HEREDITARY PEERS: Straw pledge to reform 'absurd' Lords

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THE BITTER feud over plans to scrap hereditary peers' voting rights broke out once again yesterday as Jack Straw spoke of them as an "absurd and offensive" principle.

Pledging the Government's determination to press ahead with Lords reform, the Home Secretary warned Conservatives they would be defeating the will of the electorate if they voted against the legislation.

"The principle of hereditaries is seen to be completely preposterous, risible, the moment it is applied in any other walk of life... imagine as you are lying mouth open in the dentist's chair and questions are raised in your mind about the dentist's skills as he drills into your gum and not your teeth.

"You ask to see his certificate of competence. He produces one, awarded in 1860 to his great-great-uncle William," Mr Straw said, opening resumed debate on the Queen's Speech.

The second fundamental objection to their position was that they gave an in-built three-to-one majority to the Tories in the Lords.

Mr Straw went on to stress that the two-stage process of reform was outlined in the Labour Party manifesto and under the Salisbury Convention peers should not oppose any proposals that were endorsed by the electorate.

He warned: "Yet we are now told that this doctrine, and our manifesto, are both to be ignored. It is undemocratic, unconstitutional, and not a position which will impress the British people." While the Government believed that a second chamber should play "a most important role", there was " the world of difference between someone appointed to a position on their own merit, and someone appointed to a position on the merits of their forebears," he added.

But Sir Norman Fowler, the shadow home secretary, accused the Government of wanting to create a "giant ermine-clad quango" with "appointees and placemen".

"The sensible thing would be for the Government to set out their proposals and then legislate. But that would put them in deep difficulty since they have no idea what comes next... their legislation on House of Lords reform is a constitutional disaster that should be rejected."

Sir Norman, who has led Tory attacks in the Commons against the "closed list" system proposed by ministers for next year's European Parliament elections, went on to renew his party's opposition to the legislation.

The European Parliamentary Elections Bill will be reintroduced and rushed through the Commons this week after being defeated five times by peers.

Sir Norman said that in the Lords too, the Government was planning a form of closed list and would be "scaling highways and motorways" for suitable candidates to appoint as life peers in the Lords.

"Now we know what the former Welsh secretary Ron Davies was really doing that night on Clapham Common... he was on a recruitment drive," he joked.

Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor of the exchequer, condemned the Government for devoting so much time to the abolition of hereditaries' voting rights when thousands of jobs were threatened.

"But this piece of legislation is designed to keep dissident backbenchers happy. It is being introduced for short-term party management reasons while more serious issues of constitutional reform are being neglected," Mr Clarke said.

While he was in favour of abolishing the voting rights of hereditaries, he never thought that any government would be so "daft" to implement stage one without asking MPs to consider other aspects of the second chamber, he added.

David Aaronovitch Review, page 3