Queen's Speech: Battle begins over House of Lords reform

Chamber of the House of Lords There are currently more than 800 members of the House of Lords

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Supporters and critics of House of Lords reform have been putting their cases after the government committed itself to action in the Queen's Speech.

The coalition have pledged to "reform the composition" of the Lords so that "most members" are elected in future.

The Lib Dems said they were delighted the measure was included as changes to the appointed body were long overdue.

Labour said the move was not a priority while one Tory peer opposed said it was "inevitable" the bill would founder.

Ministers published draft plans last year which would see the Lords replaced with a substantially smaller chamber of 300 members, 80% of whom would be elected, with the first elections to take place in 2015.

But although the government included the commitment to Lords reform in Wednesday's legislative programme, it did not specify what percentage of members should be elected, what the body's overall size would be, and when the elections would take place.

Instead, it said it would look to "build upon" the existing plans and "carefully consider" the views of MPs and peers.

'Devastating effect'

Amid fears the issue might prove a distraction to efforts to secure economic recovery, senior ministers have been stressing it is up to Parliament to try and reach a consensus on how to proceed.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said ministers had "made it clear" the government would not get "bogged down" over the issue.

Start Quote

It is hardly revolutionary in the modern age to decide the House of Lords should have an element of democracy in it”

End Quote Lord Ashdown

But Conservative peer Lord Forsyth, a critic of the plans, said the language of the proposed bill was "difficult to understand" and suggested the coalition may ultimately settle for something that is "less about abolition and more about reform".

He suggested there was universal support for a separate set of proposals, from the Lib Dem peer Lord Steel, to ensure all new life peers are vetted by a statutory appointments commission, to phase out hereditary peers and to allow existing peers to retire.

"There has been a huge rebellion in the House of Commons as the House of Commons realises that this bill being proposed would have a devastating effect on the powers of the House of Commons and create a competitive chamber," he said.

"The issue here is that if you having an elected House of Lords... it will take power from the House of Commons."

Any proposals for fundamental change to the Lords should be put to the people in a referendum, he added.

'Bit of a battle'

Former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown acknowledged there was a "a bit of a battle" within the two parties over the proposal but said the majority of countries had elected second chambers and it was no longer credible for the UK not to be among them.

"It is hardly revolutionary in the modern age to decide the House of Lords should have an element of democracy in it, and that is what I think the government will bring forward."

Analysis

There will be a bill to reform the Lords. It will be hugely controversial.

We are just at the early skirmishes in a long battle.

It is still highly possible that it will enter Parliament but never leave it.

But it is not dead yet.

The signals coming out of No 10 downplaying reform are designed to calm fevered Tory brows and show the government remains focused on the economy rather than the constitution.

But the coalition has not yet reached the point when it has to decide how much political capital it wishes to spend on Lords reform.

That will come later after many long days and nights of parliamentary battle.

He rejected suggestions the coalition should focus exclusively on economic issues, saying the UK's capacity to take action on this front depended on political legitimacy.

"If you look at Europe, you see very clearly one of the problems is that governments do not have the democratic support of their people to take the decisions which are necessary. That is why this is really important."

For Labour, shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said his party supported a fully-elected House of Lords but only following its approval by the public in a referendum.

"The 15 words in the Queen's Speech dedicated to reform of the House of Lords leaves big questions unanswered," he said.

"It's not clear if Lords reform remains a priority for the government. It's not clear how they plan to reform the composition of the Lords."

All three main Westminster parties backed Lords reform in their 2010 manifestos and campaigners for constitutional change called for progress as quickly as possible.

"After 100 years of delay and with other laws competing for Parliament's attention, it is crucial that they just get on with it," said Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy.

"Those peers threatening to derail the entire parliamentary programme in a bid to protect their own privileged position bring the Upper House into disrepute and demonstrate the need for reform."

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