Hereditary peers could stand as MPs

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The historic bar on hereditary peers sitting in the Commons is likely to be lifted under the Government's reforms for the House of Lords. As a Cabinet committee gets down to business, Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says hereditary peers could be allowed to stand for election for the first time.

Hereditary peers who are barred from voting at general elections could be allowed to stand for seats in the House of Commons under the Government's plans for reform of the House of Lords.

Cabinet sources have told The Independent that it is likely that having deprived the hereditary of their voting rights as part of the reform to the House of Lords, they should be able to stand for the House of Commons and vote for the first time in elections.

Peers are barred from voting and standing for election to the Commons, along with the insane and criminals, because they are represented in the House of Lords. But when they cease to be eligible to vote in the Lords, the hereditary peers would have no representation, unless a change in the law was allowed.

A Cabinet source said: "The reason that peers are disqualified from standing in elections is because they already have power in the Lords. There are various suggestions being made about the hereditaries, about whether they could lose their voting rights but keep their speaking rights.

"That would leave the hereditary peers in a sort of limbo. It would be logical to stay they should be allowed to vote and stand for elections to the Commons if they lose their rights to vote in the House of Lords."

Michael Ancram, the Conservative spokesman on constitutional affairs, could be directly effected. As the Earl of Ancram, he is the heir to the title of the Marquess of Lothian and has told friends that if he inherited the title he would still wish to stand in the Commons. "There should be a change in the law," he said.

Under the present rules, he would have to renounce his peerage to do so, but he would be ready to amend the legislation, if necessary, to make sure that the reform of the Lords enables hereditary peers to stand for the Commons.

The Marquess of Bath, a supporter of Lords reform and a Liberal Democrat peer with a hereditary title dating back to 1789, said it would be a logical move. "I don't see myself standing now. My feeling is that there is no justification for hereditary peers in the House of Lords but it would be logical to allow them to stand for the Commons."

It would also avoid embarrassing dilemmas for MPs who inherit titles. Tony Benn MP, who changed the law to renounce his title as Viscount Stansgate for his lifetime, also saw the logic of allowing hereditary peers to stand for the Commons, when they lose their voting rights in the Lords.

Cabinet policy papers are being prepared and ministerial sources said the Cabinet committee would be getting down to business early in the New Year. Changes would be made before the end of the Parliament, in spite of the packed list of Government business, said the source. But left-wingers are likely to demand more radical changes to make the Lords an elected chamber.

Mr Benn was on Wednesday getting his teeth into the Prime Minister's powers of patronage in the wake of the New Year Honours List. He said the last 10 prime ministers had appointed 900 life peers. "Anyone who is hoping for a peerage will say nothing and do nothing that might upset the Prime Minister," he said on BBC radio.

"When you get patronage - without suggesting anything improper - it is corrupt. I have known civil servants recommending businessmen for some honour and then when they retired, they got a job on the board," he said.