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Is the House of Lords now an outdated institution which needs to be abolished or reformed? (40
Is the House of Lords an outdated institution? At first sight the obvious answer is yes, because it has
very little power or influence and its membership is totally unelected. We may also ask why there is a
need for a second chamber at all. However, this essay will examine whether the Lords really is out of
date and whether reform could make it a modern institution.
The House of Lords is seen as out of date for a number of reasons. Firstly it contains 92 hereditary
peers. This is a throwback to the time, before the 1950s, when the whole of the Lords was made up
of bishops and hereditary peers. Most members were there through an accident of birth and took
virtually no real part in politics, except to railroad through Conservative measures and obstruct
Liberal and Labour governments. In the 1830s, early 1900s and the 1940s, Liberal or socialist
measures were obstructed by these conservative peers. In the modern world of pluralistic politics,
this kind of action has no place. Fortunately most hereditary peers have gone and this makes the
chamber more modern. The coalition promises to remove the rest, so at least this historical oddity
will be finally removed.
The rest of the Lords is made up of appointed life peers. This can be seen as out of date because,
today, we expect important institutions to be elected and therefore accountable. The House of
Lords exercises power (limited) without responsibility. This is unacceptable. Nearly every modern
state has an elected second chamber. The USA is a good example. It is also unacceptable that the
prime minister can use his patronage to create peers and so strengthen the government's position.
The prerogative power of the PM to create peers is outdated and ought to be replaced by a more
modern system, probably by election. We are probably going to see elections to the Lords within a
few years, so this outdated aspect will also be removed.
An important aspect of the Lords that is out of date is the Salisbury Doctrine. This says that the Lords
cannot obstruct any government legislation that was contained in its last election manifesto. In other
words it cannot defy the popular mandate. But the Salisbury Doctrine is an unwritten convention and
so is very vague. To bring it up to date, the powers and limits of the Lords should be properly
codified in a modern constitution.
The Lords is also outdated in that it has no real power and so simply makes a nuisance of itself. It
obstructs government by delaying legislation (like NHS reform) or by passing endless amendments
which have to be returned to the Commons for approval. The Lords know that they can always be
overruled, so their role is of no value and simply slows down government. If the House of Lords were
given proper powers and were elected to go with them, it could make a more effective, modern
contribution. On the other hand it could be abolished altogether and so the obstruction would be
Reforms such as increasing its powers or having it elected would certainly deal with some of the
problems of the Lords. However, perhaps it is not as out of date as we think.
Many of the life peers have been appointed because they have special knowledge and experience.
This applies to Lord Winston (medicine), Lord Puttnam (film and TV) and Lady Amos (international
affairs). They have more `modern' knowledge than most of the MPs in the Commons. Life peers also
often represent important sections of our society, such as the Chief Rabbi and various Muslim, Hindu
and Sikh life peers as well as ex trade union leaders and police commissioners like Lord Blair. In a
modern, pluralistic system it is important to have all sections of the community represented. Many
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It is also true that the Lords does invaluable work scrutinising and improving legislation. As shown
above, there are many experts in the Lords and they are able to bring their experience to bear when
looking at new laws emerging from the Commons. There are also great debates on major issues,
such as Iraq and Afghanistan and the NHS. The Lords provides a modern forum where great citizens
are able to contribute.…read more