It’s not just hereditary peers that are ‘hard to justify’ – It’s the whole unelected chamber

Hannah Camilleri, Communications Officer

Posted on the 16th May 2024

Earlier this week, the Labour leader in the House of Lords hinted that if Labour were to win the general election, we could finally see an end to the 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords. She was quoted saying that their position was ‘hard to justify’.

She is quite correct, of course. The purpose of the House of Lords is, rightly, to provide expert scrutiny and advice – how is someone qualified to do that based only on who their parents are?

Hereditary peers are just one element of our bloated and unelected second chamber. A chamber that now has almost 800 members – many by virtue of their deep pockets and generosity to political parties – that continues to be a drag on UK democracy.

What is a hereditary peer?

Hereditary peers are members of the Lords who have their job for life due to their aristocratic family.

They form part of the ancient tradition of peerage in the United Kingdom and are the holders of titles such as Dukes, Earls, Viscounts and Barons. Hereditary peers are those whose right to sit in the Lords is through birth – passed down from their fathers (or, much less frequently, their mothers).

The primary role of the House of Lords is one of scrutiny. The Lords themselves argue that they offer their expertise to go over legislation written by the House of Commons with a fine-toothed comb for the benefit of the British public.  However, can that really be true when over 10% of that chamber earned their job just because of who their parents were, rather than any ability for the task at hand?

Has this system ever been reformed?

The biggest reform to hereditary peers came just before the millennium, when Tony Blair introduced The House of Lords Act of 1999, which removed all but 92 hereditaries, then numbering 750, breaking a 700-year-old right for all peers to sit on and vote from the red benches.

The remaining 92 were elected by all the previous hereditary peers in the House grouped by party affiliation – 42 Conservatives, 28 Crossbenchers, three Lib Dems, two Labour and 17 others. These numbers are set – when one Conservative resigns or dies, a new Conservative is elected by the Conservative hereditary peers still in the chamber.

This system is more akin to a private members club than a national legislature.

Would finally removing the hereditary peers fix the House of Lords?

Whilst these hints from Baroness Smith are promising, they don’t go far enough.

If it is difficult to justify the job for life for aristocrats, then how do we justify jobs for life for the friends and donors of the Prime Minister? At the start of this year, we reported that Liz Truss appointed one peer into the Lords for every 1.5 days she served as Prime Minister. What qualifications do they have other than being the Prime Minister of the day’s friend or supporters?

Even Lord True, the Conservative leader of the House of Lords, agrees that an elected second chamber would be an improvement. An elected Lords is the most efficient way to ensure scrutiny of the Commons’ legislation is conducted democratically.

With public confidence in the Lords so low, something must be done to create a chamber fit for the task of scrutiny, and the 21st century.

Thankfully there has already been a lot of work conducted – in our recent report Unfinished Business we looked at the many areas of agreement on Lords reform. The report illustrates that reforming the second chamber is not as difficult as some like to make out.

Ultimately, the next government must grasp the problem of the House of Lords by the horns. Wholesale reform of the House of Lords is much-needed in favour of a chamber that fairly and democratically represents everyone from all across the UK – and the hereditaries must be the first to go.

It’s time to finish the job on Lords reform

Add your name: Demand a fairy elected second chamber

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