The five titles of the peerage, in descending order of precedence, or rank, are: duke, marquess, earl, viscount, baron. The highest rank of the peerage, duke, is the most exclusive.
This hierarchy of titles becomes further complicated by the fact that an individual peer can hold several peerages of different rank, created and conferred, or inherited, at different times over the centuries.
The precedence that any one peer has among those of his own degree (rank) is dependent upon the antiquity of the peerage in question. That is to say, the older the title, the more senior the title-bearer.
The Life Peerage Act of 1958 allowed the government to create life peerages (all baronies). Normally the Prime Minister chooses only peers for his own party, but he also permits the leaders of opposition parties to recommend peers from their own parties. Life peers, sometimes referred to as ‘working peers’, represent the various political parties and are expected to regularly attend the House of Lords. ‘People’s peers’ are non-political appointments and recommended by the non-statutory House of Lords Appointments Commission set up in 2000.
Until 1999, one of the main privileges of the majority of the peerage was the right to sit in the House of Lords. The 1999 House of Lords Act withdrew this right of hereditary peers, as the first stage of a radical reform proposed by Tony Blair’s Labour government. However, up to 92 hereditary peers have been allowed to remain in the House until the second stage of the reforms is implemented. Life peers now form the overwhelming majority of peers sitting in the House of Lords, 357 of them having been appointed by Tony Blair.