The House of Lords

The White Paper

Pointer Foreword
Pointer Chapter 1. Executive Summary
Pointer Chapter 2. Introduction: modernising the House of Lords.
Pointer Chapter 3. The present House of Lords.
Pointer Chapter 4. Role of a second chamber.
Pointer Chapter 5. Modernising the Lords: hereditary peers.
Pointer Chapter 6. Modernising the Lords: a transitional house.
Pointer Chapter 7. Modernising the Lords: longer-term reform - what should the modernised House do?
Pointer Chapter 8. Modernising the Lords: longer-term reform ­ the compostion of a reformed House of Lords.
Pointer Back to the introduction.



1. Two-chamber legislatures are a feature of the vast majority of mature democracies. While some smaller countries such as New Zealand and some of the Scandinavian countries have decided to do without a second chamber, countries of the size and standing of the United Kingdom all have two chambers.


2. Two chambers are also a feature of the history of parliaments. The original purpose of having two chambers at Westminster and other European assemblies was to allow for representation of different interests within the country. Typically, one chamber would represent the greater landed interest, while the other would represent the lesser landowners, merchants and traders. When parliaments were first established, the majority of the people would have had no representation.

3. As societies became more homogeneous and franchises were extended towards one person, one vote, parliaments continued to develop with two chambers. In some states, this was, at least in part, to give a specific voice to elements in the country which it was felt were inadequately represented in the main chamber. In federal states, for example, one of the chief purposes of the second chamber was to provide a forum for the individual states or provinces. Less populous or prosperous states would be given the same rights in the second chamber as the dominant states, as a counterbalance to the way population-based representation left them relatively vulnerable in the main chamber. Even some unitary states, such as France, look to their second chamber to represent territorial interests. Countries with significant geographical concentrations of ethnic or religious minorities also use the second chamber to give those minorities a voice in the legislature.

4. Such considerations have not been part of the case for a second chamber in the United Kingdom which, apart from the period of Cromwell's Protectorate, has had an unchallenged two-chamber system for 700 years. While in practice, individual members of the House of Lords can concentrate on particular interests or speak up for particular regions, peers are not appointed with these specific purposes in mind. In the case of the hereditary peers, the selection of interests which are covered is purely random.


5. In a modern democracy, power must reside with those on whom it is conferred by the people for the formation of a government. In many countries, this is the party or parties that can command a majority in the primary chamber of parliament. That is, and will remain, the case in the United Kingdom regardless of the final form of the second chamber. The House of Commons will continue to be the more important chamber, with the final say on whether legislation is passed. On the basis of the outcome of a general election, the Commons will determine the party of government and it will be able ultimately to insist on the form in which legislation will be passed, except, as stated before, for a Bill to extend the life of a Parliament.

6. The modern legislative burden is immense. The number, size and complexity of Bills has increased enormously. The Government believes that there should continue to be a two-stage legislative process with Bills examined by differently composed bodies. A second chamber not only provides a longer process of scrutiny of legislation, it also allows it to be examined from a different point of view. A second chamber, whose members are assembled in another way from the first, brings different knowledge and experience to bear on proposals to change the law.

7. Moreover, issues are often raised during debate in the House of Commons which the Government needs to take away and consider. The existence of a second chamber enables the Government to give those issues proper attention, and the revised proposals to be debated properly in Parliament, without taking up inordinate time on the floor of the House of Commons. The existence of the second chamber enables the House of Commons to do its job more effectively.

8. The present House of Lords has the power explicitly to ask the Government and the House of Commons to look again at legislation and to delay its enactment. The Government accepts that power of this sort is a proper function of a second chamber. The American Senate, the second chamber of the US Congress, was described as having a function akin to that of pouring tea into a saucer: to 'cool' matters which might be too hot to deal with sensibly when they are first brought forward.

9. The Government also believes that there is value in giving a voice in Parliament, and therefore the opportunity to question the Government, to those whose primary interests lie outside politics. Those who are still active in, or only recently retired from, other professions, can frequently make a significant contribution to debate. This is true not only in the examination of legislation, but also in more general, set-piece debates on topical issues. It is for this reason that the Government is committed to maintaining a significant independent presence in the second chamber.


10. In many countries, the second chamber of the legislature is given a precise role under a written constitution. Some of its functions may be similar to those of the first chamber; other distinct functions may depend on the different composition of the second chamber. In the United Kingdom, the two Houses of Parliament have evolved in such a way that the House of Lords shares some of the functions of the House of Commons but has no separate tasks apart from its judicial work.


11. Second chambers in other countries conform to no single dominant pattern. They range from the wholly nominated to the wholly directly elected, although the majority have an element of either indirect or direct election. All have aspects that could be relevant to the second chamber in the United Kingdom, although they also reflect the history and character of their own countries.

12. The prime example of a wholly nominated second chamber is Canada. The Canadian Senate consists of 104 members appointed until retirement at the age of 75 by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. Ontario and Quebec both have 24 seats, as do the four western provinces between them and the three eastern provinces between them. The balance is made up of six from Newfoundland and one each from Yukon and the North West Territories. The provinces have no formal role in deciding who their representatives are, although they must be resident and own property in the province. Members of the Government can be drawn from the Senate, but it is rare these days to have more than one, comparatively minor, Cabinet Minister in the Senate.

13. The original rationale of setting up the system was to 'glue' the federal system together: hence the equality of representation between Ontario and Quebec. The Senate was intended to represent the regions and cultural diversity, and explicitly to provide a conservative counterbalance to a potentially radical Commons. Its main function is as a revising chamber for Bills. To help it in fulfilling this, it has developed the practice of beginning research and investigation, particularly into large and complex Bills, before they are sent up from the Commons. It also has a high reputation for its select committee-style investigations. Criticism of its lack of representativeness and of its role, however, has meant that for the last 60 years there have been proposals for its reform.

14. The German Bundesrat is an indirectly elected body. All its 69 members are delegates from the governments of the federal states, the Länder. Representation varies according to population, but the smaller states are comparatively over-represented. Votes are cast as a block vote according to the political instructions of the home government. Officials are allowed to act as alternates for elected politicians, because of the latter's commitments in their regional area. The primary purpose of the chamber is to represent the Land governments, which are responsible for the implementation of much policy, including that determined in principle at the federal level. It therefore has the power to approve all legislation directly relating to states' responsibilities, state boundaries, national emergencies and proposed constitutional amendments. This amounts to some 60 per cent of all federal legislation. In practice, the Bundesrat's influence is mostly exercised through the committee stages of the legislative process, in which officials particularly act as alternates.

15. The Irish Senate is largely indirectly elected, with a small appointed element. Unusually, it tries deliberately to find members outside the normal political classes. The 49 indirectly elected members are taken from six functional constituencies: culture and education (including law and medicine); agriculture; labour; industry and commerce; public administration and social service; and the ancient universities. Elections take place shortly after each election to the lower House, the Dail, and the Senate is dissolved at the same time as the Dail. The electorate for the first five functional constituencies is the Dail; the members of the outgoing Senate; and county and county borough councillors, while the electorate for the last constituency is graduates of the two universities. The practical effect of this is that the process has become highly politicised. The 11 nominated members are intended to enable people of special calibre to sit without election, although those seats too are usually filled by politicians. The powers of the Senate are very limited; although it can review legislation, it has no power of veto and rarely even suggests changes.

16. The French Senate is also indirectly elected, by an electoral college consisting of about 145,000 local notables, many of them local councillors. There are 321 members elected by thirds for overlapping nine-year terms. Its primary purpose is to represent territorial interests and, despite recent adjustments in favour of larger cities, rural areas are proportionately over-represented. Most Senators think that lobbying the Government is a more important function than playing a role as legislators. The Senate in theory has quite wide powers over legislation, and disputes with the National Assembly can reach a deadlock which has to be broken by the Government referring the Bill to a Joint Committee of both bodies. If the Government is content with what emerges from the Joint Committee, it becomes law. If it is not, or there is no agreement, the last version agreed by the National Assembly becomes law and the Senate is bypassed.

17. The US Senate is unique among second chambers in being as powerful as the lower House, the House of Representatives. The separate election of an executive president means of course that both Houses of Congress have a quite different relationship with the Government to that in the United Kingdom. The purpose of the Senate is to represent the states, so each state, regardless of size, elects two Senators. The Senate shares all the powers of the House of Representatives, except the initiation of Money Bills, although it can still consider and reject them. In addition, its approval is required for key federal appointments and for the ratification of foreign treaties.

Chapter 5

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