A smaller House of Lords: The report of the Lord Speaker's committee on the size of the House Contents

1The role and reform of the House of Lords

The role of the House of Lords

3.The House of Lords may be regarded as secondary to the House of Commons, but it fulfils a vital complementary role in the UK’s legislative and governmental system. Two-chamber parliaments are common around the world, particularly in larger and more populous states–among them France, Germany, Australia, Canada and the US. The classic roles of second chambers in such settings are to inject “second thought” into the policy-making process, thus preventing over-hasty decision-making, and to broaden the range of voices heard in that process.3

4.It may appear to mirror the House of Commons in its three core functions of scrutinising legislation, holding government to account and acting as a national forum for deliberation and debate, but the way in which the House of Lords carries out these functions is in many respects quite distinct.4 The House of Lords is often referred to as the revising chamber, because it carries out the detailed analysis and revising of legislation. For example, as former Lord Speaker Baroness Hayman outlined in evidence to our predecessor Committee:5

… most commentators would say that the detailed scrutiny of legislation, line by line, works well in the House of Lords and that the Lords has complemented the work of the Commons, particularly since the increased use of timetabling in the Commons and the fact that much legislation comes to us without having had detailed scrutiny. That complementarity works well.

5.The 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts removed the House of Lords’ absolute veto over bills starting in the House of Commons, reducing this to a power of delay. These changes cemented the House of Lords’ role as a primarily revising chamber that focuses on legislative detail, and occasionally asks the House of Commons to think again.

6.But the House of Lords also plays an important role in executive oversight. It has a well-developed system of select committees which differs from that of the House of Commons. Such committees are cross cutting, whereas in the House of Commons they mainly shadow government departments. For example, the House of Lords EU Committee has seven subcommittees, focusing of specific areas of EU issues. This committee structure is currently under review.6 House of Lords select committees often bring together senior figures in their fields, and their reports are well respected and influential. Some important House of Lords committees, such as the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee (DPRRC) provide specialist input into scrutiny of legislation. There are also joint committees of both Houses, such as the Joint Committee on Human Rights, whose reports can be influential in debates.

7.In addition to legislation and committees, the House of Lords also holds general debates and question times with ministers, which again are structured quite differently from the House of Commons. Debate is generally less adversarial along party political lines than that in the House of Commons in part due to the lack of a Government majority in the Chamber, and the presence of a large number of Crossbenchers who do not take a party whip. The atmosphere may be more civil and less partisan, but questions and debates can be all the more challenging for ministers, who must defend government policy in an environment containing many respected subject specialists.

8.Hence there is a good deal of complementarity between the two chambers which together make up the UK Parliament. As Baroness Hayman put it in her evidence to our predecessor Committee:7

I also think that the joint role in holding Government to account in slightly different ways—select committees working on different bases, but the questioning, the debates, the general calling Ministers to account—is done well in the Lords, as it is done well in the Commons.

History of reform of the House of Lords

9.Despite its useful work, the House of Lords has long been a controversial institution. Pressure for reform can be traced back centuries. The Chamber itself is the product of gradual evolution, in response to these reform pressures and to broader changes in British society, politics and the House of Commons. While never having been subject to a single radical reform, the House of Lords has nonetheless been subject to a series of incremental changes since the early 20th century, which taken together have had significant effect.8

10.The tension between the demand for radical change and the requirement to accept compromise is demonstrated in the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911, which brought the relationship between the two UK Houses of Parliament into the modern era:

Whereas it is expedient that provision should be made for regulating the relations between the two Houses of Parliament:

And whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation:

And whereas provision will require hereafter to be made by Parliament in a measure effecting such substitution for limiting and defining the powers of the new Second Chamber, but it is expedient to make such provision as in this Act appears for restricting the existing powers of the House of Lords.

11.This tension can be seen in the history of reforms and reform proposals since 1911.

Table 1: Reforms and reform proposals since 1911



Parliament Act 1911

Following decades of controversy about the House of Lords’ power, this measure ended its veto over Bills starting in the Commons, reducing it to a delay of roughly two years. It also specified a category of money bills over which House of Lords’ powers would be minimal.


Bryce Commission

A majority of the Commission recommended a chamber comprised of 246 members indirectly elected by regional groups of MPS, plus 81 members chosen by a joint standing committee. The proposals were debated but not implemented.


Parliament Act 1949

The Act reduced the House of Lords’ delaying power to roughly one year.


Life Peerages Act 1958

This Act allowed people to be made peers for life, rather than on a hereditary basis. It also enabled women to join the Chamber for the first time.


Peerage Act 1963

Allowed House of Lords members to surrender their hereditary peerages and allowed hereditary peeresses and all Scottish peers to sit and vote in the House.


Parliament (No.2) Bill

Proposed large scale reform including reducing the delay power to six months and creating a two-tier House of voting and non-voting members. After long debate this Government Bill was dropped.


House of Lords Act 1999

The first stage of a two-part reform programme, it removed all but 92 hereditary peers. At the same time the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) was established, to advise on non-party peer appointments and vet proposed party nominees.


Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords

The second stage of the reform programme was considered by a Commission chaired by Lord Wakeham. It proposed a House of 550 members with 12–35% directly elected using proportional representation in regions. The majority of members would be appointed by a new appointments commission, who would manage party allocation based on recent general election results. The appointments commission would also ensure a balance in term of gender, ethnicity, age and region. 20% would be non-political appointees.


White paper: Completing the Reform

This recommended a 600 member chamber with 20% elected and the rest appointed. The proposals were dropped.


Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform

The Committee, chaired by Lord Cunningham, proposed seven options for reform from wholly elected to wholly appointed, and various combinations in between. In a series of free votes, all options were rejected by the Commons, while the House of Lords voted for an appointed chamber.


White paper: Constitutional Reform, Next steps for the House of Lords

Proposed removing hereditary peers, capping the size of the House at 600 members appointed in line with recent general election results. The proposals were dropped.


Constitutional Reform Act 2005

Established the Supreme Court removing the judicial function from the House of Lords and Parliament. resulted in establishment of an elected Lord Speaker to replace the Lord Chancellor as presiding officer of the House of Lords.


Public Administration Select Committee Report: Propriety and Peerages

Recommended HOLAC being given greater powers over appointment, so the Prime Minister would no longer control the number and balance of appointments. Recommended removal of remaining 92 hereditary peers.


Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill

This Government Bill initially included an end to by-elections for hereditary peers, disqualifying members guilty of serious crimes and allowing members to retire. But these measures were dropped.


House of Lords Reform Bill

This Government Bill proposed an 80% or 100% elected chamber of 450 members. Bill was withdrawn after 91 Conservative MPs voted against it.


Political and Constitutional Reform Committee report: House of Lords Reform, What Next?

Looked at small scale changes. Recommended reducing the size of the House, introducing voluntary retirement, expulsion of non-attendees and those who had committed serious offences, ending by-elections for hereditary peers, using a clear formula for sharing appointments between political parties.


House of Lords Reform Act 2014

This Private Member’s Bill allowed resignation from the House of Lords and allowed for expulsion of peers for non-attendance. Measures for ending by-elections for hereditary peers were dropped from the Bill.


House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015

This Private Member’s Bill extended the grounds on which members could be expelled or suspended.


Strathclyde Review

Government review of House of Lords’ powers in relation to secondary legislation and Commons primacy on financial matters. Review’s recommendations were not implemented.


Motion in the name of Lord Cormack

House of Lords unanimously passed the motion “this House believes that its size should be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this could be achieved.”

12.As table 1 demonstrates, the history of House of Lords reform has been a long and gradual one. Numerous proposals have been put forward, and most have failed. However, the combined effects of those reforms which have succeeded are significant. At the start of the 20th century the Prime Minister sat in the House of Lords and it was an all-male and almost exclusively hereditary chamber enjoying a veto power over all legislation. Today, it is unthinkable that the Prime Minister would sit anywhere other than the House of Commons, and while the Lords remains unelected it is a far more representative House, both politically and in the types of people who have been made life peers. It has evolved into a revising chamber. Despite the failure of large-scale reforms, small-scale reforms have been fundamental.

13.For over 100 years, there has been only incremental reform of the House of Lords. Each step has been limited, usually responding to long held demands that have come to represent a consensus. This applies, for example, to the 1911 Parliament Act, the 1958 Life Peerages Act and the 1999 House of Lords Act; but taken together, they represent radical reform. In future the 2014 House of Lords Reform Act, which introduced the right for life peers to retire, may be seen in the same light. Meanwhile larger-scale reform proposals, such as those of the 1918 Bryce Commission, the 1968 Parliament (No. 2) Bill and the 2011 House of Lords Reform Bill, have often failed. Numerous others have never even reached a decision point in Parliament due to failure to reach agreement. The experience of the last century demonstrates that only incremental reform has succeeded. While never excluding the possibility of radical reform, when there is consensus on the next essential step, smaller incremental reforms are possible, and indeed necessary and important. In the end these can lead to radical change over a longer period.

3 Samuel C Patterson and Anthony Mughan, Senates: Bicameralism in the Contemporary World (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999).

4 Meg Russell, The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013), p 79.

5 Oral Evidence taken on 31 January 2017, HC (2016–17) 811, Q2 [Baroness Hayman]

7 Oral Evidence taken on 31 January 2017, HC (2016–17) 811, Q2 [Baroness Hayman]

8 For further discussion see: Chris Ballinger. , The House of Lords 1911–2011: A Century of Non-Reform (Oxford: Hart, 2012); Meg Russell, The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013); History of the House of Lords: A Short Introduction, House of Lords Library Note, LLN 2017/020, 27 April 2017

Published: 19 November 2018