The Government was accused of breaking two promises on House of Lords reform yesterday when it announced plans to abolish the right of the remaining 92 hereditary peers to sit and vote in the second chamber.
Labour, which has suffered a string of defeats in the Upper House since 1997, will become the largest party in the Lords, where the balance will reflect the parties' share of the vote at the previous general election.
Critics claimed ministers were trying to hide their broken promises behind a "smokescreen" after they announced that peers sentenced to prison for more than 12 months would automatically lose their seats.
This will catch Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, who was sentenced to four years in prison for perjury.
Ministers claimed the move would merely bring peers into line with MPs and was not aimed at any individual. Unusually, the legislation will be retroactive, thus ensuring Lord Archer is stripped of his title.
The consultation document on Lords reform issued yesterday angered many Labour MPs because it omitted plans for some peers to be elected, which they said breached the party's 2001 manifesto pledge to make the Lords "more representative and democratic". New members will be chosen by a statutory independent appointments commission.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, who announced the changes, was challenged in the Lords over a promise by his predecessor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, that the hereditaries would remain until the Government completed its Lords reforms.
Lord Strathclyde, the Conservatives' leader in the Lords, warned that the Tories may obstruct "shoddy and shabby" proposals to remove "some of the most active and experienced peers". He accused ministers of trying to avoid a Lords defeat over a referendum on the European Union constitution.
The Liberal Democrats, who will also oppose the plans in a consultation document issued yesterday, claimed the Government was trying to "neutralise" opposition in the second chamber.
The Tories have 211 peers, Labour 186, the Liberal Democrats 64 and there are 179 crossbenchers. Under the changes, Labour is expected to have 183 life peers, the Tories 161, the crossbenchers 146 and the Liberal Democrats 59.
Lord Falconer denied the plans were a breach of faith. He said there was "no consensus" on further reform after the Commons rejected all options for change and the Lords voted by a 3-1 margin for an all- appointed chamber. "The circumstances which gave rise to the original arrangement over the remaining hereditary peers no longer apply. So the Government must act, and act decisively, to bring about stability and sustainability," he said.
Dismissing complaints that the reformed Lords would be packed with "Tony's cronies", Lord Falconer insisted: "This will be a massive, and voluntary, diminution in the Prime Minister's influence over the membership of this House."
Ministers said they had not ruled out further changes in the long term, including some elected peers. A more likely option would be "indirectly elected" members from the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.
Robin Cook, a former leader of the Commons, attacked the proposals and warned the Government "against the delusion that an independent commission will make appointments popular". He said: "The reason for that unpopularity is because the British people find it offensive that they have no say in who sits in the House of Lords."
The 92 hereditary peers survived when 658 hereditaries were cut from the Lords in 1999. Some of the 92, including Lord Strathclyde, are expected to be appointed life peers. The number of peers will be reduced from 675 to about 600, and 20 per cent of the new members appointed will be crossbenchers.
Charter 88, a pressure group calling for a democratic parliament and more open and accountable government, said: "The reality of democracy under Blair is government of the few and by the few. Tony's cronies continue to rule."
Lord Richard, a former Labour leader in the Lords, called the proposals "a missed opportunity". Lord Goodhart, for the Liberal Democrats, told peers: "The aim of the Government is not just to remove the remaining hereditary members of this House, it is to castrate your lordships' House."Reuse content