Government sounds retreat over scorned House of Lords proposals

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Indy Politics

The Government signalled retreat over reform of the House of Lords last night after its proposals were scorned by MPs and peers of all parties.

Plans that would allow one in five members of the new second chamber to be directly elected looked likely to be changed after demands from Labour backbenchers for at least half of them to be chosen at the polls.

Opening a debate on the proposals, Robin Cook, the Leader of the Commons, admitted that ministers would have to find an alternative that would command a "centre-of-gravity of opinion" in support of reform. Such a climbdown would represent a huge defeat for Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, and would force a complete rethink of the proposed make-up of the new chamber.

Under the proposals, the present House of Lords would be replaced with a chamber of 600 members, of which 120 would be elected by the public. Of the remaining 480, 120 would be appointed by an independent commission while the majority would be appointed by political parties in line with their share of the vote at the general election.

Backbench criticism of the proposals was led yesterday by the former culture secretary Chris Smith, who warned: "Quite simply, the Government haven't got it right. This present set of proposals is not the right place to start. I urge my colleagues in Government, with all understanding and respect, to start again."

Another former Labour minister, Mark Fisher, claimed the reforms would create a feeble and weak chamber that would "jump at its own shadow. That is not in the interests of any of us. We ought to put our trust in democracy."

Acknowledging the strength of feeling, Mr Cook said: "The principle of direct elections to the second chamber has been broadly welcomed. The precise proportion proposed by the White Paper for those to be directly elected has not enjoyed quite such a welcome."