House of Lords reform: what next ? - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

2  No longer replacing hereditary peers in the House of Lords when they die

10. Under the 1999 House of Lords Act the vast majority of hereditary peers were removed. However, as a result of a political deal made at the time between the then Conservative leader in the Lords and the then Labour Prime Minister, 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords remain in place.[16] Under the agreement, often referred to as the Weatherill amendment, this group of hereditary peers was to remain until a second phase of large-scale reform was agreed upon. As a result, when a hereditary peer dies, a by-election is held to fill the vacancy. Only hereditary peers are eligible to stand for election and only peers from the group in which the vacancy has occurred are entitled to vote.[17] Although the by-election system was initially introduced in the belief that it was unlikely to be used because the second stage of reform was pending, in practice the lack of progress on wholesale reform has meant that by-elections have become established practice in the House of Lords.[18]

11. Only a small number of those who provided evidence argued that hereditary peers should continue to be replaced in the House of Lords when they die. The Campaign for a Democratic Upper House stated that no longer replacing them "would remove the rationale for the [...] Weatherill amendment in 1999, which saw 92 hereditary peers remain as a form of guarantee of further reform."[19] Lord Hunt of Wirral also cautioned against unravelling the political deal secured in 1999. He told us that, although incremental reform was possible, it should not be allowed to impede larger-scale reform.[20] However, a number of witnesses rejected these arguments. Dr Ballinger of Exeter College, Oxford University commented: "we have moved on and the House has moved on [since 1999]. I would like to see any of them argue that a Parliament can bind its successors and that a Government of one complexion can bind a Government of another complexion." He continued: "there is no constitutional bar at all to their removal by legislation and it is a question of whether it is worth a candle in terms of the political fallout [...].[21] Alan Renwick also said that: "advocates of major reform should not insist that the hereditary peers be retained until a complete overhaul of the chamber's composition occurs: Lords reform is only ever going to happen through small steps."[22]

12. The vast majority of evidence strongly supported the idea of no longer replacing hereditary peers, although this was for a variety of reasons, few of which were based on reducing the size of the House.[23] Both Dr Meg Russell, the Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, University College, London, and Alan Renwick referred to the "indefensibility" of a hereditary route into the Lords.[24] Lord Howarth was also clear that "the principle of hereditary membership of the legislature should come to an end". He noted: "hereditary peers have given great service in Parliament over the centuries, but there is no rationale in today's society for anyone to have a place in the legislature by virtue of who their ancestors were".[25] There was support, too, from Dr Barber, of London South Bank University, who said that ending the replacement of hereditary peers when they die was "an essential step".[26] Dr Ballinger thought that it would amount to a "desirable tidying-up of the 1997 Government's agenda",[27] while Dr Michael Gordon of the University of Liverpool stated that the non-replacement of hereditaries when they die represented "the most attractive of the options" discussed in our inquiry.[28]

13. For others such as Lord Norton and Lord Cormack, the presence of the hereditaries is less of an issue than the means by which their presence is maintained, namely through the by-election system.[29] Lord Cormack told us that the issue "is not with the Weatherill amendment and the numbers of people involved; it is with what people perceive to be the absurdity of the by-elections. This is the problem."[30] Under current arrangements, contained in the House of Lords' Standing Orders, only 15 of the 92 peers (who would serve as Deputy Speakers or other office-bearers) are elected by the whole House.[31] Two peers are elected by the Labour hereditary peers, 42 peers are elected by the Conservative hereditary peers; three peers elected by the Liberal Democrat hereditary peers and; 28 peers are elected by the Cross-bench hereditary peers. Lord Norton referred to the "embarrassment" many peers felt "that you might have three Lib Dems choosing one person to come in."[32] Dr Russell described this as a "crazy system"[33] and said that every time a by-election took place it "risked exposing the chamber to ridicule".[34] Lord Howarth argued that no longer having by-elections would lead "gradually and decently, to the expiry of the hereditary system in our politics".[35]

14. There was thus support for abolishing by-elections from two quarters: those who perceived the current system as problematic and wanted to see it replaced by a fairer system, and those who wanted to abolish by-elections altogether in order to end the practice of replacing hereditary peers in the House of Lords when they die. However, even though there was strong support for abolishing by-elections, some of the experts we heard from were sceptical that consensus could be secured, not least because of what Dr Russell described as a "small but vocal minority" in the House of Lords who oppose not replacing hereditary peers when they die.[36] Lord Norton told us that he thought that among peers "there is a majority but not unanimity" for ending the by-election system.[37] Mark Ryan, of Coventry University, also thought that an end to by-elections "would not be without controversy in some quarters" as it would be perceived by some as breaching the 1999 agreement.[38]

15. A previous attempt to end the hereditary system proposed by Lord Steel in his House of Lords (Cessation of Membership) Bill [HL] 2012-13 was dropped after a small number of peers submitted several hundred amendments to the clauses relating to hereditary peers. The proposal has since been revived in Baroness Hayman's Private Member's House of Lords Reform Bill in the form of an amendment to the 1999 House of Lords Act which states that "any vacancy resulting from the death of an excepted person [hereditary peer] occurring after the coming into force of the House of Lords Reform Act 2013 shall not be filled."

16. Dr Russell noted that even a Government Bill would face opposition and that the Government "would have to be prepared to face that down and see it through."[39] This view was echoed by the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Policy Committee which stated that "the trenchant opposition in the Lords to the version of Lord Steel's Bill which contained this apparently simple reform shows that even such an apparently straightforward change will be difficult, and will not command total 'consensus'."[40] In contrast, Lord Steel told us that "most hereditary peers accept that the by-election system is now indefensible".[41] Baroness Hayman added that objections of the sort previously mounted against Lord Steel's Bill could be neutralised "if that change was endorsed by the House of Commons".[42]

17. In the event that consensus on abolition of the by-elections was difficult to achieve, Dr Russell suggested that it may be worth considering whether there is anything that can be done to make the hereditary by-elections "less bad" by changing the Standing Orders to enable all peers to vote in by-elections.[43]

18. Finally, it is worth noting that although there was strong support for the idea of no longer replacing hereditary peers when they die, there was also an acknowledgement that doing this would not lead to a large reduction in the size of the House. The youngest elected hereditary peer is currently 42 years of age and peers tend to live longer than the national average.[44] As Lord Tyler observed: "the problem is that the hereditaries [...] do not die quick enough. They are too young. [...]. The hereditaries keep going and, on the present actuarial analysis, it will be 30 to 40 years before they have all gone [...]."[45]

19. The evidence we received on no longer replacing hereditary peers in the House of Lords when they die showed that there is broad-based and significant support for this idea and that this could be realised by ending the by-election system which perpetuates the current system. We accept that doing this would not have a large or swift impact on the size of the House but, as a means of gradually reducing numbers we conclude it would be worthwhile. It would also serve to reduce the reputational risk to the House which results from the existence and use of the current by-election system. We do not believe that taking action on this issue would preclude further, wholesale reform taking place in the future, if that is what political parties favour. Therefore, we recommend that hereditary peers should not be replaced in the House of Lords when they die and we welcome the provisions contained within Baroness Hayman's Private Member's Bill which seek to achieve this goal.

16   Ev w14  Back

17   The full arrangements are detailed in House of Lords' Standing Order No. 10 Back

18   Ev w40  Back

19   Ev w29; See also Ev w6 Back

20   Q 199 Back

21   Q 132. See also Ev w46; Q 199 [Lord Richard]  Back

22   Ev w25 Back

23   See for example Ev w10 [Ryan]; Ev w14 [Prof McLean] Back

24   Ev w40 Back

25   Ev w16 Back

26   Ev w4; See also Ev w2; Q 11 [Lord Steel] Back

27   Ev w45 Back

28   Ev w22 Back

29   Q 89 ff Back

30   Q 202 Back

31   The 92 hereditaries also include any peer holding the office of Earl Marshal or performing the office of Lord Great Chamberlain. Back

32   Q 90 Back

33   Q 132 Back

34   Ev w40 Back

35   Ev w20 Back

36   See also Ev 45 [Dr Ballinger] Back

37   Q 66 Back

38   Ev w9 Back

39   Q 132 Back

40   Ev w6 Back

41   Q 29 Back

42   Q 29 Back

43   Q 132 Back

44   Ev w45  Back

45   Q 64. See also Ev w14 [Prof McLean] Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 17 October 2013