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The House of Lords
Each session of Parliament is usually opened in the House of Lords by the Queen (King), who is attended by heralds, officers of the Court and members of the Diplomatic Corps. The Commons are “summoned’ to the Chamber by the Black Rod (the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, whose title derives from the black staff with gold fittings which he carries on formal occasions). The peers sit comfortably on their red leather benches as the MPs stand awkwardly huddled together below the bar while the Queen reads the throne speech which outlines the Government’s programme of legislation for the coming session.
Before the throne in the House of Lords, and dividing the benches, is the woolsack upon which the Lord Chancellor sits as Speaker of the House. By tradition, the woolsack was introduced in the reign of Edward III and it is recorded in the House of Lords muniments “ that the judges shall sit upon woolsacks”. The woolsack is now stuffed with wool from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and from the Commonwealth countries.
Members of the Government and their supporters are sitting to the right of the throne, and those of the Opposition to the left. The bishops always sit on the Government side of the House. Cross-benches near the bar of the House are for the use of peers who sit as Independents.
The House of Lords consists of the Lords “Spiritual and Temporal”. The Lords Spiritual are the two archbishops (Canterbury and York), the bishops of London, Durham and Winchester, and other senior bishops of the Church of England. The Lords Temporal include peers by hereditary right, peers by virtue of their office (the Law Lords), and Life peers created under the Life Peerages Act. Peerages are created by the Sovereign: about half have been created since 1920. Life peers (Lords) and peeresses receive their peerages as a reward for good service, and their children do not inherit the title. Peers may not sit in the House of Commons as MPs, but in 1963 the Peerage Act made it possible for peers to give up their peerages. For example, in 1963, the Earl of Home was chosen by the Conservative Party to be Prime Minister. It would have been difficult for a Prime Minister to sit in the House of Lords and rule the country, and so the Earl gave up his title and was elected to the House of Commons as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. In the full House of Lords there are over 1200 potential members, though the actual numbers are cut to under 700 working members by a voluntary process of “leave of absence”.
Hereditary peers: Dukes (31), Marquesses (38), Earls (175),
Viscounts (116), Barons (490), Peeresses in their own right (19).
Spiritual Lords: Archbishops (2), Senior Bishops (24).
Law Lords: Lord Chancellor and Ordinary Law Lords (21).
Life peers (over 350).
Temporal peerages, both hereditary and life, are conferred on the advice of the Prime Minister and are usually granted either in recognition of service in politics or other walks of life or because the Government of the day wishes to have the recipient in the House of Lords.
During the session the House of Lords meets on Thursdays at 3 p.m. Monday sittings at 2.30 and Friday sittings at 11 a.m. take place as business demands. Not all peers with a right to sit in the House of Lords attend the sittings. Average daily attendance is about 290, but more may attend when some matter in which they have a special interest is under discussion.
The majority of ministers are members of the House of Commons. The House of Lords usually includes about 15 office-holders, among whom are the Government Whips, who are the members of the Royal Household, and who act as spokesmen for the Government in debate. The number of Cabinet ministers in the House of Lords varies, usually between two and four out of a total of 24.
Both Houses of Parliament have some members with special functions concerned with the management of business. The House is presided over by the Lord Chancellor who is ex-officio Speaker of the House of Lords. He is recommended for appointment by the Prime Minister who is not required to consult the House.
When the Lord Chancellor is absent, his place may be taken by a Deputy Speaker appointed by the Crown or a Deputy Chairman appointed by the House or, if neither is present, by a Speaker chosen by the Lords present. The first of the deputy speakers is the Lord Chairman of Committees, who is appointed by the House at the beginning of each session. His main function is to take the Chair in all committees of the House, unless the House decides otherwise.
Other permanent officers of the House of Lords include the Clerk of the Parliament, who is appointed by the Crown and is resposible for the records of proceedings, including Judgements, Minutes and Journals of the House, The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod is appointed by the Sovereign and is also Serjeant at Arms in attendance upon the Lord Chancellor.
In addition to its parliamentary work, the House of Lords has important legal functions, being the final court of appeal for civil cases in the whole of Britain, and for criminal cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Theoretically, all lords are entitled to attend the House when it is sitting as a court of appeal, but in practice and by established tradition, judicial business is conducted by the Lords of Appeal.
When Cromwell’s troopers crushed the King’s men the House of Lords, which had backed the King in his dictatorship, was abolished (1649) – only to be restored when Charles II was restored to the throne (1660). Over the past two centuries of more modern times, there has been pressure for the House of Lords to be abolished or reformed.
The formal powers of the House of Lords are now rather limited. It can vote down a proposal from the Commons and there have been a number of significant defeats in recent years. But if the Commons chooses to pass the measure again, the Lords have no power to stop it. The Lords know they are vulnerable to the charge that they are unelected and hence illegitimate. They therefore choose their ground carefully, usually opposing the Government legislation only on details or where there is particularly strong feeling against it. The Labour Party is committed to the abolition of the Lords and its replacement by an elected chamber, and has begun the process by proposing the abolition of the voting rights of hereditary peers. There is much debate about what kind of chamber should replace the Lords, since enhancing its legitimacy through elections is bound to pose a greater challenge to the Commons.