The House of Lords at Work:  continued



1.   The members of the House of Lords can be split into four main categories:

    Archbishops and certain Bishops of the Church of England;
    Hereditary peers (who hold "hereditary peerages");[1]
    Life peers (who hold peerages for life under the Life Peerages Act 1958); and
    Law Lords (who hold life peerages under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876).

    The Prince of Wales is also a member of the House (see paragraph 10 below)

    Bishops and Archbishops

    2.   The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester, and the 21 next most senior diocesan bishops of the Church of England are entitled to sit in the House of Lords because of the office they hold. They are known as the "Lords Spiritual" (as opposed to the "Lords Temporal", consisting of everyone else!) Archbishops and Bishops leave the House on retirement, which is now mandatory by the age of 70.


    3.   "Peer" comes from the Latin word meaning equal. Within the House of Lords all peers have the same status, rights and privileges. There are, however, five degrees of peerage which are as follows (in order of precedence):

      Duke Marquess Earl or Countess Viscount Baron or Lord or Baroness or Lady.

    Members of all five degrees are referred to collectively as "Lords" (although Dukes are not addressed as "Lord", but as "Duke").

    4.   Older peerages belong to the Peerages of England, Scotland or Great Britain. However, peerages created since 1801 have all been created within the Peerage of the United Kingdom. All members of the House, with the exception of the Bishops and Archbishops and the Prince of Wales, sit in the House by virtue of a peerage of England, Scotland, Great Britain or the United Kingdom, and remain members for life. Peers of Ireland are not entitled to sit in the House by virtue of a Peerage of Ireland.

    5.   Peerages are created by the Sovereign by Letters Patent. Between the middle ages and 1876 all peerages were all hereditary.[2] The Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 provided in addition for the creation of nonhereditary "life peerages" for a limited number of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary or "Law Lords" (see paragraph 59). Most life peerages, however, have been created under the Life Peerages Act 1958, which allows for the creation of an unlimited number of life peerages. Such peerages can be conferred on both men and women.

    6.   Hereditary peerages normally descend to the "heirs male of the body" of the first holder. Certain ancient baronies, however, which originated in a Writ of Summons rather than Letters Patent, descend to "heirs general" in default of heirs male, and may therefore be inherited by a woman; so may certain Scottish peerages. In addition, there are a few peerages by Letters Patent which descend by "Special Remainder", i.e. a special arrangement made when the peerage was created, and some of these may be inherited by women. Women who held hereditary peerages were not allowed to sit in the House of Lords until the Peerage Act 1963 gave them the right to do so. Attempts to introduce legislation allowing peers to choose whether their titles should descend through the female line were defeated in the House in 1992 and 1994.

    7.   Only four new hereditary peerages have been created in recent years: they were conferred on Viscount Whitelaw (1983), Viscount Tonypandy (1983), the Earl of Stockton (1984) and the Duke of York (1986). These creations were the first since the hereditary peerage given in 1965 to Lord Margadale. The number of hereditary peers in the House is at present falling, and the number of life peers rising, as these figures show:

    DateHereditary Life
    Dec 1965875117
    Dec 1970857195
    Dec 1975823272
    Dec 1980808335
    Dec 1985789358
    Dec 1990783375
    Jan 1996769403


    8.    On 26th January 1996 the House of Lords was composed as follows:

      Hereditary Peers[3]

      Life Peers and hereditary peers of
      first creation ("created peers")

      Law Lords

      Archbishops and Bishops


    757 (16 of whom are women)

    391 (67 of whom are women)

    24 (none of whom are women)

    26 (none of whom are women)


    Active membership

    9.   There are some circumstances in which a Lord who holds one of the peerages listed above may not take his seat in the House.

      (i) Lords who have not yet received a Writ of Summons from the Sovereign may not sit in the House. Most Lords without a Writ are Lords who have not yet completed the formalities necessary to establish their succession and receive their Writ, either because they have only recently inherited or because they do not wish to take their seat.

      (ii) Lords who are Minors may not sit in the House. The minimum age for membership of the House is 21.

      (iii) Lords who do not wish to attend the House may apply for "leave of absence". Once leave of absence has been granted, the Lord in question is not expected to sit in the House. A Lord may terminate his leave of absence by giving one month's notice of his desire to attend the House.

      (iv) Persons who had inherited peerages but disclaimed them may not sit in the House.

    The potentially active membership of the House may be calculated by subtracting the number of such Lords from the total number of Lords. On 26th January 1996 the active membership of the House was 1046.

    Royal Family

    10.   The following members of the immediate Royal Family are members of the House of Lords: the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent and the Duke of York. Not all members of the Royal Family are members of the House; for example, neither the Queen nor Prince Edward nor the Princess Royal are members of the House. Members of the Royal Family do not attend the House or speak frequently. The most recent speech was by the Duke of Gloucester in a debate on hospitals in London on 2nd December 1992.


    In January 1996 the strengths of the political parties in the House of Lords were as follows:

    Liberal Democrat

    85 peers were without Writs, and 67 were on leave of absence. Leaving aside the 26 archbishops and bishops, this left 400 peers who were not members of any political party, 285 of whom belonged to the Cross Bench Peers Association. (The term "Cross-Bench" derives from the benches on which such peers sit in the House, which lie "across" the Chamber, at right angles to the government and opposition benches.)

    12.    These figures show that the Conservatives do not have an overall majority amongst all eligible members of the House of Lords. Indeed, the number of Government defeats in the Lords since 1979 has been higher than the number in the Commons.[4] It should be noted, however, that statistics cannot reflect the importance of each defeat: party managers attach more significance to winning some votes than others. There are party whips in the Lords, as there are in the Commons. The job of the whips is to seek to maximise the number of Lords voting for their party's policy. It is much more usual in the Lords than in the Commons for a peer to go against his whip and vote against the party line. This is in part because there are no effective sanctions which can be used in the Lords to discipline a peer who votes against his party.


    13.    In January 1996, 22 Lords were members of the Government, as follows:

      Lord Chancellor
      Leader of the House (Lord Privy Seal)
      Lord Advocate
      6 Ministers of State
      6 UnderSecretaries of State
      Chief Whip (Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms)
      Deputy Chief Whip (Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard)
      5 Whips (Lords in Waiting)

    Of these, only two (the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Privy Seal) are members of the Cabinet. Some departments are not directly represented in the Lords by departmental ministers. Questions are addressed to, and Ministers speak for, the Government as a whole, and the business of departments with no Minister in the House is handled by Lords Ministers in other departments, or by Whips.


    14.    Lords are unpaid, but are entitled to recover expenses incurred for the purpose of attending the House, within current daily limits of £74 for overnight accommodation, £33 for day subsistence and incidental travel and £32 for secretarial expenses. They may also recover the cost of travelling between their home and London.


    15.    The following Lords receive salaries from public funds: Government Ministers and Whips (including the Lord Chancellor); the Leader of the Opposition and Opposition Chief Whip; the Chairman of Committees (a Lord appointed by the House to supervise the Committees of the House and the handling of private legislation) and his Principal Deputy (who is Chairman of the European Communities Committee); and Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (see below, "Judicial Business", paragraph 59).

    1.  These can be further sub-divided into those who have inherited their peerages and those who are "hereditary peers of the first creation" (i.e. those who are the first to hold a particular hereditary peerage). back

    2.  There was one exception to this; in 1856 Lord Wensleydale was created a life Peer. However, the Privileges Committee of the House of Lords decided that this life peerage did not entitle Lord Wensleydale to sit in the House. back

    3. Excluding the 12 hereditary peers of the first creation. back

    4.  See paragraph 37. back


    © Parliamentary copyright 1996
    Prepared 23 October 1996