Westminster is packed full of peculiar traditions from the Commons’ door being slammed in Black Rod’s face to the ban on MPs clapping. While many of them are relatively harmless, there are others which are an affront to democracy. Chief among these archaic practices is the continued presence of 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords.
Their role is not just ceremonial. They are entitled to amend draft legislation and challenge the government of the day. And yet the people who their decisions affect – that’s the 66 million people living in the UK – have absolutely no say in who fills these positions.
The same goes for life peers who currently sit in the House of Lords too. But what distinguishes these 92 is that they have not been appointed: they are eligible to sit simply because of the aristocratic families into which they were born – ‘elected’ from a tiny pool when the former hereditary peer passes away.
Don’t be fooled by the word ‘election’ into thinking there is anything democratic about this procedure. It sees Parliamentary elites choosing from among themselves.
To be eligible to stand you have to be a hereditary peer not currently in the Lords. And to be eligible to vote in the election you have to be a hereditary peer from the relevant political party, already in the House.
This system resulted in an electorate of three choosing between seven candidates following the death of Lord Avebury in 2016.
This absurd practice has hung around as an embarrassing stain on our democracy for far too long. But thankfully, one member of the house is trying to change that.
For the second time, Lord Grocott has brought forward draft legislation which would scrap hereditary peerage ‘by-elections’ once and for all. He proposes to achieve this by ensuring that when a hereditary peer dies, retires or is excluded, they are not replaced.
Lord Grocott’s Bill has reached the committee stage and was debated in the House of Lords on March 23rd. But what ensued on that day was a handful of peers using delaying tactics to ensure the Bill did not pass the committee stage (another oddity of the Westminster system which is completely alien to most people). Just two hereditary peers put down around 60 amendments to force the debate to drag on – and run out of time. It means further time will need to be made for the bill to progress. It is not certain that this will happen.
We hope – for our democracy’s sake – that a second day of debate is scheduled promptly, so that progress can be made on ridding our Parliament of the undemocratic hereditary principle.
This ‘tradition’ is an unwelcome hangover from a time of privilege. It’s time to end the farce of hereditary peerage by-elections – and start bringing the second chamber into the 21st century.
Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament Photography by Annabel Moeller