In the coming months, a series of articles will explore some of the key customs and traditions in the Lords, focusing on their historical origins, development and present-day usage. This article explores the self-regulating nature of the House of Lords.

1. Self-regulation in the House of Lords

The House of Lords is self-regulating. The ‘Companion to the standing orders and guide to the proceedings of the House of Lords’ explains that in practice this means the Lord Speaker has no power to rule on matters of order.[1] Expanding on this, the Companion notes that “the preservation of order and the maintenance of the rules of debate are the responsibility of the House itself”.

As a result, any member present in the Lords chamber can draw the House’s attention to breaches of order or failures to observe customs. Where there is doubt about a point of procedure, the Clerk of the Parliaments and other clerks are able to give advice, with members advised to consult them. Dr Emma Crewe, an anthropologist who has conducted research on the rituals and traditions of the Lords, has labelled self-regulation the Lords’ “most challenging, and most cherished peculiarity”.[2]

2. What is the difference between self-regulation vs regulation?

The difference between a self-regulated and a regulated chamber can be seen by comparing the House of Lords to the House of Commons. The standing orders of both Houses of Parliament show this difference, with the Commons having a significantly higher number of standing orders governing it than the Lords.[3]

The difference is also visible when watching debates. Viewers of the Commons will witness regular interventions by the Commons Speaker; however, in the Lords they would see the House reacting collectively to breaches of procedure often with calls of ‘order’.

3. How did the tradition of self-regulation develop?

Unlike the present day, historically the House of Lords had a significantly smaller membership than the House of Commons. The needs and behaviours of this smaller membership helped to shaped customs and traditions that are still relevant today. This has been the focus of several historians, including Michael A R Graves in his book ‘The House of Lords in the Parliaments of Edward VI and Mary I’.

Mr Graves explained that during the mid-Tudor period the House of Lords reached a membership of 79, with an average daily attendance of 41 during the parliaments of Edward VI and Mary I. He noted that not only was this membership small but it was also experienced, as its members enjoyed a lifelong role in the House. As a result, members of the Lords “became experienced Parliament men who knew the ropes and required fewer rules to guide and direct them”. In addition, the size of the House enabled “greater flexibility and freedom from constraint”, though Mr Graves noted this did not produce informality.

In contrast, during the mid-Tudor period the House of Commons grew to 400 members, with around half of the members during the parliaments of Elizabeth I newcomers. The result was a need for strict rules, with Elizabeth I herself known to have expressed irritation with the “frivolous and superfluous speech” seen in the Commons. Mr Graves argued that the House needed “strict rules of debate and voting, simply to wrest order out of chaos” and enable business to continue. In the 1560s these issues had led to the creation of a rule limiting each knight and burgess to only speak once to a bill each day to prevent lengthy altercations between members.

4. Why is self-regulation important today?

In her book ‘Lords of Parliament: Manners, Rituals and Politics’, Dr Crewe argued that the value placed on time helps to explain the importance of self-regulation in the Lords.[4] Stating that the misuse of time by members “not only endangers the miscreants’ reputations but endangers the principle of self-regulation”, she argued that peers are brought together to act as a collective police. This results in the “howling” often heard in reaction to procedural breaches in the chamber and is a demonstration of self-regulation in action.

Dr Crewe has also argued that self-regulation in the House allows debate to be “less lawless, antagonistic and unrestrained”. She contends that going against a collective is intimidating for potential rule breakers. In contrast, Dr Crewe argued that in a regulated system a Speaker needs the protection of rules, “which are usually manipulated by government”, to stand alone against the chamber.

Cover image: © UK Parliament 2023/Jessica Taylor.