance each other's powers.

Before Labour came to power in 1997, two main options for reform dominated the debate over the House of Lords.

  • A second chamber wholly nominated by the prime minister.
  • A directly-elected wholly independent second chamber

    Opponents of the first option said that this would perpetuate the dominance of the government and do little to persuade the public that the Lords had aneffective role to play.

    Supporters of the second option said that an elected Lords would be empowered to scrutinise government and legislation. But critics, including Tony Blair, said it would create a political force to rival the primacy of the Commons and slow down effective law-making.


    Labour completed the first stage of reform in November 1999 when all but 92 of the 750 hereditary peers lost their right to sit and vote in the chamber.

    Lords compared to UK population
    GENDER: 84% male (UK: 49%)
    ETHNICITY: 97.4% white (UK: 94.5%)
    AGE: 69% over 61 (UK: 21%)
    Source: Lords Appointments Commission
    Tony Blair had wanted all the hereditary peers to be removed - but agreed a compromise with the upper house to ensure that the legislation would get through.

    Those who remained were chosen through a ballot of other Lords - something that critics dubbed a beauty contest - though a further 10 were given life peerages by the prime minister.

    Labour said at the time that reform would not stop there. But now, as the party seeks a second term in office, it has yet to put forward clear proposals on what might happen next.

    The question facing the government has been - how to make the Lords more effective, without making it too powerful?

    A directly-elected second chamber would be more democratic. It is supported by both Lord Rodgers, the Liberal Democrat leader in the second chamber, and Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative leader. Campaigners say public opinion is also on their side.

    In opposition, Mr Blair had said Labour always favoured an elected House of Lords. But in government he has shown little enthusiasm for the option.

    Margaret Beckett, leader of the Commons, argues that two elected chambers would each claim equal legitimacy and could end up being perpetually at war.


    A Royal Commission into reform of the Lords, chaired by the Conservative peer, Lord Wakeham, spent a year looking at blueprints for reform.

    Wakeham options for election of peers:
    OPTION ONE: 65 peers indirectly elected from general election results
    OPTION TWO: 87 regional members directly elected in thirds every five years
    OPTION THREE: 195 regional members directly elected by thirds
    In January 2000 it published its report which revealed that the commission members were divided over the issue of wholly-elected or appointed peers.

    It proposed a compromise: The House should have 550 peers with a minority directly elected.

    The majority of peers would be appointed by an independent Commission and at least 30% of appointed members should be women with similar safeguards to ensure representation of ethnic minorities.

    The commission failed to agree on exactly how elected members would be picked. Instead it suggested three options for further discussion.

    The commission did recommend, however, that the prime minister should lose the power to appoint peers, suggesting that the second chamber's composition should be regularly adjusted in proportion to votes cast at the previous general election.

    Charter 88 dismissed the report as a "dismal" establishment stitch-up and said it had completely missed the wider issue of strengthening the powers of the second chamber to check the government.

    Critics also said the Royal Commission's conclusions had been so weak they had even ducked the issue of the name of the chamber.


    Critics predict that Labour will not bring forward reforms to make the House of Lords more independent - but the party says it is pledged to pursue stage two of the plan.

    An appointments commission was established last May. However, it can appoint only a minority of peers, the generally independent cross-benchers.

    The proposal for a wholly-appointed House is really saying we must not trust the people to make the right kind of judgement...I think that that is absurd and I think it is wrong.

    Lord Strathclyde
    Furthermore, it is not wholly independent as the prime minister retains the power to decide how many peerages are awarded overall and the governing party's own nominations.

    Critics go on to say that Labour did not want to set up the Royal Commission in the first place, but felt that it was obliged to do so.

    The Conservatives have predicted that Labour will try to make sure that the second stage of reform never happens.

    But the Tories do appear to have accepted that the era of the hereditary peer has gone - and they have pledged to establish an independent appointments commission plus a "substantial elected element".

    Other Lords on all sides are increasingly convinced that the present "transitional" House may continue for a further decade unless Labour returns to government after the general election with a clear timetable.

    Indeed a joint committee of MPs and peers to scrutinise the Wakeham recommendations has still not been set up.

    This is despite a statement last summer from Lady Jay, leader of the Lords, that it would be established "as soon as possible".

    The delay is partly due to cross-party disagreement over the remit of the committee.

    Labour said it wanted the committee to consider the second chamber's role and powers but not its composition and method of election - something that the opposition parties refused to accept.

    Last September, Labour did agree to elect a minority of at least 65 peers.

    This is likely to outrage Conservatives, who would see the proposal leading to the final demise of the hereditary members.


    Issues Finder



    The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites