In the United Kingdom, life peers are appointed members of the peerage whose titles cannot be inherited, in contrast to hereditary peers. In modern times, life peerages, always created at the rank of baron, are created under the Life Peerages Act 1958 and entitle the holders to seats in the House of Lords, presuming they meet qualifications such as age and citizenship. The legitimate children of a life peer enjoy the rank and style of children of hereditary peers, being entitled to style themselves with the prefix "The Honourable," although they cannot inherit the peerage itself.
The Crown, as fount of honour, has the undoubted right to create peerages, whether hereditary or for life. In the early days of the peerage, the Sovereign had the right to summon individuals to one Parliament without being bound to summon them again. Over time, it was established that once summoned, a peer would have to be summoned for the remainder of his life, and later, that the peer's heirs and successors would also be summoned, thereby firmly entrenching the hereditary principle.
Nevertheless, life peerages lingered. From the reign of James I to that of George II (between 1603–1760), 18 life peerages were created for women. Women, however, were excluded from sitting in the House of Lords, so it was unclear whether or not a life peerage would entitle a man to do the same. For over four centuries—if one excludes those who sat in Cromwell's House of Lords (or Other House) during the Interregnum—no man had claimed a seat in the Lords by virtue of a life peerage. In 1856, it was thought necessary to add a peer learned in law to the House of Lords (which was the final court of appeal), without allowing the peer's heirs to sit in the House and swell its numbers. Sir James Parke, a Baron (judge) of the Exchequer, was created Baron Wensleydale for life, but the House of Lords concluded that the peerage did not entitle him to sit in the House of Lords. Lord Wensleydale was therefore appointed a hereditary peer. (In the event, he had no sons, so his peerage did not pass to an heir.) (See also Wensleydale Peerage Case (1856).)
The Government introduced a bill to authorise the creation of two life peerages carrying seats in the House of Lords for judges who had held office for at least five years. The House of Lords passed it, but the bill was lost in the House of Commons. In 1869, a more comprehensive life peerages bill was brought forward by the Earl Russell. At any one time, 28 life peerages could be in existence; no more than four were to be created in any one year. Life peers were to be chosen from senior judges, civil servants, senior officers of the British Army or Royal Navy, members of the House of Commons who had served for at least ten years, scientists, writers, artists, peers of Scotland, and peers of Ireland. (Peers of Scotland and Ireland did not all have seats in the House of Lords, instead electing a number of representative peers.) The bill was rejected by the House of Lords at its third reading.
Finally the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1887 allowed senior judges to sit in the House of Lords as life peers, known as Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. Those appointees who were not already members of the House of Lords were created life peers by the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876; for their titles see the list of law life peerages. Initially it was intended that peers created in this way would only sit in the House of Lords while serving their term as judges, but in 1887 (on the retirement of Lord Blackburn) the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1887 provided that former judges would retain their seats for life. This ended with the creation of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in 2009.
Life Peerages Act 1958
The Life Peerages Act sanctions the regular granting of life peerages, but the power to appoint Lords of Appeal in Ordinary under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act was not derogated. No limits were placed on the number of peerages that the Sovereign may award, as was done by the Appellate Jurisdiction Act. A peer created under the Life Peerages Act has the right to sit in the House of Lords, provided he or she is at least 21 years of age, is not suffering punishment upon conviction for treason and is a citizen of the United Kingdom, or the Republic of Ireland or of a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, and is resident in the UK for tax purposes.
Life baronies under the Life Peerages Act are created by the Sovereign but, in practice, none are granted except upon the proposition of the Prime Minister.
Life peers created under the Life Peerages Act do not, unless they also hold ministerial positions, receive salaries. They are, however, entitled to daily allowance of £300 for travel and accommodation on signing in each day, though there is no requirement to take part in the business of the House.
Life peerages may be awarded through a number of different routes.
From time to time, lists of "working peers" are published. They do not form a formal class, but represent the various political parties and are expected to regularly attend the House of Lords. Most new appointments of life peers fall into this category.
Normally, the Prime Minister chooses only peers for his or her own party, but permits the leaders of opposition parties to recommend peers from those parties. The Prime Minister may determine the number of peers each party may propose; he or she may also choose to amend these recommendations, but by convention does not do so.
Peers may be created on a non-partisan basis. Formerly, nominations on merit alone were made by the Prime Minister, but this function was partially transferred to a new, non-statutory House of Lords Appointments Commission in 2000. Individuals recommended for the peerage by the Commission go on to become what have been described by some in the British media as "people's peers". The Commission also scrutinises party recommendations for working peerages to ensure propriety. The Prime Minister may determine the number of peers the Commission may propose, and also may amend the recommendations. Again, by convention, no amendment is made to the recommendations of the Commission.
Individuals may be created peers in various honours lists as rewards for achievement; these peers are not expected to be regular attendees of the House of Lords, but are at liberty to do so if they please. The New Year Honours List, the Queen's Birthday Honours List (to mark the Sovereign's official birthday, the second Saturday in June), the Dissolution Honours List (to mark the dissolution of Parliament) and the Resignation Honours List (to mark the end of a Prime Minister's tenure) are all used to announce life peerage creations.
Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who had renounced his hereditary title of the 14th Earl of Home on becoming Prime Minister, was the first former occupant of the office to receive a life barony. Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher all took life peerages following their retirement from the House of Commons, although Thatcher's husband, Denis Thatcher, was made a baronet. Edward Heath chose not to become a peer. John Major and Tony Blair have yet to take a peerage. It is unclear whether Gordon Brown, who remained a member of the House of Commons until 2015, would accept a peerage. Harold Macmillan declined a peerage on leaving office, but over 20 years after retiring accepted a second offer of the customary, hereditary earldom for retiring Prime Ministers, as Earl of Stockton; this was the last earldom to be offered outside the Royal Family. While David Lloyd George also waited a similar period for his earldom, most offers have been made and accepted shortly after retirement such as the Earls of Oxford and Asquith, Baldwin, Attlee and Avon.
Many Cabinet members, including Chancellors of the Exchequer, Home Secretaries, Foreign Secretaries and Defence Secretaries, retiring since 1958 have generally been created life peers. William Whitelaw was created a hereditary viscount on the recommendation of Margaret Thatcher. Viscount Whitelaw died without male issue.
Life peerages have been granted to Speakers of the House of Commons upon retirement; Speakers had previously been entitled by custom to an hereditary peerage as a viscount. The former Speaker and Secretary of State for Wales George Thomas was created Viscount Tonypandy but died without male issue.
The Prime Minister continues to recommend a small number of former public office-holders for peerages. This generally includes Chiefs of Defence Staff, Secretaries of the Cabinet, and Heads of the Diplomatic Service. Every Archbishop of Canterbury who has retired since 1958 has been created a life peer, as have most recent Archbishops of York on retirement. A small number of other bishops – such as David Sheppard of Liverpool and Richard Harries of Oxford – were ennobled on retiring. The Lord Chamberlain must be a member of the House of Lords and so is ennobled on appointment (if not already a peer), while most retiring Private Secretaries to the Queen and Governors of the Bank of England have also become peers.
High judicial officers have sometimes been created life peers upon taking office. All Lord Chief Justices of England and Wales have, since 1958, been created life peers under the Life Peerages Act, with the exception of Lord Woolf, who was already a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary before becoming Lord Chief Justice.
Life peerages may in certain cases be awarded to hereditary peers. After the House of Lords Act 1999 passed, several hereditary peers of the first creation, who had not inherited their titles but would still be excluded from the House of Lords by the Act, were created life peers: Toby Low, 1st Baron Aldington; Frederick James Erroll, 1st Baron Erroll of Hale; Frank Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford and 1st Baron Pakenham; and Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon. None of the peers of the first creation who were members of the Royal Family was granted a life peerage, as they had all declined. Life peerages were also granted to former Leaders of the House of Lords, including John Julian Ganzoni, 2nd Baron Belstead; Peter Carington, 6th Baron Carrington; Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 7th Marquess of Salisbury (better known as Viscount Cranborne and Lord Cecil of Essendon, having attended the Lords by virtue of a writ of acceleration); George Jellicoe, 2nd Earl Jellicoe; Malcolm Shepherd, 2nd Baron Shepherd; and David Hennessy, 3rd Baron Windlesham.
As part of the celebrations to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Life Peerages Act, Gareth Williams, Baron Williams of Mostyn was voted by the current members of the House of Lords as the outstanding life peer since the creation of the life peerage.
Number of life peers
The Appellate Jurisdiction Act originally provided for the appointment of two Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, who would continue to serve while holding judicial office, though in 1887, they were permitted to continue to sit in the House of Lords for life, under the style and dignity of baron. The number of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary was increased from time to time – to three in 1882, to four in 1891, to six in 1913, to seven in 1919, to nine in 1947, to 11 in 1968 and to 12 in 1994. These provisions were repealed by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 which created the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
The rate of creation of life peerages under the Life Peerages Act has not shown a consistent pattern. David Cameron and Tony Blair have created life peerages at the highest rate, at 41 and 36 peerages per year respectively. Conservative Prime Ministers have created on average 20 life peers per year in office, Labour Prime Ministers an average of 27.2 per year. In absolute terms, Labour (in 24 years) created 1.2 times the number of life peerages created by the Conservatives (in 29 years). On the other hand, Conservative Prime Ministers (especially Macmillan) created the vast majority of the about 50 hereditary peerages created since 1958.
In 1999, there were 172 Conservative and 160 Labour life peers in the House of Lords, and by 4 January 2010, there were 141 Conservative and 207 Labour life peers in the House of Lords. The hereditary element of the House of Lords, however, was much less balanced. In 1999, for example, immediately before most hereditary peers were removed by the House of Lords Act, there were 350 Conservative hereditary peers, compared with 19 Labour peers and 23 Liberal Democrat peers.
The Peerage Act 1963 allows the holder of an hereditary peerage to disclaim their title for life. There is no such provision for life peers. The Coalition Government's draft proposal for Lords reform in 2011 "provides that a person who holds a life peerage may at any time disclaim that peerage by writing to the Lord Chancellor. The person [and their spouse and children] will be divested of all rights and interests attaching to [that] peerage." This proposal did not become law. In 2014 under the House of Lords Reform Act it became possible for peers to resign from the House of Lords (without disclaiming the peerage).
Titles and forms of address
Most life peers take a title based on their surname, either alone (e.g. Baron Hattersley) or in combination with a placename to differentiate them from others of the same surname (e.g. Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws). Surnames need not be used at all if desired. Ian Paisley, for example, opted for the title Lord Bannside, and John Gummer chose the title Lord Deben. There are also occasions when someone's surname is not appropriate as a title, such as Michael Lord (now Lord Framlingham) and Michael Bishop (now Lord Glendonbrook).
The formal style for life peers is "The Rt Hon the Lord/Lady X" or "Firstname, Lord/Lady X" though women life peers often use "Firstname, Baroness X" to emphasise that they hold a peerage in their own right. In these examples, X is the title in one of the forms discussed above. Life peers who have achieved wide fame under their original name, such as the actor Laurence Olivier, are often incorrectly referred to as Lord/Lady Firstname Lastname after their ennoblement.