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Background 

The House of Lords Act 1999 removed most hereditary peers from the House of Lords. Under the act, 90 hereditary peers retained their places, elected by their fellow party/group colleagues to remain as members. In addition to these 90 members, two peers—the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain—remain members of the Lords by virtue of the royal offices they hold. Some hereditary peers who were members of the House prior to the 1999 act were also given life peerages. 

Since the start of the 2002–03 session, when one of the 90 hereditary peers dies, retires or is excluded, a replacement is chosen in a by-election. Prior to the 2002–03 session, any vacancy that arose amongst the 90 hereditary peers was filled by the nearest runner-up in the original ballots, held in October and November 1999. Hereditary peers wishing to stand in a by-election are listed in a register of hereditary peers, maintained and published by the Clerk of the Parliaments.

Who votes in by-elections? 

There are two different types of by-election. Of the 90 hereditary peers, 15 were elected to provide the House with members able to act as deputy speakers and other officeholders. However, there is no expectation that these members undertake such roles. They are voted for by the whole House. To date, the successful candidates in by-elections among the 15 have been members of the same party or group as the hereditary peer being replaced.

Replacements for vacancies among the remaining 75 are voted for by the other hereditary peers in a particular party or by the Crossbench hereditary peers. In 1999, the 75 seats were allocated proportionally to reflect the affiliations of the hereditary peers who sat prior to the 1999 act. Consequently, for the purposes of by-elections: 

  • 42 are elected by Conservative hereditary peers;
  • two are elected by Labour hereditary peers;
  • three are elected by Liberal Democrat hereditary peers; and
  • 28 are elected by Crossbench hereditary peers.

How many by-elections have been held?

Prior to 2002, two vacancies arising amongst the 90 hereditary peers were filled by the nearest runner-up in the original ballots. When Baroness Wharton (Crossbench) died in May 2000, she was replaced by Lord Cobbold (Crossbench), and when the Earl of Carnarvon (Crossbench) died in September 2001, he was replaced by Lord Chorley (Crossbench).

Since 2002, 43 hereditary peers have joined the House of Lords following by-elections. Of these, 33 have been votes by hereditary peers of the relevant party or by the Crossbench hereditary peers. The remaining ten by-elections were voted on by the whole House.

The most recent by-election was for the vacancy created following the retirement of Lord Elton (Conservative). This took place over 13–14 July 2021 and was won by Lord Harlech (Conservative). The Excel table provides details of by-elections held since 2002.

Suspension of by-elections in 2020 and 2021

On 23 March 2020, the House of Lords agreed a motion to suspend the standing order requiring that a hereditary by-election be held within three months of a vacancy occurring. This was one of several measures recommended by the House of Lords Procedure and Privileges Committee in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This suspension was extended several times. On 7 September 2020, the House agreed a motion to extend the suspension of hereditary by-elections until 31 December 2020. On 14 December 2020, the House agreed a motion to extend the suspension of hereditary by-elections pending a further report from the Procedure and Privileges Committee in the new year.

On 8 February 2021, the House of Lords Procedure and Privileges Committee published a report recommending the continuation of the suspension of by-elections. It also recommended that the position should be reviewed after Easter 2021. On 22 February 2021, the House of Lords approved a motion to suspend by-elections pending a review by the Procedure and Privileges Committee after the Easter recess. The Procedure and Privileges Committee announced on 26 April 2021 that hereditary by-elections would resume. It also announced by-elections would be held electronically.

Four vacancies occurred during the period in which by-elections were suspended. These were:

  • The Earl of Selborne (Non-affiliated), who retired on 26 March 2020. The Earl of Selborne had been a Conservative member prior to becoming non-affiliated.
  • The Countess of Mar (Crossbench), who retired on 1 May 2020.
  • Lord Rea (Labour), who died on 1 June 2020.
  • Lord Elton (Conservative), who retired 29 October 2020.

A further member, Lord Denham (Conservative), retired on the same day the resumption of by-elections was announced.

Resumption of by-elections

Following the end of their suspension, the first by-elections following took place on 14 June 2021. Conservative hereditary peers voted to replace the Earl of Selborne and Lords Denham and Selsdon. Lord Selsdon ceased to be a member on 11 May 2021 following his non-attendance during the 2019–21 session. Lord Sandhurst (Conservative), the Earl of Leicester (Conservative) and Lord Altrincham (Conservative) were elected.

The following by-elections have also taken place in June and July 2021:

  • The Countess of Mar was replaced by Lord Londesborough (Crossbench).
  • Lord Rea was replaced by Viscount Stansgate (Labour). A ballot did not take place as Viscount Stansgate was the only candidate.
  • Lord Elton was replaced by Lord Harlech (Conservative).

Following the death of Viscount Simon (Labour), a further by-election took take place over 9–10 November 2021. The by-election involved the whole House and was won by Lord Hacking (Labour). Since the introduction of electronic voting, by-elections in which the whole House is able to vote have taken place over the course of two days.

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