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The Lord Speaker: Something Old and Something New

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The Lord Speaker is both a new and old role in the House of Lords. The title of Lord Speaker was created by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Before this, the role of overseeing Lords’ debates was one of the many responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor. This blog written by Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer, will look at the duties of the Lord Chancellor and the transition through the Constitutional Reform Act, to the role of the Lord Speaker today.

The House of Lords Speaker's role is similar to the House of Commons Speaker's as they both oversee the debates in their respective chambers. Unlike the Commons, the House of Lords is self-regulating, which means the Speaker does not have the power to control or manage the debate. They do not decide who speaks, what is discussed or maintain order. This is all done collectively by the members of the House of Lords, the Speaker instead provides assistance and guides the debates. Find out more about the long history of the Commons Speaker on our blog: All Rise for the Speaker!


Lord Chancellor

Before the position of Lord Speaker was created, the role of overseeing Lords’ debates was one of the many important responsibilities held by the Lord Chancellor. In the medieval period, the Lord Chancellor was appointed by the monarch as a secretary. Working closely with the monarch, the Lord Chancellor was able to use the Sovereign’s royal seal to prepare and send the monarch’s letters. However, the role evolved over time, gaining more administrative responsibilities and important titles, increasing the importance and significance of the position.

In addition, to the administrative responsibilities and presiding over the House of Lords’ Chamber debates, the Lord Chancellor also held central judicial roles. The Lord Chancellor was a senior judge in the House of Lords, the head of the judiciary (the courts of law in England and Wales) and had the power to appoint judges. The Lord Chancellor even gained its own government department, originally created in 1885 as the Lord Chancellor's Office.

This notebook from 1850-51 shows some of the day-to-day activities of Lord Chancellor Thomas Wilde. Wilde held the post of Lord Chancellor from 1850-1852. The notebook includes descriptions of the judicial cases he oversaw. Most of these are about trade, debt, and inheritance. The notes on this page are about a marriage settlement case between Emma Adams and Richard Gibbs.


Handwritten notes in a bound volume
Lord Chancellor’s notebook, 1850-51, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/LB/1/22/4/1

Constitutional Reform

In 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced as part of a government reshuffle that the office of the Lord Chancellor would be abolished. It almost immediately became apparent that this could not be done and rather than being abolished the Constitutional Reform Act changed and redistributed the functions of the office.

The Bill was originally introduced on 24 February 2004. The Lords had serious amendments to the Bill and it had to be carried over by the Lords to the next parliamentary session from the 2003-4 session into the 2004-5 session. This procedure of carrying a bill over has only occurred in the Lords four times. You can see by the size of the Bill, that the Lords and Commons had lots of additions, comments and revisions as it ping-ponged between the two chambers. After much discussion and many amendments, the Bill eventually received royal assent on 24 March 2005.

The 2005 Constitutional Reform Act drastically changed the responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor. The Act created the title Lord Speaker, separating the role from the ancient office of the Lord Chancellor into its own individual and elected title. The Constitutional Reform Act also removed some of the Lord Chancellor’s other responsibilities, such as head of the judiciary.

Stack of papers bound by a red ribbon
Constitutional Reform House Bill, 2003-4, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/17/76


Lord Speaker

Following the introduction of the Constitutional Reform Act, the first election for the Lord Speaker was held on 28 June 2006. The first elected Lord Speaker would also be the first woman Speaker, Baroness Helene Hayman. The Speaker is elected for a term of five years and can only be elected for two terms. There have been four Lord Speaker elections since the role’s inception, the first Baroness Hayman in 2006, the second Baroness D’Souza in 2011, the third Lord Fowler in 2016, and the current Lord Speaker Lord McFall elected in 2021.

House of Lords chamber with Baroness Hayman sitting on the red woolsack.
Photograph of the election of the first Lord Speaker Baroness Hayman, 4 July 2006, Parliamentary Archives, HC/OCE/1/167

The Speaker has a variety of duties in addition to presiding over debates in the Lords Chamber. They also act as an ambassador for the House, representing the Lords inside and outside the Chamber both at home and abroad. This includes the Speaker’s ceremonial duties such as their role in State Opening and addresses from visiting Heads of State. The Speaker chairs the House of Lords Commission which oversees the Lords' Administration directing the strategic and financial direction of the House. The Speaker is also involved in coordinating the public engagement programme and outreach.


The Woolsack

A blog about the Lord Speaker would not be complete without mentioning the Woolsack. The Woolsack is the seat of the Lord Speaker when they oversee debates. If the Lord Speaker is not there, then one of the Deputy Speakers perch on the Woolsack. First introduced in the 14th century, the Woolsack is symbolically stuffed with English wool, to represent the importance of the wool trade to the economy in England. In 1938 it was restuffed with a blend of wool from the UK and all the countries of the Commonwealth.

black and white photo of the House of Lords chamber.
The Throne and Woolsack, House of Lords, 1897, Parliamentary Archives, HC/LB/1/111/2/5

The separation of the role of Lord Speaker from the many responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor made it possible for the Speaker to focus on their role both inside and outside the Chamber.

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