What can be done about the House of Lords?

More than 20 years has passed since the hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords in what was billed as the first phase of wider reform, and little has happened in the intervening decades. The Unit hosted a webinar to ask three long-serving parliamentarians what should change about the House of Lords, and how realistic is hope of major reform? Tom Fieldhouse summarises the discussion.

House of Lords reform is one of those issues that never seems to go away – in part because very little ever seems to happen.  

This perennial, complex, and often contentious issue was the subject of a Constitution Unit webinar, held on 13 January, entitled ‘What can be done about the House of Lords?’, where a distinguished panel of parliamentarians discussed the difficulties that hinder reform, whether new approaches are needed, and what those might be. 

The event was chaired by the Constitution Unit’s Director, Professor Meg Russell, herself an expert on the question of Lords reform. Speakers were Baroness (Angela) Smith of Basildon, Labour’s Shadow Leader of the House of Lords; Lord (Michael) Jay of Ewelme, Crossbench peer and former Chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission; and Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, Conservative chair of the House of Commons Liaison Committee and former chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which has reported on Lords reform

The summaries below are presented in the order of the speakers’ contributions. The video of the full event, including a lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page, while the audio version forms a Unit podcast.  

Baroness Smith of Basildon 

Baroness Smith began her remarks by suggesting that whereas most debates about Lords reform tend to focus on ‘form’ (namely, who is in the second chamber and how they get there), we should begin by focusing on ‘function’ (what we want the chamber to do, and how it can best achieve that).  

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The Grocott Bill and the future of hereditary peers in the House of Lords

Today the House of Lords will announce the election of a new hereditary peer. Lord (Bruce) Grocott has once again put a bill before parliament to abolish the by-elections by which departing hereditary peers are replaced, following the removal of their automatic right to a seat in parliament in 1999. As David Beamish explains, the bill is unlikely to succeed despite having a great deal of support both inside and outside of the Lords. 

Following the Labour government’s reform of the House of Lords in 1999, 90 elected hereditary peers (as well as two office-holders, the Earl Marshal and Lord Great Chamberlain) remained part of the House of Lords, with – pending the promised second stage of reform – a system of by-elections to replace any who subsequently departed. The second stage did not happen and the by-elections remain as one of the strangest quirks of the UK constitution. In a 2018 blog post on the ongoing frustrations of those who sought reform to this system, I was rash enough to conclude that ‘there may nevertheless be some prospect of real progress in relation to both the size of the House of Lords and the ending of the hereditary peer by-elections’. The past three years appear to have proved me wrong.

House of Lords Standing Order 9(5) requires a by-election to be held within three months of a vacancy occurring among the hereditary peers (due to a death or retirement). This was suspended after the start of the pandemic in March 2020, alongside the postponement of local authority elections, initially until September, and then to the end of that year. Following a report from the Procedure and Privileges Committee, there was then another extension of the moratorium. A further report from that committee proposed yet another ‘short further suspension, until after Easter 2021, at which point the position should be reviewed again’. Finally, following another report from the committee, by-elections restarted, with a backlog of six vacancies to be filled.

There are five different electorates for by-elections: 15 of the 90 were elected by the whole House, and all members can vote in by-elections to replace them. The other 75 were elected by hereditary peers in their respective groups: 42 Conservatives, 28 Crossbenchers, three Liberal Democrats, and two Labour. The remaining hereditary peers in those groups can vote in by-elections to replace departed colleagues. Only four separate elections were needed when the moratorium on by-elections ended, as three of the vacancies were among the Conservative peers, and all three were filled together. For the first time, the arrangements were for the ballots to be conducted ‘using electronic means’, with the option of a postal vote for members ‘who have accessibility needs which mean they cannot use the online voting system or who do not have a parliamentary email address’. The four by-elections took place in June and July 2021.

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No end to hereditary peer by-elections in the House of Lords?

downloadThe House of Lords is not entirely unelected; July saw two new peers appointed following elections involving a very small, select group of electors. In this post, former Clerk of the Parliaments David Beamish discusses the process by which hereditary peers can be elected to the Lords, how the system came to exist, and the continuing efforts to remove the remaining hereditaries altogether. 

It was announced on 18 July that Lord Bethell had been elected to fill a vacancy among the 90 elected hereditary peers in the House of Lords – the 34th such vacancy to be filled by means of a by-election. The vacancy arose from the retirement of the Conservative peer Lord Glentoran (the House’s only Winter Olympic gold medallist) on 1 June. These by-elections are conducted using the alternative vote system and, despite there being 11 candidates, Lord Bethell did not need any transfers of votes, receiving 26 of the 43 first-preference votes cast by Conservative hereditary peers.

This was the second by-election this month: on 4 July the Earl of Devon was elected to fill a Crossbench place vacated by the retirement of Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, grandson of Stanley Baldwin and a tireless campaigner against water fluoridation. The Earl of Devon received 7 of the 26 first-preference votes of Crossbench hereditary peers and it took five transfers of votes for him to be elected.

Viscount Mountgarret was a candidate in both by-elections, receiving no votes in either. His optimism when deciding to stand the second time might have been fuelled by the success of the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, who was elected by the whole House in 2014 and sits as a Liberal Democrat, having previously been an unsuccessful candidate in a Crossbench by-election in 2011 and in Conservative by-elections in 2011 and 2013.

At least one more by-election is in prospect: Lord Northbourne, a Crossbench hereditary peer, has given notice that he will retire on 4 September.

Where do by-elections come from? The House of Lords Act 1999

The present arrangements whereby 92 hereditary peers sit in the House of Lords derive from the House of Lords Act 1999, which removed most of the 750 hereditary peers but provided, under the so-called ‘Weatherill amendment’, for two office-holders (the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain) and 90 elected hereditary peers to continue as members. The 90 comprised 15 peers willing to serve as deputy speakers or committee chairs, elected by the whole House, and 75 peers representing 10 per cent of the hereditary peers in each party or group: 42 Conservatives, 28 Crossbenchers, 3 Liberal Democrats and 2 Labour peers; they were elected by the hereditary peers in their respective groups. Continue reading