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Lord Grocott: It’s time to abolish by-elections for hereditary peers

Lord Grocott: It’s time to abolish by-elections for hereditary peers
4 min read

This flawed system was intended as a temporary measure and effectively establishes a men-only section of our legislature. It must go, writes Lord Grocott 

Hereditary peers by-elections are a little known, less understood, and absurd part of our constitution. The by-elections are a mechanism to ensure that 90 hereditary peers who sit in the Lords are replaced whenever one of them dies or retires. Most of the vacancies are filled on a party-political basis where the electorate consists of hereditary peers in the Lords who belong to one or other of the relevant groups. The figures for the electorates are as follows:

  • Conservative: 46
  • Crossbench: 29
  • Labour: 4
  • Liberal Democrat: 3

The consequences of this system are ludicrous. In 2016 for example, there was a by-election for a Liberal Democrat vacancy. The electorate was three, there were seven candidates and the result was as follows:

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

There was therefore a 100% turnout and the winning candidate got 100% of the votes. Good, even by North Korean standards. The cost of the election by the way was £300 - that’s £100 for every vote counted. It gets worse.

In order to stand as a candidate for these elections you have to be a hereditary peer who has notified the Clerk of Parliaments of your interest in standing in any vacancy that might arise. There are 216 names on the current Register of Hereditary Peers. 215 of them are men. So, to summarise, there are 90 places in the House of Lords reserved for those who have inherited titles, and which are effectively for men only.

The whole wretched by-election system dates from the House of Lords Act 1999. The Labour Government at the time had a landslide majority of 177 and a clear manifesto commitment to remove all hereditary peers from the Lords. Section 1 of the Act couldn’t be clearer. It says, “no-one shall be a member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage”.

“There are 216 names on the current Register of Hereditary Peers.  215 of them are men”

The Government faced huge opposition to its bill in the Lords, where 193 Labour peers faced 484 Tories. Unless some compromise on the abolition of the hereditaries could be reached, there was a real threat to the whole of the Government’s legislative programme. Hence the compromise which allowed 90 hereditaries to remain, and which established the by-election system, ensuring that their number would not be reduced. It was argued that this would be a temporary measure until a fully comprehensive reform of the Lords was achieved. No-one has been holding their breath.

So here we are, 21 years later, with the so-called temporary measures still in operation. In the meantime, 37 new hereditary peers have arrived and the size of the House continues to grow. You would think that this by-election system was indefensible but sadly it isn’t. It continues to be defended, unfortunately, by a tiny number of men in the Lords. I have tried to abolish the by-elections with two previous Private Members Bills. On both occasions the bills ran out of time thanks to dozens of amendments - almost all of which were put down by just two peers. Both the bills received overwhelming support from all parties in the House including large numbers of hereditary peers.

Maybe for me this time will be third time lucky. Maybe this time the Government will at least acknowledge that in 2020 you really can’t have a 90 strong men-only section of our legislature reserved for people who have inherited titles. Abolishing the by-elections would hurt no-one and cost nothing. Their eventual demise is surely inevitable. So let’s get it over with now.


Lord Grocott is a Labour peer. The second reading of his Hereditary Peers (Abolition of By-Elections) Bill is scheduled for Friday 13 March

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