Hereditary Peers highlight the absurdity of our system and the case for reform

Federico Scolari, Former Student Placement

Posted on the 26th March 2021

Momentum is building for wholesale reform of the House of Lords, as hereditary peerages are under public scrutiny after a Sunday Times report shed light on the absurdity of inherited titles – twenty years after reforms were introduced to begin to abolish them.

We have written about this before. We have explained Tony Blair’s compromise, the abandonment of constitutional reform and the absurdities that define the House of Lords. The report only reinforces our arguments. The hereditary issue is the tip of the iceberg and an urgent call for wide-ranging reform of the upper chamber.

The report in brief

All men. Most from one of three elite boarding schools. A combined 170,000 acres of land. Stunningly numerous examples of heirs that claim expenses and rarely intervene – or when they do, they are more likely to promote their personal interests.

Even those who do play an active role and vote on matters of public interest are only representative of the most privileged among us – and that is the opposite of what modern democracy should be. It is a distorted image that portraits very little of modern Britain, reflective of an asymmetry of power that hinders representation.

Currently numbering 85, hereditary peers account for more than one tenth of an already bloated 800 members’ chamber- the second biggest legislature in the world and one of the only two to reserve places in parliament by virtue of inheritance.

Heirs have costed an estimated £47 m of taxpayers’ money since 2001, and have claimed an average of £144,000 tax-free allowance for taking part in parliamentary proceedings over the past five years. Considering that the average hereditary has intervened only 50 times in that time, hereditaries cost much more than the value they create. If we were designing the Lords afresh, no country would accept this absurd and unexplainable system.

What can be done now?

Because internal by-elections have been suspended due to Covid-19, they could not resume at all. Since the start of the pandemic, four members have departed and have not been replaced, and they may never be.

All three speakers’ candidates in some way support this. The system can simply wither away if no hereditary is replaced by another and all by-elections are suspended. This idea has been put forward by Lord Grocott’s who has introduced three bills proposing an end to the by-elections, three bills sabotaged or talked out each time by other members of the Lords.

Given the average age of hereditary peers -71 years old- it could take a long time to see them gone. But letting a system wither away is not the same as embracing a wave of reform and cutting them out directly- one is an acknowledgment, the other is a statement of intent.

What do we need?

Not all heirs are rotten. It is not a targeted attack against those individuals that have worked and maintained honourable integrity when serving in the chamber. It is about fairness, representation and democracy. None of these can prevail if the outdated House of Lords keeps existing as it is.

There is much more to address within the red benches. Boris Johnson seems reluctant to embrace change, as he persists in loading the chamber with political appointees, party donors and ex-advisers, contrary to the advice of both Lord Fowler and, with the appointment of Peter Cruddas, even the Appointments Commission.

Time is ticking before the government announces the next Queen’s speech and considers much-needed calls for reform. We need a smaller, modernised and proportionally-elected chamber that represents the needs of today’s Britain.

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