What is the main purpose of the House of Lords?

Matthew Mathias, ERS Cymru Campaigns and Projects Officer

Posted on the 21st August 2019

Even those of you out there who have a passing knowledge of our campaigning work will know we are not the greatest cheerleaders for the House of Lords.

Who could blame us? If you asked somebody to design a parliamentary chamber that was unelected, unaccountable, bloated and costly, the final design wouldn’t be far off what we have now. Throw in the fact that with 776 members it’s the largest second chamber in the world (France and Italy, close neighbours with the same sort of population, have 348 and 321 respectively) and that we alongside Iran and Vatican City are the only states that allow clerics to play a part in lawmaking, then you can see why it isn’t fit for a 21st century democracy.

What we don’t have a problem with is the need for a second chamber. 41% of national parliaments, like the UK, use a bicameral system meaning the parliament contains two separate chambers. It is another democratic innovation, started in England, developed over time within the UK and then exported worldwide. Unfortunately, it is also another aspect of our democracy that has barely progressed from the century it was set up.

What does the House of Lords do?

Revision and scrutiny are the keywords when looking at the purpose of our second chamber. In any functioning democracy, it is vital that the government has its proposals and activities scrutinised. The House of Lords holds the government to account by the use of debates, asking questions to ministers as well as work done in their own committee system.

According to a snazzy film they made, the House of Lords has permanent committees called ‘sessional’ because their work continues from one parliament to the next, rather than terminating their work at the end of a parliament as in the Commons. They cover topics such as communications, the constitution, economic affairs, science and technology, and the EU.

The European Affairs select committee, with its 6 sub-committees involving around 74 members of the Lords, has conducted  a considerable amount of work for the Lords since it was set up in 1974.

In addition to scrutinising the government, the House of Lords is also a revising chamber. It spends the majority of its time on legislation where it debates, amends and revises bills it receives from the House of Commons. Both Houses have to agree on the wording of any bill before it can be given Royal Assent and become law.

The House of Lords can also initiate Bills itself (except with regards to money). Current examples going through the process of becoming law are a bill to raise the age of criminal responsibility and another to ensure supply chains are transparent in respect of slavery and human trafficking.

It also has the power to be a pain and reject or slow down the process of bills with which it isn’t happy. The Lords have the ability to hold up a bill with which they disagree for about a year, but in the end the House of Commons has the final say, as it can reintroduce the bill in the following parliamentary session and pass it without the Lords’ consent. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 limited the Lord’s power to veto legislation in this way, although the Acts do not apply to Private Bills, bills that start in the Lords, bills sent up to the Lords less than a month before the end of a parliamentary session, and ones that prolong the length of parliament beyond five years.

While the purpose of the House of Lords is clear, the need for it to continue as it is now, is not. How on earth, near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, do we have such a fundamentally undemocratic second chamber? A place full of appointees, some given free rein to contribute little, but in expenses take a lot? Our democracy deserves better. The successes of the House of Lords are despite their undemocratic nature, not because of it.

A healthy democracy is one that has good scrutiny of its government, its decisions and the laws it seeks to pass. Increasing the legitimacy of the second chamber would make for more effective scrutiny of the House of Commons, while the Parliament Acts would ensure the Commons, as the source of the government, still has the final say. All the benefits of a bicameral system – including scrutiny and revision – can remain in a modern, transparent and fully elected chamber.

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