Welcome to a new series from UKCBC called ‘How it Works’. During these articles, we’ll be covering the topics we probably should know more about but never got around to reading up on. In the first ‘How it Works’, we will be looking at the mysterious half of the UK’s parliament – the House of Lords.
Origin Story – The House of Lords
Being a monarchy, the King or Queen of England held much power in days of yore. The origins of the House of Lords can be traced all the way back to the 11th century, where an Anglo-Saxon political body of sorts (called Witenagemot) emerged. Saxon kings were joined by religious leaders, ministers and wealthy individuals to form a kind of advisory council for all things state-related. The good thing, for the leader at least, was that these advisors were there only to make suggestions; if a king so wished to go off and wage an expensive war with another country, he could.
However, it was Bad King John that pushed his rule of leadership just a little too far. Thanks to John’s penchant for war, the barons of England in that period were being taxed heavily. Those who refused to pay were punished or had their property seized. The barons demanded that King John respect the laws designed to protect them; John ignored their pleas, so, in a move that would make Blackadder proud, the barons took London and forced the King into negotiations in 1215, the result of which became known as Magna Carta.
The importance of the Magna Carta echoes through history, and some of the laws remain in place today – namely that all free men have a right to justice and a fair trial. This rule had a slightly different meaning back in the 13th century as the majority of men weren’t considered ‘free’. Anyway, back to our quest!
The result of Magna Carta was the reduction of the King’s power and an increase of the barons’ power in governing England. These barons formed an advisory council for the King during a period when trade began to flourish. The emergence of a class of wealthy traders meant another group wanted to have their say in all things government; the House of Commons duly formed in the 13th century alongside the House of Lords, and both acted as advisors to the monarch.
During the 17th century, the House of Lords was abolished and reinstated. As the monarchy’s power was eventually transferred to an elected political party, the House of Lords became a purely advisory branch of the government. However, the House overstepped its mark in the early 20th century by rejecting a government budget; this would set in motion changes for the House of Lords that would culminate in their power being severely reduced.
Who Makes Up Members of the House of Lords
You’d be forgiven for thinking the House is made up of dusty old aristocrats who spend the day pretending not to be asleep. The reality is rather different. There are around 800 peers who make up the House of Lords, 600 of those which are life peers (essentially members for life that cannot pass on their title to their relatives). The other members are made up of hereditary peers (those who inherited their place – a very contentious issue, with Members of Parliament arguing there is no place for unelected politicians in modern society), law lords (who work mainly in judging the highest appeal cases in the UK), and Church of England archbishops and bishops. Not all peers are present for each debate (the room isn’t big enough to hold 800 people), because there’s little reason to have Lords appointed for their knowledge on science, for example, to give their thoughts on arts and culture. Lords’ meaningful attendance has, however, become a hot topic as a growing culture of “couch-potato peers” appears to be on the rise, with numerous Lords claiming money yet having barely contributed to the debates all year.
How Does One Become a Peer?
There are two types of life peers – political party and non-political party peers. Political party peers are nominated by their respective party leader to represent party interests, but, unlike MPs, they remain members for life, so the need to toe the party line is arguably less prominent. Non-political party peers have no direct political affiliation. They are recommended to become peers by the House of Lords Appointment Commission because they have “significant achievement within their chosen way of life that demonstrates a range of experience, skills and competencies [and] are able to make an effective and significant contribution to the work of the House of Lords.” Although they may well have a significant impact on the lives of citizens, Lords are not elected.
The House has been criticised for its admissions process due to the flippancy peerage is often given by prime ministers and party leaders; if an MP loses his or her seat in the House of Commons, he or she may well find a new home in the House of Lords. Likewise, party donors are often rewarded with a peerage in a scheme dubbed “cash for peerage”. A study into the subject by the London School of Economics found the relation between party donors and peerage nominations to be statistically significant, leading more to question whether reforms are necessary.
What Function Does the House of Lords Have in Modern Politics?
The House of Lords has three main functions – to check/challenge the government, work with the Commons to shape laws, and investigate issues through committees and debates. The House of Lords functions as an editor for the government by checking bills created in the House of Commons, debating the proposed bills (in what’s called the ‘second reading’), scrutinising the details of the bill and producing reports of their findings. The third reading of a proposed ‘bill’ follows in which the final amendments are made; after this point, the bill is sent back to the House of Commons, and ping-pong begins. It’s first to 21, and the winner gets to have the final say on the… just kidding. Ping-pong describes the back and forth process between the House of Commons and the House of Lords in which bill revisions are made, sent and reviewed (the Hunting Act is an excellent example of parliamentary ping-pong). After approval from both, the bill is stamped and sent for Royal Assent – the Queen formally agrees to make the bill into an act and it becomes law.
There we have it! Hopefully, the mysterious upper house of British politics is now somewhat clearer. Be sure to check out our next How It Works article for an insight into another mystery of life, or if you have any topics you want us to cover, comment below! For regular updates on all things UKCBC (including fun stuff like politics) be sure to subscribe to our newsletters.