Politics: Tories in secret talks on reform of Lords

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The Independent Online
THE Tory leader in the Lords yesterday revealed that he had been engaged in confidential talks with Lord Richard, Leader of the House of Lords, on government plans to abolish hereditary peers and reform the upper chamber.

The disclosure - combined with a claim that the Government was getting cold feet - was clearly designed to create mischief in the Labour ranks. But ministers' resolve the wipe out the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the Lords remains as firm as ever - although they will want to proceed by consensus if at all possible.

Lord Cranborne was quoted as saying last night: "I welcome the approach. There is a clear implication that the Government recognises the disadvantages of scrapping the hereditary peers on their own. I have suggested that they come up with an options paper."

That would be unsurprising - particularly as Lord Richard told the Lords yesterday that that was precisely what the Government was going to do anyway. He said during Question Time: "When we have considered the options, we will publish our conclusions and I hope there will then be ample opportunity for public consultation."

Welcoming that promise of consultation, Viscount Cranborne said: "Reform of the House of Lords has always foundered on the difficulty of deciding what form stage two of the reform should take."

The abolition of the rights of the hereditary peerage was easy, and he told Lord Richard that the best way of achieving reform would be to bring forward action on the hereditary peers along with the creation of a reformed chamber - stages one and two together.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords - who back the attack on the hereditary peerage - said his party did not require that big bang approach. "But when we get stage one - and the sooner the better - I hope it will be preceded by a Green Paper for full discussion in this House at least before the summer recess," he said.

"The Government must clearly point the direction of stage two. It would be inadequate to go through the first stage of reform without knowing what the final destination might be."

Lord Cranborne warned Lord Richard against "the temptation for any very powerful government, particularly a powerful prime minister, to be able to ride roughshod ... over the legitimate concerns of particular interest groups".

Lord Richard said: "The picture you paint of this poor, defenceless House - in which there are only 500 Conservative peers - somehow or other shrinking in the face of a government which has a majority in the Commons is somewhat fanciful."

He urged the Opposition to accept in principle that hereditary peers should no longer sit and vote in the Lords, and said he was delighted to note that Lord Cranborne and William Hague, the Conservative leader, appeared to be moving in that direction.

Mr Hague said in a speech last month: "The whole process, if it is done, must be done in one step, not in a half-baked way that destroys the independence of the present House, while leaving its future hanging indefinitely in the air."