UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Life Peer

In the United Kingdom, life peers are created members of the Peerage whose titles may not be inherited (those whose titles are inheritable are known as hereditary peers). Life peerages, always of baronial rank, are created under the Life Peerages Act 1958 and carried with them, presuming the recipient meets qualifications such as age and citizenship, seats in the House of Lords.

The Life Peerages Act of 1958 allowed the government to appoint non-hereditary peers for the purpose of putting qualified individuals into the House of Lords. It thereby allowed a measure of greater party balance to a traditionally Conservative-dominated House. The mechanism by which peers can take a voluntary "leave of absence" was also created in 1958.

There are a number of ways into the House of Lords. As of 2006 members included 92 remaining hereditary peers, bishops and Law Lords. The great majority, however, are life peers. Formally, all life peers are appointed by the same mechanism: the Queen appoints them on the advice and recommendation of the Prime Minister. In practice there are a number of routes to being nominated by the Prime Minister as a life peer, including a small number appointed as ministers, an even smaller number of former public servants (10 in any one Parliament), and a smaller number still of former Speakers of the House of Commons. Prime Ministers have also traditionally allocated peerages as part of their resignation honours lists, usually to fellow politicians, political advisors or others who have supported them, and their dissolution honours lists, when peerages can be given to Members from all parties who are leaving the House of Commons. However, most entrants to the House of Lords come through one of two mechanisms-they are either appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission as non-political "working peers", or they are appointed as political "working peers" by their respective political party.

In most respects, the systems for allocating honours and peerages are very different. An honour is a reflection of past achievement, whereas a peerage ought to be an appointment for future service. The fact that most working peers are chosen by political parties may not be widely understood, but it is central to the workings of a nominated House that parties are involved in the selection of legislators who serve as representatives of the parties.

Though peerages in their general character have been hereditary, descending like estates to the elder son, yet peerages have been continually granted to persons, with remainder to collateral relatives, or to the elder son of the peer by a second wife, or to the son of a younger brother, or other relative not in the direct line of succession, as heir at law. All grants of this class - being governed, not by the general law of descent, but by the special limitations in the patent - were exceptions from the principle of hereditary succession. The first grantee was, in effect, created a peer for life, though the second grantee became entitled to the peerage, subject to the ordinary rights of succession. But the grant of a peerage of this class was plainly distinguishable from a peerage for life, as it provided-though in an exceptional manner-for the duration of the dignity beyond the life of the first grantee.

The memorable events of 1831 and 1832, arising out of the measures for extending the representation of the people, exposed the authority of the House of Lords to a rude shock. The Whig ministry had, by a dissolution, secured a large majority of the Commons in favor of their Reform Bill; its rejection by the Lords was certain. For seventy years, the House of Lords had been recruited from the ranks of the Tory party; and was not less hostile to the Whig ministry, than to Parliamentary reform. Already, before the second reading, no less than sixteen new peers had been created, in order to correct, in some measure, the notorious disproportion between the two parties in that house; but a majority was still known to be adverse to the Bill. A further creation of peers, in order to ensure the success of the measure, was then in contemplation; but the large number that would be required for that purpose discouraged ministers from yet advising this last resource of power. Lord Brougham had a list of eighty creations framed upon the principles of making the least possible permanent addition to the House of Lords and to the aristocracy, by calling up peers' eldest sons, by choosing men without any families, by taking Scotch and Irish peers.

So far as the House of Lords was concerned, a creation of peers by the Crown, on extraordinary occasions, was the only equivalent which the constitution provided, for the change and renovation of the House of Commons by a dissolution. In no other way can the opinions of the House of Lords be brought into harmony with those of the people. In ordinary times the House of Lords has been converted gradually to the political opinions of the dominant party in the state, by successive creations; but when a crisis arises, in which the party, of whose sentiments it is the exponent, is opposed to the majority of the House of Commons and the country, it must either yield to the pressure of public opinion, or expose itself to the hazard of a more sudden conversion. Statesmen of all parties would condemn such a measure, except in cases of grave and perilous necessity; but, should the emergency be such as to demand it, it cannot be pronounced unconstitutional.

It had long been remarked that the House of Lords, in its capacity as the supreme appellate tribunal of the country, was insufficiently provided with members learned in the law. With a view to supply this evident defect, the Prince Consort proposed to create some life peerages, and bestow them on judges or barristers of eminence. Men of this class had already frequently declined an hereditary peerage, on the ground that they were too poor to gratify their eldest sons at the expense of the younger ones. Ministers advised her Majesty, before the meeting of Parliament in 1856, to issue letters patent to Sir James Parke, a distinguished lawyer and a man highly esteemed by all parties, as a life peer, creating him Baron Wensleydale for life. The letters patent were issued ; but the peers loudly protested against the intrusion of a life-peer to sit among the hereditary nobles of the realm, on the ground, in particular, that the Crown, which was practically the Ministers of the day, would be able by means of such peerages to swamp the Upper House.

The abstract prerogative of the Crown to create a life-peerage was scarcely questioned; but it was denied that such a peerage conferred any right to sit in Parliament. It was treated as a mere title of honour, giving rank and precedence to its possessor, but not a place in an hereditary legislative chamber. The Crown had, in former times, introduced life-peers to sit in the House of Lords. But it was admitted on all sides, that no such case had occurred for upwards of four hundred years. Hence arose a most difficult question of constitutional law. Had the ancient prerogative of the Crown been lost by desuetude; or could it be exercised, if the Queen thought fit to revive it? The ministers, relying upon the legal maxim, "indium tempus occurrit regi" argued that there could be no loss of prerogative by lapse of time. But their opponents forcibly contended that the Crown could not alter the settled constitution of the realm.

Was it probable that such peerages would be confined to law-lords ? If once recognised, would they not be extended to all persons whom the ministers of the day might think it convenient to obtrude upon the House of Lords ? Might not the hereditary peers be suddenly overpowered by creatures of the executive government, - not ennobled on account of their public services, or other claims to the favour of the Crown, but appointed as nominees of ministers, and ready to do their bidding? Nay! might not the Crown be hereafter advised to discontinue the grant of hereditary peerages altogether, and gradually change the constitution of the House of Lords from an hereditary assembly, to a dependent senate nominated for life only ?

Abuses of the honours system are known at least as early as the reign of King James I at the start of the seventeenth century. The promise of honours was a popular method of raising party funds from wealthy individuals in the nineteenth century. In the 1920s, the systematic and flagrant sale of honours (peerages, knighthoods and so on) for political fund-raising became a public scandal. Critical comment led to the Royal Commission on Honours (1922) which recommendedlegislation. Under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act, 1925, it became a criminal offence to deal in honours either as a broker or a purchaser. The 1922 Royal Commission's main recommendations were directed at political honours, and as a safeguard it proposed the creation of the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee, consisting of three privy counsellors who are notmembers of the government. This committee still exists. It is charged withconsidering recommendations for honours made by the Prime Minister onaccount of political services, and with satisfying itself that those recommended are'fit and proper persons' to receive such recognition. The Scrutiny Committee may make such enquiries as it sees fit, and in particular to establish that a recommendation is not connected, directly or indirectly, with a gift of money to a political party.

The role of the the House of Lords Appointments Commission is to select new independent members of the House of Lords and to vet party-political nominations put forward by the political parties. The Comission selects independent members on merit and on their commitment to the work of the House of Lords, in scrutinising legislation, sitting on committees and participating in debates. The Comission wants to add to the breadth of expertise and experience that already exists within the House and to ensure that the House of Lords represents the diversity of the people of the UK. The Appointments Commission is a non-statutory advisory body set up by the Prime Minister to make recommendations for non-party-political peerages. The Commission's remit is to find people of distinction who will bring authority and expertise to the House of Lords. The Commission recommends individuals on merit and their ability to contribute effectively to the work of the House. By July 2009 the House of Lords Appointments Commission had recommended a total of 51 non-party-political peerages to the Prime Minister, drawn from well over 4,000 nominations. The Commission also vets nominations for life peers, including those nominated by the UK political parties, for propriety.

The Honours Scrutiny Committee was originally created to vet political honours, including peerages. SincePeerages are now dealt with by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, its remaining tasks are to check for propriety on any awards which have been added to the list by the Prime Minster, including those for Parliamentary service, and to consider whether political donations may have influenced any of the other awards at Kt/DBE and above.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:07:59 ZULU