Why are there still hereditary peers in the House of Lords?

Federico Scolari, Former Student Placement

Posted on the 5th March 2021

The ancient triumvirate of the British constitution – the Monarchy, the Lords and the Commons – is a historical trait whose origins can be traced all the way back to the 11th century.

Such history and tradition are a hallmark of our political culture. But traditions are not always positive and can hinder progress, and sometimes things need to change to keep up with modern standards.

One such hindrance is most certainly the presence of hereditary peers in the House of Lords.

Who are hereditary peers?

Hereditary peers form part of the peerage of 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 due to their title being inherited from their fathers (or, much less frequently, their mothers). Currently, there are 814 hereditary peers although only 92 can sit in the Lords at any one time.

The Peerage Act of 1963 legislated, among other things, that female peers could claim their hereditary titles by a system of primogeniture, as long as they did not have any brothers, in which case the title would pass down to them instead. Despite this, all hereditary peers sitting in the Lords today are men.

Holding a title does not give you the automatic right to sit in the Lords but a chance to be eligible to take one of the reserved places. When a hereditary peer retires or dies, an internal by-election is held, with eligible candidates being drawn from those listed in the Register of Hereditary Peers.

How did they get there?

The House of Lords Act of 1999 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, a new Conservative is elected.

The decision to retain 92 hereditary peers was a forced compromise from then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, who, in his planned House of Lords reforms, had sought to remove all of them but was forced to back down following opposition from the Lords themselves, instead agreeing to let a small number remain as a temporary measure ahead of further reform later in the parliament.

Yet over two decades later the number of hereditary peers remains the same.

What do hereditary peers (actually) do?

Hereditary peers have just as much power as the other members of the upper chamber, the 26 Lords Spiritual and almost 700 appointed life peers. The House of Lords’ powers are set out – not to say circumscribed – in the Parliament Act of 1911 and 1949 but have varied greatly over time. Today, the chamber acts as a revising body that examines non-financial bills, investigates public policy, and scrutinises the government in power.

Why are they a problem?

The House of Lords remains an undemocratic body, where un-elected lawmakers take part in political decision-making without democratic accountability or representation. Life peers, undemocratic as they are, are at least appointed by the prime minister, who commands a majority in the commons, if not the nation. Occasionally, peers are appointed on the basis of their expertise, although political affiliation can often be the main factor.

But hereditary peers are effectively appointed by each other, chosen from a pool of individuals who claim a title by mere inheritance. Which in most cases relates to historic deeds or relationships of their long-dead ancestors.

The fact that one’s grandfather was a prominent figure worthy of serving in the chamber does not make his grandson equally worthy, nor does it legitimise the latter’s influence on matters of public interest. As Cunninghame Graham said

“Do we confide our teeth to an hereditary dentist’s care? Why therefore, our laws to an hereditary legislator, merely because he has taken the trouble to be born, and is the presumed son of his father?”

Lack of representation is the central problem. Hereditary peers – even more than non-hereditary ones – are a clear sign that the decisions of those in the upper chamber have no democratic legitimacy nor accountability.

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.

Sign our petition for a fairly elected second chamber

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