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.
The 1999 House of Lords Act removed all but 92 hereditary peers, in what was intended to be a temporary compromise. Subsequently, vacancies that result from death or – since minor changes in 2014 and 2015, retirement, resignation or exclusion – are filled through a so-called by-election.
Most of these aristocrats are chosen by party groups of current hereditary peers with just 15 elected by the whole house, from an official list of aristocrats. There are no female hereditary peers, and just one woman eligible to stand.
The parties’ share of these peers is set at parties’ levels of hereditary representation in the late 1990s, meaning there are 47 Conservative hereditary peers, four Labour, four Liberal Democrat, 31 Crossbench hereditary peers, and two others.
The continuation of hereditary peer by-elections means that around 12% of the second chamber’s lawmakers are there purely down to the circumstance of their birth.
The Lord Speaker – Lord McFall – has expressed his opposition to these by-elections and called for a slimming down of the chamber, but peers opted to restart them earlier this year following a pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligible candidates may submit manifestos of less than 75 words.
The Electoral Reform Society is calling on the government and peers to end this practice and move to a proportionally-elected second chamber.
Commenting on the newly announced hereditary peer by-elections Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:
“This is truly Britain’s most absurd election. For a parliament in 2021 to still be filled by unelected peers selecting aristocrats to join their ranks is incredible. Despite repeated calls for reform – even from within the Lords this bizarre practice continues.
“Ministers and peers need to get behind legislation to reform this archaic system. While the government charts its elections bill through parliament they have little to say on the lords’ own so-called elections. As a result, a handful of aristocrats are deciding who can vote on our laws and claim expenses for life, on the basis of birth-right.
“Ending these absurd by-elections must be a first step towards ensuring we have real democracy in the UK – with a revising chamber that is fit for purpose, and accountable to the public. It must be the people, not peers who choose who makes our laws. It’s time for a proportionally-elected second chamber, to replace this private member’s club at last.”
Hereditary peers have repeatedly filibustered attempts to end the practice. Several so-called by-elections have had turnouts of just three voters.