Straw may force through plans for Lords reform

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The Parliament Act could be used to force through proposals for the reform of the House of Lords, Jack Straw, the Leader of the Commons, said yesterday.

He is seeking to break the deadlock that has existed over Lords reform for nearly 100 years by allowing preferential voting.

MPs are to be asked at the end of the month to vote by using a ballot form offering seven options for reform, including 100 per cent, 80 per cent or 50 per cent elected members in the Lords.

He said the last time MPs voted on reform, the Commons "ended up looking very stupid in a train wreck". But last night his plans appeared to be heading for the buffers again after a Government White Paper was attacked from all sides.

The proposals would cut the membership of the Lords from 750 to 540. Half would be elected and half appointed; of these, 30 per cent would be nominated by the political parties.

The Prime Minister would lose the right to appoint peers, following the "cash for honours" row, although he would still be able to nominate them. It would also break the link between peerages and seats by allowing current life peers such as Baroness Thatcher to resign their seats.

The remaining rump of hereditary peers would also go. But Labour MPs were furious over a plan to give peers redundancy pay for giving up their seats.

Mr Straw, who warned that reform could be shelved for "a generation" if there was no consensus, also faced a rebellion over a proposed change in voting methods.

He was reportedly laughed at when he put forward his voting idea to a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday night. A former minister said: "It would reduce the Commons to the level of a ballot for the president of the National Students Union. People just laughed at him. It shows how Blair's authority has dissolved."

Mr Straw has privately told friends that he was given a "hospital pass" when he was asked by the Prime Minister to find a consensus for reform of the Lords. He has tried to limit the controversy by allowing existing peers to continue for their lifetime if they wish. Theresa May, Mr Straw's Tory shadow, said it would be 2050 before the reforms were fully implemented.

The Tories are threatening to vote against the compromise plans and support more elected peers. Mrs May claimed the proposals for a 50:50 "hybrid" House of Lords would enable Tony Blair or Gordon Brown to create more "cronies".

"This proposal puts the political parties more in control of the Upper House and risks losing the independence which has seen it defeat this Government 415 times," she said. The Cabinet is split on the issue and will be given a free vote. Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, supports 80 per cent of members elected, but John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, has campaigned for a limit of 20 per cent to avoid the supremacy of the Commons being challenged.

There was even criticism over part of the White Paper which proposes to keep some seats in the Lords for bishops of the Church of England. But Mr Straw drew the line at the disestablishment of the Church.

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