Tories ready to reform the House of Lords

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THE CONSERVATIVES areconsidering reforms of the House of Lords which would either reduce its power or restrict its membership.

Lord Cranborne, the Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the Lords, will take soundings next year. The Tories have an in-built majority in the Lords; but they are worried that Labour may steal a march on them with proposals to reform what is widely seen as an outdated and irrelevant body.

Ideas which will be canvassed include a reduction in the number of hereditary peers and "backwoodsmen" allowed to vote, or the removal of the right of all peers to vote on some issues. One source said: "We cannot afford not to be open-minded." Another said: "What was good for the 20th century is not necessarily good for the 21st."

Lord Cranborne, a member of one of Britain's most politically influential aristocratic families, decided on the initiative after an informal study on the future of the chamber, chaired by Lord Carnarvon and published in the summer.

Conservatives see it as inevitable that they should address the issue, given that Labour will have a manifesto pledge to reform the Lords at the next election. Labour wants to remove the voting rights of hereditary peers as a first stage towards wider reform of the chamber.

But it remains unclear whether Lord Cranborne's soundings will form the basis of the Conservative Party's manifesto position, or whether a Green Paper will be issued involving government departments. Senior Tories are anxious to keep the issue low-key to avoid rows between reformers and traditionalists.

One option is to allow the hereditary peers to elect a group from their ranks which would then have full voting rights. There is a constitutional precedent for this, dating back to the Act of Union, when peers who had previously sat in the Scottish Parliament but were not granted seats in the united Parliament were allowed to elect 16 of their number.

An alternative would be to remove the right to vote from peers who rarely attend debates.

However, some senior Conservatives favour keeping the present composition but restricting the issues on which peers can vote. Under the Parliament Acts, tax-raising Bills are passed automatically, but peers can still vote on Bills which have spending implications. That right could be removed, as could some delaying powers currently enjoyed by the second chamber.

Any reforms will be resisted by some Tory peers. Many see the restriction of possible voting rights for backwoodsmen as counter-productive. They argue that the Lords contains many peers who speak rarely but can contribute expertise in specialist fields. Others see a move to tackle the hereditary principle as the thin end of the wedge, exposing the Lords to greater reform in the future.

The ministerial initiative on the Lords suggests that the Tories are taking seriously the emphasis that Labour is putting on constitutional reform. Last month, the Government made new proposals on Scotland and Wales, including plans to givegreater powers to the Scottish Grand Committee. But these fell well short of Labour's call for devolution.

At the latest count, in July 1995, the House of Lords had a total of 1,039 members, including 385 life peers and 622 hereditary peers.

Of the life peers, 142 were Conservative, 99 Labour, 29 Liberal Democrat, 112 cross- bench (unaligned to any one party). Of the hereditary peers, 334 were Conservatives, 13 Labour and 23 Liberal Democrat.