3. The Life Peerages Act 1958

This is the third post in a series tracking the major reforms to the House of Lords that have taken place over the last century, looking at attempts at reform that have failed as well as what changes may be on the cards going forward.


Viscount Palmerstone (1784-1865) by Francis Cruikshank,1855

The question of ‘Life Peerages’, that is individuals holding a title that cannot be inherited upon their death, was first raised in 1856 by the Whig government of Lord Palmerstone. The increasing number of appeals to the House of Lords, in its role as a court, prompted calls for the creation of a dedicated professional body within the Lords adequate for dealing with the cases being brought. Palmerstone appointed the Exchequer Court Judge, Sir James Parke to the peerage as Lord Wensleydale. However, this appointment was blocked. Conservative elements in the House referred the appointment to the Committee for Privileges which ruled the Royal Prerogative could not be used to create Life Peerages. Sir James was appointed as a Hereditary Peer and it was not until the Appellate Jurisdiction Act of 1876 and the appointment of Lord Blackburn and Lord Gordon as ‘Lords of Appeal in Ordinary’ i.e. Law Lords, that the House accepted its first Life Peers.

Whilst the number of Law Lords was increased over time the appointment of Life peers in 1958 was promoted by a sustained decline in the number of Peers attending and voting in the House of Lords. This was the result of several constitutional and societal changes that particularly affected the power, influence and economic security of the majority of the aristocracy.

As the industrial revolution progressed economic power shifted away from the aristocracy, who traditionally gained their wealth from agriculture, to the middle classes who were involved in newer industries such as manufacturing and finance. As the economic power of the middle classes increased the political influence of the aristocracy declined. Influence already damaged by the expansion of the franchise, the abolition of rotten boroughs and the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872. All this lead directly to the House of Commons cementing its legislative authority over the House of Lords in convention and then eventually in statute in 1911 and again in 1949. Convention and statute didn’t just reduce the power of the Upper House however, as the franchise expanded fewer Peers were appointed to top government positions, as it was viewed these should be held by the elected members of the Commons, and so their career prospects also diminished. Lord Curzon of Kendleston would have succeeded Andrew Bonar Law as Prime Minister in 1923 but was passed over on account of his peerage.

Lord Curzon of Kendleston (1859-1925) (c) National Trust

With the power of the House of Lords restricted, opportunities for a political career reduced and the financial position of the landed gentry continuing to weaken many began spending less and less time in Parliament and more time focusing on local politics and developing time consuming conventional careers. Many hereditary Peers believed their time in Parliament was almost up and were also in favour of reform and disagreed with hereditary membership of Parliament.

By 1957 attendance was very low, despite there being approximately 850 members, and there were accusations that the House of Lords was simply a taxpayer funded club for hereditaries, failing to fulfil its function as a revising chamber. The Conservative government of the day, under the leadership of Prime Minister Harold McMillan, saw the introduction of Life Peerages as a way of boosting attendance and, like Palmerstone, providing the Lords with more of the experts it required to fulfil its scrutinising role.

Passing the Bill

The Bill started its parliamentary life in the House of Lords in November 1957 after being introduced by the Earl of Home. It faced little opposition from Peers though a controversial amendment was introduced to continue barring women from the Peerage and the Marquess of Salisbury pushed for a restriction in the number of Hereditary Peers who could attend. The first amendment was defeated at committee Stage after stern opposition from Viscount Astor, whose mother, Nancy, had been the first women MP and Salisbury’s proposal his was rejected by the government that feared a widened Bill would ignite stronger debate in the Commons and risked derailing the whole process. On the back of Lord Salisbury’s push for restrictions in membership the Lords later chose to introduction a Standing Order, separate to the Act, allowing Peers to take ‘leave of absence’.

The Earl of Home (1903- 1995)

Introduced to the Commons in 1958 the opposition centred more around the wider political implications of the Bill rather than its legislative merits. The Labour Party had lost much of its interest in reform after passage of the Parliament Act 1949, because it believed that the power of the Lords to obstruct it had been ‘adequately limited’, but Life Peerages risked injecting new vitality and legitimacy into the institution. They objected to the expansion of the Peerage, an expansion of privilege, and instead called for a more fundamental reform of the Upper House. Despite the interest in reform the government maintained the focus of the Bill and it passed its third reading without amendment and with a large majority (292-241) on the 2nd April 1958. It received Royal Assent on the 30th April.

The Act’s Provisions

The Act allowed the monarch to appoint Life Peers under the advice of the Prime Minister. Life Peers would receive the same attendance, speaking and voting rights as the Hereditary Peers, Lords Spiritual and Law Lords. Life Peers would receive the title of Baron or Baroness, the lowest ranking title in the Peerage. The Act did not prohibit the creation of Hereditary Peers or restrict their attendance and many continued to be created, though in considerably reduced numbers. The Act did not limit the size of the House of Lords in any way, nor did it stipulate any restrictions on the number of Life Pees who could be appointed. The Act did not in any way affect the powers of the House of Lords.

Effects of the Act.

The Act was the start of a process that would fundamentally change the composition of the House of Lords. Whilst at first the Life Peers would make up only a very small portion of the House and the Hereditary Peers would continue to dominate their numbers gradually increased and brought in not only a wealth of experience but people from a wider range of backgrounds. It allowed the appointment of Women and although there had been ethnic minority hereditaries in the past it prompted their appointment in greater numbers.

Stella Isaacs, the Marchioness of Reading, was the first woman to take a seat in the Lords, as Baroness Swanborough.

The Act also succeeded in reinvigorating the legislative function of House of Lords. Attendance began to increase and this made for a more active House. The scrutinising role of the Lords was exponentially improved by the increased presence of experts and greater attendance which drove an increase in the number of debates, questions and divisions. The House was not only doing more work but the work it did do held greater weight because rather than it simply being a hereditary chamber its membership was widened to include many of the great and good of the day. It is because of this that the Act can be counted as one of the most influential pieces of legislation of the 20th century.

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