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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. 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?

Since 2002, there have been 37 hereditary by-elections. Of these, 29 have been votes by hereditary peers of the relevant party or by the Crossbench hereditary peers. The remaining eight by-elections were voted on by the whole House.

The most recent by-election was for the vacancy created following the death of Viscount Slim (Crossbench). This took place on 26 March 2019 and was won by Lord Ravensdale (Crossbench). 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. 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 House is scheduled to return from the Easter recess on 12 April 2021.

Outstanding by-elections

There are four outstanding by-elections for vacancies created by the following members leaving the House: 

  • The Earl of Selborne (Non-affiliated), who retired on 26 March 2020
  • 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 on 29 October 2020

The vacancies created by the Countess of Mar and Lord Elton leaving require a by-election involving the whole House. The other by-elections would only involve the excepted hereditary peers of the relevant party; the Earl of Selborne originally sat as a Conservative, so the electorate for this by-election will be Conservative excepted hereditary peers.

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