Labour sharpens axe for hereditary peers

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The Government is promising the biggest constitutional shake-up of the post-war era by proposing to scrap the right of heredi- tary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords.

A team of senior ministers has been appointed to implement Labour's election pledge to strip the peers of their historical claim to review proposed legislation in the upper chamber.

The new Cabinet committee, known as CRP (HL), will start work in the new year on framing a controversial statute to end the Conservatives' long-standing domination of the Lords. They will decide the framework for the second chamber and could even give it a new name.

There is speculation at Westminster that the upper house may be called the Senate, with senators taking the place of peers, and that ultimately it could become an elected legislative body like the Commons.

Labour's business managers in the Lords know that the Government's reform package -dubbed the "top the toffs" charter at Westminster - could run into a wall of hostility from the massed ranks of hereditary Tory peers, who will not give up their lawmaking powers (and their Lords perks such as the pounds 100-plus daily attendance allowance) without a fight.

More than half the members would lose their rights under Labour's plans. In all 1,152 peers are entitled to sit and vote in the upper chamber. Of these, 499 are avowedly Tories (326 hereditary), while Labour has only 160 peers (15 hereditary). The Liberal Democrats have 66 peers of whom 23 are hereditary. There are a further 326 cross-bench peers professing no party allegiance (205 hereditary), 26 bishops and archbishops and 78 miscellaneous others, almost all hereditary.

The Cabinet committee is made up of Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor; Jack Straw, the Home Secretary; Lord Ivor Richard, Labour Leader in the Lords; Lord Denis Carter, Chief Whip in the Lords; Ann Taylor, the Leader of the Commons; Nick Brown, the Chief Whip and Peter Mandelson, the Minister without Portfolio.

It will begin meeting as soon as Parliament returns from the Christmas recess on 12 January, and a spokesman for the Prime Minister said its establishment was "a clear signal of our intent to move on this issue".

Hitherto, Labour's silence on the subject of reform of the House of Lords has been taken as a sign that the Government was in retreat, but there is now every prospect of a draft Bill next summer and a priority slot in the Queen's Speech next November.

Ministers are furious at the way that Tory "backwoodsmen" are brought into Westminster to fight policies on which Labour was elected - despite the existence of the traditional "Salisbury Doctrine" which precludes opposition in principle by the Lords to manifesto pledges approved by the voters.

Labour has suffered three defeats in the Lords since coming to power eight months ago: twice on the referendums for Scottish and Welsh devolution, and once on the abolition of assisted places to public schools. On all three occasions, the Government would have won if hereditary peers had been excluded from the vote.