Second reading was opened by the Lord Chancellor, Viscount Dilhorne, who referred to a debate in March 1963 on proposals put forward in the report of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform. Lord Dilhorne said “the tenor of that debate showed that in general the committee’s recommendations would be acceptable to this House”. He explained the choice of the word ‘disclaim’ to describe the process of renouncing their titles:

Your lordships who are familiar with legal terms will remember that in real property law an interest which is surrendered is extinguished; on the other hand, we speak of a legatee or a trustee in bankruptcy “disclaiming” a bequest or an interest which he does not want. […] I think your lordships will agree that, since we do not propose that renunciation should extinguish the peerage, “disclaim” is the right word to use.

He detailed the “strict” time limits for disclaiming: “six months from the coming into force of the bill in the case of a peer who has already succeeded; one month from succession in the case of a peer who succeeds as a sitting member of the House of Commons, and 12 months from succession in any other case”.

Lord Dilhorne explained the disclaiming peer “becomes to all intents and purposes a commoner for life, and on his death his heir succeeds to the peerage in the normal way”. He also acknowledged there had been arguments for the peerages to be extinguished entirely when disclaimed:

I think it comes down in the end to this: if we were attempting in this bill to curtail the right to membership of this House, then there would be a logical argument for extinction. But since that is not what the bill seeks to do, it would be wrong for us to interfere with the rights of the heirs to a peerage which has been disclaimed.

Since the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland’s peers had elected representatives to attend the House, rather than each sitting in the House of Lords. The Peerage Act would end the election of representatives, allowing each Scottish peer to sit in their own right. Lord Dilhorne told the House:

I appreciate that those who have taken part in the traditional ceremony of electing representative peers, and particularly those who have themselves been elected to represent their fellows, may feel some regret at the passing of an historic institution—indeed, the noble earl, Lord Perth, made this clear in our earlier debate. But I think the arguments both of principle and convenience are overwhelmingly in favour of the clause as it now stands.

Although female life peers could sit in the House under the Life Peerages Act 1958, female hereditary peers could not. This bill contained provisions to rectify this. Addressing this, Lord Dilhorne said members had “repeatedly extended a warm, though ineffective, invitation to the hereditary peeresses and I am sure that the House will be pleased that effect can now be given to its wishes”.

Leader of the Labour peers in the House of Lords Earl Alexander of Hillsborough then set out the position of the Labour Party. He said Labour objected to a “revising chamber that is dependent so largely upon the hereditary principle”. However, he praised the bill for giving hereditary peers the right “to go to the electorate and ask for their suffrage and then to have the right to appear in the honourable House of the Commons”.

Earl Alexander expressed some doubt about the maintenance of titles for the descendants of disclaimants. He also raised concerns about admission of all Scottish peerages, arguing this was “quite a substantial increase in the number of peers who will enter this House for reasons of heredity”. On female hereditary peers, he said:

I am quite sure your lordships will agree that, by the addition of the lady peers to this House under the life peerage appointments, the general effect of our debates, especially on social questions, has been greatly improved. It may well be so, if we remember a case of an outstanding lady like the late Lady Rhondda; it would not have injured debating or the public-spiritedness of the members of this chamber if this privilege to female holders of titles had been given long ago in the circumstances of the hereditary basis which have continuously existed.

He finished by praising the Earl of Kilmuir (Conservative) for chairing the select committee inquiry, and then Tony Benn:

[Tony Benn] stood alone; he stood against what were the recognised principles of the electoral laws. Yet, in spite of all that he has suffered in consequence in the meantime, he now not only gains the freedom which we all think he ought to have had before, but is the head and shoulders which have led to more privilege being given to other members of your Lordships’ House. I think we should all be grateful to him for the stand which he made.

Lord Rea (Liberal) rose next. He had been a member of the committee, and explained:

[T]he designation of this select committee was the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, which I think turned out to be an unfortunate misnomer, and consequently I suggest that a little clarification must now be made […]

The bill before us today is in effect an ad hoc and, I hope, only an interim measure; that is, regarded from the angle of reform of the House of Lords in its wide and generally accepted sense.

He also criticised the government’s implementation of the Life Peerages Act 1958:

[I]ntroduced by the Conservative leaders in each House specifically as a measure to strengthen the present opposition. In the event, and as I think quite shamelessly, more supporters of the Conservative Party than supporters of the opposition have been created life peers. The Liberal Party, incidentally, has not had a single creation of one life peerage. The present Peerage Bill, by bringing into this House a number of peers and peeresses hitherto excluded—and, I grant, unfairly excluded—will of course exaggerate this notorious imbalance still further.

Lord Rea also stated his support for the abolition of hereditary peerages:

I, and I think a majority of people in this country, want to see this abolished in so far as it gives a right to be a legislator without any other qualification. I earnestly hope that a bill to this effect and of general reform of this House may be brought in. But this is not that bill. This is not the great bill for the reform of the second chamber which so many of us want to see. This is a limited bill. I suggest that this bill would be more accurately described as the House of Commons Freedom from Limitations Bill, or, if you like, the Wedgwood Benn Enabling Bill.

Overall, however, Lord Rea expressed his intention to support the bill “as a necessary remedy of a current injustice whereby members of the House of Commons may, and do, become members of the House of Lords, but members of the House of Lords have been debarred hitherto from ever serving as members of the House of Commons”.

Lord Milford, the only member of the Communist Party of Great Britain to ever sit in the House of Lords, made his maiden speech during this debate. Following the Marquess of Salisbury (Conservative), he said “I have been warned that in a maiden speech one should never be controversial; but I find myself disagreeing with so much of what the noble marquess has just said, that I do not know how not to be”. He went on to call for the abolition of the House of Lords. Lord Archibald (Labour) later referred to the speech as “so wide-ranging that, the House having extended the usual courtesy to him, I think it would now be quite impossible for any subsequent speaker to be out of order”.

The Earl of Arran (Conservative) spoke about members leaving the Lords for the Commons and his view on this as a hereditary peer:

I should not like it to be felt throughout the country that there are great numbers of peers who are impatient and eager to be gone. I do not believe that this is so. Indeed, I would say that very many of us—though, of course, this particularly applies to this side of the House—are content and proud to sit where our fathers sat, and to try to do the things which they thought, and we think today, right. We back benchers know our limitations. We do not aspire to high office. We do not carry prime ministerial batons in our knapsacks. What we do is simply to speak and vote as we think, again, as our fathers did before us, and as we hope our sons will be allowed to do when we are dead. Indeed, my great regret is that I shall not be there to hear my own son’s maiden speech.

Read more about history, reform and membership in the House of Lords section of the Lords Library website, including our briefing on ‘Women in the House of Lords: 65 years on’ (17 May 2023).

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