UK Politics

Elected Lords plan risks deadlock, government warned

House of Lords
Image caption Plans to overhaul the House of Lords have been met with much criticism

Plans to reform the House of Lords risk creating deadlock and making Britain more difficult to govern, a constitutional expert has warned.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor predicted more stand-offs between an elected Lords and the Commons - without a written constitution to resolve them.

The plan is that all or most peers will be elected for 15-year terms in future.

Minister Mark Harper said the public wanted reform and change would be brought in gradually over 10 years.

The House of Lords - the upper house of the UK Parliament - scrutinises, revises and can delay legislation initiated by the Commons.

'Primary' chamber

There are 792 peers who are entitled to attend and vote, largely appointed by their parties or, in the case of crossbenchers, by the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission. Most hereditary peers were removed in reforms in 1999 although 92 were allowed to keep their seats.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has pledged to press ahead with overhauling the House of Lords and has unveiled proposals that would reduce the Lords to a largely, or fully, elected chamber of 300 members.

They would serve single terms of 15 years - with a third of seats up for election every five years, using a form of proportional representation - the Single Transferable Vote (STV).

The government says there would be no change in the upper chamber's powers and says that the Commons would remain "the primary House of Parliament".

But Prof Bogdanor, a research professor at Kings College London, told the BBC Radio 4's Today programme that peers' powers were currently limited to delaying bills for one parliamentary session - which were only used rarely because they "lacked the legitimacy provided by popular election".

But if they were elected - the Lords could claim its own mandate and "would be much more likely to use its powers".

"It can therefore be predicted, I think, with some certainty, that an elected upper house would be much more powerful in practice than the current House of Lords and that would make Britain more difficult to govern.

"The outcome could well be gridlock, such as has occurred in countries like Australia, which has a directly elected upper house, and the United States.

"We don't have a formal constitution, we have no formal provision for how to deal with gridlock, and unlike Australia we cannot dissolve the upper house - how would a deadlock be broken?"

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Media captionVernon Bogdanor outlines his views against changing the House of Lords

All three of the UK's largest parties committed themselves to changing the make-up of the Lords in their 2010 general election manifestos but there has been little sign of agreement on the way forward and peers of all parties have criticised the coalition's plans.

Mr Clegg - widely seen as the driving force behind the reforms - said earlier this month that the Lords as it is currently constituted was "an affront to the principles of openness which underpin a modern democracy".

He said he wanted to get support for the changes but added: "Let there be no doubt - if it comes to a fight, the will of the Commons will prevail."

Political and constitutional reform minister Mark Harper told the BBC that the government had asked a joint committee of MPs and peers to look at its proposals and report back by the end of March - and would "listen very carefully to what they say".

But he said both Mr Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron had made clear they wanted the first elections to go ahead in May 2015 - and said the PM was "very keen" on reform - as were the British public.

"We are not talking about a big bang overnight transition here - we are talking about electing the new house by thirds, with a transitional period of 10 years," he said.

"Having laws made by people who are elected by those who have to obey the laws isn't a very radical concept in the 21st Century, I wouldn't have thought, and was supported by all three parties in their manifestos."

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