What is a life peerage?

What is a life peer? Who is eligible to receive a life peerage and how are they announced? Here’s all you need to know about life peers in the UK.

Life Peer House of Lords UK

What is a life peer in the UK?

A life peer is an honour given to individuals which cannot be inherited by the recipient’s children (in contrast to a hereditary peer). In the UK, life peerages are created under the Life Peerages Act 1958 and entitle holders to sit in the House of Lords under the style and dignity of Baron (male) or Baroness (female).

While life peerages in the United Kingdom are created by the Sovereign by Letters Patent under the Great Seal, in practice they are only granted when proposed by the Prime Minister. By convention the Leader of the Opposition and other party leaders can also suggest a certain number of life peers.

Prior to the Life Peerages Act 1958, only males sat in House of Lords, with nearly all members having a hereditary title. As well as allowing those not born into peerage to receive membership in the House of Lords, the Act also made it possible for women to sit in Parliament; the first of which was Baroness Wootton of Abinger, who received her Letters Patent on 8 August 1958 (Gazette issue 41467). However, it Baroness Swanborough (Gazette issue 41505) who became the first woman to take a seat in the House of Lords in her own right on 21 October 1958.

Who is eligible to be a life peer in the UK?

A life peer has the right to sit in the House of Lords, so long as he or she is:

  • at least 21 years of age
  • not suffering punishment upon conviction for treason
  • a citizen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or of a member of the Commonwealth of Nations
  • is resident in the UK for tax purposes

Traditionally peerages are awarded to individuals on retirement from important public offices, such as the Prime Minister, Speaker of the House of Commons and the Archbishop of Canterbury and York. Former prime ministers who took life peerages upon their retirement from the House of Commons include:

However, the tradition is not always implemented. Edward Heath and John Major chose not to become a peer, while Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron have yet to receive a peerage. Former Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, also hasn’t receive a peerage.

Many Cabinet members retiring since 1958 have also been created life peers, including Chancellors of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretaries, Home Secretaries and Defence Secretaries.

The Life Peerages Act 1958 places no limits on the number of peerages that can be awarded.

What do life peers do in the House of Lords?

The House of Lords is the second chamber of the UK Parliament and is independent from the elected House of Commons. Life peers who receive membership in the House of Lords are not expected to attend it regularly, however they can do so if they wish.

The main role of the House of Lords is to scrutinise the work of the government, predominantly by reviewing and amending bills that have been approved by the House of Commons before they become Acts of Parliament (actual laws). While the House of Lords cannot prevent bills passing into law, except in limited circumstances, it can delay them and ask the House of Commons to reconsider any decisions made.

How are life peers announced?

While one-off announcements can take place, life peers are generally created in honours lists, such as:

All life peers are published in The Gazette, the Crown’s official newspaper.

How is a life peer title decided?

Traditionally, life peers take a title based on their surname, either:

  • a surname alone – for example, Baron Botham (Gazette issue 63113)
  • a surname in combination with a place name (usually to differentiate them from others with the same surname) – for example, Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (Gazette issue 62794)

However, surnames are not always used in titles. While some peers simply choose titles without surnames, such as Ian Paisley who opted for the title Baron Bannside (Gazette issue 59467), some peer surnames are not considered appropriate as a title, such as Michael Lord who goes by the title Baron Framlingham (Gazette issue 59675).

Formally, life peer titles are prefixed by ‘The Right Honourable’. Though male life peers sit in the House of Lords under the style and dignity of ‘Baron’, they are usually instead addressed by the title of ‘The Lord…’ (a generic term for members of the peerage, of which there are five ranks). Female peers are sometimes addressed by the title of ‘Lady’, however ‘The Baroness…’ is much more commonly used.

Although legitimate children of life peers cannot inherit the peerage itself, they can style themselves with the prefix ‘The Honourable’.

Can a life peerage be revoked?

At present, only an Act of Parliament that has received Royal Assent can revoke a peerage. While it did not give the power to revoke a peerage, the most recent act to have a similar effect was the Titles Deprivation Act 1917 which meant that peers who fought against Britain during World War 1 could be deprived of their British peerages and royal titles.

Peers are appointed for life and their summons to attend the House of Lords are renewed by Letters Patent at the beginning of each new parliament. Therefore, currently the House of Lords can only suspend members for a maximum of up to five years (the length of any one parliament).

See also

Birthday and New Year honours lists (1940 to 2020)

The history of Prime Minister's Resignation Honours

The Queen's Birthday Honours list 2020

Find out more

Life Peerages Act 1958 (Legislation)

Titles Deprivation Act 1917 (Legislation)

Image: Getty Images

Publication updated: 22 February 2021

Any opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and the author alone, and does not necessarily represent that of The Gazette.