Parliament: Wakeham set to hold public hearings

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LORD WAKEHAM, chairman of the Royal Commission on House of Lords reform, gave the strongest signal so far that the it would seek to take oral evidence in public.

During a two-day Lords debate on the White Paper on the reform, he said his consultations would be as "open and forthcoming" as possible to enable "vigorous public debate". The commission, expected to report by the end of the year, will first meet on 1 March.

Government sources have privately made clear they hoped it would move quickly to analysis and recommendations on the functions, powers and composition of the second chamber in private sessions.

Lord Wakeham's reassurance came as Lord Denham, former Toy chief whip, accused his party of "inertia" over reform. "We are drifting towards the end of our life for the temporary convenience of this administration."

But Lord Wakeham spoke of an "exciting opportunity" to create a chamber which would play a "distinct and significant role ... " Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for the Liberal Democrats, said proposals by Lord Weatherill, chairman of the crossbenchers, to retain 91 hereditary peers in the interim period gave a "substantial and disproportionate" advantage to Tory benches. Lord Rodgers said he did not want to "ridicule" what had been a genuine attempt to achieve consensus but the "situation becomes stranger and stranger" and the proposals were a "dog's breakfast".

Lord Denham, himself a hereditary peer, said of the amendment: "If this rather nebulous threat hanging over us amounts to something less than contempt of parliament, I would be very grateful for somebody to tell me why."

Opening the debate, Baroness Jay, the Lords leader, said: "We do not want to lend credence to the unicameralists, nor to give ammunition to those who describe peers as predominantly driven by self-interest and out of touch with everyday concerns."

r The Lords could have its first elected peers under Liberal Democrat plans to be debated at the party's conference next month, writes Paul Waugh.

It will hear a motion to ensure all the party's nominations for life peerages in an interim Lords will be subject to a secret ballot of senior activists.

In line with Labour and the Tories, the Liberal Democrats allow their leader simply to select their peers, and some activists want the practice to end. The move to make the interim House of Lords more democratic is one of several motions listed in the party's conference agenda, published yesterday.

The conference, which will see Paddy Ashdown deliver his 23rd and last speech as party leader, is certain to be used as a "primary" by potential leadership candidates such as Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell.