Parliament: Lords Reform: Hague backs plan to elect `senators'

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM HAGUE is to outflank Tony Blair over reform of the House of Lords by endorsing radical plans, published today, for a "senate" with many of its members elected by the public.

A commission that was set up by the Conservative leader has proposed two options for a new second chamber, which would both involve some "senators" being directly elected for a 15-year term of office.

Today's report will increase the pressure on the Government to beef up its plans for Lords reform. Although some peers could be nominated by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies under Mr Blair's plans, he opposes the direct election of peers on the grounds that it would undermine the House of Commons.

Mr Hague will finalise the Opposition's blueprint shortly after studying the findings of the constitutional commission, that was chaired by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the former lord chancellor.

Close allies suggested that Mr Hague was ready to endorse the commission's approach by calling for a partly-elected second chamber. But he may stop short of demanding a wholly elected House of Lords, which would be opposed by many Conservative MPs.

"This report strongly steers Conservatives towards solutions which listen to public concern that the second chamber should be independent and chosen fairly," Mr Hague said last night.

Lord Mackay rejected the Government's plans to curb the existing powers of the Lords but agreed with ministers that the Commons should retain its primacy.

He said the new-look second chamber should broadly retain its existing powers, but that they might need strengthening in future. Under Lord Mackay's plans, a "Senator of Parliament" (or SP) would enjoy similar pay and allowances to an MP. Although the SPs would have to stand down after serving 15 years, they could become MPs at that point, and Lord Mackay suggested that being a senator could be a stepping stone for aspiring MPs.

Under the most radical of his two options, 480 senators would be elected by 80 constituencies each with six members, who would be elected in pairs at three successive general elections. Another 15 members could be appointed by the Prime Minister during each five-year Parliament, to serve as ministers.

Under option two, a partly-elected chamber would include 150 senators chosen by an appointments commission; 99 representing the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies and English regions; another 99 elected in groups of 33 at each general election in proportion to the total votes cast and 100 appointed for life.

The Conservative commission proposed that the law lords should retain their seats but said that the 26 Church of England bishops who currently sit in the Upper House should lose that automatic right, although the appointments commission could consider sending them to the Lords.

Lord Mackay said yesterday that his proposals would strengthen the second chamber's advisory role, increase its legitimacy and bolster Parliament's standing - without threatening the Commons.

"We have looked to create models that bring in members with special expertise or experience and ensure that no one party is able to have an in-built majority," he said. "We have tried to ensure that its membership does not directly mimic the representation of the Commons of the day and that members are able to feel a greater level of independence from party machines."