More on this topic

PointerThe government's white paper
PointerThe Commission's recommendations
PointerThe Commission in action
PointerThe Centre for Citizenship's evidence (A pdf version is here)
Pointer The National Secular Society's evidence
PointerThe government's White Paper.
PointerThe Bill to expel the hereditary legislators.
PointerThe Appointments Commission

Print Friendly and PDF

The House of Lords

The Failure of Reform

"Will an elected Lords be dominated by political parties? (So what if it is?) Will we sacrifice the accumulated wisdom of the greybeards now in the Lords? (They can stand for election if they think they are so wise.) What shall we do about the Law Lords and the bishops? (Set up a Supreme Court and disestablish the Church of England.)

"The amount of time spent arguing about whether or not Britain's second chamber should be directly elected or not seems bizarre. Of course it should be. Direct elections are how democratic countries get their legislatures. Legislatures are reckoned to work better if they have second chambers. Ergo, Britain should have an elected second chamber. Hard, wasn't it?"

That's how in 2002 the Economist magazine answered the question of what was to be done about the feudal House of Lords, which by 2018 had 800 lordly members. But the Economist was not the first to notice this. Richard Overton, 350 years before, had seen the incompatibility of democracy and Lords. "You only are chosen by the people" he told MPs in A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens, "and therefore in you only is the power of binding the whole nation by making, altering or abolishing of laws. You have therefore prejudiced us in acting so as if you could not make a law without both the royal assent of the king (so you are pleased to express yourselves) and the assent of the Lords".

So converting the British to democratic government is a hard and long job.

Attempts to reform the second chamber have a long history. In 1641 the House of Commons approved a bill to exclude bishops from the House of Lords. That House rejected the bill. Later that year the hard pressed king said he would look into the problem of bishops in the legislature. And the revolutionaries of the English army would have kicked them back into their pulpits.

But still 370 years later the Anglican clerics cling greedily to their unwarranted ability to interfere in the government of the country. With hereditary legislators, and state appointees still make up the second chamber. The people of Britain have no say in it.

In 2013 there were 785 of these "working peers", interfering in the governing of the UK at public expense. Five of the new ones had made large donations to the political parties that nominated them. The Bamford family had given more than £5m to the Conservative Party before Anthony Bamford was appointed as a legislator-for-life. William Haughey gave more than £1m to the Labour Party before being given a seat in the legislature. James Palumbo donated more than £500,000 to the Liberal Democrats before becoming an unelected legislator. Brian Paddick failed to persuade the people of London to elect him as their mayor. But he became a legislator-for-life without the people having any say.

A governing coalition agreement provided for the for "Lords" to become a "wholly or mainly elected" legislative chamber. A "mainly elected" chamber would still have been undemocratic. But they failed to achieve even that.

Lords Reform Updates

Sunak and Lords Plot Against Democracy

According to a report in the Sunday Times prime minister Sunak has been plotting with members of the House of Lords to frustrate Labour Party plans to replace that chamber of parliament with a democratic alternative.

The newspaper said that Sunak has had two meetings about this with legislators-for-life. More are planned.

Sunak's plan is to create a veneer of reform by reducing the number of legislators. At preset there are more than 800.

This the plotters seem to hope would undercut any attempt to create a chamber of democratically chosen legislators.

The Sunday Times reported that one idea being discussed called for all parties to reduce the number of their legislators-for-life by an equal proportion, maybe 25 or 30 per cent.

Another option that has been considered shows very clearly the contempt for democratic principles of those opposing an elected chamber. It would allow the current hereditary legislators to stay in the House of Lords until they die and merely stop them handing on their seats to another family member on death.

Sunak admitted to one group of non-aligned legislators-for-life that he was opposed to an elected second chamber.

November 2018 - Committee Reports "Progress" Despite Appointment of More Lords

In November 2018 the House of Lords Speaker's committee that is overseeing the reduction in the size of the 800-member chamber made its second report. It claimed that more "progress" had been made than expected.

Its objective is to reduce the number to 600 by 2032. That would still leave it as the second largest legislative chamber in the world.

However, the committee brushed aside the Prime Minister's recent appointment of yet more lordly legislators claiming that she had shown "restraint". It justified these additions to the chamber's membership as a "legacy issue".

The Electoral Reform Society noted that there was nothing to stop the Prime Minister appointing more legislators if she chose. It said that "It . . . beggars belief that the size of our second chamber relies on the whim of whoever is in charge at the time".

Meanwhile the Times newspaper revealed that some of the lordly legislators spend their time lobbying for foreign governments and business interests.

May 2018 - Prime Minister Sabotages Reform

In May 2018 Prime Minister May appointed new legislators to sit in the House of Lords, including nine members of her own party. One was said to be a personal friend of the Conservative Party leader.

These appointments sabotaged recommendations from a House of Lords committee that the number of legislators-for-life be limited to 600.

Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: "This has now gone beyond a joke . . . they're packing the upper house with former MPs and retired party hacks".

November 2017 - Lords Committee Proposes Reform But Not Democracy

In November 2017 a committee of legislators-for-life recommended that Britain's second chamber of Parliament should have 600 legislators and 15-year terms of office.

At present 826 legislators sit in the unelected chamber and can do so until they die.

The committee recommended that the size of the house be reduced slowly by replacing every two legislators who leave with just one new one. This would take 15 years.

Most new legislators would be appointed by the main political parties in proportion to the size of their representation in the House of Commons. But a minimum of 20 per cent would be independent of those parties. The independents would be appointed by a state-run commission.

The government would continue to give seats in the House of Lords to individuals who had not been elected to Parliament but whom it wished to appoint as its ministers.

The people of Britain would continued to have no say in who sits in the legislative chamber.

The Church of England would keep its privilege of appointing its bishops as legislators.

The families that own a seat in the House of Lords would not lose those seats.

Apparently unaware of the irony House of Lords Speaker Norman Fowler, who appointed the committee, said that "This is the House of Lords reforming itself."

November 2016 - Rapid Review Brings No Change

A "rapid review" of the powers of the House of Lords set up the previous year had proposed that the involvement of the House in secondary legislation be reduced. This would have allowed the House just one chance to oppose a statutory instrument but with the House of Commons having a final say on it.

However, in 2016 the government said that it would legislate for this only if "discipline and self-regulation" by the House failed to achieve deference to the decisions of the House of Commons.

The test of this was expected when the Lords came to debate the exit of the country from the European Union. Angela Smith, Labour Party leader in the House, said the unelected legislators would not give the government a blank cheque.

October 2015 - The Unwritten Constitution Bites the Conservatives

On 26 October 2015 the unwritten constitution and feudal second chamber so long beloved by conservatives backfired on them.

The unelected legislators of the House of Lords voted to prevent reductions in tax credits that the government had proposed and the House of Commons approved. It did so despite a convention of that unwritten constitution that the House does not amend bills to do with tax or spending. The legislators-for-life claimed that they were within their rights. It was the nineteenth time in one parliament that they had defeated the government.

The House was able to do this because the Labour, Liberal Democrat and independent legislators-for-life outnumber the Conservatives.

The government's response was to immediately set up a "rapid review" into the second chamber. It was to "examine how to protect the ability of elected governments to secure their business in parliament". Unfortunately for the government and for democracy the unwritten constitution will allow the Lords to block any reforms recommended by the review if they wish.

Prime Minister David Cameron had previously said that reform of the second chamber was not a priority for his party. But by July 2015 defeats in the second chamber brought a change to his tune. He said that he regretted that he had not taken the chance to reform it during the preceding coalition government. Before the end of October the need for change seemed to have become urgent.

Conservative MP Edward Leigh said of the House of Lords' action that it was not right that "unelected people should decide how we tax and how we spend our money”. Other observers might have wondered why unelected people should decide anything in parliament.

July 2012 - Feudal Legislators Reprieved

"I've nothing against reform provided it leads to better attendance, especially after the dinner hour. It could be more democratic - ghastly overused word - but you'd lose some incredible characters who give their service for the good of the country. You'd lose all their knowledge on land use, forestry, fishing and sporting matters - and one or two have, um, been in industry. I loathe politics and there's a great danger the House (of Lords) will become an awful political place like the House of Commons."
Lord Kintore, a British legislator quoted in the Guardian, October 1998 on the proposal to end the hereditary right of "Lords" to a seat in the legislature

Britain's hereditary legislators and legislators-for-life were given another reprieve in July as Conservative and Labour Party legislators stood in the way of their removal from the country's legislature. Their method was to oppose a procedural motion that would have prevented endless delay to a bill to reform the House of Lords. To prevent this the government withdrew the motion for the time being

The Labour Party supported the Conservatives who wanted to sabotage the bill with endless debate. Although it supports reform it gave a higher priority to making trouble for the governing coalition than to democracy.

On 10 July the House of Common voted 462 to 124 for the reforms. Ninety one Conservatives voted against having even a partly democratic second chamber. One parliamentary aid resigned in order to oppose reform.

Although the reform, which would have left 20% of the legislators free of accountability to the people, is supported by the Conservative prime minister and was in his party's election manifesto, as many as 100 of the party's MPs were thought to be willing to obstruct it. The prime minister is reported to have been willing to water-down the bill to win support from his rebels, probably by reducing the already limited number of elected members of the reformed chamber.

The Liberal Democrats, who are chief sponsors of the reform, have accused the Conservative Party leaders of being half-hearted in their support.

Although Conservative opponents claim to support reform of the feudal chamber they chose to block reform legislation rather than make their own proposals for a democratic chamber. They also claimed that debate on the bill would detract the legislature from the country's economic problems, although in reality very little of Parliament's time is spent on such matters. Following the dropping of the legislation the Financial Times reported that "Tensions are growing in the coalition over how to fill the gap in the parliamentary calendar left by the collapse of House of Lords reform": What they really fear is that a democratic chamber would weaken the House of Commons and the Conservative Party. The bill would, in fact, guarantee the primacy of the Commons.

Another attempt to pass the reform bill may be made when Parliament returns after the summer recess.

This historic challenge must not be fudged

"There is one word above all than cannot be forgotten when it comes to the new upper chamber: democracy. Politicians of all parties may place discreet pressure on the Royal Commission to produce a fudge - a fudge that reduces the power of the new House. The temptation to trim must be resisted by the commission. The new upper house should last for as long as the last one did. To do that is needs democratic legitimacy. It is a historic challenge."
The Independent, editorial comment, 21 January 1999

April 2012 - Democracy Not a Priority for Legislators
British Politicians Unite to Save Lords' Privileges

Long-awaited and overdue democratisation of Britain's legislature is threatened again as legislators-for-life, and Conservative and Labour MPs, contemptuous of democratic rights, conspire to block it.

Although all three major parties promised reform of the House of Lords in their election manifestos, a parliamentary committee has recommended that reform of Britain's semi-feudal House of Lords be delayed for ratification in a referendum. Although this might look democratic, the intention is almost certainly not so. Half of the committee members are legislators-for-life, one of whom chaired the committee.

At the same time many Tory MPs are threatening a major revolt if the reforms go ahead. At a meeting called to discuss the reforms only one Tory spoke in favour. The motivation here seems to be a mixture of hostility to the weakening of feudal traditions and class hierarchy, an indifference to democratic rights that puts them in second place on the legislative schedule, and a fear that a democratic second chamber would hold the House of Commons in check to a greater extent than the Lords. Many Tory MPs want to use the issue to "put Mr. Clegg (Deputy Prime Minister) in his place" according to the Financial Times. Prime Minister Cameron has said that “it’s not the most important priority for the government”.

Although the social-democratic Labour Party is supposedly committed to reform, it is happy to see the reform legislation obstructed in Parliament if that makes life difficult for the Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition. Its shadow justice minister has said "it is only right" that there be a referendum. According to the Financial Times "Labour is relishing the discord the issue is sowing within the coalition". And Labour legislators-for-life have “been authorised”, according to that newspaper, to join with Conservatives to sabotage democratic reform of the legislature.

Janet Royall, leader of the Labour  “Lords”, believes it is “risible” for parliament to spend time on democratic reform when there are severe economic problems.  In truth the legislature spends little time on economic management. And the reform itself would not take up much time if the legislators were not intent on making trouble. Deputy Prime Minister Clegg commented that the determination of the legislators-for-life to “trample all over” the reforms was a good argument for taking away their feudal privileges.

Thomas Galbraith, the Tory legislator-for-life, who inherited a seat in parliament from his grandfather, is responsible for getting the government’s reforms through the second chamber. He claims to be committed to making the chamber more democratic but has been suggesting that the reforms would be expensive and cause problems for the House of Commons. According to the FT “his comments seem almost calculated to further incite MPs”.

Twelve members of the parliamentary committee issued a minority report opposing the reforms on the grounds of cost. Among the authors of the minority report is former trade union leader Elizabeth Symons, who was made a legislator-for-life by the Labour Party. It seems that no expense is too great to keep the Windsor clan in the style to which it is accustomed, but democracy can be just too expensive to be afforded!

Referenda are highly unusual in Britain, where legislators usually show no great reluctance to do what they know the majority of the people do not want, and where parliamentary sovereignty is considered a constitutional fundamental. All major parties made a commitment to the reforms in their election manifestos. And allowing the people a basic right denied to them for hundreds of years is hardly radical. It is odd that those who claim to be democrats would question whether the people really want such a right. Earlier reforms of the legislature have not been subject to referenda.

The committee calling for the referendum also wants there to be 450 legislators in the reformed chamber, 150 more than the government proposes. The United States makes do with 100 senators. But the committee agreed with the government that the democratic legitimacy should still be denied by allowing for twenty per cent of the legislators to be appointed by political parties and the state Anglican church. And it does not seem that the referendum would allow the people to insist that all legislators be elected or that the egregiously privileged position of the Church of England be ended. The people must not be given only so much of a say in their own affairs!

In once item of good news the government indicated that the legislators-for-life who lose their egregious privileges will not be given financial compensation. A former Liberal Party leader had said they should be paid £30,000 each.

Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society said that she could understand why the legislators-for-life were hostile to reform but that MPs had no excuse. "

February 2012 - Liberal Democrat To Fight Liberal Democracy

Liberal Democrat legislator-for-life John Lee has threatened to resign as party whip if the government goes ahead with reform of the House of Lords. The unelected legislator told the Financial Times that there is “pretty much zero support from serious political commentators” for ending the privileges of the so called “lords” who sit in the legislature. The most recent British Attitudes Survey found that of the British people only 6% think the second chamber does not need reform. The Liberal Party proposed the first reform legislation that led to the Parliament Act 1911.

Lee threatened a “long, bitter and bloody battle” against democratisation. He added that it would be “appalling” if the House of Commons voted to force through legislation against the will of the “lords” .

According to the same report the Labour Party will not oppose reform legislation in the House of Commons. But it is hoping that opposition from the legislators-for-life will obstruct the reform bill so as to cause maximum trouble for the coalition government.

If the new law is passed the changes will be phased-in between 2015 and 2025. The “lords” will be paid off with as much as £30,000.

Democrats have been fighting for more than 350 years to free their country of the “lords”. As long ago as 1646 Richard Overton informed MPs that they “prejudiced us in acting so as if you could not make a law without both the royal assent of the king (so you are pleased to express yourselves) and the assent of the Lords".

More recently, in 2002, The Economist expressed the case for reform succinctly:

"The amount of time spent arguing about whether or not Britain's second chamber should be directly elected or not seems bizarre. Of course it should be. Direct elections are how democratic countries get their legislatures. Legislatures are reckoned to work better if they have second chambers. Ergo, Britain should have an elected second chamber. Hard, wasn't it?"

June 2011 - Time Warped Britain Set To Keep Hereditary Legislators

Britain may  be stuck with the feudal obscenity of hereditary legislators for a  long time yet according to an interview in the Financial Times.  Thomas Galbraith, the leader of the House of Lords who inherited his own seat in Britain's legislature and had held it without a vote for 25 years, warned that it was unlikely that the legislation to reform the feudal chamber of Britain's legislature would be passed by 2015, the latest date for a general election.

Galbraith wants twenty per cent of the legislators in the reformed chamber to be unelected, including some hereditary legislators. In the same report Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and promoter of the current reform proposals, was said to be willing to tolerate the feudal leftovers as the price of making progress in democratising what is sometimes misleadingly referred to as “the mother of parliaments”.

Mr. Galbraith warned that the legislature might refuse to democratise the second house or “we may be overwhelmed with other legislation” leaving insufficient time for democracy. In fact the amount of new legislation has been predicted to fall in the second half of the coalition's term of office. The truth is that 80 per cent of legislators-for-life are determined to defend their privileges according to an opinion poll. The Financial Times reported that these opponents of democratic government come from “across the political spectrum”.

British democrats have been waiting for at least 350 to be free of illegitimate power of the legislators-for-life. It is 100 years since the first reform was enacted.

May 2011 - Conservatives Plot Against Democratic Reform

Conservatives are plotting to sabotage the democratisation of the House of Lords, according to newspaper reports.

According to the Daily Telegraph the Conservative Christian Fellowship is working to protect the ability of the state Church of England to bypass the democratic process and appoint its bishops as legislators. In a recent paper it proposed that Baptist, Catholic, Methodist and "black-led" congregations also be allowed to appoint legislators. They apparently hope that this broadening of undemocratic privilege would weaken opposition to the state church's privileges.

Apparently the Conservatives are not so keen on Muslim representation but may be willing to swallow that if necessary to protect the privileges of Christians.

Prime Minister Cameron was reported by the Telegraph to be "determined that the House of Lords is not turned into a secular institution".

At the same time Conservatives are hoping to delay the replacement of other legislators-for-life with elected senators. One plan is to start with only 76 elected senators out of a final 500.

The Telegraph reported that both Conservative and Labour legislators-for-life would not be "bullied" into accepting reforms with which they disagreed. The last time the House of Commons voted to reform the second chamber the Lords resisted "bullying" by voting down the reform in a remarkably boisterous display of arrogance.

The Financial Times reported that Conservative MPs would also be trying to prevent reform out of pique over the behaviour of their Liberal Democrat coalition partners. They were said to have described the long-awaited reform as driving "a coach and horses through our constitution". And as "revolutionary" rather than "evolutionary". One MP said that "Tory backbenchers don't like mucking around with the constitution".

In fact Britain does not have a real constitution and progress towards a democratic legislature has been made very slowly over hundreds of years. Anti-democratic forces have long been successful in denying the people the basic democratic right of choosing all legislators.

May 2010 - 350 Years - A Nation Still Waits

In 2010 hereditary legislators, Anglican bishops and state appointees still make up the second chamber. The people of Britain have no say in it.

The new governing coalition agreement between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties provides for the for "Lords" to become a "wholly or mainly elected" legislative chamber. But "mainly elected" would mean still undemocratic. Before the election Conservative Party leader David Cameron told aides that even this reform was something that might be done in the third term of a Conservative government. At the end of May, however, Cameron announced that there would be a vote on a draft reform motion in December 2010. Detailed legislation would follow, it was said.

The legislators-for-life will certainly again do their best to prevent democracy. A Financial Times commentator reported that when Parliament was told of the coalition's intention to legislate for a "wholly or mainly elected" second chamber "I saw one peeress - I think it was Baroness Howe - lift her head up and emit a sound that even from the gallery it was possible to recognise as 'Huh!'

Meanwhile both Conservative and Labour parties will be increasing the number of legislators-for-life, or "peers" as they are oddly named.

In its thirteen years of government the Labour Party was no more hungry for democracy than the Conservatives. It left the UK with the barely credible 21st century status of a nation with hereditary legislators.

It feared a chamber that might have both democratic legitimacy and the ability to hold the executive in check. The party favoured at best a reformed chamber that was only partly elected by the people. And when the legislators-for-life used their illegitimate power to block even that reform, the party failed to challenge them.

July 2008 - Democracy Delated (Again)

The end of feudalism in the British legislature may be delayed again. Justice minister Jack Straw has published the third discussion paper on House of Lords reform in seven years. But if he has his way there will be no more reform until after the general election, which may not be until 2010.

The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats have agreed on some aspects of reform. But it is still possible that twenty per cent of the legislators will not be chosen by the people. This continued refusal to allow a basic democratic right to the people would be made worse by the inclusion in this twenty per cent of legislators appointed by the state Church of England.

The Labour Party wants those legislators who are elected to be chosen by the multi-seat party list system. This would reinforce the power of the major parties at the expense of the people by requiring voters to choose a list of candidates from one party or another, and not split their votes between parties if they wish.

March 2007 - Cheering Greets Democracy's Defeat

"Although the House of Lords is less powerful than the House of Commons, it is a fundamental part of the United Kingdom Parliament, and has an integral part to play in the creation of the laws that govern our country ? it is not powerless." White Paper

Britain?s legislators-for-life left no doubt about their contempt for democratic rights when they voted on 14 March 2007 by a majority of 361 to stop the people electing any of the members of Parliament's second chamber. Only 121 opposed this decision while, in another vote, a mere 122 supported the election of all legislators.

The feudal legislative chamber was packed for the vote. According to the Financial Times the unelected legislators "vociferously expressed" their opposition to the decision of elected members of parliament that they should lose their privileged part in law making. But "the normally solemn chamber reverberated with cheers" when the "Lords" voted by 409 to 46 against even a half-elected chamber.

The BBC predicted that this overwhelming rejection of democracy would lead to "months of parliamentary gridlock". The vote is likely to help Jack Straw, the leader of the House of Commons who has responsibility for reforming the Lords, put together a compromise deal that would leave many unelected legislators in Parliament. Mr. Straw would like only 50% to be elected.

Read the full story.

February 2007 - Another Forty Years

There will be another 40 plus years of legislators-for-life if government proposals for reform of the House of Lords made public by the Labour Leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, are agreed. The current legislators-for-life would be allowed to keep their seats until they died. Even then 50 per cent of the legislators could be representing themselves in the legislature, not the people.

These proposals were in a White Paper published in February that is intended to set out the final stage for reform of a legislative chamber that still includes hereditary legislators and legislators representing the Church of England.

Members of Parliament will have, however, a "free vote" that will allow them to reject the 50-50 proposal. They will be able to decide on the proportion of legislators that should be elected. The options will range from no elected legislators to a fully elected chamber. If any members of the reformed chamber are elected they will represent the same regional constituencies as members of the European Parliament. These representatives of the people will no longer be given the feudal title of "Lord".

In an arrangement rather like allowing criminals to form the jury, the approval of the legislators-for-life is required for any reform of the House of Lords to become law. The "Lords" are reported to be dead set against the loss of their feudal privileges.

The White Paper allowed the Conservative Party, long a staunch opponent of democratisation, to say correctly that "these reforms will not lead to a more democratic and independent House of Lords". Party spokesperson Theresa May said "While the Conservatives believe in election by the many, Labour?s reforms would mean selection by the few".

Mr. Straw expressed the attenuated British understanding of the rights to the people prior to the publication of the White Paper with the statement that "In a modern democracy, it is difficult to justify a second chamber where there is no elected element ? where the public has no direct input into who sits in it".

November 2006 - People May Be Denied Rights Again

The government announced in the "queen's speech" to parliament on 15 November that it will propose legislation to reform the House of Lords. A second chamber entirely elected by and accountable to the people seems unlikely, however, unless the elected members of parliament take a stand for democracy.

The government said that it would seek a consensus on how the feudal legislative chamber should be changed. A white paper is expected before the end of the year. But press reports suggest that this will propose that only a proportion of the legislators be accountable to the people.

Following the "queen's speech" international development minister Hilary Benn called for the government to lose its power to nominate legislators to seats in the House of Lords. However, he wanted only eighty per cent of the legislators to be elected by the people. The rest, he said, should be chosen by the elected legislators in what is now called the House of Lords.

A committee of the unelected legislators has reported that it believes the present undemocratic arrangements work well and should not be changed. The committee was chaired by John Cunningham, an unelected Labor legislator. It was appointed to look at how the balance of power between the democratic and feudal chambers might be regulated. Mr. Cunningham is reported to have said that the reformed chamber should be ?largely appointed or wholly elected?. He believed that it would be illogical for it to be a mixture of both elected and unelected legislators. Mr. Cunningham said that there was no consensus on what should be done.

Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, is reported to have recommended to the committee that only 50 per cent of the legislators be elected. The rest would be appointed. He also proposed that the number of legislators be reduced by one third, that no more legislators-for-life be appointed and that there be guaranteed quotas for members of ethnic minorities. Mr. Straws intends to make firm proposals to Parliament by the end of 2006. Labour MPs will not be obliged to vote in accordance with the policy of their party.

The conservative and liberal democrat parties want more elected legislators but only 80 per cent.

The current House of Lords legislators inherited their seats or were nominated by the main political parties. A number bought their seats by making large donations to one of those parties. None was chosen by or is accountable to the people.

Allegations being investigated by the Metropolitan Police that seats in the Lords were sold to wealthy benefactors are causing a scandal in Britain. Giving away these seats free of charge is still widely considered to be acceptable.

April 2005 - PM gives way on election of legislators

Prime Minister Tony Blair is said to have put aside his opposition to the election of House of Lords legislators after long arguments in the cabinet. As a result the Labour Party election manifesto included a commitment to a free vote on the composition of that chamber. It is likely that this will eventually lead to the election of the majority of the legislators.

Other promised reforms include the removal of the remaining 92 hereditary legislators-for-life, a limit of 60 days on the time for which the Lords can delay legislation passed by the House of Commons and a ban on Lords blocking manifesto commitments.

Tory legislators-for-life are expected to be ferocious in their resistance to the democratisation of the Lords.

March 2004 - Hereditary Legislators Reprieved

There will be no more reform of the House of Lords in this session of parliament, the government has announced. This means that the remaining 93 hereditary legislators-for-life will keep their seats in the legislature for the time being.

The decision not to go ahead with a bill to remove the hereditary legislators was taken because it seemed likely that the majority of legislators-for-life who are not Labour Party supporters would overrule the wishes of the elected legislators in the House of Commons. The government also feared that its own legislators in the Commons might try to amend the bill to require that legislators be elected.

The government is going ahead with a bill to removed senior judges from the legislature, however, after an agreement with tory legislators-for-life to limit the time for which the bill will be delayed in committee. This attempt to separate judicial and legislative functions is still expected to meet tough resistance from conservative legislators-for-life.

February 2004 - Indirect election proposed

At a Fabian Society conference in February House of Commons Leader Peter Hain suggested that legislators in Parliament's second chamber be indirectly elected. Election would be by a "secondary mandate" system under which seats would be allocated according to the parties' share of the vote in the general election to the House of Commons. Under this arrangement the parties, not by the people, would choose the legislators.

According to the Financial Times it is likely that Hain has the support of Prime Minister Tony Blair for his proposal.

September 2003 - All hereditary legislators to go

The constitutional affairs secretary has announced that the government will propose legislation to remove the remaining 92 hereditary legislators from Parliament. New legislators-for-life will continue to be appointed however, under the supervision of a statutory commission.

The conservative party leader in the House of Lords threatened a "major fight" against the reform. Legislators-for-life from other parties also protested that their illegitimate power would be weakened if all members of the second chamber were appointed.

February 2003 - Parliament votes against elections

A majority of MPs have voted to prevent election by the people of the legislators who sit in the second chamber of parliament. There were 272 in favour but 289 against.

In the House of Lords, where legislators-for-life were able to vote on whether they should be chosen by the people, three-quarters voted to block democratic reform.

Most observers had expected the Commons to compromise on one of seven options for reform presented by a joint committee of both houses of parliament that mixed varying proportions of elected and appointed legislators. All of seven were voted down by MPs, however.

Some MPs put the blame at the door of PM Tony Blair, who had confessed his opposition to a democratic second chamber shortly before the vote. Both he and Chancellor Gordon Brown failed to vote.

Twenty-five members of Tony Blair?s government did vote against his preferred outcome - an all-appointed second chamber. Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith supported the election of 80 percent of legislators.

The joint committee will now consider what to do next. Most observers thought that the failure of MPs to agree would delay change until after the next general election.

The possibility of removing hereditary and clerical legislators as an interim step has been put forward by Downing Street. Supporters of a democratic chamber may resist that, however, as all the remaining legislators would be state-appointed.

Jack Cunningham, who chairs the joint committee, has proposed an alternative approach - indirect election by the members of the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the as yet not existent English regional assemblies.

December 2002 - People's rights may be denied in legislative reform but people will foot huge bill

A legislative chamber with no elected legislators is among the options for reform of the House of Lords to be considered by parliament in 2003. It is included in seven choices set out in a report by a joint parliamentary committee which may lead to legislation a year from now. The 600 unelected legislators could cost the taxpayers £230M a year.

The committee, in which 12 legislators-for-life from the feudal Lords carried equal weight with 12 elected members of parliament, agreed that the powers of the reformed chamber should not be expanded. They were split over whether the second chamber should have democratic legitimacy, however.

The seven options for the composition of the chamber set out by the committee include a fully elected chamber, although it is clear that it was frightened by that prospect. Others allow for elected elements of 20, 40, 50, 60, and 80 per cent of people?s representatives. The option of no elections is also included. In all but the democratic option a state appointments commission would appoint some or all legislators.

The committee recommended that the 91 hereditary legislators who still sit in parliament should lose their seats. Those of the current legislators-for-life who did not inherit their seats might continue to be legislators for as long as they wanted however, since the committee was "not attracted" to the idea of removing their privileges. New law-makers would sit for 12 years.

The joint committee made no definite recommendations on whether the supreme court should continue to be a part of the legislature. Nor on whether the Church of England should keep its power to appoint legislators. However, it did hold out the possibility that judges might continue to sit in parliament even if the supreme court became independent. It also suggested that that other religious groups might join the Church of England with a privileged place in government.

No other democratic legislative chamber would have as many legislators as the 600 proposed by the joint committee. Earlier this year Public Accounts Administration Select Committee recommended that membership should be only 350. The consequent cost to the taxpayers of this huge assembly would be £230M each year, £170M more than at present.

Commentators expect members of the House of Commons to favour election to 80% of the seats in the reformed chamber, while legislators-for-life will vote for only 20%.

The joint committee report is here

May 2002 - Parliament To Formulate Reforms

Tony Blair?s plan for a legislative chamber to replace the House of Lords that was 80% unelected seems to have been abandoned. Government ministers have announced that they want Parliament to draw up its own proposals for reform.

Some MPs hope that this change of tack will allow reforms to be agreed by the time of the next general election. Other commentators suspect a plot by Tony Blair to delay reform further in response to the hostility with which his plans were met. His government will certainly try to block any added powers for the second chamber.

A joint committee of MPs and unelected legislators from the House of Lords will draw up a range of options for reform of the composition and powers of the second chamber, possibly by the time of Parliament?s summer recess. When these have been debated by both chambers more detailed proposals will be prepared as a basis for legislation.

The change of plan seems to be the result of division within the Cabinet, opposition from MPs and the public response to the White Paper in which the government set out its intentions.

"Be it enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same."
The preamble to a parliamentary bill in the "mother of parliaments."

There were more than 1100 responses to the White Paper. Although there was no overall majority the largest proportion of those who commented (45 percent) wanted an all-elected second chamber. Twenty eight percent more favoured between 51 and 79 percent elected legislators. In total 89% of respondents called for the majority of legislators in the reformed House to be elected, a serious rebuke to government plans for only 20 percent.

The continued right of Church of England bishops to sit in the legislature, favoured by the government, was rejected by 56 percent of the fewer than 200 individuals and groups who commented on this. An even larger majority of those who commented on the presence of senior judges in the legislature rejected their right to seats in the reformed House.

There was also little support for continuing to call the second chamber the House of Lords. The largest number of those wanting a change of name preferred ?Senate.?

Few of those who responded to the White Paper commented on the powers of the new House. Of those who did 66 percent wanted it to have the same powers as now and 32 percent called for additional powers.

Sixty one percent of responses were from individuals rather than pressure groups.

November 2001 - The Government's Idea of Democracy

In November 2001, almost two years after receiving a Royal Commission report called A House for the Future, and almost three years after the setting up of that commission, the government announced its proposals for the "final" stage of reform of the second legislative chamber, the House of Lords.

There would have been 600 members of the chamber, composed of the following:

16 Church of England clerics, appointed by their church, not elected by the people.
12 judges, appointed by a government minister.
332 appointed by the political parties.
120 appointed by a government commission as "independent" members. The composition of this unelected cabal would reflect the racial and "cultural" makeup of the country. Thirty percent, at least, would be women.
An unspecified number of government ministers appointed by the government.
120, a minority of 20%, elected by the people of Britain.

The major parties would have been able to appoint new legislators following general elections to the House of Commons, in order to ensure that the balance in the Lords reflected the new balance in the Commons.

The Church of England complained that the 16 legislators it was offered were not enough.

"The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature."
Article 3 of the first protocol of European Convention on Human Rights.

The only good news for democrats was that the remaining 92 hereditary legislators would lose their seats. However, non-hereditary legislators-for-life are to be allowed to stay in the bastard chamber for another 10 year. Other legislators would serve for a fixed term, instead of the current life terms. The government has not decided whether it wants 5, 10 or 15 year terms.

The legislators would no longer be known as Lords. However, the chamber would continue to be called the House of Lords, with the legislators known as Members of the House of Lords! To put it another way, Lords would not be members of the House of Lords. And members of the House of Lords would not be Lords!

These legislators would lose the right to veto secondary legislation. They would still be able to delay such regulations as well as delay Bills that have been passed by the democratic chamber.

There was little immediate support for the government's proposals. 155 Labour MPs signed a motion calling for wholly or substantially elected second chamber. Newspapers reported Tory MPs as characterising the proposals as an "insult to democracy." Senior Conservatives were said to be considering aligning themselves with Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs in support of a "more democratic" chamber, despite their party's past defence of hereditary legislators. Tories accuse the Prime Minister of wanting a second chamber composed of quot;cronies."

A opinion poll conducted the week after the report was published suggested 70 percent support for an elected Senate to replace the Lords. The government is allowing 3 months for consultation on its proposals. The report, called, Completing the Reform is available from the national archives.

The membership of the Lords peaked in 1999 with 1273 legislators. Of those 758 were hereditary legislators. The first stage of reform reduced the number to 614 in 2000, including 92 hereditary legislators.

The Royal Commission

The Royal Commission on the second stage of House of Lords reform made its report (not to the people, but to "the Queen's most excellent majesty") on 20 January 2000. It recommended that the present legislators-for-life remain until they die. And it recommended very little to complete the democratisation of the British legislature.

PointerThe government's white paper
PointerThe Commission's recommendations
PointerThe Commission in action
PointerThe Centre for Citizenship's evidence (A pdf version is here)
Pointer The National Secular Society's evidence
PointerThe government's White Paper.
PointerThe Bill to expel the hereditary legislators.
PointerThe Appointments Commission

The Long Goodbye

The majority of Britain's hereditary legislators, over 1100 in number, had to leave parliament for good on 11 November 1999. The House of Lords Reform Bill had been approved by the queen.

The Government bill to remove 759 hereditary legislators-for-life from the British parliament was published on 20 January 1999. Those who would lose their privileged place in government included five members of the "royal" family: one "prince" and four "dukes." However, the government accepted an amendment to the bill to allow 92 hereditary legislators to continue in office until 2002 to persuade the "Lords" to co-operate with the passage of the legislation. And all hereditary "Lords" will still be recognised as superior beings, keeping their titles and their "degrees of rank and precedence."

In the last debate before the so-called lords left the legislature the leader of the Conservative group, "Lord" Strathclyde, declared that those responsible should feel "embarrassment and shame."

The House is now composed largely of those lords who did not inherit their title and cannot pass it on to the next generation, an innovation from 1958. And 92 hereditary lords who have been reprieved until the next stage of reform, in a compromise agreed by the government to ease the passage of its bill.

As if to confirm that the arrogance of their lordships has not diminished, f ollowing the enactment of the bill the Conservative leader in the Lords threatened that the un-elected legislators would now use their powers "with a ruthlessness (not) seen before."

November 2022 - Labour Party Announces Reform Plan

In November 2022 the leader of the Labour Party announced that his party hoped to include in its manifesto for the next electio the replacement of the House of Lords with a democratic second chamber.

The Financial Times reported that a commission that had been chaired by former prime minister Gordon Brown had proposed that the chamber now composed of so-called lords and Church of England clerics be replaced by "an assembly of regions and nations". (Note: The "nations" are Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, which are known as "home nations" in the UK.)

pointer No Representation Without Donations
pointer Lords Cheered Defeat of Democracy
pointer A Church in bed with the state

Return to Top