The House of Lords Act 1999 (1999 c. 34) was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that was given Royal Assent on 11 November 1999. It was a major constitutional enactment that reformed greatly one of the chambers of Parliament, the House of Lords. For centuries, the House of Lords had included several hundred members who inherited their seats; the Act removed such a right. However, as part of a compromise, the Act did permit ninety-two hereditaries to remain in the House on an interim basis. The Act decreased the membership of the House from 1,330 (October 1999) to 669 (March 2000). As another result of the Act, the majority of the Lords were now life peers, whose numbers had been gradually increasing since the Life Peerages Act 1958.
After eighteen years of Conservative rule, the Labour party led by Tony Blair won a landslide victory at the 1997 general election, in the process inflicting the biggest defeat for the Conservatives since 1832. The Labour Party had for years endorsed abolition of the unelected House of Lords in its election platforms, though since 1992 this had changed to a policy of reforming the House instead.
During the twentieth century successive Labour governments proposed many bills that were opposed by the traditionally Conservative House of Lords. In the first year of Tony Blair's government the Lords rejected Labour bills thirty-eight times. The rejection considered the most contentious was of the European Elections Bill, which the Lords voted down an unprecedented five times. Blair claimed that the Conservatives were using the hereditary peers to "frustrate" and "overturn the will of the democratically elected House of Commons". Here Blair found an opportunity to implement one of Labour's campaign promises, "reforming" the Lords.
On 24 November 1998, in opening the second session of Parliament, the Queen delivered her annual Speech from the Throne; the Speech is written for her by the ruling party and outlines that party's legislative agenda for the upcoming year and not the Monarch's personal views. In it, she suggested that her Government (i.e. the ruling Labour Party) would pursue a reform of the House of Lords. These remarks were followed by shouts of "Hear! Hear!" from supportive Labour Members of Parliament, and by similar shouts of "Shame! Shame!" from Conservative peers; such outbursts were unprecedented, for the Queen's Speech is traditionally heard by a silent Parliament.
In order to convince some peers to vote for reform, Tony Blair announced that he would compromise by allowing a number of hereditary peers to remain in the House of Lords on an interim basis. On 2 December 1998, the Conservative Leader of the Opposition, William Hague, rose in the House of Commons to attack Tony Blair's plans. He suggested that Mr Blair's changes indicated his lack of principles. Hague further suggested that the Conservative Party would never agree to such constitutional reforms that were "based on no comprehensive plan or principle." Mr Hague's remarks backfired when Blair revealed that the Conservative Party in the House of Lords, rather than oppose his reforms, would definitely support them, and that he had done a secret deal with the Conservative leader in the House of Lords, Viscount Cranborne. Mr Hague immediately removed Viscount Cranborne from office, but, in protest, several Conservative Lords who held front-bench positions resigned.
On 19 January 1999, the Leader of the House of Commons, Margaret Beckett, introduced the House of Lords Bill into the House of Commons. The House of Commons passed the bill by a vote of 340 to 132 on 16 March. The next day it was presented to the House of Lords, where debate on the bill was far longer. One significant amendment made to the Bill was the so-called Weatherill Amendment, named for the Lord Weatherill, the former Speaker of the House of Commons. The Weatherill Amendment put into place the deal agreed to by the Prime Minister and Viscount Cranborne, and allowed ninety-two hereditary peers to remain members of the House of Lords.
Several controversies relating to the technicalities of the bill were brought up in the House of Lords. One issue regarded the language used in clauses 1 to 7, which was described by Lord Mayhew of Twysden as "uncertain in its effects and would leave the position of most hereditary Peers uncertain if the Bill was enacted. A second issue was related to the Treaty of Union of 1707 uniting Scotland and England into Great Britain. After lengthy debates, both matters were referred to the House of Lords Committee on Privileges.
Under the Articles of Union agreed to in 1707, Scottish Lords would be entitled to elect sixteen representative peers to sit on their Lordships' behalf in the House of Lords. In 1963, the Peerage Act was passed, allowing all Scottish peers to sit in the House, not just sixteen of them. It was felt that removing all Scottish representation would breach the Articles. The Government, however, responded that the Articles did envisage a change in the election of representative peers. It was argued that some portions of the Treaty were entrenched, while others were not. For instance, Scotland and England were united "forever," the Scottish Court of Session was to "remain in all time coming within Scotland as it is now constituted, and the establishment of the Church of Scotland was "effectually and unalterably secured. However, it was suggested, the election of Scottish representative peers was not entrenched, and therefore could be amended. Furthermore, the Government argued that Parliament was entirely sovereign and supreme, and could at its will change the Articles of Union. For example, the Treaty of Union joining Great Britain and Ireland required that the two nations be united "for ever. Nonetheless, in 1922, by an Act of Parliament, most of Ireland was made independent as the Irish Free State. Thus, even entrenched clauses were argued to be open to amendment by the authority of Parliament. The Committee agreed and reported to the House on 20 October 1999, that the Bill was indeed lawful in this regard.
After the Committee's first and second reports were considered, the Lords passed the bill 221 to 81 on 26 October 1999. Once the Lords settled the differences between their version of the bill and the Commons version thereof, the Bill received Royal Assent on 11 November 1999 and became an Act of parliament. The Act then came into force the same day.
The Act prevents even hereditary peers who are the first to hold their titles from sitting automatically in the House of Lords. The Government did agree, however, to give life peerages (the titles of which are indicated in parentheses) to four such new hereditary peers: Toby Austin Richard William Low, 1st Baron Aldington (Baron Low), Frederick James Erroll, 1st Baron Erroll of Hale (Baron Erroll of Kilmun), Francis Aungier Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford, 1st Baron Pakenham (Baron Pakenham of Cowley) and Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon (Baron Armstrong-Jones). Additionally, life peerages were created for former Leaders of the House of Lords: John Julian Ganzoni, 2nd Baron Belstead (Baron Ganzoni), Peter Alexander Rupert Carington, 6th Baron Carrington (Baron Carington of Upton), Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Viscount Cranborne (Baron Gascoyne-Cecil), George Patrick John Rushworth Jellicoe, 2nd Earl Jellicoe (Baron Jellicoe of Southampton), Malcolm Shepherd, 2nd Baron Shepherd (Baron Shepherd of Spalding) and David James George Hennessy, 3rd Baron Windlesham (Baron Hennessy).
Life peerages were also offered to members of the royal family with new hereditary peerages, but declined: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Charles, Prince of Wales, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex.
Before the granting of Royal Assent, the Lords had adopted a Standing Order making provision for the election of peers. The Order provided that there be elected:
The elections for officers of the House were held on 27 and 28 October 1999, while those for peers elected by party were held on 3 and 4 November; the results were proclaimed to the House on 29 October and 5 November. Voters were required to rank in order of preference, on a ballot prepared by the Clerk of the Parliaments, as many candidates as there were places to be filled. The candidates receiving the greatest number of votes (without regard to the ranking on the ballots, so in effect block voting) were declared elected. Only if there were ties would the ranking be examined. Thereafter, until November 2002, if a vacancy occurred, the next-highest vote-getter (the rankings being examined, again, only in the case of ties) in the original election would fill the seat.
Since November 2002, by-elections have been held to fill vacancies. Voting is by preferential voting, with peers ranking the candidates in order of preference. As many or as few preferences as desired may be indicated. To win the election, a peer must receive a majority of first preference votes. If no candidate receives such a majority, the candidate with the fewest number of first preference votes is eliminated, with each of his votes being redistributed according to the second preference marked on the ballot (see Instant-runoff voting). The process is continued until one candidate receives a majority. Two by-elections have been held in 2003 and a third in 2004. A further four by-elections were necessary in 2005, with none occurring in 2006. A by-election was held in March 2007 following the death of Lord Mowbray in late 2006.
It was expected that the Government would eventually present a bill to remove the remaining ninety-two hereditary peers from the House of Lords, but as of May 2008 this has yet to occur.