Peers defend their House

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

The Labour Party's plans to remove the built-in Conservative majority in the House of Lords by abolishing the voting rights of hereditary peers came under attack yesterday from a group of mainly independent peers.

While not quite defending the current system, which allows several hundred peers to hold their positions by virtue only of birth, the group has managed to find other arguments for opposing change.

The Earl of Carnarvon, a cross-bencher and joint author of the group's study, warned in a BBC interview that one kind of patronage could simply be replaced with another under Labour's "piecemeal" approach of scrapping heriditary rights as a prelude to wider reform.

The report accepts that the hereditary system is widely regarded as an anachronism and that abolition would be seen as a desirable reform. But, predictably shying away from the role of turkeys voting for Christmas, the group says the alternatives of appointing or directly electing a second chamber would both have drawbacks.

An incoming Labour government would abolish hereditary peers within two years before tackling the upheaval of replacing the Lords with an elected second chamber. The peers said that could lead to years of "constitutional tinkering and uncertainty", with no guarantee the results would be more effective.

Lord Carnarvon said: "A second elected chamber would be accepted by everybody. But the worst possible problem is to do away with the hereditary peers and then have a vacuum in which the second chamber would be composed entirely of patronage." That is to say, of appointed life peers.

Alun Michael, a Labour home affairs spokesman, said the party wanted to keep the best of the House of Lords, removing "this one blight" on its composition, which overwhelmed the life peers.

The presence of hereditary peers has led to a built-in Tory majority in the upper House. In the 1988-89 session the Government won 172 votes and lost 12. Without the hereditary peers there would have been 159 government defeats, 21 victories and four tied votes.

The report insists much could be lost if the hereditary element were simply abolished - including the fact that many hereditary peers are much younger than most life peers and, so the group claims, have greater experience of ordinary life.