Reform of the Lords: Peers warned `don't look for a fight'

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT warned the 750 hereditary peers last night that it would scrap plans to grant 91 of them a temporary reprieve if they launched a "pitched battle" against the Bill to abolish their right to sit and vote in the Lords.

Unveiling the Government's two-stage plan for radical reform of the second chamber, Margaret Beckett, the Leader of the Commons, announced that ministers would accept the compromise agreed by Tony Blair and Viscount Cranborne, which led to his sacking by William Hague as Tory leader in the Lords last month.

Mrs Beckett told MPs the Government would back the Cranborne plan if it enabled reform to proceed by consent, but warned: "It is not a concession to be extracted by pitched battle. Indeed, pitched battle will jeopardise the proposal."

The Bill to scrap the 800-year-old rights of the hereditaries, published yesterday, revealed that they would keep their titles and that, once they were removed from the Upper House, they could vote and stand in general elections.

The Bill confirmed that the five hereditary peers in the Royal Family - the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of Edinburgh, York, Gloucester and Kent - would no longer be able to sit in the Lords. But Downing Street insisted the move did not signal any change to Britain's hereditary monarchy.

Ending the hereditaries' rights forms stage one of the Government's plan. In a White Paper yesterday, ministers revealed their thinking on the second stage, which they hope to have approved by Parliament before the next general election.

The present House of Lords would probably be replaced by a partly elected, partly appointed second chamber. Although the White Paper did not set out a blueprint for how the members of the new chamber would be chosen, it suggested ministers were attracted by a "mixed system", which avoided either a wholly elected or appointed House.

The document said the Commons must remain "pre- eminent" and that the Upper House "must not usurp or threaten the supremacy of the first chamber". It said that a fully elected Lords would risk provoking conflict.

The tone suggested that Mr Blair is unlikely to back demands from Labour left-wingers and the Liberal Democrats for a predominantly elected second chamber. Ministers said that having some members appointed would safeguard the position of the crossbench independent peers, who they say play a valuable role.

Ministers revealed that some members could be "indirectly elected" by the new assemblies being set up in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the planned regional bodies for England. They believe this would help to allay fears that the devolution plans could weaken the Union.

Yesterday, ministers refused to be drawn on the balance between nominated and elected peers. They said that would depend on the functions and powers of the House, on which they would take final decisions after studying the recommendations of a Royal Commission, to be chaired by Lord Wakeham, the former Tory cabinet minister and chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. Gerald Kaufman, Labour MP for Gorton, will also serve on the Royal Commission.

The White Paper promised "a modern, fit and effective second chamber of Parliament for the 21st century". It said the Government would "make every effort to ensure that the second stage of reform has been approved by Parliament by the time of the general election".

But the Tories and some Labour MPs expressed scepticism that Mr Blair would stick to such a fast timetable. In the 500-member "transitional House", the Government said that no political party should have a majority. Mr Blair is likely to appoint about 50 new Labour life peers to give his party parity with the Tories, whose hereditaries currently enjoy a 3-1 advantage.

To answer the charge he will pack the Lords with "Tony's cronies", Mr Blair is giving up some powers of patronage. A new, independent Appointments Commission will appoint crossbenchers and invite nominations for people's peers.

The Royal Commission, which will report by the end of this year, will consider an enhanced role for the Lords in scrutinising EU legislation.

Although the Government will review the position of the law lords, this will fall outside the Royal Commission's remit. The Church of England bishops will remain, but ministers will look at ways of increasing the representation of other religious traditions.

Leading article, Review, page 3

David Aaronovitch, Review, page 3

Timetable

for Reform

This month: Bill to deprive 750 hereditary peers of their right to speak and vote in Lords is introduced in Commons (stage one ofreform). Royal Commission on long-term (stage two) reforms starts work

April: Bill on hereditaries goes to House of Lords

July (or October): Bill receives Royal Assent.

November: New session of Parliament opens with new-look "transitional House of Lords", with ranks of hereditaries reduced from 750 to 91. This would leave an upper chamber of 215 Tories; 160 Labour; 48 Liberal Democrats; 148 crossbenchers.

December: Royal Commission reports on plans for stage two.

2000: Joint committee of Commons and Lords considers Royal Commission report. Cabinet considers committee's ideas.

November 2000 or November 2001: Queen's Speech may include legislation on stage two reforms, turning House into partly elected, partly nominated chamber.

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