The early history of the Lords is important to see how this body has developed into what it it is to this present day. Even from 1500 the House of Lords had equal status to the House of Commons, its members were few in number and were not elected. You could gain the title from inheriting peerage to a peer or nominated peer by the monarch. As early as the sixteenth century it was the elected House of Commons that took the initiative against the monarch in matters of policy, with the Lords being a more conservative body, supporting the monarch.
This role lasted well into the nineteenth century. The turning point was in the nineteenth century when the Lords refused to adhere to the constitutional convention the result was that the House of Lords power was greatly reduced and now played a minor role in the government. The constitution included the Lords not taking part in money bills and if the government of the day had a clear mandate for a bill, the Lords should allow the bill to pass. However the Lords rejected Home Rule for Ireland in the 1890's and also rejected the budget in 1909, it was clear that a reformation was needed.
The first major reform of the Lords was 1911; this prevented the House of Lords exercising a veto on any money bill and only allowed the Lords to delay any other bills for three years of parliament. There was no change to the membership of the Lords, which remained as hereditary peers, bishops of the Church of England and the Law Lords. 1949 saw the Lords power to delay a bill reduced to just one year. Other changes included the Life Peerage Act of 1958, which gave the Prime Minister the power to give any person the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords in their own lifetime.
An act of 1963 gave hereditary peers the right to give up their hereditary peerage. The present composition of the House of Lords until 1998 had several different types of members. There were about 634 hereditary peers, although many of these did not use their right to sit, vote or debate in the Lords. There were 479 life peers, who included women. This also includes Law Lords who had taken over the old judicial functions of the House of Lords. There were also 26 Church of England bishops and archbishops.
They were presided over by the Lord Chancellor, who was also a member of the cabinet. Out of the 1,139 peers 474 were Conservative supporters and 156 Labour. In recent Labour government reforms, the right for hereditary peers to sit, debate and vote were abolished. A few hereditary peers remain until a further major reform of the Lords takes place, the Prime Minister can still create new members. There is still no elective process in omission of members. There is no written constitution that specifies the role of the Lords, although custom plays a strong part.
The present role of the House of Lords is to scrutinise the work of the executive. The Lords have a question time and every government department has one peer linked to it who will answer questions. Debating bills is also important; all bills need to be passed by both the Commons and the Lords. They will revise them carefully; the Lords can make amendments to improve them. Often this is done because the Commons don't have time to deal with a bill properly.
Pressure groups often rely on the Lords to make changes to bills, as they often cannot get access to Commons standing committees. The Lords have the power to delay bills. They would do this if they thought a particular bill was wrong or unnecessary and would act to delay its passage. This is the main area where the Lords conflict with the Commons, as the Lords are accused of holding up the will of the elected part of the constitution. This ability to delay is one of the main reasons why the present government is reluctant to give any more power to the Lords.
The lack of power in the Lords is the likely reason why people do not want to become members of it. They examine bills and debate policy in a non – partisan matter. Since all peers are not elected, they are in a position to vote and speak freely. If a member of the majority party in the Commons spoke out against his own party's policy, it would be likely they would be disciplined and discriminated against in their party, this results in parties staying loyal to party policies or being quiet.
The Lords act as a "check" to a government. This is to ensure that even if a party does have a majority in the Commons, it can not just "steamroller" programmes with no opposition. The Lords saves the Commons lots of time by making legislation for non controversial matters. Debating major controversial issues is also an important role for the Lords, at the moment genetic engineering and the age of consent are being discussed. Again, the members can speak freely without concerns for political parties or electorate.
The House of Commons often fear debating such issues as it may offend the electors or their party bosses. The Commons is also reluctant to undertake a detailed exanimation of EU legislation, so the Lords do so. The Lords is able to provide the government with ministers who do not have to worry about constituents for example Lord Falconer, the minister for the Dome in the Labour government 1997 – 2001. This is also another way of bringing possible talent into the government. There are many issues surrounding the composition and roles of the Lords government.
The main criticism is the method of selection. In particular hereditary peerage, why should you be in Lords because your great grandfather was a brilliant general? Or your farther had the money to buy a peerage from Lloyd George in 1921. Also being the being a man's eldest son is not a good criterion. The system appears particularly racist and sexist, with very few women and members of ethnic minorities. The Lords discriminates on religious grounds too, because there are only Church of England bishops, with no Catholic bishops or elders of any other faith.
The Conservatives tend to dominate, and many hereditary peers only come to the Lords when requested by Conservative whips to vote for Conservative measures. The Lords do not appear to do much, they appear relatively powerless, and much of their work in the legislative process is what the Commons really should be doing. With regard to payments to the peerage – although they are not paid, they receive a generous attendance allowance. They do not have to vote, speak or take part in any way to receive these payments.