Following the removal of all but 92 hereditary peers in 1999, Lords reform has stalled and divided over the next way to proceed. With reform expected to feature in the upcoming Queen’s speech, even optimists acknowledge the weight of obstacles ready to prevent the passage of a largely or wholly elected second chamber. What we have is likely to be how we will proceed in the foreseeable future, with a wholly appointed chamber supplemented by 92 peers still exercising their anachronistic birthright. But can any justification be sought for the continued participation of hereditary peers?
Lord Younger of Leckie defends his position by claiming hereditary peers ‘have a better voting and attendance record than the appointed peers as a whole [because]… appointed peers are more diverted by business activities and outside directorships.’ Lord Howe considers his fellow hereditary peers are ‘more independent…[and] some of the most assiduous attendees. A great many sit on committees of the House’. Others use the justification that they contain a ‘considerable body of expertise’, which would be eradicated upon any future ejection from the House.
This research sought to analyze whether they genuinely bring something necessary, worthwhile and complementary to the House of Lords. Before the 1999 reforms, hereditary peers showed on average considerably lower attendances rates compared with life peers. However, following the removal of all but 92 of their number the opposite trend occurs, with hereditary peer attendance as much as 22% higher than life peers in the 2004-05 session. Clearly, the hereditary peers that were most committed to parliamentary work were the ones who remained after 1999, but does attendance translate to participation?
In reality, what we hear is silence. Throughout 2011, hereditary peers on average only made half as many oral contributions in the chamber compared with life peers. Perhaps their greater attendance rates can instead be reflected through select committee work?
Lord Brabazon of Tara, the current Chairman of Committees comments that the political parties and crossbenches naturally choose peers in their recommendations ‘who are interested in the subject and, in the main, volunteer for the job and are able to give the necessary time’. Although during the 2001-02 and 2004-05 sessions hereditary peers were about 20% more likely to sit on at least one select committee, in 2011 it is life peers who are now slightly more likely to sit on committees. As the influx of new life peers are now well established within the Lords, the chamber no longer relies on the continuity offered by the hereditary peers, thereby explaining why hereditary peers actually do not play an exceptional role in committees.
Andrew Turner MP presents the view that hereditary peers are ‘the epitome of independence’, contrasted with the ‘partisan appointments’ created through the influx of life peerages. However, when tracking the rebelliousness of hereditary peers, the findings are minimal with 40% not rebelling a single time in 2011 and 71% not rebelling more than once. Again, arguments that they play a distinguishable role appear unconvincing.
But to give credit, there are certainly a small number of hereditary peers who do demonstrate an impressive individual commitment to Lords work, particularly on committees prompting the notion that should the hereditary principle ever be completely eradicated, there is a strong case for certain peers to be granted life peerages.
On average, however, this study of hereditary peer participation does not provide sufficient defence to justify their role as being convincingly different or complimentary to the role performed by life peers, proving the arguments of many defenders of the principle to be incorrect. Hereditary peers show greater attendance rates, but they appear no more likely (and in some areas dramatically less likely) to perform the cumbersome work of parliamentary scrutiny.
This conclusion is probably more important now than ever before: if hereditary peers are attending en masse but not contributing significantly, then as of 2010 they are collecting a parliamentary allowance for every time they attend, perhaps enjoying the social benefits of the House even if they are not contributing a great deal in terms of the nitty-gritty of parliamentary work.
As greater reform has proven irreconcilable with varied interests, the hereditary principle remains upheld, but it also fails to be legitimately defended by those who possess the title.