PM 'committed' to Lords reform after votes fiasco

Andrew Grice,Ben Russell
Thursday 06 February 2003 01:00

Tony Blair is prepared to support limited changes to the House of Lords despite the fiasco in which MPs voted against all the options for reforming the second chamber.

Although many MPs believe Tuesday's chaotic Commons scenes have shelved any Lords reform until after the next general election, Downing Street aides said yesterday that the Prime Minister would keep open the door to some change.

Mr Blair is ready to abolish the right of the remaining 92 hereditary peers to hand down their titles, by turning them into life peers. He is also willing to surrender the Prime Minister's right to nominate members of the Lords in an attempt to rebut charges that the House is packed with "Tony's cronies". The selection of new peers could be handed to the independent Appointments Commission that already chooses so-called "People's Peers".

A committee of MPs and peers will meet on 25 February to try to pick up the pieces from Tuesday's votes, in which all five options for change were rejected. Although the options included Mr Blair's preference for an all-appointed second chamber, he was relieved that MPs could not agree on a formula for some peers to be directly elected by the voters.

Jack Cunningham, the former Labour cabinet minister who chairs the committee, told the BBC that Tuesday's inconclusive votes would delay reform by some time. But members of the committee served notice that they would put forward plans to abolish the hereditaries and the Prime Minister's right to choose peers.

Clive Soley, a former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, said: "There are things we can do and I hope the committee can look at removing the remaining hereditaries, modernising the system of appointments and take a longer view about the wider reforms."

Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge, said: "I hope that enough public debate will be engaged by this catastrophe to make people sit up and think that actually we have got to move forward, we can't just stay where we are."

The rejection of a partly elected Lords was a huge setback for Robin Cook, the Leader of the Commons, who had publicly rebelled against Mr Blair's "all-nominated" policy. But friends denied speculation that Mr Cook would resign from the Cabinet.

Mr Blair's spokesman said: "He remains committed to reform of the House of Lords but it is easier to express a desire than to achieve a consensus." Mr Blair said at Prime Minister's Question Time: "If anyone was in any doubt about it before, what yesterday's vote showed is there is indeed no consensus in this House."

One potential problem is that supporters of a partly or wholly elected Lords could seek to amend a Bill proposing limited reforms during its passage through Parliament.

Janet Anderson, a former tourism minister, rejected any interim legislation. She said: "It would be foolish to mess around with the House of Lords in a piecemeal way without having a proper solution."

Supporters of reform blamed Labour whips for sabotaging moves towards a partly elected second chamber. Karen Bartlett, director of the pressure group Charter88, said: "Those who support an unelected House of Lords won a temporary reprieve. By concocting a series of confusing votes and delaying tactics they have gained time. Democracy won the argument."

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