Fifty years on

Lord Norton

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Life Peerages Act 1958.  There will be various events to mark the anniversary.

Before 1958, the House was comprised primarily, though not exclusively, of hereditary peers.  The exceptions were the Lords Spiritual and the law lords.  The law lords were (under an Act of 1876) the earliest form of life peers.  The 1958 Act empowered the Crown to confer life peerages on people other than law lords.  Section 1(3) of the Act was also of great importance: ‘A life peerage may be conferred under this section on a woman’.  Women entered the House for the first time.  A later Act (of 1963) also enabled women who inherited titles to take their seats in the House.  With each succeeding decade, as more life peerages were created, so life peers became more prominent in the work of the House.

The 1958 Act helped transform the House of Lords.  In the 1940s and 1950s, the House was largely a moribund institution.   Despite having a membership in excess of 800, only about 100 members attended regularly and of those only about 60 could be described as active members.  The House rarely met for more than three days a week and a sitting rarely lasted for more than three hours.  Very few people took an interest in it.

The change since then has been remarkable.  Attendance has increased decade by decade.  By the end of the 1980s, the average daily attendance exceeded 300.  More than 700 members attended one or more debates each session.  By the early 2000s, the average daily attendance exceeded 350.  Nowadays, it tops the 400 mark – despite the fact that the House lost more than 600 hereditary peers in 1999.  The House usually sits now for the same number of days each session as the Commons.  It has a substantial proportion of women members, not least in leadership positions (Leader of the House, Government Chief Whip, Attorney General, Opposition Chief Whip) and has a higher proportion of members drawn from ethnic backgrounds than the Commons.

A combination of the 1958 Act and the House of Lords Act 1999 means that the House has been transformed from a House comprised mainly of hereditary peers to one dominated by life peers.  Increased attendance over the years has meant that the House has been able to become more specialised, through the use of committees, and is able to draw on a membership characterised by experience and expertise in order to fulfil its primary functions, especially that of legislative scrutiny.  In terms of sittings, the House, like the House of Commons, is now one of the busiest legislative chambers in the world.

2 comments for “Fifty years on

  1. Bedd Gelert
    27/04/2008 at 10:03 am

    Crikey !! It shows how clueless I am – I had no idea that ‘Life Peers’ are a concept only 8 years older than I am ! [hangs head in shame..]

    I thought Life Peers had been around since Lloyd George’s time, if I had to make a guess..

    Shame this blog has not been available before – and it is long overdue for a proper television documentary showing what goes on in the Lords.

    The last one I can recall is the one where Baroness Jay is planning the massacre of the hereditaries – which didn’t portray the Lords in an entirely flattering light. Maybe that was to be expected as it was describing the ‘before’ picture, rather than the ‘new, improved’ one.

    It would be great to see that older members of our society are able to make a significant contribution to Government. Though after the headlines this morning, no one can doubt that they have energy..

  2. John Foreman
    28/04/2008 at 6:57 am

    I’m a young (mid twenties) citizen and I am a firm supporter of the House of Lords in its present configuration. I hope that the Government’s attempts to ‘reform’ (read: wreck) it are scuppered and kicked into the long grass. If they want to strengthen Parliament, they should reform the Commons, not the Lords – but they won’t want to tamper with their compliant power-base.

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