In days gone by Peers sat in strict order of precedence - the Lords Spiritual
on the right of the throne and the Lords Temporal on the left. However, as
membership of the House increased, it became necessary to provide additional
seating and in the 17th century cross benches were introduced primarily to
accommodate the Viscounts and the Barons.
So the problem of seating is not new, but with the introduction
of Life Peers in 1958 it has steadily increased (although the Appellate
Jurisdiction Act of 1876 allowed the Law Lords to sit as Life Peers). The cross
benches are now associated with Peers who have no specific party allegiance. Crossbenchers also sit
on some of the benches on the left of the Throne nearest the three cross benches.
Their numbers steadily increased to over 300 until the 1999
House of Lords Act ended the automatic right of Hereditary Peers to sit
and vote in the House of Lords. As of 2012, there are over 170 Crossbench Peers.
Crossbench Peers receive notice of forthcoming
business, but no whip is ever issued. There is a meeting on Wednesday afternoons
chaired by the Convenor at which matters of mutual interest or concern may be
raised, but there is no obligation to attend and it is not permitted to seek to
influence the way in which those present should vote on any issue. Indeed the
record shows that Crossbenchers are frequently split between the parties in the
Division Lobbies. Nevertheless when the Crossbench Peers do attend in strength
to support a particular measure, their influence can often be decisive.
It is important to stress that Crossbench Peers sit strictly as
individuals and do not constitute a party. An increasing number of Crossbench Peers
come from outside
the realm of politics, from the learned professions, from medicine or
education, from industry and commerce or from the voluntary sector and the
performing arts. Many are still actively involved outside the House.
Adapted from an article written by Lord Weatherill, then
Convenor of the Crossbench Peers, in 1996.