As the Government reels from a stinging defeat on tax credits in the House of Lords there are calls for reform.

George Osborne said that he and David Cameron are now clear the rebellion “raises constitutional issues that need to be dealt with”.

Elsewhere critics of the policy are heralding the unelected chamber as the last bastion of defence when it comes to the poorest in our society.

Who sits in the House of Lords?

Lords At State Opening of Parliament, UKPeers chat at the opening of Parliament earlier this year

It’s made up of the Lords Temporal, appointed life peers and elected hereditary peers, and Lords Spiritual – that means all 26 bishops of the Church of England get a place in the chamber.

Most are life peers. Under the House of Lords act 1999 the number of hereditary peers was limited to 92. These are mainly male as most peerages can only be inherited by men. When a peer leaves the house – in most cases because he or she has died – an eligible hereditary peer is then elected into their place.

Some political scientists say that an appointed chamber better ensures proper scrutiny of arguments and accountability in government.


There are lots of them…

27_lords_v_mps_chart_fc_wThey are mainly men…

27_menandwomen_chart_FC_wAlthough just 25 per cent are women, this is quite similar to the make-up of the House of Commons, where just 29 per cent of members are women.

They cost a lot of money

Each peer can claim a flat rate of £150 or £300 a day, as well as limited travel expenses for each day the Lords sits. However, this is only around 150 days a year.

Not every peer claims, or claims for every day they sit.  The average claim is £25,826 a year – far less than a MP’s salary of £67,060.

The electoral reform society says the money could be re-purposed and used to pay 300 elected representatives a full salary.

It also says that 2010-2015 parliament, £360,000 was claimed by 62 Peers for years in which they did not vote once.

They are the biggest chamber in the democratic world

There are currently 816 sitting peers. When those on a leave of absence and members of the judiciary are included, this number reaches 857. This has increased from 662 members in 1999.

Many critics think that this makes the Lords simply too big.

There are only 400 seats in the chamber, so if they all turned up at once there would simply be no space to sit, and on big votes, like yesterday’s tax credit vote, it can get pretty crowded.

It is the biggest chamber in the democratic world. Only China’s National People’s Congress, with 2949 members, has more.

Unelected people can serve in Government

Although many previous governments have resisted the temptation to appoint cabinet members from the unelected chamber, in recent years it has become common practice.

In 2010 the Public Accounts Committee expressed concerns that Prime Ministers were appointing people to the Lords specifically to make them ministers, bypassing the electoral process.

The House of Commons Library found that at least 10 such appointments appeared to be made under Gordon Brown from June 2007 to May 2010.

They included Lord Adonis as Secretary of State for Transport and Lord Mandelson as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.


They are quite old

The average age in the House of Lords is 70. The youngest member is Lord Wei who is 38. The oldest is Lord Ezra. He is 96.

Champions of the Lords argue that a valuable combination of knowledge and life experience comes with their age.

nat_wei_wLord Wei of Shoreditch, the youngest Lord at 38

Convicted criminals can still serve

The House of Lords keeps no central record of the convictions of its members. If a Lord or Baroness is handed a custodial sentence which would prevent them from sitting the courts inform the House authorities.

In theory MPs with a jail term of less than 12 months can remain in post, but in practice they are under extreme pressure to resign. In rare cases some have also been expelled for criminal behaviour.

You cannot stand as an MP if you have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment of three months or more during the five years before polling day. As peers are in place for life none of these apply.

And some have criminal convictions

The House of Lords keeps no central record on criminal convictions of its members. If a Lord or Baroness is handed a custodial sentence which would prevent them from sitting the courts inform the House authorities. A 2011 FOI request reveals six such instances.

These include Lord Watson of Invergowrie, having pleaded guilty to wilful fire raising in 2005 – he set fire to a set of curtains in a hotel reception after the Scottish politician of the year awards. He was subsequently expelled from the Labour party but was welcomed back in to the fold  in 2012 and now sits as a Labour lord – in fact last month Jeremy Corbyn appointed him education spokesman for the Lords.

Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare was convicted of perjury in 2001. His conviction prompted calls for a reform of the house to allow Lords to be ejected or to resign, but this was rejected.

Lord Archer hasn’t attended debates in the House of Lords since he was jailed in 2001.

Since then Lord Hanningford and Lord Taylor of Warwick have been jailed for fraudulent expenses claims. On their release in September 2011 they were suspended from the House of Lords for less than a year.

Those convicted of other offenses with no prison time do not have to notify anyone.

There’s no limit on lords

Critics also say the creation of new Lords leaves the door wide open for cronyism. In August Mr Cameron appointed 26 new Conservative peers, 11 Lib Dems and eight Labour.

These Lords could theoretically help win the Government support in the upper house to win battles on Europe and welfare – although yesterday’s rebellion shows this strategy is not foolproof.

The Lib Dems demanded the seats as recompense for propping up the coalition government for five years – and their subsequent car crash election.

Ironically, this means that the party who champions abolition of unelected peers is almost entirely made up of unelected peers. There are only eight Lib Dem MPs, yet the party has 112 representatives in the Lords.