House of Lords Act 1999: Twenty Years On

This House of Lords Library Briefing provides background information on the passing of the House of Lords Act 1999.

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This year is the 20th anniversary of the House of Lords Act 1999. This Act reformed the membership of the House of Lords, removing the majority of hereditary peers.

Before the 1999 Act, the House of Lords included over 600 hereditary peers. Of these, the largest group were Conservative. In 1997, a new Labour Government was elected. The then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said he would remove all hereditary peers from the Lords. He said this would be the first stage in a process of making the second chamber more democratic. He described the presence of hereditary members as an anachronism which ensured there was an inbuilt majority for the Conservatives.

The Government’s policy was criticised by the then Leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague (now Lord Hague of Richmond), who argued it would increase the Prime Minister’s ability to shape the composition of the House by appointing new life peers. He also accused Labour of not setting out what further reforms it would make after the hereditary peers had been removed.

Before the House of Lords Bill was introduced, a group of crossbenchers proposed a compromise that some hereditary peers should be retained to ensure continuity. The group was led by the then Crossbench convenor and the former Speaker of the House of Commons, Lord Weatherill. The so‑called ‘Weatherill amendment’ proposed that 92 hereditary members would remain in the House. Most would be elected by other hereditary members, 15 would be elected by the whole House with two continuing as royal office holders.

The proposal was agreed by the Government in principle, on the condition the bill was not delayed in the Lords. The House of Lords Bill was introduced in the House of Commons in January 1999 and passed to the Lords in March 1999. The Weatherill amendment was agreed and included in the bill. A separate government amendment was also agreed to establish a system of by-elections. These would enable new hereditary peers to be elected to the Lords when vacancies arose. The bill completed all its stages before the end of the year and received royal assent on 11 November 1999.

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