What is the role of the House of Lords and could it do more?

Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 29th January 2024

While the House of Lords is often in the press, it’s often due to the things its members should not be doing, rather than the work it does do. The chamber though has an important role to play in our democracy.

The House of Lords is primarily a chamber of scrutiny and revision. Its main role is to review legislation passed in the Commons and make amendments. Whilst the second chamber has powers to delay certain legislation (the suspensive veto) effectively rejecting it, these powers have only been used four times since the Parliament Act 1949.

In practice, the Lords will seek to amend legislation through tabling amendments, or often by pressing for concessions early in the legislative process. However, whilst the Lords will often make amendments, the government is not required to accept these changes – a ‘defeat’ in the Lords is very different to a defeat in the Commons. In this way, policy change can happen without a ‘defeat’ but may not happen even with one.

In debates on House of Lords reform, the role and rationale for the second chamber is often defined according to these existing activities rather than from the starting point of what roles and powers would be required for a healthy parliamentary democracy. This approach, whilst being sensitive to the current strengths of the second chamber, tends to overlook that which could be expanded or improved.

What else could the Lords do?

Typically, second chambers have a role in protecting regional interests and/or protecting the constitution. Whilst previous proposals for reform of the House of Lords have noted these functions, they have stopped short of enhancing the role and powers of the upper house in this way.

One notable exception is the Labour Party’s recent Commission on the UK’s Future which suggests that a reformed Lords could have a wider role including constitutional protection.

Constitutional protection is one of the classic functions of second chambers. Constitutional legislation may be subject to additional vetoes, delaying powers or qualified majorities in the second chamber, and in some cases second chambers can refer the issue to a referendum. These constitutional safeguards are not limited to bills that affect the constitution but extend to ensuring that ordinary legislation is compatible with the constitution.

A role for the Lords in protecting the constitution?

Constitutional protection is not entirely alien to the House of Lords. The upper chamber has some slim constitutional protection powers already in that it can veto legislation extending the length of a parliament. In addition, the Lord’s Constitution Committee, recommended by the Wakeham Commission, currently examines the constitutional implications of public bills.

However, the UK Parliament has no special procedures for passing constitutional legislation which means that any constitutional Act can be repealed by ordinary legislation passed by a simple majority through the normal parliamentary process. This would include the Human Rights Act 1998 and devolution settlements. This leaves the UK’s constitutional framework at the whim of any government that achieves a majority from a plurality of votes (and with the electoral system used for the Commons, these pluralities can be small).

Whilst countries in which the second chamber safeguards the constitution do usually have written constitutions, there exists a constitutional framework in the UK contained in a range of legislation – from the Parliament Acts themselves to the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 which established the Supreme Court – which could be given additional protections through a reformed second chamber.

Gladstone wrote that the British constitution “presumes, more boldly than any other, the good faith of those who work it”. Should the British public feel, a century later, that good faith may not be enough, reform of the upper chamber could provide the answer.  

Would you like to see a reformed second chamber? Add your name to our call for an elected House of Lords

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