14 Mar 2022

What are life peers?

There are currently over 650 life peers eligible to vote in the House of Lords, the majority of which are Conservative; the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has the record for the creation of the highest number, which is averaging 41 life peerages per year.

Life peers are members of the peerage whose titles cannot be inherited, unlike hereditary peerages. Life peerages are available to both males and females, unlike hereditary peerages, which are predominantly male. Life peers are always created at the rank of baron or baroness. Although their children cannot inherit the title, they are allowed to use the honorific ‘Hon’.

The History of Life Peerages

The creation of life peerages is not simply a 20th-century phenomenon. The source of peerages is the Crown, as the fount of honour. A number of life peerages were granted in the Middle Ages and later in the 17th and 18th centuries, generally as an expression of familial loyalty, affection or romantic attachment on the part of the monarch – Henry V, for example, was well known for giving life peerages to some of his relations. Following the Restoration, a number of life peerage were granted by various monarchs to their mistresses and illegitimate children, for example Catherine Sedley was created Countess of Dorchester by James II in 1686, and Madame Wallmoden was created Countess of Yarmouth by George II in 1740. As the recipients of these titles were all women, none of the grants of peerages involved taking a seat in Parliament, and in some circles doubt as to the validity of these peerages was voiced.

This question came to a head in 1856, when Sir James Parke (1782–1868) was created Baron Wensleydale, of Wensleydale, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, for life, as he was a barrister and judge and it was felt that his skills were required in order to help the House fulfil its duties. His appointment was by Letters Patent issued by Queen Victoria. However, another peer raised the question of his validity, as a life peer, to sit in the House as no such person had done so for over 400 years. There followed a long debate as to whether the Monarch’s power to create life peers in this way had lapsed or was legal, given the changes put in place, both to Parliament and the monarchy, during and after the Interregnum (the period between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Restoration of his son Charles II in 1660, when England was under republican government). Eventually, it was decided that the monarch could not change the “constitutional character of Parliament alone”. So that his appointment could go ahead, Baron Wensleydale was recreated a hereditary peer later that same year as Baron Wensleydale, of Walton, in the county Palatine of Lancaster.

In 1869 Earl Russell introduced a life peerages bill. It made provision for 28 life peerages to be in existence at any one time, with no more than four being created in a single year. The idea was that life peers would be drawn from the professional ranks of the civil service, the armed forces and academia. The House of Lords rejected the bill on its third reading. In 1887 the Appellate Jurisdiction Act allowed senior judges to sit in the House of Lords, as Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. They were allowed to retain their seats for life, even after their retirement. This pragmatic solution, which addressed the issues raised in the Wensleydale case, ensured that individuals with legal expertise played a full part in the deliberations of the House of Lords.

The Modernisation of the House of Lords

The Life Peerages Act of 1958 (or “An Act to make provision for the creation of life peerages carrying the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords”) established the standards for the creation of life peers.  For the first time, the Act enabled life peerages, which entitled the holders to a seat and vote in the House of Lords, to be granted for other than judicial purposes, and to both men and women. On 24 July 1958, the first 14 life peers were announced in the London Gazette. The list included ten men and four women. Hugh Gaitskell, the Leader of the Opposition, nominated six people for a life peerage, six of the ten men nominated were former MPs, and one of the four women was a hereditary peeress in her own right. The first female peer to receive her letters patent was Baroness Wootton of Abinger, created on 8 August 1958, who was also the first woman to chair proceedings in the House of Lords, as Deputy Speaker. The Act gave the Prime Minister power to change the political composition of the House of Lords, gradually diminishing the power of hereditary titleholders.

Lords Reform 1999

The House of Lords Act of 1999 radically reformed the upper chamber by removing the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords, stating that “no-one shall be member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage”. However, the act did create a temporary compromise, whereby 92 hereditary peers were allowed to remain in the House of Lords for an interim period, while another ten were created life peers in order to allow them to remain. The 1999 Act decreased membership of the House of Lords from 1,330 to 669 by March 2000.

For the first time the Act gave hereditary peers the right to stand for election to the House of Commons, from which they had previously been disqualified. The first hereditary peer to gain a seat in the House of Commons was the Liberal Democrat John Thurso, a viscount.

Life peers are created by Letters Patent on the advice of the Prime Minister. Anyone is eligible to be selected providing they are aged at least 21, have no convictions and are a UK citizen or a member of the Commonwealth; they must also be resident in the UK for tax purposes. They receive no salary but can claim an allowance for travel and accommodation for each day they sign into the House, even if they do not take part in business; the allowance is currently £305 per day.

New life peerages are usually announced in the following lists: New Year’s Honours, Queen's Birthday Honours, Dissolution Honours and Resignation Honours.

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