Hereditary peer by-elections have been paused. They should be scrapped entirely

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 18th September 2020

The House of Lords just keeps getting bigger. Following the PM’s appointment of 36 new unelected peers, each week sees more introduced to a chamber that is bursting at the seams.

 The Lords themselves have reported outrage at the new additions. Lord Speaker Norman Fowler said at the time: “The thing that strikes me most of all is there is no maximum to the no of peers that can be appointed…nothing that stands in his [the PM’s] way…I don’t know of any Senate in the democratic world where it is open-ended at the top…It is wrong, it costs more [and] I cannot see the point of it.”

Lord Cormack suggested refusing the new peers entry altogether, telling the House: “It is entirely possible for your Lordships’ House to refuse to admit somebody. A peerage has been given but we do not have to sanction immediate entry. There is precedent going back to the reign of Queen Victoria, when she tried to create a life Peer.”

There is almost unanimous agreement on one way the Lords could slim down: scrapping hereditary peer by-elections, which sees Britain’s aristocrats guaranteed 92 seats in our second chamber. Each time one of them dies or retires, they are replaced through a farcical ‘election’ – where the only voters are the current hereditary peers from their political group. Needless to say, they are almost entirely men and tend to own rather a lot of land.

Earlier this month, the Lords resolved to suspend hereditary peer by-elections until the start of 2021 – aware of the bad PR that comes with it.

For the public, local elections have been delayed until next May. But before that, the Lords will get a chance to vote on which aristocrats vote on our laws, for life. So that’s nice.

These by-elections should be scrapped entirely

The ERS believes these by-elections should be scrapped entirely. Let’s be clear. It’s an absurd spectacle – one that was suspended due to the COVID crisis. They should be scrapped due to the democratic crisis they contribute towards.

There are currently three vacancies due to be filled caused by the death and resignation of three former peers; the Earl of Selborne, the Countess of Mar and Lord Rea. There are no female hereditary peers – out of 92 – and there is only one woman on the official register who could potentially take up a seat.

Sadly, the fact that in 2020 hereditary aristocrats are still guaranteed representation in our parliament shows just how far we have to go until we have an accountable, democratic parliament that represents the interests of ordinary people.

While the moratorium on by-elections has given the Lords the perfect opportunity to end this absurd spectacle for good, instead they look set to begin the process again – further entrenching the disturbing practice of appointing our law-makers based on their bloodline.

The Lords should scrap these sham elections for good – and if not, the government must act. It is simply untenable that the Lords claim to oppose new appointments to the upper house, while refusing to scrap this nonsensical process.

Despite claiming to want to reduce the size of the Lords, hereditary peers have repeatedly filibustered – talked out – attempts to end the practice.

We urgently need to modernise this private member’s club. Peers should convert their warm words about reducing the size of the chamber into action, and scrap hereditary peerages for good.

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