The House of Lords forms the ‘other half’ of Parliament – separated from the House of Commons. Parliament is the supreme legislative body (the body which makes our laws) in the UK. Unlike the Commons, which is made up of democratically elected MPs, the Lords is not elected by the public. Instead, it combines hereditary peers (historic lineage – Dukes, Duchesses, etc) with nominated individuals (see David Cameron’s recent appointment as a member, or Apprentice host ‘Lord’ Alan Sugar) and religious leaders (traditionally Christian bishops, but increasingly also representatives of other religions).
The Lords is made up of nearly 800 ‘peers’ in total, some of which are affiliated with a particular party, and others of which are simply known as neutral ‘crossbenchers’. Over time, however, the makeup of the House of Lords has changed drastically.
In recent years, there have been a number of attempts to limit the power of the House of Lords, since its unelected nature makes it a common target for criticisms of being undemocratic. The 1991 House of Lords Act, for example, limited the number of hereditary peers allowed to sit to 91. In 2005, the Constitutional Reform Act moved the top court of the UK out of the Lords and into an independent body – the UK Supreme Court (UKSC). Labour leader Keir Starmer himself has gone on record in the past in describing unelected peers as ‘indefensible’.
This is not to say that the Lords have been completely stripped of power, however. All Bills still need to get approved by the Lords, and although conventions on issues like public spending mean the Lords should not block certain pieces of legislation, other Bills do get rejected and sent back to the Commons for revision (a process known as ‘ping-pong’), which angers many political commentators.
Given Labour’s usual attempts to appeal to the more left-wing, liberal members of society, it should come as no surprise that they have not been vocal supporters of the House of Lords.
Speaking in 2022, Starmer stated: ‘people have lost faith in the ability of politicians and politics to bring about change – that is why, as well as fixing our economy, we need to fix our politics’, and that the Lords does not work unless it is ‘truly representative’ of society.
The party’s draft manifesto last year provisionally suggested that they would scrap the House of Lords altogether, but many have felt that Labour are being forced to weaken their stances on a number of key issues in order to maintain their current lead over the Tories in the polls (which currently predict a win for Labour at the next election). They are accused of moving from the left wing towards the centre – Starmer is often now being criticised for having no clear policies and moving to appease centrist voters too much.
Labour have said that their plans to abolish the House of Lords will be delayed for now, instead allowing them to make more limited reforms (continuing on from the trend described above). This includes reducing the number of hereditary peers and creating a new process via which members are appointed (one which can be subject to greater scrutiny in the wake of recent contentious appointments by the Tories).
This is certainly a very relevant story for a number of aspiring lawyers to follow. Whether you are looking to become a solicitor or barrister in England and Wales, this is a story very likely to affect your everyday practice based on its outcome – the abolishment of the House of Lords would significantly alter the entire law-making process of the UK.
This is also a useful example to discuss in the context of applications within your legal career. Solicitors applying for vacation schemes or training contracts, or barristers applying for mini-pupillage or pupillage, could work this story into an application in a number of ways.
For example, if public law is an area of interest for you (one which deals with constitutional issues on a day-to-day basis), then this would be an excellent issue to bring up on your application forms. Developing this issue further at the interview stage (for example in assessment centres) would also be a good move.
This is especially relevant if your target firms or chambers have a specialism in public law. Looking at the Legal 500 rankings, for example, you will see that a range of firms come up here – from top US-UK City heavyweights like Hogan Lovells to more boutique offerings like Bindmans. If you’re applying to one of these firms and express an interest in public law within your application, you might even say that a basic understanding of the proposed Lords reforms is even a prerequisite.
Finally, it is worth noting that this story, while seemingly political on the face of it, could still come under ‘commercial awareness’ in regard to its implications. Significant changes to the governance of law in the UK would affect everyone in society, including large corporate players (banks, private equity firms, hedge funds, etc) who are usually more concerned with the FCA than the Lords, for instance. This story could therefore be seen as a great opportunity to link contextual issues not commonly associated with commercial awareness into the mix.
In short, Labour’s change of course in regard to abolishing (now reforming) the House of Lords is likely to have significant implications for both political and legal circles. Aspiring lawyers interested in pursuing a career in public law should certainly follow this dynamic story as it develops, perhaps even harvesting some of its key points for their applications in the future.
Check out our round-up of commercial awareness questions to challenge you to take a deeper look into this topic.
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