ANOTHER VIEW : Hereditary peers have uses

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The Independent Online
Explaining the role of the House of Lords recently to a group of Ukrainian politicians, I was a little surprised to be told by one of the party that the House (and the Lords in it) should be preserved as an important part of European heritage.

That view of the Lords, although perhaps a little extreme, emphasises one of the greatest strengths of the upper chamber. It is seen as the legitimate part of Parliament, a legislative chamber that has survived for almost a thousand years. It has an air of permanence. With reform being mooted by Labour, however, will the Lords survive into the next millennium?

Defending the Lords from abolition or total reform in a democratic country, considering its undemocratic membership, should be extremely difficult. The problem with reforming or replacing the upper house, however, is that those who advocate such action have to propose an alternative. The obvious solution, a democratically elected second chamber voted in using proportional representation, may cause Labour, or any future government based in the Commons, more of a challenge based on an eclectic mandate than they would care for. The Lords may survive not due to a great love for the present body, but because any change to the second chamber will inevitably lead to a reassessment of the role and power of the Commons, a prospect that many MPs would not savour.

Reform of the Lords to many people simply means removing the hereditary element. Politically, this would be a popular move, and it is quite impossible to defend this qualification for membership of the upper chamber. Winning the jackpot in the titles lottery should not be a ticket into the legislative process.

Reform has, in theory, a great deal of appeal. Tony Blair used reform of the hereditary element of the Lords as a central plank of his leadership manifesto. The reason he has recently failed to list the issue as one of his burning priorities could be entirely practical.

Removing the 800 hereditary peers from the Lords in the first year of the Labour administration would not be a simple matter. Even if the hereditary peers were willing to leave without a fight, which is extremely improbable, the House of Lords would be severely hindered as a working chamber. The certain disruption to the parliamentary timetable with pressing issues such as health and welfare to consider would be reason enough to delay.

This has always been the main reason reform has been left on the back burner. Hopefully, after successfully implementing devolution for Scotland, Mr Blair will be able to reform the House of Lords, but the option he should take is for an elected second chamber. If he will not contemplate this, perhaps he should leave alone a chamber that works at present.

The writer is a hereditary peer and Liberal Democrat spokesman on overseas development in the Lords.