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Peerage Act 1963
The Peerage Act 1963 is a significant act in the history of the British Peerage. It allowed the disclaiming of peerages, and permitted female and Scottish peers to sit in the House of Lords.
The Act resulted largely from the protests of one man, the Labour politician Tony Benn, then second Viscount Stansgate. Under British law at the time, peers (meeting certain qualifications, such as age) were automatically members of the House of Lords and could not sit in, or even vote in elections for, the other chamber, the House of Commons. When William Wedgwood Benn, Tony Benn's father, agreed to accept the Viscountcy, he ensured that the would-be heir, his eldest son Michael, did not plan to enter the House of Commons. Within a few years of Benn's acceptance of the title, however, Michael Benn predeceased his father, so the younger son, Tony Benn, became the heir to the peerage. The younger Benn then became a member of the House of Commons, and did not intend to leave it for the other House, so he campaigned through the 1950s for a change in the law.
In 1960, the first Viscount died and Tony Benn inherited the title, losing his seat in the House of Commons for the constituency of Bristol South East. In the ensuing by-election, however, Benn was re-elected to the House despite being disqualified. A court ruled that he could not take his seat, instead giving it to the runner-up, the Conservative Malcolm St Clair. In 1963, the Conservative Government agreed to introduce the Peerage Bill allowing individuals to disclaim peerages. Tony Benn was the first peer to make use of the act. Mr St Clair then accepted the office of Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds, thereby disqualifying himself from the House (outright resignation is prohibited), and Benn was then re-elected at the ensuing by-election.
To disclaim an hereditary peerage, the peer must deliver an instrument of disclaimer to the Lord Chancellor within twelve months of succeeding to the peerage, or within twelve months of passage of the Act, or, if under the age of twenty-one at the time of succession, within twelve months of becoming twenty-one years old. If, at the time of succession, the peer is a member of the House of Commons, then the instrument must be delivered within one month of succession, and until such an instrument is delivered, the peer may neither sit nor vote in the lower House. Prior to the House of Lords Act 1999, an hereditary peer could not disclaim a peerage after having applied for a writ of summons to Parliament; now, however, hereditary peers do not have the automatic right to a writ of summons to the House. Irish peerages may not be disclaimed. A peer who disclaims the peerage and his wife lose all titles, rights and privileges associated with the peerage. No further hereditary peerages may be conferred upon the person, but life peerages may be. The peerage remains without a holder until the death of the peer making the disclaimer, when it descends as if it were never renounced.
The timing of the Act had a significant influence on British politics, with the resignation of Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister in 1963. Two hereditary peers wished to be considered to replace him, Quintin Hogg and Alec Douglas-Home, and were able to disclaim their titles in the twelve months following passage of the Act. Douglas-Home was chosen. Both later returned to the House of Lords as life peers.
Since the abolition of the general right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords, it is no longer necessary for hereditary peers to renounce their peerages in order to sit in the House of Commons. In 2001 John Thurso became the first British hereditary peer to be elected to the Commons and take his seat. Later that year Douglas Hogg inherited his father's peerage (the Viscountcy of Hailsham) and did not have to disclaim the title but continued to sit in the Commons.
The Act granted Peers of Scotland the same right to sit in the House of Lords as Peers of England, Great Britain or the United Kingdom, thereby ending the election of representative peers. Hereditary peeresses were also allowed to sit in the House of Lords. An amendment that would have allowed Irish peers to sit in the House as well was defeated by ninety votes to eight.
List of disclaimed peerages
- Baron Altrincham, by John Grigg, from 1963 to his death in 2001
- Viscount Hailsham, by Quintin Hogg, Baron Hailsham of St Marylebone from 1963 to 2001
- Earl of Home, by Alec Douglas-Home from 1963 to 1995
- Viscount Stansgate, by Tony Benn since 1963
- Baron Beaverbrook, by Max Aitken , from 1964 to his death in 1985
- Baron Monkswell, by William Collier , from 1964 to 1984
- Earl of Sandwich, by Alex Montagu , from 1964 to 1995
- Baron Southampton, by Charles FitzRoy, 5th Lord Southampton , from 1964 to 1989
- Earl of Durham, by Anthony Lambton, since 1970
- Baron Sanderson of Ayot, by Alan Sanderson , since 1971
- Baron Reith, by Christopher Reith , since 1972
- Baron Silkin, by Arthur Silkin , since 1972
- Baron Archibald, by Christopher Archibold from 1975 to 1996
- Baron Merthyr, by Trevor Lewis , since 1977
- Earl of Selkirk, by James Douglas-Hamilton, since 1994
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