How does the House of Lords work, why is it controversial, and what is the Salisbury Convention?

The House of Lords won’t exist under Labour  (PA Archive)
The House of Lords won’t exist under Labour (PA Archive)

Keir Starmer has set out plans to abolish the “indefensible” House of Lords and replace it with a new elected chamber, as part of plans to “restore trust in politics”.

The Labour leader has not committed to a timeframe for the move, but has said it would happen “as quickly as possible” and ideally within the first term of a Labour government.

The sweeping constitutional overhaul is part of a 40-point plan written by former prime minister Gordon Brown for a “New Britain” under the Labour party.

Sir Keir hailed the proposals for political and economic devolution as “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people” at a joint press conference in Leeds on Monday.

He told BBC Breakfast: “I think the House of Lords is indefensible. Anybody who looks at the House of Lords would struggle to say that it should be kept.

“So we want to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected chamber that has a really strong mission.”

Asked how much of a priority this would be for Labour, Sir Keir replied: “I’m very keen that all of the recommendations in the report are carried out as quickly as possible. So we will now have after today a process of consultation testing the ideas... with a view to how do we implement them?”

He said all the recommendations in the report, including the proposal to abolish the House of Lords, are “deliberately written in a way that means they can be implemented within the first five years of a Labour government”.

Starmer said last month that the public’s faith in the political system had been undermined by successive Tory leaders handing peerages to “lackeys and donors”.

The party is expected to confirm its plans in its next manifesto.

How does the House of Lords work?

The House of Lords is the second chamber of the UK Parliament. It is made up of around 800 peers.

It is independent from, and complements the work of, the elected House of Commons. The Lords shares the task of making and shaping laws and checking and challenging the work of the Government.

The Lords has three main roles:

  • Making laws

  • In-depth consideration of public policy

  • Holding THE government to account

Why is the House of Lords so controversial?

Accusations of corruption and cronyism have blighted the House of Lords for years.

Last year, the Conservative Party was accused of abusing the honours system by systematically offering seats in the House of Lords to a select group of multimillionaire donors who pay more than £3 million to the party.

An investigation by the Sunday Times and Open Democracy revealed that wealthy benefactors appeared to be guaranteed a peerage if they took on the temporary role as the party treasurer and increased their own donations beyond £3 million.

David Cameron was also accused of cronyism when he nominated almost 50 close aides, political allies, and Conservative donors for honours as part of his resignation honours list.

In 2006, Tony Blair became the first prime minister to be questioned by police as part of a political corruption inquiry that would drag on for 16 months.

An investigation was launched after SNP MP Angus MacNeil complained that four wealthy businessmen were nominated by Blair for peerages after lending the party a total of £5m.

All four of the peerages were blocked by the House of Lords’ appointments commission, and MacNeil’s complaint launched a police investigation into whether laws banning the sale of honours had been broken.

What is the Salisbury Convention?

The Salisbury Convention is commonly understood to mean the House of Lords does not block government bills that seek to implement manifesto commitments. This means the Lords gives manifesto bills a second reading, does not subject them to wrecking amendments, and returns them to the Commons in reasonable time.

It was developed during the Labour government of 1945 to 1951.

At that time, Labour had a majority in the House of Commons but the Conservatives had a majority in the House of Lords. In his response to the King’s Speech of 1945, Viscount Cranborne argued the election result gave the Labour government a mandate for the proposals on which the electorate had voted. He said it would therefore be “constitutionally wrong” for the Lords to oppose their proposals.

He later recalled that, during this period, the opposition in the Lords passed Labour’s manifesto bills at second reading “although we cordially disliked them” and did its best to “improve them and make them more workable at committee stage”.