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What is the House of Lords?

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  • Written By: Matt Brady
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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The House of Lords, also known as the House of Peers, is the upper chamber of the two houses in the Parliament of the United Kingdom (UK). The House of Commons makes up the other half of Parliament. While the House of Commons is filled with elected officials, called Members of Parliament (MPs), the House of Lords is comprised of appointed or internally elected members. There are three types of members in the House of Lords: Life Peers, bishops, and hereditary Peers. Bills must pass both houses before they can be presented for Royal Assent and be passed into law. While the House of Commons initiates most legislation, the House of Lords also have this ability. Mostly, however, the Lords debate policy and act as part of a system of checks-and-balances for the British government.

The House of Lords dates back to the 14th century, when groups of political leaders, religious leaders, nobility and advisers to the English king all coalesced into a parliamentary government. For many centuries, the House was built on an aristocratic model of patronage, in which new peers simply inherited the position from family members. Up until the 20th century, the Lords often wielded great political power, holding high political offices that had the power to reject most bills presented by the House of Commons.

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During the 20th century, the House of Lords underwent major reforms. Its power changed drastically when the Parliament Act of 1911 reduced the Lords' ability to reject legislation from the House of Commons. Much later, in 1997, the House of Lords underwent another major overhaul, when Prime Minister Tony Blair successfully passed legislation that ended the House's ability to pass on hereditary appointments.

Although the House of Lords is not nearly as powerful as it once was — it has far less influence than the House of Commons — and is now a mostly appointed chamber, it still plays an important role in Parliament. The House retains some ability to stall legislation from the House of Commons and holds debates on proposed amendments. Like the House of Commons, it has the power to present its own legislation. It also forms committees and watch groups that help to internally police the UK government. Today, the house holds roughly 740 members.

There are three types of Lords that sit in the House. Life Peers are appointed directly by the Queen, by recommendation of the Prime Minister. These appointments last only for the lifetime of the Lord Peer, and may not be passed on to offspring. A small group of bishops and archbishops of the Church of England, sometimes called Lords Spiritual, also hold seats in the house. The third type are elected hereditary Peers. Although hereditary Peers were banned in the late 1990s, 92 internally elected hereditary peers were allowed to hold seats until Parliament enacts another set of reforms.

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