Lords reform: Government facing revolt over 'absurd and indefensible' elections for hereditary peers

Lizzy Buchan
Getty

The government is facing a fresh bid to overturn the ”absurd and indefensible” system of electing hereditary peers that swell numbers in the House of Lords.

Labour peer Lord Grocott will bring forward a bill to scrap by-elections for hereditary members of the House of Lords, a bizarre custom where seats are doled out to aristocrats through a poll of only a handful of voters.

Former prime minister Tony Blair abolished the majority of hereditary peerages in 1999 but more than 90 people with inherited titles remain, accounting for around 12 per cent of the House of Lords.

A temporary solution was put in place if these peers were sacked, died or quit, allowing a successor to be voted in by members of their own party.

No permanent system has since been established, leaving the hereditary peers able to replenish their numbers.

Analysis by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) previously found that the average electorate for a hereditary by-election was just 32 voters and some polls had more candidates than voters.

Lord Grocott, a former parliamentary aide to Mr Blair, has made several efforts to change the law to scrap by-elections since 2017 but past attempts have been filibustered by a small group of Tory hereditary peers.

He told The Independent: “It really is time to see sense on this, not to play King Canute any longer.

“The by-elections are absurd and indefensible, and as long as they are there, they make our procedures look silly.”

The plan to table a new bill within weeks comes after Lords speaker Norman Fowler called for moratorium on the appointment of new peers to combat its excessive size.

A key Lords committee recommended in 2017 that the number of peers to be slashed from 800 to 600, limiting any peer’s term to 15 years and adopting a “two out, one in” system to speed up the reduction in numbers.

Only a handful of peers oppose plans to axe the by-elections, which are privately supported by “large numbers” of Tory peers and hereditaries, according to Lord Grocott.

Candidates must be on the official register of hereditary peers to take part, meaning only one woman is elegible to stand.

Lord Grocott said: “It is so utterly ludicrous. Effectively we have a men-only block of 90 peers – 92 to be strictly accurate – in the House of Lords and that can’t change quickly as most of the hereditary peerages can only travel down through the male line.”

The Labour peer is confident of his chances of success, despite the recent appointment of Lord True as the minister for constitutional reform, who has previously opposed efforts to phase out elections for those with inherited titles.

Lord Grocott said: “I’m optimistic because I know that I’m 100 per cent, no argument, no doubt, right.”

Campaigners said it was “absurd” that aristocrats were given guaranteed representation in parliament in the modern era, branding the system “beyond rotten”.

Willie Sullivan, ERS senior director of campaigns, said: “A couple of hundred men of the landed gentry get to pick a sizeable chunk of the Lords to vote on our laws for life – and not a single ordinary voter has a say.

“The system is beyond rotten, and is one of many reasons the Lords looks like a private members’ club rather than a serious scrutiny chamber.”

He urged peers to support the bill as a small modernising step, adding: “Failing to back this modest change would be a spectacular own goal for both ministers and the 800-odd Lords.

“Sadly each time this bill has been put forward it has been blocked by hereditary aristocrats – a reflection of the disproportionate influence they still hold.”

It comes amid a fresh row over plans to give peers a tax-free pay rise in April, hiking their daily allowance up from £313 to £323.

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