4. The Peerage Act 1963

This is the fourth 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.


In 1960, Anthony Wedgewood Benn, best known to history as Tony Benn, became the 2nd Viscount Stansgate. Inheriting the title meant he had to give up his position in the House of Commons to go and sit in the House of Lords because Peers were automatically members of the upper chamber. His objection to this caused a very public row that precipitated a change in the law that allowed Peers to disclaim their titles and also extended the automatic right to sit and vote to titles in the Scottish Peerage as well as to female Hereditary Peers. This Act very quickly went on to have an unexpectedly important effect on British history.


Tony Benn (1925-2014)

Becoming His Lordship

Despite major changes to how the aristocracy engaged with Parliament and politics there had been no reform of how the Peerage operated. Sons inherited the title from their fathers and were immediately invested with the title and it’s privileges for the duration of their lives, be they long or short. Being a Peer was viewed, by many but not all, as a responsibility with accompanying duties as well as a privilege. It was a job for life that couldn’t legally and shouldn’t morally be laid down or voluntarily passed on prematurely. This is the way it had been for centuries and there was little appetite for change, save for those in favour of abolishing the House of Lords.

When Tony’s father, William was created Viscount Stansgate in 1942 he accepted believing the title would pass to his firstborn son, Michael, who had no political ambitions. However, he died whilst serving with the RAF in 1944 and Tony, the second son, became heir apparent. Tony objected to the hereditary principle and knew membership of the Lords would be a limit to the career he intended to have. So when he was elected as Member of Parliament for Bristol South East in November 1950 he began looking for ways to avoid succeeding his father. At that time the only way  to achieve this was for an Act of Parliament to rescind the letters patent that ennobled his father in 1942 or for a similar Act to deprive him of it, actions almost solely reserved for those found guilty of treason. He campaigned for the next ten years to be able to disavow the title but was unsuccessful in bringing about a change in the law before his father’s death..

Upon becoming the 2nd Viscount Stansgate a he ceased to be the Member for Bristol South East and a by-election had to take place. Benn stood in the election as the Labour Party Candidate against the Conservative’s Malcolm St Clare and won by 23,275 (69.5%) to 10,231(30.5%) with a much increased majority. However, an election court ruled he could not take his seat and gave the election to the Conservatives. St Clare was in the peculiar position of having a majority of -13,044 and when he was sworn in pledged to stand down should the law be changed.

It took a further two years but the Conservative government finally agreed to change the law in 1963, opting to create a mechanism that would allow Peers to disclaim their titles.


The Scottish Question

The First Parliament of the Kingdom of Great Britain met on the 8th November 1707 and saw 16 Scottish Peers and 45 MPs travel to Westminster.

The Act also went beyond the issue of disclaiming titles and corrected legal limitations placed on Scottish Peerages.

Previously those carrying Titles created firstly in the Peerage of Scotland, i.e. peerages created in Scotland before the Acts of Union 1707, were treated as a separate group and only entitled to elect a restricted number of representatives to send to Westminster. This was because it had been agreed that Scotland should send a number of MPs proportionate to its population and tax revenue and this principle was extended to nobility. They were allowed to elect 16 representatives who were chosen at the start of each new Parliament.

By 1963 most of the 154 Scottish Peerages created before the Acts of Union had either gone extinct, been acquired by other Scottish Peers or were linked with English, British or UK titles that granted them the automatic right to sit. The practice was also generally viewed as being outdated and the Peerage Act was used to end it.


The 2nd Viscountess Rhondda (1893-1958)

Your Privilege M’Lady.

Peerages are created by letters patent which both demark the honour and often who can inherit. In most cases this has to be legitimate male heirs, however, some letters patent were written to include what are known as ‘special remainders’ which allowed for female descendants to inherit. These special remainders lead to a number of women becoming Hereditary Peers in their own right. However, female Peers did not become members of the House of Lords.

In many cases it is specifically stated in the patent that any female inheritors are afforded the dignity of the title but not its privileges in relation to Parliament. As late as 1922  in the case of Viscountess Rhondda the Committee for Privileges decided that Peeresses were not eligible for membership. It also became apparent at a later date that Peeresses were not just barred from the House of Lords but also from the House of Commons on account of their Peerage, a double injustice.

In 1949 and 1959 the Marquess of Reading moved a motion in the House of Lords calling for female Hereditary Peers to be given the same rights as their male counterparts, in 1949 it was passes by 45—27 and the government did nothing and when it passed in 1959 by 59-51 the government argued it was a trivial matter it couldn’t find time for.

Alongside eliminating the restrictions placed on Scottish Peers it was decided the Peerage Bill should also be a vehicle for eliminating the injustices levied against female hereditary peers. Doing so allowed 12 Peeresses to take seats.

It’s Full Name

‘An Act to authorise the disclaimer for life of certain hereditary peerages; to include among the peers qualified to sit in the House of Lords all peers in the peerage of Scotland and peeresses in their own right in the peerages of England, Scotland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom; to remove certain disqualifications of peers in the peerage of Ireland in relation to the House of Commons and elections thereto; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid.’

The Passage of the Bill

Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government had a strong majority and the Bill experienced little opposition on its passage through Parliament which it began on the 30th May 1963. Opposition was so ineffectual that it was able to receive Royal Assent just three months later on the 31st July.

Opposition mainly came from the Labour Party who objected to the changes because they believed that it extended and reinforced the hereditary principle with which they disagreed. This despite the Bill being brought into existence by the efforts of one of their own, Tony Benn.

In its original form the Bill stipulated that a Hereditary Peerage, once disclaimed, would lapse permanently. This was amended so that the disclaimed title would proceed to the natural successor. One other amendment that was proposed would have allowed for those with titles in the Peerage of Ireland to sit and vote in the House of Lords but it was defeated 90 votes to 8.


The Acts Provisions

  • It allows Peers to renounce their titles if they delivered an ‘instrument of disclaimer’ to the Lord Chancellor within 12 months of succeeding to a title or within 12 months of reaching their 21st birthday. Peers were also allowed to disclaim if they did so within 12 months of the Act coming into effect.

– Disclaiming a Peerage makes an individual eligible to sit and vote in the House of Commons and vote in general elections

– If an individual was a member of the House of Commons at the time of their inheritance they had to decide within one month.

  • It allowed all those holding titles within the Peerage of Scotland the same rights as those in the Peerage of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom to sit and vote in the House of Lords.

– This meant the practice of electing representative Peers was discontinued after 256 years.

  • It afforded all women in possession of a Hereditary Peerage in their own right the same privileged to sit and vote in the House of Lords as a man would be, regardless of the letters patent or other instrument that created the title.


Alec Douglas – Home (1903 -1995)

Effects of the Act

Tony Benn, 2nd Viscount Stansgate was the first to disclaim, declaring “I am the first man in history who, by Act of Parliament, is prevented from receiving a hereditary peerage. I am statutorily immunised.” Technically Benn was incorrect as he had already inherited and the The Duke of Brunswick was deprived of his princely titles and barred from succeeding his father as the Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale in 1918 by the Titles Depravation Act. Benn has since been followed by no less than 17 Peers, with both the 2nd and 3rd Baron Silkin disclaiming their title.

Of those who have disclaimed, three are still alive, Alan Lindsay Sanderson, previously the 2nd Baron Sanderson of Ayot (1971), the Lord Selkirk of Douglas, previously the 11th Earl of Selkirk (1994) and Christopher Silkin who was briefly the 3rd Baron Silkin (2002).

The Act coming into effect in 1963 allowed for Sir Alec Douglas Home, the 14th Earl of Home to renounce his title and sit as Prime Minister. He became Prime Minister on 19th October 1963 and renounced his title on the 23rd of October, becoming the last to sit, however briefly, as a member of the Lords whilst in Office.

Since the House of Lords Act 1999 abolished automatic membership of the House of Lords for hereditary Peers only one Peer has disclaimed.

Remaining limitations

  • The Act only provides limited opportunities for Hereditary Peers to renounce their title. In effect it enabled them to decline to take up the responsibilities and duties that came with the title. The Act did in no way provide an avenue for Peers to retire from Parliamentary duties.
  • It did not include any mechanism by which Life Peers could renounce their title.
  • Those with titles in the Peerage of Ireland i.e those created before 1801 had no rights to membership. However, many Irish Peers were afforded titles in the Peerage of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom so there are a number Peers whos scenior title is ‘Irish’. The most notable example of this is the Earl of Courtown, the government’s deputy chief whip in the Lords. The Earldom of Courtown was created in the Peerage of Ireland in 1762 and the lesser title of Baron Saltersford was created in the Peerage of Great Britain for the 2nd Earl in 1796 allowing him and his descendants an automatic right to sit.

The House of Lords has seen many reforms over its long lifetime, this Act is probably one of the quirkier set of changes.

The Peerage Act 1963 was a quiet reform that did not garner a great deal of attention but deserves remembering as an Act that alleviated a small injustice levied against female Hereditary Peers by convention and allowed Alec Douglas-Home to become Prime Minister. Without this Act it would have been impossible for Home to have become leader of the Conservatives and another man would have been selected in his place. Quite what effect this would have had on the course of history will never be known but it is an interesting scenario to think about. It should also be remembered that the Act was the brainchild of Tony Benn.


Next: The House of Lords Act 1999.


Further Reading



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