Labour MPs attack Blair's 'people's peers' commission

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Indy Politics

One of Tony Blair's big ideas has turned out to be rather small beer. Only 15 "people's peers" have been appointed and now Labour MPs are calling for the abolition of the commission that chooses them. It costs £120,000 a year to run and yet no new "people's peers" have been created for more than two years.

The Prime Minister's laudable aim was to install some ordinary people in a stiff upper house dominated by former ministers, Britain's great and the good, and the 90 hereditary peers who survived when the other 600 hereditaries lost their right to sit and vote in the Lords in 1999. But when the House of Lords Appointments Commission produced its first - and so far only - list of "people's peers" in April 2001, it had a rather familiar ring to it.

The 15 names included Baroness Howe of Idlicote, the former deputy chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the wife of the former foreign secretary, Lord Howe; Sir David Hannay, the former British ambassador to the United Nations and the European Union, and Sir Paul Condon, the former Metropolitan Police commissioner.

Now 13 Labour MPs have embarrassed Mr Blair by calling for him to admit defeat on one of his pet projects and wind up the commission. The MPs have tabled a Commons motion expressing their "deep concern" that the commission has cost £120,000 to run in the past year, during which it met twice. They said: "The commission no longer serves a useful purpose, if it ever did, and should be wound up forthwith."

Gordon Prentice, MP for Pendle, who tabled the motion, said: "How can we possibly justify keeping this body in existence when it has appointed only one batch of people's peers, more than two years ago? It costs an arm and a leg."

John Reid, the Leader of the Commons, has told Mr Prentice that he could not endorse his criticism of the commission but promised that the Prime Minister would make a statement about it soon.

Downing Street declined to comment yesterday. Mr Blair's options include announcing a new batch of "people's peers" to salvage his scheme, and widening the commission's brief so that it would appoint all new members of the upper house. The commission has received more than 400 nominations since its first list and its website says: "We continue to welcome nominations for our next list, the date of which has yet to be set by the Prime Minister."

Plans to send more ordinary folk to the Lords have been held up by the wrangle over plans for radical reforms under which some peers would be directly elected by the voters. The Government's proposals were left in disarray in February when all the options for change were rejected by the Commons.

Mr Blair was then embroiled in a dispute with Robin Cook, then Leader of the Commons, who opposed the Prime Minister's plans to bring in small-scale reforms of the Lords because he wanted to keep alive plans for a partly elected second chamber.

Mr Reid is a Blair loyalist and may be ready to move on limited change, including abolition of the remaining hereditary peers and putting the Appointments Commission on to a statutory footing so it would choose new peers, ending the Prime Minister's right to appoint them. A joint committee of MPs and peers on Lords reform, chaired by the former cabinet minister Jack Cunningham, has called for the existing commission to be wound up and replaced by "a new and manifestly independent appointments commission". It said in a report this month: "Two years have passed since the appointment of the last group of new life peers. There is, therefore, a growing need to top up the stock of expertise and of younger members."

Ministers admit privately that the commission's work has been hindered by the Government's failure to win approval for wider reform of the Lords. But Labour critics have turned their fire on Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, the commission's chairman, who is a businessman and crossbench peer.

Mr Prentice said Lord Stevenson had only spoken twice in the Lords since his own elevation to the peerage. "The first on 22 November 1999, when he looked forward in the years to come to participating in vigorous exchanges in the House of Lords, and most recently on 12 July 2000. Hardly a shining example for the new peers he is supposedly searching for," said Mr Prentice.

The other members of the commission are the former foreign secretary Lord Hurd of Westwell; the former print union leader Baroness Dean of Thorton-le-Fylde; Liberal Democrat peer Lord Dholakia and independent members Dame Deirdre Hine, Felicity Huston and Angela Sarkis.

Defenders of "people's peers" say that several of the 15 appointed have been active and effective peers, including Lady Howe, Baroness Howarth of Breckland and Baroness Finlay of Llandaff.

In September 2000 the commission invited the public to nominate themselves or others to the Lords. By the closing date in November that year, 3,166 nominations had been received. Commission officials and Lord Stevenson were not available for comment last night.