Comment: Moving forward in the Lords debate

The Government must spell out the direction towards an at least partly elected chamber
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THIS WEEK, peers hold the first full-scale debate on Lords reform since the Wilson government's ill-fated Bill in 1968. True to form, reform of the Lords looks set to dominate the next session. It may provoke the biggest political clash of Tony Blair's first term.

The issue is poised. The debate provides an important opportunity for the Government to spell out the direction towards an at least partly elected chamber which the Prime Minister set out before the summer.

The Government is right to move forward on the first stage - removing the sitting and voting rights of hereditary peers. On the eve of the 21st century, there can be no justification for inherited seats in Parliament. The fact that the great majority of those who attend take the Conservative whip only underlines the absurdity of a system in which one party has a permanent advantage within Parliament.

The debate will give the Government and the House the opportunity to get to the main issue underlying the forthcoming Bill: whether there will be a second stage and, if so, what it will contain. It is vital that the Government makes its position clear at last. The Conservatives and others have repeatedly alleged that Labour only wants to create a toothless quango, and that the Government has no intention of moving beyond this in the future.

The critics have not been listening. Tony Blair answered the charge in an interview on the Today programme on 30 July. His words, as reported, were: "There are two stages to the reform: one is getting rid of the position of the hereditary peers, and secondly there is the longer-term reform for a more democratically elected second chamber. I think it is important that we do both things."

The Conservatives have, of course, sought to ignore this. As a result, there has been a rather false discussion over the last couple of months. Viscount Cranborne, the Lords' Opposition Leader, insisted on the Today programme, on 8 August, that the Government was preparing to introduce Stage One only. The discussion at their conference was in the same terms.

So the Lords' debate gives the Government its first real opportunity to rebut the Opposition's central allegation, and to make its case better understood. The Prime Minister has confirmed Stage Two, and pointed the way to its content. Ideally, ministers should now seize the opportunity to flesh this out as the Government's preferred model.

If they cannot go that far, they should at least indicate a mechanism, such as a Royal Commission, in which a model along the lines indicated by Tony Blair would be examined, with a timetable for both the report and for the subsequent legislation; the latter perhaps shortly after the next general election. This would make it clear that the nominated house of life peers is intended only to be an interim house, with a predetermined life of perhaps no more than five years, before the transition to a fully reformed second chamber.

Either a clear destination, or at least a general one with a route and an estimated time of arrival, would enable the debate to move on to what is wanted. The onus would then be on the Opposition to drop their threat to disrupt the Bill in the next session, and to support the process thereafter.

William Hague has been under pressure from constitutional reformers in his own ranks, such as Andrew Tyrie MP and the Tory Reform Group, to move beyond Viscount Cranborne's tactical defence of hereditary peers and commit his party to a second chamber with at least an elected element.

It was in the hope of a statesmanlike response of that kind that I opened discussions with the Opposition earlier this year, to see whether there was a possibility of achieving reform by agreement. Sadly, the talks with Robert Cranborne proved abortive. Is it too late to hope that the Opposition will drop their plans to treat Lords reform as a political football?

Twenty years ago, a Conservative committee, under the late Lord Home of the Hirsel, proposed a house that was two-thirds elected and one-third nominated. Such a model fits exactly with what the Prime Minister has said. It would blend the best of the existing House of Lords - with its independent expertise - with an element of democracy. The second chamber would have a proper degree of legitimacy, while leaving pre-eminent the wholly elected House of Commons. A Royal Commission would find the Home report interesting reading. Perhaps the Opposition could read it, too.

The writer was, until July, the Labour leader of the House of Lords