Blair in fresh cronyism row over reform of Lords

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Tony Blair was embroiled in a new row over alleged cronyism yesterday when he was accused of reneging on his promise not to pack the House of Lords with his political allies.

The Prime Minister was planning to "slip through" a batch of 20 new Labour peers in the next few weeks before the publication of a Bill on reform of the entire upper chamber, the Liberal Democrats claimed. This would break Mr Blair's promise to make sure the composition of the House of Lords reflects each party's showing at the 2001 election.

Of the 30 new peers to be appointed, 20 are expected to be Labour, six Conservative and only four or five Liberal Democrat. This would give Labour more than 200 peers, far more than the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.

It would mean the percentage of Labour peers in the Lords was much higher than the number of election votes it warranted.

At present, the Liberal Democrats have 59, or 15 per cent of political peers, although they gained 20 per of votes cast at the 2001 general election. But the Tories have a disproportionately large number with 160, 40 per cent of peers belonging to a political party. The Tories gained only 35 per cent of votes in 2001. Labour has 181 peers, or 45 per cent. It gained 45 per cent of the vote at the election, which means the numbers are in proportion.

A blueprint on the new House of Lords, by the Department of Constitutional Affairs, said peers appointed in future by an independent appointments commission should reflect the electoral standing of political parties at general elections.

Critics accused the Government last night of trying to skew the political process after a series of defeats in the House of Lords, which have forced it to compromise many of its policy proposals, for example, over limits on trial by jury.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, a Liberal Democrat member of the joint committee on House of Lords reform, warned Mr Blair not to appoint political peers before the wide-scale reforms were even published.

"Slipping a big list of labour peers through before the game starts is outrageous," he said. "Tony Blair is trying to give himself 20 extra peers. He has the right number of life peers on the pitch already."

Next week, the Government is to publish in the Queen's Speech plans for a Bill on the reform of the House of Lords. It is expected to include plans to abolish the remaining hereditary peers and make a wholly appointed second chamber.

The plans could be opposed by Liberal Democrats and Tories in the Lords and even some Labour peers who want an elected second chamber.

Labour has promised a democratically elected House of Lords in its election manifesto. Lord Goodhart, Liberal Democrat constitutional affairs spokesman in the House of Lords, said: "The Government must realise that many Liberal Democrat and Labour peers are outraged at the way in which Labour has broken its own commitment for a full and democratic reformof the House of Lords."