What is the role of the House of Lords in the British system?

The House of Lords

The House of Lords which is the upper chamber of the Parliament, is a permanent chamber and organized basically on hereditary principles. Split of Parliament into two Houses took place during the period of Edward III when he convened the meeting of Model Parliament. During the session of this Parliament, the clergy and Barons organized themselves to sit in a second chamber different from the Commons.

House of Lords remained more powerful till, eighteenth century as the aristocratic classes had firm grip over both the chambers. But a change occurred during 19th century along with the introduction of electoral reforms and extension in suffrage. As a result, House of Lords lost its significance and receded into the background. At present, the Commons exercise, the supreme legislative authority while the Upper House has been reduced to the position of a ratifying chamber.


Total strength of the House of Lords keeps on varying due to the death of old members and the appointment of new ones. Basically it is a hereditary chamber since nine tenth of its members are peers viz., who became members by virtue of hereditary rights. Some persons are appointed for life time but their heirs have no right to succeed as peers.

1. Members of Royal Family:
Members of Royal family, who have attained specific age, are made the members of this House. All persons having blood relations with the ruling family are not given membership. The members of this category rarely attend its sessions and do not actively participate in the deliberative process even if they happen to attend.

2. Hereditary Peers:
Hereditary members of the House of Lords are known as peers. It included three categories:
a) 75 members are elected by hereditary peers from among themselves
b) 15 office bearer peers are elected by the whole House of Lords
c) Two peers are Royal office Holders

3. Life Members:
Under the Life Peerage Act of 1958, any citizen can be appointed as member of House of Lords for his life-time who rendered distinct services to the national cause.

4. Scottish Members:
The Scottish Peers used to return from among themselves sixteen persons to represent them in the House for a term equal to the term of House of Commons i.e for five years till 1943. But under Peerage Act of 1943, all Scottish Peers were made permanent members.

5. Law Lords:
House of Lords is the highest court of appeal for all cases in England, as it has also performed judicial functions. For the promotion of professional competence, few law experts are also added to its membership for life time.

6. Spiritual Lord:
All the oft-quoted categories are known as temporal Lords while Lords spiritual are appointed on the basis of religion. All Bishops of churches of England and Arch Bishop are members of this House, numbering about 26.

Grant of Membership:
Generally, the former Speakers and the Prime Ministers who have served the nation for a longer period are made Peers for their memorable services. Men of merit and distinction in various fields of national life, are also appointed. The Queen is fully authorized to appoint as many persons as she deems proper but in practice, she has to move with caution so as to preserve the prestigious position of this illustrious Chamber.

Before the enactment of a law in 1963, hereditary peers were entitled to resign from the membership of the House of Lords. But under this act they have been given the right to resign within a period of twelve months after their appointment.

Legally the presence of only three members constitutes the Quorum of the meetings. Normally, attendance is above three hundred. Many peers care a little to attend the sessions for years together. On ceremonial occasions, however, there may be heavy attendance. Very few Lords actively participate in its deliberations.

Lord Chancellor:
Lord Chancellor presides over the meetings of the House of Lords. He is an important member of the Cabinet and head of the judicial establishment. Lord Chancellor supervises the working of the courts and appoints judges of the High court. He presides over the special sessions of the House when it sits as a court. He is also a member of the judicial committee of the Privy Council. Being as important member of the Cabinet, he performs vital role in the passage of all government bills in the House of Lords.

Powers and Functions

  1. Legislation:
    Before the enactment of the Parliament Act 1911, both the chambers of the Parliament shared equal powers and the upper chamber could reject even money bills passed by the House of Commons. The Liberal government after wining two consecutive elections got the new law enacted after much struggle. The new law curtailed the powers of Lords.

    2. Financial Legislation:
    Before the Act of 1911, the upper chamber exercised equal powers with the Commons in respect of financial legislation, with the sole exception that all money bills originated in the latter House. But the role of House of Lords was minimized under 1911 Act of Parliament.

    3. Judicial Powers:
    House of Lords is the last court of appeal. Nevertheless, judicial powers of the House of Lords are, in fact, exercised by the Law Lords. When the court conducts its session as a court, only the Law Lords participate while the other members abstain from attending such session.

    Reasons of Survival:
    Two basic principles are generally set forth to judge the utility of a bicameral legislature. First, the upper chamber should be constituted on different lines from the lower ones so as to avoid duplication. Second, the upper chamber should revise the bills coming from the popularly constituted chamber, it should not, however, be powerful enough to act as a rival to the former.
    This chamber has been organized on distinct principles from the one characterizing the lower House. Such persons of outstanding ability and expertise, not active in politics, can be made peers. Hence the nation can utilize the services of such talented people. It is an undeniable fact that the members of this House are generally more seasoned parliamentarians and as such the standard of debates on the floor of this House, is much higher than that of its counterpart.


The very presence of a hereditary chamber in a democratic age seems awkward and undemocratic. Personal traits of character are not based on hereditary principles. An efficient and hardworking person may be succeeded by a son of worthless character. Most of the Peers show indifferent attitude towards their duties and responsibilities as Parliamentarians, and rarely attend its sessions. The tone of this House is generally conservative and as such it stands as a bulwark in the way of progressive legislation.

It has also been observed that this chamber shows a leaning towards the Conservative Party. When Conservative Party is in power this House is generally supportive and cooperative while it develops a hostile attitude against the government of Labour Party. In the presence of parliamentary system, the utility of the House of Lords becomes doubtful as the Cabinet is accountable to the House of Commons and not to the House of Lords.

The main reason of its survival can be ascribed to the conservative temperament of the English people. They would not like to depart with an institution which has been with them for the last many centuries. This House has no doubt, served the nation in the past and is expected to continue to perform its role I the future. People do not want to abolish it but would support any move aiming at its reforms especially in its organization.