MOSCOW, November 11 (Sputnik) — Fifteen years ago, on November 11, 1999 the British parliamentary system underwent a drastic transformation. Member of Parliament Margaret Beckett, introduced an act, accepted by The Queen and signed by Tony Blair who was the UK Prime Minister at the time that restricted the number of hereditary peers in the House of Lords.
The House of Lords, also known as the Upper House, is the second chamber of the British Parliament. It has fewer powers than the House of Commons, but can produce laws, and revise the government"s actions and legislation.
British parliament origins
The English parliament originated back in the 11th century, when the Anglo-Saxon kings consulted religious leaders and so-called witans, the monarch"s ministers before making major decisions. The separate element of Parliament emerged in England in the 13th century. The first English Parliament consisted of archbishops, bishops, abbots, and representatives from different boroughs.
During Edward III"s rule, Parliament separated into two different chambers. The House of Commons consisted of shire and borough (urban and rural) representatives, while the House of Lords comprised bishops, abbots and the peers.
In the 14th century, several hereditary peerages in England were introduced. The rank of Duke, the highest rank in the British peerage was introduced by Edward III in 1337. The second rank of Marquis/Marquess was introduced by Richard II fifty years later. Earl, previously the highest rank before 1337, was later relegated to the third most important. In 1440, Henry VI introduced viscountcies, a fourth rank. Barons and Baronets are considered as the lowest ranks in the English peerage. Initially, if a man held a peerage, his son would succeed to it, if he had no children, his brother would succeed. If a man only had a daughter, then her husband would get the title and the family lands. More complex cases were decided depending on the circumstances. The rules have only slightly changed over time.
The authority of the Parliament continued to grow during the 15th and the 16th centuries, which lead to an inevitable conflict between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists. The English Civil War began in August 1642 and lasted for 9 years, and saw military conflict between the supporters of the parliamentary government system in the Kingdom of England and the supporters of King Charles I and his successor Charles II. The war ended with a victory for the Parliamentarians at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
After the execution of Charles I, the Commonwealth of England was established, and the country came under the control of Lord Protector of England Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell abolished the House of Lords, stating that it was useless and even dangerous to the people of England. The House of Lords reassembled following its restoration by the Convention Parliament in 1690, and returned to its former role as the most powerful chamber in the English parliament. The House of Lords mostly consisted of the hereditary peers.
House of Lords in the 19-20 centuries
The 19th century marked several important changes for the House of Lords. The Bishopric of Manchester Act 1847 limited the number of bishops entitled to sit to 26. Most Irish and Welsh bishops stopped siting in the chamber in any case, as their churches broke ties with the state. The Appellate Jurisdiction act 1876 created the juridical function of the House of Lords and allowed senior judges to sit in the House of Lords as "Lords of Appeal in Ordinary". They were in fact the first "life peers" – the appointed members, whose titles could not be inherited.
In 1911, following numerous confrontations between the House of Lords and the Liberal government in power at that time, the Parliament Act was introduced, limiting the powers of the chamber. The House of Lords could no longer reject legislation approved by Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. Another major change came in 1958, when an act was introduced which allowed both sexes to become life peers, and the number of life baronies was not limited. The 1958 Life Peerages Act enabled the Prime Minister to appoint life peers, who could hold their position for their lifetime, but could not hand it down to their heirs.
In 1980, when Michael Foot became leader of the Labour party, he made abolition of the House of Lords one of the major points of the party"s agenda. His successor as head of the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, proposed a reformed Upper House instead, and the creation of new hereditary peerages was stopped. Only three new hereditary peers entered the chamber under Margaret Thatcher"s Conservative government in the 1980s as an exception.
House of Lords reform
The House of Lords Act 1999 reformed the chamber, which at the time included several hundred members who had inherited their seats. The new legislation removed all but 92 hereditary peers, while a further 10 were immediately granted life peerage, which allowed them to stay in the chamber. The 92 hereditary peers who were allowed to stay as a compromise were elected by their peers and published manifestos justifying their retention. According to the Guardian, Lord Onslow's manifesto read, "It would be as vainglorious to proclaim a personal manifesto as it would be arrogant to list any permanent achievements." He was elected.
In January 2000, Lord Wakeham's Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords recommended a partially-elected House. Today, most of the House of Lords" members are appointed. The chamber is made up of so-called Lords Spiritual – 26 bishops of the Church of England and Lords Temporal – the secular members of the chamber. The majority of the Lords Spiritual are life peers, who are appointed by The Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister, the rest are hereditary peers. Prior to 2009, the House of Lords performed a juridical role through the Law Lords, but with the opening of the Supreme Court, this role of the chamber was also abolished.
Many politicians argued that reform would maintain the diversity, experience and expertise of the peers in the House of Lords, while making the chamber more productive. The government argued that the chamber, which was largely white, male and focused on London and wealthy areas of the south-east of England, was unrepresentative. Also, the Prime Minister"s proposals rarely gave one political party a majority of seats in the House of Lords, thus creating a contrast with the House of Commons. In addition, due to the changes the second chamber was expected to be very different in composition from the House of Commons, making the British Parliament diverse in its opinions. However, although many hoped that by making the chamber largely elected, it could possibly overturn the primacy of the House of Commons in the parliament, reality did not match expectation. Today, the House of Lords is more evenly split between the ruling Conservative Party and the Labour party than the House of Commons, but it has very few powers. Whereas before reform the House of Lords played an important role in decision making, nowadays its powers are very limited, and perhaps in the modern era the honorable peerages of Dukes, Earls, Viscounts and Barons are nothing more than just historical titles.