Parliament: House Of Lords: Peers begin two-day debate on `radical, historic' reform

Sarah Schaefer
Monday 29 March 1999 23:02

PEERS BEGAN a last attempt to change the Government's mind over House of Lords reform yesterday, as Baroness Jay of Paddington hailed legislation to scrap hereditary voting rights as an "historic first step".

Tory peers indicated that they would back an amendment by Lord Cobbold, a crossbencher, that criticises the Government for removing hereditary peers before revealing its plans for the future make-up of the upper house. But while the Government is expected to be defeated in a symbolic vote on the amendment, peers cannot actually wreck the House of Lords Bill because it was a manifesto pledge.

Opening the marathon two-day debate, in which nearly 200 peers will speak, Baroness Jay, the Leader of the Lords insisted: "In this, the last few months of the 20th century, the Government believes we must finally close the political chapter of the 19th."

"Anyone with any knowledge of our history understands the immensely important role the hereditary peerage has played in this country's counsels ... But the fundamental point is that the birthright itself can no longer be sustained."

The Government has made clear it will accept an amendment, to be introduced by Lord Weatherill, the chairman of the crossbenchers, which would retain 91 hereditaries during the interim stage between stage one and two of the reform.

However, a Government source stressed last night that any attempts by peers during the Bill's committee stage to delay its passage or call for a referendum on the issue would be regarded as a breach of such a deal.

Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader of the Lords, gave an indication of the difficult battle ahead when he argued that the Lords were in a "Wonderland where nothing is quite what it seems"

Lord Cobbold, a hereditary peer, said: "Before allowing ourselves to be ejected from the House I believe that we have a paramount duty to the British people to satisfy ourselves that a successor second Chamber will be better, more efficient, more democratic, more representative, more effective and more respected than the House is today."

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