Peers are told: time to say goodbye

Colin Brown,Sarah Schaefer
Wednesday 14 October 1998 23:02

HUNDREDS of hereditary peers were told bluntly by Baroness Jay, Leader of the Lords, yesterday that after 700 years of history in the House of Lords: "The time has come to say 'thank you and goodbye'."

Lady Jay promised a Royal Commission on Lords reform with a clear deadline, but peers were warned by Viscount Cranborne, shadow Leader of the Lords, who raised the Tory banner of opposition, that after removing the hereditary peers, the Government would never get to the second stage of the long- term reforms to establish a second elected chamber.

Lady Jay confirmed the report in The Independent yesterday that the body would have a wide-ranging remit, and would be asked to consider the impact of devolution within the UK, the changed relationships with the European legislators and also a possible change to proportional representation for elections to the Commons.

"The Royal Commission is not a delaying tactic," said Lady Jay. The fear that the hereditary peers will be replaced by an upper chamber under the patronage of Tony Blair was repeatedly highlighted at the start of a two- day debate in which the benches were packed with hereditary peers facing the axe.

There were strong signs that Labour peers, including Lord Longford, the veteran Labour civil rights campaigner, will support Tories in seeking to amend the forthcoming Bill on Lords reform. A cross-party coalition led by the Tories was forming to stay the expulsion of the hereditaries from the Lords until the Royal Commission has reported.

The marathon debate, with more than 105 peers seeking to speak, sets the scene for a long and bitter struggle over the next 12 months, but Lady Jay made it clear that she would not be deflected from the Government's policy of getting legislation through both Houses.

"The Government is no longer prepared to accept that it is necessary or desirable to do nothing," she said.

Lady Jay said they were not being asked to "step off a precipice into a dark abyss". A self-contained Bill in the next Queen's Speech would abolish the hereditary peers' right to sit and vote in the House. A White Paper would be published shortly with plans for the transitional House and long-term reforms. In a powerful attack on the hereditary principle, Lady Jay reminded Lord Cranborne, the son of the Marquess of Salisbury, that one of his forebears had established the Salisbury Convention that the will of the elected chamber should not be frustrated by the Lords. She warned Lord Cranborne against breaking that rule in the coming months.

Denying the Government's policy was "an act of political spite, a throwback to the old battles of the class war", she said the hereditary principle could not survive in a second chamber for the 21st century. "The male dominance of the hereditary peerage is glaringly unrepresentative and glaringly outdated."

There were only 16 women hereditary peers out of a total of 750. When the hereditary peers were sacked from the Lords, there would be 510 life peers and the Tories would have 23 more than Labour.

In the transitional period, the Prime Minister would forgo the sole power of patronage over the creation of new life peers, "to ensure that no one political party should seek a majority in the House of Lords and to maintain an independent cross-bench element".

Lord Cranborne, whose ancestors include senior ministers under Elizabeth I, warned that the proposals were not acceptable in their present form.

"If anything, our primary function has become more important in recent years as government after government of both complexions has hurried through vast indigestible puddings of ill-prepared legislation based on ill-thought- out policy," he added.

Lord Cranborne called for more Lords independence and authority to discharge its functions. "I believe that perhaps the time has now come for a little more legislative gridlock to obstruct the legislative inadequacies of governments of both parties which arise from their domination of the House of Commons ... that, I think, is the great argument for reform."

An entirely nominated Chamber was no more legitimate than an hereditary one, perhaps less so, because its members "owed their presence to the living rather than the safely dead".

Lord Cranborne suggested the Government set out the "mechanics" of Stage Two, such as a paper setting out the possible options, public hearings conducted by an authoritative committee and a joint committee of the Lords and the Commons to assess that committee's findings.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, the Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords, said the timetable of reform was crucial because even if the Royal Commission reported before the year 2000 proposals for Stage Two were not likely to be included in the next manifesto.

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