Hereditary and unprincipled

Written By: David Hanson
Published: April 21, 2017 Last modified: April 21, 2017

Should the hereditary principle be present in our legislative Chamber in the 21st century? Should we perpetuate the current anomaly, by which 92 hereditary peers are chosen to sit in Parliament by each other on the basis of whom their ancestors were, rather than personal merit? Should those individuals remain in this Parliament?

History is about change and campaigning for change. If I said that we were going to discuss the Russian Parliament, and if members of it were the grandchildren of Lenin, for the simple reason that they were his grandchildren, I suspect that UK ministers would make noises to the Russian embassy to improve its parliamentary democracy. If there were people in the European Parliament simply because their fathers – in most cases – were signatories to the treaty of Rome in 1957, I think we would all have something to say about that.

However, we have people still in the House of Lords for no reason other than their great-grandfathers, great-great-grandfathers or a further distant relative served some purpose at some time for the government of the day and received a peerage that was then handed down  to their ancestors. That matters because, even within that, election to be one of the 92 hereditary peers is restricted to people who previously sat in this Parliament as a hereditary peer. That is not a tenable basis for democracy across this country or any other. This t is about a seat in Parliament. It is about the right to vote on legislation, to hold ministers to account, to express an opinion and to make choices on behalf of somebody.

Lord Lyell, who sat as a hereditary peer, sadly died earlier this year. A by-election was held in which the only candidates could be hereditary peers whose families had served the state or royalty or somebody in the past. Perhaps Lord Mostyn, who owns Mostyn Hall in my constituency of Delyn and who was a candidate for that election, was from that constituency, but none of my other constituents could apply.

This is a flavour of some of the candidates: the Fifth Baron Bethelll, an old Etonian; the Fifth Baron Biddulph, who owns 1,000 acres on the banks of the Tweed; the Fourth Baron Gainford, aged 92, who promised in his manifesto not to attend the Lords casually; the Seventh Baron Hampton; the Third Baron Hankey; the Seventh Baron Harlech, another old Etonian; the Eighth Earl of Harrowby, another old Etonian; Viscount Hood who – surprise – went to Eton. I have no objection at all to people who go to Eton being elected to the Houses of Parliament. However, it is wrong in the 21st century to have a small pool of people for the 27 candidates who had, for example, given service to the previous monarch and included the Fourth Earl Lloyd-George; the Fourth Viscount Mountgarret; Lord Somerleyton; and the Earl of Stockton.The relatives of two former prime ministers and lots of people from Eton were fighting for a place in Parliament, in an election in which none of my constituents could stand.

Lord Colgrain won with 143 votes and will take his seat in the House of Lords in due course. The turnout was 346 out of a total electorate is 803. The winning share of the total vote was 17 per cent, and the turnout – even in this election, among such highly tuned politi per cent.

Lord Colgrain is a Conservative peer; I hold no objection to that. His peerage comes from the First Baron Colgrain, who died in 1954. I have no objection to him having a grandfather who worked for a bank and was president of the British Bankers’ Association, director of the National Provincial Bank and involved in London Assurance.  What I have an objection to is him being allowed to be on the ballot paper in an election in which only 27 people could participate as nominators and only 346 people ultimately voted to give him a seat in this Parliament.

Let us consider Lord Thurso, who was elected last year. As John Thurso, he served as an MP. He got elected when he was thrown out of the House of Lords with Labour’s first tranche of hereditary peers in 1999. He had a miraculous blood transfusion and removed his blue blood to stand as an ordinary mortal, and he got elected. At the last general election, he lost his seat in Parliament to a member of the Scottish National Party. He was ejected from the Commons, yet Lord Thurso could stand at the first opportunity in a hereditary peer by-election.

The electorate in that case was a massive three electors – the three other Liberal Democrat hereditary peers. The three electors for this post in Parliament were the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, the relative of the former PM; the Earl of Glasgow; and Lord Addington. There were six other candidates for this three-vote election: Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, the great grandson of a former PM; Lord Calverley; the Earl of Carlisle; Lord Kennet; Earl Russell; and Lord Somerleyton.  in an election with 100 per cent turnout, Lord Thurso got elected with 100% of the vote.

We removed in 1999 all but 92 hereditary peers from the House of Lords, and those 92 remained as a guarantee for the second stage of Lords reform. That second stage of Lords reform is a long time coming. If we look at this from outside, coldly, we see that of the 92 hereditary peers, 91 are male and only one is female; 48 are Conservatives, 32 are Cross Benchers, four are Labour, four are Liberal Democrats, two are non-affiliated and one represents UKIP.  That is hardly diverse. What do they bring, in terms of diversity, to our society, apart from their accident of birth and their status?

As in all things, the Government have a choice. They could allow this to continue. They could say: “We are going to wait until we have reform of the House of Lords. We will not do anything until we get wholesale reform of the Lords.” We could, however, adopt one of two other solutions.

Lord Grocott has introduced a bill which says that we should stop the elections for hereditary peers now. A bill I have tabled adopts Lord Grocott’s proposal to allow an end to hereditary peer elections now, and includes a sunset clause date for when the hereditaries will be removed.

The Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, has insisted that there was no way the Lords could defend its current size of more than 800 peers when the Prime Minister was set to reduce the size of the Commons to 600 MPs. He said: “What we have to do first is to literally decide ‘what’s the number?’” The number could be, at the very least, 92 fewer by removing the hereditary peers or giving them notice and stopping their election. Ministers should take the chance now and remove hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

David Hanson is Labour MP for Delyn. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate