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Government Defends Hereditary Peers Even as Aristocrats Evade Vetting and Titles Go Entirely to Men

There are still 91 hereditary peers voting on our laws – and they face even less scrutiny than those appointed for life.

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Britain’s hereditary peers are avoiding crucial background checks, as the Government is refusing to let the House of Lords appointments commission conduct usual vetting processes before they join the second chamber.

Ninety one hereditary peers – all men – remain in the House of Lords, following a ‘fudge’ deal to push through piecemeal Lords reform in the late ‘90s. Each time one of them dies, they are replaced by another ‘elected’ by hereditary peers in the House who belong to the same political grouping. 

For example, a Conservative hereditary peer who dies is replaced by another Conservative aristocrat, from a small list of those eligible to stand under a Register of Hereditary Peers. The list is almost entirely composed of men, as hereditary titles go first to the eldest surviving son, or other close male relative. 

Lord Grocott, a Labour peer pushing for hereditary peerages to be scrapped, told the chamber on Wednesday: “The Lords commission does vet candidates for life peerages, but does not vet candidates in hereditary peer by-elections…[It] should be a level playing field [and] hereditary peers candidates should be treated exactly the same way as life peers.” 

Following the death of Conservative Lord Brougham and Vaux, another male aristocrat was elected to the House of Lords last month. Just 38% of peers voted.

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But the Cabinet Office minister, Baroness Neville-Rolfe, rejected any reform in her answer, saying: “The hereditary arrangements involve a by-election election process, which of course was established as part of the deal on House of Lords reform in the 90s.

“I think it would clash with the by-election process to introduce a vetting system for hereditaries. But in any event, I see that as part of the House of Lords reform and I think we made it clear that there are no plans for piecemeal reform.” 

There are now over 800 peers, with more than one in ten coming from a tiny clique of hereditary male aristocrats by default. 

The Conservatives now have around 100 more peers than Labour, after packing the chamber with party appointees since 2010. 

But Baroness Neville-Rolfe downplayed the figures, saying: “Although the Conservatives now have a lot more peers than Labour, we still, we still do not win all votes. And we still only have 34% [of peers]. That’s partly because of the number of crossbench peers.” 

And the unelected politician also rejected calls – including from hereditary Tory peer Lord Cormack – to put the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a firmer legal footing. 

“I think we should be wary of giving even greater powers to unelected bodies, however great and however good, who are not necessary, who are not necessarily democratically elected…The government hasn’t got any plans to change the status of the House of Lords Appointments Commission,” she said.  

Labour’s frontbencher Barness Smith noted: “When she talks about piecemeal reform and not wanting piecemeal reform, what she’s really saying is she will do absolutely nothing…After 13 years of a Labour Government, we had 24 more peers than the Conservative Party. After 13 years of Conservative Government, the Conservative Party has 100 more Conservative peers than Labour.”


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And she backed calls for HOLAC to vet hereditary peers, saying: “Wouldn’t it be just a minor tweak suggested to hold like they also look at the suitability of candidates in this House, to ensure they are willing to come here and play a full role in the work like everybody here does?”

Even hereditary peer Lord Cromwell said: “We have nothing to fear from a vetting process. I think it’s entirely appropriate that we all go through it.” 

But minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe defended the handful of Conservative hereditary peers likely to try and block the move, saying: “Hereditaries are subject to quite a good deal of questioning during the by-election process, which is laid down by the standing orders of the House.

“We have no plans to change the vetting of hereditary peers, and of course they do play a very important role on the front benches. And right across bringing different aspects to our public, you know, public work and the public interest.”

The current hereditary by-election process currently comprises writing a one or two paragraph statement about why they should be ‘elected’ to join the House. 

Labour’s Baroness Symons branded hereditary peerages “sexually discriminatory”, as titles still go first to a son. “If there is no son, they go to a collateral branch [e.g. cousins or more distant male relatives]. That is sexually discriminatory and I can’t see how she can argue [for] that,” she told the House. 

Tory frontbencher Neville-Rolfe again rebuffed the calls for reform, only adding: “There will no doubt be reform in the future. And the nature of hereditary peers may or may not be considered.” 

Following the by-election last month, Willie Sullivan, Director of National Campaigns at the Electoral Reform Society, said: “The House of Lords is a system from another time and demands reform. True democracy relies on everyone’s voices being heard and without better efforts to reach equal gender representation in our parliaments we will not be able to achieve that. It is the 21st century, we do not need another male aristocrat given a job for life in the Lords.”

He added: “We must do better and create a gender balanced, elected upper chamber to drag the Lords into the modern world.”

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