Select Committee on Privileges First Report


Extracts from the White Paper "Modernising Parliament—Reforming the House of Lords) (Cm 4183), pp 7, 27-30

(CHAPTER 2, p 7)


  12.  The Government is committed to ending the anachronisms of the composition of the House of Lords. The Government made its position clear in its election manifesto, when it proposed a step-by-step reform of the House of Lords.

  13.  We will now take the first steps towards the fulfilment of that commitment.

Hereditary peers

  The Government will legislate to remove the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords.

A transitional House

  The Government is putting forward new proposals for a transitional House of Lords following the passage of the legislation.

Longer-term reform

  The Government will appoint a Royal Commission to make recommendations for wide-ranging reform of the House of Lords.

  The Government believes that a step-by-step process is the best way to proceed. It is consistent with the incremental approach which has characterised much constitutional development in this country. But at the same time, it is a radical approach—one which, taken as a whole, will mark a fundamental transformation of a key part of the central democratic institution of Parliament.

(CHAPTER 5, pp 27-30)


  1.  The Government believes that ending the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House, although in itself a stand-alone change, not dependent on further reforms, will dovetail smoothly with any longer-term reform of the House. The Government does not underestimate the breadth or complexity of the issues involved in fundamental reform of one of the Houses of Parliament, but we believe that the present composition of the House of Lords is not defensible and the first element of reform will be significant and valuable in itself.

  2.  It is an assumption of our modern democracy that all adult citizens should play an equal role in the election of members of the House of Commons. There is no longer any qualification or discrimination on grounds of wealth or gender. The Government considers that it is, therefore, fundamentally wrong that membership of the other House of Parliament should be dominated by people whose presence is literally a birthright.


  3.  The Government believes that there is no justification in principle for the anachronism of hereditary membership of the House of Lords. As long ago as 1791, in The Rights of Man, Tom Paine said:

    "The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, as hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; as absurd as an hereditary Poet Laureate."

  At the time Paine said that, the House of Lords did at least still arguably represent a distinct and important interest in the country—the landed classes. But the whole concept of identifying a number of families whose senior male—or, very rarely, female—representative is always entitled to a seat in the legislature only makes sense when those families uniquely represent a fundamental interest in the country: the Crown's tenants-in-chief. It is centuries since this was even partly true of the hereditary peerage in this country. It is manifestly absurd in society as it is constituted at the beginning of the 21st century.


  4.  The Government believes in the importance of having genuinely independent, disinterested and representative elements in the Lords. But it does not believe that this is provided by the hereditary peerage. There are those who do not seek to defend the appropriateness of the hereditary principle as such, but who nonetheless argue that the results of the presence of the hereditary peers in Parliament are beneficial. They suggest that because hereditary peers are not dependent on anyone living for the right to sit and vote in the Lords, they provide an independent and disinterested element. They also claim that the hereditary peerage is moving towards producing a cross-section of society chosen by lot. They suggest that both these factors are becoming increasingly important as politics generally becomes more specialist and professional.

  5.  It is true that succeeding hereditary peers are not selected on the basis of their political preferences and do not need to act with an eye to re-election. The latter is also true of all life peers, and the former is true of a significant proportion of them. But in the case of the hereditary peers as a group, the fact that they are not selected on this, or any other basis, is not the same as saying they are politically independent. As noted earlier, nearly half of the total number of hereditary peers (excluding those without a Writ of Summons or on leave of absence) and the overwhelming majority—88 per cent—of those who take a party whip currently identify themselves with the Conservative Party. It is the number of hereditary peers that creates the huge in-built party bias in the House of Lords.

  6.  The Government believes that no one political party should seek a majority in the House of Lords. Any bias as marked as that of the hereditary peerage would be unacceptable whichever direction it favoured. So the dominance of hereditary peers in the House of Lords is untenable regardless of the party they support, both because it is based on an unsustainable principle, and because it produces undemocratic results. It gives a huge in-built advantage to one particular party, regardless of the result of general elections. The Government is determined to ensure that in the future no political party should be able to enjoy such a disproportionate and permanent advantage as is currently enjoyed by the Conservatives as a result of the hereditary peerage. We do not seek to replace the current unfair balance with a mirror image which benefits the Labour Party but instead to replace it with a fair balance of representation for all political parties and for the Cross Benchers.

  7.  There is a genuinely independent element in the House of Lords: the independents who choose to sit on the cross benches. These peers take no party whip, though many have a significant voting record of consistently supporting one political party, in spite of their nominal independence. Around 100 life peers have made the choice to sit as Cross Benchers. We recognise that a genuinely independent voice such as this is one of the great strengths of the House of Lords.

  8.  There are some popular myths about the character of the hereditary peerage. There is, for example, an impression that the hereditary peerage is for the most part the representation of ancient noble families and is therefore part of Britian's history. In fact, more than 200 of today's hereditary peers owe their seats to titles created since 1918. The numerical predominance enjoyed by hereditary peers in today's House of Lords is not only a legacy from hundreds of years ago—it is in part due to large numbers of relatively recently created peerages.

  9.  It is claimed that the hereditary peers constitute a random, representative sample and that for this reason they can speak for the people with particular authority. Once again, this claim cannot be borne out by the reality. The most recent substantial survey[4] of hereditary peers' occupations indicated that over 60 per cent of them claimed land management or farming as their occupational background. The figure for the country as a whole is less than 5 per cent. Twenty per cent had been in the armed services, 6.2 per cent had been in the Civil or Diplomatic Services and a further 14.2 per cent claimed undifferentiated public service and administration backgrounds. Industrialists accounted for 15.6 per cent and financial services for 11.6 per cent. Only 1.4 per cent claimed to have been workers. This is clearly not representative of jobs people do in the country as a whole, undermining the claim that the hereditary peers are a cross-section of society and thereby, whatever their other privileges, can speak with a popular voice.

  10.  Apart from the political bias, there are other notable imbalances in the House, Most peerages can descend only in the male line. As a result, only 16 out of 750 hereditary peerages are held by women. The House of Lords itself rejected as recently as 1994 a proposal that would have allowed the first born of either gender to inherit. It is also virtually impossible that the hereditary peerage as it is could ever become representative of Britain's ethnic minorities.

  11.  For all these reasons, the Government will act immediately to end the hereditary right to be a member of Parliament. A Bill to achieve this aim is being introduced. But if the cross-bench peers promote an amendment for the interim retention of one in 10 of the hereditary peers, 75 out of the existing 750, plus some hereditary office holders, until the second stage of House of Lords reform has taken place, the Government is minded to accept that amendment at an appropriate time as a prudent and sensible route towards the early termination of the right of all hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House. The Government is minded to take this view because those promoting the amendment have advocated it on the grounds that it would enable the first stage of reform to be agreed consensually, and without any threat of deliberate frustration of the programme of a government with a huge popular majority. Such a degree of flexibility, where it promotes the smooth evolution of our constitutional arrangements, is very much in the British tradition of reform. If there is consensus, the Government will make every effort to ensure that the second stage of reform has been approved by Parliament before the next election.

  12.  A development of this kind is consistent with the Government's commitments on reform of the Lords. The right of the hereditary peers to sit and vote by virtue of their birth alone will have been ended. The vast majority of them would leave immediately, with a small proportion remaining for a transitional period. The idea that certain people had an absolute right to a seat in the legislature on the basis of something an ancestor had done would be ended. The in-built political bias would be removed. The social and economic, as well as political, unrepresentativeness of the House of Lords could be tackled.

  13.  Under the proposals for the transitional period which have been suggested, those hereditary peers who remained in the House would do so because they had been chosen to do so by the electoral college based on the separate established grouping in the House of Lords.


  14.  The Government's proposals do not affect the institution of the peerage itself. Hereditary peers will retain their titles and their degrees of rank and precedence. Their heirs will inherit those titles according to the existing rules of succession, but they will not inherit the seat in Parliament. The very few remaining hereditary peers of first creation will all be offered life peerages.

  15.  Hereditary peers who leave the House of Lords will be able to vote in elections for the House of Commons, thus joining other adult citizens not otherwise disbarred in having a voice in general elections and in the selection of the party of government. They will be eligible to stand for election themselves without having to relinquish their titles. They will be eligible to serve on juries. The provision of the Peerage Act 1963 allowing the disclaimer of the title for life will however remain for those peers who wish to do this for other reasons.

  16.  Following consultation with the Royal Family, the Government proposes that the Royal Peers should, like other hereditary peers, relinquish their rights to sit and vote in the House of Lords.

4   Nicholas Baldwin, quoted in The House of Lords at Work, eds Shell and Beamish, OUP, 1993. Back

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