Monday 16 August 2021

UK constitutional arrangements ~ House of Lords

"For Parliament to have legitimacy, it must be elected. The House of Lords should be a fully elected second chamber" -
Unlock democracy

During the Brexit campaign there was a common complaint that the European Union had a democratic deficit - see, for example, EU facts behind claims: democracy and Civitas - Democracy in the EU (pdf). 

Such concerns are usually levelled at either the "unelected" Commission in Brussels or at the European Parliament which is elected by the voters in the Member States but only has the powers given to it by the European Treaties. 

Critics of the EU

often tend to overlook the democratic deficit within the UK's constitutional arrangements. First, the UK's Head of State (HM The Queen) is unelected and succession to the throne is regulated not only by descent but also by various Acts of Parliament.  Secondly, the House of Lords is a major part of the UK Parliament but is not elected by the people. This post is concerned with the House of Lords.

The House is made up 3 elements:

(a) 90 hereditary peers plus the Earl Marshal and Lord Great Chamberlain - House of Lords Act 1999 - vacancies arising among the 90 are filled by a system of by-elections -

Hereditary By-elections: Results - House of Lords Library (

By-elections in the House of Lords - UK Parliament

(b) the "Lords Spiritual" - i.e. the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishops of Durham, London and Winchester, as well as 21 other bishops of the Church of England

(c) those who hold a life peerage under the Life Peerages Act 1958 - appointed by the Queen on the nomination of the Prime Minister

Fuller details of House of Lords membership as at 1 June 2021 may be seen here where it is noted that there are 680 life peers out of a total of 821 members. The average age of eligible members is 70 (which ought, in itself, to be a concern). 

The House of Lords Reform Act 2014 made provision for members to resign or, in some instances, to be expelled. Since then, over 80 peers have used the Act to retire and this is now the most extensive route by which the House loses members - see Losing members… | Lords of the Blog. New peers can be appointed and 36 were appointed by Boris Johnson in 2020 - Constitution Unit 31 July 2020.

The composition of the Lords is basically a product of history with some statutory alterations. It is not a composition that would chosen by anyone asked to design a law-making body fit for the 21st century and a key function of the Lords is to carry out its part in the making of legislation.

Bills require the approval of both Houses of Parliament and also Royal Assent before they become law. In modern times, due to the Parliament Acts 1911-49, the Lords has less power than in the days when it could simply reject any Bill. In effect, the House exercises a right to amend Bills (a "revising power"). If the Commons disagrees with Lords amendments, the Parliament Acts could be invoked to eventually secure the passage of the legislation. Interestingly, the Parliament Acts have been used just 7 times since 1911.

The standard of debate in the Lords is generally very high and many members enhance debate by contributing their personal professional expertise. The House also carries out excellent work in its various committees and some of the committee reports have been outstanding though it is a moot point how much influence some of this has on government which is free to accept or reject recommendations.  Notable committees of recent times include the Constitution Committee and the European Union Committee.

Over its long history, the House has escaped what would be the major reform of becoming an elected chamber smaller in size than the House of Commons. Nonetheless, there have been many proposals for reform including the plans put forward by the 2010-15 coalition government. Those reforms, which were hopelessly convoluted, were eventually abandoned - see Law and Lawyers 20 May 2011 and 6 August 2012.

I see no good reason why the House should not be reformed to become a second chamber elected by the people with elections conducted by proportional representation. This second chamber would have around 400 members and would have the same powers relating to legislation as the current House of Lords. The House could also have an enhanced role in relation to representing the interests of the four nations making up the UK. The revised House would become a vital link between the UK Parliament and the devolved legislatures in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. The revised House could also have an important role in liaison between the senior judiciary and Parliament.

Unlike the first past the post electoral system, the House of Lords is not a constitutional rogue but it is an institution in need of reform to make it fit for purpose in 21st century Britain. Key to that is the need for the House to be elected by the people.


On the European Union and democracy see

The UK's final elections to the European Parliament were in May 2019 - House of Commons - EP elections: results and analysis.

Lords of the Blog

Losing members… | Lords of the Blog

16 August 2021

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