Labour plans to axe hereditary peers in UK House of Lords

Apr 1, 2024 2:29 pm | News

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Labour plans to swiftly abolish all hereditary peers in the UK House of Lords in its first term in power but will allow the ousted legislators to retain access to the Palace of Westminster as a sweetener, according to party insiders.

Sir Keir Starmer previously branded the unelected chamber “undemocratic” and “indefensible”. But in recent months the Labour leader has resolved to delay plans to scrap the upper house altogether, pushing that ambition beyond a first five-year parliament.

Instead, a Labour government would prioritise ending the “anachronistic” system under which 92 seats in the Lords are reserved for British aristocrats by axing the hereditary peers’ status as legislators, party insiders said.

They added that the party, if it wins the general election expected this year, will act quickly to scrap the hereditary element — jettisoning a weaker proposal to reduce the number slowly by ending the by-elections that take place after a hereditary peer retires or dies in order to appoint a successor.

One Labour official said the latter proposal would have taken too long to reduce the size of the “bloated” upper house, which has swelled to almost 800 members and is the second-largest legislative chamber in the world behind China’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress.

The tweaked plans came after party chiefs privately conceded that attempting more ambitious constitutional reforms to overhaul the whole House of Lords would absorb too much bandwidth and detract from Labour’s economic priorities in its first term.

Although they would no longer be able to make or vote on laws, the hereditary peers would be allowed to keep their passes to the Westminster estate. Nicknamed the “best club in London”, it has Thames-side terraces, sumptuous Gothic interiors designed by renowned architect Augustus Pugin and taxpayer-subsidised bars and restaurants.

“The crucial thing is ending the anachronism of hereditary peers enjoying a role as legislators of the realm by dint of their aristocratic birthright. They can keep their passes to parliament — we’re not bothered about that,” said one senior Labour insider.

There is also a political impetus behind Starmer axing hereditary peers: 47 of the current crop are Conservatives, while just four sit on the Labour benches and four sit on the Liberal Democrat benches. A further 34 are cross-benchers and two are non-affiliated.

The Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House has also recommended the abolition of hereditary peers. Last July it noted that all hereditary peers in the House at present are men. This “skews the gender balance” of the chamber, which is “impossible to justify in a modern legislature”, it said.

The committee also complained that hereditary peers elected to the Lords are not subject to propriety checks, unlike people nominated for life peerages who are subjected to vetting and can be screened out. “This difference of treatment in a house of peers is unjustifiable,” it said.

Removing more than 90 peers as legislators would also help bring down the cost of the upper chamber. Peers are entitled to claim a flat-rate daily attendance allowance of £342. The cost of the House of Lords members finance scheme, which includes peers’ allowances and travel expenses, totalled £21.1mn in 2022-23, official data shows.

However, a wave of new ordinary “life peerages” are expected after the end of this parliament. A Labour government would not block the Tories from using some of their quota to retain some hereditary peers as legislators, according to party insiders.

Many in Labour view the planned reforms as finishing off what Tony Blair started when he came to power in 1997 and said he intended to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative.

In 1999 Blair axed more than 660 hereditary peers from the House of Lords, which had numbered 1,330 legislators. As part of the final deal, 92 hereditary peers were allowed to remain, however, while the rest were allowed to keep their passes to parliament. Ex-MPs are also allowed passes to the Westminster estate.

A Labour official cautioned that while work on proposals to axe hereditary peers was under way, detailed plans had yet to be finalised.

A Labour spokesperson said: “Labour will abolish the House of Lords to ensure the UK’s second chamber better reflect our regions and nations. An incoming Labour government will inherit a mess and need to prioritise. The first term will take steps toward significant reform of the chamber.”

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