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Getting the Houses in Order: agenda-setting, policy-making, and legislating in the House of Lords

« Getting the Houses in Order » : l’élaboration de la loi à la Chambre des lords

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Published on Friday, March 08, 2019


Twenty years after the 1999 Reform Act was passed, this one-day conference will study the evolutions and transformations of the legislative and political abilities of the House of Lords in the British parliamentary system. Organised jointly by the MIMMOC (Université de Poitiers) and the CECILLE (Université de Lille), the conference will also adopt a comparative approach and we welcome submissions focused on the upper chambers of different countries.


One-Day Conference 11 October 2019, Université de Poitiers.


2019 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the House of Lords Reform Act. This act brought drastic alterations to the fabric of the British upper chamber. Passed in the midst of what many commentators called New Labour’s Constitutional turn, the House of Lords Reform Act was introduced as a first critical step towards a more radical overhaul of the British parliamentary structure. Purging the upper chamber of its hereditary peers was championed as a first stage in a democratising endeavour: to ultimately turn one of the remnants of Britain’s aristocratic past into a democratically-elected upper chamber. To Robert Hazell however, this reform was not only limited but essentially flawed from the outset, because it approached parliamentary reform the wrong way around:

It is extraordinary that at the moment all debates about the House of Lords' tends to begin and end with its composition. In any proper review of a reformed House of Lords the membership must come last. First, we must decide on its role and functions; the powers necessary to fulfil those functions: and only then can we decide what sort of people we need to carry out that role, and exercise those powers.[1]

Yet, for many on the radical fringes of the political spectrum, such a reform spelt high hopes for improved representation. As little change was introduced in the following decade, analysts increasingly suggested that New Labour’s reform was more a form of political engineering to rid Parliament of traditional Conservative opposition in the Lords than a genuine attempt at bolstering the Lords’ democratic capital. Peter Dorey notably suggested that Labour governments’ attachment to “top-down executive-minded stance” has prevented Labour leaders from carrying through drastic transformations to the Westminster model, a symbol of what he named Labour’s “constitutional conservatism.”[2]  As the Liberal-Democrats entered in a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, talks of parliamentary reform brought the question back onto the political agenda. Turning the Lords into an elected chamber featured as one of the key pledges to deliver a “fairer deal by cleaning up politics” in their 2010 Manifesto.  Yet once again, this commitment remained held in abeyance. Consequently, parliamentary balance and constitutional reform receded throughout the early 2000s, despite the removal of the Law Lords in 2009 and the establishment of the British Supreme Court which fundamentally redefined Judicial Review. To many, parliamentary reform has remained an "unfinished business." 

2019 therefore emerges as a most suitable moment to take stock of the state of parliamentary balance and the influence of the Lords over policy-making in the light of recent evolutions. In particular, the spectre of constitutional clashes spurred by both the extension of devolution arrangements and the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 has rekindled scientific interest in the roles, functions and capabilities of the upper chamber within Parliament. These recent debates put British bicameralism and parliamentary constitutional balance to the test, as the return of several powers, which had been transferred to the European institutions, will no doubt help redefine the limits of the Commons’ and the Lords’ scope of intervention and political clout.  For instance, the Scottish National Party have expressed their intent on making sure that many of these key decision-making areas, including agricultural policies, be directly transferred to devolved authorities and not brought back under Westminster’s control. 

Commentators have seldom praised the House of Lords’ ability at confronting their Commons’ counterparts on legislative grounds. Anthony King for instance argued: “Since the late 1940s, the House of Lords has frequently been useful, has occasionally been influential and has from time to time been a nuisance (especially to Labour ministers); but it hasn’t, for any sustained period, constituted an autonomous source of power within the system.”[3] Following this interpretation, many thus suggest that the British upper chamber has been tucked in the shadows of the lower chamber since the early 20th century. The Parliament Act 1911 coupled with the Salisbury Convention of the 1940s are both earmarked as yardsticks in this gradual erosion of the forceful impact of the House of Lords in the legislative process. Others identified this decline much earlier, with McCarthy for instance already exploring the workings of what he called the “useless” chamber – “the champion anomaly of the British constitution.”[4]

Extensive work has been performed on the immediate policy impact of the 1999 reform, starting off with Meg Russell’s seminal work on the paradoxes of the House of Lords in the wake of the 1999 Reform Act. She demonstrated that instead of further undermining the House of Lords’ accountability and turning it into a rubberstamp chamber subservient to the wishes of the Commons, the reform was followed by a spike in the Lords’ legitimacy, activism and opposition to the Commons’ authority through debating and government’s defeats.[5] In part because of the changes in the make-up of the House, its committees have been particularly active in providing expertise thus having a central role in building legislation. The workings of British parliamentary system have been for the most part dictated by conventions and traditions - thus strongly conditioned by immediate context and pragmatic contingencies. What has become of these conventions and traditions? 

We welcome contributions from a variety of fields, including but not limited to political science, sociology, anthropology, history or law. The UK is not the only European country where the question of the role and political weight of the upper chamber has been questioned over the past two decades. A comparative approach would therefore allow us to put the question of the House of Lords in its wider European context. 

Possible topics include

  • The role of upper chambers as counterpowers against the power of the lower chamber or against the power of government.
  • The changes in the make-up of the House of Lords since the 1999 reform and their impacts
  • The informal and formal roles and influences of the upper chamber in shaping politics outside of the debating chamber and in the house select committees
  • The weight of the Lords in the Brexit process
  • More theoretical approaches on evolving bicameral parliamentary structures and models of governance

Abstract Submission

To submit a paper proposal, please send an abstract of 500 words, along with a short bio-bibliography to:

  • anne.cousson@univ-poitiers.fr
  • lucie.de-carvalho@univ-lille.fr

The deadline for the abstract submission is 15 April 2019. 


The proposals will be selected by the organizing committee : Anne Cousson (MCF, Université de Poitiers) and Lucie de Carvalho (MCF, Université de Lille).


[1] Hazell, Robert. Constitutional Reform and the New Labour government, The Constitutional Unit, 4 July 1997, p. 5. 

[2] Dorey, Peter, The Labour Party and Constitutional Reform, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 

[3] King, Anthony. Does the United Kingdom Still Have a Constitution?. Sweet and Maxwell Ltd, 2001, p. 73.

[4] McCarthy, Justin. “The Useless House of Lords”, The North American Review, vol. 157, n° 441, 1893, p. 215.  

[5] Russell, Meg and Daniel Gover. Legislation at Westminster: Parliamentary Actors and Influence in the Making of the Law. Oxford University Press, 2017.


  • Maison des Sciences de l'Homme et de la Société - 5 rue Théodore Lefebvre
    Poitiers, France (86)


  • Monday, April 15, 2019


  • chambre des lords, civilisation britannique, parlement, droit public, house of lords, parliament, public law, constitution


  • Anne Cousson
    courriel : anne [dot] cousson [at] univ-poitiers [dot] fr
  • Lucie de Carvalho
    courriel : lucie [dot] de-carvalho [at] univ-lille [dot] fr

Information source

  • Anne Cousson
    courriel : anne [dot] cousson [at] univ-poitiers [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Getting the Houses in Order: agenda-setting, policy-making, and legislating in the House of Lords », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Friday, March 08, 2019, https://doi.org/10.58079/1253

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