Lord Grocott: It is time to end the comical system of hereditary peer by-elections

Posted On: 
19th March 2018

The entire system of by-elections for hereditary peers is not just indefensible, it is laughable, writes Labour peer Lord Grocott

Lord Grocott's bill would end by-elections to replace hereditary peers

The 1999 House of Lords Act removed most of the hereditary peers from the Lords. Ninety-two however were allowed to remain. This was intended to be a temporary measure pending a full-blown reform of the Lords when all hereditaries would finally depart.

But what was intended as a temporary provision is now 19-years-old. Inevitably in the meantime some of the original 92 have died or retired. And that’s when the fun starts. Because the original act makes provision for by-elections to be held whenever vacancies occur. Most of the vacancies are specifically for the group where the death or retirement has taken place – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat or Crossbench. The electorate to fill the vacancy consists simply and solely of those remaining hereditary peers who are members of the group concerned. 

The consequences of this system can be ludicrous. Take for example the by-election held in April 2016 for a new Liberal Democrat hereditary peer. There are just four Liberal Democrat hereditaries in the House. One died. The remaining three then became the electorate for the ensuing by-election. No kidding, an electorate of three. By way of comparison, before the Great Reform Act of 1832, even Old Sarum had an electorate of seven. 

It gets worse. Seven candidates put themselves forward. Has there ever been an election where there were more than twice as many candidates as voters? In the resulting by-election, six of the candidates received no votes and the winner got all three. One hundred per cent turnout and the victor gets a 100% of the votes. Better than North Korea.  The result is summarised in the table below:

House of Lords By-election result,
18 April 2016
Electorate 3, Turnout 100%

Lord Calverley   0 votes
Earl of Carlisle    0 votes
Lord Kennet       0 votes
Earl Lloyd-George            0 votes
Earl Russell         0 votes
Lord Somerleyton            0 votes
Viscount Thurso                3 votes

Viscount Thurso duly elected

And if all this wasn’t bad enough, there is another aspect to the by-elections which is even more spectacularly indefensible. To stand in a by-election, you firstly need to have inherited a peerage and then you have to put your name forward to be included on the Register of Hereditary Peers. Currently there are 198 names on the register. Just one is a woman. Coincidentally, there is also just one woman among the hereditaries currently sitting in the House. 

So, in the 21st century in our legislature, we have 92 places reserved for people who have inherited titles and which for all practical purposes might as well be labelled “men only”. I call it the ‘assisted places’ scheme.

Since the 1999 Act there have been 30 by-elections. A total of 32 new members have arrived via this system – two of the by-elections returned two members. My bill simply scraps the whole system. This would mean that in due course there would be no more hereditary peers in the House and the objective of the 1999 Act would at long last be achieved.

I tried to end the by-elections in a Private Members’ Bill just before the last general election. Despite receiving powerful support from all groups in the House, from hereditary peers and from life peers, the bill was effectively sabotaged. Two hereditary peers put down 46 amendments at the last possible moment before the committee stage. Inevitably the bill ran out of time.

This session I am trying again. It is surely not too much to hope that the handful of peers who continue to oppose the bill against the overwhelming majority in the House, will do so by argument and debate, not by procedural tricks. Because the entire system of by-elections for hereditary peers is not just indefensible, it is laughable. But after 19 years no-one is laughing any more.

Lord Grocott is a Labour peer. His Private Members’ Bill will be debated in the Lords on Friday 23 March.