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Powers and Jurisdiction of the House of Lords

Describe the functions and composition of the House of Lords?

As compared to the House of Commons, the powers granted to the House of Lords are somewhat restricted. The result is that the political clout of the House of Lords is more due to tradition and convention. It has been claimed that the House of Lords does not have any influence on the bills related with government finance. Similarly, this house does not have any authority to stall the legislation of the Parliament for more than a year as the House of Commons can use the Parliament Act, 1949, legislation that was brought in by the Labour party for effectively removing the delaying privileges enjoyed by the House of Lords, to promptly defeat any motion.

On the other hand, the House of Lords has the jurisdiction to veto any bill due to which the tenure in office of the government may be prolonged. Without a general election, a government can only continue for five years in office. As a result the House of Lords can block a move initiated by the House of Commons to extend the tenure of a government beyond their legal term. However it is worth mentioning that practically this power has not been used by the House of Lords.

The House of Lords also makes valuable contribution for the purpose of improving the quality of legislation and the Parliament. More than half the time of the chambers is devoted for the revision of the bills introduced in the House of Commons. For instance, during the last parliamentary session, 7,259 amendments were tabled by the House of Lords to the draft bills out of which 2,625 amendments have been acknowledged by the House of Commons. Another instance of these amendments is the Counter Terrorism Bill. In this legislation, the plans to revise the period of time have been introduced for which the terrorism suspects can be detained by the law enforcement agencies in custody without a charge. However this proposal faced rejection by a majority of 192.

The House of Lords also enjoys the capability to devote its time for involving in in-depth examination of the proposed bills. Such a situation permits the House of Commons to dedicate its efforts on activities like MP constituency responsibilities and other related issues. As a result, several of the most thorough and significant amendments have been introduced by the House of Lords. Some experts have even gone to the extent of claiming that the House of Commons abuses the time and expertise of the House of Lords as it has to rework the incompetently contrived bills.

Contribution to Legislation and Quality of Debate


When it comes to the Private Members Bills, the House of Lords has equal powers. In simple words, as is the case with the House of Commons, House of Lords also has the authority to out rightly decline these bills. For example Lord Joffe proposed the Bill in 2005 in which assisted suicide has been proposed to be legalized for the terminally ill persons. It was proposed in this bill that discretion should be provided to the doctors to prescribe a fatal blow of medication to the patients. But this bill has to face severe opposition on moral grounds and subsequently it was defeated.

As is the case with the House of Commons, the Lords also enjoys the protection provided by parliamentary privilege. The meaning of this situation is that the chamber has been exempted from libel allegations and as a result it allows liberty of speech to the peers in the Parliament. Apart from the legislative procedures, a significant role is played by the House of Lords for analyzing the actions of the Parliament. This scrutiny takes place in the form of the questions that are asked to the ministers as well as the debates taking place in the Parliament and the committee work.

However, the House of Lords does not have an equivalent of the Questions Time available in the House of Commons. In place of it, the House of Lords allocates time at the start of the session for each day when the Lords can ask questions to the ministers.

The debates that take place in the chambers also reveal a diverse membership present in the House of Lords. Generally it is said that these debates are more civil than the debates taking place in the House of Commons. Moreover, although it is still present but party allegiance does not have the same weight in the House of Lords. The content of the issues that are debated in the House of Lords are much more denigrated and comprehensive as compared to those in the House of Commons. The reason behind it can be the caliber of the representatives that are present in the House of Lords. Therefore the House of Lords regularly sees debates on issues like the present economic condition in the UK to the state of armed forces.


The House of Lords can also boast of several committees that have gained international acclaim for their knowledge. The well-known European Communities Committee enjoys high esteem and it also complements the less detailed studies that are conducted by its counterpart in the House of Commons. In the same way, the Science and Technology Committee that was founded in 1979 came up with a detailed report on e-crime in 2007. This review evaluated the role played by the Internet in the rising crime and it also highlighted the perils of online depravity. This committee gives advice to the government regarding the preventive measures that have to be taken to deal with this problem. Similarly, the Lords Constitution Committee came up with the reporting 2005 in which the potential introduction of ID cards was discussed and the findings of this committee was that may threaten the harmony that existed between state and citizen.

Committees of the House of Lords

The judicial powers enjoyed by the House of Lords have been removed with the introduction of Constitutional Reforms Act, 2005. Before this decision came into practice, it was considered the House of Lords was the uppermost court in the UK. Traditionally it was considered as the court of appeal for all civil and criminal cases. The Law Lords had the responsibility to administer justice as they were the highest ranking judges of the country. But after the establishment of the new Supreme Court in the United Kingdom, effectively the judicial role played by the Lords had been rendered void.

The Liberal government of Tony Blair came to power in 1997. Immediately it declared that the House of Lords will be made more representative and democratic. In that time, the House of Lords comprise life peers who were honored with a seat in the House as a result of their exceptional attainment in their respective fields and the traditional hereditary peers who achieved the position through birth. As a result of the huge prevalence of Conservative supporters in the hereditary peers before 1999, there was an ingrown conservative majority in the House of Lords. The manifesto commitment made by the Labour Party in 1997 was thought to be fulfilled with the introduction of House of Lords Act, 1999. This legislation sought to remove the right of the hereditary peers to sit in the House and vote. The result of this legislation was to remove the membership of more than 600 hereditary peers. The result was that a greater equality was created between the Conservatives and the Labour, due to which the balance was held by the cross benches and the Liberal Democrats. It also ended the situation where a single party dominated the House.

The changes that took place in the composition of House of Lords can be seen when the membership of the House of Lords in January 1999 is compared with that of November 2009. The situation in January 1999, before the ratification of the Act was that because the conservatives had 473 peers present in the House of Lords. But this changed dramatically and in November 2009, only 190 active Conservative peers were present in the second chamber. In comparison, in 1999, there were 168 Labour peers in the House. But this figure witnessed an increase to 2012 by November 2009. This remains the close parity that is now present between the Labour and the Conservative peers. On the other hand, the number of Liberal Democrat peers had remained the same. There were 67 peers of the party in 1999 and this figure saw a marginal increase to 71 in 2009. By removing the hereditary peers, there was also a considerable drop in cross bench peers. While in 1999, 310 were working in the House but this number abridged to 183 by 2009.

Changes in Composition of the House of Lords


There has been an alteration in the composition of the House of Lords due to the rising number of light peers that are derived from common social standing. As compared to the hereditary peers, who traditionally came from the upper class backgrounds, the light peers offered much more socially representative alternative. But at this point it needs to be noted that despite this discrepancy, still there are certain class issues. For the purpose of offering a life peerage, generally the recipient should have achieved something of a particular repute in its field. As a result by the time life peerage is granted, the chances are that the individual will be having an upper-class social standing. This in turn, rigorously restricts the probability of the House of Lords to become more socially representative in the UK.

Due to the conditions of House of Lords Act, 1999, there has been an increase in the role played by the women in the House. While during 1990s, there were 80 women who held peerage in the House of Lords, the situation changed significantly and by 2009, in view of the changing composition, 148 women were present in the House of Lords as sitting peers. This remains an increase from 7% of the membership to 20% of the membership in less than two decades.

It is evident that at present the House of Lords is diverse from the one that was present before the Labour Party acquired power in 1997. The composition of the House has been altered significantly. From being a conservative stronghold during the pre-reform era, now the House promotes much more equal representation of gender, social status and political allegiance. At the same time, there are a large number of members who are life peers and not hereditary peers.

In order to make the Lords more representative of the society, it has been suggested that the hereditary peers should be removed completely. This had been designed with a view to strengthen the mood for a second chamber that is purely based on appointment. The main idea behind these proposals is to create a more representative chamber that is based on the votes that are required by a particular political party during the previous general elections. For this purpose, wide-ranging reforms have been proposed for the House of Lords. In theory, it has been anticipated by the government that by successfully implementing and are appointed second chamber, there will be space for introducing more basic changes to be made so that the position of the Lords can be stabilized in the Parliament. At the same time, it was also planned by the government that a wider program of constitutional changes should be introduced in the House. This completely relied on the triumph of the reforms mentioned above in making sure that the House of Lords upheld its legitimacy.

Historical Importance of the House of Lords

In this regard, many experts have claimed that the reforms introduced in the House of Lords in 1999 have significantly changed the House of Lords for better. On the other hand there are many persons who argue against this. Ultimately the Labour Government failed in its promise to deliver a fully elected second chamber of the Parliament.

The House of Commons voted in favor of the reforms in 2007, resulting in 100 percent or 80 percent elected second chamber of the Parliament. However the House of Lords out rightly rejected this proposal. Although the various governments have insisted that the reforms will be pushed through by using the will of the House of Commons, since then many years have passed and the squabbling between the two houses has been going on.

An unelected second chamber of the Parliament that has no direct link with the people raises questions regarding its legitimacy. There is overwhelming public favor regarding the reform of Lords and a large number of people are in favor of a entirely elected chamber.

It can be argued that as compared to the last century, much change has been seen by the House of Lords regarding its composition and the use of its powers. While the House of Lords Act, 1999 took away the hereditary title of succession to peerage, the significance of the House of Lords has also been reduced significantly by the Constitutional Reform Act, 2005 as a legislative and judicial body.

Among the recommendations that can be made in this regard, despite the unrepresentative and undemocratic nature of the House of Lords, it is okay to recommend that the House had played an important role in the British Constitution, in the scrutiny of the Bills passed by the House of Commons and also in the secluded me of EU legislation. It is widely recognized that this includes the procedures that are adopted in the House of Lords are among the most effective procedures in the Community. In the 1968 by favor, it has been proposed that a two-tier House comprising of voting as well as non-voting members should be present. But at the same time, there has been a proposal in favor of a fully elected second chamber of Parliament. But in this regard it also needs to be noted that such a House may become biased because electing the members may result in political turmoil. An Upper House has also been proposed by the Wakeham Commission which will be mainly nominated but partly elected also. In such a case, issues may arise regarding the procedure of election and in the response of the government to the Report, this issue has been highlighted. It can also be stated in this regard that by introducing some elected members to the house, there may be the creation of two classes of members in the House. It can be considered in such a case that the elected members have greater democratic authority and legitimacy as compared to the appointed members. In case the second Chamber was going to be elected, it may become another political battleground or a carbon copy chamber which will appear to be unnecessary and in such a case, the House of Lords will ultimately become redundant in its form as a constitutional body. It is due to this conflict of interest representing party political deficit of two elected Chambers.

Comparison with the House of Commons

On the other hand, there had been suggestions that the elections for the House of Lords can take place at a dissimilar time from the general elections so that the composition of the House may be altered. Similarly the issue of political patronage has also been raised, maintaining the idea of minority elected second chamber of the Parliament. In this case, out of the 600 members, 120 could be elected. But these proposals were not considered to be effective by the House of Commons and also by the House of Lords. According to a recent proposal mentioned in the white paper of 2007, a suggestion has been made in favor of a hybrid House in which case the House of Commons will not be replicated or challenged.

The issue of reforms in Lords is a matter that has remained on the political outline for the last several years. In this regard, a number of proposals have been made. A large number of people are in favor of having a hybrid House. On the other hand, some persons argued that a new body should be created, which should not have the legislative functions of the House of Lords. It should perform an advisory role and in this way, the issue of democracy will be alleviated. Even if this type of proposal appears to be too radical but it can be stated that the important functions' being performed by the House of Lords will remain. Similarly, in some other proposals related with the reforms to be introduced in the House of Lords, it has been suggested that a select committee should be given the power to nominate candidates for membership.

Hence, it can be said that there is a need for maintaining balance amid the democratic nature of the House of Lords and the legislative authority enjoyed by it. In this regard the proposals made by 2007 White Paper and the Wakeham Report can be enhanced. It can also be said in this context that the reform of the House of Lords has been somewhat exhausted as the only other proposition is that of a fully elected chamber although it is not very favorable and unlikely to take place. Still it appears that the proposals of creating a new body that is organized on the basis of popular bases instead of heredity appear to be more desirable, still if such a proposal will see fulfillment is an issue in its own entirety.

References

W Bradley and K D Ewing, Constitutional and Administrative Law, 15th Edition, Pearson Longman 2010

Direct Gov Website: https://www.direct.gov.uk/en/index.htm

Hilaire Barnett, Constitutional and Administrative Law. 9th Edition, Routledge 2011

Jones, B. Kavanagh, D. Moran, M. and Norton, P. (2007), Politics UK, 6th Edition

Meg Russell. House of Lords Reform Since 1911: Must THe Lords Go? (2012) 35 West European Politics 701

Norton, P. (2005), Parliament in British Politics

P Wintour and N Watt 'David Cameron to appoint more Tory peers to the House of Lords' The Guardian London, 28 July, 2015

Russell, M. (2000), Reforming the House of Lords: Lessons from Overseas

The Works of the House of Lords: https://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/HoLwork.pdf

UK Parliament Website: https://www.parliament.uk/index.cfm

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