From 1990s TV series House of Cards to James Graham’s play This House, the role of the Whip in British politics has long been a source of fascination. While much is said of Whips in the House of Commons, the House of Lords is often presented as a place with far more independence. Surely the Whipping system can’t exist in such an august chamber?
In fact, Whips are appointed by parties’ leaders to organise their party and their party’s activity in both the House of Commons and Lords. Whips are responsible for making sure MPs and Lords affiliated with a certain party vote the way their party supports.
Unlike Whips in the House of Commons who mainly manage the party, Whips in the Lords have an active role at the despatch box and have the same constitutional position as Departmental Ministers. A Lords Whip will answer questions, respond to debates and is responsible for the route of primary and secondary legislation though the House of Lords. If a government department does not have a Departmental Minister the Whip will answer questions and take parliamentary business for this department.
While “party discipline tends to be less strong” in the House of Lords than in the Commons, as defeats can be later overruled, the Whips still aim for high turnout at votes and debates.
As non-party Crossbench peers have to fit their time in the House of Lords around current careers, the business of the house is often left to peers who are former politicians. Our 2015 report House of Lords Fact vs Fiction found that 29% of Lords appointments since 1997 are former politicians who lost elections or resigned. These peers owe their position purely to patronage, with the result that around 70% of the House of Lords votes on party lines.
In the House of Commons, the Whips are in charge of what is known as ‘pairing’ “whereby Members of opposing parties both agree not to vote when other business (such as a select committee visit) prevents them from being present at Westminster”. No such system exists in the Lords.
Introducing The Captain of the Gentlemen at Arms
At present, there are six Government Whips in the House of Lords. The Government Chief Whip (and Captain of the Gentlemen at Arms) and the Government Deputy Chief Whip (and Captain of The King’s Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard) are the two main government whips. There are also four Lords/Baronesses-in-waiting who act as Government Whips. The Government Whips are Ministers of the Crown and the Office of the Chief Whip is part of the Cabinet Office’s Government in Parliament Group. The Government Whips’ Office oversees setting the legislative programme of the House of Lords.
All parties have Whips, the largest party in opposition to the Government’s Whips are called the Shadow Chief Whip and the Opposition Deputy Chief Whip; they also have several other opposition whips who support them in the role.
When the government of the day changes the Whips resign their positions, with every change of Government there is a possibility of re-appointment to Government Whip, re-appointment to Opposition Whip or neither, the Lord will sit in the House of Lords but no longer hold the role of Whip.
Whipping the Lords Spiritual
There are 26 Bishops in the House of Lords, whilst they have no party affiliation they do not sit as crossbench Peers. The Lords Spiritual sit on the Government side of the House of Lords, there is no Leader or Chief Whip for the Lords Spiritual (the Convenor of the Lords Spiritual represents them to other parties and groups in the HoL) and the Lords Spiritual are not able to be whipped by any party in the House of Lords.
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