House of Lords
The House of Lords, or, more properly, The Right Honourable the House of Lords, is the upper house of the British legislature. Together with the Queen and the House of Commons, it comprises one of the three elements of the British Parliament. It was formerly the highest appellate court in the UK until October 2009; the Supreme Court, as created by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, has now taken over this function, although the Law Lords previously appointed to the House of Lords remain Lords and Supreme Court judges.
Reform of the House of Lords may be regarded as a second-tier current political issue in the UK.
The House of Lords is composed of two categories of member: the Lords Spiritual and the Lords Temporal. It presently has 731 members in total, 26 Lords Spiritual and 705 Lords Temporal.
Historically, the House of Lords was composed of aristocrats (peers) who had either inherited their aristocratic titles or been awarded them by the Monarch (in later times, the Monarch would act in such circumstances at the request of the Prime Minister). The Life Peerages Act of 1958 gave the Monarch the power to confer the noble title of Baron (or Baroness) on individuals for life only, without their children inheriting it.
In 1998, the Labour Government of Tony Blair removed most of the hereditary peers from the House: as part of a compromise deal, 92 have remained, though these are expected to be removed during the next round of reform of the House. The House accordingly now consists almost entirely of "life peers" appointed as Barons with non-inheritable titles.
Life peers are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. In making his recommendations to the Queen, the Prime Minister receives representations from opposition parties and an independent House of Lords Appointments Commission, and appointments of a highly political nature are scrutinised by a Political Honours Scrutiny Committee. However, following the 2005 election, it has been suggested a number of wealthy donors of money to the Labour Party (and also some Conservative donors) made their donations in return for being granted peerages and seats in the Lords. A police investigation into these allegations is ongoing, and Tony Blair has been interviewed by the Metropolitan (London) Police as a witness.
A final category of Lords Temporal are the "Law Lords", who exercise the House's function as the highest court of the UK. The Law Lords (who, strictly speaking, constitute the "Appellate Committee" of the House) are appointed (by being awarded life peerages) from among the highest ranks of the British judiciary, and are roughly equivalent to the justices of the United States' Supreme Court, though their powers are a little less extensive.
Labour called for abolition of the House of Lords in 1910; when elected, they kept it and appointed their own favourites to peerages. Later posters dropped the violent imagery and called for peaceful change. Since the reform of 1998, the Labour Government has taken steps to effect further reform to the House of Lords, reducing the role of hereditary peers.
The current political composition of the House of Lords is as follows:
Labour Party: 226 seats
Conservative Party: 213 seats
Liberal Democrats: 90 seats
Democratic Unionist Party: 4 seats
Ulster Unionist Party: 3 seats
UK Independence Party: 2 seats
Plaid Cymru: 2 seats
Independents ("Cross-benchers"): 177 seats
Lords Spiritual: 26