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Inside Parliament: House of Lords

Find out about the House of Lords



What is looks like? What is the woolsack? Why is it red and the commons green?

The business of Parliament takes place in two Houses: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Their work is similar: making laws (legislation), checking the work of the government (scrutiny), and debating current issues. Generally, the decisions made in one House have to be approved by the other. In this way the two-chamber system acts as a check and balance for both Houses.

The House of Lords is the second chamber of the UK Parliament, it complements the work of the House of Commons. It makes laws, holds government to account and investigates policy issues. Its membership is mostly appointed and includes experts in many fields

Inside the Lords

Peers’ Lobby is where Members of the House of Lords can enter the Chamber and also collect important messages from.

The House of Lords plays a key role in the work of Parliament:

Making laws – the Lords spends about 60 per cent of its time in the Chamber initiating, examining and revising legislation.

Holding the Government to account – the other 40 per cent of time in the Chamber is devoted to scrutiny – questioning the Government and debating policy. Investigative committees outside the Chamber scrutinise government activities.

Providing a forum of independent expertise Рthe wide-ranging experience and specialist knowledge of the Members of the Lords, and flexibility to scrutinise an issue in depth, ensures the House of Lords makes a significant contribution to Parliament’s work.

The Throne – The Queen comes to Parliament for the ceremonial opening of a new parliamentary session – the State Opening of Parliament. At this ceremony the Queen sits on the throne in the House of Lords Chamber to read a speech. The speech is prepared by the Government and outlines the Government’s plans for the coming year. Before she reads the speech, the Queen sends her senior official, Black Rod, to request the Members of Parliament (MPs) from the House of Commons come to the House of Lords to listen to it.

Bar of the House – For over 600 years the House of Lords was the highest court in the UK. It was the final court of appeal on points of law for the United Kingdom for civil cases and for England, Wales and Northern Ireland for criminal cases. In 2005, the Constitutional Reform Act established a separate Supreme Court for the UK – effective from 2009. Located opposite the Houses of Parliament the UK Supreme Court has taken over all judicial work previously carried out by the House of Lords.

The Woolsack – The Lord Speaker is elected by Members of the House of Lords. The Lord Speaker’s responsibilities include offering advice on procedure and acting as an ambassador for the work of the Lords both at home and abroad. In this role, the Lord Speaker must be politically impartial. In the House of Commons, the Speaker controls the debate by choosing who speaks when. They also discipline Members if they break any of the rules of the House. The Lord Speaker also presides over debates but does not choose who speaks. The House of Lords relies on the Members themselves to keep things in order.

Seats ‚Äď The Bishops bench is slightly different from the other seats on either side of the House. It has arm rests on each end. This is the bishops’ bench. The 26 most senior archbishops and bishops of the Church of England are entitled to sit in the House of Lords because the Church of England is the established Church of the State. They cease to be Members of the House when they retire from their religious posts.

Government frontbench – The House of Lords is organised on a party basis in a similar way to the House of Commons and has a Government and Opposition side. This is the Government frontbench and the Opposition frontbench is directly opposite. The seats at right angles to these benches are for the Crossbenchers who do not belong to either Government or Opposition parties. Most heads of government departments sit in the House of Commons and cannot represent their departments in the House of Lords. But all government departments have a minister or spokesman in the House of Lords. This minister can represent their department in the House by explaining government policies, answering questions and making statements. They will sit on this side of the House on the frontbench with other Members of the Lords belonging to the Government party sitting behind them.

Divisions – Votes in Parliament are called divisions. This is because Members physically divide or move into separate areas (the division lobbies) when voting, according to whether the Member agrees or disagrees. The division lobbies run either side of the Chamber in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In the Commons they are called the ‘Ayes’ and the ‘Noes’ Lobbies and in the Lords they are called the ‘Content’ and the ‘Not Content’ Lobbies. When a vote is called, Members of the Lords move to either the Content or the Not Content Lobby according to how they wish to vote. Officials called clerks record their names. There is then a public record of how each Lord voted. The Lords will then go back into the Chamber to hear the results of the division which are read out by the Lord Speaker or a Deputy Speaker. They are counted out of the division lobby by the ‘tellers’. This helps to ensure the result of the vote is accurate.

Quick facts on Lords

Lords have often led distinguished lives – Members of the House of Lords come from a variety of backgrounds, including politics, education, sport, science and the arts. The knowledge they gain from their careers helps them in their work in Parliament.

Some Lords belong to political parties, and some don’t – There are over 700 members of the Lords. Many belong to one of the UK’s main political parties: the Labour Party, the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats. Around 180 others are known as ‘crossbenchers’. They don’t represent any particular political party.

Most Lords are appointed by the Queen – The Queen appoints new Lords on the advice of the prime minister. The prime minister decides who gets to become a ‘life peer’ after getting recommendations from other political party leaders and an independent appointments commission.

Some Lords are known as ‘hereditary peers’ – Not every Lord is appointed though. Under the old membership system, peers passed their place in the House of Lords on to their children. However, Parliament decided to change the rules in 1999. Several hundred peers lost their places, leaving 92. These remaining Lords are known as ‘hereditary peers’.
Becoming a ‘peer’ is for life – All members of the House of Lords get titles like ‘Lord Smith’ or ‘Baroness Adams’. These titles are called ‘peerages’. Everyone who gets a peerage will keep their title and membership for the rest of their lives. Because the rules were changed though, hereditary peers will not pass their places in the Lords to their children.

A few Lords are also bishops from the Church of England – A number of bishops in the Church of England also belong to the House of Lords. The 26 most senior archbishops and bishops are always members. They aren’t necessarily life-long members though. A bishop who retires will pass their place on to the next bishop in line.

Some Lords become members of the UK government – The prime minister asks a number of Lords to join the government. They take on the role of ministers and represent the government in the House of Lords. Government ministers take charge of presenting the government’s plans for new laws.

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