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The red brigade;The House of Lords;The big picture

Getting a seat in the House of Lords isn't easy, unless nobility runs in your family. Inherit a title from your father and you can join other aristocrats at occasions like this, the State Opening of Parliament. The alternative is to be made a knight, or life peer, in one of the honours lists. Either way, it helps if you're a man - 90 per cent of them are, and getting on a bit - their average age is pushing 70.

"Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords" sang the Beatles, but there's no mistaking this lot. The stripes on their ermine-clad Father Christmas outfits indicate their rank in the peerage - from duke (the highest) through marquess, earl, viscount to baron, equivalent to a life peer. Those in wigs at the front are Law Lords.

Nearly 1,300 people are entitled to sit in the House of Lords but average daily attendance last year was just over 400. Conservative peers are largest in number, followed by non-aligned "cross benchers", Labour, an autonomous grouping called "the others", and Liberal Democrats.

The Lords can't make laws, but it can revise them. Legally, it is both a stopping shop - putting the brakes on Bills it doesn't agree with; and a last resort - as the highest authority on UK law it will hear appeals against decisions made in courts.

But it's not just the Lords' fondness for wearing ermine that makes it politically incorrect, according to the Labour government. Critics say being a hereditary peer is like being a heriditary plumber, and that birthright is no indication of ability. Despite dragging its feet on a manifesto pledge to abolish voting rights for heriditary peers the government is determined to reform this most arcane of institutions and some kind of appointed or elected upper chamber is the likely outcome. A Royal Commission - headed, of course, by a lord - is hearing evidence and will present its recommendations later this year.

Harvey McGavin


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