The debate on second reading was opened by the Earl of Home, secretary of state for Commonwealth relations and leader of the House. He referred to broad agreement, if not unanimity, on the introduction of life peers. Arguments were, he said, “strictly and severely practical”. He referred to low attendance figures, particularly affecting the Labour benches, who had fewer members:

There is, as all your Lordships know, a small number of noble Lords opposite who enable us to present to the world a picture of a House which is efficient and informed and which maintains a high level of debate. But, equally, we know that this is a brave facade and that on a small number of noble lords opposite there is falling a strain which they cannot and should not be asked to carry much longer, and that this House is perilously near a breakdown in its machinery. That situation can, in the opinion of the government and I think of all your lordships, be eased if the prime minister is given the discretion to offer life peerages to those persons who feel, for various good reasons, that they cannot accept hereditary peerages today.

In the selection and appointment of life peers the emphasis will be on the appointment of persons who can help the working of Parliament. In discovering such persons, when the prime minister is looking for persons who might be able to help the opposition he would desire, when and where appropriate, to seek the advice of the leader of the opposition; and, in general, quite apart from the problems of the opposition in this House, if the prime minister has discretion to offer a life peerage I think it will give him a wider range of persons from whom to draw those who can contribute to Parliament from their expert knowledge of this or that aspect of our national life. […]

I believe that all of us have recognised that the existence of the large number of peers who seldom, if ever, attend this House but who, if they did attend, could in theory dominate a vote exposes this House to criticism.

Noting the “substantial agreement on the introduction of women to your lordships’ House” the Earl of Home stated “I cannot see any argument in logic or in reason, why, if women are in another place, they should not be here”. He argued that attempts to work with the opposition to arrive at “comprehensive reform” had been turned down, stating “if this is ‘tinkering’, whose fault is it?”. The Earl of Home concluded that he hoped agreement on House of Lords reform would be reached in the long term, but he urged the House to be content with the bill for its “immediate merits”.

In reply, Viscount Alexander of Hillsborough, the leader of the opposition, queried the introduction of a bill of “such constitutional importance” in the Lords. Viscount Alexander noted that the bill did not allow for the abolition of hereditary peers despite this having been “advanced for many years by large numbers of the population”. He stated his belief that the bill was “introduced to enhance the prestige of the House while retaining the hereditary principle”. In addition, the bill did not allow heirs of peers to renounce their peerages if, for example, “they are chosen by electors in the other place” and did not wish to receive a writ of summons. This would not be possible until the passing of the Peerage Act 1963.

Viscount Alexander welcomed the government’s proposal to enable women to join the House of Lords as life peers. He cited examples of female MPs he had worked with in the House of Commons:

I would not wish for better parliamentary colleagues, or more able parliamentary colleagues than Margaret Bondfield, Susan Lawrence, Ellen Wilkinson and Mrs Wintringham, one of the ablest persons I ever had the pleasure of associating with in parliamentary comradeship in the other place. Therefore, I feel convinced that the government, in their proposal for the appointment of life peers, are right in granting women the same privilege as men.

Margaret Wintringham, MP for Louth, was Parliament’s first female Liberal MP.

Viscount Alexander rejected the suggestion that the Labour Party had turned down discussions on House of Lords reform. However, he confirmed that Labour would not vote against the second reading of the bill. He also stated that he supported the continuing omission of female hereditary peers, arguing to do otherwise would “add very much to the prestige of the hereditary principle in the House”. Women would not be able to join the House as hereditary peers until after the passing of the Peerage Act 1963.

Lord Rea, the leader of the Liberals in the Lords, criticised the government for not addressing all the points on House of Lords reform which were agreed in principle at the 1948 Leaders’ Conference. This conference of party leaders had been formed in order to reach agreement following the Labour government’s introduction of a bill to reform the powers of the Lords. On the issue of membership, the conference had agreed in principle not only to create life peers but also measures such as enabling hereditary peers to refuse to take up seats in the House of Lords and enabling members to retire. However, Lord Rea said he would support the bill, saying “it does bring before us two of those agreed conclusions: that there should be life peerages, and that women should be eligible equally with men”. He concluded, “there is no reason for spurning the crumb because one does not get the whole loaf”.

Some peers opposed the admission of women. For example, the Earl of Glasgow had previously voiced his opposition to women in the House of Lords during a separate debate on the government’s reform proposals on 31 October 1957. Although the Earl of Glasgow did not raise this argument during second reading of the Life Peerages Bill, it was referenced by other members. Speaking at second reading of the Life Peerages Bill, both the Earl of Home and Lord Silkin (Labour) referred to Lord Glasgow’s attempts to table an amendment to this earlier debate’s motion which sought to maintain the status quo through the creation of new hereditary peers. However, they noted that Lord Glasgow had been unable to find a seconder.

Read more about history, reform and membership in the House of Lords section of the Lords Library website, including our briefing on the ‘Life Peerages Act 1958’, (27 June 2023).

Cover image: Copyright House of Lords 2016/Photography by Roger Harris on Flickr.