A life peerage is an honour bestowed on an individual, which cannot be passed on to the recipient’s children, although they are allowed to use courtesy titles throughout their own lifetime.
The Main Honours Committee at 10 Downing Street reviews the research of eight specialist sub-committees, covering the fields of Arts and Media, Sport, Health, Education, Science and Technology, The Economy, Community (Voluntary and Local Services), and State.
When the final list of those nominated for honours, including life peerages and knighthoods, is agreed, it is submitted, through the Prime Minister, to The Queen. Most life peerages are announced in the New Year Honours List, the Birthday Honours List (which marks the Sovereign’s official birthday on the second Saturday in June), the Dissolution Honours List, or the Resignation Honours List.
In February 2009 there were approximately 637 life peerages, but the number changes all the time owing to deaths and new creations.
Prior to the Life Peerages Act of 1958, the only life peers were the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (Judges). After the Life Peerages Act of 1958, women gained the right, for the first time, to sit in the House of Lords. Since 1958, both men and women have been appointed peers and peeresses and rank as barons and baronesses for life.
When a life peer is admitted to the House of Lords, he/she is introduced by two peers of his/her own degree (rank), who formally conduct him/her to the Lord Chancellor in the chamber of the House of Lords. The new peer’s letter patent, confirming his/her ennoblement under the Great Seal of the Sovereign, is carried by Garter King of Arms. He is the chief herald at the College of Arms, and all new peers must have their titles and territorial designations approved by him.
The new peer presents his letter patent, together with his writ of summons to the Lord Chancellor.
A writ of summons is the official command from the Sovereign to a peer (hereditary or life) to attend parliament. The writ’s archaic language, and total absence of punctuation, is resonant of a long-gone age “…Whereas Our Parliament for arduous and urgent affairs concerning Us the state and defence of Our United Kingdom and the Church is now met at Our City of Westminster We strictly enjoining command you upon the faith and allegiance by which you bound to Us that considering the difficulty of the said affairs and dangers impending (waiving all excuses) you be personally present at Our aforesaid Parliament with Us and with the Prelates Nobles and Peers of Our said Kingdom to treat and give your counsel…”
The Lord Chancellor directs that both the writ of summons and the letters patent be read out by the Reading Clerk. The oaths are administered, the peer takes his/her seat, and then, rising, returns to the Chancellor, who congratulates the new peer upon his/her elevation.